Mystic in Mexico Part II: Meeting Hikuri

bonfireThe following is the second in a series of blogs. To read Part I, go HERE.

In November 2012, I was on the beach packing up to leave after a surf, when my friend Crystal happened by. We chatted briefly, and then, out of the blue, she invited me to participate in a temescal. A temescal is a ceremony that takes place in a small enclosed space with a hole dug in the ground at the center into which burning hot stones are placed. Water is poured over the white hot stones to create lung-searing steam, which causes sweat to pour from every pore in your body such that you are transformed into something resembling a fountain. It purifies your body and, purportedly, your spirit. I imagine if you’re impure enough, you might vaporize entirely, leaving behind just a shell of skin in a pile on the dirt floor.

I’d participated in a temescal with Crystal a couple of years prior and found the intense heat overwhelming, the result more exhausting than invigorating. I’d barely managed to remain in the little enclosure and, desperate to get some cool air into my lungs, had to lie with the side of my face in the dirt near a flap of the tarp covering the lodge’s frame. This time though I was three days into a juice cleanse and thought her invitation rather serendipitous. All that sweating would help me take the cleanse to another level, if I could only withstand the claustrophobia and intense heat.

As I ruminated over whether to accept her invitation, Crystal continued, “If you decide to come be sure to bring a blanket and warm clothing…oh and a candle.”

I looked at her curiously, not understanding.

“The Huichol may be coming too,” she said, almost as an after thought.

Padre! (cool!)” I exclaimed.

With her mention of the Huichol the decision was made easily and If it weren’t for the fact that my meaning would be totally lost in translation, I would have said,  “I’ll be there with bells on.”

IMG_8816The day of the temescal three skinny dogs announced my arrival as I pulled up to  Crystal’s boyfriend’s house on my ATV. Fernando’s property sits perched on a hill overlooking the Sea of Cortez and as the sun set behind the ochre hills, the sky and its reflection in the glassy sea slowly turned shades of soft pink and lavender. Crystal emerged from one of several small buildings on the property to call the dogs off. The atmosphere was positive and inviting. We embraced in greeting and chatted briefly when a car pulled up the driveway. Four people emerged – two men dressed in the characteristic garb of the Huichol, a third man and a woman, both dressed in modern western clothing. Like the man from the gallery years ago, the Huichol wore loose white cotton shirts and pants with brightly colored embroidery around the bottom, across the chest and around the wrists. On their feet they wore huaraches woven from narrow strips of leather. The younger Huichol had a rectangular, red bag embroidered with deep purple flowers slung diagonally across his shoulder. He would keep the bag slung there throughout our time together – only later would I learn its significance.

We made our introductions and I hugged each of them in turn. The shaman, Guadalupe, hugged me stiffly and kept his left hand clenched at his heart. To guard it, I thought and wondered if perhaps hugging a shaman was inappropriate. I turned to the woman named Mio and we chatted while the others got organized. She was attractive with fair skin and brown eyes. I noticed immediately a gentle, loving energy about her. The man, Ajax, with whom she’d come was of small stature with a short, manicured black beard. He quickly disappeared after we’d been introduced, helping with the preparations. I was surprised to learn I was the only foreigner taking part.

As the sky began to darken, we built a pyre of wood and stones from a large pile of driftwood Fernando and Crystal’s sons, Mauricio and Tonatui, had gathered earlier that day. The stones, about the size of a large grapefruit or pomelo were full of small round holes like lava. As we worked, Guadalupe began chanting a blessing over the wood and stones. When the pyre was several feet high and the stones, twelve in total, were carefully nestled within, Fernando lit the fire. We all took several steps back as it grew and the heat intensified.

Mario, Guadalupe’s assistant, laid out a small altar, low to the ground between the fire and the white plastic chairs he and Guadalupe would sit on throughout the ceremony. The altar consisted of a burgundy cloth laid over a platform only a few inches high onto which sacred objects were placed. Guadalupe prayed over them in a low rhythmic chant. I could not understand the words as he spoke in Wixárika (pronounced wee-rá-reeka), the Huichol language. He held a stick with large feathers tied to it, waving it up and down, back and forth, gesturing to the four compass headings as he prayed quietly. Crystal had instructed me to bring two candles and ribbon with me. I placed these on the altar alongside the others with a small box of sandalwood incense. According to Huichol mythology, candles represent the illumination of the human spirit and hold the sacred gift of fire from the sun and fire gods. Along with the ribbon tied around it, the candle served as my offering and payment to the deities for the opportunity to be there that night. Both the candle and ribbon I’d brought were green, which symbolize the Earth, Heaven, healing, the heart, and growth in Huichol mythology.

It seemed understood that Guadalupe shouldn’t be disturbed as he went about his incantations and Crystal’s older son, Mauricio, asked his assistant Mario about something on the alter.

I listened as Mario gestured at several small, round, grayish green cactus buds and explained, “Before eating, first you must remove the small hairs from the skin of Hikuri. This is where some of the bitterness comes from. Then chew it well before swallowing.”

He turned to me and gnashed his teeth together to demonstrate, not realizing I understood Spanish.

