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.