After several months of hard work and not enough play, I decided that it would be absolutely criminal to not make an effort for the Day Of The Dead festival, having been living in Mexico City for over a year and completely missing it the first time around.
Weeks of researching ensued to see where the best place (for me) to honour quite possibly the biggest and most profound day of my newly adopted country. I decided that Janitzio Island, in the state of Michoacan was to be the chosen one for popping my Mexican carnival cherry.
I was more than happy to have made this choice in the end, but I had to work for it as I overcame a couple of tricky challenges along the way. But before we talk about that; let’s get down to the tofu and potatoes of the whole affair for those who aren’t acquainted.
What Exactly Is The ‘Day Of The Dead’ All About?
Day Of The Dead (Dia de los muertos) is a Mexican-originated holiday celebrated throughout Latin America, when family and friends come together to commemorate in tribute to their loved ones who are no longer with us.
It’s no surprise that the birthplace of the event is a little more hardcore than the rest of Latin America when it comes to celebrating Dia de los muertos, and I was beyond intrigued to experience it whilst visiting another part of Mexico.
Most Mexican homes create a shrine for specific members of the deceased and leave a candle burning for each person throughout the night, with the belief that their souls will return for a visit. ‘Bread Of The Dead,’ a sugary white loaf is broken and shared amongst sugar skulls, incense and flowers as a heartfelt gesture to the departed.
As you walk through the streets or visit the markets between the 31st October and 1st November, it’s not abnormal to see locals’ faces adorned in stunning artwork, usually depicting a skeleton – similar to what the baddies in Karate Kid wore when chasing Daniel San, shortly before shamefully getting kicked in by a Japanese old-age pensioner.
The two-day celebration starts on what westerners call Halloween, which traditionally is meant for the return of child spirits. November the 1st (known as All Saints Day) is a day for the adult and child spirits to return and November 2nd is All Souls Day, where family and relatives visit the gravestones of their lost loved ones and beautifully decorate their tombs.
I wanted to experience the Day Of The Dead in the most authentic way possible. My first thought was Oaxaca. I could be wrong (it’s been known before) but it mostly looked like a place for people from English-speaking countries, more interested in landing an Instagram pic in painted face than the actual event, something of a tourist trap.
I decided against Oaxaca and a couple more options as I was seduced by Janitzio Island, the main island of Lake Patzcuaro in the south of Mexico.
How To Get To Janitzio Island From Mexico City
It’s really not worth the extra price to fly to the state and online information on busses to the mainland/times of ferry departure to the island is scarce to say the least. The bus station that you need to go to is called; ‘Terminal Central de Autobuses.’
Many companies go to Michocan state roughly every hour – needless to say, it’s best to go earlier than later. Now go grab an espresso and get your best game face on; this is where it gets complicated. You have to get the first (of two) busses to a town called Morelia.
Once you get to Morelia, you then need to ask for the bus to Patzcuaro (which takes an hour). I lucked out on this, because I was going to get a bus to a different town, thanks to outdated advice on the Lonely Planet forums, but after asking the poor bloke at the ticket desk in Morelia a million and one questions – Patzcuaro turned out to be the best possible choice in terms of logistics and time.
So you pay for your ticket, you skip onto the bus and they take you right there, right?! Oh, you poor, sweet, naive little kitten – this is Latinamerica. The ferry terminal doesn’t have an official bus stop, but as luck would have it – it does stop close enough to it. Also, as Mexicans are generally fu***ng brilliant human beings, locals are bending over backwards to help your lost little worried face and point you in the right direction.
Once you get off at the fake bus stop, you follow the signs to the ferry terminal. It’s a little spooky, about a mile walk with massive trees on either side and barely any lights at all. Once you get there, you pay your cheap as chips ferry ticket to Janitzio Island and wait in the queue.
Don’t stress about the fact that no one who works there knows, or seems to be in a great rush to know when the next ferry arrives. This is Mexico, you take the rough with the smooth. But trust me – the positives here immensely outweighs the negatives.
The Initial Plan
Seasoned travellers know that plans don’t always come off and it’s better to have a loose plan, but be open to curveballs and changes – sticking to a rigid one will 9 times out of 10 result in failure and lost opportunities.
So this was the loose idea:
Back in Mexico City, I preemptively decided against going to the island for the 31st October, opting to go on November 1st instead, as I found out that there is a duck-killing ceremony on the 31st and that is not my cup of tea. But I did want to cram in as much as possible, and pull an all-nighter with no sleep at all.
I kind of got off on the fact that I really had to earn my trip, it had cortisol-raising adventure written all over it from the get-go.
I aimed to primarily get to a graveyard for 9pm in a tongue-twister of a town named Tzintzuntzan. My Venezuelan amiga spoke very highly of it and the pictures looked unreal. This was barely half an hour away from the ferry terminal so I thought I could check that out, before sailing over to Janitzio and seeing in the Day Of The Dead through midnight and beyond.
What Actually Happened
With the mix-up between the alleged “best” town in order to get to the ferry terminal and a delayed bus from Mexico City – I didn’t get to Morelia until 10pm. I had to make a decision on the spot and I sadly decided to sack off Tzintzuntzan and to just work out the entertaining mindf**k of how to get to the island instead.
