Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tales from Argentina - The Healer

At the top of the Sierra Grande, Córdoba, Argentina

Doña Tina, the Curandera

Curanderas – or healers – are well known in South America, although their range of expertise varies widely from quasi witch-doctors to unqualified midwives and chiropractors with a particular gift for understanding the human body and spirit. 

As far as the hinterland of Argentina is concerned, they have a long an honourable history of curing people who live a very long way from anywhere, and should you encourage anybody to talk about it, without fail they will tell you their own splendid story about how they were cured.   I have one about my partner John, as sceptical and disapproving of such methods as any British subject you could hope to meet – until it happened to him.

During the 1950s John strained his back while lifting his racing dinghy to free it from a mud bank, and over the years as the weakness there got worse, he would from time to time get a sharp pain a few inches above his coccyx, to the left of his spine. 

He started on the long journey of trying to discover by conventional means what had happened and what could be done to put it right.   In Britain over the years he went from GP to specialist, from masseur to physiotherapist and osteopath to chiropractor.  In 1993 it suddenly worsened and he was in some degree of pain for long periods of the time.  Elaborate plans had to be made with regard to seating arrangements – not too hard or too soft, and definitely no gap where the base of the spine would rest, and cushions had to be carried around at all times to bolster his lower back while in the car or even sitting on someone else’s sofa.  He couldn’t sit down for more than a few minutes at a time, and as he smoked at the time it did his nicotine intake no good at all to have to get up from – say - the dinner table or a theatre performance, and walk around outside.  He even claimed that inhaling the smoke calmed the pain.

By mid 1994 he had reached a kind of compromise whereby the strict avoidance of certain movements and advance planning of outings combined with plenty of painkillers enabled him to live more or less normally.    We planned a holiday in Argentina; during the first fortnight I was looking forward to seeing my friends on my own after a five-year absence, and then John would join me and we would travel to the centre and northwest of the country by plane and hired car.  He had never been further south than Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and I was looking forward to showing him “my” Argentina.

Two days before I left he had a flare-up of his back problem but insisted he was alright and drove me to the airport dosed up with painkillers despite my offer to use public transport.  In a telephone call after my arrival in Buenos Aires he admitted he was feeling terrible, and every move hurt, but was hopeful that a new chiropractor he had been recommended would put him right.  We kept in touch over the next ten days and I began to realise that it was very likely that he would be no better by the time it was his turn to leave, and that he might well have to cancel his holiday.  The prospect of an eighteen-hour flight in his condition evidently horrified him, though he tried not to show it.

However his last session with the chiropractor made some difference, and he decided not to cancel.  Twenty-four hours later when I met him at Ezeiza, the airport of Buenos Aires, with some of my friends, we noticed straight away that he was very flushed and had a bright – almost wild – look in his eyes.  We soon learned that it was because he had been in such pain with painkillers having no effect, that the stewardesses had taken pity on him and given him a tot of brandy to help him through.  And another, and another… 

He told us that as he emerged from the plane thanking his benefactresses profusely for ‘helping him through the night’, he was informed that he had in fact got through most of a bottle of brandy by himself because they could see in how much pain he was.  He agreed with this assessment, and added “the funny thing about having had all that brandy was that although it still hurt, I just didn’t care.”

John, on that holiday in 1994

Sobering up and having to negotiate beds he wasn’t used to put him back to square one, and by the time we had arrived at Córdoba airport a few days later on the next stage of our holiday and hired the car to take us to the hills, he didn’t know what to do to make himself comfortable.

We stayed with Geoff and Nancy, a cousin of my father’s and his wife, who ran a hostelry in Loma Bola, a quiet village located in a valley the other side of the Sierra Grande in Córdoba. 

Myself, Nancy and Geoff, November 1994

It consisted of a charming colonial style house with a very large garden located in a valley which had its own microclimate. 

(butterfly or moth?) in Nancy's garden

We learned that there were five species of hummingbird in the area; they frequented the trumpet vine growing in profusion on the pergola in the patio, the contents of its droopy vivid red blooms evidently a gourmet’s delight for these little birds.

