Malinalco is a magical place tucked in a small valley just south of Mexico City. Back when Mexico was the land of the Mexica (Aztecs), warriors came to this place to cleanse and prepare for battle. The ruins of their council chambers still stand, and fortunately it is still possible to find an authentic Temazcal here.
I’m fortunate enough to know a shaman here. This man has spent his life in the study of his ancestors and the pursuit of life as seen honorable and worthy by native custom. His home, the cabins surrounding it, the caves running along the middle of a side of the mountain (which he owns) at the back of his property, were all build and made livable by his own hands. He is full of the kind of wisdom only people who have lived close to, and alongside, the earth possess. His authenticity did not have to be sold, he is a shaman not because he calls himself one, rather because others grant him the title.
I came here for some release from the tumultuousness which is Mexico City, and in the hopes of participating in a real Temazcal ceremony. A Temazcal is a native sauna of sorts: it should be cave like, with a carved out floor, so that you walk down slightly from ground level, and a clay roof; in the middle there should be a deep pit for the stones; the door should be made of hide. The ceiling should have flours and herbs appropriate to the ceremony. Like a sauna, a Temazcal is used for purification, and stones heated by wood are the source of heat, however, this is where the similarities end. The Temazcal last around Six hours, with no food or drink or rest; there is no relief from the heat; songs, chants and stories are used to drive the mind, the heat to test the body and will. The purpose is not to clean oneself, relax and open pores, the purpose is to cleanse and purify, to struggle and become stronger for it – to confirm your worth as a warrior. But I’m not a warrior, you might say, and I would disagree. Every one of us is a warrior, though our battles may not always be physical, nor may they always be external, but we must fight for what we hold sacred and true and real, and to succeed we must be the best we can possibly be. A Temazcal is therefore as relevant today as it was 600 years ago.
I was Malinalco for a few days when I realized that I may not get to experience this – I caould not afford to do it alone, and there was no one else showing up. I was about to pack it in and head dejectedly to Puebla, when the shaman invited me to the market for some food. I hesitated knowing how long it would take, but agreed to go. Our food was barely in front of us when he received a phone call from a group of 9 people wanting to do the ceremony. Fate, it seems, stepped in to make sure I left a little wiser for my time in Malinalco.
My time in waiting had not been for naught. While waiting for the people to show up that weekend, I put in a few hours work as a stonemason of sorts. A worker of his and I were chipping away the floor of a cave that the shaman was expanding in order to possibly have people stay there. I duly earned a blister, and it in turn duly popped. This does not look well for working the next day, but I will give it a go. This adds a whole other level of shit I have done for food and roof. Then I swept the ceremonial area, and carried buckets of stones away from the work site, just to make sure I have done a little of everything. All the while the shaman was training his eagle. It looked very much like training a dog, except it was a freaking eagle. The danger here was not her pooping on the floor, rather the possibility that she would not return, or, you know, mistake your eye for a tasty snack.
Waiting for the day of the ceremony afforded me more time with the shaman, and more opportunities to listen to him. I’m not sure how to share what he said contextually, so I will instead share two things he said which can be applied to anyone:
“Whatever life you lead, as a Christian, a Jew, a Mexican, a Philosopher, and Idiot… whatever it is, live it intensely”.
“You can go around the world, but when you are done take a look at your feet. The feet will be the same, you will be the same – the ground may change but your feet do not”
“Those who leave, eventually return, though it may not be to the place they are from in this lifetime”
By the time the day of the Temazcal I was a bit worse for wear from the manual labor – but no less happy, or excited. I still cannot put into words what is it that’s magical about Malinalco, but I have written more poems in the last few days than I have in the last year (See the Poetry Tab). So much had awakened inside of me, so much has come into doubt… I was no more sure of where I was going, or why, but I was somehow more content in the unknowing.
The ceremony of warrior purification before battle – to withstand the heat one must first become stronger than himself, his force of will must become stronger if he hopes to conquer his foe.
