After 11 years of living in Mexico for the first time I participated in this ancient ceremony. I always knew that in this kind of things, everything has its time and place.
In 11 years I had no shortage of invitations. But I knew the time would come and the experience would have something more to teach me.
This is what happened with this experience in the Temazcal.
I live in the land of the temazcales, «Temazcaltepec» which derives from the Nahuatl word temazcalli which means «steam bath» and from tepetl: «hill» with the C at the end which comes at the end in «Hill of the temazcales or steam baths».
I have been living here for 7 years and I didn’t know it. Pamela was born here and has been coming to the Temazcal for 8 years; she was the right person to reveal the secrets to me.
We arrived at the Temazcal located in a humble little house; we all changed in a small room full of «Teksispitsali» snails. All the people attending were from the community, it was not a tourist ceremony, it is something that people do every week, it is a regular ceremony as much as the novenarios are.
Then we entered the Temazcal one by one. A tiny mud house with a roof of cloth and thatch. In the center a circle, a hole where later the red hot stones would be placed.
Each person had to enter from the left, go around the center circle and sit on one of the mats.
Once all 14 of us were inside that womb of mud, each one of the «abuelitas» (the incandescent stones) began to enter, with each entrance of the stone we greeted and welcomed them. Finally Lazarus, who presided the ceremony….
-Here I make a stop, because in spite of having lived in these lands for 11 years, the syncretism between the Catholic and the aboriginal does not cease to impress me, they are two sides of the same coin.
…Lazarus, welcomed a water fountain and with a bundle of aromatic herbs began to stoke the stones from which a hot steam was released.
At that moment the door closed, what they would call «the first» door of the four doors we had to go through (later Daniel would tell me that not everyone can go through the four doors, that if you go through the four doors it is because it is the right time to do so).
When the door closed, the whole space was dark, so black that I could not see my hands. I could only see, at times, the red of the stones in front of me. The heat was rising and suddenly Lazarus made the snail sound.
The sound of the Mexican snail is very spatial. Called Atecocoli, atecocolli (Water Snail) or Teksispitsali (Sea Snail), it is used in various ceremonies to invoke or ask permission to the winds. The sound is like that of a reverberating bugle with a force that fills any space. It really «fills» the space; the sound of the conch shell has texture and presence. I had experienced it before in other outdoor ceremonies and it always felt like a corporeal sound.
I have one of these shells in my studio, I have never been able to play it or get any sound out of it, I hope that the time to learn will come; for the moment it rests on a table.
Lazarus played the conch shell while the heat of the stones rose and my body began to sweat, at that very moment outside the Temazcal a storm broke out, at the exact moment that the conch shell stopped sounding the sky thundered and all of us inside the Temazcal took that sound as an answer from the sky.
A sonorous, forceful response for those of us who were there at that moment.
Outside the rain and the cold, inside the heat was getting hotter and hotter. I started to get dizzy but kept breathing in the dark and listening to the other people doing their thing.
I could hear the small whipping of the wet grasses against the stones that gave off more and more steam. For a millisecond my head thought it would be beautiful but impossible to record those sounds. Impossible because of the particularity of the ceremony -I always believed that this kind of ceremonies could not be recorded, they occur in a moment of time and space far away from what we are used to and turning on a recorder in those places is like taking away a little bit of magic- on the other hand, the heat and humidity there made it impossible for any electronic equipment to survive the experience.
But that thought, the thought of recording those sounds, was quickly scared away by Lazaro’s drum and the chanting that began. Simple songs that helped us to breathe and calm our minds. As I did not know any of the songs, I just listened quietly and accompanied the rhythm with my breath.
Before my eyes, which could not see anything in that darkness, blue dancing figures began to appear. At first I thought that my eyes were closed, but I realized that they were wide open and that the glowing stones were no longer visible.
The heat was such and the sweat was so much that the skin began to peel off, I touched my arms and legs and felt my skin peel off by itself, like a potato when you put it to boil.
The perspiration was excessive. The air going into my mouth was as hot as the air coming out.
Lazarus indicated that time was up, I don’t know how many minutes we spent at the first door. In unison we asked for the door to open and the door opened.
More stones began to come in, more grannies from the earth.
The door closed, we were already at the second door and I understood that the heat would rise even more if that was possible.
During the first door people spoke loudly, at the second door they began to whisper. In the darkness again, I touched my feet because I couldn’t find them, I was a sea of sweat, of water. I had turned into water.
Now I could see the blue figures dancing among the incandescent grannies. I placed my hands in front of my face and blew what came out of my mouth was not air, but fire. It was something hotter than what I was breathing, how was that possible?
I felt my hands burning, but it didn’t bother me. I was in another land where discomfort was part of a unique moment and did not feel uncomfortable.
We spent a few minutes in silence, the darkness with the heat was accentuated. The place was somehow completely transformed, there was no reference, there were no geometries, for a moment I thought I was in the center of the universe, in a black hole.
The chanting began again, the drum and a kind of rattle. The sounds could place people in that dark space, but I imagined them floating, singing and floating.
I lay back, the heat was rising and getting deeper and deeper and I remembered Pamela’s advice that at times I should lie down if I felt like «it was too much».
I lay down but raised my hands, you could feel the difference. My hands were at an impressive level of heat, while my head lying down I could still breathe.
Suddenly three tiny windows opened and there was a battle between the cold outside and the heat inside and for several minutes the heat won and again in unison we all called out «door» and the door opened.
We left the Temazcal and poured buckets of icy, icy, icy water on each other while the rain did the same on our bodies. I felt that my body was not my body for a few seconds.
We returned to the Temazcal, crawled to the left and sat down again. The stone elders entered again. The third gate had begun.
The heat increased, I didn’t know that was possible, in school they taught me that water boils at 100° but in here the heat was even more intense. So much so that someone asked if this was what hell felt like and Lazarus in the dark told a story about where this Christian conception of hell came from.
A hole where certain characters were punished for theft and other behaviors. The story made sense to me, it reminded me of scenes from different movies and I stopped thinking. I literally know I stopped thinking. All that appeared in my mind were little blue dancing fires.
I remember thanking Pamela for taking me, touching her hand in the dark. I remember someone talking about suicide and someone about a newborn or someone about to be born. Voices were coming from everywhere, disembodied, appearing in the dark and I know I wasn’t hallucinating. That’s how acoustic the Temazcal experience is.
The chanting continued followed by brief but profound silences.
The door opened for the third time, but this time not only did more abuelitas come in, but we also drank oregano tea and another herb I know but can’t remember its name.
The door closed once more and we were already at the fourth door. The heat was so intense that hardly anyone spoke. And we were all lying down. I felt something go down my throat and through my chest.
I listened to the others’ breaths and my own as if we were inside an egg. I could hear the air coming in through our nostrils and out of our mouths dancing in the darkness. At the fourth door I heard the warmth of the air, yes «heard the warmth», coming in and out of the bodies.
The experience lasted about two or three hours, but time passed differently than clock time.
Every opportunity has its moment, that is one of the things I have learned in Mexico. I keep being asked why I am still here and it is because of these ramifications between everyday life and the sacred.
Mexico and its inhabitants play all the time between these two points showing you life and death in the most unexpected ways.