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Chapter 7  Tail of the Devil

As we sat in the waiting room of the
Mexican government health clinic in
Pátzcuaro Amanda teased, “I
remember hearing stories about
the IMSS clinic in Tijuana.  People
would go in with a cut finger and
come out with an amputated leg.â
€�  She added with a chuckle, â
€œBut I’m sure it’s gotten
much better since then.�

A vile sickness had spread through
my body.  A simple headache
bulged into a throbbing pain and
my stomach churned.  Throughout
the night a fever rose, then
plunged, alternating between
shivering chills and overwhelming
heat.  The cycle of high fever and
cold sweats continued for another
day and night, and I no longer
cared if I died.
Amanda threatened to dress me in a mustard-colored suit for my funeral.  I hate mustard.  

Coincidentally, we were in the right place at the right time.  On the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro
the indigenous and Christian beliefs are meshed together to create a unique holiday at the
beginning of November.  About a thousand years ago Christianity adopted an ancient Celtic
tradition intersecting the boundaries between the world of the living and that of the dead.  On
October 31 the Celts would lure the spirits to the world of the living for a brief visit.  To cover
over this ancient belief Christians created All Souls Day on November 2.   The Spanish
introduced this tradition to the new world and it melded with several indigenous celebrations.  
The Tarascan Indians added a pinch of chili to the bland Catholic tradition and created the
unique Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead.

In Diego Rivera’s famous painting, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda, he
includes La Catrina, an elegantly clad skeleton woman, who represented the gleefully macabre
black humor of Mexico’s unique relationship with death.  Mexicans enjoy yanking the tail of
the devil, almost ridiculing mortality.  Using laughter to conceal their fear of death, they have a
unique view of the spirit world.

On Dia de Los Muertos homes in Pátzcuaro and many throughout Mexico create an ofrenda,
an offering with their deceased relatives’ favorite food and drink.  On the days leading up
to the holiday street vendors sell joyous, dancing skeletons and festive chocolate skulls to be
added to the offering.  Life was difficult for the Tarascans, with mortality a constant companion,
snatching nearly half the children.  Few lived to reach the age of forty and death was seen as a
relief; almost a reward to be rejoiced upon.

I flipped though our medical emergency book, Where There is No Doctor, and discovered a
handful of ailments that matched my symptoms, but none better than malaria.  Skeptical that
malaria even existed in Mexico, I scanned a pamphlet we brought with us published by The
World Health Organization.  There, under the light blue wave that indicated the malarial zone,
was the region we were in.  It was definite. I had malaria.  Of that there was no doubt.  I thought,
“What in the world do I do now?�

I showed the evidence to Amanda and she looked at me with true concern in her eyes.  â
€œYou might be right, but you know it could also be,â€� she flipped through the book, â
€œthat you have ringworm,â€� she kept turning the pages, “or maybe you were bitten by
tsetse flies and you have sleeping sickness,� she flipped to the back of the book, “Ah,
here it is.  I got it.  You’re pregnant!â€�

The IMSS doctor was starting the holiday a day early.  A dark little man practically hidden
behind the huge desk, he was hunched over the newspaper, tapping a chewed pencil on the
metal surface.  His thick black hair appeared almost blue and covered his head like a military
helmet.  The nurse ushered us in and he lazily looked up.  I described my symptoms in detail
and Amanda translated the high fever, the freezing chills, and the upset stomach.  He patiently
listened and cracked a very slight smile when I told him I was convinced I had malaria.  He
shook his head doubtfully and gave a questioning glance toward Amanda, “Ahhhh sí, with
my experience those symptoms would indicate a viral infection.�

“A viral infection?â€�  I could not accept this explanation.  I knew for sure what it was and
persisted by asking, “How can you be so sure it is not malaria?�

He thought for a moment and answered with a hint of mirth, “Malaria is highly unlikely here
in Mexico.  Perhaps twenty years ago, yes, but not now.â€�  He dismissed us with a wave of
the hand.

There was no bill.

I was feeling horrible but Amanda insisted, “This is the most famous celebration for the Day
of the Dead.  We’ve got to go.â€�

Popping a handful of aspirin, I relented.

Each year several thousand Tarascan Indians descend on the tiny island of Janitzio in the
center of the lake.  They believe that the lake is the doorway to heaven through which the gods
come down to earth.

