I Copied an Influencer and Went to a Cacao Ceremony. I Didn’t Love the Aftertaste.
“A Cacao what?”
This question, accompanied by a quizzical tilt of the head, was the standard response I received when I told people I’d spent a casual evening attending a cacao ceremony in Sydney.
Long before the threat of Covid-19 cast a dark cloud over the possibility of social activity, I embarked on a solo adventure of the esoteric persuasion. For the uninitiated, cacao ceremonies are an ancient Indigenous spiritual practice originating in Central America, wherein partakers consume a drink made from raw cacao – known for its “heart-opening” properties.
My interest was first piqued by the sumptuous photos and seductive descriptions posted by a model-cum-wellness-and-body-positivity-guru I follow on Instagram who attends cacao ceremonies in London. When Facebook algorithms worked their terrifying magic to deliver a similar event in Sydney onto my newsfeed, $23 seemed a small price to pay for spiritual enlightenment. That night, I was to sip a cacao concoction and dance to “embody the five elements” (yes, apparently there’s a fifth) with a group of 15 strangers.
After traipsing up from Central Station to a hole-in-the-wall studio, I shook off the rain. Eyeing the rusted elevator, I instead opted for three flights of rotting stairs that would send OH&S into a fit. I exchanged smiles with other attendees as we waited in a corridor and giggled when the groaning lift brought up new arrivals, swearing as they looked back at its hulking frame and hurried out.
Once the suspense had been adequately built, we were finally greeted by a young Caucasian glamazon decked out in silky teal flares and a matching crop. She spoke slowly with a British accent and opened her eyes a little too widely for comfort. One by one, we were invited into the darkened studio, where she “cleansed our auras” with burning sage (rude to assume there was something suspect about my aura, but okay).
If the rest of the building was a safety hazard, the studio was a Tree of Life catalogue on steroids. We padded over the glossy floorboards to gather in the middle around a deliciously Instagrammable spread. Candles, wildflowers and astrology paraphernalia were artfully arranged atop an embroidered white rug, ceramic mugs were laid out for each attendee and a bird cage was thrown in for good measure – I’m sure the Mayans and Aztecs would have approved. Looking around, the group consisted of mostly young women – mostly white – and a couple of dudes.
As we sat cross-legged in a circle, our gracious host the glamazon waxed lyrical about her experiences with a beautiful group of Indigenous women in Guatemala who had introduced her to cacao ceremonies. Producing a jug of thick chocolatey-looking mixture, she explained the cacao was mixed with some aromatic spices, chilli, energy-promoting mushroom and a dash of honey. When it was polite to do so, I lifted the cup to my mouth, breathing in the smell of cacao contentedly and… %*$#!!
My eyes sprang open and I almost spat in shock. Good GOD the stuff was hot. “This isn’t at all like hot chocolate,” one man commented. We tittered in agreement. Glamazon must have been stingy with the honey, because this was bitter and hot to the point of being totally unpalatable. I looked down regretfully at my full cup and waited for the cacao to kick in.
“So, is it… like… drugs?” people wanted to know afterwards. Science suggests it’s the high concentration of the stimulant theobromine that leads to the quickened heart rate and mood boost that cacao enthusiasts report. It isn’t a drug-induced ‘trip’, rather a natural high, but ceremony-goers frequently report transformative spiritual experiences and healing. Glamazon told us this cacao was imbued with Indigenous spirits, so I was curious to see how the next hour would unfold.
As the music started, one young woman slipped into a pyjama shirt and removed her pants. She soon shed the shirt and pranced around in just a tank top and undies. A nose-ringed cacao ceremony veteran stayed mostly on the spot, her body rippling like a snake. One man experimented with enthusiastic stomping and clapping and I gave him a wide berth lest one of his spontaneous lunges knocked me sideways.
The rest of us floated about, changing our movements to embody air, fire, water and earth. I wasn’t concentrating when the final instruction was given, so I’m still wondering about the elusive fifth element. One person remained totally unresponsive to Glamazon’s suggestions, cradling their head in their hands as they rocked back and forth. Was it only cacao they’d consumed? I definitely wasn’t on that level.
Be it the cacao or just the atmosphere, I did feel energetic and light-hearted. I flung my limbs about loosely, throwing candlelit silhouettes against the walls as the rain blurred the cityscape outside. Ending the session a fatigued, sweaty mess, a curious post-ceremony symptom I noticed was that I couldn’t stop humming, almost involuntarily, as I headed home.
At the time, I thought the ceremony was fun and novel, albeit a bit of a gimmick. However, looking back, it doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, and it is only with greater reflection that I can pinpoint why. It was definitely remiss for Glamazon not to have done the necessary research to be able to conduct a Welcome to Country, at the very least. More problematically, there wasn’t any acknowledgement of our western privilege to be able to cherry pick from Indigenous spiritual traditions.
In a society that has for so long neglected to nurture community and spirituality outside of organised religion, I don’t think westerners can be blamed for looking elsewhere. But we have to front up to the fact that there is a political element that cannot be glazed over every time we adopt another culture’s practices for our own enjoyment, however infrequently or briefly. Glamazon’s sentimental recollection of her encounters in Guatemala would have hit differently had a proportion of the ticket cost been donated back to these women. The aftertaste might then have been a bit sweeter.
Would I do it again? Maybe, but I reckon I might need to make some Guatemalan friends of my own.
Cover by Brittany Colette; inset by the author