The International Writers Magazine: Guatemala
the saint that loves to drink and smoke
The disdainful Maximon was looking
at me, puffing scornfully his cigar
the heart of Guatemala, at 5,123 feet above sea level, Lake Atitlan
is a natural beauty awaiting to be admired: a vast, majestic stretch
of deep blue water, winding and curving amidst high mountain peaks.
On the shores of beautiful Atitlan, there are several small indigenous
villages scattered around. Three astonishing volcanoes, Tolimán,
Atitlán and San Pedro, are the 10,000-foot tall sentinels of
this natural wander. The scenery is truly breathtaking, winning the
name of the most beautiful lake in the world from many people that have
I arrived on a boat in the small village of Santiago de Atitlan, after
a half an hour boat ride from Panajacel. Santiago de Atitlan is an indigenous
village located on the Maya-Tsutujuil half of the shore, the other half
being inhabited by members of the Maya Cakchiquel tribes. The moment
we stepped out of the boat and onto the wooden deck, a small man in
his 50s (or so I assumed) appeared in front of me: for 30 quetzales
he was offering me a tour of the village. 30 Q is about $4. And we had
about one hour and a half in Santiago, so
why not? I closed the
deal, and with my two friends, Liana and Artur, I followed the man.
We spoke Spanish with him, but in the beginning it was hard to understand
his strange and unintelligible accent. Somehow though I managed to understand
almost everything (but oh, boy, what a headache I had after, from too
The man was a Maya local, belonging to the Tsutuhuil people. He was
small, skinny, dressed in tipical clothes a pair of white "capri"
pants with green vertical lines, a green shirt, a hand-woven green belt
wrapped around his waist tied up in a knot in the front, and a white
hat to protect him from the sun which had been working his skin for
a while, judging by its dark, rough texture penetrated by deep lines.
Don Miguel. This was his name. He was very energetic, moving fast, almost
too fast for us, three young spring chickens, to follow him. Don Miguel
told us (twice, until I understood) there are three most important things
to see in Santiago: the church, the textile market, and San Simon a
Maya saint. Sounded like a plan but where to go first? What was
that last thing he said? Maya saint? Sounds
different. So I told
Don Miguel to take us there first. And off we went!
From the shore, we took a busy street with lots of small shops on both
sides. We turned left on a narrow, dirt road, steeply winding upwards
among little square houses. It was a hot, bright noon. Women were sitting
on the porches, chattering with each other, and children were playing
in the road. The people were dressed in the colorful local clothes.
We were greeting everyone and everyone responded back very kindly.
The road was steep and narrow, and Don Miguel was walking at a high-speed!
In a small crossroads, we stopped to take a picture. Don Miguel was
patiently waiting for us all the time, probably being used to picture-avid
tourists like us. Suddenly, we heard some weird sounds coming from a
bright turquoise house behind us. Something between moaning, and whining,
mixed with what sounded like some really drunk men singing
locals were peeping inside the house through a blanket that was covering
its entrance door. We looked perplexed and asked Don Miguel what was
happening in that house? Well, that was our destination! San Simon,
the Maya saint also known under the name of Maximon (ma-shi-mon), resided
inside that house. If we wanted to see him, we had to pay 3Q, but dollars
were OK too Maximon accepted both currencies. With small slow
steps and with the money prepared, we headed towards the house. The
two young boys peeping behind the blanket-door stepped aside, making
room for us.
I stepped inside and my first feeling was that I landed into a different
world. As I entered the house, all my senses were assaulted with the
weirdest sensations and put together it all gave a bizarre sensation.
