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A pilgrimage to a Mayan God


Smoke blows blue through motionless lips.  Maximon, this god I kneel before, stones me with his wooden gaze, burns my eyes with his wooden lungs, and dazzles me with unexpected pretense.  I don’t make a habit out of kneeling to strange gods, but Maximon holds a peculiar sort of power.

From the moment I stepped off the rotting, vintage pleasure yacht that serves as a daily ferry to the Mayan village of Santiago, Maximon’s name filled the air.  Every boy in the village crowded on to the stilted, wavering docks, shouting, singing, or at the very least muttering, “Maximon, Maximon, Maximon!” 

Despite my filthy pants, misshapen shirt, and a satchel that is older than I, it was obvious that I was the only tourist with a dollar on this ferry.  So, with two hundred eyes on me, I passed out a hundred distracted “no gracias’s,” as I waded through the waist high flurry of disappointed boys. 

To escape the overwhelming attention, I feigned interest in a few booths on the beach that serve as a tourist’s market of generic “Guatemalan Souvenirs.”  I had seen the fake jade statues and screen-printed “Gallo Cerveza” T-shirts too many times but I always opt for the pressures of a sales person rather than the guilt of disappointed faces.  And yet the boys” chant of, “Maximon, Maximon, Maximon,” rang in my ears. 

The village of Santiago lies in a dense camouflage of foliage on the slopes of one of the many volcanoes that surrounds Lago De Atitlan.  The lake has long been thought of as the umbilicus of the world by traditional Mayans.  To any casual observer this might be obvious, though.  The deep waters of Lago De Atitlan swirl in distinct rivers of dark blues as the volcanoes rise sharply from the edges of its waters, shaking the earth with their unleashed molten angst more often than not. 

Maximon captures a small piece of this power, encapsulating the life force of the swirling waters and the liquid fire that lies beneath our feet.  He wears a shimmering, lake blue hat and matching cape. From his neck hangs a multitude of fiery neck-ties.  Through the smoky dusk I could see my quetzals, tucked between ties, a required worship gift.  Quetzals: the national bird noted for its long magical jade-green tail feathers.  Quetzals: the inflated Guatemalan currency.  These quetzals I pulled from a hidden pouch near my groin ironically add a distinct flash and pomp to the dead mahogany eyes of Maximon.

I saw the dead eyes of Maximon, but I did not arrive on my own.  My guide was a straggler, too late for the ferry’s arrival, too late to protest my “no gracias’s.”  His inquisitive, “Maximon?” awakened me from another tasteless tourist booth. 

Like me his pants were filthy and his shirt was contorted with the heat and his mother’s infrequent scrubbing.  We made an odd match walking through the narrow streets together.  But as he pushed me out of the street just in time to let an oversized, silent truck streak by us in neutral down the rutted hill, I was choked with emotions that still swirl beyond my grasp.

My ten-year-old guide led me through a series of alleys, cinderblock bungalows, and small mountains of waste to the edge of the village in what felt like a circular manner.  And I wondered as I staggered through swarms of flies and sickly cowering canines, if we were really going in circles or could it be that the earth simply spins faster here, so near its origin?  Then, suddenly we were inside the humble temple without warning or sign.

Candles cover the floor, incense swings to a monotone chant, the Holy Virgin is recreated in ceramic on every side of me, and Christ lies in a glass coffin covered with flashing Christmas lights in the corner.  Here is Maximon’s ever-presence. Here, in an anonymous dank cinderblock building I confront an embodied wooden remnant of a people’s past struggling to survive and I am brought to my knees without knowing why.  Smoke swirls, lights flicker and fade, and I kneel until my ankles hurt, until my knees feel dull, and then an incalculable time longer.  My young guide appears from nowhere, taps me on the shoulder, and whispers, “vamos.” 

Disoriented in the bright light of a Guatemalan afternoon, I am led back to the tight laid brick of the village square, worn smooth and slick with a thousand market days and a million bare and booted feet.  It is here, looming above the village, that a massive façade arises. 

The church bleeds yellow plaster, tolls its brass bells high above the square and another evening mass has begun.  Down the aisle a brightly adorned priest chants softly with the sway of his incense burner, ceramic santos line the walls, and an endless array of candles turn to liquid fire on the floor. 

Absorbed again into the mystery, this time it is my wrist-watch reminding me, “vamos.”  The ferry is about to leave.  So in a flurry of sacrilege, I sprint down the aisle of the church, through the broken streets and on to the decks of the yacht just as the lines are untied.  The children that frantically welcomed me with their cries of, “Maximon,” are not here to bid me farewell, and within a week I will forget the name of my guide who I think of so often. 

Maximon, on the other hand, I will never forget.  His gaze will always stone me, his smoke will always blind me, and his power, so near the umbilicus of the world, will always command my knees to drop.

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