The second my friend Katy and I met Craig*, we knew we were in for a really fucking weird time.
When we arrived at his eclectic home in Antigua, Guatemala, our AirBnB booking for three days, he greeted us with a slow, lingering kiss on each cheek. Dressed in flowing clothes with shoulder-length sun-kissed hair, he looked like the quintessential hippie yogi. He spoke so softly that I had to strain my ear towards him to hear.
He introduced himself and (almost silently) told us about his background. Originally from France, he now worked in Guatemala as an acrobatic yoga instructor in San Pedro la laguna. I told him I’d just come from Lake Atitlán, and I saw a spark ignite behind his calm eyes. “That lake is the center of my universe,” he said serenely. I glanced at Katy, and she suppressed a giggle. Is this guy for real?
“If you two are interested, there is something very special happening here tomorrow that you are welcome to take part in.” He closed his eyes while he spoke.
“Sure, what is it?” Katy asked.
“A sacred cacao ceremony.” He looked pleased.
I cocked an eyebrow and looked at Katy. “Cool. What’s that?”
“Cacao is a plant medicine that contains over 400 natural properties for healing and detoxification.”
“Do you mean like chocolate?”
He sniffed, slightly annoyed. “Chocolate is a bastardized form of cacao. This is raw, unprocessed. It’s very good for you. It opens your mind and heart, bringing you to a higher state of being.”
“Like being high?” Katy winked at me.
“It’s not high, and it’s not psychedelic like mushrooms. It just brings you to an higher level of consciousness. It’s a three hour ceremony and includes music and sound healing.” He opened his eyes. “Would you like to do it?”
Katy and I grinned mischievously at each other. At once, we both nodded. “Yes!” Katy is like me – always up for a new adventure, the stranger the better.
“Fantastic, I’ll let the others know.” Craig smiled, took a deep breath and stared us curiously, maintaining the most intense and silent eye contact I’ve ever experienced from anyone. Katy and I shuffled uncomfortably while he turned his gaze slowly back and forth between us, a subtle grin on his face.
“Um, well it was great to meet you!” Katy said, and I yawned loudly. “We should probably be getting to bed now. See you tomorrow. What time?”
“4 o’clock. See you then ladies.” Craig turned up the stairs, hesitated and then turned back to us with a thoughtful look. “Light lunch,” he said softly. “You’ll want a light lunch tomorrow.”
With that he left the room. I looked at Katy, who was beside herself.
“Shit’s about to get weird!”
What the hell did we just sign up for?
We gathered around the wooden deck, sitting cross-legged on giant pillows. Craig introduced us to John, Gina, and Lauren, the three people that would be leading the ceremony. They were from the States and all spoke slow and evenly, like they were narrating a self-hypnosis video on YouTube. There were also two other women, dressed in similar clothing to Craig, preparing themselves in a meditative position for the ceremony.
In front of us, there was an assortment of musical instruments, including a sound bowl and a hand drum, various shawls, candles, incense burners, rocks and gems arranged in a seemingly specific way. In the center was a giant lidded pot, steaming slightly in the cool evening air.
“Why don’t we begin?” Gina said calmly, setting a small pile of wood shavings on fire in a bowl.
John crawled over to where me and Katy were stacking pillows, trying to get comfortable. “Are you familiar with the use of rah-pay?” he whispered.
“Um, no.” I answered.
“It’s a mixture of crushed plants, seeds and mostly ash that is used to open up the biological equivalent of your third eye. We are going to start and end the ceremony with it.”
“And how do I do it?” I asked.
He held up a small pipe thing. “I’m going to blow it directly up your nose.”
I stared back at him blankly. What?
“It will burn a little bit at first, so I’ll only give you a small dosage. Try to keep it in and breathe slowly for as long as you can so it can do it’s thing. Then you can blow your nose or do whatever you want to do.” He handed me a tissue.
Still stunned, I didn’t say anything. Lauren began beating the drum rhythmically while Gina started chanting a tribal song. John leaned in and told me to take a deep breath in and hold it. He put the end of the pipe in my nose and blasted the ash up into my nostril.
I winced. It felt like when you accidentally eat a big chunk of wasabi. My sinuses felt like they were expanding and contracting, but I did feel a strange coolness settle into my head after a few minutes.
Katy leans over just as John was finishing the second nostril. “How do you spell rah-pay?”
