Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pacha Mama

It's been awhile since I've had a chance to do much writing. The reason? I've been busy teaching, playing music, learning Capoeira, enjoying the city of Cuenca, and otherwise having a good time. Now, I'm on vacation until January, and in the coming weeks I'll be relaxing on the beautiful Galapagos Islands. In the meantime I hope to spend a little more time doing some writing and enjoying some time off. I may only teach a few hours a day, but I've managed to fill up my free time with a fair amount of obligations that don't involve me sitting in front of a screen as much as I once did, and for that I'm grateful.

In the last few weeks I have had a chance to do some exploring outside of Cuenca, including a trip with some of my fellow teachers to a place called Susudel. Susudel is named after the Sucsudel, a Native American tribe that called as their home a place remarkably like New Mexico:

There we met our guide for the weekend, the appropriately named don Juan. Juan and his family are shamans, all living in the beautiful mountains surrounding Susudel. He and his father Alejandro both own property lying next to a small mountain stream from which they've managed to coax their own oases up from the arid landscape around them. Juan's home, humble and peaceful, is quite different from his father's, an incredible and expansive 200 year old hacienda lying on land whose tall palms and old dams stand silently in witness over a place that's been under careful cultivation for many generations.

We met Juan at a church a few miles from the village of Susudel, where he led us on foot to his home. Along the way we witnessed mountains as rugged as I've ever seen, made moreso by their stark and barren slopes, unsoftened by vegetation. Here is Juan speaking with Jason, another teacher at CEDEI. We stopped here briefly to catch our breath and, in my opinion, to witness a place of honor, graced by a stand of majestic trees well-adapted to their dry and wind-swept environs.

Juan was taking us to his land so that we might experience a temazcal ceremony. To call temazcal a sweat lodge is as poor a translation as the rendering of the beautiful word and concept of acequia into the English 'irrigation ditch.' But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we needed to make our way to Juan's property in time for us to build our camp for the night, which, as is predictably the case throughout the year in Ecuador, would be coming at 6:30 sharp. We got their just in time, to both set up camp and take in our surroundings before dark. Here are a few glimpses of our setting for the night:

There you'll see Juan's house, a closer look at his kitchen, and our recently built camp, on the far side of Juan's fire pit, where very soon we would place the pile of rocks in front of the left tent. On top of those rocks would be built a massive bonfire that would burn for the next several hours, until the stones underneath were glowing red. Also in this picture is a strange white light that I don't quite understand, and nor, judging from the look on her face, did Erin in the blue shirt. But there you have it.
Once it was fully dark, Juan asked each of us to pick up a rock from his pile, put our prayers and intentions into it, and hand it to him to be placed in his fire pit. Once they were all in place, Juan and his assistants began to assemble a large pyramid of cut wood for the coming blaze. Meanwhile, all of us sat in a circle around the fire and prepared ourselves for the temazcal in whatever way we could. Before the fire began burning, Juan's father arrived with his wife and younger son. Just in time, in fact, because only a few minutes after his arrival, Juan asked his father to light the fire, which in a short time began burning furiously.

To the right of the fire in the background, you can just make out a small little hut in the background. That is the place of the temazcal, where all 20 or so of us would be huddled inside in short order. Before this, Alejandro's wife Monica administered to us a preparation of San Pedro cactus, a traditional visionary medicine that grows wild throughout the mountains of Ecuador. Compared to my previous experience with San Pedro, this one was very subtle, serving mostly to contribute to my sense of calm and appreciation throughout the grueling temazcal to come. After we partook of the San Pedro, Juan then came around with a snuff he had prepared from tobacco and other herbs, stuffing copious amounts of it up each of my nostrils before ordering me bruskly to inhale it deeply. This I did, and shortly thereafter this round of medicine, the fire was encircled by loud coughing and sneezing from all sides. We were told that this snuff, as well as the San Pedro, would serve to open up the doors of our senses, to permit us to fill our awareness with powerful sights and experiences, while ridding ourselves of the negativity we may have accumulated in our lives.

Then Juan and his father lit a cigar and while smoking it, said prayers of intention and thanksgiving for the ceremony to come. They then handed the cigar to Monica, who did the same. Watching this, I, sitting only a few places ahead of the path of the cigar, began to hastily prepare an adequately profound oration of my own in Spanish, but then saw that once the cigar reached the hands of a layman assistant, it was passed to the next person with nothing more than a few deep inhalations in silence. I had even come up with a phrase or two of prayer in the subjunctive and was quite proud of that fact, if not relieved that I wouldn't have to recite it to a crowd.

