Rebirth through fire
On Sunday, the 4th of September, my friend Luz & I returned to a homestead about an hour and a half outside Medellín in a town called El Carmen de Viboral, although we saw no sign of a town where we were.
Screenshot from Lightroom Map module, which locates the sites of certain photographs. The Temazcal ceremony took place somewhere under that red star.
Luz had been there before for a workshop on home-building, using clay harvested from the land, mixed with manure and grass. The first time we went together was a few weeks ago. (I will include a photo gallery from that visit at the end of this post.) She took me there as part of a project we are working on together and while there we learned that they would be hosting a Temazcal ceremony. I knew nothing about it except that hot rocks would be used and that it was a sort of cleansing ceremony. When asked if I wanted to participate, I said yes without hesitation. I was told to bring short pants or a bathing suit, a towel, fruit (to share), and a song (this part remained a mystery to me until the ceremony began).
When I got home, I looked it up on Wikipedia. As it turns out, it is an ancient Mayan ritual with its roots in Central America that was performed after hunts or as an aid to childbirth/pregnancy or to be reborn. We were not hunting, but there was one pregnant woman with us, and we were most certainly going to be reborn (what that meant, I could not rightly say).
We arrived late, at around 1:40pm — the ceremony was schedule to begin at 1:20, but everyone graciously and patiently waited for us to start the ceremony. We changed (about a dozen of us including the shaman and hosts) — the men in shorts and the women in bathing suits and/or sarongs and/or shorts. We went to the site — I am not sure if land had been cleared for this purpose or if had been some other time for some other purpose. It was like a small amphitheatre, with the land terraced along two sides of the rectangular plot of land. At one end of the site was a bamboo frame structure with a pit dug in the middle. At the other end of the site was a huge pyre about 4-feet high and probably just as wide at the base. Buried under and hidden inside the fire wood and dry grass were 36 large stones that would later be used to heat the Temazcal hut. Between the hut and the pyre was a sort of altar strewn with objects that varied from hand-made adorned flutes, wicker brooms, a large clay vessel of water, herbs, fruits, and tobacco leaves, to more banal objects like plastic water bottles, a mirror, and a hose like ones used for a pool filter. All of them would have some ritual significance or purpose, some of which became apparent over the course of the day and others remain mysterious to me. (He very well could have explained everything very clearly, but with my terrible Spanish, those explanations largely went over my head.)
We started covering the bamboo frame with dozens of blankets, rugs, and other random textiles (including one blanket with a dancing Snow White) until the interior of the hut was effectively pitch-black.
While this was happening, the host, the owner of the land, who is a thin, but muscular man with a generous and kind face and long black hair that was topped with a crown of beautiful green feathers, lit the pyre. The speed with which the flames jumped and the smoke billowed through the light-beams streaming through the adjacent bamboo forest indicated how much energy was being released and the intensity of that release illustrated its own urgency–its own necessity.
For the 2-3 hours that it took the fire to burn down, the Shaman performed his rituals, engaged us–mostly in Spanish, but also occasionally came out with questions and phrases in English, for my benefit. He leapt around the site, snapping pictures with an iPhone, singing, playing his flute; there was singing by him and others (the reason for the song started to become apparent), others played their own instruments. As the fire started to burn down, his energy intensified–his face seemed to change, he quickly circled the site holding the small mirror and showing each of us ourselves for an instant, he picked up a burning ember and wafted it beneath each of our noses–it had a pungent, but very pleasant smell, not unlike the incense you would smell at a high mass in the Catholic church. All the while, we were free to move around–but not between the altar and the fire or the altar and the Tamazcal hut. Another participant, a young man about 26-years old or so, shared from his pouch of coca leaves. Many, though not all of us, indulged. The taste was bitter as you chewed the leaves and stashed them between your gums and cheek. The effects were mild with a slight sense of a heightened awareness and wakefulness.
Finally the time came to enter the hut. But before that, we were given water and lemonade made from limes, basil, and honey all harvested on site. It was the best lemonade I have ever tasted.
