Fans of Arrested Development might recall the episode in which several members of the Bluth family taunted Michael by dancing around and making various chicken sounds. Oscar’s take on the chicken dance sounded like “coo-coo-ca-cha, coo-coo-ca-cha” while Lindsay and Lucille made sounds that were even less chicken-like (probably because neither had ever been close to a live chicken). After everyone had left the room and the joke was clearly over, GOB showed up wearing strap-on chicken lips and making a noise that sounded like “ca-kaw, ca-kaw.”
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Saturday #133. Well, let me explain. On Wednesday I received an email from an old friend who was staying in nearby Palolem Beach. Rachel was one of the two drivers on my Dragoman trip through Mongolia and we haven’t seen each other since the Spring of 2015. She got right to the point in her email: “I’m going to a cacao ceremony on Saturday night. Wanna come?”
A few questions raced through my head. What is a cacao ceremony? Heck, what is cacao? Is it a spice? Do you smoke it? I knew that after 54 years on this earth I should probably know what cacao is, but all I could think of was GOB dancing around, flapping his arms and going “ca-kaw, ca-kaw.”
I could easily have Googled cacao but instead I decided to take a leap of faith. My #1 rule for creating interesting Saturdays – ‘When In Doubt, Say Yes’ – hasn’t failed me yet so I typed “absolutely” and hit reply. A few minutes later Rachel replied with instructions to meet her beside the road, halfway between Agonda and Palolem, near the old hippie commune known as Leopard Valley.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon and there we were, standing on a remote stretch of road between the two beaches and looking for some chalk-drawings that were supposed to mark a trail to the cacao ceremony. Rachel has been following the blog so she knew what I’ve been up to since we parted ways in Ulaanbaatar. In the meantime she’s driven an overland truck on a second loop through Mongolia and all the way back to the UK. It takes a certain type of woman to drive a 10-tonne truck on good highways in the western world, much less across the open Mongolian steppe, through rivers (literally), over rocky mountain passes, across a number of barren deserts, and through countries like Iran and Afghanistan. Lately she’s been conducting small-group tours in France. This month she’s in Goa attending a retreat for yoga instructors. In short, Rachel is incredible!
It didn’t take long to find the trail that led to a clearing where the ceremony would take place. When we arrived there were only a few people milling around but within half an hour there were about 25 of us, most being girls that Rachel knew from the yoga retreat.
Eventually a guy showed up and introduced himself as Chris. He would lead the ceremony, he said. He was either Aussie or Kiwi, about 30, and tall, toned and tanned. With a scraggly beard, his hair up in a man-bun, and his tank-top and shorts it wasn’t hard to imagine him leading a yoga class. Or a cacao ceremony, I reasoned, even though I still didn’t know exactly what that involved.
Chris sensed that some of us knew absolutely nothing about cacao so he gave us the 4-1-1. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs and possibly others before them had regularly ingested raw cacao, he said. “Cacao is raw chocolate,” he added.
Whew, I thought. How bad could this be?
“You’ll each get about one ounce of raw cacao mixed with about two ounces of water. We’ve boiled it with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg but basically it’s just raw cacao. The ancient civilizations of South America discovered that raw cacao “opens your heart” and “helps us connect with ourselves,” said Chris. He added that it has a detoxifying effect on the liver and kidneys and will speed the release of dopamine leading to a “heightened sense of euphoria.”
I have to admit that I was beginning to zone out at that point. I have a pretty open mind about most things but let’s just say that I wasn’t going to ask for my money back if I didn’t get anything from this cacao thing. I was staring off into the jungle and only half listening when Chris recited a story about the Aztecs and how they drank cacao in a ceremony that ended with a sacrificial ritual.
Whoa! Did he just say sacrificial ritual? I instantly realized that I was sitting in a clearing in the jungle in southern India, miles from civilization, and besides Chris there were the 25 girls… and me. I was the only guy. So just who is going to be sacrificed, here?
After the introduction to all things cacao, Chris led us on a short walk through the jungle until we came to a second clearing with a small bonfire in the centre. I took another look at the group as we formed a circle around the fire. At least 10 more people had joined and three were guys. This made me feel a bit better. The odds of me being forced into the boiling cauldron were now one in four.
