As my wife and I stood by and waited for a man with a machete to open our coconuts so that we could drink the sweet milk from inside, I was overwhelmed with joy. The love of life and the simple pleasures of a coconut in the graveyard hung a toothy grin on my face that could be seen from the moon. Tinny voices echoed off of the marble and granite, a rapid fire accounting of a football match the groundskeepers were following. Majestic palms towered over me and stretched towards the grey sky above. I knew that we were lucky to be given this chance to walk in the warm light of the sun, and feel the thick, humid air of the tropical morning. It was good to be among the living, inside the walls of the the White City, a city of the dead.
It seems that if you go anywhere in Guayaquil, Ecuador, you pass the Cementerio General, or the White City, as it is also known due to the color of the gravestones that jut out from patches of vibrant green grass. It's omnipresence is a reminder that, for all of us, that there is an end to our terrestrial wandering. Of the many times I have visited Guayaquil, home to my wife's sprawling Latin family, the cemetery tempted me, but we had never gone. I'm not sure I can account for why we hadn't, but we always seemed to have something else to do, and then there were the warnings that it was a dangerous place where bandits hid out amongst the tombs waiting to rob you or take you on a ride in the trunk of an economy sized sedan until your loved ones forked over the customary ransom. As luck would have it, we didn't encounter any danger, save for the steep slopes of the Cerro del Carmen, the hill that dominates the surrounding landscape of the banks of the Rio Guayas.
We arrived by taxi having come from the suburban sprawl of Samborondon, passing through the tunnel that cuts under the neighborhood of Las Peñas, where multicolored shanties cling to the hillside. We paid our fare and walked past the women selling flowers and other religious trinkets that we had no good use for and politely declined. A guard took our names and looked over our passports, just in case we disappeared in the vast crypts I supposed, or maybe there was some truth to all of the wild rumors we had heard. Nevertheless, I felt it was worth the risk.
The area closest to the entrance is pristinely maintained and there are wide avenues where the ghosts of the families of means are free to congregate much as they would in the private clubs and gated neighborhoods they inhabit in life. The magnificent sculptures portray faces with such detail that you can imagine the figures stepping down off their pedestals and out into the street. As we carried on, we read the epitaphs and the dates marking the borders of a persons existence, imagining what they were like and the many things they had seen and done and how they came to meet their fate.
There are also mausoleums and shrines that hint at the varying tastes of the eras in which they were constructed from the early nineteenth century when the cemetery was founded onwards. There are politicians, and generals, as well as their rivals, all tossed in together, their battles fought, their swords gone to rust. Men of letters, whose lives are confined to the space of a paragraph by the limits of the real estate they are allotted are there too, and lovers whose bodies are rendered in cold hard stone unable to give solace to the heartbroken. A sea of bones lies under this ground, the history of the city and the nation outside, and one of many on this earth that we have filled with them.
There is a separate area in the cemetery, where Jews are interred as necessitated by social norms in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Their burials are marked with the Star of David and stones in lieu of flowers; their grave sites simpler without the grand ceremony of the Christian dead. It was in this section where my wife and I first paused and gazed out on the crowded neighborhoods and skyscrapers that advanced outside the walls of the White City. There was a breeze and we drank it in. I left Mariella with a kiss as I proceeded up the steep slopes toward the ridge for a better view. I stopped to take a few pictures and occasionally to pay respects to those who had passed on. With each step, the burials became more erratic until they seemed to be stacked one on top of the other and the grounds were left untended. Where there was neglect, the earth itself had begun to take over and the gnarled roots of short, hearty trees cracked stone. I felt my heartbeat quicken with the altitude and the stifling view. My heart was heavy and my mind burdened with the thought that those overlooked in life are also left unremembered in death. I stopped in front of a small stone cross that bore crude lettering that indicated that two children were buried here, ages 6 and 9, names unknown. I stood there alone and let tears well up in my eyes and stream down my face and whispered a prayer of rest for their souls and turned to slowly descend back towards where my wife was waiting.
After I found her and we had our break, I finished up my roll of film and we found where Mariella's family plot was located, conveniently close to the exit. We visited her great grandmother and talked about how nice it would be to sleep amongst such good company. We had always considered ourselves the kind to be cremated, our ashes tossed into the wind, but now I'm not so sure. Walking through a graveyard is a good thing, no matter where you happen to be. It's quiet, and a good place to think about things that tend to be put off when we're sitting at our desks, or in line at the grocery store, or staring at the tail end of the car in front of us in traffic. I won't tell you any of those things that people like to throw in your face like, "live every day like it's your last", or "dance like nobody's watching", and all the other nonsense that sells books and diet plans these days. I'm not qualified to do that, and besides, I'm not sure if that's always the best advice. I can say one thing for certain though, it's good to eat coconuts in a graveyard.