John smiled uncomfortably. “R-A-P-É.”
It took all I had in me to not burst out laughing and shoot ash all over the whole set up. The fact that Katy asked this question and the look on her face when he replied has now made her one of my favorite people ever.
After we’d all had our “dosage” of rapé, we settled in and Gina began speaking aloud to the spirit of cacao, inviting him in to our circle to show us the hidden truths within us. She told us that drinking cacao will directly open up our heart chakra, allowing love to grow boldly. As she spoke, John circled the mallet around the sound bowl, the dull sound giving the air around us a mystical quality.
A few songs later, it was finally time to drink the magic stuff. John opened the giant pot and began pouring the heavy liquid into mugs. Katy and I took them into our palms and let them warm our hands until the song stopped. Gina smiled and raised her glass to all of us, then took a sip. “Wow, this is so good. Good good good!”
John did the same, then said, “Wow, this is really strong cacao. You don’t have to drink it all,” he warned, turning to us.
Gina shook her head. “But you should.”
Katy and I toasted our mugs. “Bottoms up!”
It tasted like thick, bittersweet hot chocolate, but I wouldn’t dare say that other “C” word out loud. It was tasty actually, and we drank it down quickly. After we were finished, Gina invited us to lie back so we could enjoy the full effects of the “healing power of cacao.”
We sat around quietly for a few minutes. Suddenly, I felt the earth rumbling beneath me. For a second I thought “Holy shit, they’ve given us drugs!” Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. It lasted about 10 seconds, and the rest of the group looked at each other with wide eyes.
“We’ve awakened mother earth!” Gina exclaimed. I held back a laugh – I’ve lived in LA for over 10 years and don’t think much of little tremors – but Katy is from New York. She looked at me and gave me a serious WTF look.
The next three hours were spent listening to the sounds of John and Lauren playing the various instruments and singing while Gina led us through guided meditations and visualizations. We worked our way through the “medicine wheel” inviting four animal spirits in individually – the serpent, jaguar, hummingbird and eagle – to reveal different hidden aspects of ourselves.
I spent the entire time sitting with my eyes closed, doing my best to go along for the ride. I found it easy to slip into an almost hypnotic daze with the music and the calming sound of Gina’s voice. The few times I glanced at Katy, who was maybe a bit more skeptical than I was, it seemed she was doing the same.
Hey, when in Rome, right?
After we said goodbye to the last animal spirit, Gina led us through a final visualization – we were walking through a peaceful meadow to a beautiful tree. We followed the roots down into the depths of the earth, met with our spirit animal, and asked it to reveal the hidden parts of ourselves we were seeking.
Having just spent three hours meditating and listening to hypnotic music, I found it easy to focus and go along with the visualization, vividly concentrating on each of her suggestions. It was surprisingly intense.
When it was all over, they ended the ceremony with a song and a second round of rapé, which we found much easier than the first. I felt so light, so relaxed – like I couldn’t remember having ever had any problems. Katy said quietly, “that was very special.” I still don’t know if she was being sarcastic or serious. The whole thing is a bit of a haze.
What just happened?
Now, I’m not going to pass judgment on these people or their beliefs. They’ve devoted their lives to studying the traditions of shamans all over the world. This is sacred stuff to them. That being said, obviously, some parts of the whole thing seemed super weird to me (hello, rapé!) but that’s just because I’ve never heard of them before – it isn’t my normal.
This is my favorite thing about travel – I love being exposed to a different perspective that challenges me. There’s something so fulfilling about letting the world show you something that is totally not your normal, and then opening your mind to it for consideration. Sometimes I’m not sure what category to put something into in my brain – for example, the “complete hippie bullshit” category or the “maybe on to something” category, or something else.
Why did both Katy and I feel such clarity at that moment when the ceremony finished? Was it something spiritual? Was it the cacao? Or the hypnotic drumming? The guided meditations? Or was it just the fact that we spent three hours lying there with our eyes closed, zoning out and then were just lightheaded from suddenly coming back to earth?
I don’t know, and I probably won’t ever know. But I’m glad I did it.
Even though, weeks later, I’m still not sure I’ve got all the rapé out of my nose.
But what can you do.
*Everyone’s name in this post has been changed, apart from Katy’s. Mainly because I couldn’t remember some of them.