A Time I Found Myself Saying “I Can’t.”

Integration. This is one of the most important achievements necessary for a successful Peace Corps service. “Say yes to everything.” That’s what they told me.

I am currently a Peace Corps Trainee in Mexico. I finish training to swear in as a Volunteer at the end of August. At that point, I will be moving out to a small community called Rancho Viejo in the state of Guanajuato. This past week, I have been staying in and around this community to begin the integration process. On Friday, I started this visit by going to San Luis de la Paz, the closest big city to my site and home to central offices that will be important to my service. On Friday, the man I would be staying with in San Luis de la Paz, Rigo, asked if I had ever been to a temazcal. As I am still adjusting to the Spanish of the region, I thought he was asking if I had ever tried mezcal. So I told him about the growing (hipster) mezcal trend in the mid-atlantic region of the States. Eventually, I realized what he asked… but still had no idea what it was. And from his description, all I could get was it had something to do with hot rocks. Nonetheless, when he asked if I was up to go to one the next day, I said yes. Integration.

The next morning, Rigo (the one who invited me), Vicky (his wife), Ibrahim and Vania (his kids), and I (his unsuspecting guest) piled into a car and set out to the mountains. An hour or so later, we pulled up to what I would describe is a decrepit one-story brick building. The building and its surrounding land is enclosed by a small wall, and the entrance is blocked by several thick branches and a large piece of hard plastic. We move one of the branches and the plastic sheet and step onto the property. Don Jorge greets us. Don Jorge is an older gentleman with white hair to his shoulders and a long white beard. He was wearing an old tee, raggedy pants, and what is probably best described as a rasta hat. We walked with him over to the left side of the house. On this plot of land was a deep pit, and two small domes that look like huts.

My first hint as to what kind of experience I was in for came at this point, as to walk past a certain point toward the pit and domes, I was told I need to ask for permission. And then again ask for permission to step out of that area. It was not to ask for permission from any of them. But just to ask, and then proceed. At this point, Don Jorge began explaining that we had to go get wood. So Rigo and I went down the road to buy firewood. When we returned, we stacked it next to the firepit, and at Don Jorge’s request, began collecting kindling and breaking bigger branches piled nearby.
Once he was satisfied with the work, Don Jorge began meticulously building a fire. Once the base was set, he began to stack stones about the size of footballs on top of the wood. Then he surrounded the pile of rocks by more firewood.

At this point, I learned why Rigo had packed an ax and massive garden shears when we left that morning. He and I drove off again, and this time in search of a pirul. (Quick anecdote: Of course the car didn’t start. So Rigo and I pushed the car up a hill, then down as fast as possible while Vicky sat inside and got it start. #adventure) Pirul is a weeping willow tree very common in this part of Mexico. Once we found a couple sizable ones on the side of the road, we pulled over and started removing branches from the trees until the trunk was stuffed with them. We got back and I worked with the rest of the family to separate the branches from the leaves, and pile the leaves together. Vicky began making what looked like brushes with collections of the leaves.
It was at this point that Rigo asked if I had brought a change of shorts. Of course I had not, because I still did not really know what was about to happen, nor was I told to do that. There were a few other people around the property, and Rigo asked one of the guys he saw if he had an extra pair of shorts. This kind sir proceeded to search the yard for a pair of shorts and in short order, produced a pair from the garden.

As we waited for the fire to burn, I had managed to obtain enough information to know that what I was to experience was like a sauna. I also had to convince Don Jorge that I was their to do good work, and was not in fact a spy. (As in turns out, this is a common question to Peace Corps Volunteers.)

Once the fire had mostly burned down, I was told to change into the shorts, and remove all other clothing and jewelry. The women present, Vicky and Don Jorge’s wife, went to change into long skirts. Then Don Jorge’s wife put some coals from the fire into a small chalice, and set something aromatic to burn in it. One by one, she blessed each of us entering into the temazcal, and we crawled into the little hut (asking permission just before crawling in). The inside of the hut was probably 7 feet in diameter, and the highest point of the dome was maybe as much as 5 feet. Into the hut crawled Don Jorge, his wife, his assistant, the shorts-scavenger, Rigo, Vicky, and me. It was tight. We sat around the edge of the dome, on a bed of the pirul leaves we’d harvested early, and in the middle was a pit. Once inside, everyone (except for me at this point) said what translates as “To all of my friends and family — hot grandmothers!” The “hot grandmothers” or more accurately “abuelitas calientes” were the stones that had now been sitting in the fire for some time. Another assistant, in charge of the fire, who took care of what happened outside of the temazcal, used a pitchfork to bring in eleven of these burning hot stones one by one. Don Jorge and the assistant inside the temazcal used sticks to position them just so in the pit. Afterward, the fire assistant supplied a 5 gallon bucket of water with a couple of the pirul brushes in them. The brushes would be used to throw water on the stones throughout the ceremony. We then called (well still not me at this point) “To all of my friends and family — Door!” At “door!”, or “puerta!”, the assistant outside closed off the entrance we’d come in. So I was now sitting in a cramped, hot, pitch-black space, with garden shorts on and 6 strangers around me. Plus my leg started falling asleep almost immediately.

