Day of the Dead; Staring death in the face
When I was told November 1st is Day of the Dead, with the following Monday a Public Holiday, I never expected I’d stare death in the face quite as much as I feel I have done. The trans-national holiday – which stretches from Mexico and Nicaragua to Honduras and Haiti, is a day of celebration; where families across Spanish speaking nations (and more) assemble at cemeteries to catch up with loved ones no longer with them. To put it simply, the cemeteries up and down these countries are transformed into festivals; music blasting, street sellers selling, pop up bars serving… All whilst families sit on the graves, paint the gravestones and generally have a lovely time in the sunshine.
Walking over dozens of graves (perfectly acceptable), I was mesmerised by what I saw. Whilst we in the west mock the dead through Halloween, on this side of the water they approach the issue from a much more appropriate angle. After all, why spend the rest of our lives commiserating over somebody’s death? Once we reach the stage of acceptance surely we should focus on the celebration of their life, of their achievements, of their legacies and of the love they gave… When it’s time for me to pass I sure as hell hope people will take comfort by focusing on my positives… I love my life and I truly believe that if I died today I could do so with a smile on my face; I’ve done fucking loads with my 30 years. (… If you’re reading this and you know me when I die, please do celebrate that shit!)
Let’s go back to yesterday for a moment: Sunday November 1st. My alarm wakes me for our fortnightly trip to Esteli – the nearest city; some three hours away. Wifi, I think, as I rub my eyes, and a catch up with the loved ones…
The village is in darkness as we leave, stars shining overhead, not even the cockerels are awake. Despite watching the sunrise, the half hour walk to the bus stop doesn’t wake us. Once on the bus though, we soon get a shock.
As the crammed twenty tonne yellow wagon steers around a steep bend in the hills, the rear wheel drops a couple of feet beneath us. A chorus of gasps and squeals is followed by half the passengers scrambling out of the exits. Sitting above the wheel close to the back, I am most definitely in this crowd; my fight or flight mode clearly geared on flight. Some volunteers remain onboard – their logic being that if everyone rushes off it could create an imbalance causing the bus to roll down the hillside… I urge them to exit. Quickly.
Fortunately, the bumper and rear end of the bus was caught by the ground and, once inspected, it’s clear the bus wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Additionally, this took place at a relatively low level area so, even if the bus had fallen it’d only have rolled once or twice.
That said. For the remainder of the journey, once the driver and hoards of locals had manoeuvred the man-made beast out of the hole in the roadside, I sit gripping the seat in front of me. As we pull away, I put my iPod on whilst everyone’s laughing and joking. I can’t bring myself to laugh.
Ed Sheeran’s Photograph randomly comes on. That fucking song. God it’s beautiful. Before I know it I’m planning my funeral; considering whether I should email Luke and my sister to say what I’d want to happen should I die anytime soon… Photograph to play at the funeral for definite… the contents of my bank accounts to go to Luke and my mum (knowing my mum will share with my brother and sisters) oh and I’d want whoever speaking about me to ask everyone to do a good deed; something small yet significant – buy free range chicken from the supermarket, or, better still, shop at the local markets. Fuck it, let’s have a vegan buffet and free-flowing FairTrade wine at the funeral too. The speaker will command that, now I am no longer here to conduct these minute acts, that I must rely on people here present to do so, on my behalf.
I hope they listen.
Within two hours we arrive in Esteli and do what we normally do – wifi in the park, lunch and wifi in the Tree-huggers non-profit eco-friendly cafe followed by a trip to the air conditioned supermarket for treats.
Shortly before 3pm we climb on board the roasting bus and leave. The preacher from last week is here again. As we ascend up the mountain it starts raining. As if the roads aren’t vulnerable enough already…?! We literally crawl; the driver playing it safe. At one point we come to a standstill as the locals peer outside the left hand side of the bus. I stand up but all I see is burnt planks of scattered wood, a blue brush head, and some pretty deep dips in the ground. Apparently this is the site where a wagon carrying a herd of cows toppled off the roadside the day before, killing the driver and all cattle on board. I don’t fully understand how/what must have happened… Surely the evidence would be at the bottom of the valley, not visible on the side of the road? I don’t pry, my mind just turns to panic again. That could have been us this morning.
The rain is falling heavily now, streams of water rolling down the dirt road alongside us, pouring down off the edge. In places we’re only inches from this edge – I can see the pressure of the wheel beneath me forcing the rain water to shoot off the road and down into the valleys. In other places we’re several feet away; its at these points I breathe. We almost come to a standstill again. The bus tips slightly. We’re at the point where we got stuck earlier; this time we make it round OK. Everyone noticeably breaths a sigh of relief. Myself included. I pull my ear phones out and say to the others that I don’t want to go to Esteli anymore. They laugh. I’m pretty sure I was being serious.
I soon regret joining their conversation because I now find out that a couple of crosses we passed earlier commemorate a couple of passengers who died earlier this year in a bus crash. They were friends of my counterpart Mixis, who was apparently also onboard with them.
As we creep through the mountainous fog, I thank the driver in my mind for driving so slowly. You could literally walk faster – I love it. I don’t care if it takes us six hours to get back, safety first. I do hope we get off before darkness falls though – that’d be horrific if not.
Later than planned but all in one piece we (obviously) make it home – just as the stars are coming out. Never have I appreciated standing on solid ground as much as I did when I jumped down off that bus.
I’ve got another five months of this, I think to myself…
As if that trip wasn’t enough yesterday, today’s party in the cemetery was topped off not-so-nicely when I got home. Our host home have invested in a tv so, for the first time since my arrival I was able to watch the Nicaraguan news.
I soon wished I hadn’t.
Cronica, either a news channel or a news programme, showed footage of the cattle lorry hanging off the side of the mountain with all the shrapnel spread across the road – one dead it says, in Spanish. Another death in Esteli; a man crushed on his bike by a lorry – it shows his body, face pressed against the concrete floor covered in blood. There’s been another death in Masaya; a man knocked over by a bus, I think they say he had stolen 500 cordovas (though I may have misinterpreted that bit) Again, they show his delicate body on the floor, followed by an image of the floor with his position painted in white, followed by a clip of a bus driving over this outline – as if to show us what it would have been like for the bus crashing into him… They go onto show the police pulling ID out of his pocket, the camera zooms in to reveal his full identity. Next on this montage of death is CCTV footage of a man being shot dead beside a lorry, a woman gets crushed by a van in a shop window/shop front… A burglary goes wrong with gunshots fired in all directions and then, just when I think there’s a break, the advert splitting this real life and very local drama up is for the Walking Dead, where a zombie’s head gets blown off whilst attacking one of the characters. It’s only 7pm?!
After the break there’s more misery; is this a death show I think to myself? Maybe a Day of the Dead special? It shows Russia Today footage of a plane which came down in Sinai killing all onboard, then we’re off to Brazil where another plane has come down in full view of cameras and spectators. I can’t watch anymore. Where the fuck’s my iPod?! I climb into my bed, able to hear the loud fuzz of the TV during the gaps in my songs.
As I lay here. I cannot help but feel like this last 48 hours has been a major wake up call. I suppose, more poetically, it could be seen as an awakening (I completed Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol novel yesterday too – which is all about enlightenment and atonement, or at-one-ment). We really are a delicate species aren’t we? If it’s not murder or road accidents it’s disease and illness ready to pounce. No wonder so many people turn to religion.
As I lie on my back, under my coffin shaped mosquito net I hear my host brother return. He’s been out hunting for tomorrow’s dinner in the nearby wood; An armadillo in tow. Can’t wait, I think to myself as I close my eyes to sleep.