It’s nighttime in Mexico and I am bracing myself against the evening chill as I pull the flimsy, blue bed sheet tighter around my naked body. I am standing in the front yard of a local shaman’s family home–about an hour outside of Oaxaca City–and am carrying a bushel of basil and twigs as I walk slowly towards the dome like structure in their backyard.
I have come to Oaxaca for the same reasons most travelers do–to ignite my senses with the state’s vibrant culture, natural beauty and dynamic cuisine. I am traveling with Cantimplora Travel, a company founded by two passionate local photographers–Samantha and Bernie–who are taking me off-the-beaten path in this state. Located in Mexico’s Southwest region, Oaxaca is a juxtaposition–at once the poorest state in Mexico but the richest in terms of cultural pride, flavors and tradition. The indigenous groups that reign supreme here–the Zapotecs and Mixtecs–have fared better than other groups around Mexico due to Oaxaca’s rugged terrain. The result? Many rituals, dishes and traditions in the area remain untouched since pre-Hispanic times.
As I walk to the shaman’s backyard, I am ushered into what can only be described as a large, stone oven big enough to fit about 14 people sitting shoulder to shoulder in a circle. Once inside, the smell is sweet and warm as the shaman tosses Mezcal on hot rocks that release a smoky steam. This is a traditional “Temazcal”— a Nahuatl word coined by the Aztecs to describe a ceremony used by indigenous groups in Mexico as a sort of therapeutic and purifying ritual.
The Temazcal mixes intense heat and steam with natural herbs, juices and oils to both cleanse the body and soul. Within minutes, I am unabashedly sweating and have to sit down on the cold, stone floor for relief. The shirtless shaman sits across from me, his silhouette barely visible through a misty cloud. He stands up carefully and proceeds to hand out herbs, fruits, oils and other natural derivatives that are to be rubbed on the body.
Rose water is poured on my head and face, chocolate is rubbed on my chest, mandarin juice coats my legs, honey is rubbed into my arms, pineapple is used as a body scrub. Each fruit and herb is a spiritual representation–some meant to take away anxiety, others to clean the soul—all serve a purpose you wouldn’t imagine finding when roaming the produce aisle of your local grocery store.
I am standing in my own way as I worry about feeling lightheaded and irrationally stressed about having a heat stroke. I wonder if the shaman can offer something a little stronger than sage for the anxiety I’m carrying because my problem is I am a hypochondriac. Hypochondriac is a fancy term for someone who is abnormally concerned about their health. I can’t begin to imagine why I have this anxiety, just that it is something I’ve always had. It’s been the butt end of family jokes for years but the truth is it is something that hinders me. The irony of being both a travel writer marching bravely towards adventure while having an irrational anxiety about my health, does not escape me. I am fortunate enough to be a healthy, 28-year old woman with little ailments besides an occasional knee ache; yet sometimes I feel a palpable tension in my chest when I have anxiety about my health.
My fear of health issues rests in the thought that when it comes to illness we can have little control. While we may not have control over external problems–car crashes, accidents, crimes–you can still see it coming; but ailments? It’s the idea that something could be spreading in your body at this very moment and you could be none the wiser; or that your body could turn on you in a second without warning despite your best efforts at a healthy lifestyle. Heart attacks, for example, appear to be so sudden and random that the idea of them terrifies me. My grandma once told me that as we get older, our body “hands us the bill” for all the years when we drank, smoked and ate without care while young. This past Christmas, I watched as my grandma fought for her life in a hospital bed in Chicago; I held her swollen hands as she laid intubated and unconscious; her body had finally handed her “the bill” and it was a searing sight to behold.
As I sit cross legged in the Temazcal listening to the shaman wax poetic in Spanish about warding off negativity, I feel that unwelcome tightness in my chest again. My anxiety is kicking in and my head fills with irrational, urgent worries: Am I allergic to any of these fruits and herbs he’s giving me? What if I have an allergy attack in here? What if I have a heat stroke in here?! What if I pass out? If anything happens, where is the nearest doctor? I sure as hell would need something more than this shaman!
All of a sudden, I want to push off the title of Travel Writer and crawl under my bed sheet in the comfort of my home. As I fight to spiritually cleanse my body of negative thoughts, I am wrestling with my mind in that sweaty Temazcal somewhere in the outskirts of Oaxaca. I take deep breaths and try to calm myself down because I don’t want to miss the experience. When will I be in a shaman’s backyard oven, marinating in pineapple juice in the name of spirituality again? This is one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” memories and I was busy fighting with the devil I know.
I took a deep breath and little by little acknowledged each anxious thought and did my best to let it go. In the belly of the Temazcal, your inner demons are pulled out and your nerve is tested. You are uncomfortable, out of your comfort zone and claustrophobic; but that is the point of it–to shake your body to its very core, to confront yourself and in turn walk out a lighter version of who you are. Perhaps it was the honey or the chocolate, perhaps it was the steady drum beats or the Mezcal-fueled steam or maybe it was the Oaxaca Gods–whatever it was, my hypochondriac thoughts slipped away into the night as I left the Temazcal covered in fruits, herbs and now leaves and twigs from using the basil to scrub myself clean.
I’ve had plenty of adventures around the world but no matter how far I go or how off-the-map I get, I will never outrun myself. My hypochondria follows me–be it feeling stressed in a medina in Morocco or worrying about heat stroke while riding camels in the Sahara Desert. My anxiety is part of who I am but it does not define me, it does not hinder me and it does not keep me from living life. If anything travel has given me the gift of strength of learning to calm myself down, to pick myself up and how to push myself forward when I am thousands of miles from those who love me. When I set foot in the Temazcal I had expected many things but confronting myself was not one of them. I let the steam wash over me, the fruit and rose water pour down me and finally–sitting naked in the shaman’s backyard–I just let all that anxiety float away in the cool Oaxaca night air.
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