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Published: February 22nd 2012
While walking around Antigua, we kept noticing a wooden statue of a mustached man wearing a black suit, red tie and a wide-brimmed hat and smoking a cigar. We asked who he was and were told he was Maximon or San Simon. While we saw several in town, there were three chapels that were built just for him. The closest was in a town called San Andres Itzapa. We decided to go on a quest to find Maximon. Just who is Maximon and why would we be searching for him?
We went online and found that Maximon is a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam ("grandfather"); his modern name is a combination of Maam and Simon. He is also seen as an “everyman” saint; one who likes to smoke and drink. People pray to him requesting good health, good crops, a new truck, etc.
Driving here in Antigua and its outskirts are challenging. We don’t have a great map and finding one is next to impossible, so we found directions online and I wrote down step-by-step directions for each turn. Now, just because the directions say there’s a road or a turn doesn’t necessarily mean
With paper in hand, we started our quest. The roads are not well marked at all in Guatemala. We made our first left off the Pan American Highway and then saw a small, hand-painted sign about a hundred yards down the street with “Itzapa” on it. We felt comfortable, only to come to a fork in the road with no road markings. It seems that whenever we come to the fork in the road, we always choose wrong. Right up the hill or left toward the school? We chose left. As usual, the pave road became a dirt road. We were getting a bit nervous, so we stopped for affirmation. A lady was selling fresh juice on the side of the road. I asked her and she said we were indeed going the right way. About 10 more minutes down the dirt road, which turned into a bumpy, rocky path, and we finally made it to a nice, paved road and then we were in the town in about two minutes. It was, in fact, the only road into town. People stared at us, which was a bit disconcerting. Was it our California plates? A long time
since they saw tourists? Bandito-land? Who knows.
There were several non-Guatemalan nurses walking through the town, so David pulled over so I could ask one of them if she knew about Maximon. She did. She had been there, but couldn’t remember how to get there. She did mention that it was spooky and it reminded her of voodoo. David went into a tienda to not only get a bottle of water, but to sweet-talk the old woman cashier into giving him directions. He came out and said it was near the only gas station that we passed while coming into town. We went to the gas station and the attendant said it was down the street on the right. He also said, ‘be careful’, and patted me on the shoulder. We went down the street and pulled into a building to once again ask for directions. A small man carrying a big gun appeared. When asked where Maximon was, he said it was by the gas station! It was almost like we were playing “getting warmer”! We turned around and saw a tuk-tuk driver dropping off a fare. We asked him for directions. He said he’ll show us where
to go, but he wouldn’t go down the street. Was he the only tuk-tuk driver and needed to get back into town? Again, who knows. We followed him, went down the street that he pointed to, and parked the car.
When we got out of the car, it had almost a carnival-like atmosphere. There were people selling trinkets and candles for Maximon, food and drinks, and outside the chapel there was an old couple selling small flowers to give to Maximon. We realized at this point that we did not have anything to give to Maximon. Outside the building there were about four or five bonfires, lit from pinecones and pine needles that were tended by a few men and women. There was also a tienda that sold items for Maximon: candles, cigars, liquor, etc. When we went inside the chapel, there were six tables. On these tables, there were candles of different colors. Each color signified a different meaning: light blue – money, happiness, safe travel and successful studies; red – love, faith, and personal will; pink – health and hope. There were nine different colors. There were also large votives with the likeness of Maximon. The walls
were laden with plaques thanking San Simon for his help. Upon closer examination, they were thanking him for motorcycles, cars, good crops, good health, etc. There were also men standing at the tables, lighting candles, lighting cigarettes, taking shots, and praying fervently. At the end of the building there was the shrine with Maximon inside. At the top of the shrine was a flashing ‘Bienvenidos Hermanos’ and ‘San Simon’ on top of that – sort of a Las Vegas meets Santa Claus. There were flowers decorating the shrine, as well as a Christmas stocking. Quite surreal.
The couple in front of us started up the stairs toward Maximon. They were carrying what looked like a large green trash bag. I was watching them surreptitiously. I didn’t want to seem disrespectful, but also wanted to see how it’s done. The couple was praying fervently to Maximon. I saw them take a flask-sized bottle out of their bag and place it in Maximon’s lap. Then they left, going backwards down the stairs, so as to never turn their back on him.
It was now our turn. We walked up the stairs and faced the effigy. Maximon was a mustached statue dressed in a suit and hat. In his left hand was a money bag and in his right, a walking stick. His hands were covered in plastic; his face was also covered in plastic and he had a towel in his lap. This was to protect him from worshippers that spray liquor and perfume on him. We noticed a bunch of coins on his lap. One of the websites said that it would be in bad form to go see Maximon without leaving anything. David left him a handful of coins, and then we, too, walked down the stairs backwards, never turning our backs on him.
I’m not sure what to make of Maximon; I do know that a lot of people believe. These people weren’t putting on a show for us like hula dancers; they were the real deal. I guess the lesson I learned was that, most religions, to the uninitiated, may seem scary or superstitious, but if you treat it with respect, you’ll come away with a better understanding and appreciation.
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