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Ancient tradition of celebrating the dead is still alive and well

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An opalescent sky muted the harshness of the emerald earth as the old car struggled up the rock-filled Mexican road. Leaving the breeze-blown coast behind, I had begun a journey deep into the verdant mountains of Oaxaca, peaks that faded into the haze, massive blue-gray shapes filled with mystery and little else.

Tires spinning, the taxi flung stones violently against its metal belly. Clanging and banging echoed across the jungle.

The rainy season had just ended, but the steaming humidity trapped by the decaying vegetation turned the car into a mobile sauna.

In my worst nightmare, I had imagined traveling in a bus full of worthy souls, sliding and bouncing down the road on bald tires mounted on springless wheels. That conjured agony made the factual passage no less painful.

Then, suddenly, not a vision, but an actual, enormous bus loomed ahead, approaching my battered car at a fearsome speed. Such an epiphany can lead to serious theological reflection.

What incredible timing, I reflected. It was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The gaudy bus, a chrome monstrosity, bore down upon the pathetic tin metal sedan. Nameless faces pressed against the dirty, half-opened coach windows, wide-eyed in anticipation of a cataclysm.

Envision yourself careening up this poor excuse for a highway in a relic of a car, destined for some ominous mountaintop village to witness the Day of the Dead celebration, only to meet a bus -- head on. Such madness made sense in Oaxaca, Mexico. In the lifelong race with death, the strangest journey may be to the cemetery.

At the same time as North Americans celebrate Halloween with costumes and candy, ancient tradition in Mexico calls for family reunions -- with the dead. For three days, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, specific rites are observed faithfully. They occur in the home and in the cemetery amid bouquets of flowers, banquets of bread and ghostly candies ornamented with skull heads.

These candies are called muertos, and are given out much the same as parents dispense candy bars and chewing gum to costumed children demanding trick or treat. But among Mexicans, the dead are considered supernatural guardians. Not only do the dead visit during this time, but they enjoy their favorite food and drink, lavishly laid out on home altars and shrines.

Collecting special treats

In the mountains of Oaxaca, there is a much deeper meaning to the festivities. It begins weeks, perhaps months, before the ordained days with the collecting of the special dishes and treats.

These are the foods and drink the departed spirits loved the most when alive: the best chocolate for mole; fresh eggs and flour for the bread, pan de muerto; fruits and vegetables; even cigarettes and mescal. Lux perpetua votive candles flame day and night, illuminating the decorative wild marigold flowers, flor de muertos, which adorn the altars and the graves.

And everywhere, La Calaca, the skeleton, carved from wood and dressed for a party, watches with amusement.

The passengers on the bus hurtling toward my car were rushing to visit the burial sites of lifeless loved ones. The distinct possibility that they might soon join the dead, in spirit as well as otherwise, accentuated the duality of belief that was being celebrated.

To the Aztecs, in order to reach the Mictlan, or region of the dead, one had to endure a perilous journey. My encounter was proving to be no exception.

Then, in an instant, the bus was gone, rumbling past with nothing to spare, leaving a veil of dust that shrouded my sight through the cracked windshield.

Tradition's warp and weft

My destination was Nopala, a place high in the purple mountains. I was told, of all the villages in Oaxaca, only in Nopala would I truly witness the warp and weft of centuries of tradition, with colonial, religious and ancient Indian beliefs blending into one colorful weaving.

Earlier, the legend of the wall map in the tourist office showed Highway 131 an all-weather, improved surface that snaked through San Pedro and San Gabriel Mixtepec on its way to Oaxaca City. What followed on the map was a large vacant stretch where the village of Nopala should be.

Leaving the outskirts of Puerto Escondido, the improved surface had turned to a dusty, rock-strewn road. Barely wide enough for one vehicle, it wound up the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains to the legendary capital.

At the tiny pueblo of San Gabriel Mixtepec, a red dirt side road set off twisting and climbing to the mountaintop that is Nopala. I took the turn with the faith that the map was wrong, that the white space was an omission, not reality.

Soon the road reached a crystal river, and houses appeared among great groves of trees. The dirt tracks turned to cobblestones, and led me upward to the center of the village.

Finally, the pinnacle, and the mystery that is the Day of Dead became, paradoxically, alive.

Carved from the rock peak, Nopala's crowning architectural achievement is the baroque municipal building, a glorious quasi-colonial structure painted a brilliant white, its wrought-iron balustrades crumbling from rust.

Celebrating living spirits

The villagers of Nopala are celebrating 3,000 years of history this day. They are celebrating the only thing that truly matters -- the living spirit and soul of their ancestors.

A melancholy sound fills the empty square. Unearthly music played on a discordant collection of instruments, with only the tuba and trombone identifiable, provides a heartbeat to the ethereal quality such a place evokes.

It is almost magic. The people slowly wind their way between the leaning plaster walls to the plaza.They pass over cobblestones worn smooth by years of weather and the footfalls of generations.

The women enter first from the side streets, dressed in black, yet brilliant with color. Clutched to their breasts are marigolds. The individual pilgrims slowly form small groups, then merge into still larger congregations until they converge as one solid processional in the stone square surrounding the crumbling church.

