Pilgrimage in the Mazatec Mountains

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Art, ritual and ceremony are the
paintbrushes of the human soul.

Leaving New Mexico is always a
little sad. I am like a cottonwood tree, rooted deep into the dry land, looking
for water under the dusty earth. I am a walking tree, going from one place to
another but never leaving the safety of my own roots.  The red earth of New Mexico is stuck to the soles of my
shoes, leaving traces of red sand on the airport passageways.  The big sky is in my eyes, an offering
to the places I visit.

We are on final approach to Mexico
City,  still flying above the black
clouds, strange mountains of the night. A new moon paints a smile on the
heavens with Venus above it like a Cyclops eye, watching the gigantic city.

After a good night's sleep we take a
taxi ride to the bus depot. Outside the window the pastel light slowly defines
the shapes of the early morning. Our bus leaves on time; it is a comfortable
spaceship that sounds its impressive horn at each blind turn.

I eat Italian almonds for breakfast
to keep from getting queasy. Four hours go by until the first pit stop.  We pay three pesos for toilet paper as
chickens strut by the missing bathroom door. I make a note to stop drinking
water so I can stay comfortable till the next baño.

The bus twists and turns up the
mountain, I slip down the vinyl seat and squeeze Linda to the window. The rumba
music blaring from the radio irritates me; unfortunately, I understand the Spanish
words, singing out a constant complaint of unrequited love. " Turn it down,
please," I plead with the driver. For a moment he turns the knob and then as if
by magic the music becomes louder again.

At the next stop, I buy a Coca-Cola,
something I have not done for a long time.  Like, hi my name is so and so and I am a coke addict. I am
having a Coke slip. Damn, that cold sparkly brown liquid feels good on the side
of the road.

After eight hours of travel we get
to the end of the line, the village of Huautla de Jimenez is sprinkled like
salt on a green mountain 8500 feet above the sea.

Another taxi takes us to
Grandmother Julieta's house. She is sitting on the sofa in the front room
watching her Tele Novellas, a cup of coffee on the chair in front of her. We
share kisses and hugs as small children and a rooster run in and out of the
room. The warmth of the people and the dirt are the first things I take in,
later when I return to Santa Fe my therapist asks me "What kind of dirt?" "The
dirt of the earth," I say, "the same dirt we try to keep out of our houses with
vacuum cleaners, behind closed doors and windows." Here everything is open to
the land, no boundaries between the inside and the outside. Linda and I have
come a long way because the magic mushrooms grow here during the rainy season.
For generations the Mazatec have harvested them as medicine. They call them "The Santo Niños,"
the little saints.

We have come to seek healing, the
kind of healing the earth offers through her sacred medicines. These mushrooms
are legal for a 30 kilometers radius around the Village of Huautla, the
substances are not outlawed like in other places around the world. The
government respects the ancient traditions of the Mazatec People. Plentiful baskets of mushrooms are
painted on the outside walls of the church. In Hauatla the mushroom is another
image for Christ. Religion and Mother Earth is one and the same thing.

Upstairs in our room we relax on
clean sheets and a rather hard mattress, just the right thing for a spoiled
woman like me. We keep the windows wide open, with a view of the crimson bougainvillea
bush and the mountains, decorated with passing clouds like giant Christmas
trees. Night has fallen and stars light up in the sky, one wink at a time.

There is a gas stove in the kitchen, but the family cooks on
an open fire in the patio. The fire must never go out, each passing person adds
a piece of wood to feed the flames. A deep pan of coffee simmers all day long.
Neighbors bring large bouquets of flowers as offerings for Julieta's altar in
the basement.  

Three parrots clothed in rainbow feathers are caged in a
dark room off the courtyard; I am told they are Julieta's power animals never
to be photographed or they would die, their souls captured and stolen in the
picture. Later Julieta tells me her chickens are also here for her protection.

Julieta Casimiro is one of the 13
Indigenous Grandmothers who travel the world speaking about peace and reverence
for the Mother Earth. She has been to see The Dalai Lama in India and has
made a trip to the Vatican in Rome. She is a humble and powerful Shaman who is
always available to help heal the many local and international people who come
to her door.

Since her husband Lucio died seven
years ago she sleeps on the sofa; she never went back to the bedroom she shared
with him during their long life together.

