San Simon Revisited

Trip Start Nov 05, 2007
Trip End Nov 29, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

             One of the greatest joys of traveling are the adventures that just "happen," without planning or prior expectations. One of these adventures happened to me this past Sunday.

             I didn't have anything much planned for the day. Short-term volunteering was still a possibility, but with just three days left before I needed to head back to Antigua (and from there to the airport), it seemed more reasonable to save this for next time. So it was that I boarded a bus for Zunil, a nearby village which I'd heard was having a festival. 

    As usual, I quickly made friends with my neighbor on the bus, an elderly but lively Mayan woman of about 70 years. I say "as usual" because the Guatemalans I've met have been extraordinarily friendly to us foreigners; as a result of my local bus usage, I've been invited to stay with the director of a school in Xela, make friends with a turkey (as noted in a past entry), and go out to dinner. This time, the Mayan woman, whom I shall call Juanita, insisted on showing me around Zunil. We toured the vegetable market (apparently often attended by buyers from afar), the church whose saint was being celebrated, and several areas of dancers dressed in medieval clothing and donning large, amusing masks. She then asked if I'd like to visit the house of San Simon.

             "Oh, there's one here, too?" I asked excitedly, briefly summarizing my experiences in San Andres Itzapa. 

               It turned out that this San Simon moved from house to house each year, but after much asking around we located his current dwelling. I nearly laughed out loud when I saw him - this San Simon looked a bit like Elvis Presley, with a cowboy hat and a handkerchief covering his mouth. I couldn't stifle my laughter as I watched several devotees tip the saint backwards in order to pour some sort of alcoholic beverage into his mouth, then another insert a lit cigarette into the same cavity. It was well worth the Q10 (about $1.33) they charged me to take this picture!

             On our way out, I mentioned to Juanita my interest in shamans, which by this time I had learned to call "sacerdotes Mayas" (Mayan priests). She noted that one of her friends was such a priest, and that we could visit her once we returned to Xela. This woman apparently had an altar for San Simon right in her house and could answer questions by looking into a glass of water. Eager to find out if she was anything like Hermana Maria, I happily agreed. 

               As it turned out, Juanita had an altar in her home as well, although it was more Catholic in nature. We stopped by for a few minutes and chatted with her 40-year-old son, who happened to have had a bit too much to drink. At first cheerful, he began crying as his mother left the room to prepare us some chocolate-flavored atoll (a typical drink, usually made from corn or rice). 

             "I'm 40 years old and the only one in my family who's still not married," he mourned. "My sisters all have big houses and kids." His mother returned and sharply told him to stop crying, which, predictably, didn't help matters any. It would have been funny if I hadn't felt so sorry for the guy.

             Juanita and I soon left to visit her friend, the sacerdote Maya, whom I will call Mapira. She told me Mapira would be expecting her, since she had intended to visit her this evening anyway. I soon learned why - she wanted to solicit help for her son. Mapira lit several candles, attached one with wax to the table, and held another underneath the glass of water. San Simon sat in his alter in the corner of the room, while a number of ancestral Mayan statues decorated the table. She and Juanita had a short conversation with the help of the glass, and then it was my turn.

               "What do you want to know? What problem do you have?" she asked me. I described how I'd been working as a teacher in Boston, but somehow felt as if I wasn't meant to be there forever.

             "You have work here?" she asked.

             "No; I'm visiting because my boyfriend is here," I explained, and Juanita filled in the details. I told her how much we enjoyed being together, but that we didn't have plans to marry.

             Mapira looked into her crystal glass. "Hmm... the name isn't coming, but the figure is. He's tall?"

             "Relatively," I admitted.

              "And thin?"

             "Not really - he's strong and has big muscles, more than most Guatemalans." Nelson's not fat, but he's muscular - "thin" is not a word I'd use to describe him!

             Mapira ignored this denial and proceeded to tell me things I had more or less told her; that is, that he'd always have a financial responsibility to his family, so if we were to marry, I'd end up supporting the household far more than him. This would cause problems between us, she warned. Later on she brought up the tall, thin man again, and told me he'd be a better match. "He's from your own country. He works, and wears a suit. Sometimes he carries a portfolio. He cries for you." Strange, since I didn't know anyone like that!

