Mystic in Mexico Part III: The Blue Deer

Venado AzulThis is the third in a multi-part series. Here is where you’ll find Part I and Part II.

We were then instructed to stand before Guadalupe so that we could be blessed. The sky was dark now, but a soft orange light glowed on the eastern horizon. As Guadalupe blessed the other participants, I kept my eyes on the horizon as the light grew stronger until finally the moon crested. Gradually, it rose to cast a long shaft of soft orange and then yellow light across the sea’s smooth surface. It appeared enormous so close to the horizon, powerful, and surely blessed the occasion with its presence. The full moon happened to be in my astrological sign, Gemini, that night. I watched it rise to the sound of Guadalupe’s soft chanting behind me. Crystal called me when it was my turn and I stood quiet and still in front of Guadalupe as he moved the feathered wand first to my left, then to my right, placed it between my hands as he brought them to my heart. Finally he held it to my forehead. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for guidance.

Now that we had been blessed, we were permitted to eat our first piece of peyote. Mario had carefully cut a golf ball-sized button into wedges. He showed us how to pick the small prickly hairs off the outside skin before eating it and explained that they made the cactus taste bitter. I imagined they also didn’t feel very good stuck in the roof of your mouth and tongue! I cleaned my piece thoroughly and put it in my mouth. I’d heard that peyote can be so bitter as to make you want to vomit and that some people do indeed. Mario instructed us to chew it down to a pulp before swallowing it. As I did so, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it tasted much better than I’d expected. It was not bitter at all and had a texture and taste a bit like a cucumber, but with fibrous strings mixed into the soft meat. Next I noticed it also had tiny hard pieces in it, like sand particles.  When I’d chewed it down into the texture of baby pablum, I swallowed the pulpy mass down.

It was time to enter the temescal. Crystal invited me to enter first. I removed all my clothing except for my bathing suit and a light cotton sun dress I wore over it. The night air was fresh and humid, the sand soft and cool on my bare feet. The sweat lodge is a low structure constructed from PVC tubing and boughs of a local shrub called Palo de Arco (literally “bowed branch” because, like willow, it is easily bent and shaped into bows). The PVC might seem incongruous, but it is practical. The dome-shaped skeleton of soft branches and plastic tubing is covered with many blankets and tarps all the way to the ground.  The result is a pitch black cocoon-like space that retains the heat and steam of the hot rocks. There is a hole in the ground at the center of the tented space that is about three feet by two feet wide and almost three feet deep. This is where the hot rocks are placed. I squatted down low and, duck-like, entered the lodge where the tarps and blankets were thrown back to create a low doorway.

One by one, my fellow travelers joined me, gradually forming a circle around the pit. Once we were all inside, Crystal asked each of us to say our name and tell the spirit of Hikuri what our intention was for being there that night. One of the participants asked to be helped in his quest to quit drinking. As the other participants spoke, I turned inside to see what intention I carried in my heart. When it was my turn I shared what I’d found there, “I seek knowledge of the spirit world and to open my heart.”

Fernando began to bring in the now white-hot rocks one at a time. As each rock was dropped into the pit, we all chimed, “Bienvenida abuelita! (welcome little grandmother).” As the rocks were placed, I could feel their heat snaking up out of the pit and across my legs. After seven had been delivered, Fernando came back into the lodge with a bucket of water and the door was closed tightly behind him. Crystal took the bucket and after chanting something I didn’t understand, poured the water onto the rocks in a constant slow stream. A strong blast of steam rose and enveloped us. Outside, Guadalupe continued to chant his mysterious prayer songs.

The first thing I noticed was that the steam did not burn the inside of my nose when I inhaled, like it had the first time I participated in the temescal. Others were breathing quickly, as though under stress, but I settled in and felt the heat enter the cells of my body. Crystal began to sing a spiritual song. I closed my eyes and began to move slowly side to side in time to the beat of her song.

