Tree, Isabella - Sliced Iguana – 05 The ceremony
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
It was time for the peyote. Juancho took out his Swiss-army knife and ceremoniously dissected a couple of the bulbs, cutting off the tough outer skin like a pineapple and pulling out the tufts. Then one by one, the men, several of the women, one or two of the younger boys, and lastly the teiwaris came forward and stood before him to be blessed.
Shaking his deer-tail-eagle-feather wand with its tiny bell, he lightly touched the hands, feet, head and heart of each person, before placing a chunk of the cactus in their mouths. When it came to my turn, I had to suppress a desire to say 'Amen'.
The cactus was instantaneously bitter and seemed to suck my mouth dry. It was strangely cold on the tongue, like a sliver of ice.
I hadn't yet dared to swallow any of it when I felt my stomach begin to heave. 'Chew it slowly,' said Humberto. 'If you swallow it in one go you'll be sick.'
Juancho had warned us not to grimace - to try to look like we were enjoying it. We should be grateful, he said: this was a gift from the gods. But it was virtually impossible, as I tried to smooth the furrows from my brow, not to look as if someone had slapped me across the face. I could feel my eyes starting out of their sockets and a sneer of offence twisting my lips.
As I chewed, desperately trying to befriend the acrid taste, the fibres of the root seemed to warm up and swell on my tongue. My mouth, as dry as the desert a second ago, was now awash with saliva and the piece of cactus began to take on the disturbing consistency of raw flesh.
Juancho blessed himself and popped some peyote into his mouth.
'Uggh!' he exclaimed, screwing up his face, 'It's disgusting. I don't like this.' He pretended to spit it out.'We laughed, but didn't feel it was quite our place to agree.
Juancho took the uxa root, and ground some more of it to a paste with a little sacred water. Then he applied a dozen or so yellow spots to our cheeks. Holding his special religious mirror he carefully dotted paint on his own.
The world I have come from is beginning, imperceptibly, to go into retreat. Here in this cave we are companeros, bound together on a collective journey. The uxa spots tighten the skin as they begin to dry. We look like reflections of each other.
Juancho takes a phial of deer-blood, empties it into a gourd and places it on the altar. Then he pulls up a small rock and takes his place, with his back to the opening of the cave, facing south towards his homeland, the altar in front of him, the fire on his right. Someone gestures to me and I give Juancho my padded 'Therm-o-rest' to make his seat more comfortable. It's going to be a long night.
Juancho begins to chant.
Outside the sun surrenders a few last rays and the cumulonimbi take a final, fiery curtain call. As dusk intensifies our fire springs to life, throwing the faces of the gathering into sharp relief. We could be sitting here at any moment in time. We've been lifted into eternity. My eyes are drawn to the fantastic colours dancing in the skirts and headscarves of the women, the acrobatic detail of the men's tunics and beads. My own clothes seem dowdy and joyless by comparison. I begin to consider it a metaphor.
Suddenly I notice the uxa spots on our cheeks. They look like raindrops on the white skin of my teiwari companions; but on the dark skin of the Indians they jump out, fluorescent and alive, ready to speak.
Juancho is introducing us to the deities, singing in Huichol, explaining who we are and why we're here. His voice is steady, beseeching, rhythmic, softly rasping, mesmerizing. The youngest children settle down in a tent to sleep.
Everyone else sits around, as before, gazing into the flames, occasionally chatting, or passing the bottle of mezcal. The peyote, flower of the desert, doesn't react well with water, I've been told.
It foams in the stomach like cappuccino, bucking and resisting the aquatic forces. It finds the distillation of agave, its biological companiero, much more compatible so we drink tepe - a kind of cactus moonshine we bought in the Tepehuano village – from old plastic Sprite bottles. It's fiery but comforting and acts as a much-needed digestivo.
Bats return to the cave, no doubt astounded at what they find, and a night chill sets in. Jessica notices me beginning to shiver.
'Try not to focus on the cold or it'll start to possess you,' she advises me gently. 'The peyote will warm you if you let it. Concentrate on the heat from the fire.'………………………
Despite the ancient ties that bound them deep below the surface, all these different communities seem to be trying to wrestle away from each other, and out from under the blanket of nationhood that has suffocated them for so long.
Only here, now, among the most marginalized and isolated group of Mexicans I've so far encountered, do I find myself unexpectedly challenged by the bigger picture. But it's not a picture of. Mexicanidad, as such, that I'm confronted with.
This is a perspective that's bigger than national boundaries, bigger even than continents, bigger than the here and now. It's a blast from the furnace of human evolution, from a memory the modern world has long forgotten; it's a vision of timeless, composite universality; an omneity of cause and effect.