Pilgrimage in the Mazatec Mountains
Art, ritual and ceremony are the paintbrushes of the human soul.
Leaving New Mexico is always a little sad. I am like a cottonwood tree, rooted deep into the dry land, looking for water under the dusty earth. I am a walking tree, going from one place to another but never leaving the safety of my own roots. The red earth of New Mexico is stuck to the soles of my shoes, leaving traces of red sand on the airport passageways. The big sky is in my eyes, an offering to the places I visit.
We are on final approach to Mexico City, still flying above the black clouds, strange mountains of the night. A new moon paints a smile on the heavens with Venus above it like a Cyclops eye, watching the gigantic city.
After a good night's sleep we take a taxi ride to the bus depot. Outside the window the pastel light slowly defines the shapes of the early morning. Our bus leaves on time; it is a comfortable spaceship that sounds its impressive horn at each blind turn.
I eat Italian almonds for breakfast to keep from getting queasy. Four hours go by until the first pit stop. We pay three pesos for toilet paper as chickens strut by the missing bathroom door. I make a note to stop drinking water so I can stay comfortable till the next baño.
The bus twists and turns up the mountain, I slip down the vinyl seat and squeeze Linda to the window. The rumba music blaring from the radio irritates me; unfortunately, I understand the Spanish words, singing out a constant complaint of unrequited love. " Turn it down, please," I plead with the driver. For a moment he turns the knob and then as if by magic the music becomes louder again.
At the next stop, I buy a Coca-Cola, something I have not done for a long time. Like, hi my name is so and so and I am a coke addict. I am having a Coke slip. Damn, that cold sparkly brown liquid feels good on the side of the road.
After eight hours of travel we get to the end of the line, the village of Huautla de Jimenez is sprinkled like salt on a green mountain 8500 feet above the sea.
Another taxi takes us to Grandmother Julieta's house. She is sitting on the sofa in the front room watching her Tele Novellas, a cup of coffee on the chair in front of her. We share kisses and hugs as small children and a rooster run in and out of the room. The warmth of the people and the dirt are the first things I take in, later when I return to Santa Fe my therapist asks me "What kind of dirt?" "The dirt of the earth," I say, "the same dirt we try to keep out of our houses with vacuum cleaners, behind closed doors and windows." Here everything is open to the land, no boundaries between the inside and the outside. Linda and I have come a long way because the magic mushrooms grow here during the rainy season. For generations the Mazatec have harvested them as medicine. They call them "The Santo Niños," the little saints.
We have come to seek healing, the kind of healing the earth offers through her sacred medicines. These mushrooms are legal for a 30 kilometers radius around the Village of Huautla, the substances are not outlawed like in other places around the world. The government respects the ancient traditions of the Mazatec People. Plentiful baskets of mushrooms are painted on the outside walls of the church. In Hauatla the mushroom is another image for Christ. Religion and Mother Earth is one and the same thing.
Upstairs in our room we relax on clean sheets and a rather hard mattress, just the right thing for a spoiled woman like me. We keep the windows wide open, with a view of the crimson bougainvillea bush and the mountains, decorated with passing clouds like giant Christmas trees. Night has fallen and stars light up in the sky, one wink at a time.
There is a gas stove in the kitchen, but the family cooks on an open fire in the patio. The fire must never go out, each passing person adds a piece of wood to feed the flames. A deep pan of coffee simmers all day long. Neighbors bring large bouquets of flowers as offerings for Julieta's altar in the basement.
Three parrots clothed in rainbow feathers are caged in a dark room off the courtyard; I am told they are Julieta's power animals never to be photographed or they would die, their souls captured and stolen in the picture. Later Julieta tells me her chickens are also here for her protection.
Julieta Casimiro is one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers who travel the world speaking about peace and reverence for the Mother Earth. She has been to see The Dalai Lama in India and has made a trip to the Vatican in Rome. She is a humble and powerful Shaman who is always available to help heal the many local and international people who come to her door.
Since her husband Lucio died seven years ago she sleeps on the sofa; she never went back to the bedroom she shared with him during their long life together.
