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.

Stole My Heart

I came upon a pathetic sight on the way to town yesterday. Right after the turn off to the municipal dump stood a little black puppy on the edge of the road picking at something mashed into the dirt. I quickly brought the car to a stop and got out to see if I could catch her. I didn’t move directly towards her because typically these little ones run away in fear. Instead I stood about 15 feet away and called to her. Her attention pulled from the questionably edible thing on the road, she looked up wagging her skinny tail and trotted over to me. As I reached down to pick her up, she urinated submissively. Up close, I saw what a mess she was – her skin was grey and black with a leathery texture and was only sparsely covered with dry, dusty black hair. Her skeleton, clearly visible, poked at it from beneath. The leathery appearance of her skin I knew meant she had a bad case of mange. I picked her up gingerly – she weighed almost nothing – and carried her at arms length to the truck, where I placed her on the passenger side floor. As I put the car in drive, I tried to remember if I had any dog food in the car and wondered if I should stop to feed her, but I was late for work now, so decided to keep motoring. As I drove to town, she just sat there looking around curiously with what were surprisingly bright, amber-colored eyes. At one point she stood up, put one paw on the shifter between us, and looked at me questioningly, as if to say, “Hey, what’s going on?” I leaned over and pet her lightly on the head and she returned to sitting on the floor. She did not utter one sound the entire drive to the vet’s office. Her silent composure was impressive and a bit unsettling.

I have to admit I started to imagine what she’d look like when her hair grew back and planning how I would find her a home. I even went through a catalog of names that might suit her. I settled on “Pria,”  by shortening “prieta,” which means dark or swarthy in Spanish. An internet search this morning would strike me as significant – Pria being the Hindi word for “beautiful.”  At each of the stoplights in town, I leaned over and pet her bald little forehead with the back of my index finger. In response, she closed her eyes, apparently enjoying the feel of my touch. I wondered how long it had been since she’d received any affection from beast or man.

Carrying her into the vet’s I got a good whiff of her. I wrinkled my nose at the unmistakeable odor emanating from her. She smelled like some kind of excrement – probably cow or dog and I figured the poor darling was probably subsisting on a diet of crap. The female veterinary assistant greeted me, took one look at my companion and contorted her face into an expression of disgust. I asked her if they had some food we could give her, but she just shrugged her shoulders weakly. I asked if it was okay to put her on the floor and let her walk around so I didn’t have to smell her and she thankfully said yes. The pup wandered around sniffing and quickly found the area where she was most at home, out on the cool dirt near the entry gate. Had she ever been inside a building?

When it was our turn, I carried her into the examination room and placed her skinny body on the stainless steel examination table. Felipe the vet regarded her and I quickly sensed my optimism may have been misguided. He touched her ears, where the mange had reduced them to scaly, hairless flaps, looked in her mouth briefly and then picked up her tiny front paw and examined it closely. That’s when he said, “I am afraid that this dog has a serious and chronic type of mange. This is demodectic mange. Unlike sarcoptic mange which causes them to itch profoundly, is very contagious, and treatable, demodectic mange does not cause itching, is not very contagious, but it is chronic and very difficult to treat.” He paused, regarding her sympathetically and continued, “She probably got it from her mother and, sadly, in a puppy of this size, the treatment can do irreversible damage to her liver. The mange also compromises the immune system of the dog and makes them more susceptible to other illnesses. She could very well succumb to parvo-virus or distemper after we put her through several unpleasant treatments…it will be hard on her and it may not even work or, like I said, cause her harm. So we must weigh the benefits with the potential difficulties.” I knew where he was going. “In cases such as this, I think we must be philosophical. There are so many puppies that are healthy that need homes…” I nodded, unable to speak because I was already attached to this little waif standing Zen-like on the table in front of me. I knew what we had to do, but just then the image of Zee entered my mind and I croaked, “Do you remember my dog Zee? The blind one?” He said he did and I told him then how she had died. “You won’t stay here then while I give her the injection?” he asked already knowing the answer. I shook my head no. “She will not feel any pain,” he said, “I’m going to give her an injection to help her relax first. Then once that has taken effect I will give her the injection that will make her sleep and she just won’t wake up.” My eyes started to tear up. Felipe filled a syringe with the relaxant and smoothly injected it into the skin between her shoulder blades. She didn’t even seem to notice. The only thing that stopped me from losing it was that she did not make eye contact with me the entire time we were in the examination room. That would have been too much. Felipe carried her out to one of the little cages then and I was left in the exam room to gather myself. I was, I believe, in shock that my optimism had been so far off the mark.

Felipe returned and I asked him if anyone was working to help the dogs that are always dumped at the municipal landfill where I’d found her. I could tell that he was sensitive to how emotional this had become for me and didn’t want to turn me out of his office without giving me some time. We discussed what was being done and how the Los Cabos Humane Society regularly goes there to pick up dogs. Not wanting to take up more of his valuable time and aware that I was now very late for work, I asked him what I owed him. As I reached into my wallet I realized I only had 24 dollars. I handed it to him and he thanked me and said, “It will go towards paying the man who will bury her.” The word “bury” stabbed at my heart. I thanked him for his kindness and quickly exited the building past a group of people waiting with a strapping, big, black dog. The contrast between this dog’s glistening coat and that of the little girl I’d just left seemed a cruel final blow from the Universe.

On the way home that night, as I approached the turn-off to the landfill, a group of adult dogs lay gathered together for warmth and companionship on the road. As they got up and scattered in response to my approaching car, I thought, “At least they have each other…” Then I pictured the little girl as I drove past the spot where she’d stood alone and hungry earlier in the day. No longer could I contain the emotions that had been building since that morning  – the floodgates opened letting them pour forth.