I recently read the memoir Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by American man Martin Prechtel. It is an intruiging account of his time living among the Tz’utijil Maya community in the village of Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, an ancient indigenous culture which is usually very much closed off to outsiders.
I love visiting places I read about in a book or see in a film but I have a propensity to romanticize them in my mind. So on our second morning in lake Atitlan, I attempted to leave my expectations behind (again) and see what the village of Santiago had to offer a naive tourist such as myself.
An icy cold wind whipped through me on the morning boat ride to Santiago from Panajachel, the village we were staying in. I rugged up and braced myself against the surprising blast of cold air coming off the water and took in the view of blue skies and just perceptible volcanic peaks. Boats cris-crossed the wide lake as the most common form of transport for both locals and tourists.
I had no idea what awaited us in Santiago. All I knew was that it was the largest indigenous village on the lake and home to the Tz’utujil Maya community and their revered deity, Maximon; a saint to the local people who is central to their religious and cultural traditions.
Stepping off the boat in Santiago, a hand met mine, assisting me safely onto the wooden pier. The boy who the hand belonged to was dressed in tight black jeans, colourful trainers, a dark green t-shirt and a look of hopeful expectation.
He asked if I would like to see Maximon and I said yes. Tyrhone hadn’t read the book or done any research on the place and was slightly taken aback by my agreeing on the services of a teenage tour guide. It’s not usually something I would do, as I usually prefer to get around and explore on my own, but for some reason I didn’t mind being a tourist for the day, being led around a village as a mere observer.
Plus, the kid seemed sweet and I was going with the flow.
He began with the usual small talk in Spanish, “De donde eres?” (where are you from), “Es tu primera ves en Guatemala?” (Is it your first time in Guatemala?) and then we began to talk about the kangaroos of Australia, one of my favourite conversation topics. As someone with basic Spanish who hasn’t done nearly enough formal study, I relish interactions like these. No longer afraid of being spoken to in Spanish, I enjoy fumbling my way through. I delight at the opportunity to practice and celebrate small victories of comprehension, even if some of it is just guessing.
The kid’s name was Juan and he was from, yep you guessed it, Santiago Atitlan.
We stopped for a coke before continuing along the avenue lined with handicraft stalls. A dirty faced little boy emerged from a stall with a wooden object, chanting, “Maximon, Maximon!” in an attempt to sell us a carving of the revered Mayan saint we were about to visit.
I wondered just how much of a tourist trap/rip off this experience would end up being but decided to not worry about it. Sometimes I am so concerned about being taken advantage of that I close myself off to certain things, and I didn’t want it to be one of those days.
We followed Juan down a narrow alley way and came to a small courtyard in front of several make-shift houses. Women busied themselves washing and drying clothes as chickens wandered around in the dirt, clucking and pecking at the ground.
Inside the ‘Sacred House,’ copal incense filled the small space. A large wooden carving of Maximon, the beloved deity with a man’s face was draped in silk scarves and two large black hats. A lit cigarette sat between his pursed wooden lips.
We stood to the side while a local man and woman knelt before the shrine of Maximon. No-one seemed to take much notice of us. I felt like we were imposing a little, but figured it was pretty common for tourists to visit, especially with a local guide. I asked Juan if it was okay to take photos and he said it was, we just had to give an extra 10 Quetzales ($1.50) to the saint as an offering.
Tyrhone and Juan
The ceremony unfolds
Juan explained that the man was a shaman and was conducting a ceremony for the woman who was ill.
The shaman chanted in the local dialect while swinging an incense-filled urn, placing one of Maximon’s hats on the lady’s head and then removing it for her to kiss. He repeated this several times.
A slight man with a wide smile sat in the corner smoking, drinking and playing guitar, while an American woman dressed in traditional attire chain smoked and talked on her cell phone loudly as though oblivious to the whole thing.
She didn’t seem to offend the locals at all though, weirdly enough. She had an air of belonging and seemed to know everyone. There was no western sense of religious reverence here, except for two gringos (us) standing in the corner, terrified of offending anyone.
Another European-looking guy came in and paid his respects to Maximon by kissing his silken scarves. He then shook everyone’s hand in the room, including ours.
It was all so wonderfully weird and impossible to understand.
After the ceremony, everyone drank sodas and beers and smoked cigarettes. The woman who the ceremony was for left with her husband so we took our queue to pay our respects (and our dues) to Maximon before high-tailing it out of one the most carnival-esque religious rituals we had ever seen.
Juan asked if we would like to see the market and of course, I said yes. Hordes of local women gathered to buy, sell and trade their goods.
We wandered through the narrow aisles, stepping around baskets of ripe mangoes and piping hot grills topped with blackened, fresh tortillas. The slap, slap of the tortilla makers is probably the most prevalent sound of Guatemala.
All tortillas are made by hand, and always by women, unlike Mexico where machines do most of the work.
Emerging from the market, we made our way to the town square and toward to the Cathedral. Near the entrance, an elderly woman dressed in elaborate traditional dress approached me selling brightly coloured, beaded key-rings. I bought one.
Two little girls approached me, begging for money. I gave them hi fives and big smiles which did little to dissuade them from their game of endless begging. I gave them the key ring. They bolted off. I mused that they probably worked with the old woman, but didn’t mind either way.
Inside the church, I read about the massacre which occurred in the village during the civil war. The indigenous population of Guatemala suffered greatly during the war, which only officially ended in 1996, and it seemed Santiago was no exception to the violence.
A frail, elderly woman sat inside the church, praying. When I passed, she asked me for money and I gave her some. She had a large boil on her nose and kind eyes. She held my hand and we sat together for a little while while she prayed and I listened, not understanding anything except the fact that sometimes you don’t need to.
When we exited the church, it was time to say goodbye to Juan. We thanked him and I handed him a fifty Quetzal note as payment for his services. He said shyly it was a hundred. As he had told me initially it was just a donation, I decided that $7 was plenty for less than an hour-long tour. He didn’t push the issue, just smiled and wandered off.
Afterwards we had a delicious cup of coffee at a cafe on the small tourist strip leading to the dock before catching the boat to San Pedro, a town popular with backpackers.
After a delicious curry at D’noz restaurant, it was time to make our way back to Panajachel. We took up residence at a deserted waterfront cafe and sipped banana licuados while we waited for the sunset. We were early, so we sat there for hours, just staring out over the water.
Locals gathered on wooded piers and canoes glided across the glassy, silver surface.
A doggie gets a ride on a canoe…
It wasn’t until late that night, exhausted from such an eventful day that I remembered my pledge that morning to go with the flow and see what happened. What happened was one of my favourite days of this trip so far. As tourists, our experience was probably pretty stock-standard and nothing too out of the ordinary, but I really enjoyed it.
The many unique cultures of the Maya are ones I will never be privy to. Like most indigenous cultures they are complex and connected to the Earth in a way I will never know. But I am grateful to be allowed to learn a little more and observe some of their traditions in what I hope is a respectful way.
Tyrhone made a film about our time at Lake Atitlan, including the Mayan ceremony we were lucky enough to witness. I’m so glad we will always have it to look back on.
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