Now here is a god I can worship ...

Maximon offerings of money, cigarettes and rum.
Maximon offerings of money, cigarettes and rum. Photo: Alamy

I've always liked the idea of Hinduism. Not so much the being a vegetarian part - bacon sandwiches are too good for that to be feasible. Abstinence isn't really my cup of sangria, either.

It's more the element of choice available to your average Hindu. Where Christians and Jews and Muslims are lumped with just the one all-powerful entity to tremble before, our subcontinental brethren are presented with a smorgasbord of deities from which to select a favourite worthy of their reverence.

Want riches and good fortune? Lakshmi is your lady. Wisdom and an obstacle-free life? Ganesh is clearly your guy. A little bit of everything? Perhaps consider Vishnu.

And it goes on and on. With 330 million gods to choose from, it's pretty certain you'll be able to find at least one to fit your particular needs. Religion needn't be about fear in the Hindu world - it can just be about finding the idol best positioned to help you.

And so it goes in Guatemala, too. At least, you assume so, because for what other reason would a society worship a god who has a passion for little more than rum and cigars?

What a guy. His name is Maximon and he's part Mayan god, part Catholic saint. He has a long, complicated history that warps and moulds various Guatemalan cultures and beliefs into one wooden, booze-loving deity.

Maximon - or at least the wooden effigy of the great man - resides in the village of Santiago Atitlan, along the shores of beautiful Lake Atitlan. There he does what gods of rum and cigars do best: drinks rum and smokes cigars.

Now here is a god I could worship. Instead of smiting sinners or inventing mosquitoes or allowing Alan Jones to become famous, Maximon appears to do little more than sit at home drinking and smoking - and, presumably, ensuring his followers have the means to do the same.

What a guy.

(OK, Maximon does do slightly more than drink and smoke. He has a vengeful side and apparently cuckolded his worshippers' wives once, but if you keep him well lubricated and support his nicotine addiction, he'll play nice.)

For someone who sits around drinking and smoking all day, Maximon the effigy is surprisingly mobile. He doesn't live in a church or atop a mountain or even in a bar somewhere. Instead, he's passed regularly between different family homes in Santiago Atitlan, living in the lounge rooms of his flock, smoking his cigars and drinking his rum and generally looking tough.

It's a nice idea, this living situation, a good way for worshippers to get up close and personal with their deity, but it can make finding Maximon a little difficult for gawking visitors. It's no good looking in a guidebook because by the time it's gone to print, Maximon has moved to another house. And it's not as though there are signs posted. You just have to figure it out for yourself.

Fortunately, there's always help at hand. I step off at the ferry dock in Santiago Atitlan and already there are kids surrounding me, offering their help in my search for the great god of booze and smokes. Apparently, I'm not the first to make this pilgrimage.

I agree to employ the services of one kid, who immediately skips ahead through the town's crumbling, narrow streets. We make our way along the shoreline, past small concrete houses in states of disrepair, before eventually stopping outside a place distinguishable only by the small queue of camera-toting travellers waiting by the door. Maximon's house.

It's dark inside. Small beams of light shoot down from holes in the ceiling, illuminating shards of swirling smoke. There's a soft chant coming from the worshippers gathered in one corner, where Maximon sits serenely surrounded by candles, cigarette in his mouth, rum at his feet, staring a blank wooden stare across the room.

He is not beautiful. This version of Maximon actually looks a bit like one of those fake butlers some people have in their homes, the ones that hold ashtrays or carry towels.

He's dressed in traditional garb, with a hat covering his rough wooden head.

Cameras occasionally flash as tourists shuffle in and out of the room in the house on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The guardians keep up their incantations.

The idol remains unfazed.

I don't spend too long in the presence of wooden, smoky Maximon, just enough time to drop a few coins at his feet and silently pray for a long life of rum and cigars. Then it's back into the bright light, back along the shores of the lake and back into a ferry to make my way across the water to the town of Panajachel.

It's a safe trip, which must mean Maximon is happy.

Or just hammered.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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