An herbal soup is prepared for splashing the rocks. Flowers are stuck into the roof of the Temazcal. Large logs are stacked in the giant fire pit outside. Each log is placed with purpose – the fore-knowledge that it will serve to heat the rocks which will cleanse us. Then the volcanic rocks are placed in a giant pile on top of the timber. Again, each stone is placed purposefully. Then logs are placed vertically on the outside of the rock pile, and finally small, fragrant, pieces of wood are used to light it all. Herbs are sprinkled atop of the flames. The shaman begins to explain the importance of the ceremony, how we seek to be connected with the four directions: earth, wind, fire and water, and their meeting in the center. He leads us in song and breathing and dance. We sing of the Mexica gods, of our warrior selves, of the eagles, and earth of which we ask to be a part. We offer cacao to the fire as we present our names and our purpose. Then we sing again – sometimes in Spanish, and at times in Nahuatl. We stretch and flex. The shaman brings us in contact with the warriors and Mexica beliefs of a time long past, but which are still alive in the blood of many Mexicans. He tells us of the Mexica alignment of the universe – their belief of the structure of nature and our part in it. As all natives he is in touch with the earth – he gathers his strength and sense of being from it, and shows us how we can possibly do the same. His eagle sits perched on his shoulder and flaps wildly at the crescendo of the songs.
We are now dripping in sweat before the great fire. It is hard to tell how long it has been since we commenced. For the entire 6 hour ceremony it is hard to tell at what point we find ourselves. But finally we remove everything but our underwear, or bathing suit. The shaman blows smoke over us as we enter the Temazcal. I enter first and circle all the way around until I reach the last spot to the left of the door. 9 more people follow.
When we are all inside, the shaman calls for his assistant, the man of fire, to bring him the deer horns for lifting the stones and placing them into the center pit. Then he calls for the stones which are brought in one by one. We welcome each stone. Then water is brought in, as well as herbs and a tambourine. At first only the herbs are sprinkled and the cave is filled with their aroma. Then the first bowls of water hit the glowing rocks and aroma is magnified by the vapor that now carries it and fills the Temazcal. It is hard to recall everything the shaman said, particularly as it was said in Spanish, with some Nahuatl thrown in every now and then. Though I understood most of what he said, particularly the sentiment and the ideas, it is hard to translate. His stories and explanations were along the lines that I have heard from, and read of, the natives of North America. He describes the universe and he beckons us to identify with the warrior, the eagle, the jaguar, the earth… he explains the soul and heart and mind. The path of seeking of truth and the search for strength – all of which begin and end within ourselves. We sing more songs. We breathe deeply of the scented vapors now bringing forth more sweat. And thus we continue for an indeterminate amount of time.
At some point the shaman calls to his man of fire and more rocks are brought in. The first round had only three, the second was closer to six rocks, on the third the pit was filled with about 8 more rocks, and on the final go another six – one of which the shaman tossed into the pit with his bare hands.
With every bringing forth of rocks the Temazcal grows ever hotter. The only relief comes from bringing your face close to the earth where it is slightly cooler. Sometimes there is a splash of cold water that the shaman throws from his bucket, but these are rare and do little. Then, between rounds when the door flap is opened to bring in more rocks, there are moments when a cold mountain breeze fills the cave – but that ends all too quickly as well.
Of the eleven of us sitting together we almost lost three, but the shaman managed to keep them inside. The heat becomes unbearable, the time in the heat becomes mind numbing. But we did not leave. One woman’s head and spine began to hurt to the point where she began to weep. Another could not stand the heat of the vapor and tried to leave, but the shamans command and my hand on her leg for reassurance kept her inside for the whole rest of the 3 or 4 hours of the ceremony. Another girl was having trouble breathing and so the shaman gave her a conch shell through which to breathe.
More songs of call and response, more invocations of our inner spirits and warrior selves; more breathing with purpose, controlled intake, controlled release. But it is getting hard to sing, hard to call out, hard to breathe as the heat grows ever more fierce. I have been to many a banya (sauna), which is hotter than a Temazcal, but we never stay so long inside without the relief of the cold plunge pool, some water, some tea, a beer and salted fish. We were inside the Temazcal for 3-4 hours. 3-4 hours of the temperature slowly growing and the steam weighing heavy on our hearts. You feel as though you want to throw up, as though you will pass out or have a heart attack. It is unbearable – except that, as you later find out, it is bearable. Somehow your inner warrior is stronger than the heat and steam. So close to failing, so close to giving up, so close to deeming something unbearable, and then, as every human being is capable, you overcome your fear of a bursting heart, of vomit on the dirt floor, of the embarrassment, and you achieve what you thought was impossible. It is a moment when you truly become one with the warriors of the past. And I do not refer to a past that is so long forgotten. For western folk who have become accustomed to the safety and comfort of the west – something they take for granted – they need not look past their grand-parents. The heights to which a human being can fly, what he makes possible and attainable, what impossible hell he makes survivable, can only be seen when we are faced with what we thought was impossible. And by our will, and perhaps the hand of a friend, we find that we truly are incredible.
