The Temascal

The Temascal in Yerbabuena is a dome-shaped structure built for ritualistic purification, typical of the Indian Temascal, but this one owns the distinction of being in complete harmony with the wooded surroundings of the volcanic hill where it is located. It is believed by the shaman who lives there that the volcano of Colima gives the land its mystical power and the Temascal its wonder, mystery and magic. And standing there while the four of us waited for the rocks to become hot as fiery embers, with the raucous chichalacas screeching in the nearby trees, we dug our toes into the volcanic ash and waited for the process to begin. I could well understand the potency of the place upon the Mexican mind, and those of us as well, for there were forces at work beyond our conscious grasp or understanding. I imagined such a place could exist in my own country, but with another history and mind-set. It was beautiful in its starkness, dusty yet fiercely alive. It had kind of a dark yet entriguing energy.

Comfortless I stood. Then I addressed the shaman in Spanish, Don Antonio, the curador ( the healer ), because I wasn’t sure I could withstand the heat – I imagined myself wilting in a blazing furnace of live coals. He turned his dark eyes on me, sparking like flint, and he told me I needed to believe I could, and to open my heart to its cleansing influence and ready myself for a transformation. That’s what I wanted: to receive a cleansing that would make me fit for the struggles of this world accompanied by a physical strength that I’ve been missing for a while.

Fire has always commanded reverence. It has long been known that diseases and spiritual evils can be driven off in the ritual of the Temascal; bacterial and viral agents do not survive in temperatures higher than normal body temperatures and damaged cells repair themselves faster due to the increased metabolic rate the body experiences. Recovery from illness, therefore, becomes quicker and easier. Sweat draws out lactic acid which causes stiff muscles and fatigue, and it flushes out toxins like copper, lead, zinc and mercury which the body absorbs in polluted areas. I was ready for the fiery trial.

While Don Antonio shovelled rocks into the Temascal, we crawled in and sat down on the black dirt floor. The rocks are called “abuelas”, or grandmothers, symbolic for earthly endurance. With reference to the spirits that represent the nature of fire, water, air and earth ( fuego, agua, aire y tierra ), he poured a brew of sage leaves on the rocks and up roared the steam. Resin from the coral tree had also been rubbed on the stones. The pleasant sounds of hissing and spattering filled the darkness and chanting began. More and more water was poured, sending off another rush of sage scent and engulfing us in steam. I opened my heart, wishing to rise above my petty fears and desires, preparing myself for creative contemplation. Don Antonio began eliciting positive responses from the 4 of us until we gave thanks for what we were grateful for. When the mind is cleansed the spoken words of thanksgiving can come easily. A spiritual power lifted me up a ladder with its first rung planted into the soft black earth; the warm, dark moist ambiance inside the Temascal felt like the womb. Here was something more than just an emotional trip, and suddenly I realized I didn’t want to leave. With affirmations like “Soy sanado” ( I’m healed ), “Soy amado” ( I’m loved ), and “Soy perdonado” ( I’m forgiven ), all was being made new. Don Antonio prayed and sang, ministering spirit and light. I felt free and clean inside and for a while at least I knew it would no longer be possible to investigate the world of creation without wonder, observe without joy, understand without humility and reflect without wisdom. Our leader spoke strongly in favor of breaking strongholds ( “romper ataduras” ), areas of demonic activity causing woundedness which can become a spiritual atmosphere blanketing an entire community or even country. It can also be a core problem we have held for years, unconsciously. It’s grown like an old friend inside the soul and we ask ourselves: how would we live without it? Although it’s a rock that weighs us down, we’ve polished it like a precious stone – we have ‘possessed’ the ‘rightness’ of it for so long that it’s difficult to give up.

For a while afterwards I sparked with a lively hope. I felt clean and as humble as a slab of earth, a vessel fit for the Master’s use. ‘Real life’ returned quickly enough though, like a breath of brimstone.

