Early in the school year, we met one of Mia's teachers, Fausto M. He had been an exchange student in Tennessee when he was in high school, and comes from one of those families whose name is on streets and institutions all over Cuenca. He is also one of her better teachers, offering challenging and thought provoking homework. At our meeting, he also floated one of those somewhat ubiquitous, and not necessarily sincere, invitations to his "quinta" (or country home).
Well, lo and behold, at another meeting in January, he asked Mia to call me over, and he wanted to firm up plans for our coming to visit his quinta. And so a couple of weeks ago we met him in downtown Gualaceo, about 45 minutes from Cuenca, and he brought us out to his place.
It's only a few minutes from the center of Gualeco, and on the drive out, he pointed out how the city had grown, and highlighted some of the older buildings in town as he discussed the local traditions of leather working and the local cuisine. Although his family dates back to at least the 1600s in Cuenca, it was only his grandparents who bought the quinta, which has now been divided into various properties owned by Fausto and his siblings. One of the buildings on the property is a small "castle," just a two story tower and an adjoining room, which was built by his grandfather, originally as a place for the grandkids to play. Three different Ecuadorians presidents have visited the castle, and Fausto currently lets locals on their honeymoon spend the night in this romantic building. The rest of the property is nicely kept up by the caretakers who live on site, and has lots of organically grown fruit trees, a small pond with papyrus growing in it, and the carriage that his great-grandmother owned. (His great grandmother was so wealthy, that, during Carnival, when the tradition is to throw buckets of water on other people, she would, the rumor has it, throw buckets of gold dust instead!)
We had a lovely lunch prepared by Fausto's wife (who is, incidentally, the granddaughter of a famous early 20th century Ecuadoran president, whose name also adorns many public spaces in Cuenca and throughout the whole country), and our kids played with their kids, having a blast on the mini-4-wheeler.
Part of our discussion that afternoon was about Shamanism, both from a medicinal plant aspect, as well as the idea of "other realities." This is something that has interested me for a while, and although I know it is a big part of the Andean culture, it is not something I had heretofore been able to learn about directly. So I called him up some days after we returned, and arranged to meet him in his office to discuss it further. We chatted about many things, and decided that the best way to learn was by experiencing it. He called up his friend, Taita Alejo ("Taita" means "father" in Quichua, and is the honorific given to shamans), and learned that he would be holding a Temascal, or sweat lodge ceremony, at the end of the week. We decided to go.
Taita Alejo's place is outside of Susudel, In fact, we passed the gate to Jaime and Rita's (ex) property on the way in. We followed the road another kilometer or so, and then we turned left into his property. The road into Taita Alejo's home is made of rocks and dirt, is very narrow, and winding, with steep drop-offs. We crossed 3 small dry runoffs, where the "bridge" is nothing more than a dozen stout branches. And we dropped in altitude - perhaps 1000 feet, enough to notice the difference in the temperature.
We arrived about 5:30 pm, and spent some time walking around the place, and meeting the others who had come for this monthly temascal. Along with Fausto and me, there were 10 or 15 others, ranging from some 20 somethings who we picked up on the way, to a fellow Mason of Fausto's, to an indigenous couple from Saraguro.
The temascal itself is a small, circular structure, about 8 - 12' in diameter, constructed of branches, and covered with a tarp. 16 branches define the circle. They are bent over, and tied in the middle, so that the structure is only about 3 ft high in the center, where a hole is dug, to hold the hot stones that are brought in during the ceremony. The stones are heated in a large bonfire, which is started many hours before we entered.