The ceremony got underway with each one of us stating our name and making a sound that best summed up our personality. I sat immediately to Chris’ left so I didn’t have the benefit of hearing anyone else’s sound before introducing myself. To be honest, I can’t remember what sound I made but it wasn’t that interesting. Not standing out in this situation might be a good thing, I reasoned.
Chris soon had us sitting cross-legged on the ground, eyes closed, with hands on each other’s knees while he led us in a shamanic prayer. After this we kept our eyes closed while making the “Om” sound for a good five minutes. Feeling somewhat vulnerable, I kept one eye open. I was possibly the only person to notice that Chris had gone around the circle and placed an empty paper cup in front of each person.
This is the point where I suddenly had a flashback to news reports from the late 70s. I saw an image of people sitting cross-legged in a jungle clearing while a charismatic leader passed around drinks. What was that place called? Jonestown, that’s it! Did the Rev. Jim Jones have a surviving son named Chris?
There was still time to bolt but I decided to stick around and see where this was going.
There were a few more shamanic prayers and a poetry reading or two. I recall at least one group hug. Later we were paired up with a stranger and sat back-to-back as we attempted to synchronize our breathing. This led to an exercise where we stared into a stranger’s eyes for about 10 minutes without saying a word. I don’t know what the others got out of that one but all I could think of was that it had been a few days since I last trimmed my nose hairs.
In the final act before the actual drinking of the cacao, Chris divided us into four groups and assigned each group with a distinctive sound and gesture. Then we all got on our feet and made our sounds on cue. Some people made caveman-like grunts while others jumped around and scratched their armpits and squealed like irate chimps. When all four groups performed their sounds in unison – some just one or two syllables and others much longer phrases – the result was pretty amazing. Think of a pre-historic version of the Vienna Boys Choir… on acid. It was pretty cool.
This went on for about 10 minutes before Chris motioned for us to be quiet and sit down. I sensed that he was about to pour the Kool-Aid, er, I mean cacao.
“Each of us wants something,” he said. “And after drinking the cacao we will have a clearer path to whatever it is we are seeking.” I got the impression that he was using the term “we” to assure the skeptics like me that he too would be drinking the cacao. And perhaps he will, I thought. The Rev. Jones went down with his flock, didn’t he?
But first, another round of new-agey chanting. Two of the men began playing goatskin drums and Chris began to fill our cups with the dark, syrupy liquid.
“Oh shaman, help us open our hearts, and help us connect to ourselves,” he said. “Not everyone will have the same experience but many of you will start to feel a heightened sense of empathy.”
Oh, what the hell, I thought. My empathy level could probably use a top-up and if this is going to be the end, at least my obituary can read “Death by Chocolate.” I swallowed the contents of my cup in two gulps. Others had added a bit of honey to their cacao but I took mine straight up. Like a man. Down it went.
I won’t lie and say that I absolutely loved the taste of raw cacao. The nutmeg and cinnamon definitely helped but it was still pretty vile. Think Buckley’s cough syrup cut with turpentine. Any non-Canadians who’ve never heard of Buckley’s Mixture should know that their advertising slogan is, “Buckley’s: It Tastes Awful But It Works.”
The rhythmic drumming picked up as everyone downed their cups of sludge. Chris stood in the centre of the circle and urged us to do whatever we felt like doing. “Anything,” he stressed, “just watch the bonfire.” If we have the urge to dance, then, well, dance! If we feel like meditating, that’s okay too. If we just want to curl up in the fetal position and make whimpering sounds, then that’s what we should do. Within a few minutes the entire group was on their feet and dancing to a tribal beat. The entire group but one, I should say.
I can’t explain what came over me but I felt an overwhelming urge to get down on the ground, put my ear to the soil and just listen to the earth. So that’s what I did!
At dinner that night I told Rachel that something had called me to the ground. Was it Mother Nature herself? Was it a hallucination? I don’t know. What I do know is that it was futile to resist. With 25 barefoot girls dancing around me like it was early in the evening at their Junior High Prom, I lay motionless on the grass with my ear to the ground.
“So what did Mother Nature have to say?,” asked Rachel.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “All I know is that I imagined that my body had turned to pure, sweet honey and was spreading out over the ground, picking up bits of dried leaves as it flowed. At first I didn’t like the dried leaves but I knew they were a gift from Mother Nature and I should just accept them into my gooeyness.”
“O-kaaaaaaay,” said Rachel.