So I seek another Temascal, smoking hot this time. Don Antonio’s Temascal may not be number one in the guidebooks, but I nevertheless recommend this experience, not for the tourist who wishes to cover Mexico in three weeks and knows no Spanish, but for the thoughtful traveler, accustomed to giving attention and being receptive to the world around us. There’s an urge for the traveler to say, ‘I was there, I saw that and it mattered to me’. But beauty and mystery are fugitive, being found in places to which we may never return or else find it hard to return with the same conjunctions of season, light and weather. How to possess then then?



Vivir la Vida

‘No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

England’s 17th century writer and preacher, John Donne ( in his meditation XVII ) says the bell tolls not just for the sick man on his deathbed – it calls us all. He says that once you know the bell will one day ring for you, then every bell becomes a reminder of one’s linked mortality. During Donne’s time, church bells rang on numerous occasions: they were rung to call people to church to pray, and they were rung for baptisms and funerals. They were rung also to notify the community of an impending death, and during plague times they ran all day and night. ‘ Bring out the dead!’ was the dreaded cry.

Though the bell that rings calls us all, how much more me who was recently brought so near the door of death as a sufferer of stage 3 breast cancer. Many days during chemotherapy I questioned my survival. I heard the bell, but was afraid to examine the meaning of that sound. God seemed conspicuous by His absence and most of my friends stayed away. Loneliness stalked me like an unwanted suitor. Donne says that when one man dies his chapter is not torn out of the book but is translated into a better language. I wish I could believe that.

When my husband and I were in Manzanillo the other day he bought a rustic bell – una campana – to hang on a bar above the gate to his property where he works on projects as a carpenter in Barra de Navidad. This was done mostly to help us remember Adelfo, now dead for less than a year, whose one ambition among many was to hang a cement-covered styrofoam ball at the front of this property that faces the ocean, simulating a large bell rung at sea. Adelfo was an immensely popular and gifted fellow and we miss him. He died of cancer and his sudden death threw my husband into an ordeal which caused him to face fears, challenges and heartbreak, so shocked by his death was he.

Most people are aware of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, a celebration of death, a macabre recognition of the country’s pre-Columbian and colonial history during which most people died early from violence or disease. Ceremonial recognition of the dead no doubt had its origin in the dim past when rituals were designed to please and placate the spirits of departed family members and ancestors. Rather than ignore it or attempt to hide from it, Mexicans joke about death as if it were a comic ritual. Death can’t be avoided so Mexicans make the most of it in an effort to demonstrate that they don’t fear it and are determined not to let it destroy the joys of living. This expresses how Adelfo’s family felt. They made an altar of him in their community during the Day of the Dead and decorated it with marigold flowers ( flores de los muertos ) – it held offerings of food and drink and photos and was especially for him. In the Indian cosmos, the spirits of the dead remained among the living, to be acknowledged and communed with through rituals of song, dance and food; and although Adelfo’s family is Catholic, the presence of this custom remains with the Mexican people.

No doubt one’s attitude towards life should be joyous, as in the simple words of a popular Latin singer who sings a contemporary song – ‘Vivir la Vida’ – accompanied by beautiful female dancers:

Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………………….) Voy a reír, voy a gozar, vivir mi vida la la la la la ( I’m going to laugh, I’m going to enjoy, to live my life……..)

Voy a vivir el momento, voy a entender el destino ( I’m going to live in the moment, I’m going to understand my destiny……………………………………………………) Voy a escuchar el silencio, para encontrar el camino ( I’m going to listen to the silence to understand my path……:……………………………………………………….) Empieza a soñar, a reír, voy a reír, voy a bailar ( begin to dream, to laugh, I’m going to dance………………………) Vive, sigue, siempre pa’lante, no mires pa’tras ( live, keep going, always ahead, don’t look behind…………..)

Life is a fiesta where you dance and laugh….I guess that’s a good thing though I seldom get into the fiesta mood. I mean, I live here. And it’s hard work! I have to work out my salvation with Immigration Mexico and help put things back together again after a hurricane, just as an example. And I may die here. May I be on my way when the bell tolls for me, slung across a paddle board or distributed as ashes from one of my husband’s coffee cans ‘en el mar’, moving quickly towards ‘el Más Allá’ – the Great Beyond.

‘La la la la!’

To To Create or not to Create…?

