Women’s Travel–Silver Winner: Courting Maximon in Guatemala

By Juliette de Campos

In a final act of desperation I went to the Guatemalan countryside to consult a witchdoctor. It’s my habit during times of turmoil to go straight to the source. Forget the psychotherapist offering opportunities to find the answers within. I prefer to skip over trial and error and get my empiricism the old fashioned way. I’m drawn to the psychic, the pendulum, the astrologist or the Ouji Board when determining major courses of action in life. Give me Reiki over therapy any day.

It was a Friday morning. I dragged myself out of bed and went and sat in my small classroom at the Escuela San Jose el Viejo, feeling nauseous and unable to concentrate. It was my fifth week in the small colonial town of Antigua, where I studied Spanish alone in a garden cabana opposite a small dark woman for seven hours a day until I thought my skull would implode. I was destined to return to California in eight days, to what I was not quite certain.

Guatemala is called the land of eternal spring. On two sides I was flanked by large leafed plants. There was a white adobe wall behind me and a blackboard in front of me. I huddled in the chilly space with my knees drawn into my chest, a long skirt wrapped around them, and sipped red hibiscus tea while staring vacantly at my teacher, Senora Rivera-Cuellar. Inside our tiny classroom there was enough room for our chairs, a rickety wooden table, and the two of us. But only because she was small. I pressed the palm of my hand into my forehead. I don’t feel like doing grammar, I said in Spanish. I’m too tired to learn anything new, can’t we just practice?

She looked at my pallid face and wanted to know what was troubling me. I didn’t want tell her the truth, that I was hung over and guilt ridden at having cheated on my boyfriend the night before, making out in a bar with an incredibly cute French speaking boy from Switzerland, so I lied and told her I was overwrought with anxiety about my career. Before leaving California I had applied for a position as an aide to a U.S. Senator and I had little interest in returning home without it. My current employer did not know that, of course, and was expecting me to return in a week’s time and resume my economic development projects in the barrios of Central California the migrant farm laborer communities. Life would continue just as it had before.

I had been contacted by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office shortly before my departure for Guatemala. I had worked with her staff on a project a few months earlier, and when the incumbent District Director decided to leave her post she called me and asked if I’d be interested in applying for the position.

My Spanish teacher listened as I relayed the details of my career crossroads. I explained to her that emotionally, I had already moved on from my job at the County and as far as I was concerned the next stop was the District Director’s chair. The entire region from Sacramento to Los Angeles would be mine to wax political and spin matters of policy. Juliette de Campos, District Director. I just loved the sound of it.

With a kind of concerned maternal interest, the Senora ran her fingers through her short dark hair and tucked it behind her ears. Then she asked me, looking around from side to side, as if to check for eavesdropping faculty members or administrative staff, whether I had heard of the legend of San Simon. I said I hadn’t.

There was a saint that the Guatemalans prayed to when they wanted fortune to smile on them, she explained quietly. All you had to do was give a priest a little money and he would take up your cause with Simon. In a hushed voice, eyes shifting back and forth as they scanned the corridor, she suggested we cut school and journey to San Andrés Itzapa, a town that served as San Simon’s central command post. There, she said, we would go and see el brujo the witchdoctor and secure in place my future political career.

To say I had absolutely no understanding whatsoever of what I was getting myself into is the mother of all understatements. We walked to the other side of Antigua and now, to my surprise, we were about to board a chicken bus. The local method of transportation in Guatemala, chicken buses (so named because it is entirely likely you will be seated next to a Mayan and her live poultry) are retired, apparently American school buses done up Latin American style. Painted outrageous colors in star-spangled patterns and adorned with naked lady mud flaps, the buses are almost always named after a woman, beneath whose title is a religious slogan, and are famous for the death viper rides executed by the drivers, called pilotos.

The smell of roasting corn hung in the air as we navigated our way through the hazy marketplace where the chicken buses congregated outside Antigua. The Senora pointed to the bus labeled “Condeleeza.” She said it was lucky that our bus hadn’t left yet. An auspicious sign.

A crowd gathered near the rear of our bus. The Maya launched their bags of goods and livestock onto the top of it, where a little Guatemalan man in a cowboy hat stood and caught them, securing the parcels into place with a rope. We climbed on board and took a seat on the green, vinyl bench seats I remembered from childhood. Soon the bus was crowded with Maya in their traditional clothing, lugging market bags or bundles of wrapped up cloth on board and then filling up the aisles with them. At the next stop more of the indigenous piled on, until pretty soon one was squeezing in next to me, claiming the three inch slice of vacant vinyl located adjacent to my left thigh. We chugged along like this for an hour, exhaust fumes wafting in through the window as the tropical Guatemalan countryside rolled past.

