The shaman Sofia chants in honor of the four elements, earth water fire and air, my friend Fabio sets a deep rhythm witn a leather drum. The girl on my right fans the bonfire to turn the wood into embers, and transforming a large pile of smooth stones into glowing red hot orbs – which will be our torture for the next two hours. The temescal is a ceremony in honor of the penapachamana, Mother Earth, the elements, and symbolizes rebirth.
A couple feet away the sweat lodge is constructed out of bent branches in a low dome perhaps 7 feet in diameter and covered in layers of wool blankets and skins. Fabio shovels the embers with meficinal herbs and we each fan the smoke to our face, heart and stomach before crawling into the lodge. Once inside, the first vuelto starts and Fabio places 7 red hot stones in a pit in the center, closes the door and pours water over the rocks.
The 11 participants each state an intention for the practice. Mine is to celebrate my own rebirth so to speak as a resident of Cuenca, Ecuador. In the pitch black darkness I can feel the sweat of the people next to me as our legs shift against each other. The heat is thick and tangible. Cacophonous yipping interspersed with chants and drumming…,in Spanish….phrases jump out…I fly like a bird a condor, the grandmother earth is all knowing. I start in Buddhist meditation pose cross legged with a straight back and posture. The vuelta ends and the shaman opens the door for a breath of fresh air. The second vuelta fabio adds another 7 stones from the fire and my feet have long since fallen asleep and I shift into a slouched over bent knee position, pressing my back hunchbacked with spine curved against the domed wall to be as far from the rocks as possible. Want to lie down so badly but can’t straighten legs without putting them on top of the rocks to roast. The odd sensation of being slapped with something and not knowing what it is…in pitch black I think perhaps bunches if the same herbs. The third vuelta…7 more stones and i am gasping for breath. The fourth, more stones more steam. I hear something mumbled about the gringa (yup that’s me and I am the only gringa there. Figures shift and cram together more, kindly making a little more room for me so that i can kneel andmy neighbor whispers to lower my head. Heat rises. I bury my face with great zeal into the muddy grass, never so grateful for the sensation of coolness, and I suppose at one with the element earth.
When we exit the dome I am already doused in water, the sweat having long washed out all the salts from my body. After chugging two enormous bottles of water we regroup to circle around the remains of the fire that was almost all transferred to the sweat lodge. The closing song is hauntingly beautiful, and Sofia lights s long ceremonial pipe from the glowing embers and passes it around the circle. I inhale deeply. Yup, it is marijuana for sure. And then everyone is smiling serenely.