Día de los Muertos

Back when the kids were smaller, I helped my friend Kris Arthur with her summer enrichment camps. One year I taught a week’s worth of classes on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The first day we studied the history of the celebration; during the rest of the week we made tissue paper marigolds and papel picado (intricately cut tissue paper banners), created calacas (festive skeletons), baked pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and designed calavera (skull) masks. The significance of each of these was explained in my class handout, which I adapted for this post. I hope that you find Día de los Muertos as fascinating as I do.


The Day of the Dead festival in Mexico (October 31 – November 2) is a blend of ancient Aztec harvest rituals and the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day. The observance of Day of the Dead varies by region, but generally involves welcoming the souls of the dead back into their homes and visiting the graves of close relatives. Día de los Muertos is not a time to grieve, but to celebrate and remember the dead. The souls of children, or los angelitos (little angels), are greeted the first night, while adult souls are welcomed the second night. To end the holiday, calevera (skull) masks are worn to chase lingering souls back to the land of the dead.

Many families prepare an elaborate altar with offerings (ofrenda) to honor their deceased family members. The altar is constructed in a place of honor within the home, sometimes using tables and boxes to form a pyramid of three or more levels, covered by a white tablecloth.

A washbasin, soap, towel, mirror and comb are placed nearby so that spirits may freshen up when they return home. Altars, which remain in place until November 4, include these elements:

Four candles at the top level represent north, south, east and west. Additional candles are lit for each dead family member, with an extra to make sure nobody has been left out. The candles represent hope and faith, and burn all night so that there is no darkness. They also provide a place for the dead to warm their hands.

Copal is the sap of a Mexican tree, burnt as incense. In the Aztec culture, it was an offering to the gods. On a Day of the Dead altar, the scent attracts the spirits of the dead and guides them home. It also wards off evil.

Fragrant marigolds are traditional Day of the Dead flowers. In the Aztec culture the marigold was known as the flower of 400 lives. Marigolds are placed on the altar so that their scent may guide souls home. Sometimes paths of marigold petals are made from the cemetery to a home. For los angelitos, baby’s breath and white orchids are used.

Food and Drink
A basic Día de los Muertos altar will include:
agua (water), to quench thirst and for purification,
sal (salt), the spice of life, and
pan de muerto (bread of the dead), food necessary for survival
More elaborate altars may include sweets, harvest fruits and vegetables and the favorite foods and drinks of each family spirit. Three sugar skulls, representing the Trinity, are often placed on the second level of an altar.

Calacas are handmade skeletons representing the dead, usually depicting their occupations and hobbies. Calacas show an active and joyful afterlife and are funny and friendly rather than frightening and spooky. Along with the smell of favorite foods, calacas help spirits locate the right house. Calacas have emerged as an art form indigenous to Mexico.

Papel Picado
The Aztecs used paper banners in rituals. Papel picado is colorful tissue paper cut into intricate designs and strung around the altar. Traditional colors for papel picado are:
morado (purple), to signify pain, suffering, grief and mourning
rosado (pink), for celebration,
blanco (white), for purity and hope
amarillo y anaranjado (yellow and orange), for the marigold, sun and light
rojo (red), representing the blood of Jesus (Catholic) and the life blood of humans and animals (Aztec)
negro (black), for the land of the dead

Personal Items
Favorite items and mementos of the departed are added to the altar, including children’s toys, household saints and photos of those honored, plus items for everyday living, such as eating utensils, drinking gourds, serapes, and musical instruments.

What’s in a Name?

In Romeo and Juliet, my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, he asserted that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Maybe so, but those misguided twits were still dead by the end of the play, and most of us still have strong feelings, either positive or negative, about our own name.

The name Sara wasn’t as common when I was growing up as it is now. My parents borrowed my name from Jazz singer Sarah Vaughn, but opted for the German spelling, dropping the “h” from the end. That was also not as common in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and not only did most people misspell my name, but there weren’t any nifty personalized items like bicycle license plates or keychains available with my variation.

I got in trouble once when my first grade teacher called me “Sally” and I did not answer her. She thought I was being insubordinate. In reality, at age five I was blissfully unaware that Sally was a nickname for Sara(h). However, that incident led to my brothers and sister calling me Sally for years when they wanted to tease me. Much later I named my dog Sally in memory of that incident.

