Resolve to teach your children about their global neighbors

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

My favorite festival in Mexico is the Day of the Dead (Dia del Muertos). I spent the last three of these events in the colonial cities of Mexico. There were many date conflicts and I came to the conclusion there was no way I could go this year. But as November 2 drew closer, I wished I had moved the day up in my priorities.

It was then with sheer joy that I received word of a press trip to the Riviera Maya, deep in the Yucatan; a four-day stay encompassing the Day of the Dead. I applied immediately and was accepted.

Before you think me ghoulish, let me explain. The festival is a happy remembrance of the dead. There is dancing, singing, plays, and visiting. Nearly all families and businesses erect an altar to welcome the return of the dearly departed. The altars are decorated with marigolds (the flowers of death), along with the favorite foods of the dead. The four elements of water, earth, fire, and wind are represented, and a picture of the deceased family member is displayed.

The Mexicans believe the dead are merely in the underground and are alive as long as they are remembered.

In my experience, the Day of the Dead celebration is pretty much the same each year, but I had never been in the Riviera Maya for the festival. The people do not stop at building altars. It is a full-fledged 5-day celebration and everyone joins in.

Jeanette Rigter was our guide for the adventure. She is the public relations director for the entire area. She is also completely at home among the Mayans and everyone knows and loves her. She speaks Mayan, English and Spanish.

Jeanette gave me a room at the Mandarin Oriental Resort. Although elegant in every respect, it looks as though it bloomed in the middle of the surrounding jungle. The gate to the resort is a mile from the Caribbean beach, but there is a winding paved path running beside the beautiful buildings all the way to the powdery sand of the beach. A golf cart-like "van" runs up and down the path every 5 minutes and you can choose to walk or to ride the beautiful path.

The next day we went to Xcaret, a lovely park celebrating the Mayan Festival of Life and Death traditions. It was almost too much to take in.

There were lots of Dia del Muertos altars, plays, music, dances, children's workshops, thousands of candle lights, skeleton costumes and face paint, and every kind of food you can imagine. In the middle of park was a cone-shaped cemetery with closely spaced graves spiraling upward, all decorated and lighted for the festival.

There were so many treats, I just don't have room to tell you about all of them.

But I do have to mention our visit to the Mayan villages. One was uninhabited and was still being excavated. A Mayan guide led us through the jungle warning us to not touch any flora and fauna as we passed. He told us about a tree that exudes a deadly black sap. It would maim or kill anyone who was unfortunate enough to get some of the sap on his or her body. There is only one kind of tree whose sap is an antidote to the poison. The guide showed us that tree; it had pieces cut from the bark extending up the tree trunk.

The community of Pac-Chen was very much inhabited by the Maya. They prepared a meal for us composed of corn tortillas and cochinita pibil, which is a piglet cooked in a large pot on hot coals underground for about 13 hours. As it was unearthed, the community's shaman blessed the piglet with incense and then blessed each of us as he passed among us wafting the smoky incense over our heads.

The government built a road to the village to increase the tourist trade. It also gave the inhabitants electricity, which they used for a while and then turned it off. Strict conservationists, the Maya believe in leaving things exactly as their ancestors found them. They speed over the rough terrain on beat-up bicycles and ask permission from their gods before removing so much as a leaf from the jungle.

They don't care or understand the trendy concept of "living green." They've been doing it for 3,000 years. Everything was wonderful. I'll never forget it.


Day of the Dead

The Maya

A Journey into Ancient History and Adventure

Who knew the Yucatan jungle of Mexico could yield a ritzy shopping area called "Fifth Avenue," as well as a thriving community of Maya people who live very much as their ancestors lived almost 200 years ago?

No utilities of any kind, including electricity provided by the government to make their lives easier. The people of Choc-Pen saw no practical use for the electricity and promptly turned it off. Yet, they manage to feed as many as 400 tourists a day cooking tortillas over a fire box and burying a pot of pork on hot coals way beneath the surface of the earth. The "piglet" is dug up amid much ceremony and blessing by the Maya Shaman. The seasoned meat is delicious when eaten with the tortillas.

There is a wonderful park called Xcaret Eco Theme Park, which was a beehive of activity as the Maya celebrated their own version of the Day of the Dead. The kids loved it as they took part in the many plays and musicals on the park stage. The resorts are incredible. One drives through the jungle for miles interrupted occasionally by elegant resorts that offer the ultimate in luxury.

There were 14 of us, all travel writers, and we agreed we never experienced anything like it. The Riviera Maya stands alone if one is searching for peace, excitement, or both. There's plenty of each.

Mildred Moss has been in journalism for 19 years. A mother and grandmother, Mildred has been writing for Columbus Parent Magazine for several years and is the publication's travel writer.