All Souls Eve and I have finally made it to Moj’n. The trek took me at least two hours longer than usual since the shortcut I tried to take led me to another valley, down the wrong ridge into another village. I had to climb still further down to the river to get my bearings and then climb all the way back up a ridge to find the road to Moj’n. The brutality of, by then, the midday sun was an especially humbling reminder of my vulnerability in the mountain world of the Jalq’a. The shortcut had seemed so straightforward when I was last guided through it. How eagerly we fool ourselves! These sculptured ridges refuse to let me lower my guard.
My truck ride in from Sucre to the foot of my hiking trail was also no picnic. All Souls Eve marks the beginning of the planting season, with seeding begun immediately after the three days of festivity. It draws Sucre’s temporary migrants back to their villages in droves. The flotas or buses are packed so tightly there is barely room to exhale. I opted, therefore, for a lift on a potato truck. It was surprisingly empty when I jumped into its wooden carriage. I thought, “humph, that’s lucky.”
Not long after, I realized that I had simply arrived early. The truck was full to the brim when the driver put it into gear for the three-hour trip ahead. By the time we rattled onto the potholed dirt road outside Sucre’s city limits, human, animal, and agricultural cargo occupied every inch of the floorboards, except for a tiny patch that riders had cleared in a flash after a toddler lost his breakfast. I settled myself on my knapsack, my back against the carriage wall, my knees jammed tightly against one of the several bags of the popular 18-40-60 fertilizer, compliments of the Japanese government’s aid program.
The young woman beside me was soon snoring comfortably on my left shoulder. The comparatively new tires on the truck left me somewhat reassured that it could handle the hairpin curves of the mountain switchbacks. I was less comfortable with thoughts of what might happen to the full canisters of cooking gas several riders used as seats. “What if this truck hits a particularly stubborn pothole, an unexpected boulder or heaven forbid, another vehicle”? I said to myself. “Don’t go there, Susie!”
Fortunately when the cramps in my legs felt almost unbearable, about half way there, we stopped for a bathroom break. I found what I thought was a discreet spot behind some boulders and proceeded to empty a very full bladder. Nearing completion I looked up to find that on the opposite ridge another lorry filled to the brim had arrived. “Could they see me blush?” I wondered. Back on the truck, I decided to stand for the rest of the journey.
And now as I head to the Moj’n cemetery with Elvira and her children to witness the rituals of Todos Santos, I find myself in almost complete darkness. The overcast moonless night befits the fast-approaching visitation of the dead. My small flashlight, with a very low battery, barely lights the narrow footpath and I stumble several times on its many small boulders and rocks. I am careful not to drop the large bag of coca leaves I purchased during our stopover in Ravelo, knowing the importance of an offering to dead souls and especially their living offspring. I only hope that I have brought enough.
We arrive at the cemetery, trading the dark for a brightly lit walled cemetery. Inside the stone fencing, this graveyard has been transformed into an amazing candle-lit tent community. One of the many hosts present greets us at the gate and grants us permission to enter. Elvira warns me to enter with my left foot to protect me from the forces of death. “Asi no moremos,” she advises. (“This way, we won’t die!”)
Surrounding each of the tombstones of participating families are caveshaped tents made of bent branches that are covered with a dust-coloured canvas. The opening is wide and inviting in the front and narrow and stooped at the back. There is enough room in each for about ten people. Ornamentation is saved for the tombstones themselves.
Drab, flat slabs of cement have been turned into giant ‘wedding cakes’ – three-tiered altars decorated with colourful hand-drawn or cutout images of a spirit world and figures, much like those of the creation-chaos cosmos in their traditional weavings. There are crosses in these images, however, acknowledging the Catholic roots of this celebration, betraying again the post-colonial fusion of Catholic and Indigenous imagery.
The candles that offer both light and heat are of all shapes and sizes, the largest, at least a meter tall and 10 centimeters in diameter. It was no doubt purchased from the stalls of candle merchants that line the gates of Sucre’s many Catholic churches. Most of these candles are painted with large, gold crosses.
Family members sit on either side of the altar, there to welcome deceased relatives who are ‘returning’ to give spiritual counsel to their offspring. They mourn, reminisce, pray, and give offerings both to a recently deceased grandparent, parent, spouse, brother, sister, or child as well as to their more distant ancestors and of course Pachamama. Coca leaves are the most important offering, but chicha and alcohol are also sprinkled onto the tombstone and Pachamama’s soils.
For this occasion alone, mast’akus, dolls made of unleavened bread, eyes blackened with wood charcoal, are placed on the altar to feed the hungry spirits. As with all auspicious occasions, cigarettes are smoked to placate the devil. The men in particular consume large amounts of chicha and alcohol throughout this dusk to dawn memorial. Participation is not restricted to one?s own tent. Every tent is visited to ensure that all spirits, many of them of near and distant relatives, are shown their due respect.
With its unfolding just prior to planting and its emphasis on the return of the dead, Todos Santos is mythologically associated with the power of growth and reproduction. 5 This calling of old and young spirits to return to the family hearth for a brief reunion, strikes me as a useful mechanism to cope with the grief of death that comes all too frequently on tough rural landscapes.
As outsiders, albeit invited ones, my teacher-guide, Elvira, her chidren, and I decide not to overstay our welcome within this otherwise private, community-based memorial. Despite repeated invitations to spend the night, we leave the increasingly boisterous gathering quietly, making our way down the now almost invisible path home. We agree to return at dusk to witness the close of these ceremonies.