But I still liked my name. I’m glad I wasn’t named for one of my grandmothers, in which case I would be either Frieda or Hilda and forced to go by my middle name (as my mom did), or come up with a nickname.

The name Sara means princess, which I also liked, but which supplied an odd contrast with the meaning of my surname – “hedge dweller.” Surely a princess would live in a castle rather than a hedge! Hmm . . . maybe it really referred to a hedge maze surrounding the castle. Yeah, that must be it.

When I got married, my names still didn’t match. “Princess” and “Deer hunter?” Again, a princess would certainly have someone to slay deer for her, in a manner in which she would never have to witness the process. Fortunately, my husband does just that.

I also became one of at least three Sara Hartmans (or would the plural be Sara Hartmen?) in the Jefferson City area, including my niece and the daughter of my children’s principal. (The principal’s daughter has since married, but we still get mixed up now and then, usually when my path crosses with one of her former classmates.) This plethora of local Sara Hartmans made me wonder who else shares “my” name.

A Google internet search turned up many student athletes (cool!), a substance abuse counselor, a few YouTube videos, and a crew member for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2. There is a reference to a joke sent by “Macintosh friend Sara Hartman.” That could be me as I use a Macintosh and do have at least a couple of friends, but the joke, though clever, is not one I would send. There are a myriad of genealogy hits, and plenty of social networking profiles, but no reference to any of my books until page 3. Blow to ego.

Do you or someone you know have an unusual or interesting name? Email me or leave a reply. It may turn up in a future post.


I’m IN!

One of our quirky family pastimes is called the “IN Game.” It originated from watching ¡Three Amigos! (This movie is one of my favorites, but parents of young children should be forewarned that it does contain inappropriate language.)

After seeing the heroics of the Three Amigos in a movie, residents of Santa Poco, a small town in Mexico, want to hire the Three Amigos to scare off a gang of ne’er-do-wells that is terrorizing their village. Two of the city’s residents go to the telegram office to send a message to the Three Amigos, but the telegram officer has to edit it down to fit their budget. Of course the meaning is changed a bit, too.

The Three Amigos have just been fired by their movie company following a salary dispute when they receive the telegram:

Lucky Day (reading telegram): “Three Amigos, Hollywood, California. You are very great. 100,000 pesos. Come to Santa Poco put on show, stop. The in-famous El Guapo.”

Dusty Bottoms: What does that mean, in-famous?

Ned Nederlander: Oh, Dusty. In-famous is when you’re MORE than famous. This man El Guapo, he’s not just famous, he’s IN-famous.

Lucky Day: 100,000 pesos to perform with this El Guapo, who’s probably the biggest actor to come out of Mexico!

Dusty Bottoms: Wow, in-famous? IN-famous?

Hence, the genesis of the “IN Game”. We use the prefix in- to mean more than, instead of opposite. There are only a few simple rules.

First, you can’t use a word stem that doesn’t exist. For instance, you can’t try to put down a younger sibling by saying “You’re such a fant; you’re an IN-fant.” For that matter you can’t turn around and say “That’s such a sult; it’s an IN-sult,” either. There are more of these words than you would think.

Second, you can’t use words that actually need im- or un- to make them opposites. For example, “That’s so possible; it’s IN-possible,” or “That’s so fair; it’s IN-fair.’ Close, but no cigar. You must use the in- prefix properly.

Third, be sure to over-enunciate the in- prefix. It should sound like it is capitalized, italicized, written in bright red ink and several syllables in duration. This is probably the most important rule of the game.

Words fall into a few basic categories. There are run-of-the-mill in- words, like

  •             It’s so destructible; it’s IN-destructible!
  •             That’s so voluntary; it’s IN-voluntary!
  •             You’re so considerate; you’re IN-considerate!
  •             That’s so adequate; it’s IN-adequate!

There are words that actually mean the same thing, such as

  •             It’s so flammable; it’s IN-flammable!

(There aren’t a lot of these. I know we have come up with one other, but I can’t remember it right now.)

And there are vocabulary-building words, for example

  •             I’m so defatigable; I’m IN-defatigable!

There is even a Princess Bride category. Instead of telling Fezzini that he doesn’t think that word means what he thinks it does, Inigo could have played “It’s so conceivable; it’s IN-conceivable!”

