Keep the Fire Burning
As the air turns crisp and summer comes to a final close, I think back to the beginning when I was looking forward to a summer that held infinite possibility. It was June and I was sitting outside a 7-Eleven in Cozumel, an island off of Mexico's eastern coast. Long before you or me, Mayan women used to make the yearly pilgrimage there as it was believed to increase fertility. Today, tourists make a different kind of pilgrimage by way of cruise ship, seeking mostly alcohol and adventure.
It was the morning of an unexciting Wednesday. Rental dune buggies and mopeds sped by, the grinning smiles of Americans who were undoubtedly on vacation. Then my ride arrived; a dented beige Jeep Cherokee pulled into the parking lot. A man named Petrus got out and shook my hand. The passenger seat was layered with blankets, poorly covering the torn seats beneath.
"I told you I'd be wearing hippie clothes," Petrus said. We talked for the short bumpy drive into the woods. He was from D.F. (Mexico City) and moved with his wife to find more peace and fewer people. Both of which they found. It was only by accident that he discovered a passion for steam lodges.
An opening in the woods revealed a stout Jose Luis preparing for our arrival by feeding a fire of heating rocks. This was the Temazcal Mayan Steam Lodge, practically hidden from the nearby shores on Cozumel Island. Petrus' wife and friend arrived to join in. His instructions were to begin by laying in the hammocks, as he described the history of the Mayan calendar and how at least once a year, for even the lowest ranking individuals, a day was set aside for a steam.
"To recharge your batteries," Petrus said.
Circling around the fire, I opened my arms to the air and closed my eyes. Petrus let the smoke of burning herbs engulf my face for a few seconds as he welcomed me into the ceremony. In the back of the wooded area was a small brick hut, the opening only big enough to enter by a slow crawl. Inside, I crossed my legs in front of an empty fire pit. The burning rocks were passed by pitchfork from Jose Luis to Petrus until the pit was a mound and the hut quickly climbed in temperature. The small opening in the door disappeared and I lifted my hand in front of my face, only to see darkness. A short-spurted memory burst in the brief silence. I remembered a flurry of deaths from steam lodges in the US news several years back. Maybe this wasn't a good idea. I was hot and bothered in the worst way possible. Then Petrus spoke and the journey began.
"When we die, our bodies go back to the earth," Petrus said. He poured water over the rocks. I heard a loud sizzle and felt hot little drops of water sprinkle my legs. An overwhelming heat rush and a few trickles of sweat had me thinking I was not going to last long. I thought about the door and how I was the furthest away from it. The most mentally unhinged person should never be furthest from the exit.
"Bienvenida abuelita," he said. Welcome grandmother. The rocks are our ancestors, he described, which is why we welcome each one with a little burn of herbs known as copal. That thought suddenly made me feel like I was not alone. Agnes, Frederick, Rosalina, Thomas, are the names of my grandparents. I said them aloud as Petrus instructed and shared a memory of eating candy under my parents egg roll table at the local farmer's market when I was little, watching people's feet come and go.
"As a child, you only show love and everyone shows love to you."
It could have been hours or maybe just one. Four sessions, each a stage in life. We chanted and screamed for the early years of rebellion. Even Petrus reminded me that we've all been young before, a time full of fire and passion. Dangerous if left uncontrolled, fire also holds great potential; a balance that is perhaps inevitably tipped.
I was comforted by his words that the fire never leaves us, but we aim to keep it burning. When we reach the stage in life where we look back more than forward, we see all those miles covered and all those memories lived.
The door opened again and I crawled out backwards, glad to breathe fresh air again. I followed Petrus down a slippery dock and jumped into the cenote (amber pond). Floating there in the cool water, my body was buzzing, spirit open, and my mind in complete disbelief.
Sometimes you find that gem in your travels, the thing that connects you to what feels like your truer self, and in some small way you know it has changed you forever.
If you find yourself embarking to Cozumel, talk to Petrus and enjoy the journey: