Last weekend I finished up my work for the week, stowed my laptop carefully away and prised myself away from the screen, grabbed my yoga mat and rucksack and hopped on a bus, headed for the hills. Two of my friends had gone to the retreat I was headed for the night before, but the others had fallen by the wayside that morning, having not been able to resist the call of tequila the night before.
The Facebook event for the retreat had been very vague, just saying that people could camp near a village up towards the volcano and attend various workshops, as well as do prehispanic dancing and a Temezcal. The instructions were in fact so vague that a half an hour journey turned into a good hour and a half, as I got lost in the foothills of the volcano and ended up forking out for a taxi.
We all had lunch and then took part in a workshop where we applied natural facemasks to each other whilst lying on reed mats in the dappled shade of a tree, channelling energy through our hands as we did so. With our skin beautifully soft, it was off to a Nahuatl (the dominant native language of this part of Mexico) lesson in a little bamboo-ringed make-shift classroom.
From the Nahuatl lesson it was time for the prehispanic dancing. A ring of stones was the dancing arena, but before entering it we had to be ‘smoked’ with incense and go through a ritual of offering prayers to each of the four cardinal points, then up to the sky, and then get down on our knees to honour mother earth. The fire for that night’s Temezcal was then lit, but not before each piece of wood was passed around the entire circle. At first, I found saying ‘I receive this with love’ and ‘I give this to you with love’ every time I accepted a log and handed it on to the next person a little uncomfortable (British understatement – I felt ridiculous) but I got over myself and got into the spirit of it.
The drums then struck up and we processed into the dancing arena. As the sun went down and the stars came out, we danced to the beat of the drums. A beautiful girl with poker straight hair and a flowing white dress who didn’t seem to even break a sweat made us all feel like lumbering elephants.
If you’ve ever done a Ceilidh, the exhaustion mixed with exhilaration was just the same. Having been to a fair few Ceilidhs in my time has also meant that I’ve lost any sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment when it comes to dancing, because I’m perfectly aware how ridiculous I look but comforted by the knowledge that no one cares. Apart from this one snarky woman who made comments about how they shouldn’t let tourists join in. We danced more exuberantly just to piss her off.
My personal favourite was the Eagle dance, which involved a lot of enthusiastic reaching your wings to the sky. The dances that involved squatting then jumping up and spinning then squatting again meant that my thighs definitely knew about it the next day.
The girls and I decided to retire for dinner after all this excitement rather than going straight into a Temezcal that evening, thinking that it sounded like something we’d rather do in the daylight.
‘Yes, but what on earth is a Temezcal?’ I hear you cry. I have to confess that I myself didn’t have the foggiest idea what a Temezcal was. Everyone else going just seemed to know, even the new arrivals in Mexico, so I just nodded along, and only found out when I got there.
Turns out, a Temezcal is basically a steam room, with a small door and a sandy floor, with a fire pit in the middle where red hot ‘abuelitas’ (grandmas- sacred stones heated in a fire) are placed. Infusions are poured over them which makes for thick, pungent steam. These are sometimes rooms within buildings in the middle of cities, but this one was out in the sticks and was (apparently) more like the original, a kind of dome-shaped, oversized kiln that you could squeeze about thirty people into. My understanding of the origin of this prehispanic tradition is very vague, but have a look at this brief Wikipedia article if you’re interested.
Once you’re all in there, in a ring around the outside with your backs to the wall, the small door is completely covered, blocking out all light. Firstly, everyone in the circle introduces themselves, some more eloquently than others, and some more at length than others. Then, the infusions are then poured onto the volcanic stones, and the space fills with steam, whilst drums are beaten fervently and songs are chanted.
There are four ‘puertas’, which means ‘doors’, in all, and between each the door is opened so that more stones can be passed in, meaning the heat gradually builds, but the hotter the ‘puerta’ gets, the shorter it is. The belief is that you are returning to your mother’s womb, so if you don’t manage to get through four ‘puertas’, you’re not born again.
