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San Pedro is another little town across the lake to the southeast from Panajachel. It is a destination for many that come to Lago Atitlán but less visited than the larger Santiago Atitlán. Lying at the base of a volcano of the same name, it is poor, dusty and known to be an even more inexpensive place to stay than Panajachel. World-roaming backpackers are a regular contingent of the visitors.
Small winding cobblestone streets make up the central portion of town. Beyond that, dirt paths crisscross the mountainside among open areas where trash covers the ground beneath old coffee plants and trees in crowded, dirt-floored residential areas. I explored and met residents going about their domestic chores. It was fascinating and, at times, sad. So many of the people I met were very poor, as they are elsewhere around the lake, but there in those crowded areas was a destitution I had not expected. I must say those I met were friendly, warm, and made me feel very welcome. It was a revelation of a visit.
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I was picked up at a pier made of a stretch of two planks laid side by side, laid on a structure of tree trunks sunk into the shallow water. A fisherman in a small fiberglass outboard gave me the twenty-minute ride from San Pedro around Volcán San Pedro to Santiago Atitlán. This was to be the first of two visits I made.
The traje worn in Santiago is unique and beautiful, as it is in many places throughout Guatemala. Local folk can be seen dressed in clothing (women in huipiles- blouses - and men in pantalones- long shorts) designed with black-thread grids, each square beautifully filled with embroidered birds or other animals, and flowers.
Santiago also has Maximón. He is a wooden effigy nearly four feet tall, clad in leather shoes, a shirt and a Stetson hat. A cigar is placed in his mouth and many brightly colored handkerchiefs hang from the neckband of his shirt. As a cosmic intermediary among the indígenas, he is similar to San Simón in Zunil. Many come to him for assistance in their lives, whether it be in health issues, personal or community issues. Also like San Simón, he is housed in a one-room building in a residential section of town, rather than a church. With him in the room was a coffin-sized glass box containing a supine sleeping Jesus, crowned with thorns and bleeding hands and feet. He lay amid the clutter of offerings left by visitors, among which were cigarettes, flowers, money, fruit, canned soda pop, and pictures.
There were no women in attendance the afternoon I visited Maximón's room. A shaman and a group of men chanted in Tzutujil, the indigenous tongue spoken by most of the locals of Santiago, smoked cigarettes and drank beer. Maximón was offered these during the course of the sung prayers. The room was dimly lit from scant light coming through the door and a single window, and a few candles scattered on shelves and a table. I sat and watched, smoked and drank with the men for a while, left a monetary offering in the shallow bowl at the saint's feet, and walked outside.
In the yard adjacent to Maximón's room, a prayer woman was in the process of a ritual to heal a boy of about 12 years old. One of the long prayers she invoked was a radiant, enraptured supplication for peace and goodwill among all the people of Central America and México. As she chanted, she built a small pyre of charcoal, incense, wood, candles and flowers. When it was finished, she told the boy to light a light blue candle from the candles in Maximón's room. She then ignited the pyre and continued chanting and blessing the boy.
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When the powerfully moving ritual concluded, I headed back to catch the last boat of the day to Panajachel, an hour across the water.