Devin was my greatest encourager during my chemotherapy treatments, which was – good or bad – when my fling with painting began. I’d always been able to draw, but painting was a different palette of colours – I’d never had time to paint and didn’t imagine I could. I’m not sure why I turned to painting unless it was to artificially fill my world with the color it was lacking and free my soul, along with my poor chemial-infested body, for survival. I didn’t need encouragement from anyone as long as I had Devin.

‘Oh, I like the colours!’ He’d say as he checked to see what I was doing. Or..

‘Can I have that one to show my friends at school?’

And always, his good-natured expression was matched by the satisfaction and amusement on my face. Sometimes he sat with me and coloured with his twistables, often immune to suggestion about what to draw first but always cheerful and giving his best concentration to the task. Have I mentioned he’s only six? Apart from arguing over whose gel pens were whose, I cherished the opportunity to be with him because he was precious to me and I witnessed by being with him a young artist in the unfolding. He loved learning new things as long as enough time passed for him to master other concepts he needed to become familiar with first, and in short time I became his ‘grandmother-hero.’

‘Did you know my nana can paint with one hand?’ He announced this with pride to an airport employee on our way home. He usually chose a stranger to proclaim this news to like a waiter in a restaurant or a department store employee, and he always responded to the laughter that followed good-humoredly and regarded it as an incentive to win over potential friends.

if I forgot to mention I’m one-handed I should have – it’s important to the story.

In Spanish the verb ‘dar ánimos’ or ‘animar’ means to encourage. ‘Animate’ means to cheer up, buck up. ‘Ella no tiene ánimos para nada’ – she doesn’t feel like doing anything. Many times students in Spanish lose their ‘animo’ when they encounter the formidable number of verbs the language contains – if that includes you, you’re not alone. Students get discouraged with tenses. ‘Los estudiantes no tienen ánimos para aprender los verbos!’ The gargantuan book 5001 Verbs isn’t for everybody – only a few self-punishing people like me lie awake at night thinking about the secret life of verbs. You have my sympathy if that includes you!

Why do we need encouragement? Because a discouraged soul is helpless and we’ve all had hurt in our lives. We’d do well to open our eyes and see in all events, great or small, chariots for our souls – we can either lie down under their wheels and let them run all over us, and weep with discouragement as they trample us half to death, or we can climb up into them and fly away as they take us onward to better places.

The choice is ours to make.

Mr. Williams

“That’s why I make good ‘Ws’,” he tells me with sudden intensity, his little face brightening. We are practicing the alphabet, my 6 year old grandson and I. He has left his teacher back in Canada – Mr. Williams – and is now living with me in Mexico. I resist the temptation to feel jealous of Mr. Williams. None of my students have ever pined away for me! Today is ‘Día de los Maestros’, Teacher Day, in Mexico, and instead of honoring his Mexican teachers at the nearby school he continues to laud with little-boy reverence the virtues of Mr. Williams. Whenever we do ‘art’ together, and it’s then that his attention usually settles, he swerves off his usual themes and on to Mr. Williams. “Can we make a ‘cart’ for him and send it in the mail?” he wants to know.

I can imagine Mr. Williams as a man who radiates inner freedom: he is open to every day and each moment. He is a teacher-musician with neither commanding presence or manipulative authority. And my grandson loves him almost as much as he loves his current Marvel heroes like Ironman and the Hulk and ‘Thorn’ (Thor). What do they have in common? They are all gifted individuals with interesting careers, Mr. Williams with his guitar and Thor with his hammer, saving the world from destructive influences. Right now after decades of teaching I am undergoing chemotherapy. Was it my folly, I wonder, that brought this dilapidation so suddenly upon me? I competed with other teachers in my middle school, often without realizing it, and became so concerned with my identity that I was constantly striving to be the best I could be. Like others I ran education’s gauntlet of many killers and it set me on the road to rivalry and competition. I considered suffering annoying at best and expended much energy in denial, preferring instead to doing that which would affirm my identity. My busyness fed that denial as it did to all the other gauntlet runners; my quick ability to deal with problems, often accompanied by a score of mental and emotional “stunts”, sprung forth like dragon’s teeth to meet each challenge along the way. I felt invincible. Years later when I left Canada I stepped off that shore of anxiety and unhappiness, and now I stand in another country, whose bright sun shows every flaw and whose air inspires freedom and happiness. I like to think of the little school next door as an abode of light, and that the easy-going Mr. Williams would feel comfortable within. I hope he visits and brings his guitar.

