Circumnavigating the globe on Peace Boat last year, I was given the privilege to witness glimpses of some of the most amazing and thoroughly intoxicating places this world has to offer. Today being the one-year anniversary since we set sail from Yokohama and made an 80-day journey across the high seas, it seems fitting to share with you one of the most memorable experiences of my journey, and I can tell you there are many.
I use the word “my” deliberately here as despite the adventure being collective and one I shared with so many amazing people, it was also a highly personal journey for each and every one of us, and our experiences were just as different as they were similar. Think of it as a kind of “choose your own adventure” story. Today we arrive in a new port, exit the gangway and look out to this whole country as our canvas. What you do next, where you go, who you go with, it’s all a story of your own making. It still makes me giddy to think of the privilege it was to be in one place one day, sleep, and then wake up in a new land the next, or to spend weeks seeing nothing but the open ocean.
This post is for my Peace Boat family – again, another deliberate use of a word – “family” – because I can’t imagine my life now without them in it.
Today, please step off the boat with me in Guatemala and take yourself to the highland village of Santa Apolonia. Dinner has been eaten, dances been danced and it’s almost time to call it a night. It’s bitterly cold out and the three of us go with our homestay mother to get our things for bathing and then return to the grandmother’s house where the entire family had gathered together that evening. Despite the children having their own homes within walking distance, there is still very much a communal way of living here, which also translates into a very special way of bathing.
The grandmother’s house was the center of family life and that also included the family’s sweathouse. The sweathouse, known as the ‘tuj’, has long been part of Mayan culture and is an important place for the family. It is a place of spiritual importance and has a strong connection with childbirth. The afterbirth is buried in the sweathouse and is believed to still be a living part of an individual which can be ritualistically revisited in times of ill health. It was therefore an honor to be granted access into this family’s sacred space.
It was pitch dark outside, our homestay mother used a candle to light the way. We walked through the home to the very back where a stone structure that looked like a small house in its shape was positioned in the corner. Some plastic sheeting hung over the doorway. The structure was low, and you had to crouch down to fit through the doorway. In fact you could not stand up fully inside at all and it felt almost like you were climbing into some human-sized oven.
We undressed, grabbed our soap and entered. The grandmother was sitting inside. She gestured for us to join her on the makeshift seat, a wooden plank placed over stone blocks. Huddled together on that seat in the dark with just a flickering candle for light, she began to show us how to use the ‘tuj’.
There were four buckets in front of us with water of various temperatures, one was very hot, the other warm, and the other cold. The fourth was a bucket for mixing the water to our desired temperature. She then flicked some of the cold water onto the heated volcanic stones on the floor, sending a sharp, sizzling sound into the quietness of the night, and clouds of steam rising within the tiny confines. She mixed some water and demonstrated the process, using a small plastic bucket to pour the water over her soapy body. We then took turns one by one to wash.
It was so pleasantly warm inside. I could imagine just sitting in this blissful pocket of warm air out the back of this family home in the highlands of Guatemala for hours. However, once the grandmother retired for the evening, we too tried to quickly finish up and get dressed as we weren’t sure if anyone was still waiting to use the sweathouse and didn’t want to overstay our welcome.
Emerging out into the bitter cold night, you might imagine that the stark contrast in temperature would have made us feel even colder than when we arrived. However, surprisingly, despite how cold it may have been, our bodies retained an almost glowy warmth that felt as if it was emanating from the inside. Feeling clean and warm and toasty, we walked the couple of minutes back to the house with our homestay mother. The three of us were sharing a room which was actually a small classroom that the mother, who is a teacher, intermittently used for classes from her home.
Coordinating our flashlights we brushed our teeth by Guatemalan moonlight and tucked ourselves under the woven throws on the mattresses on the floor, listening as the rain started rattling the tin roof completing another day of new experiences.