This evening we are going to
journey with Julieta down in the sotano where she holds her "Veladas." Linda and
I have been fasting since the morning, all we've had were a couple of golden
mangos, juice running down the corners of our mouths like liquid sunshine. I
have a cup chamomile tea and a short siesta.

Sitting on my bed, facing the open
window, I contemplate the breath-taking view of the Mazatec Mountains. The
mattress springs dig into my body as I lie back thinking: Hoh Hum! Another
mushroom journey, poor baby I will be tired and achy. I could just as well
watch television for four hours. I would rather drink a hot cup of tea while night
falls gently on the village.

Linda says "Oh well, this might be
our last trip." Smoke rises from the patio below, I smell burnt coffee, the
parrots cry their captive screams, the dog barks at a passing fly, cats chase a
mouse in the corridor. In the distance is the relentless sound of fireworks set
of by bored teenagers.

Around six in the evening one of the kids calls us down for the

I take my water, my blanket and my
red shawl. In the patio the grandchildren are playing with a deflated ball. We
walk down the stairs to the basement.

The ceremony room is lit with many candles;
there are big bouquets of white lilies curved like seashells in vases at the
foot of the altar. On the wall hang two big paintings of the Virgin of
Guadalupe. On the floor is a statue of Juan Diego, the indigenous peasant to whom
she appeared in 1531.

Linda and I settle down on foam
pads, a thin protection from the cement floor. I pull a couple of blankets up
to my chin. Julieta sits next to us, surrounded by a pile of tattered prayer
books. She has a small frame, I perceive her two long black braids and see that
she has removed her teeth for the evening. She turns toward Linda and me and
looks at us with playful eyes full of tenderness:

"Tonight we will eat a lot,"
Julieta says in a mischievous voice. She hands us each a small saucer with
several fresh mushrooms laid out on it. "Eat, eat, the Santo Niños are good
doctors, lawyers and even Phd's. They will give you the wisdom and insight you
need to bring back into the world." " Do you want honey? Get some from the
altar." Linda gets up and gives me a spoonful of honey. The mushrooms are
delicious wet, slippery and sweet.

We are safe, cocooned in the
descending darkness while Julieta singsongs the rosary. I close my eyes; she
begins to sing in Mazatec. Her wonderful voice is a delicious lullaby of faith
as the Niños make their way into my body.

My eyes are closed, I shiver, I
burp, sure sign that the medicine is beginning to take hold.

An avalanche of stars streams behind
my closed eyelids. Cathedrals of color replace thoughts in my mind. I am
plunged into a non-physical realm, a collection of worlds made up of benevolent
nature spirits, playing in the nucleus of my cells.  I am calm and surrendered like never before. Julieta stops
singing and a vast tsunami of silence engulfs my consciousness. This is inner
travel that no words can describe. I am floating in an ocean of love. I hear
Julieta's prayer for healing and wisdom wash over the beaches of my inner life, tickling my soul like a baby's laughter.

At times I open my eyes, I no
longer see the pictures of Jesus and the Guadalupe, the forms are abstract now,
a myriad of rainbow molecules shimmer in the dark, rearranging themselves into
patterns that fill my senses with awe. I want to capture these images with a
paintbrush but they disappear like soap bubbles in the air.

As there is no form, time has
dissolved into nothing. I can feel the silence as I sink deeper into gratitude
for pure awareness. Now and then, Julieta's prayer becomes louder. We are
called back to place, to the safety of her experienced presence and the living faith
she brings to the moment. After a while I enter a world of crystal; it is as if
I am taken for a walk into the snowflake itself, a sticky, crisp landscape of
ice turning into a waterfall of diamonds.

Hours of earthly time pass away.
Julieta and her daughter sing together in the dark like a pair of meadowlarks
responding to each other. Julieta asked me how I am doing, a sign that the
ceremony will soon come to a close. She thanks our guides for giving us a safe
journey. We gather our blankets and find our shoes by the door. The patio is
dark and welcoming, lit only by the fire on the table.

Linda and I go and sit in the
kitchen. She retrieves the small avocados, tomatoes, cheese and bread we bought
at the market. Soon she hands me a delicious sandwich, I bite into it and enjoy
this simple fresh food. I fiddle with teabags and boiling water until I have a
steaming cup of chamomile tea. It's late but the children are still up chasing
each other and laughing.

Mexico, May 2010


Joanna is the producer and interviewer at the website futureprimitive.org


Photo by chimpete, champata, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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