Güera in Wirikuta: Cathartic Purgation*

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The following post is the second in a multi-part series. To begin reading at the beginning click on THIS LINK.

The basic difference between an ordinary [person] and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, whereas an ordinary [person] takes everything as a blessing or a curse.                           Don Juan, Tales of Power by Carlos Casteneda

Gradually the roads we traveled became narrower and more isolated, the way was dotted by checkpoints manned by state and municipal police. When we began the climb into the most isolated part of the mountains our progress was halted by a band of rifle-touting men in plain clothes. My pulse quickened as I wondered if they were banditos after our valuables, but then I saw among them a woman in traditional Huichol clothing. I relaxed, knowing they meant us no harm. Each time as the van rolled to a stop and I lowered the window to answer their questions, “Where are you going?” and “Where have you come from?” the inquisitioner’s expression changed from one of seriousness to surprise when they saw who was behind the wheel.

As the clock ticked past 3AM, my eyes began to strain and the road to wind up and down in steep hairpin turns.

On cue, Lupe’s voice cut through the low rumble of the van’s engine, “Are you hungry Güera?”

“Hungry?” I asked. “Well, no, uh, I’m not hungry…maybe a bit tired.”

He laughed good-naturedly at my misunderstanding.

“No,” he said, “not that kind of hunger…”

There was a pause after which he continued, “Here, give me your hand.”

I reached my right arm back, palm facing upwards into which he placed a small soft object. I wrapped my fingers around it and bringing it forward felt with my fingers the slightly moist texture of a small piece of peyote cactus. I smiled and wondered, did he read my mind just then? I placed it in my mouth and chewed it down to a pulp, knowing it would provide the stimulation to let me drive on deeper into the night, same as a cup of coffee, but without the jitters. The subtle effects of the small wedge of cactus came on about twenty minutes or so after I’d swallowed it and I realized an additional benefit of peyote over coffee was that it sharpened my night vision.

Slowly but surely we drove higher into the sierras of Narayit. The route reminded me of many drives I’d made in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec where my family has a summer cottage and led me to consider, once again, how in hind sight often our lives turn out to be a series of lessons and experiences that lead up to and support some higher purpose, like how in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany Owen insists that he and his buddy practice the basketball shot over and over again, we know not why…until the book’s zenith.

Night still cloaked the surrounding countryside in darkness when the rumbling in my intestines began to compete with the narrow strip of winding road for my attention. Before long I winced and gripped the steering wheel tighter with fingers already cramped with fatigue as sharp cramps joined the rumbling. I wondered if the peyote and quesadillas were having a disagreement. But no, I reminded myself, Hikuri and blue corn quesadillas get along just fine. It’s only when you eat non-Mexican food that it protests. I pulled over when my discomfort made it nearly impossible to concentrate on the road and Victor took took my place. Our extreme isolation meant I no longer worried about him driving without a license, but road conditions and my discomfort made resting in any significant way an impossibility.

The sky had brightened with impending dawn when the cramping in my gut became too much to bear.

“Pull over,” I said, my teeth and anal spincter correspondingly clenched.

“Huh?” Victor replied, his focus on driving and oblivious to the seriousness of my condition. “What do you…?”

I didn’t let him finish. “Just pull over Victor! Pull over now! I need to go to the…” A cramp seized me, rendering me temporarily speechless until the last two words came out in a gasp, “…bathROOM NOW!”

He quickly located a wide area of graded dirt off the edge of a wide curve in the road and pulled off. I jumped out of the van before it came to a full stop and scoured the surroundings for somewhere I could squat out of sight of the 12 or so bleary-eyed people who came tumbling out of the van behind me. We were perched on the side of a mountain, the land dropping steeply away from the patch of dirt the van sat on. Spectacular, yes. Forgiving of someone looking for a quiet spot to take a crap, no. Thankfully, the grader left a pile of dirt at the far end of where we parked that I decided might just be large and high enough to provide the necessary cover. Once I got over there I realized it was not as high as I’d hoped, but my anus told me I would have to make due.

I squatted for so long that soon I heard the telltale murmurrings of impatience. Another minute and I decided I’d done all I could do. I stood up, knees shaking, and surveyed the results. Astounding. Bovine in proportion even. I said a little prayer that I’d purged whatever it was that ailed me and joined the restless crew who’d already loaded back into the van. We needed to make time. Lupe was expected at a ceremony begun the previous night and we still had a long way to go.

Less than half an hour later, where the pavement ended and the ocher-tinged dirt and scattered sharp rocks began, I begged Victor to stop again. This time there was no pile of dirt to hide behind and I found myself choosing my footholds carefully as I traversed the steep hillside looking for somewhere to squat. In places I prayed as I grabbed the branches of low-lying bushes to swing from one section of the path I was on to the next. I imagine the path I was on was cut by the hooves of agile goats and I was not feeling particularly fleet footed at that particular moment in time. I found a slightly wider section of worn dirt and, grabbing onto the branches of another small shrub, squatted.

From where I crouched the steep mountain plunged vertically, the bottom invisible. I thought again how this could be the end of me and pictured myself tumbling backwards, ass over tea kettle with my dress up over my head, underwear like hobbles around my ankles, full moon exposed to the first hawks and song birds of early dawn. I was startled out of my nightmare vision by Victor yelling at me to hurry up. Later he would tell me he thought I’d been taking my time “sightseeing.”

“If only,” I replied, torn between amusement and annoyance at his utter cluelessness about the suffering I’d endured.

When I finally arrived back at the van, a fine layer of sweat had gathered on my upper lip and a glance in the sideview mirror at my pallor proved I’d left most of my color back on that mountainside along with the remaining contents of my intestines. I said another prayer that I’d passed whatever evil presence possessed me.

~~~~

*Author’s Note:  The title “Cathartic Purgation” comes from a botanical description of an arctic plant in a book I stored away before moving to Mexico. I don’t recall the name of the plant, but its description included a warning that the result of eating a specific part of the plant would be “cathartic purgation.” I had to look the meaning up and was tickled to discover that purgation is the act of purging or purifying, and shares the same Latin root as the word Purgatory. Addition of “cathartic” as a an adjective describing the kind of purgation is all about the degree of purification you’re likely to experience.

Güera in Wirikuta: The Pilgrimage Begins

IMG_20150307_083544You 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.

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.