Suddenly my teacher looked at me with an expression of concern on her face.

“What?” I said in Spanish.

“Oh, I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake,” she said.

“What?”

“I should have told you to bring a change of clothes.”

“Why?” I was sure I’d misunderstood her. Did she mean we were staying overnight? I had no idea what was going on. She kind of snickered. You could get wet where we were going, she said, and end up smelling quite foul.

San Simon, known by the Maya as Maximón, is Guatemala’s own brand of pagan-Christian hybrid deity. Because he’s an amalgamation of European, ladino, and Mayan religious ideals, Simon’s appearance differs widely from one location to the next, depending on who’s worshiping him. He’s assumed to be a combination of Maya gods, Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish conquistador of Guatemala) and the biblical Judas, but from the looks of the offerings bestowed upon him, he is more like Bacchus, the patron saint of debauchery. His favorite gifts are Payaso cigarettes and Venado rum.

Stepping off the bus in the town of San Andrés, we were greeted by the scent of incense and smoldering sage. Colorful banners flapped in the breeze overhead, cut like paper dolls in the shape of quetzals, the national bird. The cobblestone streets were crowded with people, (though none of them tourists), who emerged from the back alley venues where rituals were performed by the brujos witchdoctors or shamans or charlatans or however you want to see them. Seekers headed off to the church on their sacred errands, then back to their spiritual consultant again.

In the church courtyard shamans lit ritual fires that crackled and sent the smell of smoldering sage from the concrete upwards into the air. The first thing I noticed when we came upon the place was that a man was being flogged with a palm frond by the brujo he’d hired and no one seemed surprised by it. Card readers sat cross-legged, smoking cigars while scrutinizing tarot cards, delivering good or bad news. Palm readers pondered hands in contemplation of one’s destiny. Everyone went about their regular business like nothing was the matter, even as the shaman stepped back, took a swig of liquor, and spat it all over his client. He then poured a beer over the guy’s head in a gesture of good luck and cleansing. I looked at my teacher and said that yes, a change of clothes would have been a buena idea.

A group of people were filing into the church, through one door then out the other. The Senora and I fell in line. I was about to get my first glimpse of San Simon. Inside the church, long tables covered in flickering candles stood where pews would normally have been. A smoky haze rose above the flickering rainbow of colors. Candles for love, money, protection red, green, white, blue, and yellow were specific to desire. My teacher and I purchased one candle each from a vendor. She showed me how to light the wick from a candle that was already burning, melt it from the bottom until the wax dripped, and then stand it in place on the table. Being a fan of religious practices everywhere, I lit a candle and released my positive intentions into the universe.

Towards the back of the church was an altar where a priest would normally give a sermon. In the center of it was an enormous glass case fringed with the bulbs of multi-colored Christmas lights. Inside it sat the effigy of San Simon, surrounded by bouquets of flowers. His likeness was that of a man with a dark mustache, sporting a black suit and a top hat, whose mouth was gaping open as it waited for a cigarette. He looked like a giant wooden carving of the Joker, or a circus ringmaster, maybe. An interesting choice for a deity, I reflected.

The Senora had a brujo she liked to use so we went to his little space and knocked on the door. It was opened by a short, leathery man who looked about sixty-five and wore a straw hat, cowboy boots, and a sarape. He listened intently to my career dilemmas then gave me a laundry list of supplies to remedy them. He said that I could purchase what I needed from any of the stores on the street.

Carved into the sides of the buildings were little tiendas that sold all sorts of religious paraphernalia, including wooden statues of the Virgin Mary and plastic, illuminated ones of Jesus. There were candles and strings of twinkle lights, and the kind of electrified globes you’d hang outside at Christmas time that look like spiky, glowing snowballs. Packets of powders were labeled for love, or for prosperity, or for luck, and cologne sold by the ten-cent gallon was marketed for the same purposes. According to my brujo, I had to buy seven white candles and seven yellow ones, some cologne, a packet of jasmine scented powder, and some sugar. And a bottle of rum and three cigars.

When we got back to his workspace the shaman led us to the rear of his property, where a corrugated tin lean-to sat open on one side, facing the courtyard. “Do you have anything that belongs to your boss?” he asked in Spanish. He had the thick Quiché accent of the Highland Indigenous and it was difficult for me to understand him.

“What?” I asked.

“Your boss,” he said. “Do you have anything that belongs to him?”

