It's late at night. And after a half-hour drive from the Oaxaca airport, I pass through a large wooden gate into a beautifully tiled courtyard draped in bougainvillea. A large black dog comes to greet me and a woman offers me tortillas, guacamole and guava juice in the moonlight. I am entering another world, and I have come to meet a medicine man.
I am at the Casa Sagrada ranch for a week-long creative writing workshop with Donna Hanelin, a poet and teacher from California, and Alejandro Cordero, a curandero or shaman, who was introduced to native healing rituals at his grandmother's knee and who has since studied various forms of alternative healing. An expert in the temazcal healing ritual, he will be our conduit to the muse.
The workshop - Removing Obstacles - is part undergraduate creative writing class, part group therapy and part ancient ritual, all in the shadow of Monte Alban, once known as Sacred Mountain, a high peak of the Sierra Madre mountain range that provides an inspiring backdrop.
The first morning, my classmates and I jump in with writing exercises and a discussion exploring the obstacles to our creativity: insecurity, fear, distraction, lack of time, lack of conviction, lack of inspiration. Did I mention fear?
Later, we take a guided horseback ride through the hilly desert terrain. Giant candelabra and prickly pear cacti remind us that hardy things adapt to tough conditions. The occasional bloom stands out defiantly in the arid landscape as turkey vultures circle overhead.
The next day, Alejandro invites us into the temazcal, "the house of hot stones," a traditional healing ritual similar to the native sweat lodges of Canada and the U.S. Temazcals, now used widely throughout Mexico, are intended to melt away stress and purify the body, mind and soul with herbs, steam and heat. Ancient Mayan and Aztec priests are said to have used them before sacrifices to commune with ancestors and the gods.
The small room, a metaphor for the womb, is a place to leave our obstacles behind and emerge reborn.
I decide to air my reservations up front: Intense heat makes my face break out; I hate sweating with other people; tight spaces make me claustrophobic. "Just try to stay with it," Alejandro says patiently.
We stretch, shed our clothes and wrap ourselves in sheets. Alejandro chants prayers - which I need at this point - and we crawl through the small door into the temazcal, where we are greeted by a blast of heat more intense than I have ever felt. I'm having difficulty breathing and I feel like throwing up.
But rosemary, eucalyptus and other herbs sprinkled on the hot rocks smell wonderful, and Alejandro splashes us with water to provide a little relief. He chants and tells us about the spiritual history of the temazcal.
I stay with it. For about five minutes. When he gets to the part where the ancients cut themselves with obsidian blades on their tongues, ears and genitals to make blood sacrifices to the Gods on the hot stones, I bolt.
Alejandro, a kind curandero, follows me out to wrap me in a blanket before returning to describe an Aztec creation myth involving the great goddess who, by various acts of birth and dismemberment, gave rise to the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars. Those inside, the brave ones, offer up their obstacles, and receive guidance on how to overcome them. Eventually, Alejandro invites me back in.
He talks about finding strength and inspiration by connecting to the spirits of our ancestors and finding our spirit guides. We sing an ancient song, and strangely seem to know the melody. It is beautiful. But I am still mainly connected to the need for air.
At the end of the session, which has lasted two hours, we have tea and rest before reconvening to talk about our experience. I feel like a temazcal loser, a half-baked tortilla - also an apt metaphor for my novel, for which I've travelled here for inspiration. But the week is only half over, so there is hope.
We visit Yagul, an evocative Zapotec ruin that dates back thousands of years, and have the place to ourselves. Relatively out of the way and untrampled, it is awe-inspiring, with tiny pieces of obsidian sacrifice blades scattered around the main temple.
The next day, assured that it involves no heat, blood or small spaces, I opt for a limpia with Alejandro, a traditional spirit purification that gets its name from the Spanish "to clean." Alejandro waves a candle slowly around my body to collect my energy and then throws it into a bucket of water to read the results. He finds my fear in a lumpy part of the wax and gives me the congealed mass to do with what I will. It is my fear, and I have the sudden feeling that I can control it.
Again he talks about the importance of connecting with ancestors, but for me they remain elusive. I do, however, feel strangely empowered - like I could write something. I go back to my room and write about having a clean soul, but no ancestor spirits.
The work continues for the rest of the week with readings of what we've written and gentle critiques by Donna, an encouraging teacher.
The night before I leave, I stare into my blank laptop screen under the gaze of the Sacred Mountain. Venus is shining brightly in the night sky and the horses are settling into their stalls for the night. From the village below come the rhythmic sounds of gongs and church bells, donkeys and dogs. What more could a person need?
Then, having given up, I am finally able to connect with the spirits of the place. They may be local minor deities rather than the uber-creator goddess, but that's okay. I feel another chapter coming on.
Air Canada and Mexicana fly to Oaxaca airport via Mexico City. From there, the town of Teotitlan del Valle is about 50 kilometres away.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa Sagrada 310-455-6085; www.casasagrada.com. From $111 double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner.
WHAT TO DO
Artisanias Casa Santiago Teotitlan del Valle; 951-524-4154; www.artesaniascasasantiago.com. This family weaving business is one of many in town; most Zapotec weavers are eager to share their work and show visitors how handmade natural dyes are made from bugs and plants.