When we returned to Toronto last month, the unprecedented cold which gripped the city threw my husband and me into a deep February funk. So much so that the effervescent bubble dried up or, more likely, froze. I couldn’t write, failed to follow up on what I had learned at the writing workshop in Mexico, and felt that I hadn’t a single idea in my head for any postings. Hence, the gap in my blog. A particularly wise writer at dinner last week admonished me that I had missed an opportunity. I should have taken the whining in my head, played with it, and turned it into something funny. Had I done that, my depression (I know, Ned, it isn’t really “a depression”) would have lifted.
This morning, the temperature has again plummeted, there is new snow on the ground, and a wicked wind will make our projected four-hour YMCA Megathon walk particularly challenging. I remembered our visit to a temascal in January, and I thought that writing and reading about a ritual Mexican sweat bath might be a diversion from the harsh reality of this Toronto winter. Maybe you will find it so as well.
Magda Bogin, the director of the Under the Volcano Writing Workshop, lives in New York City. She has also spent thirty years in Mexico, and loves to share her second home with others. She had told us that the area around Tepoztlán has been the home of indigenous native peoples since time immemorial, and that many sacred locations can be found there. To illustrate this, she facilitated a visit to a temascal or ritual Mexican sweat bath. She said that many hotels and spas offer a temascal experience, but that this particular one was located in a historic sacred space in the hills near Cuernavaca and was effectively “the world’s most authentic Mexican spa.”
Off a small road, we drove into a large compound surrounded by tall trees and shrubs edging an open grassy area. Giant aloe plants reached to the sky, spreading their leaves closer to the ground for the locals to cut and use in their ritual. In the distance was a large free-standing room, like a solarium, made from wood and glass, with simple tables and chairs set up inside. This is where we came for wonderful vegetable soup at the end of our visit.
On our arrival, we walked past the solarium, and around a large shed to the back of the property. Adjacent to the shed were two large smooth black cylinders, shaped like the elongated beehive huts we had seen from dark ages Ireland, but made of adobe. At one end, heavy blankets hung over a small open door. These two cylinders were the sweat baths, one for men and one for women. Each could probably seat a dozen or so. Apparently fires had been started in them twenty-four hours earlier, so they would be appropriately heated by our arrival. The shed beside the cylinders was divided into rooms, each hung with heavy blankets. Inside there were mats on the floor for three or four people to lie down, rest, and have a massage. We were assigned a room, chose a mat, and left our belongings in a heap beside the one we claimed for our own.
We then went outside, beyond the baths, to an open area adorned with an altar. There two women were waiting for us, each holding a burner with the smoky incense of capel leaves. We approached them one by one. They smudged us with their incense, waving it over and around us, and inviting us to draw in the incense with our hands. This was the beginning of the ritual.
We then returned to our rooms, undressed, wrapped ourselves in sheets or towels, and returned to the door of the bath. Two women held it open, removed our modesty sheet from behind us, and we stepped into the bath, naked. They insisted I remove my glasses. Fearing I might be claustrophobic, I entered behind all the other women and sank to the floor immediately to the left of the door. All the better for a quick escape if necessary.
Inside, there was total blackness. I could see nothing and no one. The other ten women with me at the temascal were sitting on the wooden floor around the periphery of the bath, within touching distance of each other. But we could not see each other. The woman performing the ritual must have been sitting in the middle. Later, when I returned to the bath for the second time, when fewer people were there and the blankets were raised, I could see that the bath was probably about twelve feet long, maybe seven feet wide, and in the centre beside the coals were a fan of leaves and several buckets containing cold water and pieces of aloe leaf.
The woman threw cold water onto the hot coals and fanned the steam to raise the temperature. She then gave an invocation in Spanish which was translated to tell us that this was a cleansing ceremony. She passed around the bucket of aloe leaves, each took a large piece, and she instructed us to wipe the cool gel of the leaf on our faces, our necks and our body. I have known of aloe all my adult life but never before experienced the soothing cool texture of a chunk of natural aloe. She then had us take a cup of cool water and throw it onto our faces and hair. She then told us that inner cleansing requires that we make noise, cry, wail, sing, do anything to release the tension, worries, fears or grieving that resided in our bodies. There was a silence. I wondered how long the silence would go on. Then there were sighs, and groans, and someone started to cry. The crying changed to weeping. The sighs and groans changed to a chant. It seemed as if everyone had taken a note and held it. The harmony resounded in the confines of the bath and rose and fell, and rose and fell. It became almost ethereal. The chant continued until the person weeping settled. It happened naturally, as if the entire group were rising up to hold the one so sad. Then it stopped, equally naturally, and we sat in the steaming darkness in silence.
A short time after, the officiant indicated that seven massages could be done at a time, and we needed to get started. I crawled out, took my sheet, found my glasses, returned to my room, lay down on my mat wrapped in my sheet and nearly went to sleep. Sometime later, a young woman, with a gentle touch, started the massage. It wasn’t the deepest massage I have ever had, but it was the most sensitive. At the end, she placed a cup of herbal tea on the mat beside me.
Eventually, we had to dress, have our soup, and leave. How clean we looked. How placid we felt. After such an event, the soul is quiet, calm, refreshed. I could have sat in the sun by the aloe plant the rest of the day. I wondered if the temascal is similar to the sweat lodge ceremony practiced by Canadian First Nations people. I have never had that experience; perhaps some of you have.
It occurs to me that going to a spa, having a massage, or using the sauna, the steam room, or the hot pool at the West End YMCA would have lifted my spirits last month. We may not have access to a real Mexican temascal but we do have the resources for replenishment in our own back yard, even in February. The trick is to use them. Ah yes.