First, I could barely see. I was in a dark room filled with white incense
smoke that was invading my eyes and nostrils. I could hear clearly now
the squeaky chant perceived earlier. It was a moaning high-pitched song
accompanied at times by guitar strokes. It was coming from my left,
where I could barely distinguish two silhouettes moving slowly back
and forth and emanating these sounds. I breathed the incense and stepped
towards the only light I saw in front of me. Among flickering candles
and thick white smoke, there he was Maximon, the Maya god revered
in this region. He was a short wooden man dressed like a local and heavily
adorned with cheap colorful scarves around his neck, with a wide brim
hat on his head and a smoking cigar in his mouth. The image of bacchanalia
itself, the vice-loving impersonated, the decadence
this is what
my first impression was. And I was not all that wrong. The disdainful
Maximon was looking at me, puffing scornfully his cigar, from among
the candles and liquor bottles scattered around him. Slightly on his
side there was a pan with money, and he was inviting me with a severe
wooden look to pay him or else
I timidly placed a dollar in his
coat, next to another bill, similarly to how men do in belly dancing
I did not know where I was anymore a shrine? a bar?
Somebody please clarify this for me! As I paid my respects (read "bills")
to Maximon, I stepped on the side to let my equally puzzled friends
to do the same. Through the dim light I distinguished other figures
in the room. Two men were sitting on the right side on chairs, and behind
Maximon there was a big wooden table exactly like the ones you see in
pirates hang out taverns in adventure movies. A man and a woman
were sited quietly at the table. I sat down next to the couple. From
there I could better see the scene. The room was packed with decorations.
From the ceiling were hanging colored papers cut in all shapes and forms,
ribbons, beads, fruits (yes: bananas, mangoes) anything you can
imagine was hanging from the ceiling. Similar decorations were covering
the walls, looking like the arts and crafts of a whole bunch of third
graders was exhibited in that room. On the far right, next to the door,
there were the two intoxicated-looking men singing in tsutuhuil, the
native tongue of the Maya tribe inhabiting Santiago. The songs, I was
told, were praising the VIP of the place Maximon, and rendering
him thanks for helping people in the past. On a big shelf there was
a Christ statue (found in almost all churches that I visited in Guatemala)
and on the opposite wall there were three statues of three saints, all
women, all dressed in red velvet and wearing golden crowns and all sorts
of beads adorning them. The biggest one I was told was the Vergine of
Guadelupe, and the other two other Catholic saints. Thus, the Mayan
beliefs and Catholic elements were peacefully cohabitating in this room.
And this is a perfect representation of the Guatemalan Maya religion:
Catholicism introduced by the conquistadores, spiced with native elements
that have nothing to do with Christianity, but were somehow squeezed
While I was studying the scenery, a man was running around the room
placing glasses in front of everyone and filling them up with beer.
And the glasses were never empty, because he would immediately provide
a refill. Sitting there at the big wooden table, in the semi obscurity,
in the white mist, with the tsutuhuil songs ringing in my ears, with
a glass of beer in front of me (and lots of empty bottles under the
table) I did not know how to feel it felt like a tavern, but
the naïve decorations, the religious statues and Maximon were indicating
something else. I started talking to the pair next to me. They came
to pay respects to Maximon, and they had traveled from a nearby village.
From them I learned that Maximon is taken out once a year in a procession,
on the Wednesday of the Holy Week. After this procession, he changes
house. He goes into a different family house for one year and that family
does not work the whole year, their only job being attending to Maximon
and his worshippers. Maximon can cure diseases, can break relationships
and marriages, can win disputes, get you a wife or a husband. In exchange
for his favorite things money, guaro (local alcohol), candles
and tobacco he will grant you any wish, provided you make it
believing that he can help you.
One man entered the room and placed the required offerings in front
of Maximon: money, alcohol, candles and tobacco. After this, he kneeled
and started invoking Maximons powers to help him with his business
to sell as many of his cattle possible. He promised that if he
is helped, he will pay for 12 hours of marimba (traditional Guatemalan
music) in his honor. The man was there for half an hour, speaking non-stop,
imploring and praising Maxmon with a fervor that I have rarely seen.
It was time to go, we got up, grabbed our belongings, leaving the man
praying, the two men singing and the rest drinking in the small murky
room which was Maximons house.
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