By the third round of glowing volcanic stones, I find myself flat on the dirt floor trying to calm my heart. Breathing has never been my strong suit – particularly in severe heat or cold or during anaerobic activity. But I say nothing. I shift to here or there, I try to find what will calm my heart and cool my throat. There is nothing I want more than to escape the heat and dunk myself in a freezing pool of water or some snow. I cannot clear my mind for the heat is all I am able to think about. I stopped singing with the weakening voices of the others, I no longer respond to the proclamations. I cannot emit a sustained hum from a deep breath let slowly out. I can do nothing but lay and pray that I do not vomit, that I do not burst through that door before the end of the ceremony. And then, after I think I can take no more, the shaman starts another song and the end is no more near. As I imagine that death is forthcoming, that my heart will surely burst, he sprinkles some herbs on the stones, then some more water to raise the heat, and continues. The candles which were present for the first two rounds are gone and we are in complete darkness. As the glow from the stones disappears beneath the constant splashing of water, we are left with not even a point of dim light on which to focus. Our pain and agony is our own, as we see nothing, as nothing exists but ourselves in that moment.
At some magic moment the door flaps are opened and the cold slowly begins to enter our little cave. Succor is found in what we usually try to avoid for fear of catching a cold. But that breeze is all we want to feel. And now we have had three rounds of stones and we sit and talk with the flap open and the wind rolling in. But three is not a Mexica number. Four is the number of directions, so four is the number of rounds of stones that we shall receive. And so the fire man brings in more stones. The shaman stacks them on top of the old and they are now sticking out beyond the top level of the pit. The door flap closes again and the relief which seemed so close – the end which I could taste, disappears and the Temazcal is again filled with the sweet smell of herbs and a burning vaporous heat.
Again we sing. Again we chant. Again we proclaim. Again the throat seizes and the heart threatens to burst. Again and again the end does not come. Again and again we pray for him to splash some of the cold water from the bucket on our faces. But instead he douses and douses the stones, emptying two whole buckets on them. Though a candle is present in the Temazcal again, the steam covers the space completely and we see nothing but the sparks in our eyes when sweat breaks the barriers of our eyelids. And as we reach again the point where we think we can take no more, the shaman starts another chant.
At some magical moment he called for the door flap to be lifted and invited us outside and to a pool of water at the foot of the cliff which backs his property (in the middle of which there is a string of caves in which he likes to spend some days and nights). The water is as freezing as it ought to be at an altitude of more than 6,000ft, in the winter. We enter the pool and dunk over and over again. Just as before there is no hurry, every moment has a purpose, as does every action and stage of the ceremony, and nothing can be rushed. The extreme heat is replaced by extreme cold, and as before the heart pounds from the shock. But we dunk and splash and breathe.
Six hours after the lighting of the fire, we depart from the pool, dry ourselves off and bury our faces in cups of herbal tea, with a generous helping of honey. After we are dry and dressed we are called again the great fire pit. The shaman closes the ceremony by spreading the giant pile of ashes and embers, which makes the pit look like a constellation of sparkling stars. He mixes the ashes as he prays and chants. The piles take on different shapes, the heat glows fierce from the embers of giant logs. He walks around our circle shaking our hands and embracing us.
I cannot believe it but we are all sitting around a table with steaming bowls of soup, hot hand-made tortillas, homemade cheese, avocadoes, more tea and honey… it is over. We sit in joyful conversations. A German couple to my left, a Colombian to my right, and Mexicans filling the rest of the table, with the Shaman at the head. We have been through something together. We were strangers before, and we remain strangers now. But we have become linked through the earth that encapsulated us, the fire that cleansed us, the fear and pain which we overcame together, and that brief glimpse of our inner selves which so few get to see.