By Eric and Holly Vengroff
Eight years of Hebrew school and two years of studying existentialist philosophers in university didn’t exactly prepare me to answer the BIG questions in life, such as the fundamental nature of reality and being and what it means in relation to the cosmos. Through numerous yoga and meditation sessions, even some self-hypnosis, it would likewise be hard for me to pin down exact instances when I’ve had a transcendental experience. Metaphysics was never my strong suit. It doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.
While staying at the Hacienda Viva in Sotuta de Peón (https://www.haciendaviva.com/) near Merida, Mexico, my wife and I, along with the co-founders of Buddha Travel, had the opportunity to explore a sacred Maya cave deep within the Yucatán jungle and participate in a Maya healing ceremony conducted by the leaders of Illuminado. Holly and I have been to numerous ancient Maya sites throughout the area and continue to be impressed with the size and variety of them. We had never participated in an indigenous ceremony, and had never been to a cave before (as opposed to a cenote) in the area.
We were picked up at the hotel lobby in the morning by a new Mercedes bus. JJ our driver, as well as Trudy Woodcock and Miguel Angel Vergara, principals of Illuminado Tours and our guides. There were also a Maya shaman and an interpreter, as the shaman spoke no English. We drove through the countryside using mostly side roads and back roads through the tiny towns and villages along the route. Remnants of haciendas (usually either former sugar or henequen plantations) destroyed during the Caste War of the Yucatán, a 54-year battle to settle years of abuse of the indigenous by colonial Mexican landowners, were pointed out along the route. Several of these grand old compounds, including the one where we were staying, have been restored to at least some extent, and serve as restaurant, entertainment or small inns. Although the indigenous Maya won their freedom and to some extent equality, by and large they appear not to have benefited greatly from a financial standpoint. The people in the hamlets and villages in the rural areas are in need of much, services are lacking, buildings, schools, roads and public spaces are often run down and in need of some care.
We stopped at the town of Muna, about 30 minutes from the cave site for a comfort break and some snacks. A town of about 12,000 south of Mérida, it has month-long festivals in August and April at the 16th century church in the center of town. We could see the townsfolk getting ready for some mid-day event. Holly continues: “We continued from there and watched as well established paved roads transitioned into narrow dirt roads surrounded by the tall grasses of the jungle with no signs of civilization. JJ maneuvered the bus with confidence slowly through the uneven roads, avoiding damage to the bus from the overgrown vegetation that brushed up against it and the pock marked sandy road below. We then arrived at our destination, which had been marked on a primitive road sign 5km. earlier.”
“This stop was at a historic site where we met a Maya husband and wife team. From what I could assess they were the caretakers of the site and part of their responsibilities was to lead authorized visitors to the cave entrance. After some deliberation between them, JJ and Miguel Angel regarding “Maya Politics” we were allowed to proceed.”
“After a friendly wave from the wife, the husband hopped on his bike and cycled quickly ahead of us leading the way. He brought us to a small parking area where we disembarked. Here there was a pathway through the natural terrain that led to the cave. Before we started we prepared with suntan lotion, bug spray and water bottles. I was glad I wore sneakers as we walked up and down along a path of grass, sand and rocks.”
“It took another 15 minutes to arrive at the cave entrance. It was a large, tall, uneven oval opening with foliage all around the perimeter and as you gazed at it, pitch black. We were told that it had been well hidden by the Maya as it was a sacred place and they didn’t wish any harm to come to it.”
“As we approached closer our eyes adjusted to the dark. I could see large rocks that proceeded down approximately 12 feet to a smooth rock and sand floor. We used these rocks like a staircase to descend. Once inside you could see an enormous cavern with stone walls in a gradation of earth-tone colors with various rock formations extending down from its ceiling and another large opening on the opposite side.”
“What was most fascinating were the Maya drawings on the ceiling, the occasional bat watching over its territory and the song of a native blue bird.
Overall this sacred place relayed its own kind of beauty with a positive energy.”
The ceremony itself proceeded with each of us receiving an individual cleansing ritual perform by a shaman, wherein he dashed a bit of water on our heads and shoulders whilst reciting a relatively long, personal, free-form incantation; the interpreter translated in real-time. Once he had circulated through all the participants, we then sat in a circle while Miguel Angel led us in meditation and reflection. We concluded by getting back on our feet and picking up a sonaja (ceremonial rattle) from an assortment that were laid out on the ground. As a group, we faced each of the compass points and rattled our sonajas in response to a horn-like sound that was emitted from a conch shell blown by the shaman that sounded remarkably like a shofar that is blown during the Jewish High Holidays. I never realized how nature provided so many musical instruments.
So how did we feel after all this ritual, ceremony, meditation, pomp and circumstance? Holly and I spent a bit of time unpacking the experience with each other and with our colleagues. First, a word about my attitude toward religion, in general – never a good subject at a cocktail party perhaps, but buffered by a computer screen and keyboard, I feel a bit more at ease discussing. If you are reading this, there is a strong probability you are not Maya, or come from that part of the world, so perhaps some of what I say may apply to you. Full disclosure: I attend synagogue regularly but frequently; perhaps once a month. I go to relax, clear my mind, learn, receive a blessing or two, offer a prayer for the sick and those in need of help, respect and honor the dead, particularly my parents and relatives, and to connect with others in my community and the world. To me, there is no inconsistency between observance in your respective religions and learning the ways of another culture, particularly if the messaging is positive, uplifting, and reminds you of your connectedness to the world, the universe, and the people around you. The next morning, my travelling companions noticed a change in me. I was calmer, more relaxed and more connected with those around me. Some would attribute that to the cave experience. Holly said that it was the result of a few days away from work and the pressures of everyday life; in other words, I was on vacation. After observing my behavior through 35 years of marriage, she may have been as right as anyone else.
I heard a statistic once that there are literally thousands of organized religions and belief systems in the world. If you are so closed-minded that that you deny the validity, or perhaps the right to exist, of any other belief system other than your own or what you were taught in school, then perhaps this experience is not for you. If on the other hand, you have a desire to experience the world as others see it, the quintessential element of travel, put this on your ‘to do’ list. You don’t have to believe in the ‘big spaceship’ theory to appreciate other belief systems and their messages of noble and ethical behaviour, love of humanity and the world, charity and compassion.
If you do decide to make the trip to the Yucatán to experience the cave as we did, a couple of personal comfort and safety tips may come in handy.
- Light clothing, a hat, sunscreen and insect repellant are advisable, as is a good steady pair of walking shoes.
- Flip flops and beachwear are fine for the beach but not in the jungle.
- The path to the cave is relatively well-marked, and you’ll be with others so it’s unlikely you’ll get lost, but the entrance is dimly lit and the cave does not make use of any man-made enhancements such as supplementary lighting, railing or steps. If you need the assistance of others to walk or make your way down the entrance, don’t hesitate to ask for it.
- There is no seating in the cave, except for the natural floor and if you can’t stand for an hour or so, bring a portable seat or ask someone to assist you with this.
- The cave is dim, even in daylight, so if you have trouble seeing in the dark at times, bring a flashlight.