Post edit -
Through my own delay in getting this post written, I missed out on some crucial information...the area of Portugal that I have been living in for the last few months has had no rain in over a year. There is a lake where I am staying that is currently barely even a puddle. Water usage here has been so restricted that I have only been allowed to shower once per week. The land here has been suffering.
So with that said, enjoy:
On the last full moon, 12th August, quite spontaneously, I found myself attending a native american sweat-lodge. I have heard of these before, often referred to as a 'Temazcal', and though on several occasions being close to attending one, it has never come to pass.
It was just like any other day here at Quinta Alma, our work being finished by the afternoon, just in time for lunch. Suggestions of going to the beach seemed to be the mood of the day, but in the way that time passes without one realising, it gave way to sitting around not going a whole lot.
Suddenly, late afternoon, Joana (the owner of this establishment) came into the communal area to ask someone as to who was going to be attending the 'Inipi' this evening. The questioned individual is a daughter of a local healer, a shaman, who has studied under the Lakota people of America, and had failed to invite anyone along to the Inipi this evening. Inipi is the native american word for what I knew as a Temazcal. Only, as it turns out after a short history lesson, Inipi could be considered as the more original term. The historical persecution of the Lakota people had them flee to Mexico, where mexicans learnt the Lakota ways and applied their own terms to the practices they had adopted. So although the Temazcal is the more popularised version, the Temazcal comes from the Inipi.
I sat there not particularly engaging, lamenting the missed opportunity to spend the afternoon at the seaside, when Joana placed a hand on my shoulder and said "I think you should come." I admit it made me jump as I was abruptly returned to my environment, even giving me a lurching sensation in my stomach that made me consider declining the invite. But there was something in the invitation that made me feel that declining was not an option. Shaking off my disappointment, I prepared for my first native american sweat-lodge.
I had heard stories of these sweat lodges, and they had never really appealed. Mentions of being stuffed into a tiny little handmade hut with other people, whilst hot stones are placed in the centre, having water poured over them, creating an intense sauna experience that goes far beyond the temperature of any sauna room you might find in a spa. Plus you are stuck in there, in the complete pitch black, and all you can smell is burning earth, until the ceremony is over. But I was in the car and on my way.
I travelled with Joana and her husband Mario, the questioned daughter called Luz (which means light) and a resident of Quinta called Javi. They had all been in these Inipi's before. The only other participant to come along with me was Aba, a fellow volunteer from Czechia who had also never taken part in such sweat lodges. I was grateful to not be the only one.
We drove some short distance through the undulating landscape of Portugal and arrived at the land that the shaman man lived on. Parking at the front, we walked past a couple of campervans and a giant bus surrounded by greenery through to a screened off area that held a small section of land that was clearly the space created for the Inipi. The small shelter of the Inipi was about 10 metres ahead of me, with a little courtyard area filling the space between us, and a reasonable sized fire blazing right before me. There were a few people stood here and there in attendance, waiting in an area that runs around the circumference of the courtyard. Not being aware of the protocols of such an occasion, I stood waiting to see what the rest of my party did. Greetings began to be shared, so in an almost conga-like fashion, myself and Aba joined the line and got to meet the fellow participants.
There were people from Spain, Italy and a few other lands I cannot now recall. Everyone said hello, introduced themselves and we each hugged as a greeting. I don't particularly have any issue with hugging strangers hello, but you never know what you are going to get, so it is something I try to avoid if possible. Finally though, we made our way around to the Shaman, the man whom had brought us all together. Have you ever seen 'the pirates of the caribbean' where you see the father of Jack Sparrow? This guy legit looked like that. With the hat to match. Just not as big.
The way he greeted me, I have never felt so much respect for someone in such a short period of time. He took a step back as if he was about to draw a sword "en garde", and held out his hand to shake. It was a powerful movement and message that I shall practice for future use. As an english speaker with little knowledge of Spanish, and he as a spanish speaker with little knowledge of english, we said few words to one another.
With everyone met, my little party went to sit on the ground just to the left of the entrance to the Inipi, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Whilst sat, I questioned those with some previous experience as to how things would unfold and the way to go about doing things. I learnt (a little bit too late) that there is a line from the fire to the Inipi that should not be crossed by anyone other than the fire handler. I turned to Aba with a face that said "oops" and I was a bit relieved to find out I was not the only one to break the sacred protocols.
I also learnt that a few in attendance had just taken part in the sundance festival. A four day ceremony of non-stop dancing around a tree, full of offerings and prayers. The sun dance is to performed in order to reunite and reconnect with the earth and the spirits, as a call for a renewal of life. Hearing this made sense as to the slightly crazed charge of a glint in the eyes of some that I had greeted. This Inipi was a ceremony to discharge and ground themselves after such an intense experience.
To begin the ceremony, all were sat and settled around the perimeter of the courtyard, whilst the small intense fire was monitored by the son of the shaman. The shaman knelt in front of the Inipi, facing toward the fire with a small built up mound of earth in front of him that was covered in grass and flowers, and other little offerings adorning it. A small bag was passed around the group of people that contained Mapacho, the ceremonial and original grade of tobacco that is considered to be a master teacher plant, held in high regard by many indigenous peoples. Each of us had to take a pinch of the Mapacho and with intention or prayer, throw it into the fire.
