Dia De Los Muertos
The rhythm of the bass guitarist’s spiderly fingers crawling up and down the fretboard create their own beat before the electric reverberations can exit the amplifier. The lead singer doesn’t use words but manipulates the air from his lungs to match the electricity spilling from the other instruments in the room. Sticks on drums, pick on strings, buzzing lips in the mouthpieces of brass instruments, wooden reeds slapping the teeth of the sax player and channeling through the metal funnel out into the studio, and a keyboard programed with sounds originating from somewhere in the vacuum of space where sound must escape to be heard all blare through the headphones plugged into a skeleton’s iPod painted on the purple wall of a building near the Templo de San Matias Jalatlaco. Five beautiful leaves of the Ganja fill the screen of it’s digital music player; tripled and paired sixteenth notes hang in the air. Striped socks and Wayfarer sunglasses make up it’s wardrobe. All that’s left of the flesh is a heart.
Around the corner, its fellow petrifaction, crowned and hands held high as if carrying some hidden knowledge, levitates above the skulls of lost souls and elicits a gravitational force which pulls on all living creatures. We were three days into Day of the Dead, walking through the streets of Oaxaca somewhere on the east side of town, searching aimlessly for Tierra Blanca, and nothing about those scenes plastered on the wall in front of us seemed strange anymore.
From the pictures on Google, Tierra Blanca, the second brewery for the week, appeared to be a legitimate establishment with wifi, business cards, and the like; however, after four miles of circumventing the same ten blocks we were unable - despite YEARS of GPS navigational experience - to locate the front door. It eventually required enlisting the help of a friendly restaurant manager after lunch the next day! He called their office and figured out the location of the taproom, which even he was confused about. Right after hanging up the phone he said the following: "I talked to their office. I'm still not sure where it is, but this is my best guess." Apparently the locals also struggled to find the place. We finished our Dos Equis, thanked him for the help, and continued the quest, expecting something like the Holy Grail at the end.
Finally, discovering a door within a door twenty feet down a cobblestone street full of potholes, bordered on both sides by brightly graffitied walls, we walked into a taproom. Inside, dim lights lit a clean, modern looking space. The company’s brand, cut into a black, circular piece of metal and lit from behind, hung centered upon the white bricked backsplash. Wooden tables and chairs broke the coldness of concrete and metal.
A young Oaxacan man stood behind the bar, eager to to pour samples and answer questions about the six beers they had on tap: a Pumpkin Ale, Imperial Stout, Double IPA, Light Mexican Lager, Munich Dunkel, and Agave Red Ale. Sara and I connected to the wifi, downloaded the Google Translate App, and watched the menu convert to English on our iPhone screens. Since there were only six beers we decided to try them all. Our favorite from the line-up was the Pumpkin Ale (surprisingly) and the biggest surprise was the aroma of the Dunkel which reminded me of canned peas! Normally we’re not Pumpkin Ale enthusiasts, but Tierra Blanca presented a subtle and well balanced option. With delicate pumpkin aromas reminiscent of jack-o-lanterns toasting on Halloween while trick-or-treating and tastes of ginger and cinnamon sliding across the tongue, it left subtle hints of autumn and the harvest without overbearing like Halloween candy.
I could feel my eyes glass a bit and briefly drifted back to that place in memory: the cool air of an autumn evening in Georigia; the white, dying grass reflecting the light of the full harvest moon, making the street lights irrelevant; the silence at the end of a night interrupted only by the rustling of leaves rapidly aging in the trees and dead upon the ground. Enjoying our small sample shots, we ordered a pint to relish in the delicious creation and spend a little longer in nostalgic revelation.
After two days of tracking down beer it was time for some culture. We ventured out with our AirBNB hosts to a town outside of Oaxaca City to experience the cemeteries during Dia de los Muertos. On the first and second of November Mexicans throughout Oaxaca returned to the graves of their ancestors for all night and into the morning celebrations full of Mezcal, music, and memories. To be completely honest I was expecting something cheesy and hoaxed; what I found was transcendental and really outside of my world. At the arched entrance to the cemetery Oaxacans danced to the music of several Mariachi bands and I snapped pictures at an incredibly slow shutter speed with very little success. The archway framed a moving scene of Oaxacans and tourists carrying candles amongst the tombstones. We all danced and cheered in New Years Eve fashion outside. Carts sold cups of Elote (corn) with mayonnaise, lime, queso, and hot sauce atop, and a light show unsuccessfully attempted to bring the celebration into the 21st century: this was an ancient and mysterious event predating the (ironically) goddamned Conquistadors.
Spirits and ghosts paddled through the lake of smoke and mist above us, in between their homes and ours. The Mexicans knew something and still do and it can't be explained. We walked through the breach into the graveyard and everything became bright with the incandescent, old, flickering light of candles. Lines of people waddled through lines of stone demarcating lives gone from this earth. They were returning from the ether to their sons and daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters and friends. The candles reflected orange in the wet eyes of the faithful sitting upon the bones of their ancestors as they shared Mezcal with anyone who passed and had the courage to make eye contact. The musically inclined carried guitars and played the chords of those in the dirt who rose above us tonight: a real celebration for a real reason.
It was what we all try to do for the dead, say we do for the dead, and often fail to do for the dead. The Mexicans, at least on that night, seemed to serve as vehicles for those who came before them: a ritual of listening to, learning from, and even embodying their history (seems like a radical concept from what I’ve observed around the world lately). The practice illustrated a certain deference for ancestors without bestowing complete authority: celebrating their victories without erasing their mistakes, because doing the alternative would disrespect and devalue their existence. There’s no such thing as the “good old days”; we got to where we are with human lives and to return to the past would say that those lives didn’t matter. The good old days can be right now if we allow it. That’s actually what our own ancestors wanted for us.
During that monologue in my head, we had walked a complete lap around the cemetery and made our way to the exit. Since the concept “too much Mezcal” simply doesn’t exist during Dia de los Muertos, we beelined for the nearest hole serving clear liquid from a glass (or plastic) bottle. With enough salt and lime on my shirt for a few dozen margaritas, I suddenly thought of my best friend Eric's favorite Grateful Dead tune, "Ripple":
"There is no road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night, and if you go no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone."
Walking away from the dead; away from the living celebrating themselves and their dead; away from my birth and my childhood and my adolescence and adulthood; away from my dead whom I remember everyday in torturing, laughing, smiling, crying memory: I walk in a different direction, on a path unknown, and no one can follow. We inevitably walk towards death. It's sitting there in a rocker, waiting patiently, tapping the watch on it's bony wrist, opening the door for our steps alone into the next - whatever that is. I have caught glimpses of it myself and in the eyes of others slipping away and only become more uncertain - it's not the way we think it is. I just hope that at least part of death is like this celebration and I have the opportunity to return every once in a while: to see those candles aggregate into a giant orb of dreamlike light; to dance in the mist above my grave smiling upon those cherishing their lives; and to hear someone play my chords with calloused fingers on six steel strings.
Featured Brewery: Casa Cervecera Tierra Blanca