In Guatemala, families celebrate birthdays be setting off a barrage of firecrackers and firing something that sounds like a cannon. Either they try to do this as early in the morning as possible, to get a jump on everyone else, or they set them off to correspond with the exact time of birth of the celebrant. In either case, at least 5 people had started celebrating birthdays in Panajachel by 5am this morning. My initial reaction was to wonder if some sort of revolution was starting, and ponder where one could find the American consulate.
All was well, as it turned out, and when the rest of the family was up, we set out to meet up again with Semilla Nueva staff members Anne Barkett and Lauren Brown who planned on joining us on a trip to the village of Santiago Atitlan across the lake from Pana.
Atitlan is about 16 km wide surrounded and surrounded by volcanoes and little towns named after saints or apostles. Panajachel is the largest, apparently named for neither any saint nor apostle that I can think of. Today happened to be October 28, the day of Maximon (Mah-she-mon), who is celebrated mostly in Santiago Atitlan, which is why we decided to go there.
Maximon is a saint of sorts, a carry-over from the pagan pre-Christianity days and frowned upon by the church. Many Guatemalans are Evangelical Christians, or Protestants, who eschew alcohol or tobacco, so I think it’s weird that Maximon is revered here. He is usually depicted as a man with an American style black suit and red tie and no legs. He demands whiskey and cigarettes and carries a cigar. He is revered by prostitutes. During Holy Week he is paraded around in public, but on October 28 he is celebrated more reverently, in someone’s home where people who can find him visit to pay their respects. The rest of the year, he is kept hidden because of his proclivities for prostitutes and young women. He is said to be depicted without legs in an effort to keep him from wandering and satisfying his appetites.
After Ann negotiated a shuttle across the lake for us (a total of 75 quetzals each for a round trip ticket or about $11 each), we traveled to Santiago and were instantly mobbed by women and children selling jewelry and woven blankets and other items. The handicrafts of the people of Santiago are beautiful, and particularly the designs on the fabric. Each village is said to have their own, and Santiago’s is purple, with vertical stripes and birds. Ann said her way to deal with the mob is to avoid eye contact and say thank you, which in the language here is “matiosh” (MAH-tee-osh).
Okay, a word about language. Guatemala has 23. Most indigenous people speak at least one indigenous language and they may also speak Spanish. The languages on Lago Atitlan are T’zutuil (zoo-tzoo-eel) and K’echkel (ketch-kel). For the life of me, I can’t remember which language is predominant in Santiago, but that’s where you say “matiosh” instead of gracias.
After making our way through the initial market mob, we found a restaurant for lunch and headed back out to find Maximon. We asked multiple locals for directions, many of whom pretended not to understand what we were talking about. Ultimately we found Maximon in a room in a house not far from the harbor (well, Santiago is teeny, so nothing is far from the harbor). We entered a little courtyard and found musicians playing the marimba – a type of wooden xylophone – and some old guy passed out on the floor wearing traditional, embroidered, knee-length shorts and sporting a huge goose egg over one eye.
Here is where tourists can get into trouble. If one seems irreverent in any way around Maximon, or the flash of your camera comes at an inopportune time, there could be consequences unnamed by the guidebooks. I don’t have any idea if that explains what happened to the unconscious guy with the goose egg in the foyer, but I was nervous. Generally one is expected to offer something like money, cigarettes or booze to the saint. The room we entered was lined with people in traditional dress eating tamales wrapped in what looked like banana leaves. A woman approached us with a smile and invited us to take pictures. Only our adventurous traveling partner, Shannon Morgan, did, and I followed. We gave our offerings to Maximon and were allowed to take pictures of him, and of his compadre St. James (who is apparently the patron saint of Santiago, assigned to, I don’t know, look after Max or something). I think I got a smile out of the dour-looking shaman sitting to one side of St. Max after I said “Matiosh,” but maybe he was just looking forward to taking another sip of Maximon’s contraband.
Later we found some of the rest of our Rotary excursion group who said they had been directed to a version of Maximon who was being housed in a church, so I’m not sure who the pretender in the house was, nor what he did to the poor, old guy passed out in the foyer.
Tonight, after returning to Pana, a quiet dinner and our hotel, we’re all saying “happy birthday” after every fire of the cannon (there have been three since 8 pm). I’m looking forward to catching up with my blogging tomorrow morning when cannon fire finally forces me out of bed.