Peyote_Cactus“We will eat the cactus?” I inquired of Mario.

“Yes, if you want to,” he confirmed.

I looked at the pile of small buds Mario had removed from the red bag he carried over his shoulder and placed on the altar. Peyote! I felt my pulse quicken. This was completely unexpected. Should I eat it? Was I in the right frame of mind and spirit? But what an opportunity to eat peyote under the supervision of a Huichol shaman!

Looking for clarity, I asked Crystal and she explained that yes, we could eat the peyote if we chose to. No one was required to do anything they did not want to. She explained now why she’d asked us all to bring blankets and dress warmly.

“We will stay up all night, if we can, and watch the fire. It is part of the ceremony. Guadalupe and Mario will stay until after sunrise.”

All night?! I felt my excitement mount along with a hint of trepidation. Where would this adventure lead?

Here is the link to Part III of Mystic in Mexico.

Mystic in Mexico Part I: Connection

handicrafts-huichol-design-thumb21793453I visited Mexico for the first time in 2001. It was the trip that led me to move to Baja California Sur in 2002. Before I arrived in Baja, however I flew into Puerta Vallarta, on the other side of the Sea of Cortez, and traveled North to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, to a hotel claiming to operate one of Corky Carroll’s surf schools. I use the work “claiming” because upon arrival I discovered there was no surf school and I was on my own.

In between surf sessions undertaken on a yellowed surfboard with La Sandia (the watermelon) painted across its ample width, I explored the area around the tiny village San Pancho. One day, I stumbled across a small art gallery filled with brightly colored tapestries made of yarn and objects covered in brightly colored beads depicting different animals, suns and moons, plant life, and a symbol I was not familiar with that appeared in most pieces. It looked like a flower, with tear-drop shaped petals, but it’s coloring was always green and I sensed that while it may have been a plant, it was not a flower.

As I stood looking at the artwork, a gentleman working in the gallery approached me. He was dressed in loosely-fitted white cotton clothing with a brightly-colored woven belt around his waist made of the same material used in some of the tapestries displayed on the gallery’s wall.  He had a friendly, round face, dark skin and even darker, deeply-set eyes. He struck up a conversation with me in Spanish and although my knowledge of the language was very rudimentary, I discovered that we were able to make ourselves understood quite well. He explained that he was a member of a tribe of native Mexican Indians, the Huichol (‘wee-choll’), who made the unique art that surrounded us, depicting a culture of nature worship. He patiently explained what each of the symbols meant – that the Sun is father and master of the heavens, and the Eagle, Werika, is his wife, mother of the sky and goddess of life; that the deer, Kauyumari, is a spirit guide who leads the shamans on their visionary pathways. The strange symbol that I thought was a plant he explained was peyote, or Hikuri.

My ears pricked up. I’d always been curious about this plant and it’s reputation as a hallucinogen and spiritual teacher. I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and was intensely curious about plant-derived psychotropic compounds as a means of evolving spiritually. This despite the fact that I’ve never been much into recreational drug use.

He said, “Peyote is powerful medicine. Peyote is a gift to the Huichol from the gods. It shares wisdom and is a way to connect to the gods.”

As he spoke I felt a slight shiver run through my body. With this we began discussing religion and things of a spiritual nature in general. It was an intense conversation in which I felt a strong level of understanding and connection to the man. I left the gallery feeling energized, buoyed up. I’d just engaged in my first spiritual conversation in Spanish! Later the same day I was struck by the realization that I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to have the kind of conversation we had and again, a shiver ran through me as I wondered if perhaps there hadn’t been some magic involved.

One of the pieces I ended up buying.

One of the pieces I bought.

The next day I returned to the gallery to buy a couple of pieces of Huichol art. The man greeted me warmly. He went into the back room of the gallery and returned with something in his hand.

He said, “I want you to have this. My wife made it for you last night.”

He placed a round shell, a little larger than a silver dollar, in my hand onto which the peyote symbol was carefully laid out in tiny beads.

“It is hikuri,” he explained, “peyote.”

I looked down at the tiny symbol.

“I remember,” I said feeling my heart swell in my chest.

I’m a plant biologist, but there was a time when I wanted to be an anthropological botanist – a scientist who studies the plants used by indigenous cultures for curing illnesses, imbalances, and for spiritual purposes, like the character Sean Connery played in the ’90s movie, Medicine Man. I wanted to, that is, until I realized that almost every indigenous culture in the world is patriarchal and their shamans don’t generally share their knowledge with white chicks like me. When I discovered that the entire Huichol spiritual doctrine is centered around a plant, I felt connected to them somehow. There seemed to be some kind of grace or Divine connection inherent in our meeting, like I was being contacted on some level, told that I was on the right path. That first encounter with the Huichol and peyote left me wanting to know more about them both. I’ve been drawn to them ever since. For whatever reason though, I haven’t had the chance to interact with them much. Once in a very little while I run into someone working in a gallery much like on that first occasion, but my interactions with them have not led to the same level of connection.

More than ten years later, in November 2012, that all changed.

Find out what happens when I meet a Huichol shaman and his apprentice in Part II: Meeting Hikuri.