Danny Smith — you know the guy, he writes eloquently grimy stuff about our city right here— was finding life hard, so he went across the world on a mission to find Death – and have a word.
In his new book Staring Death In The Face: Searching For The Reaper Across Mexico (which we’re publishing) he describes how he travelled to ancient temples, vibrant bustling markets, white sands, with weird tourists, and found a neon blur of excess searching for the Grim Reaper in Mexico during the famous Day Of The Dead Festival.
He tells of nights at Mexico’s famous luchador wrestling, lost passports and drug busts, and a near-death experience almost drowning when swimming alone.
Danny was lost, nearly forty, without his partner, and surrounded by bin bags full of his clothes in his parents’ spare room in Northfield: his thoughts turned to death.
If he’s got to start his life over, he thought, he may as well start at the end and work back. Find Death and become, if not friends, then at least on nodding terms. It’s not a good plan, but it’s the only one he’s got.
Danny decides to stalk Death to Mexico. Home of The Day Of The Dead Festival, Santa Muerte the patron saint of drug dealers and the dispossessed, and a bloody cartel drug war that’s been going since the 80s.
Read an exclusive extract here, and then buy the book in ebook or paperback:
Market 23 seems to be waking up as I arrive – most of the stalls seem to be selling the same sugar skull T-shirts, Cancún fridge magnets and authentic Mexican blankets. Authentic, I suspect, insofar they are actually blankets and they are being sold in Mexico. At the heart of the market is food stalls, vegetables are stacked as high as me and a butcher is busily snipping the claws off chicken feet. The smell takes me back to Birmingham’s Bull Ring market and a little sprout of homesickness pushes through the heat. That smell is overpowered by the herb shop nearby – the odour of dirty liquorice and burnt vanilla. The market is empty apart from me and another white couple walking around, still a little intimidated by the area they came through to get here. They look for me and smile a smile of recognition. I obligingly give a little ‘what’s up’ nod back.
I need a drink. My bones are aching in a definitely non-jet lag way and my head feels full and slow. On my way back along the highway I see bright primary colours. In a background of white and sand they stick out. It’s a life-sized Homer Simpson, next to him his friend Barney, and next to that their good pal Spider-man. They’re all surrounding a bar. Of course, I go in. The midday sun is punching through onto the terrace between giant windboards all painted brightly with graffiti. I didn’t realise how hot the sun actually was until now in the cool shade. Being working-class English means I’m still incredibly uncomfortable with table service, so to shortcut the whole thing I walk into the back of the bar. I walk past a large man in a white vest and pencil moustache who is daring me to notice he’s a stereotype. The bright colours stop at the terrace, along with the furniture and hygiene. The waitress speaks no English, so the first part of the exchange is taken up with her explaining how I should have sat down and had table service – a process made a little tougher than it should by her insistence in looking over to the other waitress and laughing. I sit back on the terrace where the music is just loud enough to drown out the traffic and the breeze feels as good as the cold breakfast beer. A man arrives with a keyboard under his arm so big Rick Wakeman would have turned it down as “a bit much”. Being the only audience member of a giant keyboard serenade isn’t going to make this day better, so I get up to leave. As I stand up and finish my beer the napkin sticks to the bottle then somehow sticks to my shirt when I put the bottle down. As I look up, I see the two waitresses laughing again with Mexican Rick at the English guy who apparently tucks a napkin into his shirt like a bib to enjoy a beer. I stuff the napkin in my pocket and leave.
Later, while emptying my pockets to get into the hammock on the hostel’s roof I find the napkin. On it is an advertisement for La Isla Shopping Centre. It’s a mall over on the archipelago of developed hotels and resort complexes – normally the sum total of what people see when they visit Cancún. I’ve never been on a hammock before but it turns out the combination of this stupid cold I’ve picked up and the constant movement means I’m asleep in minutes. I’m a natural.
“Have you been to Cancún before?” asks the taxi driver with only a little accent. The taxi is comfortable, too comfortable. The seats in the back feel like a mattress, they’re reclined and the windows are tinted a deep blue. It’s more like an isolation tank than a taxi. I have to sit up to talk.
“No, first time,” I say
“This is all fake.” He says this with pride as he gestures to the hotels over to one side,. “Built up by the government.” We get to a stretch of road with water on each side. “Do you know what that is?” he says, pointing to the water on the left.
“The sea?” I ask. His rear-view mirror has two tiny pink Adidas trainers hanging from them.
“Good!” he says, “And this?” He points to the other side.
“More sea?” I say. He gives a little chuckle
“It’s a lagoon,” he says “You know the difference?” I tell him I don’t. “Crocodiles,” he says with pride. “Don’t mix them up”. He drops me off outside of the ‘shopping village’ which, anyway you cut it, is a mall. A large sterile mall, empty and jarringly aspatial. It could be anywhere – cool marble walls and slick shopping outlets, the only thing reminding you you’re in Mexico is the tat in the gift shops and the giant replica of the Mayan calendar on the traffic island outside. It was a mistake to come here. Death would never be allowed here, even if there are crocodiles. My head is pounding and my bones are heavy.
Don’t you dare judge me, but I find myself in Hooters. For four reasons: firstly, my cold needs hot wings to clear my sinuses; secondly, Hooters was the only restaurant without people outside hassling you to come in, which I was actually grateful for. The other two reasons belong to Luisa who has kindly put up with me changing my given table until I could find a seat with my back against a wall. Okay, so Hooters is vulgar, crass, and morally questionable, but so am I. There’s a family at the next table, all wearing matching sun visors and generic basketball vests, except the daughter who has a straw hat and white vest top. The mom has a giant tattoo of a gun and a rose that takes up her entire upper arm. They’re all wearing an all-inclusive resort bracelet with tan lines behind them. They’re getting up to leave as my wings arrive.
“It’s good to get out, see outside for a change,” says the dad as they make their way out.
That night I go for a walk. The heat gets oppressive and, despite being ill, sitting felt like stewing in my own sweat. I don’t know where I’m heading. I just pick a direction and walk. For the most part it seems to be along a four-lane highway. The surroundings get more and more urban, less polished, cracks in the concrete, broken glass embedded on top of the walls. Every time I look ahead there seems to be some neon or a bright sign that something is just ahead, but every time I get there it’ll be a closed car showroom or mattress outlet store. Then sure enough, just ahead, another flickering promise, a fluorescent mirage I can’t help shuffle towards with the same road-worn hope, grateful for the distraction.
The new book Staring Death In The Face: Searching For The Reaper Across Mexico is out now.