It was 150 degrees inside a tent that smelled like feet, and a sexy Argentine woman had just taken off her top in front of my new husband.
Let me back up. I had somehow convinced Nick that in the midst of our Mexican honeymoon we should try a traditional Mayan temazcal ceremony to cleanse and purify us for our marriage.
"What crap do you need to get rid of?" Nick asked me.
I delivered the knowing gaze I’d perfected by watching Mariska Hargitay talk to victims on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. "There’s always more. My fear! My shame at all of the no good, stupid, horrible things I did before I met you, my fears of being alone, my jealousy, my insecurities. The fact that some mornings I wake up worried that you will be sorry you married me and wish you’d married one of your many, many ex-girlfriends."
He agreed to do the temazcal ceremony if I would agree to go visit the Chichén Itzá ruins the following day. Marriage, I was learning, is about compromise.
Temazcal translates loosely into English as "medicine house." It could just as easily translate to "really hot hut.” Mexican Aztecs, Mayans, and some native North American tribes have used these sweat lodges in a variety of ways for centuries but often to purify a couple right before or after their marriage ceremony.
Most of the high-end resorts along the Riviera Maya offer some tourist version of the temazcal ceremony for visitors, gouging outsiders for as much as $1,000 for a private couple’s ceremony. We laughed at the idea of paying a good portion of our monthly rent to sweat in a tent, but serendipity intervened during a stop at an organic juice shop, where the barista promised that for just $100 total she could score us a sweat-lodge session that included a shaman named Julio and two shots of locally made artisanal tequila.
Just past sundown we met our shaman in the dense jungle behind the juice store. He was fairly obvious, the guy mixing up a pot of herbs and wearing a loincloth who reminded me of the dude my friends bought weed from back in high school. He had a lady friend with him, a bright-eyed and beautiful Argentine girl named Gisele, who smiled at us and wiggled her fingers in a trifling wave, her 20-something skin glistening with sweat, sand, and seawater.
"She’s here to balance the masculine and feminine energy in the ceremony," Julio said.
The temazcal ritual usually involves spending five hours in a very hot tent or stone hut while a shaman or other religious practitioner uses scorching volcanic rocks doused with healing waters to bring the temperature inside above 170 degrees. The shaman leads the group in chanting ancient prayers that are supposed to unveil traumas, fears, and emotional stress trapped within the body and mind—all of the crap. The ancient Mayans believed that spending time in the temazcal represented a return to the womb, a place where you can be freed of past troubles and worries.
"The process is hard. It takes patience," Julio explained. "You’re forced to suffer together." I remembered that the word "patience" was born of the word for "suffering." "And afterward you’re reborn as a pair of warriors, bonded for life. You will be on the same team—like the New York Giants."
The ceremony began simply enough. Julio’s shaman assistant, Miguel, shoveled the volcanic rocks into a claustrophobic hut constructed of sticks and blankets. I likened it to a yurt, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what a yurt should look like.
We crawled in the dirt on our hands and knees through the hut’s tiny door. Inside we formed a circle around the fire as the temperature rose. Julio pounded on an oblong calfskin drum and chanted, encouraging us to repeat the half-Spanish, half-Mayan phrases.
Before we knew what was happening, it got hot—really, really hot.
Sweat dripped over my eyelashes. Of course Gisele took off her bikini to reveal her Victoria's Secret model perfect boobs.
Time became completely irrelevant in the temazcal. Minutes could have been hours and hours could have been days. There was only the singing and the drums and the heat. Oh my God, that heat. Sometimes I felt closer to Nick than ever before as I wound my fingers through his and listened to his singing. Other times I hardly even knew he was there.
"Shed your fears; shed your anxiety. Give them up to the fire. Burn them away," Julio chanted in Mayan and then in broken English. He looked directly at me, the smoke blurring his face around the edges. "You don’t trust happiness. You find comfort in the pain and fear you’ve known for so long. Embrace these good new things."
"I peed my pants," Nick whispered, breaking Julio’s spell over me. He wasn’t kidding. My husband, who has a very small bladder and who had drunk a gallon of water in anticipation of sweating for five hours, peed his pants in the Mayan hell yurt. What had I gotten us into? Why were we boiling in a hot box with a maybe shaman who came highly recommended by a girl who made juice and his girlfriend with the tits of a porn star? I plotted escape routes.
Nick curled into the fetal position. He might have passed out. I burrowed a hole through the sand and underneath the tent to stick my head outside to escape the smells of the tent saturated with pee, sweat, and body odor, desperate for a single breath of wonderfully cool, clean air.
"Give it all away!" Julio boomed as I brought my head back inside. "Sometimes you need to scream once in a while. Scream it all out. If you keep everything inside, you’ll explode."
What did I want to give away? At this very moment I wanted to give away the few items of clothing still clinging to my body. I stripped my shirt off, dropping the sweat-drenched tank top into the fire.
I wanted to let go of my anger at my parents for not being better marital role models. I had to give away my insecurities about not being pretty enough or good enough or lovable enough. I wanted to be less selfish. I wanted to be better at considering Nick’s needs before my own. I screamed these things into the fire. I yelled louder than I’d ever yelled before. I yelled until the back of my throat got tight and began to hurt. I saw myself rubbed raw.
Julio spat into the dirt. "And now the newlyweds touch and be close," Julio said. "For the last of the rocks. The most powerful of the rocks. You shall seal your bond. You express your love and your gratitude."
Julio opened the hut’s flap one last time to shovel more fiery rocks into the middle of our circle.
"No more," I whispered, but he didn’t hear me.
We were spent. I lay down in front of Nick and pressed my body into his. Realizing I was too close to the heat rising off the rocks, he wordlessly moved in front of me to try to block me from the flames.
I felt the air in front of me cool several degrees, like walking into a shadow on the street.
"Express your love for one another. Express your vows." I couldn’t believe Julio was still talking.
In our handwritten wedding vows I’d vowed to love him, to nurture him, and to inspire him. He had vowed to support me, cherish me, give me backrubs, and strive to make me happy every day for the rest of our lives. We grasped hands and said these things to each other again in the yurt tent. But we also said other things. Nick promised to help calm my anxieties and insecurities, and I promised to let my guard down more often.
He promised to be strong when I couldn’t be, and I promised to be patient and supportive. This time the vows felt more real than when we had said them at our wedding. This time we were saying them just for each other instead of for a crowd of people. I rolled onto my belly and buried my face in the sand to cool it off.
"You will suffer," Julio said. "In a marriage you will suffer together. But together you will be warriors!"
My body went limp. I fell into a fugue state. Time passed. And then it was over.
We crept out of the temazcal like weakened lambs who’d somehow escaped slaughter.
"Now we will cleanse in the healing waters of the sea."
Julio led us, barefoot, across the pockmarked street and onto the grounds of a nearby resort, paying no mind to signs that warned against trespassing. We wove through a labyrinth of palm trees and chaise lounges until we came upon the ocean.
In the sea Nick held me above the waves, my head tipped back to stare at the sky. "How do you feel?" he asked, his voice hoarse from bellowing into the fire.
"Lighter?" I said, more of a question than a statement. "I don’t need to throw up anymore. I thought I was going to throw up most of the time we were in the hut. But now I feel good. Surprisingly good."
"That was hard."
Nick nodded. "Did you get rid of your crap?"
"I feel nice." I didn’t know what to say except for that.