We processed in and sat side-by-side around the perimeter of the hut. Our host was charged with transporting the hot stones, vessel of water, herbs (or “medicines” as they were referred to), and implements made from some kind of root to manipulate the scorching stones. His daughter (I believe), named Daniela, acted as the assistant to the Shaman. (She was also the organizer of the event.) Included in our group was a family with two young children–one just a toddler. We were also joined by a small turtle, which has some Mayan significance in addition to one of the three dogs that live on the property.
Using a pitch fork, our host brought in nine stones, one at a time, and the Shaman carefully took them with his root implements that looked like a twisted wooden version of those large forks used to lift a turkey from its roasting tray, and placed each in the pit. As each stone was placed in the pit, Daniela topped each with the various medicines– some that looked like seeds, others were leafy herbs, I think I may have recognized some rosemary, and she also had what looked like a short legth of rope that seemed to be made of a combination of herbs. She would simply singe its tip on each stone.
Our host joined us in the hut and closed the entrance tightly behind him so that it was now totally dark. Already, the hut was heating up. The Shaman asked for a volunteer to sing and someone to beat a drum. (Finally, I understood the need to bring a song.) And then came the steam. As the singing began, he started to pour a bowlful of water at a time onto the hot stones. It sounded like lava falling into the sea. The hut was immediately full of hot steam. The toddler started crying but soon calmed down. With each bowlful of water poured over the rocks, the steam got hotter and hotter. This lasted for about 20-minutes until the vessel of water was empty and the stones started to cool. As that happened, we counted down and collectively shouted, “puerta!” The entrance was opened and cool air rushed in.
Our host left for nine more stones and to replenish the water supply. At this point, the younger children left (or at least the youngest one — I cannot precisely remember if both left). And so, the ritual repeated until all 36 stones had been used. Each session was about 20-minutes and each became more-and-more difficult. Each time, it got hotter than the time before. Each time, it got harder to breath. With each called for the “puerta!” I found myself gasping in relief, kneeling on the wet grassy earth with my forehead to the ground trying to find some cooler air–trying to catch my breathe and calm my pounding heart. By the middle of the third session, I was not sure that I could endure another. I felt weak, I was saturated with sweat and aromatic steam, my legs kept falling asleep, I was on fire. But I remained to the end of the third. The song helped to distract from the discomfort. Everyone joined in even if only to hum in harmony or grunt along, which was often all I could muster. Each call for, “puerta!” became increasingly more enthusiastic. By the end of the fourth session, I was reduced to a quivering heap of flesh, barely able to sit upright, with copius amounts of tears and mucus flowing out of my face. I was effectively broken down. I could not think about much more that my own physicality. My ego was stripped away.
And then we collectively decided on a fifth session. We were out of stones, but there was a bit more water. During that transtion, or maybe it was earlier, the Shaman asked for my birthday. It turned out that another participant’s birthday was the day after mine, 20-years later. At the conclusion of the fifth and slightly less intense and slightly shorter session, after the final call for “puerta!” we each crawled out of the hut clockwise, passing each participant as we left. Waiting outside the door was the Shaman, red-faced, severe, and full of love. Our host stood behind him with a big smile. As the Shaman embraced me, I could feel myself melt into him. It was a long and sincere and empathic and deep embrace that helped me regain some of my strength. He said that he loved me. (Earlier he had said that he was each of us and we were all each other.) He said something including the word cosmic. Later, on the car ride home, Luz looked up my Mayan astrological sign and it is the Red Cosmic Dragon. I believe that is what the Shaman was telling me.
The Temazcal site after the ceremony. The Shaman is hidden behind the brush on the right.
After that edifying embrace, I was escorted to a cold shower in the woods. It revived me and awakened all of my senses. Through this process of reemergance, we all slowly came to our senses and quitely got dressed, sat with each other, and finally shared in the fruit that we had all brought. Our hosts has also baked two loaves of bread that we shared with honey made by their own bees. And then after offering thanks and gratitude, we left for the drive back to Medellín.
The next day, I felt on the verge of tears all day. I still feel quite raw. And I want to go back.
Tragically, this beautiful horse died the day after we first visited and these photos were taken. We ackowledge the loss during the Temazcal ceremony. R.I.P.