1. San Francisco Tecoxpa: Day of the Dead

Apparently the world becomes hard to recognize once you are dead. I imagine it to be grey and full of shadows, constantly shifting without order. The people of Milpa Alta use certain methods to facilitate the return of the dead to visit the living the 1st of November. Beyond the path of orange flower petals leading to the altar for the dead with its tequila, pastries, flowers and fruits, in San Francisco Tecoxpa they make paper lanterns which hang in front of the houses. At night they launch paper balloons, globos de cantoya, of all shapes and sizes with candles in them.

So imagine this voyage from the perspective of the dead, encountering a floating lantern amid the clouds shaped like a church, the great snow-topped volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl close by hand. You look downwards to the mazy tapestry of lights that is the city. From one point in the southwest close to the bottom of the volcanoes you see paper balloons in all shapes and sizes lift into the air. You trail from balloon to balloon, the city becomes less dense, terraces and fields of cactus climb the sides of the valley from where the globes take off. And now you see fires and lanterns in front of the houses with their orange, white and pastel blue facades. One looks familiar, you reach the window and see an orange trail of flower petals. Following the orange streak you pass through a room with a bare cement floor, a sofa, maybe a painting of a sunflower, a coffee table and – this is the real necessity – a television set. You reach an altar with religious images and a photo with your own face that you maybe recognize. You look around, see a glass of tequila, grab it and drink.

I woke the first day of my voyage very early in the morning while it was still dark. I had been sleeping on a sofa with a single blanket on a sparse room with a cement floor, the games room of the children with a television. On the wall was a calendar with a painted image of an Aztec warrior and a legend saying “El Bárbaro” – the Christmas gift of cactus grower Odilón Jiménez’ business to good clients.

The sun rises late and sets early in November. Anxious to do something and unable to sleep I left the house. I walked over the empty village streets interspersed with cactus fields in the deep morning dark. In front of the houses were the paper lanterns – a star, an airplane, a cross. El Chorri had received me graciously but briefly the night before and we had discussed local sports. There was no plan.

As it was the Day of Dead my path lead me too the village graveyard. The sun had barely risen and the graveyard was framed in the long shadows and grey light of dawn. The tombs were decorated with balloons and flowers, as if they were not holes for dead human bodies but rather small festival tents. Graves of children were adorned with toys and little windmills. A family was decorating the churned earth under the quiet trees.

When I returned to El Chorri’s house his wife was making tamales for breakfast in the kitchen. He had made this place for her by hand, wide and light. A big sun in relief decorated the ceiling. As she stood behind the wide kitchen counter, kneading the dough of the tamales, she told me of village affairs. About ten years ago they had lynched two police officers in Tecoxpa. These had attempted to extort money from a group of young people from San Francisco for drinking beer in the street. The youths had become upset. A group of people formed. The guns of the police officers were taken and they were executed with them. When the government sought those guilty the whole village turned itself in. Since then they have had few problems with the police, she added. And naturally you can drink beer in the street.

Then she explained the recipe.

I passed the day wandering around the fields in the village with El Chorri. As it was the first day and there was an inconvenient distance to cover I proposed to take El Chorri’s pick-up. But he said my proposal to walk around the edge of the city was a manda, a vow, and that I should not take a vehicle. I could not disobey El Chorri, and was ashamed of my inconsistency on my first day. I resolved never again to consider taking a vehicle. I had discovered one of the first things about walking: you are very restricted in your geographical reach.

El Chorri told me an old man from the village had gone to a car dealership asking after the price of a SUV. Since he was dressed in the worn cottons of a campesino with sandals, a straw hat and a hand woven bag, the sales people at the dealership made him wait as they attended a better-dressed client. After some time the old man stood up and showed the salespeople the contents of his bag. It was the sales price of the SUV in cash. He was taking his business elsewhere. The moral of the story was: Do not let appearances deceive you. There is money here.

It seemed that the only things that El Chorri cared about were his family, the Catholic Church and his place in the village community. He wanted his son to inherit the fields and his place in the village after him. He argued that it is possible to have a modern professional life and cultivate your fields as well. Others do it. Tecoxpa has a strong ideological bent towards self-sufficiency. The village creates its own economy, people eat their own chickens, repair their own cars, build their own houses, fight their feuds and protect their families. And like self-sufficient communities all around the world they don’t particularly care about their government. I felt incompetent and irresponsible by comparison.

As evening fell I walked to the village of Othenco, which was separated from Tecoxpa by a few creeks and fields. There they were launching paper globes the size of houses inflated by candles from a large sports field close to the village church. Apparently it was an international competition of these hot air balloons and the main event would be the next day. I interviewed an Argentinian man who had entered a globo de cantoya in the competition under the bleachers, as the balloons floated off into the night sky, illuminated by the candles within.

He told me this event was incredible. Nowhere in the world would they allow you to build large fragile, highly flammable balloons, put a candle in them and send them to fly off and fall anywhere. “Only in Mexico,” he said smiling happily as the delicate wood and paper lanterns floated off into the night.