Guatemala’s Couch Surfing Saint Isn’t What He Seems
The renegade saint dwelt in a back alley bathed in the shadow of a lakeside village church, keeping the company of street children and washed up drug addicts. After taking a few steps down the grimy, concrete-walled crevasse, the silhouette of a head popped out of a doorway to greet us visitors. “Maximon is here,” the shadow whispered.
I squeezed through the slim doorway, and found myself in a cramped, musty living room. The scene was dimly lit by a string of flickering fairy lights, and some drooping candles slowly oozing through cracks between the floorboards. Maximon’s entourage of figurine saints were packed into the room, and Jesus was lying in a glass coffin in the far corner. There was music – it sounded like a retro mobile phone ringtone on repeat. At times, it seemed like the electronic beeping synced up with the flashing fairy lights. Coloured strips of plastic hung from the roof, giving the room a vague carnival side-show atmosphere. Closer to the door, a few children appeared to be playing near a table with a big red tank of water on it. It was like the kind of tank that often appears on the sidelines of football games. There was pattern to the children’s game. They were trotting between a window and the tank, but in the darkness it was impossible to see what they were doing. There were sounds coming from outside the window, but I didn’t pay any attention to them. Instead, I was fixated on the figure in the middle of the room – Maximon himself.
Despite being revered throughout the Guatemalan highlands, Maximon isn’t the kind of character normally associated with sainthood. This unorthodox Mayan saint drinks hard liquor, smokes like a train and has a reputation for being anything but celibate. The village of Santiago on the shores of Lake Atitlan is Maximon’s home turf; though the saint’s free and easy ways have landed him in a bit of trouble over the years. The trickster saint has been rejected by the Catholic church, and many of Santiago’s fast-growing evangelical churches have branded his worship as heresy. With nowhere else to go, the elders of Santiago have taken it upon themselves to find local households to host Maximon. Once a year, the couch surfing saint is moved to a new home chosen by the elders.
When we arrived at Maximon’s temporary abode, we found the exiled saint standing erect in the middle of that dank room. He was wearing two cowboy hats, and a dozen colourful ties. An unlit, chunky cigar was lodged between his carved wooden lips.
The saint’s figure stared lifelessly at two sunburned backpackers sitting on a wobbly bench in front of him. A guide was explaining something to them in a hushed voice, and they were nodding between glances at the stubby wooden figure.
A helper sitting beside Maximon asked my partner and I for a few cents worth of cash upon entry. The small fee was just “for maintaining things, like the flowers for Maximon,” he explained quietly, in a tone of reverence. The helper pointed to a mass of wilted petals protruding from a small vase near Maximon. Along with two coins, I also handed over a bottle of cheap aguardiente. According to local rumours, Maximon always appreciates a donation of alcohol.
“Thank you very much,” the helper whispered as he clasped the bottle with both hands. With his head bowed, the helper delicately placed the bottle in a slot in an alter before Maximon. It was a perfect fit. He quietly recited a prayer I couldn’t understand.
I then noticed a collection of empty bottles of the same cheap aguardiente lying behind Maximon. I momentarily wondered if Maximon could somehow drink, or if the helper shared the saint’s vices.
More payment was requested when I asked for a photo of the saint. A crumpled bill changed hands.
While I took photos, my partner was given an explanation of other “services” Maximon offers. The guide explained that Maximon’s vast collection of hats and ties were all donations from worshipers. After Maximon had worn the gifts, they were then sold as magic tokens back to the faithful. Maximon’s hand-me-down hats generally go for around Q2000 (roughly US$260), while the ties fetch a few hundred queztals each. Exactly who pockets the cash wasn’t explained.
As the conversation drew on, my partner looked increasingly uncomfortable. She kept looking over at the children. They were carrying something to the window, and taking money. Then she saw that they weren’t playing at all. They were splashing stingy portions of aguardiente into plastic bags, topping them up with water and selling them from the window. Outside, an exhausted group of lazy-eyed men were eagerly guzzling the diluted drink. One drunk man snatched a bag from a child and downed it in a single gulp.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her as I finished snapping photos. I was still ogling the shrine.
Looking sideways at the helper, she said, “I’ll tell you later”.
Soon we were back in the sunlight.
Heading back through town, my partner told me about what she’d seen. All the while, touts kept coming up to us and offering to show us the way to Maximon in exchange for a few quetzals.
“Maximon is very special, I can show you the way,” one man said.
As we approached Santiago’s docks, we passed more tourists walking in the opposite direction. They all had their little bottles of aguardiente ready for Maximon.
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