             I tried to bring the conversation back to the whole job/ place to live thing. "You like kids a lot," she asserted. (Of course - hadn't I told her I used to be a teacher, and that I had enjoyed it?) I mentioned my plans to apply to graduate school in sustainable development. "Yes, that would be good," she affirmed.

             Although Mapira hadn't told me much of anything I hadn't told her in a different form first, I decided to return the next day for a "burning." After all, learning about indigenous spiritual traditions was one of my supposed focuses during my travels, and besides, I wanted to see how the ceremony compared to the puff-puff one by Hermana Maria. 

               Mapira had a stock of materials in her home, from which she selected those we would need. To my relief, she didn't pick up any "Doble Rapido Suerte" or other such bottles, though perhaps that's because I had insisted upon the least expensive ceremony! I followed her to her rooftop terrace, which contained a large space, protected from the wind on three sides, suitable for building fires. I watched as she formed a circle inside this protected area, divided into four quarters, with a handful of sugar. On top of this white layer she placed what looked like small coals, which she took out of some corn husks. On top of these coals she lay piles of candles of different colors, including white, black, and yellow.

             I had asked for the focus of the ceremony to be to help me become emotionally stronger - I knew I'd be leaving Guatemala in a few days, and I didn't want to spend too much time distraught over the separation with Nelson. Mapira suggested we also ask if he was the man for me. She whispered this question into an egg, which she placed in the center of the fire. She then handed me two more eggs, which she had me brush up and down my body three times. These she placed towards the front of the fire.

               Now, what do you expect happened to Nelson's egg? Licked by the flames, it quickly turned black, same as the chicken had back at the Casa de San Simon in San Andres Itzapa. "Do you see that?" Mapira asked. "The egg has turned black. That means he's not good for you. He has a secret - another partner, maybe kids!" She watched as several drops ran down the egg. "Yes, two kids," she affirmed. One of the front eggs burst open - that meant that I had opened my heart to him, she explained. The other developed a crack, and several drops from the yolk inside appeared on the surface. "Those are your tears," Mapira interpreted. (Why my egg's drops were tears, while Nelson's were kids, I'm not sure!) She proceeded to tell me that a) I shouldn't tell Nelson I'd gone to her, or he'd get really angry; that b) there would be something in the car that would indicate he had a family; and that c) one day I'd realize the truth of her words.

             Many of you may be laughing already; but in my confusion, my mind started coming up with all sorts of proof for what Mapira had told me. Didn't he have a thing for buying shoes for kids? (He told me of several instances where he'd purchased a pair for a poor kid who was running around barefoot.) Wouldn't that explain why he sometimes couldn't answer his phone (he said it was because he was working), and why I'd never met his family (no matter that they lived in Chiapas, Mexico)?

             Even crazier: everyone I told about the priest believed her! My Spanish teacher didn't at first, but after we realized I'd left my camera at her house and were successful in recovering it, she decided the priest was honest and she changed her tune. "Your boyfriend is Guatemalan?" she questioned. "Then, it's very likely he has a wife and kids. Most Guatemalans get married at 20." Several other teachers entered the room where we were chatting, and agreed with my teacher's assessment.

             My host family was somewhat more supportive. "Early in our marriage, I went to the United States to work for four and a half years," said my host father. "My wife went to a Mayan priest, who told her that I had a family in the U.S. Now, if this had been true, I wouldn't have come back! So you can't believe what they tell you." However, upon hearing that Nelson liked buying shoes for kids, that I hadn't met his family (they live in Chiapas, as I've said), and that I didn't know his address (he travels for work, so he doesn't actually have an address at the moment), they decided it was likely he was hiding a wife and kids, too.

             Nelson drove about six hours to see me the next day. When I opened the door, he greeted me with a huge hug and a bouquet of roses. I was happy to see him, as always. After a little while, I mentioned that my Spanish teacher thought that since he was Guatemalan, he probably had a couple of kids. "I wouldn't care if you did," I assured him. "And, it would explain a lot of things, like why you keep buying shoes for kids!"