Then I realized he meant Dianne Feinstein. “Like what?” I asked in disbelief.

“Jewelry, an article of clothing?”

I thought he must be out of his mind. Then I realized he was a Maya in a lean-to in an obscure village in Guatemala and reckoned it was probably difficult for him to imagine where a U.S. Senator fit into the larger scheme of things.

“No, nothing,” I said.

He looked at the Senora like what was he going to do with me? She looked back at me. Didn’t I have anything that had to do with my job?

I looked at the two of them. Then I looked down at my backpack. “Business cards!” I exclaimed. I had two business cards in my wallet one belonging to the State Director with whom I’d interviewed, and one belonging to the woman who currently held my job. I dove into my bag and plucked the cards out of it and waved them triumphantly in the air. “Ha!” I said.

“Write your name on the back of the woman’s card,” the brujo said. I turned the Senora around to use her back as a writing platform and did as I was told and. “Now,” he continued, “Very carefully, write the title of the job you want on the back of the man’s card. I did that too.

All the while he was beginning to conjure up a fire. He put in some sticks, then he added two cigars, a process I watched with great interest. The third cigar he stuck under my armpit. He asked me how my love life was and I said it was fine, wincing a little bit at the indiscretion of the night before. He looked at me skeptically and told me to leave the cigar in my armpit until he told me I could take it out. While mumbling some words in his native dialect he lit the candles and leaned them around his fire like a little fortress. Then he walked around me three times, counterclockwise, flogging me with a bundle of herbs that he threw into the fire afterwards. He stepped backwards, eying me with scrutiny, and reached down and grabbed the bag of sugar, which he rubbed all over my body on the outside of my clothes. My Spanish teacher nodding approvingly. Then the old man opened the sugar and wrote with it, “A job in the U.S. Senate,” on the ground, and set it aflame. When I later recounted the story to my boyfriend, Patrick, he exploded with laughter. “Feinstein defeated by write-in!” he erupted, unable to contain himself.

After that the brujo poked around in the fire with a stick and proclaimed that my resume was one of six. They’d be calling me in a few days, he said. Then he wanted to know about my love life again.

“It’s fine,” I said, “really!”

He did not seem so sure. He took the bag of jasmine scented powder from me and said a little incantation into it. Then he told me I should put it down my pants. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying but he was gesticulating wildly in frustration at the language barrier while holding out his waistband, making like he was sprinkling the powder down there. Then he pointed at me. I looked at the Senora helplessly, grinning stupidly and furrowing my brow while shaking my head. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “I don’t understand!”

At that point she intervened. “You know, hair?” she asked, pointing to the hair on her head, giggling. “He wants you to put it on the hair down there,” she laughed, eyes twinkling.

In the spirit of adventure I did as the doctor said and dumped the contents of the bag inside my pants.

“Wait!” the brujo interrupted, “Not all of it!” He added that I had to save a little for the next time I was with my boyfriend. At that time I was to sprinkle the remaining powder on my breasts and then rub them on the back of his head while he was sleeping. At that point I lost it. I was slaphappy, giddy with laughter, my energy scattered from the brujo manipulating my mojo. I couldn’t contain myself anymore. Especially when he took the cigar out from where it was still stuck in my armpit, set it aflame, and preceded to smoke it. He watched the ash to see how long it would hold in place before falling and claimed that it indicated the length of my relationship with Patrick. When the ash held fast he declared, “Your path together is long.”

For his final demonstration the witchdoctor pulled no punches. Taking the entire gallon of cologne and heaving it overhead, he poured its contents over me before spitting rum into my face. Then he threw the business cards into the fire, where they burst into flames, and declared that we were done for the day.

Before we left San Andrés the Senora tried to convince me to go to a card reader but I said I didn’t like the Tarot. Going to a psychic or the witchdoctor seemed perfectly normal, but the Tarot gave me the creeps. So we got on the bus back to Antigua and she sat next to me giggling but also looking slightly sickened. I smelled muy feo, she said, a word in Spanish that can only be translated as a combination of ugly and disgusting.

Four days later, I was offered the job with the Senator’s office. In January 2001, I assumed my position as District Director, where I spent twelve months becoming acquainted with the phase “be careful what you wish for.”

But that’s another story.


Juliette de Campos is a travel and memoir writer who lives in California with her four- year-old-daughter, Michael Anne. After graduating from UCLA in 1995, de Campos spent two years in Africa, followed by a year long stint in Central America in 2002. To the astonishment of most interested parties, de Campos suffers from traveler’s anxiety and often panics before a long trip, searching for every reason imaginable to cancel it.

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