I walked into town at a quarter past five on the morning of the Day of the Dead and came across a small group of Mayan kids playing basketball to a loud, heavy Dubstep being played through the community centre`s PA system . A group of women dressed in their traditional, kaleidoscopic dress waited by the bus stop a few metres away, smiling tolerantly. Strange as this was, it was by no means the most curious or exotic experience of the day.
I was stopping in San Marcos, which is one of the more esoteric of the villages around Lake Atitlan. There’s often a waft of weed in the air and a lot of the self-catering adverts mention yoga pads. For one of the first times on my trip, getting vegetarian food had been easy.
And so, on that early morning, our bus slowly filled up with a particularly chilled set of passengers. There was talk of meditation, astral travelling and the vague and nebulous concept of “awareness raising”. I never did find out what awareness needed raising or why.
Amongst our group we numbered three Colombians wearing two foot high pixie hats, an Italian social worker on a volunteer project and Gerhadt, a tall, blonde, bearded German model who for some reason had chosen to wear two mini skirts for the day. We were not your average Guatemalan daytrippers.
Sumpango is a decent sized town about 2000 metres above sea level in the mountains west of Guatemala City and a four hour drive from Lake Atitlan, Hence our early start. We arrived late morning to find the town already abuzz with visitors. Once we had parked we had to walk up towards the top of the town to the football pitch which forms the launching ground for the kites.
At the start of the day the kites were all lined up behind the goalposts for inspection and the crowds walked along the rows, taking photos of themselves in front of their favourites. The kites are all handmade. Bamboo poles are lashed together to form the frames and then beautifully decorated “China paper’ is stretched across them. As the sun rose they were increasingly used as giant sunbreaks by people trying to escape the heat of the day.
I walked through the crowds, mostly locals but with a fair smattering of international visitors. As I did I was vaguely aware of some people stretching out a rope behind me and then I saw a young lad clutching another rope and running in my general direction. It slowly dawned on me that he was a participant in the festival and I dodged out of his way. His friend followed behind him and together they pulled their kite up into the air, where it weaved and rose up for a while, before coming crashing to the ground.
This was not an untypical outcome for a kite flying attempt. Overall, there is a fairly low success rate, with considerably more kites crashing than making it into the sky. If you fail but your kite is still in one piece, or can be put back in one, then you’ll get a second go. There seemed to be a critical point, somewhere between thirty and fifty feet up, after which the kites stabilised and were more or less guaranteed to go up. When this happened there were huge gasps from the crowd and applause as the ropes were belayed out and the kites went hundreds of feet into the sky.
When they weren’t so successful then they could come crashing down perilously into the crowd. As the day wore on any attempt at clearing a space at the centre of the football pitch was forgotten. Success can turn to failure in a moment and there were plenty of times when the crowd parted as a kite plunged down towards them, on occasion smacking a spectator on the head.
A few of us took up a vantage point behind where the kites were being launched and perched ourselves up on a narrow path on the hillside. From there we were usually safe from out of control kites, although on the few occasions that we were imperilled we found that we had nowhere to go. Eeep!
One of my favourite moments was when a medium sized kite – about five metres in diameter – nearly took out one of the Portaloos down below us. The usual cavalry of supporters arrived and straightened it up. They were all set and ready to start their second attempt before a man came out of the cabin, utterly unaware of how close he had come to a sticky end.
On the way back to the coach I took a walk through the cemetery. Here people were decorating their family graves, sitting around and talking, eating ice creams and flying their own, much smaller kites. The place was filled with flowers. In the distance there were up to a dozen kites now flying above the town.
It took a while for our blissed out group to pull itself together and then we were off, on our four hour journey back to San Marcos. As with most trips like this the driver had a particular restaurant that he wanted to stopped at and so, just before dark, we pulled in at a newly built cantina by the roadside.
Set up high in the mountainside it had a spectacular view. Our group wandered off the bus and some of us took a look inside. It was a cavernous affair, with a couple of hundred covers, a small bar in one corner and, naturally enough, a trampoline in the other. It was also completely devoid of customers.
Gerhardt, sporting his shorter, leather mini-skirt for the occasion, climbed inside the trampoline, bounced around and performed various yoga positions, while the rest of us drank our coffees. Somehow, it seemed a fitting end to a day of different experiences.