Tagged: Under the Volcano Writing Workshop

The Temascal: A Ritual Mexican Sweat Bath

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.

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A Visit to Cuernavaca

Cuernavaca, the most significant city in the state of Morelos, has a population of over a million. It is a half hour’s drive via the toll road, down into the valley from Tepoztlán. There, the temperature is ten degrees higher, the vegetation semi-tropical, and the city teeming with paved streets, businesses and people, like many cities of similar size.We didn’t hear roosters crowing in Cuernavaca, but we did step into history in a breathtaking way.

This is the city where Malcolm Lowry lived in the 1930s and the 1940s. He renamed it Quauhnahuac for the purposes of his novel, Under the Volcano (published in 1947). In the novel, he described the city of his time with what is considered incredibly accurate detail. Lowry-lovers who have managed to embrace his meandering prose for the 20th century masterpiece it is considered to be, come to this city to retrace his footsteps and find the home where he placed his principal character. Lowry interests me because he lived for many years, and largely wrote his most famous novel, in Dollarton, British Columbia, on Burrard Inlet, east of North Vancouver. My high school English teacher was his neighbour and friend, and was always encouraging us to read the book. I knew it was difficult and never did. I read it for the first time only this past month, preparing for this writing workshop called Under the Volcano in his honour. We did not have time to do a Lowry pilgrimage in Cuernavaca. Next time. 

The Cortés Palace dominates the historic downtown, set back across the plaza as it is from the roadway to better emphasize its stone façade. The Spanish came to this area from the east in 1517, the beginning of a 52-year cosmic cycle in the Aztec calendar. The locals greeted them as the prophecy come true. There was an ancient Aztec temple on the site which was considered holy ground. Cortés and his Aztec allies used the slaves taken by the Aztecs to demolish the original temple and rebuild the palace using its stones. When Cortés initially attacked Mexico City and was repulsed, he retreated to Cuernavaca. The city and the palace became a strategic base for his successful conquest of Mexico City several years later.

 The Cortés Palace is the oldest civic building on the North American continent, and has been used over the centuries as an imperial summer palace, a jail, a government building, and now a beautiful historical museum. It is a two-storied dark stone structure with strikingly high ceilings and massive wood beams. Apart from the excavated remains of the ancient Aztec temple, its most important artifacts are a gallery of Diego Rivera murals painted on the walls of the second floor balcony, depicting the history of Cuernavaca. I have never seen Rivera murals in real life before; their deep colours and powerful images are striking.

Cuernavaca has a cornucopia of rich historical treasures, including the Cathedral and the Borda Gardens.  Well worth a visit.  

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Greetings from Tepoztlán

We have now been in Tepoztlán, a city of 27,000, in the state of Morelos, about an hour south-east of Mexico City, since Friday and are beginning to feel very comfortable. It’s taken a little time. The setting of this small Mexican city is utterly spectacular. Tepoztlán is nestled in the mountains a mile above sea level, about a half-hour drive from Cuernavaca. It is surrounded by sheer rock faces towering high above on three sides, topped at their peak by an Aztec pyramid, and lower mountains to the east. The town has narrow streets which descend sharply from the heights to the main core of the town below. What appears as a valley, however, is really a plateau, as the streets south of the main core descend still further. Apart from the main drag, the streets are mostly cobblestone, built on a steep incline. In British Columbia, we are used to road signs warning of grades of maybe 8 or 9 per cent. Here, there are no signs, the grades are steeper, and the cobblestone roads are made of larger stones than I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world. The cross streets also meander up and down, up and down, such that walking up and across to our writing classes becomes a first class aerobic exercise. And you can’t go downtown without trudging back up. Take note, all you West End Y walkers.

The stores and houses are mostly low buildings, many built from pink adobe brick mortared together with flecks of the local hard lava rock. Houses are built behind stone walls, so it is impossible to tell if a particular dwelling is a palace or a shack. Where gates are ajar, farm animals appear inside; chickens and goats and geese scratching for food. There are few signs telling the names of the streets or the house numbers. If you mention the name of the person whose home you are seeking, a neighbour sitting on a bench may point in the right direction. Even experienced taxi drivers native to the community sometimes find it hard to identify particular locations.

At 5:00 a.m., in the pitch dark, the local birds and animals have been stirring for some time, and the church bells tolled five times to mark the hour. Actually there are two sets of church bells, but they are not synchronized. They both toll every hour, and shorter tolls every 15 minutes in between. At 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning, a volley of fireworks was set off. At 7:00 a.m., another volley of fireworks, and, as the sun had now arisen over the saddle of mountains, the city seemed slightly more animated. By 8:00 a.m., the bells were tolling from several different churches, plumes of fireworks smoke billowed from the hillsides, there were loud bangs from immediately below our hotel, and the sounds of a marching band got louder as it moved toward the main square of town. Again at 9:00, the cacophony of wakeup calls reverberated across the city. It’s Sunday morning on a fiesta weekend. When do these Mexicans ever sleep? And they must have nerves of steel to withstand the constant barrage of fireworks that goes on day and night. I guess you are truly acclimatized when you no longer hear the din. As I said, it is taking us awhile.

Tepoztlán doesn’t seem to have many tourists. Wealthy Mexicans and ex-pats from Mexico City use the city as a weekend retreat. Several whom we have met have lived here for years. Including a couple who hosted the entire group for a discussion of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and dinner at their marvellous home (a virtual private art gallery) on Sunday evening. He is originally from Galt, Ontario; she from England. They were most gracious and generous hosts. Malcolm Lowry wrote his novel based in the area. The writing workshop (also called Under the Volcano) is going very well with 27 participants from 15 countries. My instructor, Alison Wearing from Stratford, Ontario, is going to perform her one-woman show on Thursday evening. That will be a treat.

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