High in the tower above the crowd, a solitary bell chimes plaintively, reverberating against the whitewashed walls, rolling over the stones, tumbling down the mountaintop, into the river valley below.

As the music from the instruments fades, a chorus of sweet voices rises from the sanctuary, as angelic as any choir of St. Peter's.

An enigma, one of many in this celebration, is this small church. It stands so close to God's heaven, yet so near the precipice.

From the plaza's edge, foot-paths lead down and away, like the spokes of a wheel, into the jungle below. One of these leads to the cemetery.

The air is heavy with the midday heat. This is the final day, the final visit to the cemetery by the families.

From the dark recesses of the church, the procession again begins its solemn sojourn. A cleric leads, the village follows.

Down the cobblestones, with the steady oompah of the tuba setting the pace, the people slowly wind their way to visit with their loved ones, to share their lives and hopes and dreams one more time.

Protectors of the living

The dead are regarded as protectors of the living, and so their counsel is sought in all family matters. The dead demand good behavior of the living, and they have within their power the ability to reward or punish. So death itself is merely one phase in the life cycle, a transcendent mutation.

At the cemetery, the people quietly melt into the cluttered assemblage of tombstones. Bright marigolds ornament the graves. A trail of their golden petals leads back to the path to the village. The fragrance of incense mingles with the damp, musty odor of the surrounding jungle.

An ancient race that dwelled in Mexico once wrote, "We only come to dream, we only come to sleep; It is not true that we come to live on Earth." Dia de los Muertos translates that prophecy into a mortal manifestation.

I set out to return to my world through the smoky haze that covered the mountain. But now that world is different from the one left behind on the journey to Nopala. Now there is a

continuity, a link with the living past that I hadn't known before.

And, although we all ultimately travel this adventure of life alone, there are times when you may hear La Calaca, the skeleton of death, laughing quietly behind your back.

If you go . . .

The Day of the Dead celebrations throughout Mexico occur Oct. 31 through Nov. 2. Each village observes the holiday in a distinctive way, some with great festivity, others with somber reverence. Recommended reading on the subject is "The Days of the Dead, a Mexican Tradition" published by the National Museum of Anthropology.

Using Puerto Escondido as a base for day trips into the mountains simplifies planning. The journey to Nopala from Puerto Escondido will take four hours during the dry season, which runs from October to May. During the rainy season, the road may be impassable.

Until 1982, the only way to reach Puerto Escondido from the land side was to fly in. Recently, Mexicana began flights from Mexico City; additionally Oaxacan Airlines connects to Oaxaca.

The Coast Highway No. 200 links Puerto Escondido with Acapulco 200 miles northward. There is an overland route to Oaxaca, but this is not recommended except for those strong of heart and limb.

To arrive by sea would be spectacular, but, to be truthful, there is no port here suitable for anything other than a sailing boat. Rental cars are available.

Hotels:

* The Hotel Santa Fe, Calle de Morro, Apdo. Postal 96, call (958) 2-01-70. Magnificent character of place and people is sufficient recommendation. Pool, restaurant, bar, boutique. This is a first-class establishment. Manager Paul Cleaver will gladly share his knowledge of the region, its history and its mysteries.

Bungalows Jardin Escondido, Calle de Morro, Apdo. Postal 97, call (958) 2-03-48 or 2-01-37. Even if the thought of a palm hut complete with etched glass shower, tile floors, overhead fan and hammocks is not your idea of paradise, be sure to make a dinner reservation here.

Hotel Paraiso Escondido, Calle Union 10, call (958) 2-04-44. Away from the beach on a bluff overlooking the small bay. The whimsical, rustic colonial touches fit here. The pool shares a verdant courtyard with an open-air bar and restaurant.

Posada Real, Blvd. Benito Juarez, Fracc. Bococho, call (958) 2-01-92. North of the village it provides satellite TV, a beach club complete with suspended bar stools and more than 100 rooms.

Restaurants:

* Without doubt, the singular experience of dining at the Hotel Santa Fe is worth the whole trip. The Oaxacan dishes prepared to your order combine in a way to sustain both body and spirit.

The meal served nightly at Jardin Escondido is limited to seating available, with hotel guests given first priority, so a reservation is necessary.

The Posada Real's Coco's beach club, incredibly inviting with a poolside view of the crashing surf, serves native tastes with a Continental flair. The painted jungle mural rivals the real one outside.

Excursions, diversions and beaches:

The beaches of Puerto Escondido are a prime excuse to do nothing but stretch out a towel and enjoy. Some, like little Puerto Angelito, are reached by small boat from the main beach in town. Others, like Zicatela with its undertow, are suitable only for the many surfers who crowd the town for tournaments in November.

For nature and photography enthusiasts, there are tours to Chacagua Lagoon and Manialtepec. The bird life is extraordinary, and the isolation is refreshing. Any of these can be arranged through Maria Elena of Costa Esmeralda Tours at (958) or at the desks at the Hotel Santa Fe, Arco Iris, Rincon del Pacifico, Las Palmas or Paraiso Escondido.

Mexican National Tourist Information: (800) 262-8900.

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