The “IN Game” is great to play on long car trips when everyone is bored. It’s usually sparked by an innocent comment, such as “This trip is interminable!” whereupon everyone else in the car chimes in “It’s so terminable; it’s IN-terminable!” Then you’re off and running, and the trip doesn’t seem so long after all. It’s also great at defusing arguments. How can someone stay mad at you when you throw them a “You’re so sane; you’re IN-sane?”

I invite you to try it. E-mail me your best “IN Game” entry or leave a reply, and I will publish the best sometime in the future.



The Last Frontier, part 2

Once our trip to Alaska was planned, I nurtured a dream of seeing the Northern Lights, preferably over Mount McKinley. The odds weren’t great for seeing Mount McKinley; its peak is visible less than 30% of the time. On the other hand, the aurora borealis is most active near the equinox and there had been recent solar flares, both in my favor. However, the sky must be clear.

My dream: aurora borealis over Denali.

With rain in the forecast for both days we would spend in Denali National Park, it wasn’t looking good. The train ride up was enjoyable, despite the rain. Our tour guide, Sarah, kept up a stream of steady commentary on Alaska in general and our current location in specific, pointing out such notable scenery as Sarah Palin’s alleged driveway in Wasilla and the so-called “Dr. Seuss House” near Willow. A few lucky folks on the other side of the train saw a moose, but our side was not as fortunate.

Sarah, our tour guide on the observation deck train.
“Dr. Seuss House” near Willow, AK.

Four hours later the train pulled into Talkeetna, Alaska. The rain had let up to a slow steady drizzle, so Phil and I decided to spend some time in that charming hamlet. We ate lunch at The Roadhouse, which has been featured in Man v. Food on The Travel Channel. Phil ordered their signature dish, a reindeer hot dog with chili, while I had a salmon and rice pasty; both were warm and filling. On our way out, we picked up a slice of cheesecake for later from their extensive bakery.

Talkeetna is the point of debarkation for excursions to Mount McKinley, and the ranger station is a must see. It is warm and dry, and the rangers are friendly. Sarah from the train told us they had the nicest bathrooms in town, and she was right. We watched a short film about the mountain and looked around the great room that featured books and exhibits on mountaineering gear as well as a notebook chock full of statistics on attempts to scale Denali, complete with a list of fatalities and their causes. Honestly, I have never understood the appeal of mountain climbing. It’s arduous and extremely cold. What’s to like, I ask in all sincerity.

The rest of Talkeetna is a short strip of eateries, a microbrewery, a museum in a former one-room school, souvenir shops, a couple of art galleries, and an assortment of flightseeing and other wilderness outfitters. Almost all of the excursions were cancelled due to inclement weather. It only took a couple of hours to explore the shops, then we found a little coffee shop and stopped for another chance to dry off and warm up before heading to the bus stop for a trip to the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.

The lodge is about 50 miles from Talkeetna, an hour on the bus, just long enough to savor a refill on my hot tea and share the cheesecake from the Roadhouse. The lodge was about what we expected from a cruise line, nice in the catering-to-the-crowd sense. There was a main lodge with a couple of restaurants, a gift shop, and a tour desk. We checked in and bought tickets to the evening “Norhtern Lights Photosymphony.” Unlike a cruise, meals and entertainment are not included. We ate at the mid-range 20,320 Cafe, where just like a cruise, the food is nondescript. The room was nice, and much larger than a ship cabin, though not as charming as the Anchorage Grand Hotel. We waited for our bags to be delivered, then headed back to the main lodge, the only location with wi-fi.

On the way back to the lodge, we saw that the fog had lifted enough to see the outlines of Mount McKinley through the vapor. I thought that it would be all-or-nothing see it or not, so I was quite pleased. We stopped at the front desk to ask for a wake-up call in case the Northern Lights were visible, spent some quality time with our iPads and headed down to the “photosymphony.” Our tickets bought us each a stacking chair in a conference room watching morphed time-lapse photos of the aurora borealis projected onto a wall and set to classical music selections over a tinny speaker system. The idea has potential; it really does. Play it in a nice auditorium with tiered seating, a big screen and surround sound speakers and it would have been $16 well spent. As it was, though, not so much.

Mount McKinley through misty rain and fog.

