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GUATEMALA


grandmothers’ recipe books.” Dinner concludes with dulce de ayote — pumpkin boiled in spices and sugar. “I wanted you to try this,” says Rebeca. “In the north, they’ll eat it this week to celebrate Day of the Dead.” In Guatemala, the iconography of this festival is


different to that celebrated in Mexico — there are no grinning skeletons here. Rather, festivities are distinct and regional: in the Highlands village of Todos Santos, men engage in a day-long, death-defying drunken horse race back and forth along a short dirt track; and outside Antigua, in the communities of Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez, locals spend all year building towering paper-and-bamboo kites that are judged on 1 November, All Saints’ Day. “The tradition for kite building started because there were bad spirits here,” Raphael tells me as we join the hoards moving towards the main cemetery of Santiago Sacatepéquez. “For us, when you fly a kite you release the spirit of the dead — you communicate with your ancestors.” The Giant Kite Festival is in full effect; between the


tombs, families are enjoying picnics, serenaded by folk bands, and parents are teaching children to fly little hexagonal kites. The air is full of fluttering shapes and streamers. Along the perimeter of the cemetery are the show-stoppers — kites so tall they’ve been propped up with house-height bamboo struts and moored to the earth by thick ropes. In the rising wind, they strain against these shackles like caged animals. “They’re too large to fly,” Rambo explains. “The medium ones, they’ll try to get them airborne later. But with the giant kites, it’s more about the message they’re conveying.” In recent years, the delicate collages pasted across the kites have spoken of deforestation, indigenous rights and the scourge of domestic violence. This festival honouring the dead has become tangled up in issues of the living; it looks to the future as much as the past. Raphael climbs a mausoleum, paper kite clutched in


hand. There’s a boyish grin on his face as he throws it upwards and unspools the line. The kite doggedly rises through the aerial network of strings until it’s a speck in the sky. The views from up there must be incredible: a mass of volcanoes and virgin forests stretching to the ocean. “We’ll let it take our messages to heaven,” he says, handing me the line to release. It sags and pools for a moment, then whips into the air. We watch it go. Our kite — along with our missives to the beyond — is now at the mercy of the elements.


RIGHT: Guatemala’s Giant Kite Festival, celebrated here in Sumpango, is a jubiliant and political affair — the kites often depict Maya symbols and indigenous rights messages


80 nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel


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