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Holy Week in Santiago: In Which I Explore the Largest Town on Lake Atitlan, Photograph Processions Both Catholic and Pagan and End up in the House of Maximon at Night.

PANAJACHEL—I stepped off the boat onto the floating dock at Santiago and clapped my wide-brimmed Panama hat tightly onto my head. I slung the light NorthFace Recon pack over one shoulder and the Domke F3X camera bag over the other and began the uphill hike up the main street to Hotel Ratzan. To my right was the new, lakeside park, now underwater. Its concrete statues of Tzutuhuile women waded in Lake Atitlan, risen three meters or more these last few years. Boys played amongst them, splashing and diving, so it was still a park, just an unplanned water-park.

Santiago street scene during Semana Santa

It was Wednesday, the first day this year of Semana Santa, Holy Week. I had left Panajachel, where I had been for the last two months or more studying Spanish, to spend the week in Santiago on the other side of the lake. I had finished my last day of classes the Friday before. Most of my things I had left at my friend Yukon Dave’s house and I felt terrifically free. I was unencumbered by the schedule of classes, the weight of anything but a change of clothes and my cameras or, for that matter, knowing anyone.

I had made a lot of friends in Pana and a few said they might come over for the day to see Santiago in the midst of Holy Week’s whirl but I was alone in the largest town on Atitlan’s shores, the one with the largest indigenous Mayan population and the center of the worship of Maximon, San Simon, the Mayan god of necessary evil, a synchronization of the old trickster god Maximon, Saint Simon and Simon Judas. The idol, a semi-abstract wood carving of a bearded man about four feet tall, resides in a different house every year. At the end of Semana Santa he moves to his new residence. I had visited Maximon twice before in Santiago, once some six or seven years earlier and once on this trip, a month or so before. Worshipers, supplicants and the curious come to the house and, if following custom, bring offerings of tobacco, liquor, candles and money. The idol, wearing a cowboy hat and draped in scarves, usually has a cigar or cigarette in his mouth. When a new bottle of rum or aquardiente is proffered, the caretakers tip the idol back, place his cigar in an ashtray and pour liquor into the idol’s mouth. I have been told it flows into a cup behind Maximon and is later consumed by the caretakers. The honor of hosting Maximon is highly sought after as his cult is a strong one in the Guatemalan highlands and with him comes much wealth. Hosting this trickster god, however, all too often results in ruin for the family, who squander the money, descend into chronic drunkenness and quarreling and are left poorer than they began when Maximon moves to his new lair.

Santiago men carrying curious, large seed pods.

So, along with my feeling of freedom was one of trepidation. Santiago is not a town to be trifled with, it is one that holds secrets and is not a haven for gringos–at least not after the last boat leaves for the night and the trinket shops shutter their windows. Before I got to my room, several blocks up the main street, I ran into the tail end of a procession. Men were marching in line carrying what appeared to be some sort of four foot seed pods on their shoulders and there was some sort of action far up front. I had intended to drop off my pack, take a shower and relax a bit before getting lunch but this was what I had come for. I pulled the Leica M6ttl and Panasonic GF1 from the Domke and slung them around my neck, turned the latter on and set a basic exposure on the former which was loaded with 400 ASA Fuji Neopan black and white film. I began to shoot and to work my way forward as I did. The procession turned left and passed the market then right on the street below the cathedral. Here I made my way almost to the front and there was Maximon himself. I viewed him for the first time in sunlight, removed from his smoke-filled den. He was strapped, somehow, to a man’s shoulders who danced and slowly turned so that everyone could see the god-saint’s wooden visage. I was unable to fight my way through the last few feet of the crowd and after a few minutes the idol was taken into the municipal building and the crowd dispersed.

I went back to the hotel, dropped off most of my things and then hired a tuktuk or motorized rickshaw to drive me around the edges of town so I could better get the lay of the land. The day was overcast, with heavy grey clouds lowering over the lake, obscuring the peaks of the volcanoes and pregnant with the beginning of rainy season. I was exhausted, after the last weeks and after dinner went to my room, watched CNN for the first time in months and was asleep by 9 p.m., thinking rightly that I would have little opportunity for rest over the next days.

