I made it to the Lake Atitlán area yesterday, via shuttle and then a boat across the lake to San Pedro. It is very scenic here, but for some reason I´m getting a weird vibe from the place. Could be all the drugs, or maybe the sketchy guy who tried whisking me away from the internet cafe across the street from my hotel. I opted to stay here instead of the more tranquil San Marcos, because I was hoping to meet some friendly folks... but not *that* friendly!!
Anyway, today I took a boat to another part of the lake to check out Santiago Atitlán and visit Maximón, the Mayan devil-saint who sits in a small dark room and smokes a stogey. Sometimes he´s known as San Simón, but in the Mayan dialect his name is pronounced /mash-ee-MOHN/. According to my guidebook, some say he represents a Franciscan friar who chased after young indigenous girls. He´s always associated with vices such as smoking and drinking. My kinda guy! Had to go check him out.
On the ferry ride from San Pedro to Santiago Atitlán I was befriended by two local children who were heading back home with their mom. They caught me taking pictures of them and were fascinated by my digital camera, insisting I take several pictures of them and then taking some of me. Then they proceeded to ask me all about myself, my family, my travels, and about a million other questions. It was a fun way to pass the time.
It´s pretty easy to find a guide once you hit the dock at Santiago Atitlán. I was told you should expect to pay around 10 quetzales (less than two bucks) and that the first guide who proffers himself, even if it´s a small child, will suffice. OK, so I grabbed the first guide on the dock, and along with another woman and her daughter, we headed into town to find the house where Maximón is hanging out this year. They change the location each year, and it´s nearly impossible to find the place without a local guide to lead you through narrow alleys and up ridiculous hills. Finally, we ducked into a dark corner, and waited our turn in line to see the man himself.
The statue sits in a dark room, minded by a Guatemalteco who supposedly engages him in rituals such as drinking rum and smoking cigars. None of that was happening when we were there, but the room itself was filled with candles and other creepy quasi-religious paraphernalia. Mayan religions tend to mix a little from Christianity and a little from indigenous traditions, resulting in a bizarre melange of some familiar Catholic icons and lots of other not-so-familiar bits and pieces. There was a coffin to the side of the room, containing a creepy mannequin representing Santa Cruz, supposedly the patron saint of the Mayan people. From the corner of the room came some cheesy electronic Christmas carols. (WTF??) The woman in front of me almost caught her pants on fire on one of the burning candles on the floor, which people light when they come to make a request of Maximón. Apparently each color signifies a different request -- good crops, healthy baby, good marriage, etc. When it was our turn to approach Maximón, we had to pay extra to take photos and then got rushed along for the next group to move through. Not much in the way of explanation or anything from either the minder or our guide. The statue *was* pretty creepy, with a big white face, black hat, and no legs just funny little feet. Definitely something ya gotta see to believe, even if it is a tourist trap.
Next stop was the big Catholic church further up the hill. This was actually much more interesting, even if we weren´t allowed to take any pics inside. In front, a funeral mass was being conducted and townspeople gathered to pay their respects while the priest intoned prayers and waved incense. Inside, there´s a shrine to Father Rother, an American missionary killed by guerillas whose heart is interred in this church although the rest of him is buried in Oklahoma. All kinds of saints dressed in brilliant fabrics lined the sides of the church, and the entire front wall was covered in wood carvings representing various Bible stories.
We approached the end of the tour, and our little guide waited patiently for his cash. You have to go through this dance where you ask how much, and they say "Oh, it´s a volunteer gig!" And you´re supposed to pay "whatever you think it´s worth." Well, in this case I happened to have some inside information, but when I offered 10Q the little bugger insisted on 100! Do I look stupid? I mentioned that I´d heard 10Q was the going rate, and he insisted that was *just* to see Maximón, and we´d gone to see the church and all... Criminy. I suck at bargaining. I offered him 30, but he wouldn´t settle for less than 50. Feeling like a big fat sucker, I slunk off to find some lunch.
I soothed my wounded pride with a lovely meal at El Pescador, which serves black bass fish fresh from the lake. Yummy! And on the boat ride back to San Pedro a friendly old man named Nicolas struck up a conversation and once again I passed some time fascinating a local with tales of my travels. All in Spanish, no less. Spent the rest of the afternoon taking a leisurely dip in the lake and relaxing in the hammock garden at my hotel. Mmmmm, that´s better!
After a quick dinner, I found myself with nothing to do. I could sit in my windowless room (well, there was a window, but I had to close it against the mosquitoes since there was no screen) and try to read by the dim light until my eyes went completely blind. Or I could go out and find something more social to do. Freedom Bar, one of the hotspots of San Pedro, was practically next door to my hotel, so I wandered over there to see what was shaking. The place has some trippy decór, with lots of fluorescent lighting and dark little nooks overlooking the lake. I sat at the bar for a while and nursed a few Cuba Libres, which were shockingly cheap since it was, as the goth Canadian bartender with a bit of a Gina Gershon thing informed me, "la hora de triste." (Hey, I thought it was funny. But that´s what happens when you sit at a bar in a foreign country and the only other people around are a sullen French couple to your right who make no attempt at small talk.) Just as I was about to give up, an engineer from Berkeley who was waiting on a handful of drinks for his friends struck up a conversation. FINALLY! Somebody grasps the concept! He invited me to join the rest of the clan, and I spent the next hour or two engaged in pleasant traveltalk (where you from, what´d you do, where you been, where ya going next) with two other Bay Area engineers and a Polish chick. The cheap drinks flowed for the rest of sad hour, and every once in a while someone would return from the bar with a "space cookie." I didn´t feel much of an effect, but the conversation did seem to get wittier so maybe there was something to it after all. There was some mention of going back to smoke somebody´s stash, which didn´t really appeal, but nobody seemed to be organizing anything so the witty banter continued.
Eventually some sort of rap open mic started up, and we all moved toward the dance floor to get a better look. A few minutes later I turned around, and everyone had left. Dude! Ditched by stoners! That´s it, I´ve had enough of this place. Tomorrow it´s on to Xela.
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