Leaving the dock in Pátzcuaro, we could clearly see the island with its white houses and red-
tiled roofs, topped by an enormous statue, giving it the appearance of a steep floating muffin
with a wedding-cake figurine on top.  The long, narrow boat slowly putted forward as a bank of
fog rolled in and the sun disappeared. I looked back to the tiller and found the captain of our
vessel was no more than fifteen years old.  Rain began to pour down in large heavy drops that
made the water seem alive.  Hazy figures took shape through the thick fog.  The boy cut the
engine and we coasted through the obscurity to a gentle stop along a pier.  The sound of a
distant bell reverberated a continuous, gentle chime, calling the wandering souls to the

We hopped onto the dock with Stefan and Vivien, German friends from the campground, and
together we strolled the steep, slick, cobbled streets, stopping to enjoy pescado blanco in a
makeshift restaurant overlooking the lake.  Glassfuls of tequila sold for ten pesos and Stefan
indulged himself each time he passed the stall of a pretty Tarascan girl.  After the third drink I
asked her a question we would all regret in the morning, the cost of the entire bottle.  Stefanâ
€™s eyes nearly popped out of his head when she replied, “Solo treinta pesos.â€�  (Only
thirty pesos.)
Young children roamed with candle-lit calabazas (jack-o-lanterns) and asked for a donativo as
a form of trick-or-treat.  Vendors sold earthen jars of pulpa de tamarindo and we sat on the wall
overlooking the lake, spitting tamarind seeds into the trees below.  The sweet smell of the
bubbling hot fruit ciders enticed us to try the different flavors.  The narrow walkways were lined
with stalls piled high with buñuelos, a sweet hard tortilla with hot syrup and pan de muerto,
bread adorned with strips of dough to resemble bones.  Tiny restaurants served miniature fried
fish and bubbling vats of sopa tarasca, a spicy tomato soup.  

Dancing began on a stage at sea level but only a few paid to sit in the official seats with most
propped up on the rooftops overlooking the stage.  At 6’2â€� Vivien scanned the roofs
and found one unoccupied.  She jumped above and scooped Amanda up with one arm.  The
view was perfect.  We clapped and laughed along with the Danza de Los Viejitos (Dance of the
Old Men) and were awed by the fishermen as they rowed their canoes holding lighted torches
and fanned their butterfly nets.  The announcer spoke of the beauty of their language and
translated common words from Spanish to Purepecha.

At the stroke of midnight, the procession began to move toward the cemetery.  Families came
prepared to spend the entire night in the graveyard, carrying fruit baskets, flowers, and clay
plates of food covered with intricately embroidered napkins.  They set out their ofrendas at the
graves, surrounding them with candles and incense, to guide the souls of their loved ones on
their journey back.  Millions of orange marigolds covered the burial chambers and candles
illuminated the night.  The chapel was filled with an offering of gourds, bananas, corn, and
colorful flowers for those who no longer had anyone to remember them.  Women and children
spread out blankets, leaning against their relatives’ gravestones, praying and chanting.  
The mood in the air swung toward festive.

Vivien and Stefan created a miniature shrine in the cramped graveyard on a tiny cement ledge
to honor the memory of a friend who had recently passed away.  They placed a few marigolds
in a circle around a handful of the fast-burning thin candles and held one another as they
silently wept.  Children who were hopping from grave to grave, playing games and enjoying the
moment, stopped to stare at them in confusion.  As I looked around I realized that no one else
seemed sad.

We boarded the boat to return just before dawn.  The mountain air was cold and we bundled to
keep warm as I counted the firepot buoys on the lake that lined the way back to Pátzcuaro.  I
was able to see a few ahead and a few behind, but those further away were obscured by the
fog.  They passed slowly.  As my mind wandered, I silently counted.  â€œAre they the years
ticking off toward death?� I thought.

Life for many of us is no longer the endless toil it once was, and consequently, death is not a
release from hell on earth.  For us, remembrance of the dead has gradually become a sad
event.  As my mind was dulled by the hum of the old outboard motor, the tequila, the passing
firepots and the mysterious fever, I wondered, “If I were to die now would I go without
regret?  Have I really lived?  Unlike many of those who created these ancient traditions, I’ve
been given the free will to choose my path.  Have I?â€�  

The bitter cold and the mesmerizing firepots lulled me unknowingly into a groggy half-sleep as
we glided by.  I was jolted wide-awake when the boat bumped the pier, all the fire-pots past, the
journey complete.