Santiago girls carrying a float in the children's parade.

Thursday morning I woke early and set out on the streets. I got breakfast then fell shortly into conversation with a man selling the typical Tzutuhuile costume in a booth near the market. His name was Juan Angel Mendoza and we spoke of the city, its history and problems and the events of the next few days. I then bought a pair of the long, blue and white striped shorts the Santiago men wore and the red sash to hold them up as well as woman’s sash for my wife, intricately beaded with a bird motif in the traditional style of the town. Every time I passed we would say hello and usually, unless I was following some procession, I would stop and chat with Juan Angel as well as other locals who would be at his booth. I soon found that random people around town, the waiters at the restaurant I frequented and others who I had not formally introduced myself to, knew my name. But in general I tried to speak with and introduce myself to as many people as possible, to acquire at least a passing and friendly acquaintance with people in a strange town where I knew no one.


Incense bearers leading a Holy Week procession.

Thursday and most of Friday passed in a blur as I followed procession after procession, exploring the side streets and eating or grabbing a restorative coffee at El Pescador restaurant in between events. Friday dawned dark grey and rainy. It was the day Maximon would be brought into the square in front of the cathedral, as would Jesus in his glass coffin. All day I followed processions and returned to the cathedral and the square in front. All through the city the fombras or carpets were being laid out on the main streets. These are intricate designs, composed of colored sawdust, pine needles, fruits and other materials, laid out by teams of men and women. They first chalk the designs on the ground then fill them in. Finally, the procession will march over them, destroying them in the passing. I feared the rain, which was intermittent but heavier as the day progressed, would destroy them but it seemed to do no harm. I was looking as well, for my friend Steve, a native Arizonan who was building a hotel in a small inlet called Patsizotz (The Place of the Bats) over near Santa Cruz. I saw Su, whose wedding I has just photographed a few days before and Alex and Patricia from London and a few other Panajachel expatriates but nothing of Steve.

Maximon was being held in a small, old building to the left of the cathedral, surrounded by pine boughs and his closest followers. Inside the church Jesus’ coffin was being prepared, sprayed with bottle after bottle of perfume until the fumes were suffocating. The square began to fill up and then Maximon was brought out as the rain fell and the sky darkened with clouds and the coming night. Maximon danced again and I began fighting my way forward and finally ran into Steve. He followed as I pushed and slipped and wiggled to the forefront, taking a vicious elbow to the stomach from an old Mayan man and a few shots to the ribs from others. Almost in the very front again we shot until Steve’s battery failed, the light failed for me and the rain began to fall harder.


Maximon faces his followers.

We decided to call it a night and extricated ourselves from the crowd and walked back down towards a restaurant near the hotel. We ordered a well-deserved Gallo and were about halfway through our cold Guatemalan brews when we heard shouts and whistles from the street. I grabbed my camera and got the flash up just as a crowd of Mayans came trotting down the street with Maximon on their shoulders and men with flashlights leading the way. We threw money on the table and followed but by then the streets were empty. We ran to a cross street and there a woman pointed to the left. We followed there and at the next turn another person pointed the way and soon we found ourselves on a dark street in front of the alley that led to the house where I had seen Maximon a month before. It dawned on me that this must be his going away party, the last hurrah before he changed residences. I looked around. A stream of Mayans was filing up the narrow alleyway, all dark heads and cowboy hats. We were the only two gringos and very gringo we were. I said, “Shall we go?” Steve, a man with many adventures behind him, shrugged, smiled and said, “Why not?”

Maximon's beer is delivered.

So again we pushed forward. In the small, sloping courtyard in front of the house a crowd was gathered pressed up against the open windows. Being the tallest person there I could see the inside was filled. I tried shooting over their heads but all I got was more heads so, a little at a time, I began working my way into the crowd, judging its sways, taking the place of anyone who moved forward or back. Soon we were inside. The crowd parted widely for several men bringing in cases of beer in large bottles and soon those bottles were being opened and poured into two glasses which were passed out, ceremoniously drained and passed back. I wondered if we would be included, the two glaring outsiders. After a while a glass was handed to me. I drank it and passed it back and soon one was sent to Steve. I felt that justified our presence as well as anything and I finally got right to the front of the crowd.