The whole thing is basically an exercise in controlling the mind and remaining calm in stressful circumstances, giving your inner demons a chance to work themselves out. Everyone will have a completely different experience in a Temezcal depending on their mental state, and lots of people, including my two friends, seemed to really enjoy the experience. I, however, am still on the fence about it.
My reaction as soon as the door went down was to start crying. I thought the fear of the dark I had when I was a child was something I’d left behind, but apparently true, true darkness, the kind where you can’t see your hand in front of your face, still scares the shit out of me.
Unfortunately, what happened next marred the whole thing for me, so my experience should in no way be taken as the norm (at least I bloody hope it shouldn’t). You have to sit man-woman-man-woman in a Temezcal (something to do with the energy), and the young guy next to me thought he could take advantage of the newbie. What started out as him holding my hand and reassuring me whilst I adjusted to this foreign environment, which did genuinely help to begin with, quickly turned into him trying his luck under the cover of darkness. As this was a religious ceremony, and I was slightly traumatised anyway, I didn’t protest out loud and just kept batting his hands away until he got the message. He eventually did, but it turns out he simply turned the other way and tried the same thing with my friend.
Afterwards, feeling uncomfortable and both very overwhelmed by the whole thing, we didn’t say anything. Personally, I was emotionally exhausted and trying to process it all, and my terribly British determination to not make a scene won out. I realised once I’d returned to planet earth that this probably wasn’t the right course of action, but, thankfully, one of the Shamans somehow figured it out for himself, and the offender will not be allowed into a Temezcal there ever again. This was just my latest experience of the way that women are often treated here in Mexico. A nicely controversial blog post on the topic will be forthcoming at some point.
Having communicated to my neighbour that his attentions were categorically not welcome, I was able to focus on what was going on in my brain. With each ‘puerta’ the room got hotter and hotter, and I had to shimmy down so I was lying on the floor, as it was far cooler and less intense at ground level, with more of my body in contact with the cool sand.
During the third door, I was desperate for the loo, and I crawled out of the ‘womb’ into the light of a beautiful, fresh, sunny morning. Emerging from the dark and heat was too much for me, and I started hyperventilating and sobbing. One of the lovely shamans took me to one side and told me to let whatever it was out and not repress it, and asked me what it was that was bothering me, to which I, quite honestly, replied I hadn’t got the faintest idea. Pedro, the shaman, was convinced I had some kind of deep-seated trauma, and assured me that even if I wasn’t conscious of what it was that was making me like this, I was still subconsciously working through it.
I went to the loo and was then torn about whether or not to go back in. I kind of wanted to finish what I’d started, but being outside with the light and the cool breeze felt too wonderful to give up. In the end, I pulled myself together and got back in, having asked if I could sit next to the door rather than going back to my original place, both because I felt better about being next to the emergency exit in case the last and most intense puerta was too much, and because that way I was away from my neighbour who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Luckily Tata, the man in charge, kept the last session very short, and then I was able to crawl back out into the open air (no hyperventilating this time), caked in black sand from head to foot.
The sensation of pouring buckets of fresh, spring water over my head after the heat and oppressiveness of that space was incredible, and everything was extra well-defined after the darkness. I’ve never been quite so happy to hear birdsong and see the wind rippling through the trees, but my thoughts quickly turned to food, as being in a pitch black steam-room-on-steroids for over an hour definitely works up an appetite.
I’m glad I tried a Temezcal, but I don’t think I’d do it again. Never say never, as who knows what kind of strange compulsion might grip me one day, but I don’t think I’ll be voluntarily going back into ‘the womb’. I do, however, think it’s something that everyone should try if they have the opportunity, as you can’t get much more out of your comfort zone, and a lot of people can’t seem to get enough of the experience.
Have you ever tried a Temezcal? What was your experience like? If you haven’t, does it sound like something you’d like to do, or have I scared you off? Comment away…