All Souls: Dancing on a string in Guatemala City
Saturday 01 November 1997
The rustle of tissue paper flapping in the wind forms an orchestra of sounds, a rhythmical plea to the saints to watch over their people and join in the celebration. Vibrant colours bleed into the sharp blue sky and shout out through geometric patterns. It becomes a rush hour in the sky as swarms of hand-made kites, or barriletes, of all sizes, jostle about. They are stretched up as high as possible, to bring the people closer to the spirits and their loved ones. It is said that the noise of the kites beating against the wind annoys the evil spirits, since for a long time there was a problem with evil spirits invading the cemetery and troubling people in the town. At one time benevolent spirits wandered the streets looking for help. Now, no one is too sure whether they are still doing that, but kite-flying seems a good enough reason to protect people from malevolence.
It is All Saints' Day, in the small town of Santiago Sacatepequez in the heart of Guatemala, where a curious tradition turns the day into a major event. Every year on 1 and 2 November, hundreds of people from neighbouring villages and from Guatemala City descend on this town to witness the spectacle in honour of the dead. Families gather to watch or take part, sitting on tombs that have been decorated with real and artificial gaudy flowers and evergreen wreaths. The poorer graves are simple mounds of earth, some of which have been coated in white plaster and adorned with pink and orange petals. The cemetery, high on a hill with a sweeping view over a lush landscape, becomes a playground and park, with children running round graves, only concerned with fighting for air space for their kites.
Families picnic, young soldiers patrol, unnervingly negotiating graves whilst carrying rifles, and it becomes anything but the peaceful resting- place that it should be. Yet here in Guatemala nothing is sombre, least of all All Saints' Day. It seems to be one big party.
Santiago Sacatepequez celebrates this day in a particular way. In the weeks running up to the event, young men painstakingly put together giant kites so large, it is hard to believe that they can fly. The largest span six metres, are supported by cane sticks in the form of a wheel, and take at least three men to lift them. There is a curious contradiction in the fragility of the kite body and the clumsy-looking, heavy frame supporting it. Yet somehow they reach the sky.
No one seems certain where the tradition of kite building came from, but it is firmly adhered to amongst the Cakchiquel Indians. It is known that one of the main reasons for flying kites is per l'alegria de los muertos, or "to entertain the dead". Women do not get involved in constructing the kites although they certainly have a hand in preparing and selling food on the day. Kites are solely the preserve of the men, who form part of a committee which then plans the kite-making.
And the kites are beautifully made. Tiny squares of brightly-coloured tissue paper form exciting patterns as a backdrop to pictures portraying pre-Columbian scenes, native to the indigenous people. Tassels of tissue paper flutter round the edges and the final piece of art is proudly carried through the town to be displayed on the lower part of the graveyard. The kites are lined up before it is their turn to fly. It is an anxious time, as a lot of money, time and creativity have been poured into the work - and picking the right moment is vital if the kite is not going to rip and smash trying to get airborne. Young men attach ropes to the kites to stabilise them and when they think the moment is right, they tug on the ropes using all their force to persuade the kite to catch the wind. People encourage them, shouting and clapping, and sympathise with the unsuccessful.
A few moments of glory while a giant kite glides in the air is usually all that is possible, but that doesn't seem to matter, and people hold their breath to stare. They watch it crash to the ground, and the design crumple.
This is expected. Kites rarely survive intact, and the effort that goes into making them is made knowing that their life span is short.
At the end of the day, coloured tissue paper litters the ground, mingling with the flowers on the graves. Families head home, the young boys carrying the damaged kites with pride. They may have had only seconds watching their kites lift into the air, but you sense that the happiness has not been only for the dead - and that the party is not yet over. There will be much talking and laughter late into the evening. Perhaps the good spirits are watching that, too, and having a hearty chuckle.
The cheapest routes to Guatemala and the rest of Central America are on Continental Airlines via Houston, on KLM via Amsterdam, on Iberia via Madrid and on Avianca via Bogota. The best specialist agencies are Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108), South American Experience (0171-976 5511) and Steamond (0171-730 8646). Each offers return flights to Guatemala and most Central American cities for about pounds 550, including tax.
It may be cheaper, though, to fly to Mexico City (for as little as pounds 400 return) and travel from there by bus or air.
Apart from an air route between Guatemala City and Flores, most transport around the country is by bus, which is both cheap and frequent. The US State Department warns that "Highway robberies by armed thieves have increased significantly over the past year and have occurred in all parts of the country. Tourist vans have been particularly susceptible targets".
The Embassy of Guatemala, 13 Fawcett Street, London SW10 (0171-351 3042) can provide tourist information.
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