Educational Adventures

Ritual and Revelry: The Festival of Life and Death at Xcaret

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I sat alone in a tucked-away pseudo-theater–it was clearly under construction, and dimly lit–while conversations I could not understand circled around me.  Musicians tuned their instruments, the stage lights came up, and the music started.  It was bluesy and mellow and entirely instrumental.  I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a woman walking around the audience with a smudge pot–a pot of some sort of incense that I could not identify by smell–fanning the smoke out in deliberate movements. As she circled around to the rear of the space, a man with a drum joined her, and together they joined the band.

In words I did not understand but actions I knew well, they faced east–I knew it was east without knowing where I was in relation to anything–and asked for the blessings of each of the four cardinal directions in turn, as everyone around me held their palms up in the proper direction in unison, following the directions I could not comprehend (or, more likely, the shared understanding that I did not possess).  For the next hour, I sat in rapt attention and witnessed what can only be described as a combination Mexican jazz and blues concert (a thing with which I have zero experience) and pagan ritual (a thing with which I have somewhat extensive experience).  It was surreal.

Everything about my experience at Xcaret’s Festival of Life and Death was at once foreign and familiar.

The Setting

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Before I arrived in Playa del Carmen, I imagined Xcaret Eco Park–the host and setting of The Festival of Life and Death–to be a sort of Mexican Disney World.  After all, it is a park, not part of ‘the real world’.  Except that it is also in Mexico, and thus extremely different from Disney World–or anywhere I’ve ever been–in many ways.

For one, it was very, very dark.  There were a few well-lit areas, but there were also many non-well-lit areas.  I liked these best.  And there were many, many candles.  The mood was could best be described as festive-somber.

But there were places you could buy food (stands set up by people from the state of Campeche, which was the state being honored at this year’s event) and clean, staffed public restrooms.  There was also the option of purchasing a drink served out of a coconut painted like a skull.  I can not tell you how much I regret not taking any pesos (tip for attending the Festival of Life and Death: take pesos.  You’re going to want to buy things.  Trust me.)

The Food

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I was treated to a tasting menu of authentic Dia de los Muertos dishes, most of which were corn-based and tamale-esque, yet closer to a cornmeal calzone than to a tamale.  The ones I had were filled with spiced meat, wrapped in banana leaves and buried in the ground to cook–and only women can make them (though only men can dig the hole in which to cook them; as a woman, I’ll take that trade-off).

One of my new favorite things is marzipan made not from almonds, but from pumpkin seeds.  I was told it was a ‘healthy treat’; I’m not sure that much sugar is ever ‘healthy’, but I’m going to choose to delude myself into believing that it is.  Because the world needs healthy treats that are so delicious.

I also learned how to say ‘fig’ in Spanish (higo) and my guide and new friend, Paola, learned how to say ‘fig’ in English.  Sharing food with people who do not speak the same language as you is always educational. (Except that Paola was actually quite good at English and I can only muddle through written Spanish, pick out words and phrases in spoken Spanish, and speak zero spoken Spanish.)

The Festivities

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Do you know what makes almost any sport better?  Fire.  And half-naked leather-clad men carrying parrots and wearing elaborate headdresses.  A regular feature at Xcaret is the Mayan Show, which is an exhibition of culture and sport.  And drumming. And fire.  And parrots.

Remember that time you lit a candle off the torch of a giant painted man?  Because I do.

While the Mayan Show is a daily event at Xcaret, what I’m going to have to call ‘The Clown Funeral’ (because I do not have anything else to call it; I took no notes, and my press kit is in Spanish) is special to the Festival of Life and Death.  Mostly done in mime, and accompanied by a live band in a stadium that seats seven thousand, this morbidly-amusing show is an audience-participation-required wake for a clown.

Remember that time someone handed you a marigold and you were swept up into the crowd to parade on stage and throw that marigold onto the fake coffin of a deceased clown?  Because I do.

The festivities at The Festival of Life and Death were rather dramatic.  I can compare them to both The Festival of the Lion King in Walt Disney World and Cirque du Soleil’s Ka, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.  But that would be doing these shows a disservice.  This was not just entertainment.  This was history and culture and craft and skill.

And, you know, there were topless men batting around flaming balls of fire.  You can’t really beat that, now can you?

The People

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There were many amazing things about The Festival of Life and Death.  But I’ve saved the best for last.

This is not a tourist event–though, as a tourist, I can highly recommend it.  This is a local festival that happens to be held at a tourist destination.  Seventy percent of the people in attendance were locals–and, as such, paid absolutely nothing to attend.  Xcaret welcomes them with the mission of educating the local children (and, I suppose, adults) about Mayan traditions, which are beginning to fade in the increasingly metropolitan and international Mayan Rivera.

Many came in costume–the beautiful women in the photo above were not employed by Xcaret, they simply showed up dressed as Ix’Tabay (the Mayan goddess who lures drunk, gambling, cheating men out of the jungle and into the underworld where they are trapped and punished forever).  Others painted their faces in traditional Dia de los Muertos style–skulls and roses–at one of the various face-painting stations located throughout the grounds (I am sad I did not have time to do my own).

And everyone was courteous.  And smiling.  And taking selfie photos in front of walls of candles.

Like I said–some things were very, very different from anything I’d ever experienced.  Others were decidedly not different.  I guess some things–like ritual, like celebration, like food–like selfies–are just universal.

Disclosure: I was hosted by Xcaret.  However, all thoughts, ideas, and impressions are entirely my own.  I actually wish I were a more-skilled writer.  This experience needs to be put into words, and my words falter at times.  It was an amazing experience, and I feel honored to have been a part of it.  And I can honestly highly, highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Dia de los Muertos.

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