“W” for … “Wonderful”…

Last installment: cultural awareness classes

Mastering comeback phrases, especially in terms of politeness, is an excellent idea, so having a handful of stock expressions ready to be activated at the right moment is something we need to achieve. “Mucho gusto” someone says, and automatically a click goes off in your brain and you fire back”igualmente.”… You needn’t think at all. Or “el gusto es mío”. “Esta bien” should be the commonest expression to come out of your mouth, “all right.” “I’m going home now”…”esta bien”…” “I’ll call you later”…”esta bien” ….” “I’ll pick you up at 6″….”esta bien”. “Claro” is another colloquial expression meaning ‘of course.’ “Can you lend me a hand getting this broken-down car off the road?” “Claro!” And “como no” is natural sounding. “Ya tengo uno, gracias” …’I already have one, thanks’ is a good expression for fending off vendors, or better still, “ahorita, no gracias”, ‘right now, no thank you’. Here are a few other snappy answers…”en tus sueños” ( in your dreams ), a little bit more impolite way of saying ‘dream on’. When Beto Boca de Basura asks Berta if she’ll come over and clean his house, she responds: “ni sueños” ( not in your wildest dreams ). “Es un burro”, she says. “Tiene menos cerebro que un mosquito”. Pero Berta “tiene mano izquierda” which means she knows how to deal with the situation, burro and all. “En serio”? ‘Really?’ That’s a good one. Also “suficiente” for ‘enough’, as in “tengo suficiente dinero para comprar..” as opposed to “bastante” which rarely works; “tengo bastante dinero” sounds like a bit of a boast as in ‘I’ve got plenty of money’. If someone is spooning Brussels sprouts onto you plate and you think 10 is enough, you might say, “es suficiente, gracias” rather than “es bastante” because the latter sounds like a complaint. “Seguro” means ‘sure’, and it also works for disbelief if you ladle irony all over it. It depends how you say it, because it can also mean the same as our ‘yeah, right.’ These snappy expressions are great because you can avoid frequent stops and starts and punctuating your speech with English interjections.

Foreign words have a certain je ne sais quoi that can make them fun to say, like “ojalá, an Arabism, because the Arabs, as most of you know, were in Spain for centuries. ‘May Allah wish it.’ Very popular in street slang is the use of “madre”, mother being the paragon of the Latin family and held sacred by the Latin male, but it’s the base of an entire vocabulary centered around insulting other people’s mothers. Even grandmothers, aunts and sisters! A “desmadre” is ‘a total mess’, and “hasta la madre” means ‘wasted’. That’s Beto Boca de Basura’s language. You get the point…use “mama” instead. “Me vale madre” means you don’t give a flying French fry about anything. You’ll find that term on t-shirts and in tourist shops. These can be fun expressions but they can also be offensive: don’t use any of them. Warm country, many naughty words. Mexicans love to laugh: they are “ruiseños”. Oh, one more thing I like to teach my students..a good word to avoid in mixed public is “huevos” as it has a crude second meaning, so learn to say, upon entering a store, “hay huevo?” instead of the more risky “tiene huevos?” The point is that using “hay” is not only easier to say but it takes the question out of the realm of the personal and puts it into a more acceptable realm, because to not be stocked with eggs is going to make the grocer feel bad, and besides, the word “hay” which means ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ is so very easy to use.

Having a positive attitude takes precedence over everything else here especially where foreigners are concerned so it’s a good idea to depersonalize responsibility. Using “hay” can help achieve that. Another cultural habit is diminutizing everything. “Casita” for ‘little house’, “poquito” for ‘very little’…”una cervezita”..”papacito”. It reduces the importance of things, to bring them down to a point where they virtually disappear and one doesn’t need to be concerned with them. Apart from the direct meaning of “little”, like “platillo” = little plate = saucer for example, it tends to indicate a frame of mind. It denotes friendliness, kindliness, or in any case a desire to put things pleasantly. If a telephone operator says “espere un momento” she’s being direct, ‘will you hang on a moment’, but if she says “espere un momentito” she’s being more cordial because she’s saying ‘would you mind waiting a moment?’ And the diminutive is a good way to deal with words like ‘rather’, ‘somewhat’ and ‘quite’. “Tempranito” means ‘early-ish’, “crecita” means ‘quite near’ or ‘not very far’. It may be a solution to your difficulties where friendliness is required.

