I Moved To Oaxaca

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Hey, and if you're curious, here's more on what the temescal in San Sebastian Rio Hondo was like (I wrote this up for a friend who's been thinking about making a straw-bale sweat lodge back home in California):

Adobe walls, dirt floor (though looking again at the photo it could be that they just plunked the temescal on top of the brick flooring on the patio). The adobe was maybe eight inches thick. It was smallish, big enough inside for a six-foot guy to lie down and stretch out. A layer of pine needles covered the floor – not short, stabby pine needles but these lovely, long needles from one of the pines that grows at high altitudes. I’m going to try to collect some because they’re perfect for basketry: 10-12 inches long, five to a bundle. But they’re not Torrey Pines. The door was a square hole set in one of the walls, with a plank door, much like what you’d see as a cover to the crawlspace under someone’s house. No attachments or hangers, just wedge the door in place when you want to close the temescal, take it off when you want out or after the sweat. I’ll check with Timothy but, unlike our local sweat lodges where the door usually faces east, I don’t think directions are important when orienting the temescal. Nope, he says it seems like it’s a bit more functional as to where the door is. And there is no altar – or at least, there was no altar outside this one.

I’m not sure how high the ceiling was; when I laid on my back and stuck my leg straight up, the bottom of my foot was a couple inches shy of the ceiling. There’s a slight rise to the roofline back to front. Now, you know how good I am with all things carpenterial (yeah, right!) but I’d say the change from back to front was only maybe 5 inches, though it looks exaggerated in the photo. The roof was constructed from vigas about 3 inches in diameter, spaced about 12 to 14 inches apart; the vigas were laid running back to front, not side to side. Ten-inch boards were laid crosswise on top of the vigas, and tar paper on top of the boards. I asked Marcos about the effects of the steam on the adobe, and how tightly laid the roof was, and he said, you can make it as tight as you want, but this particular temescal wasn’t so tight so that it could dry out. Then he pointed out to me a little hemispherical opening, maybe 7 or 8 inches wide, cut into the adobe opposite the door and just under the ceiling. It was stuffed with more pine needles, and he said the opening helps against moisture buildup, too. I didn’t notice it at all in the sweat, even though I was sitting under it. And he seems to leave the door off when the temescal is not in use to keep it dry.

Lastly, what about the hot rocks, right? In the photo you can see a little fire hole on the lower left wall of the temescal. The same corner inside the temescal had a little adobe fireplace: a rectangle of adobe built up oh, maybe a foot from the floor. The long side was about 20, 22 inches; I forgot to measure the short side. But the long side of the fireplace ran across the temescal, not toward the door. In any case, the fireplace has got to be high enough that you can 1) set a fire using that outside hole in the picture (you can see the smoke stains on the wall) and 2) have an iron grate in the fireplace on which to set the rocks, which are 3) piled high inside the temescal on the grate. So the rocks cook in situ; at the one we experienced, when it was time for us to go in, people took the wood and coals out of the fireplace and transferred them with shovels to chimayos Marcos uses to heat the cabanas. And no special wood, just whatever was on hand.

When we crawled in to the temescal (modestly attired in shorts or undies and a t-shirt for the lady, and with no formalities like smudging, seating order, or phrases like “all my relations”) and shut the door, I saw that they had a candle burning in one corner – bold, what with the pine needle floor covering – and a big pottery olla next to the fireplace filled with water. For a dipper Marcos had a little Tupperware bowl, but a gourd-half would be perfect. And he had a couple of rattles. We all sat up, but Timothy said that, in more traditional temescals, people lie down so they can be scourged with herbs by the person running the temescal. Oh! and Marcos said that they sometimes heat the water in the olla in case you want to pour a dipper of water over your head, and that sometimes they put herbs in the water, too, like cedar, comfrey, or arnica.

So again, the temescal opened with very little fuss: an opening prayer by Marcos consisted of a quick directional call-in with some bring-in-the-good-keep-out-the-bad prayers. We were just sitting wherever, except Marcos who was parked by the fireplace, and he’d sing a song, then pass the rattle around, pour water onto the rocks (which were double-fist sided rocks, and I’m not sure how many, but a goodly mound of them). If people got too hot or wanted out, he’d open the door and take them out while the rest of us kept going, though at one point everyone got out just to cool off a bit, though it wasn’t a cooker. Pretty informal. The candle stayed lit for the entire ceremony, and the end was just as relaxed as the rest of it; nothing fancy or special done, just everyone got out and we blew out the candle.

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