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This Is the Time to Remember the Dead and Toast to Life

Editor’s Note: Traditionally at this time, NextTribe takes a group of women to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for the celebration of Day of the Dead. We weren’t able to go this year because of COVID, but the spirit of the Mexican festival is deep in our DNA. This year, we will run a story about each of our trips and ask that we all take time to honor and remember the 200,000-plus Americans who have died during the pandemic.


“Can I take your picture?”

“Photo, please.”

“You are fabulous!”

These are the kind of comments—in English and Spanish—the 12 of us travelers heard that night over and over from people as they raised smartphone cameras to snap a photo. We would stop and pose—pouty face, maybe. Stone-cold stare, maybe. Or a bit of vamping for the lens.

We were giddy. Not just because we were dressed up with our faces painted to look like glamorous, sparkling skulls as part of the two-day Day of the Dead celebration in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Not just because we were in a wild, festive atmosphere as throngs of revelers circulated around the main plaza in this gorgeous colonial town, with the lighted spires of the cathedral casting a hazy glow over the proceedings. But because people were noticing us—a group of women over 50. Singing our praises. Treating us in a way many of us haven’t been treated since we were … oh, I don’t know … somewhere south of 30.

People were treating us in a way many of us haven’t been treated since we were … oh, I don’t know … somewhere south of 30.

For the rest of the night, as we salsa danced into the late hours, we rode the high, actually for the remainder of our week in San Miguel—even though this was the only night we had our faces painted. We were a NextTribe group of women who had shed any at-home drudgery and bonded almost instantly when we came together at the start of the week. Walking the plaza as a group as part of the Day of the Dead celebration, we felt liberated. No one could tell how old we were. Age didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was spirit, spunk, and the way we inhabited the greasepaint, sequin facial adornments, false eyelashes, and flower headdresses.

It’s Not About the Makeup

Travel to San Miguel de Allende: A Magical Experience in Mexico | NextTribe

Our fun group at our rooftop dinner. Photo taken by one of our new friends, an ex-Israeli soldier. His friend–another veteran–and his girlfriend in the background.

Feeling opposite of invisible—so visible—on this trip didn’t just happen when we were hiding our age behind makeup. We all noticed a different vibe from strangers throughout the week as we took part in other glories San Miguel has to offer—from swimming at the natural hot springs in the countryside to shopping in an artisan’s market to visiting old buildings that played a part in the Spanish Revolution in the early 19th century.

I couldn’t tease out what exactly created this special mood. Maybe it was the change of location that had everyone feeling less self-conscious and less “less than” younger people. Maybe it was the fact that we were in a group that had coalesced around Aging Boldly. Or maybe it was something about Mexico in particular and the people it attracts.

One evening we were on a rooftop restaurant, with the whole carpet of the town’s cobblestone streets and vibrantly colored edifices spread out below us, when two young couples at a neighboring table struck up a conversation with us. They were gorgeous ex-Army officers from Israel with their girlfriends. They wanted to know where we were from and what brought the 12 of us together. Then one of the young men jumped up with his camera.  

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“You know I want to get a photo of all of you, with the sunset in the mountains behind,” he said as he walked to one end of the table. “You’re fun.”

He snapped the photo, then several of us handed him our own phones to capture the moment.

The rest of the night, we exchanged reviews of the food, got suggestions on which drinks to order, heard about the foursome’s journey around the world. “You know when you get out of the army, you just want to live every moment,” our personal photographer said.

Travel to San Miguel de Allende: A Magical Experience in Mexico | NextTribe

Lisa Ralston posing in our “fashion” shoot in the hot springs outside of San Miguel. Photo by Olga Viakhireva.

They finished their dinner earlier than us, and when they left I felt their absence acutely. “You know what was so cool about that?” I said to my neighbor at the table, Marcellina Kampa. “They joked and had fun with us as if we were the same age—not like we were their moms or anything. It was so refreshing and the way we at NextTribe believe the world should always work.  

“Yeah, I think in other cultures—maybe Mexico, maybe Israel—older women are really respected,” Marcellina said.

We saw the two couples several times over the next few days, and each time they treated us like long-lost friends. Wrapping an arm around our shoulders, catching up on what we’ve been doing with our days. I must say that kind of ease and acceptance does a lot for this 57-year-old ego.

Others must have felt similarly buoyed by the attention and atmosphere because when we went to the hot springs, almost everyone was up for a glamour moment. One of our group, Olga Viakhireva, is a fashion designer and stylist, and when we were in a domed, man-made grotto in the warm water, she suggested we pose in our bathing suits for photos. Even those who initially demurred got into the fun. Standing against a column with a black hat dipping below our eyes, we felt like fashion models. And when we looked at the results, we were ecstatic, many of us considering making prints to give to our partners for Christmas. We chuckled together about the sexy surprises they were waiting for them.  

Read More: Traveling the Amazon River: One Writer’s Life-and-Death Journey

Travel to San Miguel de Allende: Inside Out

day of the dead altar

Jeanene Smith talks about a lost friend and mentor in front of the NextTribe Day of the Dead altar. Photo by Marcellina Kampa.

To observe our group of NextTribers, you wouldn’t know that underneath our laughing faces, beyond our bouncy steps, was the kind of pain and trauma that so often comes with living 50 plus years. But like so many women our age, this group was resilient, a poignant mix of heartache and heroics—able to laugh one minute and cry the next, equally adept at seriousness as silliness.

Our moment for seriousness came the night of November 2nd—the actual Day of the Dead in Mexico. A few days earlier, in the lobby of our hotel, we had made a large altar, decorated with candles, candy skulls, and marigolds, the traditional flower of the Day of the Dead. Each of us placed on the altar photos of loved ones who had passed plus mementos of their lives. In Mexico, Day of the Dead is a time for remembering those who have gone before us, to honor them, to celebrate their lives. Death is brought out in the open and discussed, its impact measured, and its message—“Make the most of the days you have”—acknowledged, similar to the life-affirming impulses of our ex-Army friends.

Though many of us were strangers just a few days before, we understood a breaking heart.

One by one, we each stood in front of the altar, holding up photos and offerings, such as airplane-bottle sizes of Jack Daniels, Oreo cookies, towels emblazoned with college names, or ticket stubs: items the lost person either loved or participated in. We each told our painful stories: grown children taken too soon, siblings that dropped dead, friends and mentors no longer among us, parents that had already departed.

Photo of travelers in full day of the dead regalia

Strike a pose. All dressed up and everywhere to go.

The tears flowed freely. We were sharing each other’s pain. Though many of us were strangers just a few days before, we understood a breaking heart. We nodded our heads and hugged; every speaker’s talk ended with a toast to the one who was so achingly missed. We said the person’s name. We drank heartily.

“That was really cathartic,” said one woman, who had lost her 19-year-old daughter only four years earlier, as she wiped her tears. “Just to be able to talk about her freely. For people to know who she was.”

After we were done, we walked to a restaurant where in a 19th-century columned courtyard, we savored mahi-mahi with roasted mushrooms or braised beef ribs. We talked and laughed because that’s what our loved ones would want. For us to carry on and seize the day, feeling the peerless empathy and bonding that women our age possess, and feeling fully visible, inside and out.

Read More: If You Need Reminding That You’re Never Too Old for Adventure, Read This







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