I made friends with an Australian guy on the second bus and we headed to Janitzio Island. As the ferry pulled into the dock, I pulled out my camera that I hadn’t used in over a year, in order to snap the welcoming entrance of Janitzio. It wouldn’t work – heartbroken.
But I had my phone camera as backup and let’s face it – I sure as shit ain’t winning any National Geographic awards any time soon.
Me and new Australian friend headed up to the graveyard on the top of the island (there is a magnitude of traditional Mexican food and delicious hot beverages along the way) to see what it was like. It was absolutely CRAMMED between midnight and 2am.
It was just like how I read – stunningly decorated gravestones, adorned with flowers, letters and photos – sitting proudly alongside them were former friends, lovers and relatives. But I felt incredibly uncomfortable, as if I was invading their personally sacred sanctuary and turning it into a human zoo.
Some people were pushing their camera lens right in their faces, and one dickhead brought an obnoxiously loud drone. It was extremely claustrophobic and I started to wonder if I had made the best decision. Australian guy was a photographer so he needed to hang about patiently for a good photo, but I had to get the hell out of there and decided what I was going to do.
I considered getting the ferry back to Patzcuaro, so I could just spend the night in Tzintzuntzan. I got myself a fruity hot drink from one of the stalls and breathed deeply, finally making peace with staying on the island and making the most of it.
I aimed to go back to the graveyard at 4 a.m. in hopes that it would have less people and that I’d have licence to roam, take in the scene and take a couple of non-invasive photos. During this time I drank about 20 delicious, hot and fruity drinks available (as the island is very cold – take a warm jacket, hat and gloves, but it warms up around dawn) and played with some stray dog friends.
And Then I Met Her
I went to the church near the graveyard around 2 a.m. to observe people of faith and wonder what they were thinking. I’m not a religious man myself, but the clear allegiance and conviction that individuals have in their denomination truly fascinates (and confuses me).
I wasn’t ready for what happened next.
In my peripheral vision, I could see someone standing at the end of the alter staring in my direction. I looked to the left, she was an island local Mexican lady looking awkwardly at me, nervously smiling.
I threw her a smile back and a; “Buenas noches,” She replied with the same and suddenly burst into hysterics. I stood up and asked her if she was ok, trying to decipher the emotionally-frantic Spanish.
Then I worked out what she was saying: “You remind me SO MUCH of my son, who died last year.”
I felt an instant knot in my stomach, I said I’m really sorry and asked her if she’d like a hug. She said she’d love one and so we embraced. I asked her if she was alone, she told me she was with her sister – who subsequently came over and scorned her for; “making a scene in the house of God!”
The sister did a double-take at me, also gave me a hug and affirmed that I was indeed very much like her deceased nephew.
All Worked Out Well In The End
Between 4am and 6am the graveyard mainly houses the people who it was meant for; the dead, and the alive who love and revere their memory. The handful of spectators are a lot more respectful and as the sun starts to rise, a mass begins in the church, with loudspeakers in the graveyard.
The Priest comes out at the end to bless the departed and those who still cherish them. I went to a secondary Catholic school and I absolutely loathe mass. I’ve sat through hundreds and I vowed (pun intended) that I’d never sit through one ever again.
But there was something different about this procession. Maybe I was caught in the moment, maybe I was tired – but I felt really moved by it all and as cheesy as it may sound to some; I felt genuinely connected to everyone.
After all, I too have deceased loved ones who I think about on most days.
And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly be any more susceptible to it all – the lady from church showed up; and she broke me into a million tiny taco pieces.
The priest (who had impressive vocals that would kill any X Factor show) repeatedly sang the words:
“Salgan, salgan, salgan...almas de pena,” which loosely translates in English as; “Come out, come out, come out…souls in pain” (but please correct me if I’m wrong – I’d hate to bastardise the true meaning).
Grieving church lady came in for one last hug, during this constant, harmonious back and forth of this powerful phrase. She stayed for about ten minutes and my t-shit was ringing wet as she sobbed into my chest.
It stopped being weird within seconds, and ended up being (as odd as this will sound) kind of beautiful. Pretty much everyone has (or will in the future) lost someone who they feel a deep level of love for that words can’t explain. Someone who they wish that they could just pick up the phone and chat with one more time, share a hug with, or a personal joke, or simply reminisce about a common memory which connects them immeasureably.
I absolutely love how Mexicans look at death. In England we barely talk about our departed. It’s too taboo. They’re gone now, don’t get all sad about it, toughen up. Then there is the other extreme when people fall into a pitiful sense of depression during anniversaries of deaths, birthdays etc.
I believe with regards to this that some people are worth hurting for, but at the same time we owe it to those who are gone too soon to remember them and celebrate their individuality.
And the truth is that the tears on my t-shirt weren’t all hers. The whole ethos of the event emotionally moved me into a paradoxical state of happiness, sadness, longing, nostalgia, pain and acceptance.
And I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
Song (Poem!) For The Moment: “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep,” By Mary Elizabeth Frye
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.