I’ve never had a midlife crisis before so I’m not exactly sure how they work.
At the moment, I’m in the middle of Guatemala on a secret pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Maximón— the ancient Mayan patron saint of lust, mischief, and sin. I have absolutely no idea why, but I simply have to find him.
A mid-life crisis is the only reasonable explanation I’ve come up with so far.
Bobbing across the rippling waters of Lake Aititlan on a ferry headed toward the village of Santiago de Atitlan, I’m trying to explain to Joe and Connie, my unsuspecting travel companions, why we need to deviate from our scheduled plans for a day trip to Maximón’s shrine.
According to folk legend, Maximón— a philandering, chain-smoking, alcoholic, badass— was hired by traveling fishermen to protect the virtue of their wives while they went off to work. To no one’s surprise, as soon as the men left the village, Maximón seduced and slept with their wives. All of them. When the men discovered what he’d done, they cut off Maximón’s arms and legs in revenge— leaving him an emasculated stump.
But sometimes you just can’t keep a bad hombre down.
For hundreds of years, Maximón (aka San Simon) has been beloved by the Guatemalan people as part Mayan deity, part Catholic saint, and part con man. An example of a syncretic cult religion emerging from the Spanish conquest, the effigy of Maximón blends elements of pre-Colombian culture with aspects of Catholicism. And his role is strictly transactional. He’ll grant anything your heart desires in exchange for money, cigarettes, and booze— leaving a blurry line between belief and bribery. Some consider his worship a way for oppressed indigenous people to preserve their heritage— not to mention, a creative way to give the “Mayan middle finger” to invaders and cultural disruptors at the same time.
The Catholic Church is screaming into a pillow.
But considering Guatemala’s poverty, corruption, and violence, it makes sense that people might feel more hopeful asking for help from a deity with such moxie. Maximón is like a Powerball ticket where just having a chance to dream of a better life is part of the fun. And you just never know when you might get lucky.
The more I thought about Maximón, the more I succumbed to his hypnotic spell– like that proverbial, partying bad boy my parents always warned me about.
I must be losing my mind.
Our boat pulled up to a dock. We hopped out along with the rest of the locals and headed up a cobblestone road toward the center of town. Outside the marketplace we approached an autorickshaw driver to enquire about Maximón’s whereabouts.
¿Dónde podemos encontrar a Maximón?
You see, hidden among the cramped alleyways, Maximón’s effigy resides in a different household every year. The lucky residents convert their home into a sanctuary and spend the year as his attendants to hang out, drink, and smoke alongside him (#BestJobEver).
Only certain people know the location and the trick is finding out who.
Luckily the driver knew who to ask, so we hopped in the auto rickshaw and sped off— right, left, right, left— winding our way through the narrow streets until we pulled up outside a small bodega. Inside the store, we again asked:
¿Dónde podemos encontrar a Maximón?
The proprietor nodded and called his friend to take us to the shrine. I bought a pack of smokes as an offering and we all followed the guide back out the door. Right, left, right, left— we scurried to keep up through the dark alley until our guide disappeared into a dimly lit room veiled in cigarette smoke.
Be still my heart.
Surrounded by candles, flowers, and several sauced attendants holding vigil was a carved wooden stump wearing nothing but flamboyant scarves, a Stetson, and a smug grin. I felt an instant connection. Captivated by his stoic charm, I offered Maximón a cigarette, but he remained motionless. With his smoldering gaze and self-possessed swagger it was clear he was playing hard to get— but the chemistry between us was palpable.
Mesmerized by his presence, I moved in closer. Still not a word was spoken, yet our powerful bond was that of soul mates.
It’s so great when someone just gets you, you know?
Suddenly it became clear to me why he was so beloved. In Maximón’s eyes, my vices weren’t something to be ashamed of— just part of my charm. From my coffee addiction to my being five minutes late to every appointment to all the times I bought a carton of ice cream and threw the lid away to binge eat it in one sitting— I finally felt freed from the guilt.
Maximón is a reminder that nobody’s perfect.
My mission nearly complete, I laid the pack of smokes on the altar, and took a deep breath— ready to ask Maximón my question…….