Death in Another Light – Puerto Angel, Oaxaca, Mexico

Bahía de Puerto Ángel: Oaxaca, México.  2/1/09.

There wasn’t a cloud over the Pacific. Drinking my black coffee atop Hotel La Cabaña, I couldn’t take my eyes off the skies. The fresh bay breezes cooling my face were quite invigorating. It was a picturesque morning in Puerto Angel, Oaxaca.

Suddenly, an unexpected question brought me back to the girl with whom I’d been chatting with over breakfast.

“How do Americans view death?” asked Tanya, before sipping from her cup of Joe. 

“I’d say most of us are scared of it,” I replied.  “What about you?”

“In Mexico, we see death as just another part of the life cycle,” the lively brunette added.

“So, you don’t take it seriously?” I further pried.

“We try to live in the moment instead of fearing death our whole lives. We also try to have fun with it.   That’s why Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead and have such pretty cemeteries, for example,” Tanya explained, while her brown peepers focused on something behind me.  

I looked over my left shoulder and noticed what had sparked this topic. Below the railing of our thatched rooftop was a splendid cemetery. I was immediately impressed with the colorful graves and endless crucifixes that dominated the healthy hillside. 

Cementerio: Puerto Ángel, Oaxaca, México.  2/1/09.

“It looks beautiful,” I said.

“It is. You should go inside sometime,” the Cuernavaca native suggested.

I agreed. Over the next half hour, the conversation changed to other subjects, such as Gabriel García Marquez and rock music, but I still couldn’t get that marble town out of my head. I had to see it.

A few days later, I found myself eagerly approaching death’s door. I had been anxious to tour the tombs ever since Tanya’s recommendation, but it wasn’t the actual reason for my perspiration. The February sun was searing, causing my pack to stick to my soaked back. Despite the sweat stinging my eyes, I was nonetheless set on what lay on the other side of the baby blue archway. I wiped my brow with a sopping bandana and entered Puerto Angel’s cemetery. 

Although I was meandering amongst the dead, the verdant hillside was very much alive due to its vistas, alluring adornments, and sharp colors. The funerary grounds provided an excellent view of the ocean waves that calmly flowed in from the bay, and lightly splashed upon Playa Panteon. Moreover, the tombs were delightfully decorated. Countless candles, infinite flowers, and beautiful black pottery rested on the resting places. Sparkling white, striking yellow and stunning blue hues also enriched the necropolis. 

Cementerio: Puerto Ángel, Oaxaca, México.  2/1/09.

Intrigued by the stillness of the site, I carefully snaked uphill. I explored in utter silence, constantly weaving around leafy trees and shrubs to photograph the comely crypts in my path. The dead air made me feel like I was the only person in the world as I ascended God’s acre. I finally reached the hilltop and ogled the eternal homes for what seemed like an eternity. I also admired Puerto Angel’s charming cove while I caught my breath. With a second wind at last, I enjoyed the Pacific gusts sweeping across my face for several minutes before heading back down.

Cementerio: Puerto Ángel, Oaxaca, México.  2/1/09.

Descending through the deceased, I saw a middle-aged man dusting off a few graves near the exit. I noticed he was looking at me from under the weathered brim of his brown cowboy hat. He didn’t say a word, simply nodded and grinned.

Oddly enough, I understood; no words were needed. I realized his smile was mirroring mine. In fact, I thought the man’s tranquil pleasantry was rather appropriate. It represented the relaxed atmosphere I had just experienced throughout the graveyard. And, as I squinted at the sun blazing high above the cemetery gates, I also realized that death never looked so bright.

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