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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Cacao Ceremony

The Cacao Ceremony
A Final Tribute to Jeff Salz, Anthropologist, Father, Adventurer, Orator, Teacher

One thing I loved about Jeff Salz was that even though he was the most informal guy you ever saw, it always seemed like everything you did with him, you did in ceremony. I went to both his weddings, and his funeral. And a cacao ceremony.

In 1991, when the school was young, we were going to create a new educational model, where the world was more of your classroom, it was okay to be on the road or in nature, and school was a bridge to discovery. 

I had read somewhere about the Boojum Institute (for outdoor education) and it sounded weird (a boojum looks like a Dr. Seuss-drawn plant) and alluring, considering where I was at. So, I called them up, one of the founders named Jeff Salz (Ph.D., Cultural Anthropology) came by the school, and we swapped visions until it became obvious that we would probably be swapping visions for the rest of our lives. Now that has come to pass.

Jeff Salz and and his daughter, Yeshe, Grauer MS alum

Boojum taught ropes climbing, packing, sea kayaking and all sorts of adventures, and I was taking notes like crazy, but not much about the trips he offered, more about the self-discovery, and the whole way Jeff experienced people and destinations, the “way of adventure” (as he would later on entitle his book). I had been running expeditions for quite a few years by then, but after an hour or two with Jeff, I grew more committed than ever to bust out of the school walls and all the regulation and programming, all the straight lines. I was drawn to study more about the ineffable, the “f-ing ineffable” as only Jeff could phrase it, and new kinds of experiences as a part of school, like what Rumi must have meant when he said:

“‎Dancing is not just getting up painlessly, like a leaf blown on the wind; dancing is when you tear your heart out and rise out of your body to hang suspended between the worlds.”

Eventually Jeff showed me all that, too, and the gateway between those worlds, down in Ecuador with a group of students. It took almost 30 years.

Jeff’s favorite movie was Zorba the Greek:  “A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” He was wicked witty; he’d been arrested for attempting a solo ascent of the Matterhorn—in Disneyland—and I knew he’d be a great speaker. The next year I asked him to give the keynote address to our graduating class (of 3 students). 

On the morning of, we all gathered around in a room in the mall where The Grauer School was founded, Rincon Plaza, and waited for Jeff. Finally, I called him up and he answered, said he forgot, he was still in bed, and that he’d be right there. After a few minutes, he walked in with his wild grin, stood on a chair, and preached the most enlivening, most captivating talk I had ever heard. He closed with a wild tale of what he learned from riding with gauchos in Argentina, an ethic and way of life he left our school with. From up on the chair, he held his arms out and it felt like he was embracing us all as he crescendo-ed with a single word that he got from the gauchos:  “Servicio!”

I had known some great sailors and skiers, but I had never personally known someone who took journeys like that, making reed boats and sailing around Lake Titicaca, climbing Fitzroy in Patagonia (we’ll leave the Matterhorn thing out of this list), but all of it seemed so normal when Jeff did it. And of course, “servicio” became the basis for Grauer expeditions, forever.

Grauer students on expedition in Ecuador with Jeff Salz (upper right) and Jaffe - September 2019

I think of these times as “the beginning.” Of an arc. The Grauer School had no assets and I had only just received a personal letter from the executive director of WASC explaining that our model for a school was unaccreditable and unviable. Meanwhile Jeff had left his position at San Diego State and was striking out on his own with the new Yolla Bolly Institute. It would be some years till the School had a permanent site with endowments and I was chairing WASC teams to accredit other schools, or till Jeff would be elected to the National Speakers Association’s “Hall of Fame” and had a global following.

They had a rustic ranch in Baja, and I just never went, which I regret. They climbed and hiked. Ultimately, they began trekking through the remote villages in the Himalayas, and Jeff sometimes invited me, but I could never afford them. By the time I could, at long last, Jeff had to cancel—he was no longer as fit as he once was, and he put those chapters behind him.

Back in the day, nobody ever used the word compassion to explain anything they did, it was too lofty a claim. Honestly, I had never heard anyone who seemed to be just a guy like me use the word compassion before, unpretentiously, and I wanted to be able to do that like Jeff. Jeff embodied love in the most down to earth, normal way, I never once saw him without his eyes gleaming. Whenever you were with him, it was just a given that this is a laughing universe we all live in.

