Published on Monday, 10 February 2014 15:38
As El Gringo’s taxi rolled into the dirt road, ramshackle neighborhood of Privada Villa Alta on the outskirts of Oaxaca city, I wondered if the driver knew where he was going. Having just been to Los Cabos a couple of months ago, this looked like the last place one would find a spa…albeit a traditional Oaxacan temazcal which has been used by indigenous peoples for over a thousand years as a method of healing and purification.
After stopping at a tienda and asking several people in the colonia directions (“Mexican Mapquest” once again in operation), we finally pulled up to a non discreet brick dwelling – scattering a group of stray chickens – where I was greeted by owner and proud Chatino (one of nearly 30 indigenous peoples of Oaxaca), Antonieta Bautista Cruz. Antonieta is a traditional healer and would be attending to my temazcal and massage afterward.
The name temazcal comes form the Nahuatl for “temaz”, or steam, and “calli”, the word for house. It’s said to have curative properties, healing the mind, body and soul. It was originally used to heal Aztec warriors wounded in battle and to promote childbirth in women.
Antonieta led El Gringo to the shower room and instructed me to strip down, giving me a towel to wrap myself in for the sake of modesty (of which El Gringo has some, but not much). I was then led to the room that housed a small door leading into the temazcal. I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I crouched my 6’4″ frame low and entered the room backward as directed by Antonieta (I wondered if entering backward was symbolic somehow, or just the best/easiest way to get my gigante self through the door).
Entering the dark, small, brick domed room with El Gringo, Antonieta opened a small hatch at the foot of the room (symbolic, she told me, of the womb), revealing a stove of hot lava rocks. She poured a cupful of herb-infused water onto the rocks, releasing an initial blast of scented steam. She then instructed me to lie down to acclimate to the environment for a few minutes and left the temazcal. Five minutes later, I wast instructed to rub my face, hands and chest with a bowl of cut aloe from her garden and add more water to the rocks to the point where I felt comfortable.
Traditional music of flutes, drums and ancient chanting were piped in to add to the experience. As I lay in the temazcal enjoying the curative properties of the steam, I closed my eyes and let my mind relax, my thoughts evaporating with the vapor. Occasionally, I sat up to toss a few more cups of water on the rocks, to the point where I built up a layer of sweat on my entire body, but wasn’t quite dripping wet.
After forty minutes, I was relaxed to the point of near sleep when Antonieta gently rapped on the door of the temazcal, asking if I was ready to emerge. I asked for five more minutes to return to reality and then exited the temazacal. The candles in the room seemed to give off a spectral aura, and Antonieta herself glowed with a golden light. Admittedly, this could have been the effect of the steam on my contact lenses, but the vision made quite the impression on your Gringo!
Antonieta then administered an hour long full body massage, sparing not an iota of her strength. This little Indian woman is MUCH stronger than she looks, and my body was sore for the rest of the day (though now, two days later, I feel terrific!).
After the massage, Antonieta permitted me to photograph her temazcal for the blog, and called me a taxi. As I stood outside chatting with her and her wonderful son, she pointed out the nearby mountain peaks where the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban reside (we had visited the ruins two days previous, look for reporting soon). As I slipped into my cab and waved goodbye, I reflected on my experience and eased back into the passenger seat. Refreshed. Relaxed. Reborn.