The Church of Elvis

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Guatemala
By Jen Taggart and Brian Chao

Inside The Church
Inside The Church

Elvis has left the building. Actually, he’s left the United States entirely. We spotted the King in the most unlikely of places: hanging out in a church in Santiago De Atitlan, Guatemala. No kidding. Well, maybe just a little. What rests in Saint James the Apostle church is no less weird, however. An Elvis-esque saint resides on the right hand side of the alter against the wall, but, disappointingly, with a service in session, we just couldn’t get close enough to snap a photo of the elusive icon. Elvis: one, Paparatzzi: zero.

We did, however, get acquainted with another celebrity of the church. Father Stanley Rother, who served at Santiago Atitlan, became one of many religious casualties during the civil war. Beloved by the community, while Father Rother’s body was shipped back to the U.S., his heart remains in Guatemala, literally, buried in a corner of the same church where Elvis watched over the altar.

Such a harmonious blend of indigenous and introduced cultures characterized much of our trip through Guatemala. How is it that this small country manages to mix cultures, religions and the new vs. old world traditions in a way that shames our ability as Americans to do so? Western dress and cultural costumes juxtapose easily in the streets; Spanish and local dialects are interchangeable; tourists (and their Quetzals, the local currency) are welcomed to visit and observe these seemingly bizarre rituals. How wonderful.

Our immediate introduction to Guatemala, however, was somewhat more mundane if no less relevant to our mortal existence. That is to say, as we learned on the twenty minute shuttle ride from Guatemala City to Antiqua, the driving is, well, not at a pace to which we are accustomed. Our skillful driver rocketed through traffic, gracefully dodging pedestrians and animals while overtaking cars and old school buses bursting with passengers and cargo. We careened around blind curves that threatened to collapse down the muddy, rain saturated hillsides. Although tired and a bit nauseated, we were amazed by the rainbows streaking past us. Exuberantly painted buildings and buses reminiscent of hippie vans from the 60s blurred into an ever tumbling kaleidoscope of colors. The brilliant colors cut through the lush tropical greenery and shouted in defiance against the grey clouds and rain. Gloom found no fixture even in the cemeteries with their jewel tone painted tombstones celebrating the cycle of life and death. All this passed as Air Supply and Christopher Cross crooned from the radio, adding a surreal soundtrack to our journey.

View From The Sea
View From The Sea

Travel throughout the rest of the week proved to be a less hair raising experience. Our Tucan guide and driver provided for our every comfort. Felix, our driver, expertly navigated the narrow labyrinths of tiny village streets that begrudgingly yielded to our disproportionately large and modern tour bus that towered over the red tile roofs of the typically squat, one story buildings. While Felix primarily spoke Spanish, what he may have lacked in English vocabulary he more than made up for in enthusiasm, never missing a beat in any conversation. Our guide, Mo, deftly negotiated our hotels, tours, dinners, and practically anything else we could imagine needing or wanting. Drinks, anyone? Although skeptical at first of boarding a tour, we never calculated the stories and experiences that Mo, Felix and our fellow passengers would bring to the table.

Fellow travelers joined us from Australia, New Zealand, and the UK representing a diverse group of all ages and backgrounds. Students on break from school, passport stamp collectors, professional photojournalists, rebellious corporate drones who had quit their jobs and sold their houses: each had a unique story that led them to Guatemala and Central America at large. Regret number one: we were only on board for a week. The thoughts of spiders in our beds or snakes on the path as we stumbled home from the pub were nothing compared to the mortification we felt when we realized that everyone else was continuing on to Belize or El Salvador while we were headed back to the suburban jungle of Los Angeles. Argh.

With a little help from our friends (gracias, Mo), we spent a good deal of time on our own exploring the marketplaces, sampling local specialties, enjoying the abundant natural wonders, discovering churches, shrines and deities, and meeting the people who call Guatemala home. Our pitiful lack of Spanish was patiently humored by our hosts at hotels, restaurants, and shops. The usual charades coupled with good natured smiles eventually completed all necessary transactions in a cheerful, if goofy, manner. A blessing as well as a curse, Antiqua, in particular, proved to be a center for both tourists and students from abroad. A paper and pencil became essential negotiation tools in the marketplaces where haggling is the norm. Our one marketplace phrase “Caro”, became our mantra as we navigated the crowds, colors and smells. The only real difficulty, however, was remembering not to get carried away by arguing over those last five Quetzals, which only amount to spare change.

The only merchants we weren’t prepared for were those of the munchkin persuasion. Small children of 8 to 10 years old would greet you, beaming a delightful ear to ear grin, and asking you in their best English, “What is your name?” Barely before you can finish answering, a pencil with a deftly woven tapestry around it appears, and in tow, a little hand asking for a few Quetzals. Should you decline, you will instantly have a friend following you doggedly for blocks begging for a reward for the handiwork. Should you accept, you will no doubt have made many friends. Your generous nature will have attracted flocks of children and adults all plying their wares and hoping to make your acquaintance.

Anybody Want To Borrow A Boat?
Anybody Want To Borrow A Boat?

One of the benefits of having the knowledge of other travelers with us was learning to maneuver these pint sized obstacles, let’s face it, how many “Jen” or “Brian” pencils can one have? One benefit of having an experienced tour guide with us was finding the hidden treasures not displayed on the market tables. Away from the market place, Mo led us to a small, inconspicuous home nestled quietly in the hillside. We were the only tourists to be seen and the locals noticed our passing with mild interest. Here in this intimate village, away from the bustling crowds and tourists, we saw perhaps the most amazing sight of all: the celebrated local deity, Maximon.

We can’t really explain what Maximon is other than to say he’s a saint, Mayan god and miracle worker all rolled into one. His role changes depending on whom you ask, but one thing is certain, he’s another harmonious blend. The same people who visit the wooden idol and deliver their offerings of cigarettes, money, liquor and clothes also pray in the church of Saint James. I guess if you really need a miracle, blessing or healing, it can’t hurt to cover your bases. Regret number two: we didn’t pay the ten Quetzales to Maximon as a good luck blessing.

Someone has to reign supreme though, and here in Guatemala, it’s Maximon of Santiago Atitlan. His notoriety is such that during Holy Week, Maximon is taken from his home-of-a-shrine and paraded through to the town square. This, in and of itself, may not be too terribly odd, however, add to the mix the fact that the town square is characterized by the massive Catholic church (where Elvis lives) and that he is marched alongside recognizable Catholic saints. Maximon then resides in his new house in the square, opposite the church so that the locals can stop in before services. No matter how you slice it, being a resilient local deity in Guatemala has its perks.

If only Maximon could speak. If only we could understand what he’s seen and heard. The countless prayers in numerous languages, the festivals and parades, civil war, bloody murders and religious infusion. After a week in Guatemala, traversing the highlands and local markets, the lakes and shrines, urban Guatemala City and colonial Antigua, it is more than apparent that Maximon more than belongs in Guatemala; he symbolizes the unique mixture of old and new, assimilation as an art form. Whether they understand their unique stature, I’m sure Maximon, Father Rother and Elvis would all agree that home really is where the heart lies.





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