A dozen dusty chickens scuttled ahead of us in the dirt, parting like bobbing, feather-capped waves on the Red Sea, if you believe in that sort of miracle.
It was a fitting introduction to San Simon, a local deity we were seeking out in a small Guatemalan market town in the mountains. Looking up at the nearby ring of mountains and volcanoes, I understood the need for a miracle-maker, even one who was known for womanising, drinking and smoking.
The origins of San Simon are mixed, at best. Originating in the Guatemalan highlands around the time of the Spanish conquest of the Mayans, it’s unclear whether the original Saint Simon was an 18th century Catholic priest, known as much for his wicked womanising ways as for his good deeds, or whether he was a boozy itinerant Mayan shaman called Maximon, who lived 500 years ago, performing acts of charity as he travelled the mountain regions..
The legends about Maximon vary, but the common beliefs agree that he was both friend and fiend, representing light and dark. It’s said that fisherman hired him to protect the virtue of their wives while they travelled for work – he accepted their money and seduced the women in his care. He made dreams come true, healed sickness and brought wealth, but he also handed out justice at the expense of someone else and partied like a demon.
Most likely he’s a fusion of the two, a merging of myth, culture and superstition that Latin America easily embraces.
I’d travelled by chicken bus that morning from Quetzaltenango with a couple of other spanish-language students to the village of Zunil, after hearing about the hard-living, cross-cultural saint who changed his address regularly. Finding him was simply a matter of asking around and in barely ten minutes we were crossing a roughly fenced area that enclosed rustic buildings, animal pens and vegetable beds. Chickens and pigs roamed the dusty yard along with small children and a couple of skinny dogs.
San Simon held court in a small, unremarkable central building.
We entered at the rear of a large, dimly-lit room with rows of chairs facing a bright and blazing spectacle. Candles in jars sat on a long bench, silhouetted by silver-framed pictures of San Simon. Festive paper flowers decorated the walls and floor around a figure in a black suit, gloves and cowboy hat. Small orange flowers, seemingly freshly picked, sat in jars among this riot of colour and light.
Slouched in a high-backed timber chair amid the candlelight and floral display – orange shirt and tie blaring – San Simon, part mannequin, part god, sat immobile, cigarette dangling over his chin as three men knelt before him in supplication. The flickering light, the bright colours, the Roy Orbison outfit and the men muttering in low voices created a surreal atmosphere in the dim candlelight.
One of the kneeling men stood and poured a liquid, probably aguadiente, the local sugarcane-based firewater, into San Simon’s “mouth”. Almost immediately a stream of liquid splashed loudly into a bowl under the chair, at discord with the sound of muted prayers. From the shadows a woman darted forward and placed a bowl of tamales in his lap, before mouthing her own appeal, hands clasped firmly together and eyes cast downward.
Surreal or not, the believers of San Simon were waiting for their own miracles.