Friday, January 16, 2009

Shaman you!

The guy looked like
a Robinson Caruso character sent directly from Paramount Pictures central casting, Mexico branch, a little lion of a man bushy haired and bushy bearded - a salt and peppered sunburst framing his brown face. When he answered the door I half expected him to dash behind a chair or table leg squatting on his haunches glaring at me like he hadn’t seen another living human in half a lifetime. Instead I was welcomed in and offered a cup of tea. “Muy Caliente!” he warned me.

I’d been in Oaxaca (pronounced wahawka) for almost a week and this was my last adventure before heading back to the States, Temazcal, an authentic indigenous pre-Columbian sweat lodge purification ceremony. I speak no Spanish and my wiry little chum spoke no English so we had that going for us.

As I drank my tea the shaman scittered around his place getting things in order for my appointment in a skintight gray wife beater and matching boxer briefs his lean muscles stretched over his bones like partially inflated bicycle tire tubes. He reminded me of one of those mid jump aerobics instructors you click by while channel surfing. I handed him my empty cup and he got the show on the road.

First he walked around me shaking a bouquet of aromatic branches low pitch chanting as he circled. Then he switched the branches out for a three legged pot filled with burning charcoal and incense permeating me and my clothes with the smoke. All the while recordings of chanting, drum beats and wooden flutes are playing in the background. He put the incensory aside and took a big sip of what I assume was Mezcal (tequila made from the agave plant) walked behind me, lifted my shirt, and sprayed the contents of his mouth on my back. This was bit startling – when he filled his mouth again and walked in front of me lifting my shirt and exposing my stomach the fact that I knew what was coming made it no less disquieting. He then sprayed each of my hands and motioned for me to disrobe.

While I was untying my shoe he whipped off his clothes and quick as a lizard pointed at then scurried on all fours into the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge itself a structure inside the building made from adobe bricks about four feet tall and I would estimate eight feet square with a small doorway covered with a thick woolen blanket. I followed behind and he pointed to a far corner of the space indicating where he wanted me to sit, then he dropped the rug over the doorway.

Okay, so now I am naked in a tiny pitch black room with a little wildman making noises that sound like he is washing dishes cattycorner to me while the temperature is slowly rising – what could possibly go wrong? In just a couple minutes I am sweating like I am in the middle of a triathlon, the shaman rustles a bunch of branches, directing more of the hot air in my direction. This goes on for about fifteen minutes – every now and then he asks “Bueno?” and I reply “Bueno.” All the while the darkness and drum beats are punctuated by his deep loud bearlike sighs. And it’s getting hotter.

He says something and I reply, “No Comprende.” He lifts the rug flap a bit letting in a slit of light and motions for me to lie down on my back. I notice that it is a bit cooler nearer the floor than it was sitting up but our guy fixes that by pouring a bit of water onto the steam source and fanning the result over my body with the branches again. This is where I began to lose track of time. It was literally too dark to see one’s hand in front of one’s face so space was perceptively limitless except for the sounding attributes of the medicine man’s exhalations. I am completely drenched in my own sweat, sloshing as I adjust my position on the carpeted floor beneath me. Subsequently we go through the "me not understanding his directions” ritual of letting in a sliver of light and I figure out that now I am to flip over to my stomach.

More steam, more branch waving, more heat – I notice a puddle in the small of my back, I believe I might be getting a little lightheaded. I hear sloshing again and am thinking that I am not sure how more heat I can take but this time instead of pouring the water over the hot stones to raise the temp a bit he throws the cold water over my body. Just a little wakeup call, he does his three more times and I realize the relief that this provides. He then has me lift my legs up in the air while I remain on my stomach like a person saying an evening prayer who has had the bed snatched away and fallen onto their face locked into position. More steam, more branch rustling, more sighs, more heat.

I feel his hands motion my feet back down and I am prone again sweat pouring off of me like an overflowing bathtub. I hear the branches rustling again and figure more heat is on its way, but instead, he starts smacking me up and down my legs and back with the bundle. Not hard enough to cause any real pain but still it stings a bit. He goes up one side of my body then down the other four times paying special attention to the back of my head and neck, grunting a bit under the exertion. This is followed by the quadruple dousing of cool water which I am actually beginning to look forward to and he has me flip onto my back again.

We follow the same pattern; he cranks the heat up again, beats me up and down the front with a bundle of branches and douses me. God knows how much time has passed by. I am returned to the seated position and by now the air at head level is searing. Just when I am thinking I may have to call an end to this ceremony he throws open the door “Vamose.” I crawl out into the light like a sloth from a swamp and lie face down on a pile of blankets just outside of the doorway where I am covered with small pile of similar blankets to cool like a pie draped with a washcloth on a windowsill.

My spirit partner buries himself under a stack of his own as well. I am feeling pretty good but I can’t help wondering how much time has passed – I am also laughing to myself at the absurdity of my life, in a good way. Then I hear the shaman snoring – he’s passed out under his blankets and I’m thinking I may never get out of here so I let out a pretty loud bear sigh of my own and he rouses, wraps a blanket around his waist and brings me back another cup of tea – lukewarm this time.

This is followed by a routine massage similar to ones I have received at health clubs in the past and then I jump into the shower and get dressed. While I am showering the phone rings, my hosts here in Oaxaca are wondering where I am. It turns out that instead of the hour and a half session that they and I assumed I was getting, I had been there just under three hours! I’ve got to say, I felt pretty good afterwards. Not too bad for thirty eight bucks, the massage alone would have cost more back home and I don’t think it’s even legal to have a naked man beat you with branches in Mentor, Ohio!

1 comment:

smith said...

interesting - he spat the cold mezcal on our bare feet instead of our hands... plus the hour less.

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