You may recall the series of blogs I published here about my first peyote ceremony. Two years and several ceremonies later, I found myself taking the next step on a spiritual pilgrimage that began with that ceremony. This is the first in another series of posts describing that journey.
Every year in March the Huichol begin the process that takes them to the most sacred sites in their spiritual cosmology. It’s the annual pilgrimage that leads ultimately to Wirikuta, the sacred land where peyote grows. Every year they travel thousands of miles to fulfill their spiritual commitment and to collect peyote for ceremonies in the year that follows. The pilgrimage period encompasses four full months beginning in March with preparations that include cleanses and sacrifices and culminating in late June with a closing ceremony.
This year I joined the shamans Lupe and Mario, and their families on the pilgrimage. During the 10 day period I shared with them we traveled first to their home in the mountains (la sierra) for the intial cleansing period, to the Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City to leave offerings and ask for safe passage on our voyage, and then on to the five sacred sites visited annually, including Wirikuta.
Our journey started in Guadalajara where my follow journeyer Victor and I rented a large passenger van. Our first stop was to pick up Joel, another “mestizo” (Mexican of mixed race), who carried with him large bags of pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and chia from his family’s ranch. For both Joel and Victor, this was the second time they would join the Huichol on the annual pilgrimage. From Guadalajara we drove North to Tepic, Narayit, where Guadalupe, our shaman, lives with his family – Olivia his wife and their two children, Angela, 18, and Guillermo, 13. Angela and Memo both speak Spanish fluently, unlike their parents and Mario’s wife, and proved to be excellent guides and interpreters, as well as positive upbeat companions, throughout the journey.
In Tepic, while we waited for Lupe to return from Puerto Vallarta where he’d gone to sell some artwork, Olivia, Angela, Memo, Victor, Joel and I walked across the street to Tepic’s annual Easter fair, one of the largest in Mexico. The Huichol have their own area there where they set up booths to sell their artwork and a kitchen area with several wood-fired barbecues on which the women turn blue corn flour and cheese into quesadillas. The Huichol consider blue corn the most sacred of the five possible colors of maize. In their colorful traditional clothing surrounded by vast collections of beaded and embroidered artwork, the Huichol created a festive feast for the eyes. In preparation for the pilgrimage, I’d begun to fast that day, but seeing and smelling the blue corn tortillas cooking over the open fires, I could not resist and ate several – two with squash flowers embedded in the fresh cheese, two with nopal (rabbit-ear) cactus.
While we enjoyed the quesadillas, several Huichol ladies and their children bellied up to the table to join us. One of the women in particular made an indelible impression on me – she wore a deep purple shirt with matching skirt with white, blue and black piping. Her straight raven-colored hair was pulled back in a pony tail that emphasized her long neck, decorated with a beaded choker necklace. Her face, with its flawless skin, high cheekbones, large almond-shaped eyes, and thin straight nose combined with her erect, proud bearing gave her a royal air. Her name was Rosa. Leaning against her mother, seven-year old Imelda was a carbon copy down to her garb in the same intense hue of purple, the choker necklace. From what I could tell, the only difference between them was that more often than not Imelda’s face was adorned with an unabashed smile and she would join us on the pilgrimage, whereas her mother would not.
After the quesadillas, we took the children, six in all, on the merry-go-round and a mini Ferris wheel. As we walked about the crowded fair grounds the two little girls each took one of my hands. I was struck by their comfort with me, La Güera [pronounced “wera,” with a soft “e” like “where.” It means “the white woman” or “whitey.”]
Before long though Olivia, Lupe’s wife, signaled to us that it was time to go. Lupe had called and it was time to prepare for our journey to the sierras. Our first stop on the journey to Wirikuta would be the tiny village of San Jose Escuela and on to the ranch where Lupe grew up.
When we arrived at Lupe’s house, he and his family hurriedly packed what they would need for the trip. It was almost midnight and I wondered, when they’d known for days that we were coming, why they didn’t have their things packed and ready to go. On further consideration I realized that this is one of the many cultural differences between this white Anglo Saxon protestant Canadian and the Huichol. I told myself that I would need to go with the flow on this trip. I lay down on one of the van’s long bench seats and rested to the sound of scurrying and chatter in their native tongue, Wiratika. It was just after 1:00AM I pulled the van out of the small yard next to Lupe’s house, listening carefully as soft-spoken Lupe issued directions on how to get back to the highway that would take us to the mountains. Lupe’s son Memo facilitated the process by repeating each of his father’s instructions more vociferously.
I try not to drive at night in Mexico. Roads and obstacles are poorly marked and other drivers’ condition uncertain. There’s a lot of drinking and driving in this country, which makes Sundays an especially treacherous day to be on the road. I was comforted that we were traveling on a Thursday. I insisted on driving because I was the only one insured to drive the rented vehicle and I suspect may have also been the only one with a valid drivers license.
The only other vehicles on the highway at that time of night were transport trucks trying to make time. They drove fast and didn’t let up for anything. In contrast, Victor admonished me that we’d never get there at that rate I was driving. Against my better judgement I pressed the gas pedal further to the floor, picking up considerable speed on the good quality two-lane highway.
It was only an hour or so into our drive when we came over a hill and faced a transport truck coming straight at us as it passed another rig. The older highways in Baja rarely have anything resembling a shoulder and there is often a drop of several feet from the edge of the pavement to the ground below. So my first thought was that we probably had nowhere to go. Confronted with the transport truck bearing down on us and the knowledge that if I were to leave the lane we’d likely fly off into a rough landscape and likely roll the van, I could have frozen with panic. Instead, time slowed to a crawl and I had time to consider whether this would be the end of our journey, only just begun. I didn’t want to believe it. I looked right and discovered there was in fact a shoulder there. I purposefully angled the van towards the white line that defined our lane from the shoulder, at the very same instant that the transport swerved back into his proper lane, missing us by, I believe, mere inches.
From the seat behind me, Lupe’s voice came quiet and reassuring, “You handled that well Güera.” I breathed a sigh of relief and gave thanks that we were all still alive. I couldn’t help but think Lupe had as much if not more to do with us still being in one piece and the weight of the great responsibility I’d taken on by agreeing to chauffeur such precious cargo about the Mexican countryside became more tangible and heavy on my shoulders.