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A Day with the Dead

by Janet Ingleburg

We were supposed to attend a retreat in La Paz, Baja California but decided to drive a few days earlier to be able to explore the city outside the confines of the retreat home. And so, we arrived in La Paz on the 31st of October last year, with the retreat just two three days from then, just in time for the El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead celebrations.

That same day, we booked a small, charmingly rustic bed and breakfast which we found by asking the waitress in a restaurant we ate breakfast in if she knew of a quiet, homey accommodation we may rent rooms in for a few days. She told us of this bed and breakfast just outside the town proper, just beyond the town cemetery, where an old couple runs a small La Paz bed and breakfast that has a nice garden and serves really good home-cooked meals.

And the waitress we soon found out, was very accurate when it came to her description of the said bed and breakfast in La Paz and we were not disappointed. My sister Bernice and I shared a room in the second and highest storey of the house where we had a view of the cemetery just a couple of meters away from the edge of the garden while my boyfriend and two male cousins, shared a room downstairs.

After unpacking and resting most of the morning of the 31st and eating a sumptuous lunch cooked by Señor Garcia, the patriarch of the enterprise whom everyone, including his wife, calls Papi. Papi and his wife Rhodora made up a wrinkly, shrunken couple that surprisingly had such vigorous energy even at their age. I assumed both of them to be around their early sixties and along with three maids and two helping boys, they continued to run their business. After lunch, we toured the little village near the bed and breakfast and did a little shopping as well.

That night, I woke up because of a weird chanting sound drifting from the window. Bernice was still fast asleep so I edged towards the window and peeped out. There were lights in the cemetery. Not just a couple of candles that someone might have left on the graves but a glow of blazing light coming from bunches of candles spread everywhere. A group of people stood over different graves, chanting, probably some kind of prayer, solemnly but audibly enough for me to hear the emotions that came with each word they spoke. It was a mesmerizing sight that although creepy to say the least, gave me a glimpse of the sadness and longing these people felt for their loved ones who have already passed away.

And then I noticed downstairs that there were two other small pricks of light glinting just beyond the garden gate, probably from two lighted candles. I assumed them to be held by the elderly couple so I went down to chat. I was right in my surmise and I saw them smile as I approached still in my pajamas. They said it was the midnight of November 1, All Saints’s Day in the Catholic calendar. The people from the village light candles for their departed ones this night and and the night after on All Souls’ Day. A parade of some sort and a gathering in the cemetery would also ensue the next day and on the day of November 2, they said, and we they would be pleased if we decided to join in with them in the coming festivities.

The next day, the house was busy with cooking. Lots and lots of cooking. In fact, the whole village seemed busy cooking food they will share with their neighbors as well as making decorations for the parade and the night’s festivities. We were surprised to find that there were even a couple of professional mask makers in the village who make masks specifically for this special La Paz event. Everywhere you can find kids and adults selling candles of all shapes, colors and sizes. Flowers, streamers and other kinds of decorations adorned houses and especially the cemetery. Altars were also built inside homes as well as near the graves, but all around there was a mingled sense of mourning and excitement in the air.

On the following night, a ghoulish but reverend parade of masked villagers, including us, took place and we marched towards the cemetery. Lots of prayers and religious songs were said and sung that night as well as on the next when the graves bloomed at their best as their relatives decorated them to such extremes. It was a culturally and spiritually enriching experience we were very thankful for and I think we came to our retreat bringing with us a spiritual discovery no else experienced while in La Paz, Baja California on El Día de los Muertos.

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