As instructed, I removed all clothing, despite the freezing cold mountain air seeping in from the between the cracks in the log walls. I waited for her to remove her clothing too. But instead, the woman kindly put down a mat on the floor for my bare feet, wrapped her head in a huge wool scarf, and disappeared behind a small, square carpet curtain – on all fours. The door to the modest room opened and two younger girls entered. One handed me a sheet with colorful balloons on it and told me to wrap it around myself. I followed her orders happily, as I was head to toe covered in goose bumps. The woman called to me from behind the small hole in the wall. “Ya puede entrar Usted.”
I was not really sure what a temescal was all about. The first time I heard this word was at the Oaxacan coast. A friend invited me to go do a temescal with him and his friends. What I had heard, or understood, was that he was inviting me out to drink some local mezcal. Since I had sweetly declined, I did not realize the major misunderstanding on my part. Tequila’s cousin, Mezcal, is many things, but it is definitely not a tool for detoxing.
Like Alice, I followed the rabbit on all fours into the curious and mysterious hole at the bottom of the living room wall. One part of me was relaxed. In general, I enjoy any type of healing, care or attention given to my body. On the other hand, I had heard more negative experiences than positive ones about the temescales, as the boiling temperatures and cloisterphobic dimensions usually unnerve people rather than relax them. But I vowed I could not leave Oaxaca without trying chapolines (fried grasshoppers), seeing a baby donkey, and experiencing a temescal. I had already accomplished the first two, and with two weeks left to go, decided to check the third one off the list!
As the ceiling of the tiny clay room was low, and my head is much higher than the average Oaxacan’s, the woman had me lay down flat. I asked her to explain to me what this process was all about. She simply answered, “To clean you. To remove your fears.” She kneeled at my side, spat water into an even smaller hole in this dark, miniature cave, forcing a huge wave of steam and heat into the room. It burned slightly as it touched my skin. But the most difficult part was breathing. I imagined the sensation was something similar to what a Dragon might feel if it breathed back in its own fire. Or when you stick your head out of a car window while going 100 mph and it’s hard to catch your breath. It is not necessarily painful, but just a bit awkward and uncomfortable.
It appears the woman had a cure. Using a huge bouquet of herbs she beat me in the dark, in long sweeping motions. Head to toe. Up and down. She turned me to each side, and belly down, belly up. All the while she breathed heavily and sighed quite a lot. Surely she was suffering the heat much more than I was, as she was dressed in thick layers of clothes and wore a woolen scarf around her head. She took a few moments to lay down and catch her breath, and then even once left me alone in the steam chamber to sweat it out all alone.
I was led to this woman during one of my hikes. We were examining various medicinal plants in the forest, and the guide mentioned something about how the local midwives use these plants in their healing and birth practices. As I have developed a strong interest in midwifery lately, I asked if I could meet the local midwife. He said she was too old now, but that her daughter was studying with her – that, in addition, she offers temescal ceremonies and that I should go to her. Secretly I had hoped to meet her 85-year-old mother, but turns out she was ill. So I asked my healer about her experience with midwifery. She looked shocked and responded, “Midwifery? Are you crazy? I’m way too scared of that. Someone else will have to carry along the tradition.” I found it odd, being that she cures fears and all. But I guess it is possible to cure and not be cured?
Anyhow, as everything, it’s all about mind over matter. Once I let myself relax, I imagined that each bead of toxic sweat that exited my million pores somehow added valuable hours to my life. I asked the woman to spit on the hot rocks again, the more burning steam, the better! The amazing, healing scents of the herbs laying next to me (and now smothered all over my body) added to the relaxation. And though I can probably find many of those herbs at the local supermarket, there is something about home-grown plants carefully cultivated with a healing intention that somehow is just not comparable.
Once the sweat bath was over, I crawled back into the bright room all slimy, light-headed, herb covered and blind – not too far off from a newborn baby! She asked if I wanted a massage, and I obviously accepted. Right as I got comfortable on the bed, a huge thunder-storm began and the rain pitter-pattered on the tin roof during the whole healing massage.
Too calm and too relaxed to head back to Oaxaca on a second-class, windy road bus, I opted to stay the night in the woods. As everyone else in Mexico was visiting the beaches during Semana Santa, the community gave me a cabin meant for 4 people, about an hours walk from town, set in the middle of a forest. As they dropped me off and said good night, I looked around at the darkness surrounding my cabin, and listened to the howling dogs (or coyotes) not too far off in the distance. I laughed aloud when I realized that I was not scared. All alone, in the middle of nowhere, with wild animals and who knows what around, I happily snuggled up near my fireplace and read for hours and had a great night’s sleep. Fully detoxed, and fearless, the temescal must have worked.