At this time, a few Ecuadorians who had journeyed to Susudel for healing underwent a ritual with Juan and his father, which involved the shamans spraying the petitioners' bare chests with a combination of alcohol, herbs and their own saliva before setting them alight. They also did some chiropractic work on them, cracking their backs and shoulders. From the frequent moaning I heard, it wasn't a pleasant process. But Luis, one of those who sought healing, told me later that he'd been suffering from back pain for months and it was now much alleviated.

It was now time for the temazcal to begin. We all put on the lightest clothes we could, swimming trunks and bikinis for most people. Then we walked barefoot clockwise around the fire, and then clockwise around the lodge for the temazcal. We were told not to break the line between the fire and the lodge, which was like an umbilical cord that connected the two. The women all entered first, and then the men, all of us crawling on all fours to fit through the tiny doorway. Once inside, Juan and his father began to explain that the temazcal, where we all now resided, was like the womb of Pacha Mama, the Earth Mother. Within here, we would experience the journey of life and death, through four doors that would be opened and closed throughout the ritual. The first door, the door of nascency, would prove to be the easiest overall.

One by one, blazing red rocks were carefully brought to the door of the lodge by one of Juan's assistants. Juan, seated closest to the door, would then pick up the rock with a tool that he had ready, placed it in a small hole in the center, and Alejandro would sprinkle various herbs on top which at first produced a heavy smoke so thick that I could barely breathe nor see. Meanwhile, the rocks were quickly bringing up the ambient temperature in our little lodge so high that my face and shoulders were already burning from the heat. Once the proper number of rocks had been placed in the center of our circle, Juan ordered the door closed from outside. It was now pitch black, save for the glowing red mass of stones in the middle of us all.

With a few prayers, Juan began ladling water onto the rocks, which rapidly kicked off a steam so hot that it stifled my breath. My lungs refused to inhale an air so humid and burning, and all I could muster were short gasps of air drawn with my head between my knees. How could I possibly withstand hours of this smoke, steam and burning heat? I already began thinking about what I would do if I needed to leave, but I kept reminding myself that I had chosen to engage in this experience and would see it through.

With steam pouring off the rocks, Juan and his father begin beating their drums and shaking maracas, singing the songs of the temazcal. After several renewed doses of water onto the fire and the subsequent bursts of steam throughout our black and enclosed space, Juan ordered the door to be opened. As a fresh salvo of rocks was brought into our circle, this one proving to be easily twice as many as the first, Alejandro explained that this second door was the door of youth and adolescence. Here we should reflect on our lives and shed the negativity of the past, while embracing our spirit of youth. Another sprinkling of herbs was bestowed on the glowing red heart in our center, and Juan invited any of us who would like to, to sing a song. Danilo, sitting to my right, volunteered.

So the door was closed, Danilo was given a maraca, and Juan once again began pouring water onto the rocks, this time in greater quantities than before. While Danilo sang, the steam issued forth copiously, and while I struggled to keep my head lifted, more than once I was forced to duck down and seek cooler air closer to the ground. Meanwhile, our group was packed so densely within the lodge that I had the knees, elbows and feet of my friends jabbing me in various places as we all struggled to find a modicum of comfort. This time the heat was so much greater than before that I could hardly believe it. When I lifted my head high I could literally feel the steam cooking my flesh as though I was holding it above a pot of boiling hot water on the stove, after just removing the lid. Only now I couldn't draw it away, I could only sit there and feel the heat and let it run over me. Each round of steam would last a few minutes before the heat would subside, only to be renewed by Juan's faithful administration of water over the rocks.

How could Danilo sing with a face full of steam? I struggled to draw enough breath to sing the refrains as they came but could scarcely make a sound. It was so hot this time that one person in our group lost control. Sitting right in front of the stones, he couldn't tolerate the intense heat and in a loud, frantic voice, screamed, "Open it, open the damn door!"

Juan let the heat subside, mustering what English he had to soothe the man: "Take it easy man, take it easy. Don't worry!"

Finally, Juan ordered the door to be opened again. There was a collective moan of relief from us all, and Juan was forgiving enough to dole out cups of water to those who needed it, and then threw water on us, which was so cold it was shocking. He also waited a few minutes before giving the order to bring more rocks in, which turned out to be the greatest quantity of all. Alejandro explained that this door was the door of maturity, the door of our lives in the present. Here we would set our intentions and give thanks. He offered my roommate Jenni to sprinkle herbs onto the rocks as they were brought into the circle, and Juan asked if anyone would like to sing. It suddenly occured to me that I wanted to sing, and so I volunteered. I was handed a maraca, told to shake it with confidence and steadiness, and the door was closed.