Sadly, there was no midnight aurora call, and we awoke to another cold, gray, rainy morning. After breakfast we meandered back to the main lodge to check out excursion options for the day. All flight options cancelled. No luck on horseback riding, either, although we could take a horse drawn wagon ride. (Excuse me? I didn’t come all the way to Alaska for a hay ride!) Neither of us is interested in fly fishing or ATVs. Wait a minute: the Byer’s Lake Nature Walk looks promising. Unfortunately, that’s no longer available because the guide went back to college. Besides, there is a minimum of three people. Not looking good . . . not looking good. We may have to spend the entire day in the lodge with several busloads of retirees to keep us company.

By now we have narrowed our options to one: the Denali Wilderness Hike. “Explore Alaska’s spectacular wilderness on an exhilarating trek with an experienced naturalist guide. Hike through lush vegetation along forested trails while your guide tells you about the local history and wildlife of the area. Denali State Park is famous for its trails, wildlife, and stunning views of nearby Mt. McKinley. Weather permitting, climb 1200 feet from lush forest to treeline for panoramic views of Alaska Range peaks and glaciers. Photographic opportunities abound-from majestic alpine vistas to delicate wildflowers and berries. Denali hiking doesn’t get any better than this! This is a great trip in any weather. Enjoy a fresh, healthy picnic lunch while scanning the mountainside and valleys for foraging bears.” But wait – there’s more! “Hike is 5 to 7 miles and may involve challenging terrain on park trails. Participants must be in good physical condition and be able to sustain a high level of activity. Wear sturdy shoes. Bring raingear, insect repellant, and bottled water. Dress for the weather. Limited raingear, hats, gloves and overboots are provided.” Even better news: this hike has a minimum of two participants. We have a winner! The excursion was scheduled for 2:00p.m.

That left us with plenty of time to gear up. We had brought our hiking boots and rain gear. It was cold so we dressed in layers. I packed up my trusty Canon Rebel digital SLR camera and some protein bars. Back at the lodge, two more hikers had signed on – Dave and Pat from Wisconsin. We met our tour guide, Mackenzie, and headed out.

Once at Byers Lake, Mackenzie had us pack lunches (pasta salad, peanuts, granola bars, fruit snacks and juice plus chocolate bars for those who can eat them) and offered us some additional rain gear. We accepted her offer of hiking sticks, rain hats and Neo overboots. (Important excursion tip: follow all recommendations from your guide. S/He knows what s/he is doing!) Mackenzie loaded our lunches in her backpack and we started our tour.

Byers Lake is fed by spring rather than glacier. Unfortunately the rain precluded us from hiking up to the tree line because the paths were too slippery. Instead we hiked around the lake and took a side trip to a waterfall, made extra spectacular by the extra rain. Along the way we sampled wild cranberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Waterfall at Byer Lake.

We saw evidence of a bear (paw prints and berry-laden scat) but no actual bear. No moose either, despite the large bog we passed. We saw plenty of geese, however, and trumpeter swans and a huge beaver lodge.

Fresh bear paw print.
Fresh bear scat with berries.

Although the hike was described as strenuous, none of us had any trouble keeping up the brisk pace that Mackenzie set. The scenery was beautiful with vivid autumn colors, although many times we were too busy slogging through shin-deep water to notice much of our surroundings. The Neo boots were worth their weight in gold. My low-cut hiking boots were still dry at the end of the six mile hike, although most everything else was soaked through despite our rain gear.

Soaked through (except for feet!) at end of hike.

Back at the lodge, I was eager to try out the hot tub, until I found out it was outdoors. I settled for a hot shower and was moderately successful in getting the black dye from the gloves I had borrowed off my hands. Another night passed without an aurora alert.

By the time the next morning dawned, rainy yet again, we were ready to head back to Anchorage. With several hours between checkout and our afternoon train, we headed back to Talkeetna to once more roam the shops, ranger station and coffee shop. The return train ride had a different ambiance, featuring tables of four rather than traditional seating. This time we opted to dine on the train and when we returned to our seats had a very pleasant surprise – sunshine! – rendering the scenery much more dramatic on the return trip.

Mountains in sunshine! (Picture taken on cell phone due to non-operational waterlogged camera.)

We arrived in Anchorage about 8:00p.m. and headed directly to the Airport Mariott to spend the night in an pleasant but ordinary hotel room. We would have loved to return to the Anchorage Grand Hotel, but a 6:00a.m. flight necessitated an airport hotel with shuttle. Our Alaskan adventure was winding down. We repacked our luggage, choosing to carry on the bare minimum and check the rest, a decision that would come to play on our fateful trip home, which you may have already read about in Putting the Drama in Dramamine.