Maximon on the ground, his priest stands to the side.

Maximon was laid out, flat on his back. The evident priest stood to one side of him and people came forward, paid their respects and faded back. Little by little the crowd began to thin, like at the end of any party. I found myself back in the courtyard talking with Gaspar, a young man in his 20s wearing a striped polo shirt and jeans. Steve was in conversation with a man in a black beret with gold-rimmed teeth wearing a Che Guevera shirt and an old woman in full Santiago traje who spoke perfect American English and Tzutuhuile. She looked and moved like a gringa but used a Mayan name and said she was a, “Third degree Shaman.”

There were a number of Mayan men pressed closely around me and I thought it a good moment to pull out the pack of Rubios cigarettes I had bought for a situation such as this. I handed them around and soon the pack was empty, the smokes glowing in mouths and tucked behind ears. I crumpled the pack and calmly pulled out the second. Soon it was almost gone as well but a bit of tension seemed to be relieved. Gaspar, weaving just the slightest amount said, “It’s a shame people get robbed in Guatemala.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“I’d like to walk you out. You could even get robbed here.”

I am good at taking a clue and caught Steve’s eye. He felt the same shift and we said our adioses and followed Gaspar out into the night and away from the house where Maximon had a moment earlier been carried into the rafters. The night was cool and damp with the smell of incense and rain. I clapped Gaspar on the shoulder, “I am going to buy you a beer, my friend. Let us go and find a place.”

Ceremonial beer is poured in front of Maximon on the ground.

We returned to where we had been before Maximon had run by. The waiters looked at us all and said they were sorry but they only had two beers. It seemed strange but I thought nothing of it and we walked up to El Pescador. We pulled up three chairs on the patio and I ordered a round. The waiters refused, apologizing that it wasn’t me but Gaspar who was, in their opinion, “Bien bolo,” or, in the local parlance, “Well drunken.” I saw that they were correct and thus it was time to separate ourselves from Gaspar. The only question was how to do it gracefully as, well drunken though he might be, he had been nothing but good to Steve and me. Gaspar mentioned another place and we walked up the street before I said we had decided to call it a night, that it was already late and tomorrow would be a long day. Gaspar protested a bit and hung on, “Man, he said, “I really want a beer…”

“I know, amigo, here is 40 Q, that’ll buy a couple with change.”

“Thank-you my friend,” he said and hugged me tightly, “We are good friends forever, yes?”

“You are welcome, my friend,” I replied and shook his hand firmly, but that was not enough demonstration of amity. We hugged, close and manly six more times, amigo mio, my friend, que le vaya a bien, mañana si, mañana mi amigo, before finally Gaspar walked into the night. I rejoined Steve who was watching this with some amusement from down the block. We returned to El Pescador, sans Gaspar, and had our Gallos on the upper patio then returned to Hotel Ratzon and watched and listened to the Santiago night from the rooftop with some rum.

In the morning I checked out. I had planned to stay until Sunday but I felt it was time to go, that enough was enough. We had breakfast at El Pescador, several cups of coffee and then made for the dock and a fast passage across the morning-smooth lake. The shoreline of Panajachel was packed with Holy week revelers and we fought our way up Calle Santander to La Palapa just as the bar opened and the Saturday BBQ was beginning. The owner, Ricardo, another Arizonan welcomed me back to Pana and offered me a job that night photographing the bar and band, a job I accepted. Yukon Dave showed up and ordered his first Cuba Libre of the day and said I was welcome to stay at his place again as long as I didn’t mind that he had female company. After a bit we went back to his place where he met his girl. I rested a bit then returned to La Palapa where the evening’s festivities were just beginning. It was glad I had returned, that I was back on familiar ground after Santiago and that I could begin to say my goodbyes and rest up over the next week before returning to the US. I was wrong about the resting. That was the night I met Enrique Rodriguez, candidate for one of the Diputado (Congressional) seats for the department of Solola…


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