A year or so later, he was getting married. I’ll never forget how he and his first wife Kate came riding into their wedding high up on Shaw Ridge Road on horses and were married by both a rabbi and a minister.

Eventually their firstborn child, Yeshe, was old enough to attend middle school at The Grauer School, though Jeff's marriage was ending. “You don’t marry Jeff,” a mutual friend and poet said to me after the divorce, in one of those ways where no matter which of those four words you emphasize it gives the sentence new meaning. By then, compassion had been a core value of our school. Yeshe is now a Berkeley grad and an environmental activist, and for the funeral she sent in Rumi poems and sang a hypnotic song about her dad she composed herself.

I followed Jeff’s exploits and the fresh eyes his writings and speeches always revealed, how they pulled back the curtains of convention and revealed joy, and play. I marveled at the way he seemed to be lifelong, bonded friends with the Sherpas that I knew others treated like pack horses but he treated like mystics, and this turned out to be a clue as I tried to learn how to make compassion more of an everyday word and practice.

Jeff Salz leading Grauer students on the Ecuador expedition - September 2019

One day another mystic, Christina Burress, our great English teacher, walked into my office and it came up that we shared an interest in studying with her students the ways of the ancients in nature, the ancient rites of passage, and the ways of the shamans, not exactly what they show you at the graduate school of education. I said, “I have the guy. Let me hook you up.”

Jeff had just moved with his new wife Lisa Jaffe, who everyone calls Jaffe, and who broke the above poet’s rule, to Ecuador, and it was a given that he would be “connected”. Before long, like a dream, we dropped our bags at La Casa del Sol, in Peguche, and he was spiriting us across the Altiplano with local shamans, who appeared to be his dearest lifelong friends in the world, and they were eager to show their sacred world to anyone who knew Jeff. Jeff was like their brother, like an honorary Kichwa, and there is no explaining how he always did this wherever he travelled.

With Jeff and Jaffe and their Kichwa shamans, Christina, our twelve students, and I studied plant spirit medicine, sweat lodged in the temescal for purity, built and played native drums, learned to honor trees, gathered honey, ate ceremonial meals off the ground, took a limpieza (ritual spirit-cleansing), hiked (and honored) the Taita Imbabura (volcano) and, in the end, danced.

On the second to final night, the crescendo night, in gathering rain, Jeff hiked us up the narrow, rutted road to a high village where we convened in a circle in an empty hall for a traditional cacao ceremony. Jaffe took great care to establish our circle until every student felt deeply a part, and we were ready for cacao.

I’m going to digress for a second and recount that my father, an inveterate New Yorker, would not eat a tomato if it was not purchased at a grocery store. He was two generations from the home country, and the idea that plants could have spirit or be medicine was alien to his generation, the inventors of the supermarket. The way I was raised, if Pachamama people were eating the same chocolate cake as I was, we were doing very different things. No judgement there. I had no prior relationship with cacao outside of the chocolate industry, aside from my years living in Switzerland, where chocolate is both an artform and a very advanced technology. But Jeff and Jaffe prepared to help us understand why such a sublime earthly delight as chocolate is medicine.

Devon O. and Isabella F. in Ecuadorian ceremonial costumes - September 2019

The arc of a cacao ceremony includes the opening, which is the creation of a sort of container for being gathered and connected around a center, then the shared sipping and blessing experiences, and finally the gratitude closing (which has been characteristic of Grauer Expeditions for most of our 30 years). It occurs to me that this was the way Jeff structured our whole week and that any great journey would have to be this way.

To start the cacao ceremony, Jeff and Jaffee summoned us into the ancient world with lore and music and their warmth. In our circle, with offerings in the middle, we learned of the jungle cacao’s ancient properties such as the mountain healers and intermediaries had shown them: the cacao energy.

They continued to talk story to the music until we had finished the last of the hot cacao drinks, and there was just the music, but the storm was much closer now and the rain full and beating hard on the thin roof, and I tried to discretely move buckets around to catch the drips leaking in.

Eventually, all 12 students, still in the circle, laid their heads down, toes pointing to the center, as the rain picked up more. And now we feel and hear the atmosphere sending thunder. The noise grew great, and Jeff and Jaffe had a musical soundtrack playing louder … Xavier Rudd was singing “Follow the Sun” from Spirit Bird and it all turned into a sound journey. I am playing it again now, writing this, amazed even without the thunder.

