The Heartbeat of the Drum

Physical exertion and spirituality in the Sierra Tarahumara

We’d wound, bounced and clunked our way for 4 hours in the metal bed of a beaten-up Chevy pickup to Murachárachi, a 30-strong hamlet in Chihuahua, northern Mexico. Along the way, indigenous women in kaleidoscopic dresses tilled patches of land, whilst crepuscular rays bathed the ocean of verdant pines painted across monolithic mountainscapes.

For dinner: the best chicken broth I’d ever tasted. “Why’s it so delicious?”, I inquired. “Because they’re happy, home-reared chickens,” smiled Francisco, my Rarámuri host. An open fire, carefully nurtured all night long by his wife, roared us to sleep in his unassuming, two-room adobe home.

Spot the blondie

By 7.30am the sky was a rich, piercing blue with a sun already beating down. Sporting the traditional tágora, the starting gunshot reverberated for the 26-km cross-c̶o̶u̶n̶t̶r̶y̶mountain race; 8 runners donned huaraches — footwear of just car tyre and leather cord. The Rarámuri, famously “those of light feet”, on the flat held a fast yet bearable pace, but on the steep, jagged slopes they bounded down like mountain goats, dropping me. Hearing distant footsteps, I saw but shadows. I had no idea where to go; this is the Sierra Madre Occidental — there were no cones & tape, nicely worn paths or volunteers with vizzy jackets. I was alone.

Hit by an ear-splitting silence, I stopped, a shiver running down my spine; “I’m lost in a remote Chihuahuan forest. What do I do now?!” I’d been running hard for 15km at 2200m altitude and, accentuated by a pang of fear, I was breathless. My only companion was my heartbeat, a drumming against my rib cage so hard it felt like a trapped animal trying with all its might to escape.

I was in luck; rustling behind me appeared another runner. A few more kilometres we crossed a track where the Rarámuri wives holding huajes offered pinole – powdered maize & sugar mixed in water; sweet & wholesome, a natural, healthy, autochthonous Gatorade! Reborn, we scampered across serene countryside, arriving surprisingly invigorated back to Norogachi.

At the finish line, one of the runners asked me: “How fast do you do the 100?” “100 metres?”, I questioned. They all chuckled. “No, 100 kilometres!”, alluding to the annual Ultra Canyon Marathon. Of course, the winner of our race was wearing huaraches — Nike, New Balance and Adidas are for the outsiders, or chabochis, like me.

Proud of myself for finishing, I soon realised that the race was just the warm up for the real endurance test: 2 nights and 3 days of ritual dancing, marking how Norogachi, the epicentre of Rarámuri culture during Easter Week celebrations, radiates cultural syncretism with Christianity.

¿El pinto más güero? o ¿el güero más pinto?

Given I’d run, I was invited to dance as a pinto, spiritually manifesting the start of the agricultural cycle. Still in the tágora with just white limestone paint dotting our upper halves, we danced circles along with the stars accompanied by the intense pounding of drums. It became trance-like, the drums’ earthly resonance penetrating my body, my heartbeat slowly syncing to their beat.

I started to realise that this was meditation in movement. Clearly, for Rarámuri, marathons are more than tight fluorescent lycra, a few dozen kilometres and donations on Just Giving pages. They’re iterations of a profound, spiritual, universal sacrifice for the broader community and, being of Native American pantheist spirituality, Mother Nature.

The shirts we ran in bore the phrase Onorúame júa sibóa — “With God to the finish line”. Onorúame, the Mother-Father creator for the Rarámuri, is itself a duality — both female and male, dark and light. It dawned on me that running — the essence of the Rarámuri — and dancing, were themselves offerings to the very element that gives life. The finish line was merely metaphorical. Step by step, beat by beat, a similar connection grew inside of me, too.

By 4am it was arctic. Between dances we huddled around a fire but, more than giving warmth, it singed my hair and skin, my bones remaining stone-cold. Close by on the freezing rocky floor the Rarámuri women lay quiescent, yet awake, in moral support. Tiredness and hunger are secondary; the spiritual offering from all sides must go on.

Dancing completed, there’s a community-wide fiesta, everyone sharing copious food and tesgüino (fermented maize beer); after so much fatigue it’s natural that food must arrive, the same way that after a drumbeat or heartbeat there must be silence.

The Rarámuri then offered the Fertility Dance. This ceremony celebrates the triumph of life over death, birth and rebirth, rain after the dry season, abundance and its provider: nature.

The impact that natural equilibrium and spiritual duality have feels self-evident: everything we do is a dance to nature’s heartbeat.