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Day of the Dead in San Pedro

I don’t get it. There’s a man in the marketplace of San Pedro, a village by Lake Atilan in Guatemala, who sells sweet syrupy drinks poured over ice and at any one time they’re covered by a hundred wasps. They coat the lids and the necks of the bottles and are served gratis as a topping on each plastic cup he serves. And yet no one gets stung and I seem to be the only person who’s in the last bothered about it.

I don’t get it. There’s a man in the marketplace of San Pedro, a village by Lake Atilan in Guatemala, who sells sweet syrupy drinks poured over ice and at any one time they’re covered by a hundred wasps. They coat the lids and the necks of the bottles and are served gratis as a topping on each plastic cup he serves. And yet no one gets stung and I seem to be the only person who’s in the last bothered about it.

But not understanding stuff is something I’ve got used to with travel. Maybe that’s my failure as an amateur anthropologist but I think it’s more likely that it takes a lifetime of living in a culture to understand how and why people live as they do. In fact, I’m coming to think that maybe there are no explanations. But searching for them is about all that keeps me going.

For instance whereas all the available street walls in Mexico are covered in advertisements for chemically washing powders, or in India by the symbols of political parties (“Vote Hand” they say, the accompanying symbol of a big palm more significant than words to the illiterate electorate) , here they bear cheerful slogans for one’s redemption.

“Jesus is the Senor of San Pedro!” and “Jesus – the only choice for you!” Though my favourite was the simple “God is Love” with the ‘o’ replaced by a heart.

Some of the evangelical catchphrases sounded like they were fresh off the desk of a PR company and I wondered if anyone had ever tried to cash in on the Jesus image as a marketing tool.

The market of San Pedro consisted of rickety old wooden stalls squashed together under a high metal roof and there sweet old ladies robbed be blind as I bought their groceries. The steep walk uphill to the village from my lakeside hostel left me devoid of the power to bargain. When it came to buying tortillas though a smile was put back on my face. I was directed around a few corners to an obscure street where I came to a house that, according to the painted words outside the door, did indeed sell tortillas. In some way it delighted me to just knock on the door and buy groceries from someone’s house.

That evening it was the Day of the Dead, a sort of Guatemalan Halloween. We trooped up to the graveyard and drunks had passed out along each side of the road. It was quite a revelation to see such merry making in a cemetery. Normally a place of graves and tombs can be relied upon to be the quietest and most solemn part of town. But on this day the street vendors were out in full force and the locals milled around happily, taking in the tombs while bands struck up choruses in various corners.

Hundreds of candles lit up the cemetery and I was shocked to see these concrete cavities stacked up on top of one another. I’, guessing that these were the cheap seats and some of them were still open, awaiting the next client with a paying family. I was dizzy for a moment or two as the sight brought back another memory. And then it came to me – Capsule hotels in Japan.

It might sound like I’m making fun but I was one of the more serious and reverent faces there. The holiday gave boys and girls the chance to meet and the whole occasion had the air of a social romp.

Men with giant basses and guitars serenaded graves for a few coins and sang songs like:

“Closer to you, Senor (Jesus), I want to be,” To hire a band to come and play at the grave of a loved one seemed to me a far more beautiful homage than just a wreath of flowers.

Then there were those who were praying devoutly in front of tombs, kneeling down and murmuring prayers I guessed their losses were more recent. Everyone took pains not to disturb them and wandered on, reading the Biblical inscriptions on the other graves.

Some had been buried in the earth and I supposed they were from the poorer families. Yet they appealed to me the most as they had something of an animist feeling; trees were planted around a simple wooden cross and as branches grew up from their remains the whole thing evoked much more of the Circle of Life. Old men drifted past with swing pots of smouldering frankincense and no one made me feel unwelcome in what one might have thought to be a very private occasion.

For despite the growing tourism, San Pedro is still a very friendly place and the majority of the foreigners don’t make it much past the lake front. Everyone in the street greets you very time they pass and if you’re walking up hill then you run out of breath even faster as you return the salutes. Some scientists have suggested that humans can’t take in the presence of more than a thousand people and for this reason city folk don’t look each other in the eye more than they have to. But here the continual greetings and smiles wore me out and I ended up not wanting to say hello to anyone.

Their lives are worlds apart from mine of course and conversation never reached much further than chat about the weather and food. Upon learning that I didn’t want to live in England any more one local guide took me by the arm and explained excitedly:

“I know of some good land that you could buy and construct a hotel and restaurant…” Naturally, he imagined that all white people have thirty thousand dollars floating around in their bank accounts to invest…

From up on the hill the lake took on another aspect and the evening sky became a dream scape merging with the water. Currents swirled like rumours on the surface and ancient secrets of ancient fire lurked beneath the surface. The volcanoes here haven’t erupted in hundreds of years but at one time these waters must have boiled and steamed with molten lava.

I got my bags packed to move to another village, San Marcos, reputedly a more laid back place to enjoy the lake. I wanted to explore San Pedro a little more though but the main street was guarded by a swarm of hornets.

“They don’t bite!” I was told by the lady selling tomatoes on the street, laughing as I ducked every which way to avoid the darting insects.

I wasn’t about to put her theory to the test.