Photo: Ron Rosenberg
Cozumel, Mexico, in the Western Caribbean is a tropical playground, paradise, and hot spot attracting everyone from spring breakers to the rich and famous and in-between. It is also a prime cruise port with ships of all sizes docking here during the year.
Our cruise ship visit was aboard the Ruby Princess, at that time one of the largest ships afloat at 952 feet and a capacity of more than 3,000 passengers.
The Ruby offers close to 60 excursions in this one port alone covering nearly any area of interest. Most tourists are thinking beaches, swimming, shopping, dining, and sightseeing.
Few coming to Cozumel know that the island is a sacred Mayan site, technically considered a shrine to Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, water, fertility and childbirth, and that all Mayans are required to come here to pay homage at least once in their lives.
Admittedly, I did not know that until I participate in my chosen shore excursion for the day: a trip to the Xkan-Ha Healing Center to experience a Mayan tradition: a Temazcal, or sweat lodge. Temazcal comes from “temaz,” for vapor, and “calli,” for house.
Our small group of five from the ship - four men and one woman - are greeted shoreside by Jesus Eduardo Orduno Guillen, our excursion leader and Shaman Temazcalero, a medicine man who will guide us through the sweat lodge experience.
Our journey starts in a small passenger van. Eduardo sits up front with the driver offering local information and commentary while asking us questions about where we are from and why we’ve chosen this excursion. His English is good, and he made a point of repeating certain words he has difficulty pronouncing or asks us to repeat or explain words he had trouble understanding. We are a friendly bunch, and his easy, jovial personality puts us all at ease.
The paved road quickly turns to a rutted, dirt road, and Eduardo jokes that this portion was the massage session of the day. Along the single-lane road we pass two groups of riders on horseback, another excursion choice in Cozumel. Our van slows until we come to a place in the road where they can move off into a fresh clearing where brush has been removed, most likely for development.
Soon we arrive at Xkan-Ha Healing Center, where Eduardo, Tour Guide, becomes Edwardo, Shaman. Exiting the van, we see an open-sided, thatch-roofed building. From its rafters hang string-hammocks. Beyond the building a fire blazes in the center of a cement circle where stones are being heated.
Eduardo asks us to place our belongings on a table to right of the restrooms and to remove our shoes. “Become grounded to the earth,” he instructs. “Feel its power.”
Thus begins our journey. Eduardo leads us through a series of talks about the plants the Mayans, and today’s herbal healers, use. Standing by a large agave plant, he describes its uses: the fiber can be made into cloth and rope; its summer flowers are edible as are its leaves in spring and fall; its sap can be used to make pulque, a cheap and pungent alcoholic beverage; the sap can also be fermented into mescal, also known as tequila; its leaves can be brewed into a tea to treat constipation; and its roots brewed to treat arthritis.
He also tells about the banana plant: eating bananas will loosen muscles, and the peel, if rubbed on a wart over a period of days, will cause it to fall off.
He lauds the virtues of the aloe plant, which will not only help burns and abrasions heal quicker, but also can aid in curing internal maladies if the pulp is scooped out and blended with other simple ingredients to make an elixer. Eduardo recommends growing the plant at home and situating it at the front and back doors to ward off evil.
Eduardo shows us a young zac-ha-na tree (Mayan for “house of water”) that Mayans looked for when determining where to establish a village. That’s because a water source was usually located under mature trees. As testament to its power, he points to a large mature tree next to a “cenote,” a freshwater pool 140 feet deep.
Our shaman suggests that when we are back home in our yards that we get into the habit of touching our trees and plants and asking them to share their power with us, even asking them to heal us. It all has to do with the Mayan culture and with being grounded. “Walk at least an hour a day barefoot,” he urges. As we walk shoeless around the lodge property, I begin to notice how I enjoy the feeling of grass and dirt between my toes and on my soles. So, awareness has begun.
For the next part of the journey, Eduardo has us remove all but our swimwear and then rest in the hammocks. It’s a hot day, but there’s a gentle breeze, which flows over us as we sway and listen to him tell us about the Mayan calendars, one regulated by the moon cycles (13 X 28 = 364 days) and one by the human gestation cycle of 260 days. We will receive a small, square token at the end of the tour that will correlate to our date of birth. Mine is a blue self-existing storm, and Eduardo suggests I put things into frantic motion to get things done - if he only knew.
Eduardo also explains that the Mayans are not the only culture to use heat or steam for healing or spiritual purposes: Roman and Turkish baths, Swedish saunas, and hot tubs remain popular in many countries. For the Mayans, it was a purifying ritual, as much spiritual as physical.
Those of us choosing today’s Temazcal experience seem motivated by curiosity, a quest for understanding, and a hope for physical and mental benefits.
