Sweat Lodge, Part 1
Temazcal is a Nahuatl word for “sweat lodge”—a Native American purification ceremony with spiritual underpinnings that’s performed inside a small, dome-shaped, often willow-framed “lodge” that is covered to keep the heat in and light out. Red hot rocks are brought in and water poured over them to make an almost unbearably hot steam that brings out the sweat of the people seated in a circle around the shallow rock pit. A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village. This is the first of a two-part story of that adventure.
|The offering tree up at the Danza del Sol ceremonial grounds. I took this|
picture on a hike last February, during the dry season. I didn't take my
camera with me on this latest trip this past Saturday.
A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio (AKA The Artist) invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village and overlooking the lake. The place is used for an annual summer gathering, called Danza del Sol, of indigenous people from all over North America. Dionicio seems to be one of the people who helps maintain it.
Today—Saturday—he tells me we’ll leave at three, “mas o menos”. I expect that to mean about four; he’s ready a little before five. His daughter drives us a half-mile through the village, up the carretera a bit and then a few cobblestone blocks to the trailhead. On the way we pass a group of mostly gringos in the plaza, zombie-costumed for the annual worldwide re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance. Dionicio asks what’s going on; his daughter explains.
Turning the corner of a switchback on the way up to the ceremonial ground, I hear, then see a pack of dogs from uphill. Dionicio does not seem concerned. The six hounds, all of medium to large size, sniff my hand and then bark friendly-like. They lead us to Mauricio—a grinning wizened goat of a guy who is using his machete on trail brush. I know him from the LCS garden where I volunteer and he’s the hired honcho. He offers us maiz. Awfully tough, not sweet at all like our corn back stateside.
Up at the grounds—not too bad a hike, the trail, although it's seen some runoff from two days of rain thanks to Hurricane Patricia, is still remarkably well drained. I meet Elicia, whom I come to know as a robust and rowdy lass, in the camp kitchen, grinding chiles in a molcajete. Her randy dog keeps trying to hump me. I put my food offering on the table—apples and cheese.
Jesus—“Chuy” is the nickname for guys with this name—is the next to arrive, a fireplug-shaped fellow about my age. He's wearing an orange “Beavers” sweatshirt. I later learn he spent his entire working life in Portland where his kids still live—US citizens, speaking Spanish as well as English and living the American dream. Chuy returned here where he was born as soon as he retired.
To have something to do, as well as escape Randy trying to make me his bitch, I follow Chuy to hustle up some wood for the fire. It’s already approaching dusk, and he says it will take a couple of hours at least to heat the rocks for the temazcal. The brush wood is not easy to walk through, smallish multi-trunked “trees” remind me of hazelnut in their growth pattern. Wood that’s not rotten is wet from the recent rain. We wrest thin trunks from the wet ground, limb and throw them in rough piles—Chuy with his machete, me with an axe.
Proving myself: As night approaches I make multiple trips dragging what we’ve gathered through the low woods back to the kitchen. Chuy ventures deeper into the brush making more piles. I really enjoy the physicality of this work, the wood and the dirt; it reminds me of my years as a gardener. I'm glad that Chuy seems impressed I can find my way back and forth in the dark. We both prefer not using a flashlight, except for locating where we’ve left our cuttings.
There’s an immense cow sitting along my back-and-forth path, looking more and more like a large boulder as darkness gathers. I help Dionicio tie up the brush and limbs he’s gathered. We move our firewood a hundred yards from the kitchen next to the temazcal frame which has been covered with straw mats, old blankets and plastic sheets by a handful of later arrivals.
By now it’s full dark, must be going on nine and I’m wondering when we’ll have the sweat. If it takes two hours to heat the stones…
An egg-shaped moon ducks through the clouds—la luna como un huevo y casi llena. I stop and appreciate the scene. Complete calm up here on the mesa, somewhere nearby the low bluster of a caballo or two, insects churring all around, moonlight on the higher montañas, their ravines mysterious and dark. Far below and stretching into the distance lights of villages string along the lakeshore. Stars breaking through; I see Orion’s belt pointing to the Pleiades, Cassiopeia—the only ones I know, and familiar.
Crossing the ceremonial grounds it seems everyone is skirting the edge of a large circle of stones that has the offering tree as its center. Hanging from its limbs are many colored flags—red, blue, green, yellow, white—each tied around an offering, usually tobacco. Of course the colors aren’t visible now—shades of gray. I had been cutting through the circle but now I change my path.
Walking with Dionicio, on one of these trips I hear a huge boom. “Dynamite?”, I ask. He shakes his head. “Cohetes?”—fireworks. “Si”. Looking far down across the mesa, I see a burst of different colored fireworks from San Juan Cosala—the next village west of our own. We’ve been hearing a lot of cohetes the past month.
The firewood in piles, the temazcal frame now covered, we all head to the kitchen shack. It’s about 15’X20’, all a patchwork, one wall corrugated tin and fiberglass, another framed in wooden freight pallets. Chicken wire windows next to wattle and daub. A long wooden table in the middle, concrete ledge for seating along each side. Round metal sheets cover two small, built-up and semi-circular adobe fireplaces—these are our stoves. By now the only light is from a dozen or more candles, many covered against the wind by large clear plastic jugs set upside down, the bottom of the jugs cut off, tiny tops open above the flame, the plastic miraculously not being burned.
Our dinner is multiple helpings of tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese. Plus fruit. We help ourselves to salsa. They tease me that it may be too hot. “Solo un poco picante,” I mock smugly reply and then try to match my bluster.
There are nine of us—three women and six men. It’s a cheerful mood but I feel lost against the language barrier until Chuy sits next to me. We speak mostly in English and exchange stories of who we are. Looking out for Mexico's reputation, he asks me what I’ve read in news from the States about the hurricane. Tells me the “Beaver” sweatshirt is a present from his son who graduated from Oregon State University. We’ve both worked as truck drivers. I delivered my load to Portland, he came up to Tacoma. Maybe we passed on the road—small world.
After comida people wander back toward the temazcal, to the long shed nearby. There we pick out straw mats from a pile on the dirt floor as pads for our sleeping bags. Chuy tells me to shake them good, to get the scorpions out. I’ve already figured out that he’s a teaser, but I do what he says and pray I won’t be bitten in the night.
Dionicio had suggested I might want to bed down in the kitchen where he’ll be. It looks like the others have staked out tents inside the shed. That might be a more social scene than I'd be comfortable with so I take Dionicio up on his offer, spreading my pads and bag out on the dirt floor next to the table, keeping an eye out for the damp, covered places where scorpions like to hide.
It must be going on 11 by now and I figure the sweat will be in the morning, but when I have my sleeping pad all arranged Dionicio tells me it’s time to head back to the temazcal. It's time to begin the ceremony.
To be continued…