Our tuk tuk screeches to a halt outside a nondescript house whose dirty walls are adorned with red and yellow posters promoting Brahva beer. Roosters crow in the next-door backyard. A sound system blasts out music. The only distinguishing feature are coloured plastic strips hanging underneath a corrugated iron lean to. They denote the house of the shaman and the residence of Maximón.
A folk saint venerated by the Mayans in the highlands of Guatemala, Maximón is represented by an effigy which resides in a different house each year, being moved in a procession during Holy Week. Devotees visit Maximón and offer money, spirits or cigarettes to gain his favour in exchange for good health, good crops and good luck.
I am ushered into a darkened room. The concrete walls are bare. The ceiling adorned with colourful plastic strips. On the right hand side of the room in gloomy silence stand two painted statues. Next to them, in a glass cabinet, lies a figure of Jesus Christ with a US flag draped around his head. On the left of the room are a couple of wooden chairs on which sit members of the cofradía, the brotherhood who keep the shrine in order and pass offerings from worshippers to Maximón.
In the middle of room sits an elderly man opposite Maximón. In front of Maximón is a wooden stool on which is a wooden statuette of an angel and a packet of Dart cigarettes. In front of the stool on the floor are lit candles flanked on each side by an earthenware pot of flowers. It is bizarre in the extreme; eclecticism gone mad.
Must bizarre of all was Maximón himself. A stunted figure of a few feet high he is clad in black boots and coloured trousers. His shoulders are draped in silk scarves. Around his neck a couple of dotted ties and on his head a black cowboy hat. He has a smoking cigarette rammed into his mouth. Most striking of all is his face. Ghoulish, long and drawn it bizarrely reminds me of Kirk Douglas on a bad day. Not sure why I say that – perhaps it is the cowboy hat?
A diminutive elderly man sits penitent in front of Maximón. He looks faintly ridiculous in oversized hat, oversized jacket and oversized shoes. Given that Guatemalan men are so vertically challenged where did they find such a pair of oversized shoes? The old man has a problem with his legs, hence he is seeking Maximón’s help. The shaman is chanting. He wafts incense. He holds the old man’s head. He sprays alcohol from his mouth over the man – an act of cleansing.
Meanwhile one of the other shamans is attending to Maximón. He carefully lifts a bottle of rum to Maximón’s open mouth and pores it in. He then pats Maximón’s face mouth with a cloth like a nurse attending to an elderly patient in an old people’s home. A new cigarette is placed in Maximón’s mouth and lit.
The show is over. The old man is derobed and trousers, oversized jacket and oversized shoes are returned to the dressing up box in the corner of the room.
And then it was my turn. But I have nothing to atone for, nothing to pray for. My arrogance was treated with the scorn that it deserves and I am told to kneel on the hard concrete floor. The shaman starts wafting incense in front of my face, the acrid smoke fills my nostrils. I feel slightly nauseous.
He starts blessing us, chanting in Tzutujil, the local language. He switches to Spanish to ask my name. More Tzutujil chanting. Back to Spanish to ask where I come from and then returns to his dialect. The black cowboy hat is placed on my head. He hat is turned round and he fondles my face with silk scarf. I am asked to kiss the hat.
It is without doubt the most surreal manifestation of the hybrid belief systems. I ask Pedro, my guide who is in his late twenties, whether the local people believe in Maximón. He says very much so. I ask does he (Pedro)? His answer is much less positive and certain. Is belief in Maximón waning?
Do I believe? Well, I returned safely. Maximón had given me his protection whilst in Guatemala.