Grauer student Devon O. '23 during a traditional ceremony in Ecuador - September 2019

Here high up in the mountain village, the students lay still, snug under blankets, as the thunder moved in on us. Around the circle, amidst pounding and cracking, the students expressed fears and confusion and they seemed to be released. Since the times of the Aztec and Mayan cultures, the shamans have understood that, through opening the heart, cacao enables us to access our true self, work through blockages or past traumas, and dissolve pent-up negative energy. Much of this ancient belief has been born out well by today’s psychological research into emotional intelligence and wellness. But you have to be willing to acknowledge that we have not only a mind and body to heal, but a spirit, especially if you are going to be a teacher.

I counted the seconds between the flashes and the cracking sounds and reassured myself it was only a half mile away until a single, massive bolt seemed to pound and rattle our very rooftop, as though we were being swallowed whole by this energy. Maybe it was the cacao. Maybe it was our connection.

There was nothing to do but surrender. Some were crying, some were requesting, and the line between terror and amazement blurred. Jeff moved to the front and center, smiled beautifully, stood perfectly still, and held his hands out in a familiar embrace, shepherd of our innocent students lying on their backs, and even the harder edged amongst these students was now vulnerable and soft at the mercy of the forces. All week I had contemplated blurring the line between nature and our own selves, and now we had.

A cacao ceremony will often end in dance, which the shamans believe allows the cacao to activate within the heart and body and create transformation. The next night, we gathered in the great hall of our host’s home, donned traditional, hand-dyed tracts, and we also donned the shared knowledge that we had been through something extraordinary. The native musicians played as everyone swirled and danced to the local, native music, with a shared look in the eye, the look of joy meets wonder, which is the look Jeff had all day every day as long as I knew him. There in the hall the flutes, fiddles, guitar, lute, accordion, high-pitched singers, and the conch shell bounced along with everyone. A giant, hand-carved sign saying “TODOVIA HAY ESPERANZA” (“There is still hope”) hung above us, there at 10,000 feet altitude. Tua, our shaman guide, sang along, Jaffe swirled in and around as we all moved in circles, and Jeff filmed everything, his way of holding and appreciating us and this wild moment.

Click on this image to watch a few seconds of the closing ceremony dance for the Ecuador expedition, including a glimpse of Jeff Salz in action - September 2019

And now I know what Rumi meant. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Jaffe.

Jeff was an inveterate world traveler and expedition leader of several decades and the next day as we gathered for the departure he told me he’d never seen a better trip in his whole career. Usually this would be something hard to quantify, but I know he was right: this was one of those ineffable experiences that becomes magic—every student on the trip was transformed and now, a year and half later, they still are:  they are kinder, calmer, and wiser, and if you talk to any one of them, they will be able to reveal this in their eyes and words. It is true that in the right zone the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and Jeff, a regular guy born in New Jersey, transformed, lit, enlightened, so incredibly kind, showed us this path and purpose.

There is not a single thing in the world we can’t find a way to smile towards. Jeff showed us how every man he met could be his brother and not in a heavy way, just connected by light hearts, on the same, ultimate journey. He was an everyday guru.

That was the last expedition I went on, maybe Jeff too, and then a global pandemic hit and shut everyone down. Jeff Salz died 3 weeks ago of COVID-19 at age 68, just as so many of us were leaving the cave of a pandemic that drew the lives of nearly six million. His life was an ofrenda, an offering, but there is no question in my mind that death is some sort of a trick Jeff has up his sleeve, or some kind of final ofrenda he has for us.

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Jeff Salz and and his daughter, Yeshe, Grauer MS alum

Grauer students on expedition in Ecuador with Jeff Salz (upper right) and Jaffe - September 2019

Jeff Salz leading Grauer students on the Ecuador expedition - September 2019

Devon O. and Isabella F. in Ecuadorian ceremonial costumes - September 2019

Grauer student Devon O. '23 during a traditional ceremony in Ecuador - September 2019

Click on this image to watch a few seconds of the closing ceremony dance for the Ecuador expedition, including a glimpse of Jeff Salz in action - September 2019

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