Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Visit to Huautla De Jimenez

My visiting father in law expressed interest in visiting Huautla de Jiminez, the remote mountain town in the northeast corner of Oaxaca famed for it's magic mushrooms. I've been living in Oaxaca for 2.5 years, and of course I'm well aware of Huautla and it's sacred mushroom rituals. I have been in no rush to get there and gobble down magic fungus, as I approach them with respect and a wee bit of caution these days. Past experience with them has generally been wonderful. I consider that the 'shrooms themselves have a sense of humor and important information for human beings. This being the case, I figured I'd get to Huautla when the time was right, no rush. David inquired as to whether we might visit Huautla, and my wife Serena offered to keep the home fires burning with the kids, so the adventure was set.

Early last Saturday morning we set out in the Toyota RAV4, headed north on the Cuota, the super highway toll road towards Mexico City. After about a couple hours, we exited and headed back south a few miles on local roads to a town called Teotitlan before turning east towards an imposing range of near mountains, climbing steeply from the valley floor.

I gulped when I saw these hills, as I noticed the ribbon/shelf of a roadway winding precariously up to the ridge. Yup, guess where we are headed! It was vertigo inspiring to say the least driving up out of the valley, but rewarding—once at the top, in the space of twenty meters, we traversed the ridge and were greeted with a splendid vista, ridge after ridge of rugged green hills bumping across the landscape to the east.

In the city of Oaxaca, we are at the start of the dry season; things are getting brown and dusty pretty quick. But after cresting the ridge out of the dry valley last Saturday, we were clearly in a more temperate zone. When I saw all the verdant mountains, I was hopeful that we might score some fresh mushrooms, even though we were going in the off season.

David and I chatted and listened to some Bluegrass as we negotiated more than an hour of tight curves up against sheer drops. We spied a verdant valley below spotted with houses around a small village, watched over by undulating peaks, some of which were planted, while the sides of some of the hills were terraced with farms.
At long last we rounded a bend and came into sight of Huautla de Jimenez, a sizeable town that looks like it was spilled out of a giant bucket down the side of a mountain, dripping into the valley below. Huatla itself is on the north side of a great bowl formed by a loosely connected ring of mountains, facing south and covered with green, a moist wonderland.

The town itself seemed to have been designed by a Mexican Dr. Seuss, narrow switchback streets bounding up hills, clogged with people, cars, market stalls and stores. We hoped to find one Ines Cortes, a curandera who is famous for conducting a sort of folk Catholic healing ceremony utilizing psychedelic mushrooms.

After a surreal few moments of asking directions, driving up and down impossible narrow, insanely steep streets, and being forced to back down at least one, we found the house that Ines and her husband live in. David exclaimed in wonder at my ability to drive under these conditions, and the amazing feat we performed by finding Ines in this rabbit warren of a town on a hillside. Me, I've learned that if you are just a bit patient in Mexico, everything happens in due course.

Ines' husband invited us in, the door was ajar and he was peeking out as if he was waiting for us. They rolled out the welcome mat with an easy grace. We discussed the prospects for a ceremony that day, only to find that no fresh mushrooms were available, as it was the off season. Ines offered us the opportunity to do the ritual with dried 'shrooms, but warned that we would not experience visions. We were game to give it a try.

The ceremony was set to begin that evening at 10 p.m., so David and I poked around Huautla and then took a siesta at Ines' house. We rested in the cozy ground floor room where the ritual would be held. Ines has a gorgeous improvised altar at one end of the room, festooned with every Mexican chotchke you could possibly imaging, with pictures of various versions of Christ, the saints, the virgin, and other mythical images and photos of people.

Ines and her husband had left David and I alone to their house while they tended to business, so after we awoke from our fiesta, we sat in the cozy room, with it's earthen floor, and chatted about anything and everything. There was a dull light and a candle burning as we talked, but suddenly the light went out. It seemed an auspicious moment, seeing that we were about to knock on the door of the unknown. Minutes later the candle burned out and we were left in near total darkness. We chatted more and noted that the whole adventure, the drive through amazing emerald territory and the plunge into darkness all seemed very surreal and psychedelic.

I took a walk to the roof, up on the third floor, to use the bathroom there. It was twilight and the fading green of the valley was subtle and stunning just the same. A half moon smiled from straight above and cast a shadow at my feet. Jupiter, Venus and Mars blinked from their corners of the sky and I watched in delight as twilight waned and the stars poked their heads out one by one. I felt relaxed, happy and ready for the ceremony.

