Lake Peten-Itza is surrounded by many small towns and Flores is the pit stop to get to Tikal (the largest Mayan ruins in Guatemala, made famous by the movie Star Wars). I immediately fall in love with the cobblestone streets of Flores with little cafes lining the streets. People are friendly, almost oblivious to the tourists that come here. Not many speak English. It’s a small town and everyone seems to know everybody else.
There’s a big celebration tonight, an initiation of a sacred Mayan ceremony to pass the traditions onto the youth. Everyone is invited. I go with a few friends that are traveling together. We’re given a private tour of the town information center. One of the rooms contains a small statue of Maximon (pronounced Mash-ee-mono), believed to be a Mayan and a Christian God. Christianity started to spread with the Spanish invasion around the mid-1500’s. Many Mayans started practicing it out of fear but created their own version, almost combining the two religions. There are many conflicting stories about who Maximon actually was, but he’s famous for the types of offerings that people bring to him: mainly cigars and liquor. He’s known as “The Smoking God” amongst the travelers. I try to suspend all my eastern beliefs for the moment (where it would sacrilegious to bring alcohol near any deities) and see what I can learn from this experience.
As the ceremony starts, the priest is slowly and deliberately setting up the fire in the middle of the street with the offered cigars and candles of different colors laid out in four cardinal directions (Christian influence): Red ones for the hopis, black for Africa, Yellow for Asia and Mayans, and white for Europe. He’s praying for the equilibrium for everything, the whole universe not just the Mayans. The ceremony starts with an effigy of a tall woman in a white dress, which anyone can pick up and put on and dance to the live marimba music playing. Laughter infuses through the streets when anyone picks up the effigy and does their version of the dance. The locals cheer each other on. A few little kids try it to the applause of their parents and friends.
After and hour or so the fire is finally ready, the priest and his teenager sun come out all dressed up with facial masks painted on. They circle around and bow down and kiss the ground in each of the four directions. I’m not exactly sure what they’re reciting since it’s in a Mayan dialect. The priest picks up the rum(?) bottle drinks it and spits it onto the fire. He does this a few times. After about half hour of this, they ask for volunteers. Before I know it the priest is walking over to me and hands me some seeds and instructs me to walk around the fire thirteen times, making a wish each time and throwing in the seeds. I’m relieved when a few other people follow in the same manner behind me. All of a sudden, it’s personal and truly feels like a sacred moment. I send out my wishes for the universe quietly and as mindfully as I can. The ceremony ends as casually as it had started and people move on to eating the tapas that are being sold in the streets.
I later learn from a wise Shaman that the offerings of cigar and liquor are symbolizing the things that you wish to be taken away from you. So in essence, you’re giving them to Maximon to help you get rid of them although I can’t say that this is how it’s regularly interpreted by the locals. It makes me wonder about how I’ve arrived at many of my own beliefs.