January 26, 2001

Cave of the Mayan Gods

by Albert Simonson

Guatemala is a very religious country, but the religion gets older and less Christian as you drive away from the capital.

The town of Antigua is all cobbled streets and baroque monasteries. It looks more like old Spain than Spain does.

Up through the cool, forested mountains, we find Lake Atitlán, surrounded by misty conical volcanoes and Indian villages. Writer Aldous Huxley called it the most beautiful lake in the world, and he may be right.

Around Atitlán, a favorite deity is Maximón. More Mayan than Catholic, Maximón smokes a fat cigar and wears three sombreros, stacked one upon the other. This god has a rare sense of humor.

Antigua Market. Antigua, in southern Guatemala, is a market town for the surrounding highland producers of coffee beans, wheat, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. Here, a woman sells her wares at the public market.

Like every other visitor, I ask the Indians "Who is Maximón?" Some look puzzled, some laugh, and all have different answers. I still don't know. It is like when my big sister asked our pastor to explain the Holy Trinity. He took three matches, lit them, held them apart, and intoned, "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." Then he put the matches together. Seeing the single, but larger flame, my big sister exclaimed, "It's the Holy Trinity." She understood. I did not. Maybe Maximón is the Trinity. Quien sabe?

Farther into the mountains, in Chichicastenango, a Christian church is built upon the steps of a Mayan pyramid. The conquistadors thought that would finish off the old gods. Except that the church is full of pine boughs and multicolored corn, and Indians sit on the floor and pass eggs over their heads. A few years ago, they were sacrificing chickens in here. The priest keeps a low profile in the house next door, perhaps hoping to be posted elsewhere.

On the steps of the old pyramid, Mayan holy men sprinkle whiskey on little piles of burning copal incense. They chant in Mayan, as onlookers drink Coca Cola and belch. One explains to me that the gaseous cola releases the holy spirits within, so belching is part of the sacred service. My belches are not as resonant as theirs.

We are distracted from the solemnity of the service by a passing procession bearing a suspiciously dark-skinned madonna. She looks like a relative of Maximón. The bearers, with grave expressions and colorful sashes of high office, are followed by musicians. The air fills with copal smoke and drum beats, wood flutes, tinkling and rattling sounds. Chickens flee the spectacle. Some children follow the procession and some pursue the chickens. My wife, a benefactor of chickens, suspects the worst and wishes to leave this town before blood is shed.

Much human blood was shed around here in recent years, as army units massacred and torched rural villages. There is still an occasional skirmish. There are bandits, too, but we are told they only work the night shift, while the army sleeps.

With two small boys as guides, we enter Utatlán, a ruin in a forest which once was a Mayan capital. No one is here among the pyramids, but as we explore a cave entrance under the ceremonial plaza, we happen upon a cluster of shy and smiling teenage Indian girls. They are afraid to enter the cave, and fidget nervously.

Only Rosalba has a bit of lipstick on. She also has more courage than the others, and follows us in. She hasn't heard of San Diego, but when I say it is near Hollywood, her pretty face brightens. We exchange addresses, and she is certain that she will visit us one day.

By now, the others have worked up courage to follow us down the long smoke-blackened tunnel. The girls alternately clutch at my jacket and, just as suddenly, let go, as they remember propriety. Shrieks, giggles, and moans fill the cave of the Mayan gods. The bats take wing.

Candle stumps still burn at a crude altar at the end of the tunnel. Copal, blood and feathers remain from a sacrifice to the gods. The air is thick with copal smoke. When I turn off my flashlight, the girls shriek and rush back toward the cave entrance, in a blind follow-the-crowd procession.

Then we are alone with Rosalba in silence, as burnt-out candle stumps flicker and fail one by one. It may seem that we are in the heart of darkness, but I cannot see it that way. I have seen too much innocence and sweetness in these people for that.

I hope Rosalba never comes to San Diego-near-Hollywood. I hope she stays as she is, and will always know peace.

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