When in Rome….or Mexico or wherever… I had flown down to Oaxaca to submerge myself into a culture of food and folklore. My desire was to experience some traditional pastimes. Everyone likes massage, I’ve tried most. I’ve been needled, poked, pulled, pummelled in Asia, scrubed to within an inch of my life in Morocco, shouted over as a man made quite in-human noises to frighten away any bad spirits, and had my hair pulled, scalp patted with finger tips and my temples bled of tension by an Indian on Tottenham Court Road in London. Now I was ready for some Mexican action. Temazcal. A pre-Hispanic, type of sweat lodge.
I did a little research and found four in the area. Of course, sod’s law sometimes dictates the inevitable waste of time and shoe rubber, as I check out the first, have instinct tell me it is the ‘right’ one, but still proceed to check out three subsequent ones. That I find, are all twice the price. Devoid of atmosphere. Sterile.
I conjured up the espanol via Google translate and texted an enquiry to the number on the flyer I’d picked up in town. I booked for the following day. Google Maps told me it was too far to walk in the devilish sun. So I had a beat up street-taxi transport me across town and to the other side of a vast, dried up river bed. Despite the lack of sitting water, a stagnant stench hung on the hot, dusty breeze. Plump mocha skinned women sat propping up door frames, chatting intently. Fat cigars of fragrant wild herbs slowly smouldered in earthenware bowls. They did little to mask the rivers scent.
My taxi driver pulled the car into the shallow ditches, that served as a sidewalk, several times to look at the map I gave him with directions to the temescal. He rotated it over and over. Clockwise. Anti-clockwise, in an attempt to decipher. A passing tuk-tuk taxi, with three customers packed in the back, came to our aid. After a torrent of words I mostly didn’t comprehend, he pointed down a dusty side road.
The pot holes aided to shake my anxiety free. I was nervous. *Stan Gotlieb, an ex-pat local writer, had told tales of near searing heat and crippling claustrophobia inside the belly of the temazcal. I worried I’d bail. Fail. Or worse, stubbornly remain and keel out from heat exhaustion. Have to be pulled by my two ankles, unceremoniously from the hut which basically was probably not far off a human oven.
Destination finally found, I paid the pesos to the taxi drive as slight Mexican woman with sharp cheekbones and a calm haze came out and greeted me. Delicate hands emerged from her white, medical-looking uniform pockets. One arrived in one of mine. I attempted at Spanish. She answered in rehearsed English. She ushered me in and motioned for me to sit. Then she disappeared off into a room at the back. I could hear her busying herself behind the closed door.
The interior was a few degrees cooler than outside. Everything was varying shades of brown. Dust lay on every surface. Nothing shone. I resisted the urge to polish or finger a line in the dust. Wooden masks were nailed to the walls and ritual dolls made of stone reminded me of a film my brother and I had scared ourselves witless with when we were about aged about seven and nine. We were forbidden to watch tv when our parents went out, but our big sister had been too busy snogging her boyfriend’s face off in the garden to notice. The story was thus. A woman had gone travelling, bought back a 6 inch high African doll that came to life one dark night and climbed out of her suitcase. It chased her around her apartment with a shrill scream, holding aloft a glinting dagger and finally possessed her. In the final scene she sat, waiting at the door for her lover (who, unbeknown to her, was out cheating on her). She bared two rows of tiny white teeth, her arm moving mechanically like one of those Chinese lucky cats, gripping a very large kitchen knife that she was digging into the floor. Her boyfriend was toast! For weeks after my brother and I would scare the crap out of each other (and ourselves) by hiding under each others beds (sometimes for ridiculously long stints) and jumping out screaming when we knew our victim was restful and unaware. I did this with glee, revelling in watching that split second of undiluted fear on my older brother’s face, despite the dead arm or Chinese burn I was inevitably rewarded with.
The decor pleased me and made me slightly nervous. I felt the anticipation of waiting for a fairground ride. After what seemed like an age the door opened again and she came out. With a smile the young woman handed me a white sheet and showed me to el bano (the bathroom). I was to strip and then stand under a cold shower. Twenty seconds on my left and then twenty on my right. Once done as bid, I padded back to the waiting room. Unsure at what stage of nakedness I should emerge. Finally, we were to enter the back room. It was very dark, with the exception of diagonals of light entering from spaces in the bamboo roof.
I was to stand naked as she thwacked me with tied branches of fragrant herbs. 20 of them in all. Each one made to ‘cleanse me of blackness and toxins’. I wondered if an evil person would begin rolling around the floor at this point as the purging began. I could think of a few people I’d happily help with a good old herb thwacking. I stood and enjoyed the subtle scents. Next I was motioned towards a two foot high wooden door that opened into the temezcal. Which itself looked like a brick igloo. Inside was dark, light only coming from a small terracotta burner with a tea light inside. It was small but not as small as I’d imagined. I could stand, just. A sheet lay folded on a rush mat at its centre, in front of a hearth of black smouldering stones. I was instructed as to where I’d find the most heat. On the ledge to the right, or to stand. I was disappointed the heat hadn’t instantly embraced me. A bowl of water and a scoop was there for me to ‘bring more heat’. But the temperature lacked drama. As soon as she’d closed the door behind me I set to work dousing the stones. They hissed at me but I didn’t feel their sting. I stood up. My head got hotter. After what seemed like seconds she called behind the door. ‘ok?’. I responded in the affirmative. Her face appeared at the door and she shoved forward a bowl of freshly cut aloe vera. She directed me to massage into my skin. ‘Hotter….mas calihante?’ I asked. More water was delivered. I stopped short of pouring it all on the heap of stones at once and lay down to enjoy the peace. Or near peace…as disappointment needled me. Maybe I am hardcore and the Oaxaquenan writer was just a wimp. Perhaps all my evils were purged long ago rendering the ritual incessancy and without drama?!
It was all over too soon. I crawled out backwards. The sheet once more covering my nakedness. A massage table stood just outside the door, covered with a worn-thin white towel. She motioned me to lay face down and took my covering. A fresh sheet was then expertly folded and placed on my body to maintain my dignity and spare her. What followed was one of the most heavenly massages I’ve had the good fortune to experience. Full-body massage was, for once, factually correct. I could feel my muscles giving way with a near audible sigh. The sounds of the breeze pushing through narrow, wooden slats and distant gossiping hens further pulled me into a happy place of waterfalls, deep grass and soaring birds.
Two hours later the experience came to a close. I dressed. I was a little wiser for my experience. Lighter. Head chatter was given the afternoon off. I waited for my cab to arrive. We passed many smiles between us as I waited. I squirmed slightly from the awkwardness of feeling to make chat with someone whose language I barely had a grasp on. I was failing miserably, my mind still away with the fairies post massage, and a flutter of Spanish words tango’d in my head, not stopping long enough for me to even attempt at forming them into something comprehensible with my mouth.
Who would I recommend a temazcal to? Everyone who has the good fortune to find themselves in Mexico, away from Ritzy, sterile hotels and with a practitioner with fingers that feel like a hundred warm marbles smoothly coursing over your body. Next time though I’d tell her to turn up the heat.
*Stan Gotlieb – http://www.realoaxaca.com A good source for information about Oaxaca.