Reaching the idol involves a journey through a series of towns whose names resemble bad Scrabble hands, through Quetzaltenango, also known as Xela, to Zunil. The best way there is by lorry. If you stand on the right corner in the sprawling city of Xela, sooner or later a truck will judder to a halt and willing hands haul you aboard for the half-hour journey.
Guatemala's modest Mecca commands a stunning position in the Samala valley. High ridges on either side of the river cocoon the town from the outside world. Zunil is dominated by a large colonial church, glowing white against the mud-coloured houses. On Mondays, when the town is given over to the market, it is a bustling, colourful place. The rest of the time the square is tranquil. A few local women, in traditional purple dress, gossip and sell fruit and vegetables in a nonchalant fashion.
Villagers are resigned to the inevitable approach and the predictable enquiry in Spanish of 'Donde esta Maximon?' After a few wrong turns down labyrinthine cobbled streets, you track down the saint. He holds court in a wooden shed, rather more opulent than the dwellings of most of the local people. While the streets of Zunil are quiet, the muddy yard outside Maximon's home is full of chattering women and squawking chickens. The dimly-lit hut exudes a faint smell of incense. Inside, in a wooden enclosure in the corner, sits Maximon. The room is largely unadorned, but the walls within the cage are decorated with gaudy, flowery wallpaper, of the type commonly used in motel bathrooms.
Maximon turns out to be a tailor's dummy, kitted out in a suit and tie, straw hat, glasses and woolly gloves, with a fetching embroidered scarf draped around his shoulders. A cane lies propped up against his chest, and his eyelashes have a generous coating of mascara. He looks like the result of an only partially successful experiment to cross-breed the Milky Bar Kid with a Thunderbirds puppet.
Two villagers sporting baseball caps fuss around him, making sure the ash from his cigarette does not fall on to his suit and giving him a drink now and again. Worshippers wander in and out of the hut, making offerings of candles and cigarettes which they light and place on the ground to burn. Maximon stares expressionless from his rocking chair, oblivious to the kerfuffle.
Maximon is a smoking and drinking saint of mysterious origin. Most researchers believe him to be the reincarnation of a Mayan god called Mam, although originally the idol had to make do with offerings of food rather than alcohol and tobacco. It is thought he was converted into a saint to pacify the Spanish after they conquered Central America. This may explain why he is also called San Simon; however, the origins of his other pseudonyms, Judas Iscariot and Pedro de Alvarado (a ruthless conquistador involved in the conquest of Guatemala), are less easily fathomed.
The Catholic Church may frown upon Maximon, but it does nothing directly to prevent his worship. His cult is one facet of the intermingling of Christian and non-Christian religions in Guatemala. The phenomenon of folk Catholicism has been present since the conquest. The Spanish turned a blind eye to the worship of idiosyncratic idols in return for the nominal conversion to Christianity of the nation of indigenous Indians. However, while they are left to worship Maximon in peace, their other civil rights are habitually abused. One of the most beautiful and fascinating parts of the world is politically abhorrent.
Five hundred years after the conquest, Maximon has no shortage of worshippers. Some ask for help in their love lives, others pray for a good harvest. A behatted preacher, one of the minders, spouts a constant stream of invocations and prayers. The women often cry, and sometimes wail in distress. The ritual usually culminates in the offering of money, a cigarette and a small jug of quezalteca, the local liquor. To administer the alcohol, one disciple tips Maximon's chair back while the other carefully pours the mouth- searing potion down his throat.
The attendants claim that the liquor is 'absorbed' by the saint. Only foreign cynics would suggest it is actually piped away for recycling in the local bars. These same unbelievers must pay pounds 1 to take photographs, helping to keep Maximon in booze and fags for a few more days.