This evening we are going to journey with Julieta down in the sotano where she holds her "Veladas." Linda and I have been fasting since the morning, all we've had were a couple of golden mangos, juice running down the corners of our mouths like liquid sunshine. I have a cup chamomile tea and a short siesta.
Sitting on my bed, facing the open window, I contemplate the breath-taking view of the Mazatec Mountains. The mattress springs dig into my body as I lie back thinking: Hoh Hum! Another mushroom journey, poor baby I will be tired and achy. I could just as well watch television for four hours. I would rather drink a hot cup of tea while night falls gently on the village.
Linda says "Oh well, this might be our last trip." Smoke rises from the patio below, I smell burnt coffee, the parrots cry their captive screams, the dog barks at a passing fly, cats chase a mouse in the corridor. In the distance is the relentless sound of fireworks set of by bored teenagers.
Around six in the evening one of the kids calls us down for the ceremony.
I take my water, my blanket and my red shawl. In the patio the grandchildren are playing with a deflated ball. We walk down the stairs to the basement.
The ceremony room is lit with many candles; there are big bouquets of white lilies curved like seashells in vases at the foot of the altar. On the wall hang two big paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On the floor is a statue of Juan Diego, the indigenous peasant to whom she appeared in 1531.
Linda and I settle down on foam pads, a thin protection from the cement floor. I pull a couple of blankets up to my chin. Julieta sits next to us, surrounded by a pile of tattered prayer books. She has a small frame, I perceive her two long black braids and see that she has removed her teeth for the evening. She turns toward Linda and me and looks at us with playful eyes full of tenderness:
"Tonight we will eat a lot," Julieta says in a mischievous voice. She hands us each a small saucer with several fresh mushrooms laid out on it. "Eat, eat, the Santo Niños are good doctors, lawyers and even Phd's. They will give you the wisdom and insight you need to bring back into the world." " Do you want honey? Get some from the altar." Linda gets up and gives me a spoonful of honey. The mushrooms are delicious wet, slippery and sweet.
We are safe, cocooned in the descending darkness while Julieta singsongs the rosary. I close my eyes; she begins to sing in Mazatec. Her wonderful voice is a delicious lullaby of faith as the Niños make their way into my body.
My eyes are closed, I shiver, I burp, sure sign that the medicine is beginning to take hold.
An avalanche of stars streams behind my closed eyelids. Cathedrals of color replace thoughts in my mind. I am plunged into a non-physical realm, a collection of worlds made up of benevolent nature spirits, playing in the nucleus of my cells. I am calm and surrendered like never before. Julieta stops singing and a vast tsunami of silence engulfs my consciousness. This is inner travel that no words can describe. I am floating in an ocean of love. I hear Julieta's prayer for healing and wisdom wash over the beaches of my inner life, tickling my soul like a baby's laughter.
At times I open my eyes, I no longer see the pictures of Jesus and the Guadalupe, the forms are abstract now, a myriad of rainbow molecules shimmer in the dark, rearranging themselves into patterns that fill my senses with awe. I want to capture these images with a paintbrush but they disappear like soap bubbles in the air.
As there is no form, time has dissolved into nothing. I can feel the silence as I sink deeper into gratitude for pure awareness. Now and then, Julieta's prayer becomes louder. We are called back to place, to the safety of her experienced presence and the living faith she brings to the moment. After a while I enter a world of crystal; it is as if I am taken for a walk into the snowflake itself, a sticky, crisp landscape of ice turning into a waterfall of diamonds.
Hours of earthly time pass away. Julieta and her daughter sing together in the dark like a pair of meadowlarks responding to each other. Julieta asked me how I am doing, a sign that the ceremony will soon come to a close. She thanks our guides for giving us a safe journey. We gather our blankets and find our shoes by the door. The patio is dark and welcoming, lit only by the fire on the table.
Linda and I go and sit in the kitchen. She retrieves the small avocados, tomatoes, cheese and bread we bought at the market. Soon she hands me a delicious sandwich, I bite into it and enjoy this simple fresh food. I fiddle with teabags and boiling water until I have a steaming cup of chamomile tea. It's late but the children are still up chasing each other and laughing.
Mexico, May 2010
Joanna is the producer and interviewer at the website futureprimitive.org
Photo by chimpete, champata, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet