Saturday, 5 March 2011

Temazcal

In glorious summer sunshine, days have a habit of slipping quietly into weeks; and so it is since I last wrote on my blog. But today, there is something very special to tell you. So, sit up and listen to my latest tale.

Eva and I met on the corner of Humberto Primo and Chacabuco. She is to visit her friends Hippolato y Katerina and I have been invited. Before we met, her instruction to me was to bring a towel, wear little, and be prepared to strip. My mind flashed, as it would, over roof-top swimming pools or sun-drenched beaches, but such are rather rare here in Buenos Aires. So tonight was to be a surprise and I did as instructed.

The carnival bands were already meeting up, with city buses decanting dancers and singers into Chacabuco for the short walk through to San Juan. They were gaudy and noisy, with loud shouts, trumpets, and drums. Carnival seems to last continuously from February through to March, with parades and pagents, and drumming through to the early hours of the morning. Yes, you need to be young at heart to survive carnival.

But as the dancers gather, we slip by, to stop at an almost invisible doorway set back in Chacabuco. Eva presses the bell and after what seems an age, Hippolato arrives to give us entry down the long, wide, green corridor that leads to small apartments occupied by the poorer families of San Telmo. Hippolato is not tall, but his strong Mexican Indian features draw the eye, as does the way he moves. He is like a cat, pinching the ground as he walks, his long jet black hair tied into a tail which flows as he walks, just as his loose Indian trousers catch the slight breeze.We quickly arrive at double doors that lead to a small enclosed court yard. And there is the secret of the evening: the temazcal.

Here, I suspect that I need to hold your hand. A temazcal is a Mexican sauna. Hippolato has already woven slim bamboo canes into a structure that resembles something between a tepee and an igloo. It is low, with a circular frame, sufficient to seat four, and a domed roof that rises from the tiled floor. In the corner of the court yard are animal skin to seal the temazcal, and a brazier of hot rocks. These are volcanic stones from Popocapteptl and are glowing white hot.

We greet. Katerina, Hippolato's young wife holds their baby who beams on the arrival of strangers. Water and fresh fruit are offered and we sit on chairs and stools to watch the last points of construction of the temazcal. Now Hippolato seals it, with heavy rocks to hold the skins and large sheets of plastic thrown over to contain the humidity. Gently, we are invited to leave our clothes to be cleansed with incense vapours which rise from a hot rock placed in a large goblet. Each of us in turn is covered in gentle swirls of aromas, and then invited into the temazcal. We sit on towels and the hot rocks follow us, piled by the doorway straight onto the tiled floor. In one corner is a large bowl of basil; in another, a flask of hot anise water which will be spashed from a large bunch of basil leaves over the hot rocks causing scalding aromatic steam to rise and fill the structure.

As the temazcal commences, Hippolato incants mother earth and thanks her for her blessings.
“Agua mi sangre, Tierra mi cuerpo, Aire mi aliento, Y Fuego mi espíritu.” “Water my blood, Earth my body, Air my breath, And Fire my Spirit.”
The moment is charged with energy. Silence falls as the temperature soars. Now the only sound is of Katerina's baby suckling. His first temazcal was at the age to 9 weeks, so he is a veteran, whilst Eva and hold our knees, feeling the humidity rise, tasting the basil and fennel at the back of our throats in a wonderfully hot and pleasurable process. With more water, further clouds of scalding aromatic steam rise into the tepee and the temperature and humidity rise. The incantation was accompanied by songs and blessings; the process being repeated three times over about an hour, with a short moment of fresh cool air whilst the hot stones were refreshed. When the heat gets too strong, we take handfuls of basil leaves and hold them to our noses, or press them against our bodies. It is totally fabulous as an experience and also as a sensation. Afterwards we take a cool shower and, still naked, feast in the court yard on cheese, olives, home made sun-dried tomatoes, bread and water.

Later,Eva and I return, rising up Chacabuco towards the sound of the carnival. We have left our green oasis and walk towards the bustle of San Telmo. Our skin feels soft and our faces fresh, our step is light. Parting, we return to our private worlds, but feel changed. This experience has been both physical and spiritual - yet another step along the wonderful, wild and free journey of life in Argentina and South America.
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