My feeling is, as foreigners, we should we willing to unleash our Spanish in cases calling for common courtesy. And don’t skip over the formalities..instead of wandering around in a shop without saying a word, say something, even if it’s only “buenas tardes” or “adiós”. Try new words..write them on a slip of paper…say them slowly if you have to, speed kills…don’t say them too quickly. That’s one strategy, so adelante. Y buena suerte a todos.

Third installment: Cultural Awareness Class

It’s important to note that the system of “Amisdad” or ‘friendship’ developed over many hundreds of years is still an important facet of Mexican society. You’ve probably noticed how Mexicans nurture the bonds of friendship with extraordinary intensity in order to make them tight and long-lasting. Some say that the most secure and comfortable relationships are the result of a fusion of the participants’ interests and needs…they merge, and the higher the social class the easier it is to maintain powerful connections and to gain benefit from them. The word “palanca” comes to mind. “Palanca” means ‘lever’, primarily, but it also refers to the network of family and friends who depend upon each other for support, employment and power, often in business. In other words “clout.” Family and friends, both important, are the foundation of Mexican society. “Amigos. Compañeros.”

If all Mexicans were asked to list one or two important characteristics of their culture, they would put “simpatico” on the list. It’s a huge compliment to say that someone is “simpatico” or “simpática.” Apart from sympathetic it means pleasing, friendly, trustworthy, well-behaved, the exact opposite of the behavior Mexicans were subjected to for centuries. “Tengo mucha simpatía para alguien” means you have a lot of admiration for that person concerned. “Educación”, by the way, refers to upbringing, not education. “Un niño bien educado” refers to a well brought-up child.

As in every ancient society, Mexican culture is bound up in key words and phrases that explain the attitudes and behaviors of its people. Those special words and phrases are like genetic codes which serve as windows to the heart and soul of the country. Take the word “comadre”, co-mother, and “compadre”, co-father, and the custom of appointing friends, not family, to be co-parents to one’s children. To the kids, the co-father become the “padrino” and the co-mother becomes the “madrina”, another custom that benefits everybody, and one that would do us well to understand. Have you ever been to a “quinciñera”, a girl or a young woman’s coming-out-into-society party? It’s a joyful fiesta where a lot of money is spent – there’s an expression for a time like this … Echar/tirar la casa por la ventana …( throw the house out the window ) …and there’s a dance, a waltz, in which the 15 year old girl first dances with her dad, then her brothers, and then all the other male relatives, symbolizing their protective presence in her life. Social status in general is important, one reason being that knowing one’s station in life enables one to know how to address that person. Did you know that? We must exercise courtesy and take care not to damage the dignity of others. Mexicans tend to be more formal in their speech, so keeping our language at a similar level, at the beginning of a relationship anyway, will help move it along in the right direction. Remember too, that they have difficulty saying “no” to anyone. They consider it rude not to give a positive answer to a question. My husband asks his architect why he’s still waiting for a door after two months of waiting, and the architect says: ” it’s coming. Don’t worry.” Our architect calls the shots – “el tiene la sartén por el mango” ( he has the frying pan by the handle ). In the normal cultural context “mañana” means “sometime in the near future” or “if I have time” or “if nothing unexpected happens.” Whether or not something happens or does not happen is less important to Mexicans than personal ties .. “Respeto” or ‘respect’ is one of the most important words in their vocabulary. They respect people according to their levels of attention to personal relationships. Emotional needs are first, material needs are second.
Warm country, warm hearts.