             "Yup, I have two," he said. "I'll tell you the story before you leave." Later, in the market, we encountered a woman with an adorable little boy.

             "How old is he?" Nelson asked.

             "Two," she replied.

             "Really? Mine is three," Nelson responded.

             At this point, you're probably either thinking, wow, this girl is really gullible, or possibly you're reading with your mouth wide open because you're as gullible as me. Yet in my mind, I was terribly confused. Was Nelson just playing with me, enjoying the joke? Or did he really have two kids?

             Later I decided to test out what the shaman had told me. I searched the car while Nelson ran an errand, but found nothing suspicious but his wallet. When he returned, I asked to see it. He didn't understand why, but nonetheless agreed. Nothing but a few ID cards and phone numbers, which he said I was free to call so he wouldn't have to. Hmm. There was nothing left to do but to tell him the whole story, and see if he got angry like the shaman said he would. His reaction? "So that's where you came up with that story," he laughed. "I figured it was probably something like that."  

               Ah well, so much for shamans - at least those who prayed to San Simon. I did, however, succeed in meeting a more traditional Mayan priest, Efrain, an older man who told me he was 80 (in the Mayan calendar) yet still took people hiking up a volcano a few times a week to a sacred crater lake called Chicobal. Later he explained about his age: the Mayan calendar consists of 13 months of 20 days, meaning that one year is just 260 days long. (To save you the calculations, that means he's 57 in our calendar, though if you're a teacher, that might make a fun math problem!) Though this seemed a bit random to me, he pointed out that that's the time it takes for a baby to grow in its mother's womb.

             Efrain and I spoke of many things as we hiked, particularly those related to Mayan culture. He knew his destiny was to be a shaman, he said, when his ancestors spoke to him in his dreams. I tried to get at more of what he could do. Did he practice psychonavigation (traveling with his mind)? Yes, he said, but didnīt elaborate. Did he talk with the spirits? Again, yes, but without much elaboration.
               Near the shore of Chicabal, Efrain conducted a short ceremony for me. He covered the ground with what looked like large grains of sugar (which he later told me contained a kind of perfume), then added something that looked like coals and several yellow candles. He handed me a couple of chocolate candies in the shape of soccer balls and asked me to unwrap them and place them in the fire. He also had me stand and pray a couple of times, while he brushed me with an aromatic plant. He spoke softly in his language during the ceremony, at one point doing a little dance. Afterwards, he explained that he had been speaking with the spirits, and that the calmness of the ceremony showed that I didnīt have any big problems.

               What did Efrain say about Nelson's kids? Not a whole lot - he noted that that day wasn't a good day to do a ceremony for that sort of thing. Rather, it was a day to give presents; thus he gave me a protective bracelet made of 13 painted beads dipped in Chicobal's sacred waters, I gave him a little bracelet I had in my pocket, and a group of Israeli tourists, with no prompting that I know of, not only gave us some hot tea and cookies, but also gave Efrain a handful of toys for his children. It wouldn't be an appropriate day to find out secrets like that until the following Monday, he said. What about the day before, when Mapira had made her pronouncement? A good day to pray for a good harvest, he responded. Hmm. Actually, Mapira had given me a Mayan calendar which had said the same thing, though she didn't seem to think it was a problem. I guess being a Mayan priest means different things to different people; some are willing to bend the rules a bit to make a little money.
P.S. I should mention that this will be the last entry for my current Guatemala blog, owing to the fact that I'm not actually in Guatemala anymore! However, if you've been enjoying reading about my adventures, never fear - I've set up an Ecuador blog so I can continue to share my stories. It's not quite as easy to get to a workable internet connection here, since I'm staying in a village rather than a city, but I'll do my best to post at least a few entries.
P.P.S. If you do ever make it to Guatemala and want to go to Chicobal with Efrain, you can book a tour through William at Altiplanos in Xela (
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Lauren on

It looks like you used you boyfriends real name, Eliud, the last time you refer to him.

sherwoodk on

Thanks for pointing that out!

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