It was my birthday a few days ago. It was fun. I went out with some friends in Guatemala City´s Zone 1 where there is a good choice of live music bars. We drank, danced, talked and then headed off home.
As fun as it was, it doesn’t make for the most interesting story.
What I really want to do is tell you about someone else´s birthday party. Simon’s birthday party.
At one point during said party, I found myself smoking a cigar whilst finishing off a beer in a pagan temple.
The Simon I am talking about is San Simon, who I have already given a description of in a previous post. He is the Catholic-Mayan deity who is revered in certain parts of Guatemala.
I’ll start from the beginning.
Throughout October, I had been hearing stories about a birthday party to celebrate San Simon, in a small village in the countryside west of Guatemala City. The village was called San Andres Itzapa. Apparently the party was on the 28th October.
I managed to persuade a friend it may be worth checking out. After work on Monday 28th therefore, we headed out of the city with zero expectations as to what we might find in San Andres.
We had heard rumours of a drunken raucous festival and I had even been warned that the San Simon from San Andres is notorious as a patron of drug-dealers, pimps, and organized crime.
As we drove in darkness deeper into the countryside we noticed a spotlight in the distance lighting up the sky. As we approached the lights we started to see some people staggering along the road, and eventually we heard music.
We arrived in a town full of cars and police trying to direct traffic. We rolled down the windows to confirm if this was the right place. Were we at the birthday party, and was there even a birthday party?
¡Si Claro! Es la fiesta de San Simón.
Yes of course! It´s San Simon´s party.
Our curiosity had definitely been aroused by this point and we quickly found a spot to park the car. We followed the crowds and headed to the lights and music and entered through the main gateway of a large courtyard.
Inside were two large stages both with bands playing music, a huge crowd of people dancing and fireworks going off in all directions.
I listened to the lyrics of the nearest marimba/norteño band.
Es la canción de San Simón…
This is the song of San Simon…La la la la (I can’t remember the words)
Ok. We were definitely in the right place. We immediately met a group of Guatemalans and as we spoke we asked:
¿Donde esta San Simon?
Where is San Simon?
One of the group, Mario, immediately volunteered to take us to San Simon. We walked around the back of the crowd of people dancing to the music, and up some steps to a building with two open entrances. On one side was a huge queue of people waiting to enter the building, whilst on the other, people slowly drifted out. The inside was glowing golden and yet more music was coming from the building.
We followed Mario inside.
A thousand candles burned brightly on six tables in the centre of a small room. Around the sides of the room people queued holding more candles, beers, cigars and wooden figurines of San Simon. At least three mariachi bands were playing at the same time.
We avoided the queue around the sides of the room so we could head into the centre. At the end of the room was a platform with people queuing up some stairs that led up to a large glass cabinet. In neon lights we could read the flashing sign.
A huge face of a mustachioed man wearing a sombrero formed the backdrop of the cabinet display. In front of the face was San Simon, sitting in a chair. He was smarter than the last time I saw him, sporting a well-groomed moustache, three hats on top of each other, a big stick, quite a dashing suit and a see-through veil to cap off the fashion-statement of the century.
He wasn’t chain smoking this time either, so the dangers of Guatemalan believers having their deity taken away from them due to catastrophic lung failure are looking less likely.
On the platform directly in front of San Simon, a lady, who I can only presume was some sort of holy woman, was hitting people round the head with a branch and throwing, sometimes spitting, alcohol in their faces.
Once this communion was over, the person would step down off the platform away from the lady and walk away down the other side of the building. Apparently this was some sort of cleansing ritual.
The mixture of music, alcohol, smoke, incense, chanting, singing and people who were off their heads on I-have-no-idea-what made for a somewhat bizarre experience.
I saw one women standing in the middle of the room with her arms outstretched, beer in one hand, candle in the other. At the same time she was puffing on a cigar and crying. Weeping, actually. How is that even possible? Between her legs stood a little girl who I think may have been her daughter.
The walls of the temple were covered in plaques, photos and handwritten messages thanking San Simon for a variety of things he seems to have granted on his believers.
Only one corner of the room was devoted to something other than San Simon. There was another smaller glass cabinet at ground level with a model inside. Again, another neon sign.
SAN JUDAS TADEO
My limited knowledge of the bible tells me that that’s definitely weird. There was no other sign of Christian religion. No Jesus or Mary or crucifixes. Just some guy wearing a veil and three hats, and Judas.
(Note: I’m not sure what connection Judas Tadeo has with Judas Iscariot, so he could have signified anything)
It’s impossible to be sure what it all means as everyone you speak to will tell you something different. Mario was adamant that San Simon was just the same as Iron Maiden, except different. That makes sense of course. Others referred to him lovingly as Monchito or Moncho and even called him ‘mi hermano’ or ‘my brother.’
Another guy, who everyone called Chuck Norris, just called him ‘The Master.’ Although Chuck was so fucked I’m surprised he could even speak at all.
Mario explained to me that you go to San Simon to make your vices worse. So basically if you’re just a run-of-the-mill alcoholic or weekend-warrior you go to see San Simon to have some whacko Charlie Sheen therapy. That would explain a lot of the things we were about to see. (Of course this is just one person’s opinion. Many others say San Simon does the exact opposite and makes you a better person).