As the steam rose in the lodge, I began singing a song of thanksgiving in a cadence that had come to me during my previous San Pedro experience:

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for every little thing.
Thank you, Lord, for every song I sing.

I don't need no competition,
Because I've made my decision.
You can keep your opinion,
I'm just calling on the wise man's communion.

For those of you that aren't familiar this song of Bob Marley's, I couldn't help but sing it in a slow chant with prolonged syllables. I was amazed by the transformative effect that the singing had on me. I was able to draw long sustained breaths and hold my head high in order to sing loudly. After I had finished singing this newfound tolerance for the heat stayed with me, and I relished in the ability to withstand the heat and steam. It was empowering to me, and I began composing in my mind a prayerful intention that somehow seemed to connect palpably the thoughts in my mind with the will of my body in a way that I had never felt before.

As I recited and perfected this prayer in my mind, I began thinking about events in my past that had led me to where I am now, experiences both pleasant and painful. I gave thanks for them all in a way made more profound by the intense physical duress of the moment, and in my mind that thanksgiving drove my intention with a willpower stronger and more tangible than any that I can remember. That is prayer. That, for me, was the purpose of temazcal. It gave a poignance to my thoughts and prayers of intention, through the sheer overwhelming physical presence of the heat, darkness, and throbbing heart in the center of the lodge.

Around me, people's moans were especially noticable to me. I'm not sure if there was more moaning than before or if it was just more obvious after I had found my peace with the heat of the temazcal, but I found a great solace in keeping quiet in the midst of the groaning of those around me. Interestingly, it was especially the men who seemed to be making the most noise. The women in the group, who composed probably half of the temazcal participants, were silent.

When Juan ordered the door open, so did many in the group, with the loud yell of -Abierta! As Alejandro explained the last door being that of life's end, I was greatly looking forward to the last quantity of stones and the steam they would bring. Once I found comfort in the heat, I felt like I had found myself on the other side of a barrier and was now eager for another experience with it. As Alejandro sprinkled his herbs onto the fire, I breathed deeply and tried to allow as much of fragrance to enter my nose as I could. I leaned forward to be closer to the smoke. As if sensing my willingness, Juan encouragingly said to the group that if we felt heat on a part of our body, to try to expose that part of our body even more to the heat, to allow the heat to have its way with us as it would.

Once all the rocks were in place, the door was closed, and Juan poured so much water on the rocks that the entire lodge was instantly saturated with steam. I held my head high and took deep breaths of the steam, feeling water dripping from my chin, my nose, my elbows, my ears and my hair. As Juan and Alejandro sang the last songs of the temazcal, I renewed my prayer and watched the pulsing red of the stones and felt the heat from it burning my forehead and shoulders. I followed Juan's advice and leaned into the heat, finding a comfort in the burning sensation it caused. I felt like the temazcal was a metaphor for life, that finding peace in the physical challenge presented by the stones was like a crucible that the challenges in our life represents as well: an opportunity for us to polish ourselves and find out who we really are.

When the last door was opened and we all exited the lodge one by one to dry off and stand around the fire, I was impressed by how clean and fresh my body felt. I had expected to feel grimy from the thick smoke and steam and sweat trapped within that small space, but I felt cleaner than I would after a long shower. I looked at the stars, a far different set than I'm used to seeing in the northern hemisphere, and then looked at the moonlit mountains around me, so similar to the mountains of New Mexico. The paradox of the strange sky and familiar landscape was made sharper during a hike we took to Alejandro's land the next day. On the way, we walked past a patch of nopal cactus, so common in the hills around Santa Fe.

I had encountered a lot of this cactus in Oaxaca as well, huge varieties that dwarfed the small patches of it that grow in northern New Mexico. Here in these mountains, they looked much like the nopal I was familiar with, same size, same shape. The only noticable difference for me was the flower, here small and orange, in New Mexico, large and yellow. This cactus, so humble, is the home of the cochinilla, source of the red dye that contributed in large partto making Oaxaca the rich and beautiful city it is, as it was traded around the world for centuries by the Spanish. Here, as in New Mexico, you wouldn't know that to look at this tiny but threatening plant with its thorns and unseen little fibers that imbed themselves in your skin at the slightest contact.

The unassuming nopal has made its habitat throughout the entire great distance between the Andes and the Rockies. It has found itself transformed by virtue of its journey. Is it any different for someone like me, or any other traveler? I'm grateful to have had an experience like this in a place so much like my last home, high in the mountains of Susudel.