Eduardo has us stand around the fire circle where the flames are now five to six feet high. The sun rays are hot, too, but the fire is hotter. Eduardo has us face the four directions of the compass and tells us to open our arms. For each direction, he blows a conch shell and says a prayer out loud, which we repeat, if we choose to. He makes comparisons between the four elements: water equats to blood, earth to body, air to breath, and fire to spirit and emotion.
Next we go into the Temazcal or sweat lodge itself. These structures are made in many sizes but all are circular. Ours is made of ruddy-colored bricks and resembles a large oven, or a squat igloo. A rounded door, the “puerta,” is the only entrance, big enough for us to crawl through, head first. We are told that when we leave, we are to back out, feet first. Since the Temazcal is likened to the womb, this seems appropriate. The door faces south, the direction said to be the “pathway of the dead.” It’s all very symbolic, the sun being highly important in the Mayan culture, as is duality: father, mother; earth, sun; cold, hot; birth death. When we exit the womb, we are on a pathway towards death.
Today, however, we are here for life, and the information is supplied more for knowledge than for religion. Nevertheless, as we receive our final instructions, two of our group state that they cannot continue because of their religion. It is a surprising statement, but Eduardo suggests they give it a try and make a decision once they are inside the building. They agree, and each of us begins by getting on our hands and knees in front of the door and calling out - by repeating Eduardo’s Spanish words – for permission to enter the chamber.
There are blankets on the floor. We crawl from left to right until we are spaced equally around a circular fire pit situated under a small hole in the ceiling. Eduardo tells us to make ourselves comfortable, to sit as we like, as near or as far from the pit as we’d like. Light is still coming in because the door has not been closed, nor has the ceiling hole. The hesitant couple sits to my right as Eduardo tells us what will be happening. He asks us to shout out “cierre la puerta,” Spanish for “close the door” referring to the ceiling hole, and it is covered over by the fire assistant outside. Eduardo then has us yell “cierre la puerta” again to close the front door flap (thick blankets). They fall down, taking us into complete darkness, but then he pulls one side open so we can still see. At this point, the woman in the couple asks if she can leave, and she and her companion crawl to their right until they exit, going out backwards. They have decided not to continue.
We three remaining men plus Eduardo now move so we are like compass points, and Eduardo pulls the flap down so we are in darkness. It’s cool inside since no hot stones have been brought in yet. That soon changes as he has us yell – he’s explained that yelling will increase our awareness and put us more into the mood – for the door to be opened. Our yells of “abra la puerta,” fill the air; the flaps open and Eduardo reaches out to grab a huge bucket of herbal water and a bound bough of herbs. Then, on the tines of a pitchfork, one rock at a time is passed through the door and placed in the pit. With each rock, Eduardo takes a hardened piece of sap, presses it against the hot rock, and says, “Welcome, Grandmother.” A hiss and whiff of smoke comes from the rock in reply. Only four rocks come in this time, but the heat is evident. As the flap is closed, Eduardo plunges the bough of herbs into the bucket, then flings the bough drippings onto the rocks and onto each of us. The “first door” of the sweat lodge has started.
It is a personal, intimate affair that lasts a little more than an hour. Eduardo takes us through exercises like recalling a childhood memory, recalling the good in our lives, asking for forgiveness for a digression, praying for something to improve our lives. At times we yell, at times we whisper, at times we bang on drums, at times we gulp water from a wooden bowl, at times we rub our bodies with aloe focusing on areas that we want healed.
Throughout, Eduardo is attentive to our condition, encouraging in demeanor, and enlightening in his presentation of Mayan culture and its meanings. We go through four doors, “cuatro puertas.” Each time we yell for the door to be opened, “abra la puerta,” and each time hot rocks and fresh, herbal water are added. Eduardo closes the lodge flap, we now are allowed to press the sap to the glowing hot rocks to “Welcome, Grandmother,” and he douses the rocks with the liquid and swirls it around so drops hit us, which feels like hot rain.
Going through each of the “cuatro puertas,” takes us, we are told, from birth to death; leaving the Temazcal represents our rebirth. Backing out, I’m pleased that I feel refreshed, and surprised that when I look at my skin, there is a mist rising from it: I’m hotter than the 80-plus degrees of this beautiful day.
Yet it’s not over. A plunge into the cenote awaits, but first Eduardo has us pause next to the zac-ha-na tree and touch it. I do, leaning against it and feeling simultaneously calm and invigorated. Next, we all walk to the end of an aging, wooden deck built over the tannin-colored cenote and jump. When I enter the cold water, a pure, heart-stopping moment engulfs me. Hot to cold: duality is complete.