Inis and her guy came back and jokingly asked what happened to the lights. David and I both wondered if they had turned them out on us for fun, a little test. They got the lights back on and Ines made ready to begin. She gathered a quantity of herbs and set them on her splendid altar, then lit an incense burner that was filled with copal.

She began praying and chanting in both Spanish and Mazateca, the local indigenous tongue. She blessed both of us by name and brushed us with herbal leaves.
The preliminary invocation done, she handed each of us a little bowl brimming with dried mushrooms and poured a small amount of water from our personal bottles over each, instructing us to eat them. I looked at the 'shrooms and thought, “Shit I'm in trouble, this is the biggest pile of 'shrooms I've ever seen!”. It reminded me of the time in Summer '79 when I finished the thick remains of a mushroom milkshake that I'd split with friends. My eagerness that day saw me on the up escalator a mere 15 minutes from ingestion, traveling too fast to the outer limits. David mumbled similar sentiments about the quantity, and I said, dude we just gotta go with it, trust Ines.

We ate 'em up, and they tasted pretty bad. I really wish she did not put the water on them, it sort of made them f-r-e-a-k-y nasty, I woulda done better if they were just dry!

Regardless, we got them down in good order and settled in to wait for the boost, the beckoning to almost literal other worlds, and the A-HA moment provided by mushrooms: “Oh yes, now I finally see, this is how it REALLY IS!!!!!!!!!!!! I always knew it, I just forgot! The knowledge of the ages under my big dumb nose the whole time, and I never noticed! Etc., etc.”

I could go on about time and simultaneity, and other matters the mushrooms have whispered cosmic joke about into my psyche, in the past, but I'll wait on it, that's for some future post.

Ines continued to chant, and gave way to improvised blessings, songs, and banter. To say she made us feel welcome and at ease is a huge understatement. Here is a women who well knows what the mushrooms reveal, and she offers them in the spirit of healing, calling them “little saints”.
David and I were content and affable as we waited, chatting and feeling profoundly relaxed.

At one moment in Ines' song, I felt a wiggle in my gut and stood up, approached the altar and stretched out my tall frame, reaching for the roof. A quick shimmer worked from my center to my top—I was knocking on the door to “the other”, ready to tumble in. But the inner light dimmed, and I lay back down to relax.

Ines reminded us again what she had said that afternoon, that we can't expect visions from dried mushrooms. I freely admit that David and I both hoped to trip out anyway, but alas it was not to be. Still, we went to sleep content, open and relaxed, having had a most interesting day and evening.

The following morning, our hosts served us a flavorful breakfast of local coffee and eggs with a mountain root vegetable folded into them, and hot tortillas.
We headed back to the city of Oaxaca perhaps slightly disappointed at not finding the fresh mushrooms, but I can guarantee you I will visit Ines again in the rainy season!


Marc Olson said...

I've been enjoying your accounts of Oaxaca and other things for awhile now; I discovered your blog when I started blogging last fall about life in Yucatàn. I've been in Mèrida for several years, and have visited Oaxaca on several occasions. If I weren't pretty settled in here, I'd be there. Thanks for the interesting blog...keep writing.

Steve Lafler said...

thanks Marc, I look forward to seeing Merida some time for sure.

Anonymous said...

hi, steve. enjoyed your story of your visit to huautla. i have visited huautla, previously. i hope to visit again, soon. huautla is a magical place. a place of wonder and visual delight. perhaps, during the rainy season someday, our paths will cross. i write to you from california. much regard, henry

Leonardo said...

Hello steve im doin some research on the veladas in huautla de jimenez and i found your blog. Im in san cristobal de las casas now, im from brazil where i do ayahuasca sometimes and i didnt even knew about nothing of these before last night. A random guy on the streets told me about all this and i cant stop thinking about it. So how was your journey? How hard it is to find ines? What about the other curandeiros in town? I could use any kind of information. I only have a few days left in mexico and im afraid i go all the way there and find nothing. Also, i know its not fresh mushroom season, you got to take them or the dried ones? Please id really appreciate any kind of information. Thanks in advance and best regards!

Steve Lafler said...

Leonardo, yup it's dry season, I'd say come back with the rains.