In 1984 when I lived in Mexico, I went to the town and lake of Patzquaro and the island of Janitzio for the weekend of Dia de los Muertos and saved a poster I obtained there. Thirty years or so later, our friend Beverly saw the poster, and fell in love with the idea of going to that very same place. So between the three of us, we made it happen this year.
Happening around Halloween and All Saints Day each year, Día or Noche de Muertos (actually there are several nights in a row celebrated for different kinds of deaths) is the embodiment of the fanciful way that Latin Americans, especially Mexicans, view death. Skulls and skeletons, especially beautifully dressed ones called Catrinas, are celebrated all year long in Mexico, but the pinnacle of the celebration happens all over the country once a year at the same time. And the cemetary we visited, on the island of Janitzio in the middle of Lake Patzquaro in the state of Michoacan about an hour from the state capital of Morelia, is to these festivities what New Orleans, or better yet, Rio de Janiero, is to Marte Gras. Janitzio and the surrounding area are said to be the one place on earth where the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead is the narrowist, allowing for souls to cross over for a brief visit on November 1st or thereabouts.
The concept of this celebration was irresistable to all of us. Halloween has always been my favorite fun holiday anyway, and this was Halloween times 100. Bev wanted to see her Mom again; Rick had several lost loved ones including both of his birth parents, his sister, and his step-dad; and I chose to focus on my own mom and dad. So we did everything possible to play the part and join in the spirit of the festivities, including all dressing up as Catrines with face paint/face stick-on tattoos and clothing, taking the long trek by boat and up the hill on Janitzio to the cemetary, and even making our own alter in the home we rented.
Our alter had all the right fixins’ to attract our loved ones: flower petals leading to the alter for our loved ones to find their way, pictures of each, their favorite foods amd drinks (Rick’s mom’s was pickle and peanut butter sandwich), salt to purify the souls, sugar skulls for their sweet tooths that had their names written on each one, and of course, candles, incense and lots of orange and red flowers. Rick played the favorite songs of all of our loved ones on his ipad as we conducted our own private ceremony.
Dressing up and putting on the makeup was really fun. We did it so well that Mexicans were asking to take their pictures with us! Funny, we gringos were actually seen as the authentic representations of the Mexican holiday! But I do have to admit, our makeup was really very good. And Bev played the part so well, it was almost scary. The whole night on the island was filled was surreal images justaposed with throngs and throngs of people everywhere; I remembered the night 30 years ago as surreal but in a quiet, intimate sort of way. Instead, the night there had become so intensely Mexican-touristy that it was quite the different experience. No less surreal, though.
There were lots of things to do in Patzquaro and the surrounding area but we just didn’t have time to see it all. There were a big arts and crafts show stretching several blocks, live performances day and night at all of the parks and at the docks, tours of other cemetaries that might now have more authentic soul searching than what has become of Janitzio, and great places to eat and shop and visit. We did have several nights eating out, and I got to try some new foods, but we would have to return another year to get even deeper into the festivities.
After all the preparations to fully integrate ourselves into the spirit of Noche de Muertos, I have to admit I found myself not able to fully embrace the possibility of seeing my parents again in a fanciful, joyous mood. Our little ceremony at home the last night we were in Patzquaro was much sadder to me than I had ever imagined; I guess I got in touch with some very deep feelings of loss and sadness that I had no idea even still existed anywhere in my psyche. In spite of my best efforts, I guess mom and dad weren’t really interested in coming across to see me crying! But Rick, early on when we were still on the bus coming to Morelia, had an incredibly vivid dream with his deceased sister, so much so that he woke up calling her name and looking around for her. So maybe there was something to this time of year and this place for seeing those who have passed. But in the meantime, we had a lovely visit with our friend Bev, filled with fun times but also a lot of meaning.
The day before Bev was flying out, we returned by bus to Morelia and splurged on a lovely double room with balcony overlooking the Morelia zocolo. Morelia is not often discussed as a tourist destination, but boy is it beautiful. Our hotel was built in the 16th century as a private home, but was modernized to all the best of everything while maintaining the classical features. The cathedral off the main square was magnificent. There is a 16th century aquaduct that has been restored and decorates one side of the center of town. Rick and I stayed the afternoon after Bev left and took a little bus tour, discovering even more of this magnificent city.
The only bus leaving Morelia directly for Puerto Vallarta departed late at night for a 12 hour ride, so that night we hopped on the bus for the long ride home. After having travelled for several weeks around Mexico on dozens of long distance buses, we had become pretty complacent about what seemed to be vacuous threats against our safety by the U.S. State Department. They reported of the possibility of buses being pulled over at night and occupants taken as hostages by people disguised as officers, but we had heard or seen nothing like that. We always travelled on luxury class buses on major highways and had never had a problem.
But this was the first long distance bus, other than the one we took to get here, that travelled at night. So when our bus was pulled over and officials came aboard, we got very nervous. Our anxiety was heightened when they looked around and targeted us, only us, for further questioning. They asked for our id’s and they got off the bus with our id’s. They were gone for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, we had internet on the bus so I sent an alert message from our map program to our sisters with our exact location. In case we were abducted, this would be the place to start looking! OMG!
An officer got back on the bus and asked for my social security number. I don’t think they understood how private that is, and I wasn’t comfortable giving it out, but at the same time, I didn’t want to refuse an officer’s request. So I suggested my passport number instead. He was relieved to know I had that with me – we had given them our Mexican Visa/temporary resident ID’s first. Apparently, they were trying to locate us on their international fugitives file, and they needed something that could be read by that system, like a passport number. Just as I was about to give him my passport, another officer came on board and told him in Spanish to “let the gringos go.” They gave us back our ID’s and the bus was on its way.
After we caught our breath, I asked a Mexican woman next to us what that was all about. She said the officers were from the immigration service and were looking for gringos who were fugitives from the States. It is very scary to be targeted because of your race – we were the only gringos on a late night bus and we matched the description exactly of who the officers were told to look for. On the other hand, she said they frequently stop buses, it is totally routine, and there is nothing to worry about. Yeah, sure, unless you are gringo. The shoe on the other foot, Mr. Trump, is very uncomfortable indeed.