The following is a guest post, written by fellow SATW member Amy Weirick. The day that I went to Tequila, she visited a traditional Huichol temazcal, or sweat lodge, located outside Guadalajara. I asked her to write something about the experience – especially after our group discovered that two people (now three) had died in a similar sweat lodge in Sedona, Ariz.
UPDATED: NYC Architect Timo Lindman noticed from Amy’s picture that the sweat lodge that some in SATW attended in Mexico was made from natural materials that breathe, instead of being covered with a plastic tarp. Says Lindman: “Sweat lodges/saunas/banya can be really terrific things, but coercion is not part of the process, and badly built (non-permeable) lodges run by yahoos are dangerous.”
“Most people don’t take this tour.”
So says our guide, Esmeralda, as our bus pulled out of Guadalajara. On our agenda: a mud bath, a sampler of native healing rituals and a meet-up with a Shaman. All of it – along with copious sweating – is designed to provoke a mystical episode, and Esmerelda repeatedly tells our group of two dozen how special we are for embarking on such a spiritual adventure.
I should have known we were in for a wild ride.
In the tiny village of Buenavista, barefoot babies stared as our tour bus rumbled down the mucky, rocky road. Old men in chewed up hats offered sideways glances. Cows and chickens scattered as we bobbed and weaved past once-proud brick country houses , now mere walls that protect - or hide - humble hovels.
We arrived at a large fenced lawn ringed by igloo-shaped dwellings. One, the temazcal, is crafted from brick and cement. Another, called an inipi, looks like a grass mat soccer ball emerging from the yard. We’re welcomed at a large fire with a soul-cleansing wave of feathers and traditional copol incense. Its piney resin smoke wafted around our heads.
Esmeralda then introduced us to our healer, Teresa. With Esmeralda acting as translater, Teresa invited us in her native Huichol language to sit in a circle nad spun wildly colorful tales of Huichol ritual and belief. She would eventually direct one of the groups in their spiritual quest.
Then Teresa presented the leader of my group: fellow spiritualist and native dance expert Rosalio. I stared. To me, Rosalio looked exactly like Charles Manson – wearing a loincloth. This does not bode well.
In a staccato cadence, Rosalio shared his beliefs, as Esmeralda translated. There is no race, he murmured, only the human race. We are not Indians, he chided, Indians live in India. We will reborn, he predicted, as we emerge from the temazcal.
Oh, were we.
But first we’re directed to a corner of the yard, where large buckets of mud are doctored with sandalwood and lavender oil. We dipped into them, slathering the slate-gray muck on our bodies (we had been told to wear swimsuits and bring a towel). We laid down and embraced Mother Earth, mud baking on our bodies and, we’re told, drawing out impurities – anything bad or unwanted.
This exorcism continued as Rosalio gave us each a handful of tobacco, encouraging us to put all of our negative energy into that sprinkle of dried leaves, and then toss it into the fire. We toss it into the fire to burn away. Illness and bad habits will be cleansed by the mud and the fire, we’re told – and oh yes, the sweat.
Crawling on our hands and knees, we entered the inipi. On the way in, we dipped our head to the earth in thanks and prayer. Little did we know that in a few hours, we’d be praying for relief.
A large pichfork bearing red-hot rocks the size of a human head was shoved in the door. The rocks were dropped into a deep pit in the inipi’s center. Rosalio beat his drum and chanted, then fiercely tossed cups of herbal tea onto the rocks. Thick, hot steam filled the lodge.
Soon, sweat flowed from every pore, rinsing away much of the mud - and our inhibitions. Noses ran, tears welled. A member next to me apologetically asked me to wipe her gooey face. “That’s a new twist in media relations,” I thought.
We continued to sweat. Several members of the group began to feel faint, their hearts racing from the temperature. It’s just too hot, they told Rosalio. But Charles Manson is not having it.
”Touch your body,” Rosalio said. “It is your strength. You can do it.” The members stayed, although it was unclear if it was strength or Rosalio’s chiding that kept them there.
Finally, the door opened. Some people sighed, some gasped. All of us thought we were getting out. No dice.
Instead, another pitchfork of sizzling rocks is loaded into the lodge. More tea. More steam. With a ferocity that seemed unexpected in a spiritual leader, Rosalio hurled cool cups of the herbal tea. It felt cooling, yet shocking at the same time.
Just when we thought we could take no more, the door opened. We emerged the same way we went in – head first, forehead to the ground in prayer. We’re rinsed with icy well water. It felt invigorating and bracing, pretty much a metapher for the entire experience.
Cool at last, we drank herbal tea and rested on grass mats – natural, we’re told, from Mother Earth. And finally, after hours of deprivation, a dazzling spread of colorful fruit was put before us. Watermelon, pineapple, papaya, cucumbers and apples never tasted so cold and fresh. Our sweat lodge experience endsedwith a circle hug, meant to represent the endless coil of a snail’s shell.
So was I reborn? Hm. Maybe not reborn, but revitalized … if only by the incredible weirdness of it all. I was really relaxed, the way you feel after a butt-kicking workout. And what the heck, I do believe my skin looks just a tiny bit healthier. The experience provided me with a mental escape that I can reflect on for some time, like a strange and interesting movie that stays with you for awhile.
Had I known of the fate of those who died in Arizona, I’m uncertain whether I would have opted for this tour. I think back to Esmeralda’s “This tour is not for everyone” caveat and shudder a little. Interestingly, those Arizona New Agers paid some $10,000 each for their weekend, while our day-long “authentic experience” cost only about $35.
Follow Amy on Twitter: @AmyMWeirick