Now, I am all for doing random shit as anybody who knows me is well aware. Whether it’s a drumming journey in Sydney to discover my spirit animals or visiting a black barber shop in North Carolina to see patterns shaved into mens’ heads, I am there. Generally speaking, these experiences turn out to be positive, oftentimes hilarious and, if nothing else, interesting and “a story”.
Above: Shamanic ceremony with medicine wheel in Paddington, Sydney.
Sometimes, though, in the midst of these random activities, I ask myself: why? Why am I doing this? Surely, at some point logic must prevail? Surely, the experience or the story isn’t worth the awkwardness, embarrassment or extreme discomfort? While I was in Cusco (Peru) in August, for example, I ended up at the top of a makeshift wooden ramp with a decorated hammer in one hand and a bottle of sparkling wine in the other getting ready to bless a layer of concrete. Wearing a short dress. In front of 10 clapping Peruvian men. All because I “had to know what would happen”…anyway, that’s another “story”.
Above: Post-wet cement christening. I can only shake my head. Also, what on Earth was I wearing? Looks like I poured glue on myself and rolled around in the closet.
More recently, while I was in beautiful and tranquil Vilcabamba (Ecuador), I spent TWO HOURS sweating profusely inside what I can only describe as a human pizza oven while trying not to think about how much the hot air was burning the fuck out of my nostrils. Previously in yoga I have been told to “feel how the air changes from cool when you breathe in, to warm when you breathe out”. This was the opposite, which meant what – that my LUNGS were having to cool down the fiery air?!!
The official name for the oven was “a sweat lodge” or “the womb of mother earth”, and for this reason you had to crawl in on your hands and knees before sitting cross-legged with 15 other equally silly travellers from my yoga retreat. These people lasted for varying lengths of time, and because I am competitive, it felt like one of those Survivor challenges, except you don’t get immunity at the end. Somehow, I don’t think this was the intended idea. Definitely not a comparison to share with the medicine men running the show or the more spiritually “advanced” of the group who have taken ayahuasca 28 times.
Above: I trawled the internet (OK, one google image search), but this is the only photo I could find of the womb, and it’s obviously an “in the making” pic. I assure you it was VERY enclosed.
I remember arriving and thinking that this pretty white house was the “lodge” – to me, lodge implies a house of sorts. I was imagining a nice little wooden joint, very hot, but also spacious. Then I turned to where everyone was gathering and saw a small clay dome about 1.5m tall. Surely not?
Once inside, there were no windows, just one small entrance used to throw coals into the fire pit in the middle via what resembled that thing used to shovel pizza. The only light came from these coals, which disappeared once they started putting water on them to maximise the heat. They called each coal “medicine”, I prefer “carriers of doom”. Hello, claustrophobia.
Above: What I THOUGHT was the lodge
In hindsight, this was actually a great experience (I think) – definitely unforgettable. I came out feeling completely different (spiritual?), very grounded – perhaps, from literally burying my face and body shamelessly into the ground in an attempt at finding some cool earth.
But during this torturous event (and make no mistake, it was torture), these were the kind of thoughts I had:
“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”
“Is there a small dog beside me?”
“Should I tell them about the dog? I’m telling them about the dog.”
“Oh my goodness, my allergy to the cold! Am I going to get hives from the sudden temperature change? Are those hives? Oh, it’s just sweat beads”
“The next time they bring in more burning hot coals via that flap I am leaving”
“What would my 97-year-old grandmother make of this?”
“Is this what giving birth feels like?”
“Did he just say to surrender you know to the womb of mother earth? Are you flipping kidding me?”
“Is that small dog still in here…oh my god it is…oh my god, its little head is drenched!”
“I might take my top off, it’s pitch black after all”
“Woah, those are some seriously sweaty boobs.”
“Please don’t add more water to the coals Mr Medicine Man, please…oh god dammiiiiiiiiit!”
“Surely if a Scot Terrier can do this, I can too”
Above: From earlier that day at the yoga retreat, blissfully ignorant of the hell to come
There was chanting which I tried to join in to distract my mind from the suffering, but I could barely breathe let alone SING. So I just rammed my face, forehead, cheeks into the slight coolness of the wall (which wasn’t that easy given the wall was curved) and focused on breathing in hot air.
When they brought in the 4th round of coals I thought “Nope, that’s it,” and said to the girl beside me “I think I need to get out”. She said “You can lie down, it helps” which was an absolute lifesaver. Instant relief as I pushed every piece of dripping wet flesh I could into the dirt, not caring about the painful pebbles or how insanely filthy I was going to be. I felt bad for the dog that I nudged to the side, but I needed every patch of earth I could get my body on. After that it was bearable, and I made it to the end, which felt like a massive personal achievement. Far more than going overseas on exchange to Italy at the age of 16 or graduating university.
How did I do it?
With the help of the cool earth, I was actually able to push through the insane situation and bear it. Did I “surrender”? Haha. Towards the end, they opened the flap door one more time and threw water all over us, which came as a terrible shock, eliciting some ridiculous gasping type sounds on my part. Then after who knows how long (time is an illusion after all, ha!), we all crawled out, again in a clockwise direction on our hands and knees, before finally meeting normal air again. I hugged the two medicine men – god knows why – then we all proceeded to an icy nearby river to “refresh”. My experience of this was half crawling across rocks so as not to fall, then flailing around in 20cm deep cold water, pathetically splashing myself to get rid of the dirt, gasping some more and trying not smash my bruises from tubing gone wrong earlier that day. My poor body! We then went back to the campfire where I stared mindlessly at the full moon and tried to warm my now FREEZING body on the fire. But, hey, at least my mind was quiet and I was “present”.
I spoke with other people about their experience, and some of them said they would do it again. And people say I’M a nut bag! I am not so sure I could do it again. A week later, I gave a steam bath in Baños a go (full story here), and that was only for 3 minutes at a time, and my head was free. Maybe because I was on my own and without any peer pressure it was harder to stick it out, I’m not sure. Generally though, these weird and wonderful experiences are one-offs – better not to know what you’re getting yourself into.
“We all come from the earth, we are all connected…”
Spirituality disclaimer: I actually did get a lot out of the experience, and I am a big fan of Eckhardt Tolle’s The Power of Now. It was just too hard to resist taking the piss out of the whole wanky thing!
Animal disclaimer: The dog was unharmed. It didn’t seem to want to leave. The leader said it was a “perro sagrado” (spiritual dog) hahaha