Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sarnies with Grandma

Mexicans call it La día de los Muertos; the French Toussaint, posh English All Saints', but as linguistic imperialism spreads, we will all soon call it "Hallowe’en". Not belonging in any of the above categories, as children we called it "Duck-Apple Night". I don’t know if that was a uniquely Liverpool thing - but it was an evening on which we did silly things with apples – floated them in basins of water or hung them from ceiling beams, and tried to eat them without the use of hands or implements. Apples being autumnal, I guess it was the Scouse Hallowe’en.

But no one does it like Mexicans. In Guanajuarto, in the central highlands, some 200 miles north-west of Mexico City, I was asked if I’d like to see the museum. “What museum?”, I asked. “Las Momias”, he said. It sounded friendly, but it turned out to be a ghoulish library, its shelves within easy touching distance on either side, except that on the shelves were, not books, but dead bodies.

There were men, women, and children; most of them naked, but some were partially clothed in funereal black. They were emaciated and covered in parchment-like skin that stretched across their bones like over-filled shopping bags. In eyeless faces, skin was drawn tightly across cheeks and jaw to reveal blackened teeth in demoniac grins.

I kept thinking that I must be more than half way in, so that I would see fewer of them if I kept going than if I turned back - but on and on went Las Momias - the Museum of the Mummies - room after room of corpses piled on corpses from floor to ceiling, most of them frozen into agonized positions that did not say “RIP”. By the time I reached "the smallest mummy in the world" - the petrified foetus of a woman who had died in labour - I'd seen enough.

It was my first taste of the Mexican fascination with death. In Mexico, La Día de los Muertos is a national festival, a day on which families load up picnic hampers and folding tables and chairs and trip merrily off to cemeteries to cavort among the ancestors, the adults drinking wine and beer and the children eating skull-shaped sweets.

Outside, kids in Nike trainers were offering coloured postcards of the bodies - lying on shelves, sprawled in the dusty street, or standing in line like a cadaverous Miss World contest. Other kids sold rock effigies of corpses.
That’s not 'rock', as in archaeology, but 'rock' as in Brighton.

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