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Deep in the Yucatan Jungle

After facing my most primal fear of death during a shamanic ritual, my life was never the same again.

figure in a swimsuit hugging hands around knees sweat droplets dripping off body and surrounded by a cloud of smoke
Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

I’d seen the cracked and peeling billboard in the jungle, as our driver, Antonio, whizzed along the dirt road lined with copal and mahogany and dogwood trees. We were headed toward the cenotes, underwater caves that formed when a meteor smacked into the Yucatan a million years ago. In the back of the van lay a heap of wet suits, flippers, and masks, plus a cooler stocked with Coca-Cola, beer, and some snacks. Us was the group of writers who had submitted and been selected to attend the free, queer-centric writer’s retreat I’d started. Jeff, the elder, kindly gay man who wrote grants for my literary organization, owned a condo in Akumal, just outside of Tulum, on a beach favored by pregnant turtles looking to drop some eggs in the sand. After a week’s vacation there, I’d wondered how I could find a way to come back again and stay longer. What if my nonprofit created a retreat for the writers we served? A tarot reading assured me such an effort had the support of the universe.

Though we fundraised too hard to not take the retreat seriously — enforcing mandatory writing hours, facilitating dinner conversations around publishing, staging work-in-progress readings after the dishes were cleared — the landscape was too glorious, magical even, to not enjoy. Breaks were spent chasing pufferfish around the coral, feeding coatimundis on the walk into the village, jumping off slippery rocks at the nearby lagoon. Each session could opt into a cenote tour with Antonio, who had grown up in the pueblo on the other side of the highway. He could navigate the caves easily, even the claustrophobic areas where you had to hold your breath and swim beneath a wall of stalactites.

“What’s up with the temazcal?” I asked Antonio as we passed the worn sign painted with the image of a squat, round structure.

“Sweat lodge,” Antonio said. “There’s a shaman. You can go, if you like. I can arrange it.”

Which is how I found myself in a bathing suit, slapping at mosquitos, deep in the Yucatan jungle. The air smelled amazing, like hot, wet plants and cooking chicken and stones. Alongside me, my compatriots pulled off their shorts and cover-ups. Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens — multimedia artists working on building a movement called Eco-Sexual, a new kind of orientation wherein one’s main erotic squeeze is the earth itself — pulled off their bathing suits and stood naked in the humid dusk. This was their element. All of us smiled and jittered with a mixture of excitement and nerves.

We were a spiritual bunch, more or less; adventurous, too, more or less. We were also more, rather than less, white, and had our own internal questions about if what we were doing was cultural communion, spiritual tourism, or cultural appropriation. It was probably a complicated combination of the three, but curiosity won out — that, and the sense that if the shaman offered a sweat lodge he must hope that travelers take him up on it.

The shaman was, frankly, gorgeous, a total hunk in crisp, white linen and a woven red belt. He wore pieces of coral around his neck, tied there with straps of leather. He brought us over to an outdoor altar heaped with sun-bleached conch shells and brilliant red hibiscus blossoms, and offered us a beverage, poured from a flask into coconut shells. I looked nervously to my left, where Maggie Nelson stood beside me in a bikini. Like myself, Maggie abstained from alcohol. So did Lissy Kreimendahl, to my right. We sniffed the clear liquid hesitantly. “Freelapse?” Lissy whispered with a smile. In hesitant but competent Spanish, Maggie inquired about the contents of the drink. Honey tea! No alcohol! Good news! But even better was the news that Maggie spoke Spanish. We now had a reluctant translator.

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Beyond the altar sat a low, stone structure, two circular rock-walls bisected by a path that led directly to the temazcal, the stone hut. In the center of this little courtyard blazed a fire; deep inside the flames, black lava rocks glowed orange. The shaman directed us to each lift one of the mighty conchs that sat upon the wall. At his urging, we blew into the seashells toward the four directions. Though my blow was embarrassingly weak, like the honk of a half-dead goose, I had the sensation that I’d been rehearsing for this my whole life: a true pagan ritual. Not one from my own ancestry, but a tradition I was at best a guest in, at worst an interloper upon. I was struck by how deeply fortunate I was to get to participate. This ritual had survived colonization, genocide; still, the practitioners had the generosity to offer it to outsiders. Of course, it occurred to me that they were forced to for economic survival, or had to fight down resentment in order to do so. But to question the shaman’s sincerity seemed an insult to his spiritual authority, and so I relaxed into belonging to the ritual, for this moment.

We were given small nubs of copal and told to throw it into the fire with a wish for someone other than ourselves. My wish was easy; while I lived my dream of working with writers in paradise, my mother was stuck in Florida, economically trapped, with a chronically ill husband who had ceased being able to contribute to the family burden. Their lives were hard and they were miserable. I wished for them a break in their struggle; a bit of lightness, a lucky break, a good mood.

We were lined up outside the temazcal, which was looking impossibly small the closer we got to it. We were asked to stand still, with our arms outstretched — as if TSA was wanding us, the shaman’s assistant moved a smoking bundle of herbs around our bodies, waving the smoke with a glossily feathered bird’s wing. And one by one we got on hands and knees and crawled into the sweat lodge.

The lodge, built of stones, had a single, small window high on the back wall made of thick yellow glass. The floor was dirt and the ceiling was low – so low we were instructed by the shaman, via Maggie’s hushed translation, that if we needed to leave before the ceremony was over to please raise our hand, and we would be guided out. To stand up would be to concuss yourself against the rock.

I hadn’t known there would be an exit, and sort of wished I hadn’t; I was certain I would fiddle with this escape hatch throughout the ceremony: Should I tap out? Should I tap out? As the last writer crawled in, the shaman began hauling in the lava rocks on a dolly. Their glow cast a bit of light in the dim space, but also brought a haze of impossible heat.

