My motto, for about three years now: Say yes to life.
Of course, this means being an opportunist. This attitude has led me to some pretty interesting situations: Hitchhiking with Japanese businessmen in South Korea. Bathing in Indian rivers. Buying a one-way ticket to southern Mexico.
Sometimes, my motto of say yes to life means finding myself naked in a makeshift sweat lodge in the magic mushroom capital of the world, shaman chanting in my ear, sweating more than I have ever in my entire life before.
This week, I traveled to San Jose Del Pacifico with some documentary makers from Montana, two spectacularly passionate men documenting the process of and stories behind the Mezcal industry. I hitched along with them to a rural Mezcal farm. There, I admired the Agave plants in their earthly beds and the tall tomato plants in their greenhouse that reminded me so fondly of the hours I spend clipping tomatoes in Tiffin. I had the privilege of learning in depth about the process of making Mezcal along with them, not to mention trying some of the purest and best quality Mezcal in the world.
During my time in San Jose Del Pacifico, I also took the opportunity to participate in a Temazcal ceremony.
Temazcal, not to be confused with Mezcal (the drink), originates from the pre-hispanic indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. It’s a special kind of sweat lodge which takes place in a circular dome, thought to purify the mind, body, and spirit in a curative way. While typically the Temazcal takes place in a permanent, adobe, structure, some are makeshift ones. The “sweat” part comes from heated rocks, which are placed in the middle of the structure, making for a rather toasty space.
Before the Temazcal began, we collected about 25 volcanic rocks from a nearby hill nestled amidst pine tree forests. Upon returning, we watched as the shaman built a roaring fire, gently placing the rocks in its belly and created the Temazcal by covering a geometrically designed wooden structure with quilts and blankets.
As instructed, the five of us each offered pinches of Tabaco to the fire with great intention, gently laid our clothing under a nearby tree, and one-by-one crawled into the low half-dome.
The shaman instructed for the heated rocks to be brought in one at a time and I watched with interest as a shovel head carried the rocks, embers still clinging to their surface, into the sacred circle and were placed in a small divot in the center.
He reverently nodded his bearded head to the rock,
With each rock we welcomed, he repeated it, Benvenidos Abuela, and placed a thumbnail size of Copal wood, the sweet, perfumed sap rising into the center. He then used pine branches tied together with twine to splash water on the rocks. With a sizzle, the steam easily filled the small space.
The sweat came immediately, bringing on the sensation of suffocating, and I was gently reminded of a line of an Ellen Bass Poem,
Its tropical heat
Thickening the air, heavy as water
More fit for gills than lungs
Gradually, my lungs grew accustomed to the humidity. At the beginning of each of the four batches, one for each direction, I listened as he gave thanks and prayer to the North, East, South, and West. Between welcoming the rocks, he chanted in a low, full voice, pounding a small drum, and sang striking songs in Spanish, English, and a language I didn’t recognize. I accepted each song and chant, sometimes humming along, seeking to practice gratitude even amongst mild suffering.
By the fourth direction, the blissful final direction, I breathed heavy in the suffocating heat, all of us laying on the dirt floor. I could hear a slight pittering of raindrops on the roof of the dome. Finally, our leader spoke into the wet air: we were welcome to leave as we felt comfortable.
I let the meaning of his words settle over me, stirring and tightening my muscles, trying to find my body in the ocean of wet fire. Slowing raising myself from the floor, I bowed on my knees. With hands and forehead pressing into the dirt floor, I offered my gratitude, took a breath, and crawled out of the Temazcal with a wave of relief.
The world seemed the same, but somehow cleaner. Purer, maybe.
I washed the mud and dirt from my legs, arms, and back with a backyard rubber hose, trying to ignore the feeling of absolute nakedness in the face of four relative strangers and whoever happened to walk past. Peaking upward, I felt comfort in seeing that the children playing on the edge of small road could not care less.
That evening, we went for a long walk in the pine forest, sipped mezcal, and watched the sun dip below the mountain range. With the high altitude, I found the clouds at eye level, pushing and moving easily through the other mountains, giving the illusion that the vast sky was little but a sea of rolling waves. And with us, on our boat.