Once the steam dissipated, Fernando left the lodge again to move more hot rocks from the fire into the pit. Again, we sang out, “Bienvenida abuelita!” as he dropped the rocks from his shovel blade, one by one into the pit. This time he brought 13 rocks in total and I felt the energy in the small space rise as we all anticipated the stronger heat they would create. Another bucket of water was brought and, once the door was sealed, poured over the rocks. The intensity of the steam was acute, yet I felt remarkably comfortable and hummed along as Crystal sang. Someone began to chant Om and I joined in. Mystified at how comfortable I was, thinking I had not even broken a sweat, I reached up to feel my face only to discover that I was, in fact, sweating profusely.

I guess this is an effect of the peyote, I thought and was grateful that I was more comfortable in the sweat lodge this time around. I closed my eyes and appreciated the feeling of the humid, heavy heat.

At one point I opened my eyes and saw an oblong blue light above our circle. There were two dark spots at the top of the shape, where it was widest and a dark line running vertically down the lower three quarters. I knew it hadn’t been there earlier, but guessed one of the blankets on top of the lodge must have blown back to allow the light of the moon to glow through a blue tarp. But when I listened for the wind, I heard nothing.

When the sweat lodge ceremony was over, we crawled out of the small sandy space one at a time. I removed my dress and, as instructed, poured cool fresh water from a 50 gallon barrel over my head and body to cleanse myself of the toxins I’d just sweated out. The water was quite cool, but I enjoyed the sensation of it washing over my body.

I dried off and put on warm clothes. One by one, we gathered around the fire while Fernando busied himself adding fuel.  Blankets were laid out around the fire to sit or lie on. I joined Crystal on one and wrapped myself in a heavy blanket I’d brought to guard against getting chilled. The heat from the fire felt good and I turned slowly in a circle so it would warm my whole body and help dry my hair.

Guadalupe and Mario remained seated on the white plastic chairs on the South side of the fire pit where they’d been when we entered the lodge. Guadalupe continued to chant quietly and I wondered if he would do it the entire night. We chatted amicably amongst ourselves until I heard Mario telling Mauricio, “Yes, you may take more Hikuri.” I looked to Crystal for guidance. She nodded and said, “Yes, you may take Hikuri as often as you want. Let your intuition guide you.”

Mario added, “It will help you if you find yourself getting tired.”

I took another wedge, cleaned it, and chewed it to a pulp.

Guadalupe paused from his chanting, got up and stretched then. He looked around and asked no one in particular, “How was the temescal?”

Ayax, the cardiologist, replied, “We were visited by the venado azul.” (the blue deer)

I looked at him in surprise and repeated what he’d said, wondering if I’d misunderstood, “Blue deer?”

Guadalupe looked at him intently and replied, “That is an auspicious sign.”

Ayax continued, “Part way through the second round, I saw a line of small blue deer prancing around above the heads of the people across from me.” As he spoke he pointed away from himself and motioned with his hand up and down. “A line of four small deer trotting around the circle.”

Guadalupe said quietly, “El Venado Azul is the messenger. It is a good sign.”

I turned to Ayax and asked, “So it was not the moon shining through one of the tarps that I saw?”

He smiled mischievously at me and asked, “What did you see?”

I described the blue light I’d seen and turned to Crystal to ask her if the moon had shone through the roof of the lodge, but even before she answered, I suddenly realized I’d had a vision of the head of a blue deer.

The Venado Azul is the guide, messenger, and guardian of the sacred land the Huichol call Wirikuta, where the peyote cactus is collected. This spirit deer also symbolizes peyote and their names are sometimes used interchangeably. The Huichol refer to “hunting the blue deer” when they go on pilgrimage to Wirikuta to collect peyote.

I sat and questioned what I’d seen. My mind, the product of years of scientific and western dogma struggled to accept what I knew on a more visceral level to be true. Ayax’s vision was so similar. I felt a wave of understanding pass through me and acceptance of their explanation seemed to make me feel lighter. I felt my chest open and expand as I decided that the vision of the blue deer was a sign that my quest to know Hikuri was not misguided.

In Part IV: The Portal Hikuri extends an invitation to travel to another world. Will I go?

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.