Death is a rather morbid affair in America. We are to dress in all black and wail all day, to remember that our loved ones are gone. When I was in high school, a beloved substitute teacher passed and at his memorial service the entire steel drum band he played in showed up to play. I’ve always wondered why we couldn’t celebrate more like other cultures that choose to remember their loved ones in joy and memory. I want a steel drum band at my memorial. In search of what other cultures do I think I may have found the most glorious holiday of all: Dia de los Difuntos (also known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Deceased/Dead).
I headed to Ecuador, where Wikipedia told me they celebrate. I had no plan, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do to find this celebration. The owner of the vacation rental I got told me that he didn’t think they celebrated at all. My surf instructors told me the same thing, that as far as they were aware Halloween was just a big drunken fest in the surf town. I was disheartened. Had I wrongly chosen a locale in Ecuador? Finally on the night of November 1 I went to dinner with my apartment manager, Carlos. He is an Ecuadorian who moved to America for 50 years and had returned to the area of his youth in his retirement to help improve the surrounding area. He thought I was crazy, but he said he’d take me to see the local traditions.
I awoke on the second of November excited to see what would happen. I took a jog to the local cemetery to see if anyone had brought food to the graves. All I saw were construction workers. Of note though, the graves in Ecuador are all above ground in stone boxes. In the evening I headed over to Carlos’ house and started an adventure I could not have anticipated. Wikipedia, you are missing a wonderful tradition.
The children and adults each have their own day to celebrate, the first and second of November respectively. For our outing, we joined Wilson and his wife. Wilson is a local farmer of Creole chickens, something that would feel very at home in San Francisco. These chickens are raised in the traditional way and allowed to run around to feed on bugs and plants. You see them running all over town and hear them crowing late into the night. Wilson insisted they were much better than mass produced chickens. I was amused and surprised to see this opinion in this remote corner.
The celebration of Dia de los Disfuntos involves going door to door to your neighbor’s houses. If they have had a loved one pass in the last five years, they welcome you in to their house. You approach saying “Angeles somos, del cielo venimos, pan pedimos”. We are angels, from the sky we come, give us bread. A rather long version of trick or treat. At each house you are welcomed into the bed of the loved one is covered in all their favorite food and drink. The idea is that the week prior you call out daily for your loved one to return, that you are having a party in their favor. However when they do not show up on this occasion, they decide to share the food with you instead. You eat full meals at every house until you cannot stand to eat anymore. You are not supposed to waste any food and should bring any leftovers with you. After you are ready to explode, you can just eat dessert at each house. You also leave with people and animal shaped bread at each location. I must have eaten four to five full meals, had multiple beers and funny types of moonshine cocktail, and endless desserts. I ate to the point of discomfort and could not be happier about it. The people of this tiny 300 person village welcomed me into their homes and shared the best of their loved ones, happy to share their traditions with me.
Carlos thought I was crazy for being willing to eat random food cooked by locals that had been sitting out all day. It was probably not the wisest decision but I would do it all over again. I had found what I had come to Ecuador for. I also want it to be known that when I pass, I want a huge party where all my favorite foods are served. I’m not sure where they’ll find that much steak. I am glad there are people celebrating their loved ones for years to come. I hope we can embrace the spirit if not the actual tradition.