We skimmed the surface of Lake Atitlan, moving so fast that our hull didn’t seem to sink in. I was in a small boat with a big motor, flying across the lake from Panajachel, Guatemala. The kid driving the boat sat up tall, with a firm hand on the tiller. He dressed like a rapper, with his hat on sideways, sporting a New York Knicks basketball jersey. The water had the slightest chop on it, just windy enough to still have that deep sky blue with a bit of grey over the surface, like a smooth thin film. Volcanoes towered over either side of us as we pulled in a slow curve up to the dock at Santiago de Atitlan.
I was there to see Maximon, revered in this town, and across the Maya highlands. He is part Maya god, part conquistador, and part Judas. In different towns he has different looks and different names: in one town he is called San Simon, in another town he has the Mayan name of Ry Laj Man. In Santiago de Atitlan he is made of wood and called Maximon.
When I traveled around the world the first time, I felt like I left bad luck behind me. I had lived in Korea and returned to the US via Europe. There was nothing concrete that I could point to, but I suddenly didn’t hold the superstitions I had before. It was as if I hit a reset button during that two-year trip, as if coming home from the East when I had set out to the West had magic in it. But that doesn’t mean that there still aren’t things I consider lucky, I just don’t believe as much in the unlucky as I used to. I became a sort of superstitious optimist. Part of my interest in seeing Maximon was to learn how others view it, because to me he seemed to exist between religion and superstition.
By tradition, they move Maximon to a different person’s house every May 7. I asked around for his current whereabouts, walking along streets with houses rammed together, one flowing into another like an old European town. Everybody pointed in what seemed to be a different direction until finally I asked a lady walking up the street with a big basket perched on her head. She and her son wore colorful clothes, and when she smiled she flashed gold teeth, decorated with stars and other symbols. She told me Maximon was in the house right there and pointed to a couple of guys standing in a doorway.
They ushered me up a very narrow concrete alleyway and into a small, darkened room. A solitary window, covered over with something translucent and yellow, muted the sunlight. To the right of the doorway tourists and locals mingled, sitting on two small benches and holding lit candles. Across from the benches, in front of the door, stood a large wooden table. Three Maya men in native dress moved a ladder and a chair near it.
I read that you are supposed to bring candles, alcohol, or tobacco for Maximon. I had bought a candle the night before — I don’t drink or smoke so it felt dishonest to bring him the rum or cigars that he also likes. I lit the candle, but it went out. Did that mean I didn’t believe in any of this? Probably. I felt nervous, and laughed it off under my breath. I lit it again, and this time it continued to burn as I stood there in silence with the others.
Across from me two carved and painted depictions of Jesus on the crucifix hung on the wall. Another full-sized Jesus rested in a polished wood and glass case. The men put fresh flowers into the case with the resting Jesus. Then one of them cleaned the other statues with a rag, put fresh purple clothes on both of them, and a crown of roses on one of them.
The guys placed the ladder onto the table, and one of them went up into a small attic. Above the glass case atop Jesus was a three-footed wooden carving that I mistook for Maximon. It was actually just a stand, I think, for the flowers. Amid a flurry of instructions, one of the caretakers passed Maximon down from the attic to the other two who waited, arms stretched skyward, standing on the table.
Maximon was about three-and-a-half feet tall and made of wood, with a carved face and a real cigar sticking out of his mouth. He wore boots and two cowboy hats, one on top of the other, the underside of the brim of the lower hat blackened from tobacco. Silk scarves and ties ringed his neck. The caretakers set a small rug down so his cowboy boots would not touch the ground. An altar and two bouquets of flowers were set in front of him. Some Maya women had melted the ends of their lit candles to stick them to the floor. Through encouraging gestures, they showed me to do the same. It was at this point, after submitting your offering, that you are supposed to ask Maximon for something. I asked him to look out for my brother Al, who died the year before. By then they had given Maximon a drink of rum, pouring it into his mouth, and had replaced the unlit cigar with a lit cigarette, which they attended to regularly, knocking off the ash so none of it got on Maximon’s silk ties. The cigarette burned as if Maximon were drawing a very slow drag.
“Look after Al, Maximon,” I thought.
I would like to think that remembering someone important in a faraway place might do some good. Maybe someone could keep an eye out for those we’ve lost. The thought itself is worthwhile, even if you’re talking to a wooden statue.
Maximon remained silent, smoking, flanked by his Maya retainers and the three Jesus statues to his left. His eyes were fixed ahead as the tendrils of smoke reached skyward.
I paid to 10 quetzals to photograph Maximon. Three photos later I learned that every picture of Maximon cost 10 quetzals. This money was placed under the tie directly below Maximon’s chin, each bill crisp amid his bright silk scarves and ties.
On the way back from Maximon’s house, I saw the kid who drove the boat over from Panajachel. He was docked, waiting to run another boat back across the lake as soon as he could fill it with passengers. He asked me in Spanish what I did in Santiago de Atitlan. I was happy I had the vocabulary to answer.
“I saw Maximon,” I said.
“What did you think?” he asked me.
“It was interesting,” I said.
“Interesting,” he repeated.
“Do you believe in Maximon?” I asked him.
“No,” He said.
“Are you a Catholic?” I asked.
“No. Not a Catholic either, but look,” he said. “Here is a little Maximon…” as a teenage friend of his walked up. The teenager laughed and called him a pain in the ass.
“Do you believe in Maximon?” the teenager asked me as I got into the boat.
I paused a moment before I answered him.