In the Mayan Highlands

We took a boat this morning across Lake Atitlan to visit the town of Santiago. The towns and villages around the lake are populated by Mayan tribes brought here by Spaniards from the surrounding areas in the 16th century to work the fields, but the tribe living in Santiago was always here. The color assigned to this tribe was purple.
The Maya in this area worshiped a local deity called Maximon. When the fist missionaries came here to convert the local population, they were horrified to find out that the population venerated a liqueur-drinking, cigar-smoking ex-convict turned saint who could be asked to do both good and bad things. But all the attempts to get rid of Maximon failed, so he was elevated to the status of a Catholic saint and added to the slew of the official saints. The saint now travels from house to house where people create shrines for him in their living rooms,dress him in local finery, bring him booze and cigars, and place him next to a wooden Jesus confined to a glass casket, and other legitimate saints. During Holy Week, Maximon is tied up and brought in front of a judge (remember, before he became god, he was a criminal), and then he is carried alongside with Jesus in the Holy Week procession.
His image is also present on the altar in the main town’s church founded in 1547!
South and central American churches are in a league of their own. There is something eerie, almost sinister about them: the whitewashed walls interrupted only by dark-wood altars and rows of saints, doll-like, dressed in traditional local garb and headdresses: Temples of Doom rather than European churches.
Next, back on the boat and to the village of San Juan. This village’s color was red, enlivened by pinstripes and geometric embroidery patterns. But the villages strayed, and wear whatever colors they want, including modern clothes. This village was the most charming yet. Now when I say “charming village”, don’t go imagining a quaint Tuscan hill town. It’s not like that here. It’s quaint relative to everything else, which was built with complete disregard to aesthetics. In San Juan, aesthetics was somewhat evident in brightly painted houses, narrow cobblestone streets climbing up the mountain, murals, flowers, and especially in the new church, just built, and ready to be open in a few weeks. The architects preserved the 16th century facade and left it free-standing a couple feet in front of the new facade, which created an interesting effect. The inside also looked more cheerful – light, with a grand altar and Spanish chandeliers, more cheerful, perhaps, because no saints have yet been delivered here.
The ride back across the lake was choppy. According to another legend, there lived here two lovers whose parents were against their union. So the couple committed suicide together. The gods took pity on the lovers and turned the girl into the lake and the boy into the wind who now comes to kiss his beloved every afternoon.


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