Saturday, February 5, 2011

Taking a Mayan Sweat Bath

One of the things I really enjoy about my Peace Corps life is bathing in the Mayan sauna/sweatlodge. The temascal or chuj (in Mam) was historically a small round hut made of adobe and mud, built to hold in heat from the fire which heated the water for bathing. It played a very important role in cleansing, healing, and general well-being. It still does.

Despite all of the changes that have occurred to my town's culture since pre-colonial times - due to colonization, civil war, globalization, mass male exodus to the US and a town economy based on remittances - the chuj remains omnipresent. We are but half an hour outside of a major city. The influence of modernity is palpable - yet almost everyone in my town still baths in chuj one or two times a week.

Why? I will let you all, readers, decide that for yourselves. The modern iteration of the chuj is a little cement-block building, painted black on the inside, with a low bench, a hearth for heating water, hot rocks to create steam (like in Scandinavian saunas) and sometimes a cold-water spigot. It's tiny; to get inside, you have to stoop over, and precariously balance your weight on the buckets of cold water or a handle or whatever might support you.

The hot air sucks you in for a second and you can't remember what you're supposed to be doing. The heat and steam are intoxicating, the low candlelight dances, you've found another world of being. Washing, okay, right. You sit down, take off your bathrobe - place it off to the side in a dry place. Gingerly scoop some scalding hot water into the mixing pot, then from the cold water bucket, until the water is bearable. The heat will be getting to you at this point, so pour the water all over yourself - careful not to take off your headwrap - you'll get sick if you wet your hair at night.

Also, my friends, forget your swimsuits. Chuj is taken naked, or almost entirely naked. At this point you'll take a loofah and dip in some jabon negro - caustic black soap. Scrub yourself up good. Ask your host mom to get your back. Rinse. Repeat. Not hot enough? Throw a little water on the rocks - but not too much. Many a gringa has gone running for less.

If your family still keeps some of the medicinal traditions, you may take a swath of elder leaves, heat them over the rocks, and gently hit yourself with the swath repeatedly. Elder is known for its healing properties.

After a time you'll note that you're sweating and that a layer of grime - what they call "grasa" - seems to be lifting itself from your skin - and your mind. Go after the skin with your fingernails, or if you're feeling adventurous, a chunk of pumice. After you bath regularly in chuj you'll noticing this layer disminuing each week.

This is no bucket bath, friends. Forget that purgatory of frigid air and luke-warm water rushed past like any other mundane ritual. This is purification on the highest level.

When the grasa's gone, it's time to get out. And just in time- the heat can make you dizzy, even nauseous - signs you've stayed in too long. Wrap yourself up good and squeeze to get out into the chill air. It'll hit you and you might wobble a little bit, but at least there's no cold water or snowbank to jump into here, like the Finns would advocate. Are you kidding? You'll have the flu for a year!

Lie down on your bed under a blanket or two, before getting up to dry off and put on pajamas. You'll feel the cleanest, and most relaxed, you have in your life. And at last you'll have an idea why your neighbors rarely rely on those hot-water showers they installed.

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