The skull with a hip-hop hat emblazoned with the emblem of New York Giants had a smouldering cigarette and coca leaves drooping from his non-existent lips. He grinned vacantly at me, something I guess skulls are quite good at.
Standing proudly next to him was Carlos, an elegantly dressed young man in black, who introduced the skull as Angel Flores Gutierrez, his elder brother who died several years ago. Normally skulls and death make me a bit cautious, but I soon found myself accepting the invitation of Carlos to have my photo with Angel.
Juliette and I posed next to the skull like happy holidaymakers. Perhaps the cheerful music of the Mariachi band wafting across gravestones at La Paz general cemetary was putting me at ease.
Death has definitely been the theme of the last week. On November 1st, I headed up to the steep slopes of La Paz to see how Paceños marked All Saints Day. Whilst the centre of town was a desert, the roads around the main cemetary were heaving with people.
I stumbled out of the car and dived into the crowds. The atmosphere was certainly nothing like mourning – it felt like a family day out to the seaside.
Children weaved through legs shrieking with delight, young men wobbling on their feet thrust out offers of spilled beer, couples hand-in-hand strolled along as if on a promenade, women in black shawls and brown bowler hats lined up against the sun-lit wall like coconuts in a fairground stall, families in circles munched on plates of food. In the backdrop, Mount Illimani with a fresh coat of snow seemed to ride the waves of a silky-grey sky.
I then noticed in the centre of each family, a tripod of sugar-cane fronds enlaced with strings of coloured wheat puffs. Below them nestled a photo of the person they were remembering – they seemed to be mainly photos of stern men in military uniforms – garlanded with flowers and baskets of food especially bread, some of which had been painted with faces of young children (known as t’ant’wawa).
Fernando, a young man in his thirties who stood awkwardly at the edge of a family circle, explained to me that people believe that for 24 hours around All Saints Day the dead come back to visit and spend time with the family. To mark the return the families meet and share favourite food of their loved one, invite prayers for his and her soul, and remember their lives with thankfulness.
"I am here to pay my respects for my wife’s grandfather," he said as his mother-in-law pushed loaves of bread into my hands. I was struck by the way, the family seemed keen to draw in the community (even strange gringos) into their commemoration of their loved ones – and the celebratory atmosphere in which they marked their lives.
I headed down to the cemetary – a vast higgledy-piggledy maze of mausoleums, overbearing statues, graves, and block after block of commemorative alcoves that housed plaques and flowers. They were of every size and design and looked like giant ornate left-luggage lockers. The simplest were concrete-like shells holding a solitary flower. The architectural mish-mash spoke of class and race divides but at least it seemed to have a place for everyone.
Here the atmosphere continued to be festive, with small groups of young men in guitars playing waltzes, cuecas and romantic ballads at the graves on families requests. Others sat around chewing on meaty broths. In a quiet corner, an elderly woman diligently polished the window of an alcove and lovingly placed flowers inside.
On a low wall, I sat next to Elizabeth, a sociologist who explained that in Aymaran cultures, the dividing line between life and death is much less blurred than in western cultures. The dead continue to be with us which is why families play their music, eat their food and act with a great deal more ease in marking death than we do in the West. "Death is a lot closer to peoples’ reality here," she said. "But it’s not the end which is why these days of remembering but also being with our dead are so important here."
Seven days later, I saw people literally "being" with their dead as I headed back to the cemetary for the Festival of Ñatitas. Outside the church, there were crowds of mainly women in black carrying wooden glass cases, cardboard boxes wrapped in lace. It was then that I noticed that the flowers were woven around skulls. Inside the church, as the Mass murmured to an end, people surged forward gripping onto their skeletal cargo to have them splashed with holy water.
"No more masses!" yelled the priest as they tried to close up church. Outside the atmosphere lightened as people lined their skulls up for display like prize crochet making at a village fair. Some skulls wore hats, other "Bono" sunglasses, others peered out through cotton wool, all were labelled with their names. People wandered by, asking their names, scattering flowers, and sometimes offering prayers.
I meet Ronnie, a young men who recently stopped his training for the priesthood after falling in love. He explains that some are carrying skulls in their family (like Carlos) but most are skulls of unknown people (called forgotten souls) who they give a name. They are kept in corners of the house as a constant presence, and are brought to the church each year to bless them and the family and to effectively mark their birthdays. Some people hold huge parties for their skull after the cemetary commemorations.
A father Jaime, holding a skull he introduces as Juan Carlos, explains that they have him to protect the family. As he was a doctor, he got the skull through the hospital he worked at – which does make me wonder where everyone else gets their skulls from, a thought I try to put out of my mind.
"It’s a presence that looks after us," he says. He points to his 6 year-old son, playing on the grass in the background, who he says is already involved in looking after it. "Juan Carlos will be with our family after I am gone, and we will continue to mark his birthday every year here" he smiles.
Ronnie says he has come to play music for which he will get money from the families. "I play the music they want. Sometimes they tell me he is a happy skull so I play happy music."
He tells me that he feels that the festival has lost its meaning (which originally was to think and pray for forgotten souls, those without families). "The trouble is now people pray directly to them, and are putting them in place of God," he worries. "But the church is very tolerant," he mutters.
That evening, my Aymara teacher is much more condemning. "The Ñatitas festival is idolatrous," he storms. "It’s a Peruvian import [sadly a serious insult here where Peruvians are regularly blamed for all crime]. We Aymaras would never take our dead out of the earth. We have too much respect for our ancestors." But he relaxes and talks approvingly as I recount my experiences on All Saints Day.
Based on my one visit, I don’t feel in a position to judge the Ñatitas festival. I think back to Carlos who tells me that having the skull of his brother in his house makes him feel that his brother is still with him, looking after him. He spoke with me, a stranger, of love, celebration and thankfulness – emotions that seemed to fill aspects of both days. In Bolivia, the dead are clearly not forgotten and are very present with the living. ‘Till death do us part??