How would I know that you may ask, because I indeed took part in an ancient Mayan ceremonial experience in a sweat lodge somewhere in the depths of the jungle in Cozumel. It all began when my all-inclusive resort package offered the option to experience a true Mayan religious ceremony. Wanting to immerse myself in the culture, and hoping for an authentic experience, I thought, why not? The first tip off that I should have been more wary was when they required a signature to verify that I had no pre-existing heart issues. I, however, did not heed that red flag and registered for the trip. My second red flag came when I realized that only one other couple out of the entire resort thought this was a good idea.
They drove us so far away from any sign of civilization, I was quite certain I would soon meet my demise and that my remains would one day be found by a wandering alligator or some such thing. Once there, we met our spiritual leader who was impressively dressed entirely in white. Some of the mystique surrounding this man, however, had dissipated before we met after we spotted his Volkswagen Beetle parked nearby with a bumper sticker that read, “My son is a Boy Scout.”
We were invited to sit down on a large cloth which was spread out on the ground and held a pile of decomposing fruits that were being offered to some Mayan god. I took one look at the cloth that was teaming with large ants and opted to stand. Our leader then did his best to shame me by calling me a city girl who wouldn’t sit with the ants. He was correct on the last part of that statement. I may not be from a city, but I sure as heck was not about to sit down with those ants.
The next leg of our spiritual journey was a walk through the jungle where he encouraged us to hug the trees and thank them for their existence. It felt a little silly, but since I had already balked at sitting with the ants, I complied. Next, he led us to what appeared to be a gigantic pizza oven. The only difference being, we were the pizza! I failed to mention that it was about 100 degrees outside. We all filed into the lodge and the flap was closed. Thankfully there was a hole in the middle of the roof to let some of the smoke out, so it wasn’t completely dark. Then, he turned up the heat, literally. A fire was built in the center, and we began to sweat. He took us on a virtual journey as we recalled our past, explored our present, and lastly, envisioned our future. We each took turns sharing while dipping sage branches into a bucket of water then placing them over the fire, producing steam. At one point it was so stifling hot I laid flat on my stomach trying to capture a bit of the breeze that was seeping in around the lodge’s flapped opening.
You probably are expecting me to conclude by saying that this experience was hokey and strange, and I guess at first it was, but to be honest the time of self-reflection was eye opening and life changing. Adding to the experience was the fact that one of the others in the lodge was from Syria and when she began to recite prayers she had learned as a child from her grandmother, it was truly beautiful. Even though I couldn’t understand a word she said, the message within her passionate, rhythmic prayers came through loud and clear.
I left the lodge hot, tired, and I am certain severely dehydrated, but I also learned a very valuable lesson that day. Perhaps we all go about things from different directions, using different methods, but what is most important is to be respectful of others, their cultures, and traditions. If we can do that, we may just find that we have a lot more in common that we ever realized. “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Audre Lorde
Rhonda S. Kelley, Executive Director, Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce