In the rear of an indoor bazaar selling exquisite textiles, within an open-air courtyard adorned with exotic plants, I first encountered the wooden effigy known as Maximon (mah-shee-mohn), the Mayan folk-saint of Guatemala.
It was silent now, away from the jostling market. I knew Courtney would be occupied for some time, ogling over the marvellous embroideries, emblematic of their region. So I wandered over toward a shrine I saw out of the corner of my eye.
There were curls of smoke eddying out of the stone-walled cavern which Maximon sat inside of, where he was illumined only vaguely by countless burning candles. As I approached this mysterious, hand-carved, wooden figure, I recalled some of the passages I had read on him, much to my amusement:
"After a series of intricate machinations, including rubbing eggs and cans of chilies over the supplicant, prayers are uttered, and the wooden Maximon is tipped back and liquor poured down his throat (a bucket below catches the effluent)."
As I approached the flower-festooned altar, I observed offerings of every sort, haphazardly laid out before him. He wore a moustache above his carved smile. He appeared jolly, pleased. A straw sombrero was rammed down on his head. A poised cigarette burned between his lips. Small medicine phials, beakers, and half-emptied liquor bottles were strewn about his countenance; and what seemed like disparate images of the Virgin Mary and the crucifix were depicted on the walls beside him....
A cool zephyr swept down, flickering the candlelight....Just then, I was jolted out of my entranced study of this scene by a deep voice:
"Hola, friend. Do not be afraid. That is Maximon. San Simon, also. You can take his picture, if you want. It's OK."
The short, stout Guatemalan man who was now speaking to me was middle-aged, dishevelled, and had one eye that only half-opened. He spoke primarily out of the side of his mouth. His English was very good, and his voice had a devout, and pleasantly-solemn tone....
"Many people," he continued "they afraid of him. They think he a sort of devil worship, a dark spirit. They think maybe he work some kind of black magic on them. This not true," he shook his head, and raised his eyes up, searchingly, to the achingly-blue sky above us. "Maximon, he is a saint to us; to many people he represent the human struggle. He like to drink rum, to smoke cigarette, to run after ladies, but that is what make him human, and not a God above. Many people, they forget, that saints, they also sinners."
At this point in his alluring dialogue I was reminded of an anecdote of the Polynesian Cosmogony: "A God only becomes a God when he assumes human form. But it is also true that the moment he becomes human, he begins to die."
"I just want to make people understand him more," he went on. "Maximon not all bad. He help many people overcome the dark side of themselves....by showing the dark side of himself. He is the balance that embrace both shadow, and light. He very close to the people. Other Saints, they not do that. They seem too far away. Not human enough."
He paused for a moment, gazing in affectionately upon the seated deity. It was then that I realized that this fellow was the caretaker, who doubtless provided the copious cigarettes, liquors, and other sundry vices of Maximon.
"I like Maximon very much," I replied. "I believe we need more Gods like him."
"Ah, well. Que Bueno. I am happy you enjoy him. Go on and take his photo. It is good to tell people about him. To share his real story. He help many people. Many people...."
With a grin of satisfaction, he picked up a garden hose near his feet and began to water the flowers in the bright, peaceful courtyard.
This meeting was near the commencement of our trip to Guate. I had much time to further research and contemplate Maximon and his history. And though I read a great deal, discovering all sorts of mythologies, ceremonies, and eccentricities, perhaps the thing that impressed me most was this personal encounter with Maximon's caretaker.
I believe that without these unforgettable faces, encounters, and wonderful stories, the world would seem merely two-dimensional. The best part of Travelling is that it allows you to see this third dimension. It allows you to see beyond the narrow scope of your own day-to-day life.
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