Singing also started almost immediately. And from what I could gather, it was not all in Spanish, but also a native language. Then Don Jorge asked that each person introduce themselves, say their reason for being there, and sing a song. So the assistant, seated on the opposite side of the door from Don Jorge, began. As he spoke, others in the temazcal wished him and those he mentioned strength by calling out “Fuerza!” That is probably the closest this experience ever got to a black church, so I appreciated it. When he began to sing, others joined him. When he finished he said, “He is God” or “Él es Dios” and everyone repeated him. That phrase was said often throughout.
Then he told me to go. I was sitting next him, but I did not really prepare to say anything. At this point I understood what Don Jorge had asked me early. “Do you know how to pray?” Regardless of the answer, they were asking me to now. So I said who I was, to which I got many “fuerza”s and water thrown onto the rocks. I said I was there to learn and thanked them for including me in their culture experience. I thought I had nailed it, when Don Jorge said, “algo más?” or as you maybe know it, “anything else?” I felt like was some presentation in a class I didn’t really understand that I was just trying to pass. I added my gratitude to Rigo and Vicky for bringing me and showing me their lives. And then I was asked to sing. I said I didn’t know any songs. Really thinking I didn’t really know any songs in Spanish that would make sense to sing in this ceremony. I was thinking Bailando might mess with the overall tone of what was going on. Don Jorge said any song, any language. One that speaks to my heart. Well song always fits that bill. So I sang, a capella, for this group of strangers, who basically had no idea what I was saying, A Change is Gonna Come. Finally, the pressure was off and we finished around the circle with everyone giving their introductions, expressing gratitude for being there, and singing a song. Once Don Jorge finished talking and everyone joined him in his song, we again called, “To all of my friends and family — Door!” At this point I caught on enough to join them.

So that was a little awkward but not too bad. I’d done it, and I don’t think I had offended anyone. And it didn’t get hotter than that one sauna I went in at a YMCA in Paris, KY. But then I was told that was one of four puertas. And the next one would be hotter! So after a pitcher of some fruit flavored water went around, and a bit of cool air managed to make its way into the temazcal, we called for more abuelitas calientes. 13 more were brought in, and a new bucket of water. Once puerta was called, it was clear this was gonna get intense. Water was being tossed very graciously on the rocks, creating lots of hot steam. The focus of this “Puerta” was family. So everyone went around and said a prayer for their family and sang again. I managed to be much smoother this round. But it was getting really hot. I couldn’t breathe, and was starting to silently freak out. I decided that I had to end it after this one. It was getting so intense. My skin felt like it was burning. And I no longer found Vicky’s story about a child in a temazcal screaming “Me muero” or “I’m dying” quite so funny. This was torturous.

When “puerta” was finally called I declared, “Ya no puedo.” I said, “I can’t do it.” It has been a very long time since I let such a thought escape my lips. Since I thought the way forward was to give up. I biked across the country, balanced an impressive number of jobs, organizations, and classes throughout college, free soloed past bolt holds on part of the Peña of Bernal just the weekend before, and agreed to move to the backwoods of Mexico to try to support small mountainous communities for two years! But here I was wanting to give up. It sucked. I felt truly defeated. But the assistant who was sitting next to me just said “No. Sí se puede.” That was that. It was so simple and so powerful. It served as such an important reminder that truthfully I could. That I was letting my head get in the way. The very thing I see happen to people around me all the time. People who assume they can’t do or be something. However, they’re not thinking in capability, but deciding before trying what their willingness to suffer and to give and to work to achieve something is. All it took for me to remember this was for someone to tell me, “Yes you can.” So I stayed, and we all managed to lay in a sort of cuddle-puddle around the pit to enjoy the cool temperature of the Earth and the air below the steam before the third puerta.

And we called for even more “abuelitas,” and we called “puerta.” This “Puerta was about friends and was just one song sang together. It got even hotter than before. But I had a new mindset. And when it hurt the most, toward the very end, I laid down and powered through. Before long, “puerta” was called. And we laid to rest, and drank water as it came around. And I felt strong. I felt able. I was ready for the last puerta. This one was to be reflection. Any last prayers or songs, and we could say them. So the last of the abuelitas were brought in, and the opening was closed, and the assistant began to talk. It got hot. As hot as the second one. But I stayed cool. And when it came my turn I expressed my gratitude for the experience and for the support of those sitting there with them. I expressed my gratitude for new experiences. I expressed gratitude for the process of integration. Everyone after me sang a quick song. And then a final song was sang, before “Puerta” was called for a final time. And one by one we crawled out, used a bucket to dump water on ourselves to get the pirul and sweat off of our bodies, and went inside the old house to eat. While I doubt I will choose to do this again, I am so grateful that I did it this once. I am so grateful for the reminder that every Japenese anime has been trying to teach me, and every entrepreneurial mind remembers. The greatest power, is the power of will.