Sure, there may be fancier temazcal (sweatlodge) experiences here in Oaxaca. But would you get to lie naked in a sheet under a moonlit sky next to a curled-up dog, with accordion music wafting down from a nearby fiesta? Bet not.
Seems like everyone I know here but me had done a temazcal, intended to cleanse the body and spirit (the word originating from the Nahuatl word temāzcalli (house of heat). But in six years here, I never had. So when my friend Mica proposed an overnight in nearby Teotitlán del Valle that would include a temazcal and hostel stay, both through loan recipients in the En Vía microfinance loan program to women, I jumped at it. Of course I did.
Mica and I met up with Sarah in Teotitlán, after Sarah had guided an En Vía tour and gotten dropped off from the van in the rain at the crucero (highway crossroads), eventually hitchhiking in with two American residents (of the 17 known gringos in this town of about 5,500). Mica had set up our temazcal through Fermina, to take place at the house of Gloria, and had also arranged for us to spend the night with dinner and breakfast at a local hostel. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I’d come prepared with a bath towel, hand towel, bandana for my hair and pareo to wrap up in afterwards. I needed all of it.
Gloria’s place is typical of houses in Teotitlán, a dirt courtyard with various buildings and fence parts and several weaving looms under an open roof. Her temazcal was a little square mud-brick building just inside the compound, downhill from the main street and easily visible to anyone passing by and looking over the corrugated iron panels that form the fence. When we arrived around 5:30, Gloria was stoking the wood fire outside and moving a huge pile of leafy branches from the dirt outside to the hut inside. We made small talk for a bit and Mica tried to get Gloria to give us the downlow on what to expect. She told us the name of the leaves, in Zapotec because she didn’t know the Spanish word. So I’m still not sure what they were.
She mostly talked about the benefits of a temazcal for women just after giving birth, though allowed that sweating a lot would purify mind and spirit as well as cure physical aches and pains. At just barely dusk, it was time to get naked and crawl on hands and knees into the brick hut, not a graceful move by any means. (And looking up to the street and two-story house towering over us, I noted that though nobody might see anything they hadn’t seen before, it would certainly be whiter.)
Gloria had said we could have up to five people inside, but she must have meant diminutive Zapoteca women, because three gringas laid out side by side on the leafy branches left very little room for Gloria herself by the volcanic rocks that would create the steam with water splashed onto it. (I am taking Wikipedia at its word that the rocks have to be volcanic not to explode in the heat, because frankly in the dark without glasses, I have no earthly idea what was inside besides what I could feel by blind touch.)
Crouched over to the fire side of the hut, Gloria began ramping up the heat and beating Mica (well, the word she used was pegar, which roughly means striking or beating) with the leaves, asking frequently if it was hot enough and could she could make it hotter. I, the oldest in the group with admitted claustrophobic and heat issues, allowed for a little more heat, pero no mucho mas. As long as I stayed supine with my head down, I was OK. The couple of times I sat up to move around, the smoke hit me full on in the face. (Not smoke, chided Gloria. Steam). Definitely smoke mixed in. I stayed down.
Gloria had perhaps misjudged either the temperature or smoke herself, because no less than three times she had to crawl out of the hut’s entrance – covered by a rag – and recover for what seemed forever before coming back inside. The first time, she was out so long that we lifted the rag up and caught some fresh air ourselves. She came back and in turn flogged Sarah and then me with the leaves, but by my turn was so done in that she dove for the door after only a few minutes of beating my front side (alas, I was hoping for the back to combat persistent sciatica). To get out, we had to crawl over her supine body, head and torso outside in the dirt but legs still inside the hut, like the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz. We staggered out lightheaded into the cool night air, where someone’s hands wrapped us in sheets and then dropped down onto a straw mat next to a sleeping dog who didn’t so much as jump at the intrusion. At some point, fuzzy blankets followed.
Turns out that other friends who have done a temazcal under more spa-like conditions say that there’s a limit of about 20 minutes to stay inside the steam hut. We were probably in there for an hour, therein lying Gloria’s inability to stay sitting up in the steam that was indeed heavily laced with smoke. Outside it was heaven: cool and dimly lit (gracias a diós), below a slightly-more-than-half moon scutting lazily in and out of milky clouds. Down the street, norteño accordion music spilled out of a nearby house having a fiesta. Possibly the dog snored, maybe even one or two of us. No one spoke for a good while, though Gloria eventually rallied and tried at least 10 times to get me to go back in and finish my turn.
No, estoy bien, I said. I’m good. And I was. It took a flashlight to find our shed clothing in the dirt, step over the dog, and bid goodbye to Gloria, still down for the count on the straw mat. The hostel was any easy couple of blocks away: Las Calandrias (The Orioles), through whose lovely courtyard we stepped to find hostess Jilly waiting for us with a hot dinner ordered ahead of time (thanks, Mica!). Her mother-in-law Petra and a cousin? Sister-in-law? served us chicken with greens, rice with peas and sliced avocado, followed by banana bread that I’d brought to share. Jilly speaks perfect English but we shifted into Spanish to allow the other two women into the conversation. They all liked the banana bread and wanted the recipe.
The rooms were lovely and simple, with private baths and faux-finish painted stucco walls, and we fell into bed before 10. The next morning, after walks through town and to Teotitlán’s morning market for early coffee for Sarah and me, Jilly served us an outdoor breakfast that would rival a fancy B&B anywhere: wheat toast with orange marmalade, sliced apples, orange juice, coffee and tea, scrambled eggs with avocado and chile pasilla salsa, refried beans with avocado leaf and queso fresco, and fresh tortillas. The food was good, the company and conversation even better.
Jilly’s a biologist by training who’s been running Las Calandrias for a couple of years; she’s originally from Cuba but married to Eric, a local boy from Teotitlán. Over breakfast she showed us bird photos – identifying the B&B’s namesake oriole – and explaining that they lead birding tours as well as give cooking classes. After paying our $340 pesos ((about $21 U.S. at today’s exchange rate) each for the room, dinner and breakfast, we bid Jilly goodbye and had just enough time to get to the corner where the green Teotitlán bus departs for Oaxaca.
Only this being Sunday, the 11 a.m. bus actually went the opposite direction to Tlacolula and its huge market, so we jumped off at the crucero, snagged a colectivo to Oaxaca City without having to wait (that never happens), dropped Mica off in Tule in search of vegan shortening, hopped another bus back to within a couple of blocks of our respective houses, and went on with our Sunday afternoons.
My first temazcal wasn’t the fancy or expensive kind. But — lying naked under an open night sky with fleeting moon and sleeping dog — it was certainly the memorable kind.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org
Las Calandrias Bed and Breakfast
Cuauhtémoc 5, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico
Jilly Rodríguez Méndez