Long before sauna became a teambuilding venue, a place to achieve beauty ideals and wash away the stress of work meetings, sweating in a heated room was part of sacred rituals. In various cultures, even maternity wards and morgues were substituted by sweat lodges. This is also why people went there to "die and be born again". I happened to attend one such rebirth ritual in Mexico recently, and yes, it was far beyond the limits of the idea of simply warming bones.
If you've ever been to Mexico, you've probably been offered - and maybe even tried - temazcal in popular tourist areas. For many years, I had only heard of it and imagined what most uninformed foreigners probably did: that it was simply a sauna, set in an igloo-shaped stone structure. Perhaps enriched with herbal vapors and flavored with a bit of touristy spiritual sauce. But otherwise, just a sauna. At least that's what it looked like from the ever-present posters and pamphlets featuring bunches of sweating teenagers in bikinis, sitting pensively in the lotus flower position.
"Just don't imagine it's some kind of sauna," my friend lectured me as we drove out of downtown Ciudad de México that Sunday, heading for the favela-like suburb of Ecatepec on the northeastern edge of the metropolis. I felt ashamed at the thought that moments before I had told her in an excited voice how I froze to death on Friday while sitting in the front yard of a bar, and that I was looking forward to warming my bones after that chilly escapade.
It was a beautiful day, the sky was cloudless, and we were cruising down the highway, so far only viewing from afar the cascade of colorful shacks built on the hills outside the city. Until we left the metropolitan scenery behind and drifted into a satellite town with dirt and broken roads, ordinary houses, and people cruising the roads past street food stalls.
We parked by one of the houses and entered through a large gate into a garden where Alfredo greeted us. We found ourselves amidst tall marijuana bushes, among pots of budding hallucinogenic peyote cactus and other "magic" plants that our host affectionately called "medicine." He didn't use any other word for his health-giving herbs the whole time. "And this is medicine too when properly prepared," he would show me, for example, a tall plant with yellow bell-shaped flowers that I commonly saw in the city.
The overgrown courtyard was dominated by the temazcal itself, like some mysterious temple covered with ganja and other "medicine", with large sea shells piled on its cupola-shaped top. As such, the whole garden had an untidy appearance, but the perfectly round building of the majestic temazcal gave it all a kind of order. A strange sense of serenity fell upon one there.
Alfredo was a man of about fifty. Though it was hard to tell, his tanned and smiling face was perfectly smooth, and if it weren't for the laugh lines around his eyes, it wouldn't bear the marks of aging. He exuded a calming energy, as did the whole place. I might have guessed even less of Alfredo if I hadn't noticed the gray in his hair and mustache. He was dressed in a shiny red tracksuit like some kind of gymnastics coach, and I probably wouldn't have guessed he was a shaman and healer.
He greeted us and chatted with us about his medicine, while in the sweat on his face, he fed oval boulders into a large oven that stood nearby, soon to heat the concrete shrine that waited quietly nearby. It was a gateway to other worlds.