The shaman signaled to his helper, and the man sealed us inside the temazcal. Yes, sealed. With each thump, thump, thump, he wedged the small wooden door closed. Fear bit at my throat — climbed it. Should I tap out? Should I tap out? Not wanting the question to claw at my brain for the duration, I decided I was forbidden to tap out – but if someone else tapped out, I could leave with them.

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The shaman offered us a small wooden box filled with cut aloe vera, which we greedily smeared across our hot bodies. My face, my shoulders, my legs, my arms. It felt lovely, even as it mingled with my increasing sweat and the dust of the lodge, creating a thin, muddy paste. It felt good to be dirty, to be in a place where being dirty was perhaps the point.

Then, the shaman lifted a ladle of water from a pail and tossed it upon the rocks. Steam filled the small space; it was so thick it choked the fear from my throat. I began to count my breaths, something I’d learned through Buddhism, another spiritual tradition that did not belong to my people. For months, maybe a couple years, I’d been sitting on the tatami mats at the San Francisco Zen Center, counting my breaths in meditation. I’d utilized the practice during the emotional pain of romantic break-ups and the physical pain of being tattooed. Now I used it to push back the wave of fear that had surged within me. I counted to stay focused on the here and the now: I was having a rare and scared experience among people I loved, led by a shaman I intuitively respected. With every breath, the heat grew more intense; with each notch of intensity I cooed to myself, you’re OK. With a palm frond or perhaps a bird wing – impossible to see in the steam, thick as stone – the shaman fanned the lava rocks, sending extravagant waves of heat around the room. It smacked you, solid. But somehow, you breathed it in. You breathed it back out. We all kept being alive. No one tapped out.

The shaman began to speak, and quietly Maggie shared his words, or an approximation of them, in English. Something about our mask of fear. Máscara de miedo. “You have conquered your fear of heat and darkness,” Maggie whispered.

This statement somehow gave me permission to acknowledge that I’d been in the clutch of a panic attack. And I was not alone. Not only were we all experiencing an onslaught of anxiety, we were meant to. It was what we’d signed up for. But we didn’t know this – I almost laughed at how foolish we were, plunging into a serious, ancient ritual without even asking a few simple questions, like, “Hey, what are we, like, meant to get out of this? What’s the take-away?” Did we expect clearer skin, smoother pores? Did we think we were at a spa? What we had actually agreed to was immersion in a totally terrifying environment. One where we put our lives in a stranger’s hand and confronted the claustrophobia, cheithrophobia, aestophobia inherent in any life form. A situation where we confront our simple, human vulnerability: truthfully, this could have killed us. But we breathed. One, two, three. In, out. In, out.

The shaman asked us to chant with him. Tierra mi cuerpo. Agua mi sangre. Aire mi aliento, y fuego mi espiritu. Unexpectedly, a wave of water shot out from the darkness, dousing me. It felt better than anything my skin had ever experienced; I screamed with a surprise that turned into crazy laughter. The rest of the writers let loose similar shrieks and guffaws as water splashed them. The laughter was contagious, it cut through the confusion and panic. We squealed. The shaman spoke; “Thank him,” Maggie instructed us, then, “Gracias! Gracias!” A chorus of gracias as he continued to fling ladles of water at us. “Mucho, mucho, por favor! Gracias! Gracias, por favor!”

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Our exit from the temazcal was directed, orderly. Having called his assistant to pry open the door, we were instructed to remain still and allow our body to acclimate to the sudden, welcome change in temperature. Who knows what kind of chemicals roared through our brains; we were as high as any drug could have made us. The jungle air entered the chamber like an animal, padding on soft feet and weaving between us, rubbing up against our sweaty bodies with its cool fur. Slowly, each after the other, we crawled out, our hands and knees muddy with the sweat of our friends.

The assistant received us as we exited, helped us to stand on our feet, then ladled an herbal brew over our heads. It was cool and leafy and streamed down my face. “Gracias,” I smiled, and he smiled back. We were led through the jungle in the dark, toward a watery, blue light at the bottom of a wooden stairway. A cenote! Small and fresh, we jumped in, our skin tingling and alive — all of us very, very much alive — our hearts full of gracias. Tree roots from up above had pushed down through the roof of the half-shell-shaped cenote. We gripped them and swung like monkeys. None of us had tapped out. We had faced our most primal fear of death, the one true fear that all anxieties split off from.

Someday the walls would close in, the darkness would not give way to light, the air our lungs craved would not come. But not that night. That night we floated and splashed, and then padded through the jungle, wrapped in towels, to a longhouse where women in dresses the colors of jungle birds, their mouths sparkling with gold, brought us plates of pollo pibil. The meat was red and flavorful, and we washed it down with tumblers of Pepsi from the two-liters strewn across the tabletop. The soda made us laugh, and facilitated our transition out of this sacred landscape we’d been occupying.

Eventually, our bodies would right themselves, the dopamine and adrenaline and who-knows-what-else reabsorbed and replaced by sugar and caffeine. The aura of otherworldliness would wear off and we would be able to talk about it – I thought I was gonna die! I almost tapped out! I was counting my breaths, too! We would return to the condos, and the books we were writing would reassert their prominence in our minds. We would return to the U.S., and the lives we’d been living — our jobs and girlfriends and sad moms and bills — would demand our attention. But none of us, having lived through this ritual of beauty and terror, would ever be the same. The knowledge of ourselves as mortal, animal, spiritual, was deeper now, and undeniable. It burned in our hearts like a bit of copal tossed into the fire with a wish.

Michelle Tea is the author of a dozen books, most recently the essay collection Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms.