Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
“Please. Stand in front of the fire. Take as much time as you need to think about your intentions for the Temescal,” Pedro says, gesturing with his hand in a slow, mindful way like someone who is doing Tai-Chi.
Pedro is middle-aged, with a sight paunch and gentle, droopy eyes like a chocolate lab. He has a receding hairline and wears a short ponytail and nothing but bathing suit briefs. He is the local Mayan guy in Tulum, Mexico, who is going to lead our Temescal, an ancient sweat lodge ritual that cost us each 480 pesos.
I’d been dreading this ceremony since I agreed to do it, mostly because I do not like the idea of being trapped in a small, dark, hot space.
We all go over to stand in front this enormous fire where they heat the rocks. It’s so hot I can feel my skin sizzle within about 10 feet of the thing. I want to think seriously about my intention like Pedro instructed us, I really do, but the blazing inferno is doing little to calm my nerves.
“I have to pee,” one of the girls says after about 15 seconds. All nine of us do a 180 and start looking for the nearest bathroom.
Once we’re done with our business we form a line, and one at a time we stand in front of Pedro so he can do some kind of energy alignment thing to us with a feather. I keep thinking he’s going to fall down in front of me and start screaming, “You godless Jew!” or something, but he doesn’t. So in I go.
Inside, we sit cross-legged around the fire pit on top of palm leaves that make a lot of noise when you shift around. We pass around this thing to smoke that I’m assuming is tobacco, but it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong. The door stays open and it’s very pleasant inside. The ocean is only maybe 20 yards away and I can hear the crashing waves, but I can also hear the occasional car driving down the road on the other side of the fence. I decide it’s an inevitable dichotomy, and amazing this tradition has managed to survive.
We go around the circle and state our intention for the Temescal. There are some very deep, very personal sentiments and I find myself getting choked up. When it’s my turn, my voice sounds far away, and foreign.
“I want to learn to accept my body, respect my body, accept my body and stop trying to change my body,” I hear myself say. “I want to make my body a nice home so I can have a baby with my true love.”
After each intention is stated, we all say “Ah-HO” which I’m assuming means something like “Amen” or “Mazel Tov” in Mayan.
Then some little man brings in the hot rocks from the big fire with a shovel and dumps them into the pit in the middle.
“Gracias abuelitas,” people say. Thank you, little rocks. “Ah-HO!”
The rocks glow in the dark and Pedro pulls a heavy wool blanket over the small opening. I am happy it’s a blanket and not a trap door made of steel or concrete. I figure the ventilation has to be better than it is in a packed hot yoga studio, especially considering we’re at sea level.
He puts different herbs to smolder on the rocks, and it smells amazing, like sage and pine and clove and other earthy smells that remind me of the desert. Then he pours water over the rocks to make them steam and the igloo goes pitch black. I can’t even see my hands in front of my face.
Just when I start to contemplate whether or not this is a good time to freak out, Pedro leads us in song.
“Oh HAY-wich-chee-CHAY-yo,” he wails.
“Oh HAY wich-chee-CHAY-yo,” we mimic.
It gets louder and louder and I can feel myself smiling. Instead of freaking out, I just go with it. The singing somehow interrupts that incessant chatter and gets me out of my head. I wonder why we don’t sing more in our culture. It’d probably do us good.
The first door is open before I know it. The hour-long ceremony, which consists of opening the door four times to represent four houses for each direction, continues. With each door, Pedro pauses to share a story or to talk more about what it means to share this experience of the Temescal. He is very down to earth, honest and seemingly sincere.
“Earth is my body,” Pedro sings. We repeat. “Water is my blood! Fire is my spirit!”
That’s when one of the two guys in our group busts out with his own chorus of, “Fire and STEAM!” at the top of his lungs. We all start laughing.
I’m worried Pedro might be offended so I say, “Is not disrespect. Is joy.”
I don’t know why I always feel compelled to speak with an accent when I am talking to someone who is not a native English speaker, but it’s a bad habit of mine.
“It does not matter what I think,” Pedro says. “It is your experience.”
Only I don’t know what I think. Is it possible that it really does help women with fertility, that maybe I did make some kind of spiritual connection with my intention? Or does Pedro go home at night, walk in the door and go, “Jesus, honey. You should have seen the group I had tonight. What a bunch of stupid Americans.”
I decide at the very least, I got to participate in an ancient ritual that gave me a more intimate glimpse into the Mayan culture. I know that’s exactly what I was raised to think and want to allow myself more. Whether or not I believe in it, well, that remains to be seen.
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Teachers are underpaid. They can’t find housing. Turnover is unacceptably high. If you are a teacher in Aspen today, you face losing your entire current work group five years hence.