Thank you Zapotecs. Thank you Aztecs. My body and mind are cleansed and I’m ready to start anew. I have been to the Temazcal and it was good. Better than good. Let’s put it this way, it was probably the only indigenous tradition the invading Spanish, including the Dominicans, allowed the natives to continue and even embraced themselves. Yes, it is that good. In brief, the Temazcal is the Mexican version of the Native American sweat lodge, from the Nahuatl (Aztec) words Temaz (steam) and calli (house). But it is so much more, steeped in tradition and symbolism from many surprising sources.
Sherry and I arranged our visit through a local hotel which promised to take care of all the details, including contracting with a taxi driver to pick us up at my posada and whisk us to the outlying neighborhood where the Temazcal was located. That initial part of the journey nearly derailed when our taxi was late and Sherry and I waited anxiously outside the posada. Suddenly, a taxi slowed down and the driver motioned to us. I thought I’d better check and see that this wasn’t just some random taxi but our contracted driver. I put on my best Spanish and asked the driver if he was the one prearranged to take us to the Temazcal. After about five minutes of confused conversation, it suddenly became clear that he thought I wanted to go drink Mezcal with him. At that point, we called in the big guns, native Oaxacan Teresa Villareal, whose family home is my posada. She sent my would-be drinking partner on his way and arranged for another taxi.
At the site of the Temazcal, we entered the walls of the compound, walked through a lush garden and into a wooden building. This held the dressing rooms, the massage room, and the Temazcal itself. The actual Temazcal is a beehive shaped adobe building with a small door and a square hole at the other end through which an assistant can add wood to the small fire pit. The shape of the Temazcal is very deliberate, representing a womb, and you enter and exit on your hands and knees through a small door, as the assistant told me: como un bébe. Naked and swathed in sheets, Sherry and I crawled through the door to find a small room which was tall enough only to sit, not to stand, and wide enough only for the two of us, the fire pit an the curandera who soon joined us. A curandera is a traditional healer, a midwife and little bit of a medicine woman all in one. Ours was right out of Central Casting in traditional clothes and head wrap.
After we’d steamed for about 10 minutes, the curandera joined us carrying a huge bunch of herbs. Chanting alternately in Nahuatl (yes, the language of the Aztecs is still spoken today), Spanish and liturgical Latin, she brushed us and blessed us with her bundle of aromatic herbs. She dipped them in a bucket of rosewater that was beside the fire and began to tap us with the bundle. At one point, she tapped each of us on the head with the herbs, then our chest, then each shoulder while chanting “In nomine Patri e Fillii e Spiritu Sancti.” (I bet the old Dominican Padres never thought their liturgy would end up in a sweat lodge ceremony!) After she had brushed our front and back with the herbs again, she threw them on the fire, releasing aromatic smoke. I’m assuming the herbs absorb our bad juju and then get burned away. I’m basing this on the fact that before she started the ceremony, she unwound her head scarf and covered her head and face with it. Could this have been to protect her from our departing bad joss?
We steamed for about a half hour while the curandera chanted. Finally, she dipped a gourd bowl in the bucket of rosewater and poured water over our heads. Again, I’m assuming the good Dominican Brothers are rolling over in their graves if they can see how the Baptism ceremony has been repurposed. Finally we crawled out of the lodge on our hands and knees in a symbolic rebirth and collapsed on the futons mattresses in the massage room. The curandera deposited a fresh bunch of aromatic herbs by our faces and left. Then the masseuses took over. I can’t tell you what kind of massage it was, but it was one of the best I’ve had. Did I mention that the massage room included a large altar with a painting of Jesus, several saints and flickering candles. Whether the Dominican Brothers would approve or not, it was an interesting touch.
With our bad juju safely burned away, we left the Temezcal purified, reborn and ready to face anything our intensive Spanish immersion course can throw at us.