Once this had been done, the shaman took out a pipe that required some assembly. Taking a pinch of Mapacho, he performed a ritual that I recognised to be a calling to the four directions, as if he were showing the Mapacho to each horizon. The volume he spoke in for this ritual was inaudible, but had I heard him, I would not have been able to translate anway. He then put the Mapacho into the pipe, and took a few drags to get the thing lit, with smoke billowing all around him. With the pipe successfully ignited, he took four deep drags, blowing the smoke out after each, whilst turning the pipe around and bringing the lit end close to his chest. His time on the pipe done, he passed it to the first on the edge of the group of those in attendance, the opposite side to where I was sat. The pipe was to be passed around, and each of us was to take four tokes.
An amusing thought crossed my mind as to how you have to hope that you are not the one that chokes on the smoke, which I almost shared with Aba, but thought it best that I do not jinx myself. Everyone handled the pipe well, each turning the pipe to their chest in between each toke. Javi to my left mentioned normally people do not do this, but clearly not wanting to break any ceremonial protocols, everyone had followed suit of the person before them.
As the pipe came to me, I reminded myself that I have taken puffs of Mapacho before, so I had nothing to worry about. I took my first drag and thought "I have something to worry about." I managed my third and could not avoid a little cough. The only one that choked on the smoke... I had jinxed myself. The pipe had gone out by the fourth drag, but I was in no rush to relight it and had enough smoke around me to play it off and pass it on.
Now was the time to enter the Inipi. Everyone got up and turned around to change into something appropriate to enter the sweat lodge. Most women wore a light, thin sarong, whilst the men were in swimming shorts. With everyone ready, the women first entered the Inipi, and once all were inside, the men followed. As the second man in, I entered the small dark dome and with the little light available, saw that I had to crawl around the edge of a hole in the centre to the next free space which was just off the centre to the opposite side of the entrance.
There must have been about 15 of us in total, sat around the circumference of the Inipi. We were not totally shoulder to shoulder, but some logistics had to figured out with person either side of you as to where legs were placed; though these were figured out much in the same way the armrest in a cinema is decided between two strangers who do not want to look at each other. 15 was plenty I felt, but apparently there can be as many as 30 sharing the sweat lodge which would require rows of people sat around the centre, all bundled in tightly together. I was glad this was not one of those times.
Everyone inside, glowing red hot rocks were passed in on a pitchfork through the door which had a stone path leading directly to the hole in the centre. The stones were slid in and from where I was sat, the shaman was sat to the left side of the door with someone sat on the right side, whom I gathered had a bit of experience in such things, as he assisted in ensuring the stones were placed into the hole in the centre. As each stone was placed, Luz had some rock of something that I could only assume was a resin, as she crossed an X on each stone that left a small line that instantly burnt off into a wonderfully fragrant smell. With all seven stones fed into the centre, the Inipi was closed and we were plunged into pitch black, save for the glowing red stones in the ground just in front of me.
I wont go into the details of how the Inipi went, mainly because this has been in my drafts for a while and now I am writing this near the end of October, so I cannot remember the words said or the songs sung, but essentially it consisted of water being added to the stones, creating a hot steam and thus creating the sweat lodge. This happened in four rounds, where more stones were brought in with each round, and the water was added quicker, resulting in an even hotter steam. By the final round, there was a point I was wondering if my skin was being boiled on my body...it was very intense. Yet we all emerged totally fine, feeling thoroughly cleansed and all the better for it.
There was a point in between rounds where we were invited to offer prayers. Now, I am not much of one for praying, and the very few prayers I may have had in my life have been said in the silence of my heart, never out loud. As the prayers were said by one and another, leading towards me, I prepared myself in the spirit of why we were all there; To pray for rain. I said a few words of gratitude for the experience we were going through, and then I offered my prayer, "May the rain come."
Emerging from the Inipi, it was late, and night had settled. It was not cold, though the moisture evaporating from our bodies was cooling our bodies. Fortunately, the fire was still burning, and all participants naturally gravitated toward it. The fire and embers had been well shaped into the shape of a heart. A lovely touch.
Gradually, people began to leave. My small faction remained the last to be stood around. As idle conversations were rolling on, I suddenly felt one or two drops of something on my skin. I looked at the sky and saw that there were clouds approaching. More drops landed.
I looked at Aba, who looked at me, and we could see in each others eyes a childlike belief in magic again. The rain came.
Hopping in the car, the windscreen wipers were activated and we journeyed home. I sat there the whole time, staring out the windows, soaking in the magic the same way the thirsty land was soaking in the welcome rains. My jaw should have been hanging open in awe, if it weren't for the smile my lips were busy with. Yet at some point, we drove out of the rain, and the windscreen wipers were no longer necessary. The rains had fallen away some point in our 40 minute journey.
With a slight disappointment the rains had not reached the valley, I stepped out of the car and made my way to my tent. Before I reached my nest for the night, less than five minutes after arriving, the rains arrived in the valley. High on the hill, nestled into my sleeping bag, buried inside my tent, I lay awake for a while listening to the raindrops landing. Not only was it raining, but thunder and lightning were playing about overhead as well.
Drifting off to sleep, I could feel that the land was giving a huge sigh of relief, as the waters it had been so desperately waiting for had finally arrived. And I could not help but feel that I had played a little part in making it so.