Second installment: Cultural Awareness class

Mexicans love flamboyant, flowery expressions, in poetic and literary dichos, in witticisms and insults. One of my favorite expressions is “como amaneciste”? ( how did you sleep, or literally, how did you greet the dawn? ). They speak in circumlocutions, zig-zagging all over the place rather than, like us, getting right to the point. Our custom of speaking directly or succinctly is upsetting to them at times, and sounds alien. If you’ve attended a major social event in this country, then you know about the pomp and courtesy that is characteristic of Mexican behavior when on display. They’re good public speakers and many of them can sing. They love jokes. And those in lower classes, in contrast to our culture, have learned how to speak their language with considerable confidence and eloquence. And emotion: warm country, warm people. During “comida” in the middle of the afternoon it’s a time to talk, to socialize with friends and family, but mainly it reaffirms the social connections between family members. Our word “lunch” doesn’t do justice to the traditional mid-day meal because time for “comida” is a multi-faceted affair, with the first part of the meal taken up with the ritualistic stage of bonding; and, as in a business relationship especially, we need to remember that wining and dining is not a luxury but a necessity, and that part of eating with Mexican people, and by extension talking with them, should involve small talk first, and then more weightier matters or more serious discussion after that. And let me speak for a momentito about the phrases “es que” and “lo que pasa es que” because they’re extremely useful sentence starters and because they give you time to think…it’s like the answer to this question, “did you sleep well”? And you answer, “No, well, sort of, but the thing was, there were so many darn dogs barking that I kept waking up”. This is the way they speak a lot of the time and it may seem like a useless phrase to add to your speech but it softens the retort, and besides, you get to sound more fluent. You’ll hear this: “la verdad es que”….the truth of the matter is….its a good way to break bad news or indicate disagreement. “Can I drop by later?” “Pues, la verdad es que pensaba ir al cine.” “Well, actually, I was thinking of going to the movies.” You’re approached by a waiter in a high class restaurant and he asks how everything’s going. Your soup is too salty and you say, “bueno, la verdad es que la sopa es un poco salada.” “Bueno” is a good word to start a sentence smoothly…pay attention to your sentence starters and your Spanish will sound more natural. “Bueno” means ‘now’; it prefaces statements and tones down their hastiness and prepares the listener for a message. You say, “ya me voy” meaning “I’m going now”, but it’s nicer to say “bueno, ya me voy” because it’s like saying “well, I think I’ll be going now”. It sounds more laid-back, and also more polite. Use “gracias por todo”, thanks for everything, if it applies. Also remember to use “mande?” when you didn’t hear someone. It comes from the verb “mandar” meaning to order or command; when a soldier or servant in the past was called upon by a superior, he would answer “mande Ud.” Or “command me. Order me.”

So personal etiquette was akin to morality centuries ago….apology played an important role in Mexico’s former autocratic society because certain authorities had the power of life or death over ordinary citizens. It became second nature for Mexicans to apologize to those above them whether they were guilty of anything or not. Let’s go over a few expressions that might be useful to you .. As I’ve indicated, “con permiso” is a good one…. Use it upon entering someone’s home, a meeting room, a classroom, or needing to pass through where people are blocking your path. If you bump into someone say “perdón.” It’s a magic word. It’s like ‘excuse me’ and it’s for minor situations. That word comes from “perdonar”. Another word of apology is “disculpa” or “disculpame” ( pardon me ). “Disculpa” means “forgive me” or “excuse me” and you’ll say it in the same situations as “perdón”. When you’re using “tu” with a person say “disculpa” or “disculpa tu”, and when you’re using “Ud.” say “disculpe” or “disculpe Ud.”, and when you’re saying it to more than one person you then say “disculpen” or “disculpen uds.” These are good expressions because they are listener-oriented apologies; they make the listener the subject of the sentence. This structure puts the emphasis on the listener’s ability to forgive rather than on your own feelings of regret. You can also say ” mil disculpas”, a thousand apologies. Now, a more serious apology is “lo siento” – it expresses remorse. Use it where depth of feeling is important. “Lo siento mucho” or “lo siento muchísimo”. You might use this at a funeral. “Cuanto lo siento” ….how sorry I am! And “me equivoqué” means “I was wrong”, or “estoy equivocado/a”, I am wrong.