He announces: First of all, the shaman wants you to know, no one has ever died during the Temazcal ritual. This, you must remember.
Seriously, I have no idea how I got myself into this! I am so scared in fact that I can barely hear the rest of the sounds on the beach. I am so focused on the thick smoke I am being ‘cleansed by’ that only the sound of children still playing keeps me here, by the sea, in Tulum, Mexico. The rest of me seems to be taking a trip elsewhere – somewhere scary and unknown.
As I stand in front of what appears to be a giant igloo made out of a volcanic rock and turned into what I can only describe as a giant pizza oven with the smallest door imaginable, I am taken by the rhythmic chanting inside produced by a person the locals have invited to perform an ancient ceremony.
The ceremony is called Temazcal, which takes place in a building of the same name and is a sweat lodge of pre-Hispanic, Aztec origin. The meaning of the word when it is used for the building itself is translated as ‘house of heat’. The person conducting the ceremony is the one who holds the power and knowledge for its success.
Today, this person is a slim, and unusually for this area, non-Mayan looking woman, a shaman, a powerful being. Her voice calls up the spirits of nature in a language unknown to me. Her smile, with a perfect line of white teeth is gentle but her chanting is strong and hypnotic. In her early thirties, she is dressed in a simple red blouse and a longish, full black skirt. Her dark, shiny hair styled in a ponytail. She looks so simple, I catch myself thinking and so kind and beautiful in her own way. I could swear her eyes are glowing in the charcoal darkness as she nods for me to come in. She is welcoming me, I know, even though we cannot talk to each other. Worlds apart, linguistically and otherwise, she still somehow ‘speaks’ to me.
Two Mayan shamans are busying themselves with searing hot rocks, which were ‘baked’ in a fire pit for almost the whole day, just for this purpose. Only the volcanic rock can take that much heat without exploding. In skirt-like robes, bare chested and with red bandanas, the male shamans are walking back and forth getting chores done. They are bringing small batches of searing rocks, cleansing people who are to go in with smoke produced by the holy copal tree.
The ‘participants’ are getting cleansed and walking in, one by one. The participants are us, six tourists, crazy enough to get in and give this thing a go. Four Americans, one German and me. Apart from us, Antonio from the hotel is here to translate for us. Only an hour ago I thought his only ambition in life was to ‘become the manager for entertainment’, right here in this five star resort. Suddenly, I am not so sure his outstanding Zumba skills and shocking level of fitness is all there is to this guy, or to this resort for that matter!
The last glimpse of daylight before I go in flashes on the concerned looking faces of two Norwegian women by the pool. I can tell what they are thinking. “Crazy British woman going in! Glad it’s not me”.
I am in now. We all had to bend to get in. I am sitting on the circular stone bench. There is so little space. It is dark inside and already incredibly hot.
I am nervous. The Shaman woman is sitting across to my right, she is drumming and singing. I can feel the song is a call, ancient, powerful. Every now and then a younger shaman carries a small load of hissing rocks to the ‘door’ and she brings them in by lifting them with two real stag antlers, one in each hand just like that, lifting and moving. She is just as good with those as I am with a knife and a fork, I can’t help but notice. As I look at her through the hissing steam rising from the pit in the middle, the future ‘entertainment manger’ sits on the floor next to my feet. He announces: “First of all, the shaman wants you to know, no one has ever died during the Temazcal ritual. This, you must remember.”
I take a deep breath of a hot steam and just as I thought I could not be more scared I feel a terrible explosion of irrational panic rising from my solar plexus. In my stomach there feels to be an endless void of darkness, a pit, with only a clenched fist in it. This really is a crazy thing to do. Now there’s been no shortage of craziness indulged in my life in the past but this somehow seems so unnecessary I am wondering will anyone have any sympathy for me if I run out now.
I watch in disbelief as they prepare to close what little opening there is. It is all turning dark. Inside is hot. The male shaman sits to my left and as they seal the door with a big rug he is motionless, a statue almost, I cannot hear him breathe.
Now it’s pitch black. I can’t see my hands no matter how much I stare. I’ve never experienced darkness like it. It is what it is meant to be, this building and this ritual of the same name. Temazcal. It is a purification experience replaying the feeling of the mother’s womb. I had always somehow thought the womb was a chill out place. Smooth and wavy. Lulling. This isn’t. It feels terrible. I cannot see what other people are doing. All my senses are going into overdrive.
View from inside the Temazcal when ‘door’ is open (Picture B.Krstovic)
My mind’s focus is changing. I cannot hear anything but the shaman and drumming. Somewhere as from another room I hear Antonio translating everything the shaman woman is saying but I am hardly following it. I am in some strange zone, irrational, panicky, terrified but strangely focused within my inner terror. She is drumming. She is singing. It must be now 60C inside. I don’t even know what is safe for people to endure. “Nobody has ever died during this ceremony Billie” I say to myself in my own mind. Apparently nobody! The steam is so thick I am not sure how is anyone breathing inside. Each breath is like hot lava inside my lungs. I am sweating. No. I am swimming in my own sweat. The thin sarong I am wearing is now my second skin.
The ceremony of which I am unable to talk about is well under way. One part of me wants to take part while the other just wants to run. The fear is now so raging inside of me that I feel like an animal in a cage, mad from its capture, panicky and alarmed. I am now rocking. This isn’t good. Just a touch of mad behaviour Billie, just a touch. I am still rocking. I start to get paranoid thinking that I must have taken some drugs or something just as bad without realising. Have they put something in that steam? I cannot smell anything. I am going even more paranoid as my logical mind cannot find the source of this madness in my head. I have now completely lost sense of the passing time. It is all very quick and it is endless, paradoxically eons passing in minutes. I had no idea I could get this scared and paranoid. My mind is running wild. The shaman woman is calling, she is singing. The drums are going deep into my psyche to find my deepest and darkest fears. There is something in there, tracking through my subconscious, like a worm borrowing into the dirt. I can almost feel it with every beat coming closer and closer to the foremost ‘back’ of my mind. I struggle to keep a grip on reality. I don’t really know what is real any more. There is a sense of something terrifying about to scream out of my body, my mind, my soul, out of me!
Then abruptly the drumming stops. It all stops. Within seconds the rug ‘door’ is open and the fresh air is coming in. I can see a small chunk of the blue sky outside. It’s all surreal. It dawns on to me that no one outside of this structure really knows what is taking place inside. As if us, nine people inside, have stepped outside of time and space and into an alternative reality. I feel faint. The shaman woman picks up a pipe given to her by one of the shamans from outside and smokes some tobacco. She speaks to Antonio in a language not familiar to me. He tells me the shaman says I should go outside during this break. Inside I am like an animal finally released from capture. I get up and fear I will not come back if I leave now. I bend over and come out into the light anyway.
It is so bright I have to close my eyes. It is painful to open them again. As I put my hands over my eyes I hear a male voice speaking close to my face and feel cool water on top of my head. It feels good. I open my eyes and see the younger male shaman right in front of me. He is gesturing . I walk after him towards the small stream of water by the Temezcal. I catch myself thinking how this is one of the things I really love about Mexico. All the underground waters and the sweet calmness they contain. Sweet water.
The shaman is scooping the water from the stream in a little dish and pouring it over my head. He does this three times, speaking softly but I don’t know what he is saying to me. Everyone else is still inside. I can hear drumming again. He looks deep into my eyes, and then he puts his thumb between my lips and my nose. He finds just the right spot and presses hard. I start to feel I am ‘sobering up’. He looks at me again obviously judging whether his touch medicine is working then pleased at the result he smiles widely, his white teeth flash in his dark face. He is quite attractive in his own way, I notice. He speaks again and gives me a bottle of ice cold water gesturing I should drink it.
I am drinking this water and it feels as if I never drank water in my whole life before! The taste, the freshness. I am just standing, and drinking this awesome nectar. At that moment the older Mayan shaman comes out of the Temazcal and gestures to me. I know he is asking am I going back in. I know I cannot. I know I am done. This is done. I shake my head and he nods. His nod is serious but non- judgemental. I can feel here, with these people, all is at its right time, at the right pace. Nothing is rushed, there are no mistakes, life unfolds naturally at its own pace and all is well. Still, I feel pangs of disappointment. I don’t know why. Is it my Western mind blinded by ego and illusion of the rat race and constant competition? Or is it just competitive self? Myself.
I am sitting on the edge of the small concrete wall and just sipping the water. Still unaware of the rest of the World around me, still not tuned in to the noise of the beach. Still just me, this water and the sky. It is all very quiet inside of me. Calm. Solid calm. This must be the ‘dead calm’.
The younger shaman smiles and walks past me towards the the Temazcal. He seals the ‘door’ and walks away tiding up around the oven. The drumming inside intensifies. I am so aware I am outside. Very outside the reality I just left in there.
Are you ok? I hear my husband’s voice behind me. I look at him but I cannot speak. He is circling me as if one would a wild animal. Then he settles next to me. I nod but still cannot speak. I look at this man and am so glad he is so patient. My long suffering man is used to my crazy ways, I am thinking. I have no idea how I got into this! Why can‘t I just be here in this five star resort and just do what everyone else does? Beach, cocktails , a bit of watersports, foam pool parties and just awesome scenery? Nah, none of that’s for me! I need a different kind of exciting. How do I always end up doing crazy stuff like this? Seriously?!
To be honest this time I was planning to do just that, to be as normal a tourist as possible. I never knew this ancient ceremony would find me instead. Typical really. When we arrived I had no idea it took place twice a week right here on this beach. Once I found out I just had to do it. Honest. I had to!
I look at my husband and smile. “I am ok” I say. And he is fine. He waits and slowly walks back with me to the beach. The drumming behind us fades as we walk away. I can feel the other reality slowly slipping out of my being. I can hear kids at the beach now. I see my daughter in the pool and she waves. How was it? The pizza oven? Did you do it? Was it good? She shouts laughing but intrigued. I nod. Very good. I say and smile. She blows me a kiss and swims away towards two girls about her age.
