Strong Medicine

Chloe Bash - Ecuador


April 7, 2013

As we sat down to lunch one day, a fellow from a neighboring town mentioned that she hadn’t thrown up in months. “Even the water doesn’t seem to bother me anymore,” I responded. “Nor does the street food,” she observed. We concluded that we had become “acostumbradas,” accustomed to the Ecuadorian diet. I recognize, now, that we were tempting fate.

 I awoke five days later to intense stomach pain and spent the morning in the outhouse as some creature happily wreaked havoc on my digestive track. I had been eagerly looking forward to a night out dancing at the karaoke bar, the social center of my town, but the thought of Pilsner and rapid movement made me queasy. I walked down the street to tell my friend Jarol that I would not make it. He told me to go lie down, and that he would make sure that I’d be well enough to go out by nightfall. He arrived on his motorcycle an hour later, bearing a water bottle filled with murky brown liquid. Under his watchful eye I gulped down the remedio his mother had brewed for me, wondering what boiled herbs could do that antibiotics had not.

That afternoon I was on my way to his house to thank his mother for the tea with barely a gurgle in my stomach. When I sat down in his house, however, I discovered that the treatment had only just begun. His grandmother told me to take off my shirt. I looked at Jarol as if to say, “Really?” but he just nodded. As I shrugged off my tank-top she began to vigorously rub an egg over my head. She worked from my hairline down my spine, then up my stomach and down my arms, all while chanting softly.

The ritual, intended to pull out bad spirits out of the body, had been performed on me once before, by a medicine woman at a Global Citizen Year retreat. The fellows, myself included, found her remarks repetitive and obvious, and her practice of answering her cell phone while she rubbed the egg over a member of the group only diminished her credibility.

My first impulse as the egg moved down my back was to giggle. I was sitting in the center of the house, as my friend’s siblings watched a sappy telenovela, without a shirt, being massaged with an egg. As she kept working, however, as I caught and translated the phrases of Spanish in her chanting, I stopped asking how it could possibly help me. I breathed deeply as she poured a tincture over my head and rubbed it into my scalp, inhaling the bitter odor of herbs and sharp tang of alcohol. As she knotted a red ribbon first around my neck, then shoulders, then chest, I asked myself, “Why not? Why not believe?”

I went out to karaoke that night, careful to only drink water and dance to the slower numbers. Though I did feel much better, I still put more faith American medication than Ecuadorian remedies. No matter how much I might want to believe, I’ve spent 18 years with drugs, rather than rituals, as my medicine. But there was a third healer working on me, perhaps more powerful than Western pharmaceuticals or traditional practices.

I hated being sick here (as I was frequently at the beginning of the year) because I felt like I couldn’t ask for help. I wouldn’t tell my Ecuadorian family that I was throwing up, because they couldn’t help that vegetables or juice would make sick. Nor would I mention a fever or sore throat, because I would be banned from showering in the morning and drinking cold beverages. This time I shared just how sick I felt and wanted someone to worry about me.  Jarol left work to bring me the remedy. His mother brewed it. His grandmother performed the ritual. I think they did cure me, though not with eggs and herbs. It didn’t matter that I doubted, because I saw that they believed. The evidence that they cared so much about me was the medicine I needed.

Chloe Bash