Updated: Sep 7, 2020
It was dark inside the low, round temezcal hut. Thick steam filled the air so that I could see nothing. I was lying on a towel breathing deeply as Roberto, a shaman and both cousin and student of my shaman friend Francisco, infused the steam with fragrant herbs. The scents of eucalyptus, mint, lavender, and lemon swirled in the air. As I breathed them in, I could feel them clearing my lungs and bringing a sensation of deep and heady relaxation.
The traditional Maya ceremonial steam hut was nestled in the jungle amid the palms. It’s low door (I had to crawl to get inside) faced west and was covered with a red blanket. In front of the door, a black incense burner filled with hot coals and lemony copal resin produced a sweet, tangy smoke that rose up and covered the space. On the ground lay a blue and white striped blanket and on the blanket were three luch bowls (made from a round gourd-like fruit that is dried and cut in half). Each bowl was filled with the sacred water from the cave in Kaua—the same cave we ventured into with our guide, Don Miguel—the same cave where Francisco collects the water for his cleansing ceremonies and healing rituals—the same sacred water found deep in the cave where the little 5-year-old boy about whom the doctors said, “He will never walk,” stood on his own for the first time.
Floating in the luch bowl waters before us were tiny leaves from a ruda plant that Roberto had harvested especially for the ceremony. A large bunch of the delicate green sprigs lay next to the bowls along with a conch shell, a bag of lavender flowers and oil mixed with beach sand, and a bag of herbs, leaves, and bark carefully combined as a healing tea that was grown and prepared in Kaua too.
Before the ceremony began, Roberto asked us (Max and I) to face east. He explained that he was going to ask the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) for permission to perform the temezcal. As we faced east, he asked the element of fire for permission, praying in Mayan and blowing the conch shell. Then we turned counterclockwise and faced north. Roberto prayed again asking the element of air for its blessing and again blowing the shell. Then we faced west where the energy of water resides and then to the south and earth. After asking permission of all four elements, the shaman asked us to touch the earth and he prayed again, asking permission from center (an important part of the four cardinal directions and the place where heaven, earth, and the underworld all connect) Again he blew the conch.
After permission was asked, Roberto cleansed both of us with smoke from the copal incense, holding the heavy, black incense burner with both hands and moving in a motion that crossed our bodies while praying in Mayan. Then he blessed us with Kaua cave water and the ruda bunch. He tapped us all over with the wet ruda, sprinkling our heads, shoulders, arms and legs while reciting another prayer in Mayan. After the cleansing, he asked us to enter the low temezcal hut.
I crawled through the door and stood up in the hot dark. Coals had been placed in a pit in the center and benches formed a circle around the pit. Roberto asked us to lay on our towels on the benches and just get comfortable. He poured water again and again over the hot coals, creating a thick steam while spraying herbed oils into the steam and asking us to inhale and exhale deeply. I closed my eyes and relaxed, focusing only on my breath. All thought floated away and sensation took over. Hot, then cool as the shaman again sprinkled us with the sacred water using the ruda plant. Changing scents wafted in the air, thick with steam, as he added different oils and herbs. At one point he asked me to sit up while he used warm oil to massage my neck, shoulders, and head. Then he asked me to lay back down again, breathe deeply and relax. The steam and the darkness took over.
I drifted on a warm cloud, relaxing completely. And when I felt myself feeling grounded and centered, Roberto asked us to sit up and leave the warmth of the low hut. The warm jungle air felt cool in comparison. Both Max and I stood up straight, stretching a little. Roberto scooped out the lavender and beach sand mix and rubbed it on our backs, stomachs, and arms and then gave us each a handful to rub on our legs, hands, and feet. Then he rinsed us, pouring heated water over us from another luch bowl reserved especially for this purpose.
After our exfoliation, we re-entered the hut, lay on our towels, and soaked in the warm steam again, again breathing in the fragrant air and herbed oils. And then it was over. The shaman helped us up and we both crawled back out through the small door and out into the fading sunlight. It was almost dusk. The sounds of the jungle night were stirring. I felt calm, peaceful, and regenerated. I was surprised at how refreshed and energetic I felt. My mind was clear. I knew I wanted to experience the temezcal again. I felt renewed.