By Dawnelle Salant
If you're in Guatemala, Nov. 1 is the best time to visit Santiago Sacatepequez. Locals in traditional bright clothing as well as foreigners clad in shorts and tank tops flock to this small village near the ancient capital of Antigua to observe All Saints Day, known here as Day of the Dead. And it's not the streets, halls, or restaurants that they're heading to--it's the graveyard.
Though it might sound morbid, the festival is actually a colorful and lively celebration for which locals build extravagant kites (known in Spanish as barriletes gigantes) and fly them high above the cemeteries as a symbolic link between the living and the dead. At last year's festival I saw men determinedly strapping together long poles to form the base of a brightly-colored kite. The poles must have been three times my height! Constructed simply out of tissue paper and bamboo, the kites are amazingly durable. When I shaded my eyes and looked upwards, I saw one of the biggest--with a diameter of 12 feet--sailing effortlessly in the wind, its circular design of purple, yellow, orange, and red standing out against the blue sky.
The graves themselves are made astonishingly beautiful too. Painted blue, pink, or even green, on Day of the Dead they're decorated with flowers like lilies, chrysanthemums, and flor de muerto (dead man's flower), a strong smelling member of the marigold family. Loose petals are carefully arranged to form soft carpets.
And what would a celebration be without food? Fiambre, the traditional dish of the festival, is made only once a year. Although recipes vary from family to family and generation to generation, fiambre is customarily a mix of cheese, meat, and vegetables cured in vinegar. It's served cold and eaten for lunch, and around noon the lids come off the coolers. Sitting near and often directly on the graves, several different families offered to share their fiambre with us. It looked much like a cold stewed soup of eggs, celery, beets, ham, and even asparagus. I don't think I'll be making fiambre a regular part of my diet, but you can't celebrate Day of the Dead without at least trying a bite.
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First Published: Oct 23, 2004