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November 1
Today is Todos Santos, or All-Saints’ Day, and a major national holiday.  Schools are closed and I have the day off.  Several people urge me to see La Fiesta de los Barriletes Giganticos, the Festival of Giant Kites, so I go to AtiTrans, my favourite travel agency, and book a tour.  For thirty-five dollars, I get transportation to the village of Santiago, the services of a guide and a box-lunch.

The AtiTrans mini-bus picks me up at my door at 8:00 as promised and then spends most of the next hour criss-crossing the town, picking up the rest of the group.  Just after 8:50, the bus trundles past my door for the second time….??  As my friend says:  “They do things differently, south of the Rio Grande!”  In the fullness of time, the bus heads out of town for the thirty-minute drive to the tiny, mountain village of Santiago de Sacetepéquez .

We arrive to find something like 50,000 people jammed into the single main street of the village.  We disembark and begin to wend our way uphill, toward the cemetery.  The entire length of the narrow street is lined on both sides with stalls.  Half of them are selling food and the rest are selling every imaginable souvenir.  I pretty much have a cast-iron stomach, but food from street vendors is a bit out of my comfort zone – cue the box-lunch!

Eventually, we arrive at the top of the hill to find at least another 50,000 people having about as much fun as it is possible to have in a graveyard.  Put the Red River Exhibition in a cemetery, throw in giant kites and a powerful PA system blasting thunderous rock music and you would have an approximation of the scene.  At first, like well-behaved gringos, we try to avoid stepping on the graves, but we soon realize that neither the local people running around above ground, nor the local people resting comfortably below, appear to be the least concerned.  A few graves feature huge concrete mausoleums, eight feet high and these are favoured perches for younger people to watch the festivities.  Other graves have low concrete vaults, a foot or so high and they are standing-room only.  The great majority are simple mounds of earth, which appear to have been freshly-heaped up for the occasion.  Balance is a bit precarious, but standing on a mound helps to provide a view over the heads of the crowd (even though “the crowd” in this country is mostly pretty short).  Over a couple of hours, the occupant of the grave on which we are standing, never seems disturbed by our presence.  On the contrary, I sense that, like most people in Central America, he is delighted with our company and particularly pleased that we foreigners would choose HIS grave to stand on.



Fiesta in the cemetery

Definitely a family occasion

The kites are amazing!  The very largest ones are more than thirty feet in diameter.  The frame is made of bamboo and covered with paper.  Every square inch of the paper is painted in bright colours.  Each kite has a theme and the paintings are elaborate and detailed.  Community groups spend most of an entire year designing and building these huge constructs. 



Giant kites on display – mercifully, they don`t fly

A giant kite being raised, to thunderous applause!



Five of the kites have been raised; the next one is lying face-down in the foreground, waiting its turn

A ten-foot kite flies above the crowd

The thirty-foot ones do not actually fly, but are for display only.  The big moment occurs when each kite is raised up into a standing position so the crowd can see the design painted on it.  The raising is accompanied by clapping, cheering and whistling.  By the end of the morning there are seven of these gigantic kites, standing around the periphery of the cemetery.

While all this is going on, kites of all sizes fly overhead.  The largest size that actually flies is about ten feet in diameter and is an impressive sight, soaring, swooping and diving above the crowd.  Unfortunately, sometimes the wind dies and a ten-foot kite comes crashing down right onto the heads of the crowd.  One is well-advised to keep an eye on the action up above at all times.

The launching of the ten-foot size is quite as impressive as its flight.  The process starts with hoisting the kite onto the top of one of the big mausoleums.  The string is run out through the crowd; fortunately, into the wind is downhill.  At some signal, several young boys take hold of the string and tear off down the hill at great speed, dodging spectators, leaping over grave stones, narrowly avoiding damage to life and limb.  If all goes well, the kite soars up into the sky – if not, it crashes to earth on top of the onlookers.  Charlie Brown is alive and well in Santiago de Sacetepéquez!



Many organizations and clubs sponsor kites

It`s a beautiful sight to see them flying above the crowd




The underlying belief is that on All Saints Day, a kite is a means of communicating with ones ancestors.  Ancient Celtic tradition held that the fabric separating our world from the spirit world is particularly thin on this day.  Many of the kites have a little paper note fastened around the string with a message to an ancestor written on it.  As the kite flies, the wind carries the paper note up the string.  If the note actually reaches the kite, it means that grandfather has received your message – kind of like a read receipt!

We spend an enjoyable few hours admiring the giant kites, watching the large and small flying ones and occasionally dodging crash landings.  Entire families picnic around family gravesites.  There is food, music, conversation and laughter.  Kids run around shrieking and laughing and playing tag amid the tombs.  One family is seated all around a low crypt, with their lunch spread out on it, like a picnic table – their prized Chihuahua, sleeps comfortably on a cushion in the middle.


The way out…!

Then it is time to head back toward the bus.  All fifty thousand people are apparently trying to squeeze down the one and only narrow street, while another fifty thousand or so newcomers, try to squeeze up towards the cemetery.  It takes us over an hour to creep two hundred yards.   Sometimes the pressure of the crowd is enough to lift your feet clear of the ground.  Kids and very short Guatemalan ladies, who come up to about my belt, have it particularly tough.  In typical Latin American fashion, people are patient and good humoured; nobody gets frustrated or angry; jokes about being crushed and squeezed are offered.  Somewhere in the crowd a little boy says:  “¡Me siento como un pez!   I feel like a fish!” 

Eventually, the crowd thins out to normal Central American congestion and we make our way back to the bus.  Survivors straggle in until our entire group is assembled and then we head home to Antigua.


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