Somewhere between Oaxaca City and the coastal town of Puerta Angel sits a small mountain pueblo stolen from the Northern California coast, complete with hippies and organic produce and evening fog. Strategically placed across town are hand painted signs that advertise "Navarro 4 Elementos Temazcal” with crudely drawn directional arrows. These announcements are largely superfluous, however, as everyone knows Navarro. You simply need ask around.
Navarro is a local shaman that provides temazcal rituals, a form of pre-Colombian sweat lodge. With his long mane tied up in a thick black bun, the few gray hairs in his beard betraying his fifty-some years, he looks more like a floor manager at an acoustic guitar shop than some indigenous priest. His dark eyes radiate crows feet that curl up in a manner which could only come from a lifetime of smiling. Rocco, his canine friend, is more peer than pet: when asked after returning from an errand where Rocco is, Navarro replies, ”I dunno, he’s probably hanging out in town. He goes where he wants." Such is the pace of San Jose del Pacifico. It is a town that drifts.
Navarro learned all he knows about medicinal plants from his grandmother, with whom he spent fifteen of his adult years learning the craft. He is also an expert scuba diver and trained chiropractor but those are mere accouterments gathered from a drifter’s life. His true talent is for the temazcal, a ancient steam bath used by Mayans for body cleansing, battle recovery, and childbirth.
The temazcal begins when you enter a small damp concrete igloo barely larger than a dog house. Smoldering rocks are shoveled into a central pit, a bucket of boiling tea is placed inside, and the entrance is covered. In near darkness you dip a bushel of herbs into the bucket and drip the hot liquid onto the stones, a process that spawns a thick, sweet steam that fills the enclosure. It is, in effect, a tea sauna and each breath has the trace odor and subtle taste of a cup of herbal tea. After twenty minutes of such brewing, when you feel completely relaxed in the void, Navarro exchanges the first bucket for one of a different mixture meant to induce fever. Then comes a period of increasing tension and vertigo, when darkness and claustrophobia start to press in and suffocate you until you don’t think you can take any more. Just then the door opens and you’re led out and the fresh mountain air washes over you hard like a breaking wave. After a shower of cool spring water and a body rinse with lukewarm tea (“it’s good for the skin”), you are as relaxed as a afternoon cat. It is here when you are in the proper mindset for the mushrooms.
Aldous Huxley called the brain a reducing valve with for the mind, something that limits consciousness rather than generates it. This view in fact has some medical basis: studies have shown psychedelics to actually reduce certain brain functions, effectively turning off the filter. After a thirty-year hiatus, research has rebooted on the therapeutic uses of hallucinogens. Here is what we know: they simulate serotonin, resulting in an elevated sense of happiness and well-being; they largely act outside of the dopamine pathways and as a result do not induce physical addiction; they seem to inhibit certain parts of the brain related to self-monitoring. This latter feature has proven helpful to people suffering from PTSD (see here and here) and to cancer patients dealing with depression (see here and here).
But none of this technical stuff is on your mind when you finish the cup of mild tea and swallow the last bite of the strangely tasty fungus (a bit like pan-seared shiitakes, but thicker and crunchier). Instead, you simply accept Navarro’s invitation to explore his jungle property. “There’s an exposed boulder that offers a good view. When you see a large maguey, turn left.” So you wander down through the trees until you find the maguey and you make yourself comfortable on the rock, and you look out over the forest and the mountains and the distant Pacific, and you wait for something to happen.
Though magic mushrooms are an optional part of the temazcal, they offer a final step in the regenerative ritual. Once ingested you have about twenty minutes until they take effect, and the remainder of the day to roam Navarro’s fifteen hectares of mountain wilderness. Usually only individuals and small groups opt for the mushrooms, but he once hosted a group of twenty-seven who elected to partake. He rolls his eyes and chuckles when he recounts the day, “I felt like the director of a psychiatric ward.” The property was a carnival of weirdos, people scattered across the hillside giggling at the empty air, lying in the dirt, wandering in circles gaping up at the sky. A half dozen-or-so were standing still as statues staring at some insignificant piece of nature. “My garden looked like an art museum”. He vowed not to do such a large group again. “The singular experiences are better. You learn that you don’t need anyone.”
When the landscape begins to breathe, swelling and shrinking like the thorax of some sleeping giant, you know the psilocybin has taken effect. All your sense organs are turned into overdrive, elevating every minute sensation to a distorted pitch. Flowers burn bright like fire. Hummingbirds pass with a whomp! as loud as a jet engine. Branches move and twist as if growing in some time-lapse video. Eventually the intensity settles and you reach a steady state of hallucinations that, fascinating as they are, are not so much seeing things that aren’t there but rather seeing more in what is there, as if by accident the face of your wristwatch popped off revealing for the first time the intricate and beautiful machinery that underlies its simple function. Such intense wonder at the world no doubt is the cause of infant drooling. And so you drool, like an infant, wide-eyed and drop-jawed, for the better part of the day: staring endlessly at the kaleidoscopic canopy above, repeatedly fondling the smooth waxy surface of a maguey tongue, intensely listening to the bees buzz in and out of the flaming flowers. You have become another one of Navarro’s inmates, a garden statue, some misfit standing petrified before a jungle shrub investigating the byzantine veins of its leaf while mouthing the word “wow” over and again, the psilocybin not leading through the rabbit hole to some lofty viewpoint as you'd expected but rather sucking you back into a state of doltish infancy.
And yet beyond the drool there is real revelation. Sounds that were once disturbing---the violent roar of semis on the road above---become just one more pleasant vibration in a sea of vibrations. Nothing is discordant, nothing disturbs. Worry and self-doubt are abandoned. Anything with origins in the past or future simply evaporates. What's left is the eternal happiness of a well-fed dog. Perhaps it’s the effect of the temazcal preface, perhaps it’s Navarro’s local variety of mushrooms which grow by a nearby spring (“The soil is good and healthy. The ones from Chiapas? They grow in fields fertilized by cow shit.”). Whatever the cause, the trip provides a peace and self-assurance that is rarely found outside of monastic temples.
At some point you realize that this beatific state will end and you don't want it to so you start devising ways to take a piece back with you, like stealing a shell from a deserted beach to which you’ll never return. But it is a futile ambition and you know you must learn to let go. So you just sit there on that rock with your maguey friend and you watch the night fog drift in from the Pacific. And you wonder where the hummingbirds went and when the flowers burned out. And you hear the distant chirps of unseen birds in the fading light and you notice that the wind has died down and everything is slowing. And so you take a deep breath and let it out and you accept that it is all slipping away as you stare in the gathering darkness at the ebbing wonder of the world.