Even without seeing the Northern Lights or Mount McKinley, Alaska was a great destination and we’d love to go back someday.

The Final Last Frontier

Alaska’s state motto always reminds me of Star Trek. Or maybe Star Trek’s mission statement reminds me of Alaska. Either way, this web log entry is all about our recent trip to The Last Frontier.

Phil and I originally envisioned a trip to someplace warm (Costa Rica, Barbados, Jamaica) for our anniversary in November, combining frequent flyer miles from last year’s trip to Vietnam. Quickly learning that it would require many more miles to fly to the Caribbean, we regrouped to brainstorm about places in the United States that we would like to visit. Alaska was at the top of the list for both of us. An internet search showed that rail tours were discounted at the end of the season in September, then a quick calendar check miraculously revealed six days tucked in between can’t-miss school, work, volunteer, child and parent responsibilities. The trip was on!

It took three flights and nearly fifteen hours to travel to Anchorage from Columbia, Missouri. We gained three hours in time zone changes, however, and arrived in the early evening. We elected to stay at the Anchorage Grand Hotel for its downtown location and proximity to the train station. Excellent choice! It’s a charming older hotel with a sitting area and kitchenette in each suite. Highly recommended.

Downtown Anchorage scenery.

The first evening we strolled around the shops in downtown Anchorage and asked locals for a recommendation for a light dinner. We were directed to the F Street Station. (No web site, but you can see reviews and menu here.) It turned out to be an Irish pub with a bush pilot theme, and the food was great – I will never enjoy the manager’s special salmon from Gerbes quite as much ever again.

The only bear we saw in Alaska.

Thursday we enjoyed a full day in Anchorage. The hotel offers a continental breakfast, which turned out to be a bag hung on the doorknob filled with bagels and cream cheese, granola bars, instant oatmeal and apple juice. Aside from being all carbs, it’s really rather brilliant – nothing that needs to be refrigerated and everything except the oatmeal can be eaten on the go. We were out and about early and enjoyed a stroll through a very quiet downtown before heading to the Anchorage Museum. Part art, part cultural, part history, part children’s and totally enjoyable. Smithsonian has an extremely well-done permanent Arctic Studies Center at the museum with thousands of tribal artifacts, including waterproof parkas constructed from marine mammal bladders.

Decorative bladder parka.

In one of the current exhibits, Finding My Song, artist Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner combines his heritage with music and art to explore efforts to retain native Alaskan languages. One wall presented a series of faces molded into rawhide drum heads. I’m not sure what activated the display, but as we perused the drum heads they unexpectedly illuminated and projected the images and sounds of chanting natives. (Yes, I jumped.)

Singing drumhead.

We also took in paintings by Alaska artists, the story of scaling Mount McKinley, the history of the Alaskan pipeline, the heritage of whaling, and so much more that it is hard to keep it all straight. We could have stayed all day and not absorbed it all, but we had another activity planned for the afternoon.

A Taste of Anchorage combines Alaskan history and cuisine in a walking tour of downtown Anchorage eateries. We turned out to be the only ones on the tour that day and spent a couple of diverting hours with our host, Damon. He did an outstanding job accommodating my no-caffeine no-blue-cheese dietary restrictions. We sampled truffles (dark chocolate with salmon, cayenne and cinnamon for Phil; white chocolate with black cherries for me), Philadelphia beefsteak egg rolls, soup (caribou vegetable and creamy chicken), savory tea, salmon and artichoke pizza, caribou sausage, and crepes (chocolate and strawberry for Phil; lemon creme for me) – prepared with locally grown ingredients. Somewhere along the line we asked about Alaskan wines, and Damon graciously added an extra stop to sample local berry vintages. I am a huge proponent of local businesses and niche marketing, so kudos to Damon. I hope he is back next season.

Following our culinary tour, we strolled around downtown a bit longer and visited a few more shops, including the Anchorage edition of the Apple Store and the Oomingmak musk ox producers co-op in the tiniest store ever. Then we returned to the hotel to finish our pizza and turn in early for our 8am train ride to Mount McKinley.

Tune in next week for our Denali National Park adventures.