I sit on the beach bed and look across the Caribbean sea. I feel incredibly calm. I feel clean on the inside. I feel the beach. I feel everything. I feel the Earth herself. There are no thoughts in my head. It is all very pleasantly empty in there.
At this point a waiter comes by and my husband offers me a drink. Few minutes later I am sitting up and have a sip of my coffee. Then I spit it out! I feel I am going to be sick, very sick, everywhere! I take a deep breath. It dawns on me that I seem to have the worst hangover on the planet without having had a drop of alcohol! A terrible wave of nausea rises from my stomach and muddles my empty, crisp mind. My vision is blurred and I am trembling inside. I have no idea what is going on! My husband, alarmed, goes off to get some more water and I am just lying there trying not to throw up and embarrass myself in front of everyone.
I am now mad with myself and the fact that I did this crazy sauna thing or whatever they call it. I now remember I was told it’s meant to purge one of every toxic thought and also detox the body. I forgot all about that! The body. I can see now what’s brewing here and I am not looking forward to any of it. Mother of all detox here it comes!
That evening, the locals prepared a massive party on the beach with vast amounts of incredible food cooked outside, under the starry sky. The shopping was amazing with local jewellery, colourful Mayan Pacal masks and numerous hand crafted obsidian and leather items.
The food was divine! A gourmet banquet with anything you can imagine, from delicious fragrant rice, leaf wrapped potatoes , sweet chicken skewers, fresh green guacamole, small bean wraps, multi-coloured seafood dishes to giant, luscious, raw mango lollies for children and adults alike. Food Paradise indeed, well, unless you are on detox. And boy was I detoxing!
I was all over the place. Every time I put a delicious piece of food into my mouth it just refused to go down. There I was, in the middle of Mexico, in the place I’d wanted to go to for some time at an amazing party just wanting to go back and lie down in bed. That continued for nearly two days. I had vertigo and nausea, shakes and no appetite. I really was cursing for that entire time, quietly inside of myself. I complained and complained until finally I woke up and it was all gone.
It was just me, fresh, calm and somehow different. Apart from the fact that I could see my long-lost waist rapidly returning, I also felt so much lighter in my mind and in my heart. I felt somehow new. As if I had left some kind of heavy load in that small stone structure. As if I found my new self. Or my old self. A self I forgot perhaps and a beautiful one at that.
A couple of days later it turned out I had low blood pressure and with all the sweating in the Temazcal it had dropped even further. This is what the young shaman had been trying to tell me. It was a good thing I stayed out. Next time I will have to drink lots more water before going in.
A year later
Next time. As I ponder on that thought, a whole year later, I surprise myself by feeling I have unfinished business in Tulum. Something I am not quite done with. I don’t really understand it, and neither do I care to. It’s just a sense that I will go back.
I also notice that in a strange sort of way the Temazcal had a huge impact on my life. I seem to have left something deep and dark I didn’t even know I carried with me in that small building, in that parallel reality, in a Mayan Tardis. There seem to be far fewer skeletons in my cupboard. I feel lighter and braver.
Would I advise it to others to try? Well, whilst it is a powerful healing ceremony, Temazcal is not for the faint hearted and nor I presume for people with health issues, however it does what it says on the tin; it purges the body, mind and soul of anything toxic and harmful. It tracks down the deepest and darkest whether of body or mind to be faced up to and released. It is like rebirth and it literally feels a bit like that. It can feel terrifying but not for everyone.
Apart from that, the shamans who perform it are experienced Mayan community healers and have, as a rule, seen it all before. In all their strength, which quite frankly can be quite intimidating as it almost exudes from their personas even if you cannot talk to them, they are compassionate, kind and know their stuff very well. For Western people not used to culturally diverse spirituality this kind of experience can be extremely strange and unfamiliar, and that alone can make people anxious. So, a healthy dose of curiosity is always helpful.
As for health concerns I am not a doctor and for what it is worth the hotel staff did check the health history of everyone before they got in and we signed papers saying we were fit to go in. Nobody with health issue is allowed in. I am not sure what happens in remote Mayan villages when the ceremony takes place but some common sense is necessary wherever someone is deciding to enter such an extreme environment. Even though it is advised to complete it to the end, once in a Temazcal if anyone feels ill or uncomfortable they are allowed and able to get out. This will not affect the ceremony for anyone else, just that person’s cleansing process and their own inner journey. Not everyone gets paranoid in there either – the aim is to eventually feel completely relaxed and blissful while inside. It can take a few goes to get there. It all depends on what is to be cleansed, which is different for each person and is different for the same person at different times. Mayans and Aztecs do this frequently. Native women have been known to give birth in Temazcal! Not something I imagine myself being able to do.
I also somehow feel that who goes in is meant to go in. As if almost there is an element of faith in the whole procedure. As for me, I feel Mexico is still waiting for me to return and have another go. The thought excites me and scares me at the same time. Who knows.
Ahem, watch this space…
By Billie Krstovic