We had noticed that everybody was slightly fucked-up in their own way – Either legless drunk, on coke, or in some sort of hallucinogenic trance. We tried to keep our wits about us.
Back in the courtyard, we scanned the food stands and took a calculated risk about what was least likely to give us a flesh-eating parasite. We settled on some roasted chicken outside a non-descript breeze-block building.
We headed inside and took a seat at one of the tables.
As we sat down, something in the corner of the room caught my eye.
There was a small table set up as a shrine to not only San Simon, but several other Latin American deities of Catholic-Mayan syncretism. Next to San Simon was Jesus Malverde, Patron-Saint of Mexican drug-traffickers (the Narco-Saint), especially popular in the state of Sinaloa, and a sort of Latin-American Robin Hood type figure. He was wearing a green suit.
Smaller than both of them was a figure in red and wearing a sombrero. I didn’t know who he was but was informed later on that his name was San Diego.
And towering above them all was a skeleton wearing a red robe and a hood. In her right hand was a giant scythe and in her left, a globe.
Her name is Santa Muerte (Holy Death), some seriously dark next-level JuJu.
I think it was at this point that we both realized we were at a mildly dark and disturbed party. I guess that’s punishment for going out on a Monday night.
We headed back to our seats and ate some chicken.
A topless man sporting a grand beer-belly staggered in and collapsed in a heap in one of the plastic chairs. A woman and younger kid followed and tried to encourage some life into him but he passed out with his head in his lap.
I can’t remember exactly how the situation came about, but we ended up sat at drunken topless guy’s table, sharing beers with him and his lady-friend, young kid and some shady guy who didn’t say anything.
It was odd. The lady then got up and, as it custom among worshippers of San Simon, she started carefully pouring her beer down the throat of the model of San Simon. As this wasn’t looking quite as graceful as she may have hoped for she gave up and just started liberally dousing him in alcohol. She did the same thing to the models of Jesus Malverde and San Diego.
With her beer next to Santa Muerte she turned around sheepishly and said to the younger boy.
Tengo miedo. Ella esta temeroso.
I’m scared. She is terrifying.
At this point the drunken topless guy shouted out.
¡Cállate! Ella esta bellísima.
Shut up! She is beautiful.
It occurred to me that it was probably best not to spend too much time around anyone who thought she was beautiful, but he was just starting to articulate complete sentences, so we stayed around to listen.
His name was Alejandro. He talked an awful lot now that he was sobered up.
Apparently he had just gotten out of jail for killing his brother. He said this whilst shaking uncontrollably, his fits clenched into balls.
I leaned forward in my chair, and he threatened.
No me castiges.
Don’t judge me.
Ooooooh shit. Careful. The woman next to him tried to calm him down and remind him that we were his ‘friends’ as a seemingly deep hatred of gringos was awoken in him.
Maldita basura la policía aquí.
Damn rubbish the police here.
Then all of a sudden out of nowhere.
Yo tengo un negocio aquí. ¿Quieres verlo?
I have a business here. Do you want to see it?
Uh oh! No, not really…what’s your business?
¡Vamos a chingar en mi putero in Chimal!
Lets go to my brothel in Chimal (Chimaltenango)!
It was time to activate ‘awkwardly apologetic British Hugh Grant mode’ – 100% success rate in getting out of uncomfortable situations.
Eeeeeh lo siento pero tenemos que trabajar mañana. La próxima vez.
Eeeeeh sorry but we have to work tomorrow. Next time.
Success. We got the hell out of there, leaving Alejandro the murderous pimp with his companions. We went back to the main courtyard with the music.
Instead of going back to the chapel, we decided to walk around the sides of the courtyard to see what was going on. The majority of the people were looking even more zombified by now. We visited a tequila stall where some of the patrons were shuffling around, eyes glazed over, whilst the police and the army stood to the side looking on.
Under a set of arches yet another strange scene played itself out in front of us. Groups of women sat around burning fires with models of San Simon sitting in chairs against the wall of the courtyard.
The women were all smoking huge cigars at a rapid pace I had never seen before. Without ever removing the cigar from their mouths, they seemed to be hyper ventilating so as to smoke the cigar in the fastest way possible.
I somehow ended up with one myself.
We talked more. More strange people and more Marero gangsters all drugged up on something or another.
After one last visit to the temple, we both noticed a slight change in atmosphere for the worse and decided it was maybe a good time to leave.
The party was dying down as we left, but the drinking and noise carried on through the night.
The next morning we were better able to assess the situation with the light of day and our surroundings were made clearer to us. This didn’t make us feel any better however. We saw that the area surrounding out hotel and the party was heavily tagged in Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) graffiti.
I got on the next Chicken bus out of there.
In the TV show, ‘Game of Thrones,’ Tyrion Lannister asks about the existence of a certain god…
Well Tyrion, it wasn’t exactly ‘tits and wine’ but hopefully ‘vice and debauchery’ will do.
‘That was a hardcore party,’ as my friend eloquently put it later.