The ceremony is divide into 4 parts, or "puertas" (doors - so called, I believe, because the tarp door is opened in between each phase. The parts are supposed to represent the 4 ages of a person: 1) in the womb, and early childhood, 2) youth and adolescence, 3) adulthood, and 4) old age. The ceremony starts as everyone enters the temascal, on our hands and knees, because the door is only about 2' high. It is pitch black inside, so one enters and continues in a circle clockwise until you bump up against the person in front of you, and there you sit. The floor is dirt. Hot rocks are brought in and placed in the center, Every time a rock is brought in, the bringer said something in Quichua, to which we all replied "hop" (or something like that). After a certain number of rocks are brought in, the door is closed, and a hand drum started and Taita Alejo began talking and singing. The rocks are warming up the inside, but there is a moment I remember quite clearly, preceded by silence, then followed closely by the sound of water dripping out of a tin cup that was dipped into a bucket, followed immediately by a loud hiss as the water is thrown onto the rocks. Steam, and heat, begin to fill the room. This first "puerta" was the only one in which the participants spoke, saying our name (introducing ourselves to "el Gran Espiritu") and telling what we were seeking. More chanting and drumming, and the heat is rising, and then, everyone shouts at once "PUERTA" at which point the door is opened, letting in a little cool air. A bit of a rest, a bit of checking in ("Todos estan bien?") and then an introduction to the 2nd puerta. More rocks are brought in, and some sort of incense is dropped on each rock as it is brought in, sparking and sometimes igniting as it hits the rocks. A similar chanting, drumming begins, more water is thrown on the rocks, raising the temperature inside. It is quite hot, and crowded. We are seated in two concentric rings around the rocks, and the person in front of me is drumming, but also moving around, trying to get comfortable while maintaining the rhythm, but also "getting in my space," something I eventually had to come to accept. "PUERTA." The door opens a second time, bringing in a welcome flush of cool air, although from my vantage point opposite the door, I had to imagine it for a few long moments before I could actually feel it.
The temascal represents many things. Its form, and the darkness inside, along with the slightly uncomfortable, cramped way in which we all sat, represents the womb. Additionally, the four primordial elements are all present: earth - the floor we sat on; air - when the door is opened; fire - the hot rocks; and water - which turns to steam on the rocks, are all part of the ceremony
The third puerta. More rocks, fresh from the fire. Drumming and some singing are offered. More steam as the drumming and chanting continue. Taita Alejo continues to pour water on the hot rocks, and the steam is getting intense! My shoulders, my face are burning. I put my hand in front of my mouth to attempt to somehow keep the steam from burning my lungs as it enters. The heat is relieved briefly as Taita Alejo throws a few cupfuls of water on all of us inside the temascal. (This reminded me of a hot,outdoor concert, when you finally dance your way to where someone is hosing down the crowd.) A few people are yelling something ("no aguanto" perhaps - I can't take it anymore) and someone near the door says something, which takes some time to register for me, but finally I get it, and I put my head down to the floor, where the air is cooler. "PUERTA." This time along with the fresh air, cups of water are passed around to pour over ourselves, to cool off.
The fourth puerta is a little less intense, or perhaps I learned how to regulate the heat reaching me by dropping down closer to the ground. It gets quite hot, but I didn't feel the burning like I did during the 3rd puerta. At the end of this phase, drinking water was brought in. This puerta should have been the last, but somehow one rock was left burning in the fire, so they decided to do a 5th puerta, this one directed by a Taita-in-training. We didn't have the intense heat, but it did go on and on, and I felt myself unable to focus on the moment, instead wondering when it would end and we could get out into the fresh night air. Finally, "PUERTA," and an orderly exit into the night. I crawled out, completely drained, and spent some time coming back down to earth. Finally, I made my way to the hose by the house, where I was grateful to be hosed down and cooled off, head to toe.
After spending some time drying off, cooling down, locating my glasses (!) and getting dressed, I made my way into the kitchen, where Taita Alejo and six or seven others where talking. Many people come to this place for a "vision quest" and the conversation turn on this. A vision quest starts with a temascal, and then the seeker is "planted," somewhere in the mountains, in an area of about 10 square feet, where they are expected to stay, night and day, with no food, water, nothing but their thoughts. They might be planted for 4 days, or seven, or even 13 - on the longer stays, a bit of food and water is brought after day 4. Many around the table had experienced this. Taita Alejo shared one experience during one of his plantings, where he was praying for water (after I don't know how many days) and the sky seemed to open up, and a single drop of water fell from the sky, directly onto his face. I asked later if he thought this was really a drop of water, or perhaps a vision of water. He didn't know, but it clearly didn't matter - with this drop, real or envisioned, he was refreshed.
I hope to return to Taita Alejo's for another temascal, perhaps as soon as next month. For one thing, I didn't bring a camera (Debby and the girls had it as they were visiting another friend's quinta), and I'd like to take pictures of the structures, and the surrounding landscape. For another, I'd like to learn more, and experience the temascal another time. Now that I know a bit of what to expect, I can better prepare myself and focus on the ceremony. I also really enjoyed talking with him, and the others about their journeys. I also need to talk with other Ecuadorans I know, so I can try to understand just how this fits into the society here. Shamanismo is no longer a hidden thing, repressed by the Church, and my feeling is that most people have some knowledge of it, experiential or otherwise. I guess this means I'll be writing about this topic again.