The Saint Of Alcohol, San Simon Festival in Zunil

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
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Trip End Dec 20, 2010


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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Monday, October 29, 2007

We sat down to our complimentary Guatemalan breakfast of hearty beans, eggs, avocado, toast and fried bananas at The Black Cat Hostel then headed down a street that looked like it had been ripped to shreds in one of the earthquakes and never repaired. We jumped on the wrong chicken bus and then the right one (again) and settled into an interesting trip to Zunil. The chicken buses are those old American school buses. Someone drives them down from the United States then they are pimped out, painted and decorated with chrome and bright colours. They make a huge racket as they have loud air horns which the driver and conductor love to use constantly and Spanish music blaring. Our packs ride on top or in the very back. They have barn doors which swing open and closed at the back and the conductor often climbs up the ladder and onto the roof risking his life while the bus is hooning around corners at Speedy Gonzales pace. We are not sure if they are called chicken buses because the drivers are mostly erraticly weaving all over the road like chickens with their heads cut off or because people are packed into the seats like chickens going to the factories (the buses were designed for children and they pack in three adults to a seat)........ or maybe because people bring animals onto the bus. We havenīt seen a chicken on one yet but perhaps they are hiding on someones head, down a shirt or in the giant cabbages. On this particular trip the passengers wore their head-dresses and coloured garb. How do the women walk on cobble-stoned streets in the high shoes? There's many of the big, white cowboy hat wearing, machete carrying male too. These small villages have been the best of Guatemala and we are the only Gringos here, it's the real deal. We passed through the vegetable growing town of Almolonga where we could see the different coloured fields of veggies and flowers.

As soon as we arrived in Zunil, a young lady got off the bus and tossed two bags of garbage down an embankment into what would have been a beautiful, fast flowing river surrounding the very pretty town which is nestled amongst clouds and is high up in the mountains, the rubbish pile kinda ruined the otherwise pristine vibe.  There is no rubbish system so it just gets taken to the outskirts of town. Zunil is in a lush valley framed by steep hills and dominated by a towering volcano. We saw a man climb a telegraph pole and fix electrical wires with his bare hands, old school O,H and S. Also of interest was a fooz-ball arcade room which housed a few ancient tables on which there was lumps of wood posing as soccer players and some retro arcade games with old skool joysticks.

Never to miss the chance at an obscure fetsival, we had come here to visit the image of San Simon, an effigy of a local Mayan hero venerated as a (non-catholic) Saint. Each year the effigy is moved to another house and the festival of San Simon was on today. He is the saint of alcohol and cigarettes.....true story. People come to ask him for love or to put a curse on someone. I had heard that he was not in the church because the Catholics thought the cult surrounding his popularity quite pagan. They also thought that those who took care of the Saint were robbing the poor.  

We were sitting around the church area when we spotted the lad from Chile who was with us when the bus ran out of fuel. I had suggested he come to the festival and he had arrived the night before with nowhere to sleep. He had pitched his tent down by the polluted rubbish river and slept there with no sleeping bag.......freezing..... i felt a little guilty but he seemed to be enjoying himself. The Chilean led us through some alleyways this way and that until we reached the house. The event was public but it did seem like we were intruding a little. The house was small and the walkway in was littered with fireworks shrapnel. The kids were letting off fireworks as we walked through and they really got a hoot out of throwing them at our Birkenstocked feet. Earlier our bus had been stopped for a few minutes as large fireworks were let off in the middle of the road in front of us. Here the people danced in couples on a pine needle covered courtyard floor in the middle of the house. Others watched from a balcony and from every other nook and cranny. Thick swirls of incense smoke filled our nostrils as we entered and a band of men played brass instruments, marimbas and drums. Women were cooking away and men drinking beer and knocking back shots. This is a three day party and some were already passed out at the front of the house while kids threw firecrackers next to their heads. People waited in a very long queue which snaked around past the sacred effigy San Simon, everybody wanted a glimpse of the statue. Mr Simon was in a tiny, candle lit room and the people carried rum, food, money,  beer, cigarettes, hip flasks of tequila, flowers, flags, candles and wrapped gifts which they offered to the statue. I wondered what they did with all the gear afterwards and maybe thatīs why it is such an honour to have the statue at your house, to drink up all the offerings later perhaps? Maybe they could choose a larger house next year, there were alot of people in there. The statue is made from wood and they dress him up in a colourful array of clothing to suit the event. Today he was wearing metallic rainbow aviator sunglasses, he's so hip and happening, what a rockstar!
 
It seems to be a shoeless town, barefeet is the go. Outside the home we saw a man riding a bicycle and selling cerviche fish to punters but then saw much worse in the market where there were rustic butchers stores. The stores consisted of a lump of wood, axe and metal rack with large carcasses and plenty of flies. No vegetarian would have survived this alley of death. We saw a man with an old, ornate birdcage selling sparrows. He declined when i asked to take his picture. Most of the Indians do and you have to blend in and be a little sly to catch them.  The market sold every imaginable item of produce but an abundance of flowers, cabbage, radishes and carrots. After helping some English people to find the statue and being attacked by drunken disorderly men wanting to practice their English, we decided to head back to Xela. Besides, both of us have become ill with a mysterious bug. This outing cost us AU$2 on the chicken bus. There is a town with a live animal market close by, however we would find it too distressing and it would be impossible to covert to vegetarianism in these parts.

Tonight we went to the Xela market where there was fairy floss churned into giant pink clouds, tequila fruit punch being served from saucepans that belonged in the Guinness Book Of Records, fried bananas which i love and the usual con artist carnie games. There was also a hot whiskey drink with cinnamon on top which people seemed to adore.

We have been ill with stomach pains, hot flushes, delirium and fatigue and i don't think it was the whiskeys. A backpacker at The Black Cat got us onto a magic tablet called Tabcin which we can get from the pharmacy. This pill dissolves in water like a Berocca and is supposed to help with all the digestive complaints. We booked a guide to take us to the Fuentes Georginas hot springs tomorrow so we hope we are better then. Only 4 sleeps till the crazy horse race.
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