Book Excerpt Tales from the Yucatan Jungle

Cover of the book Tales from the Yucatan Jungle: Life in a Mayan Village by Kristine EllingsonTales from the Yucatan Jungle:
Life in a Mayan Village

by Kristine Ellingson

Chapter Fifteen
Curanderos

The next time I am to come up against something I cannot explain it is a shamanic experience, a curandero.

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I burn my left hand with grease splatters while cooking. Being distracted by the girls, I have not paid attention. I have four large burn blisters on the back of my fingers and thumb. I put the normal burn ointment on the blisters and think nothing more about it.

A couple of days later we go to a wedding, and one of my small nephews sits on my lap, repeatedly touching my hand, concerned because it must hurt. It does. What I don’t know is that nephew Miguel has impetigo, a very common infection down here. In a few days, I recognize that my hand has become infected, whereupon we go to a local doctor.

It gets much worse and begins to swell, eventually to the size of a baseball glove. My skin is stretched so tightly that I think it will pop … and hope it does. The pain is excruciating. Another doctor says it is herpes of the hand and predicts dire things, but the cure the doctors suggest makes no sense at all. Along with this, I am becoming ill in other ways. Food repels me, the very idea of it making me vomit. My head hurts, and I have a temperature. The pain from my hand becomes so intense that I cannot tolerate it and plead with Santiago to cut it, lance it, to get out the pus and poison.

He finally seeks out Brothers Max and Antonio who agree it must be done. They go to find a hermetically pure thorn of some local tree, very long and sharp. With Santiago and niece Rose holding me still, the brothers lance it, cutting a sharp line across the three fingers and thumb at the knuckle. I remember little else except the pain and a medicinal herbal brew they put on it afterwards, which they repeatedly reapply.

The swelling goes down, but I have gotten much worse in other ways. I can keep no food down, and my temperature is soaring. I am in and out of consciousness. The local doctor, Santiago’s cousin Luis, comes and goes, but it is beyond his ability. He can do nothing.

“Take her to Merida,” he says, but I am too ill, Merida is too far, and I know no doctors there yet.

I finally become conscious for a long enough time to realize that Carmen, Santiago’s mother, is constantly in the room, clucking around like a hen, truly upset over something. She has come up from her thatch house below, concerned by what Santiago has told her. I look to where she keeps pointing and saying something in Mayan, in an agitated tone, to Santiago. And then I see it—a thin red line, creeping up my arm, following the vein from my infected hand. Blood poisoning. I know what it is.

Funny what your mind does. I want to laugh. Here I am. I have been warned against the poisonous snakes, the scorpions, and the tarantulas, the food and the water … but blood poisoning? Never. My head hurts so bad, my teeth are chattering with cold from my high temperature, and the thin red line keeps creeping up my arm. I am to die of blood poisoning in the Yucatan jungle, from a grease burn and a wedding—a wedding where small, infected, concerned hands give me an almost lethal injection of systemic blood poisoning. I pass out again. It is too much.

I awake, smelling and looking like an old moldy spinach salad. Hovering about me I see Carmen, Rose, and someone I don’t know, covering my hand and arm with this dreadful cold salad concoction, changing it each time it warms up, which is often. My arm is strapped to a board. I can’t move it. And there is a thin piece of red cloth, like red flannel, tied around my arm, just below my armpit.

“What is the red cloth for?” I finally ask.

The red line has crept to above my elbow, getting closer to my heart, but I can’t connect the thought.

I am told that the red cloth is to attract the red line. The red line will become confused by the red cloth and follow it, round and round, finally getting dizzy and going back down again. It can’t pass the red cloth.

“Yeah, right. Round and round and round it goes. Where it stops, nobody knows.”

I fall asleep again.

I do not know it, but the three of them, Carmen, Rose, and Santiago, continually change this herbal salad around the clock for two days. I wake up feeling better, for the first time in more than two weeks. The red line did indeed reach the red cloth—that much I remember—wondering vaguely where they would put me in the tiny cemetery. Would they throw my bones over the back wall in five years? Or just put them in a beer box, like they put the bones they have to dig up out of the cemetery when a new grave is dug. Now the line is back below my elbow, clearly receding. How? How is this happening?

Within days, I am well enough to sit up, but not to stand or walk. I feel terribly thin. They are making me drink some dreadful concoction they call suero, a glucose-type liquid. The only one I can keep down is apple suero, the others are too awful. I want a bath, so Santiago carries me to the bathroom where I chance to look in the mirror. I almost die of shock! I am the color of lemons, old ugly lemons, even my eyes. I look at my nails and they are a weird color too. My whole body is this color. “Yellow jaundice” is the only thing that comes to mind. My urine is very dark and smells. Something is still seriously wrong, and I finally agree to go to Merida.

In Merida we check into a tourist hotel where they have an English speaking doctor. While we are waiting in our room, we order something to eat. The doctor enters and instantly I have his attention. He doesn’t ask any questions except who else has been in the room. He calls room service and gives specific instructions. The room is quarantined. He calls the hospital, where he intends to take me immediately, and orders tests. Then he notices my hand and the cuts across my knuckles. Santiago explains in Spanish, because I am too tired. The doctor calls the hospital back and orders more tests.

I don’t remember much of it. Tests, needles, waiting, “Does this hurt, does that hurt?” More tests, more blood drawn.

I am now punched full of holes. My soul is going to leak out and dribble on the floor, probably an icky yellow color. It will probably stain their floor. I want to go home. Finally we are allowed to leave. We spend the night in the hotel, but no one approaches us and everything is plastic, or plastic covered—like airline trays of food.

The doctor finally returns with the results of two days of tests. What I have had, both occurring at once, is hepatitis and blood poisoning—septicemia. The doctor can’t believe I am alive and cannot believe that he finds no damage to the liver or other organs. I need no further treatment other than slow recovery and perhaps vitamins to help. But, everyone in my household must be instantly inoculated against hepatitis. Everyone.

Santiago and I look at each other and I laugh.

“Doctor, these people have been treating me round the clock for weeks now, they don’t need it.”

The doctor’s protests do no good. As Santiago says, he grew up eating dirt. It can’t poison him. Any weak one would have died of such things years ago. I am the weak one.

I begin to wonder, “Will I survive this country?”

*    *    *

Do I now believe in witch doctors, curanderos? I can’t say. Over the years I have seen scorpions tails collected and saved, brewed and bound over warts—and the warts disappeared. Black scorpions are best, they say. I have heard, but not seen, cures where you, the “afflicted,” take an egg from your house, and a black and white chicken, a white cloth, and sometimes other things to the curandero. The two favored curanderos, depending on your problem, whether it is a “curse” set upon you by another person or an illness, are more than an hour away. We have taken many people to both, but I have never been witness to the entire ritual. But each time, out of the egg you have brought, comes a needle, a scorpion, or a bit of bone. This then helps determine your “cure,” what you must do, which herbs or powders will be used, and if you will need to return and when. I have seen it work and not work. Epilepsy with gran mal seizures is a tough nut to cure.

Do I believe it? I don’t know, but I am still here and not in the cemetery.

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