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The International Writers Magazine
: Guatemala

Maximon – the saint that loves to drink and smoke
• Luminita Cuna

The disdainful Maximon was looking at me, puffing scornfully his cigar

In 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 seen it.

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 much concentration).

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…A few 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 bars… 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 in.

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 Maximon’s 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 Maximon’s house.

© Cuna, Luminita B [IT]

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