One of dozens of unsuccessful attempts
to capture these gorgeous little creatures...

At night time the frogs sat patiently below, waiting for various little creatures to land near their darting tongues, and glow worms drifted about creating extraordinary fleeting and jewel-like glimmers of light in the darkness.

Nancy's garden

In the beginning John noticed little of this, concerned as he was with making himself comfortable and not wanting to complain too much in front of his hosts.  Geoff understood the problem straight away, and recommended that he visit their local healer, Doña Tina.

“A healer?” John asked politely.  “Will she rattle bags of bones over a fire or something?”

“Nothing like that” replied Geoff.  “She’s from a family of curanderos who heal muscular and joint problems by manipulations – she’s quite famous in the area.”

“Well...” said John doubtfully... “if you think she won’t make it worse, I suppose anything’s worth trying...”  Geoff just smiled.

Reflections in a pond in the garden

The following morning after yet another sleepless night we got up early and made our way through the village to a property with a small house of recent but unfinished construction, a barn, a mud patio with a passion flower pergola, and a lot of chickens wandering about clucking and pecking.  There were also plenty of dogs, who slunk about yelping rather than barking;  thus it was peaceful, though noisy.

The format was that there wasn’t one:  you arrived early and sat on benches under the pergola, and waited for Doña Tina’s assistant, and old lady dressed in black with a very uneven gait, to tell you that it was your turn.  Slowly other people would turn up and take a seat on one of the benches, and you would chat idly as the day gradually got hotter and the chickens quietened down while the dogs lay down to sleep and flicked at the flies with their tails. 

There was an old couple who were clearly well known customers and on first name terms with the various workmen who wandered about, a woman in her forties in farming clothes with her hair pulled back in a ponytail who had lifted one 50kg bag of maize too many for her back and needed Doña Tina to wreak her magic, as her animals needed to be fed.  Another woman had brought her young son, who, she said, had “a bad liver” – a common complaint in Argentina, I’m not sure why.  They were all locals.

We complained about the heat, the mosquitoes and the lack of rain, we admired the passion flowers, the hummingbirds and the scenery, and in no time at all we were great friends.  I worked hard at playing interpreter because John has not learned Spanish and didn’t want to be left out.

What Doña Tina saw some three hours later was a somewhat unusual English couple – a man in his sixties looking pale and obviously in pain, and his plump companion some twenty-five years younger who spoke Spanish but with an indefinable accent.  As a recognised healer she was accustomed to seeing people from different parts of the world.  Many tourists came to the area after all, and pain was the great leveller.  Sooner or later they all beat a path to her door.

From girlhood the curandera had watched her father healing friends, relatives and visitors; he realised he had a highly intelligent daughter – and with no son to whom he could pass on his knowledge, he started to teach her everything he knew, and they would see patients together.  She was an enthusiastic and willing pupil and as she grew in experience and maturity, had the sense not to let on in front of the patient when she had perceived something her father had missed. She would find a way to reveal the information as if it had been his. 

Gradually his star waned as hers waxed, and eventually she took over his clientele.   By this time the laws in Argentina had tightened up on practices in alternative medicine such as these, and since she was not formally qualified she was no longer allowed to charge for her services. 

Her consulting room was thus a glorious jumble of gifts from grateful clients, ranging from modestly sized statues of virgins still in their clear plastic casings to ones the size of a small child; plastic plinths of famous Argentine football players from different clubs; splashes of bright colour in the form of huge plastic flowers; stuffed birds; delicate china; glass ornaments and exquisitely fashioned creamy lace pieces of embroidery.  Some were in crowded glass cabinets, others piled in corners; clearly there were so many grateful people and nowhere to put it all. 

For the people she served had very little money, and the other ‘gifts’ she received were in the form of chickens or meat and locally grown produce for her table.  She was a kindly woman who had enough to live on, and had no further ambitions other than to keep the high status she enjoyed in the community.

I was there as the interpreter, and after greeting us politely Doña Tina, a comfortable looking lady in her forties with dark hair and creamy skin, asked John to take off most of his clothes and sit astride a chair, leaning his arms on its back.  She sat behind him and ran her thumbs down his spine, nodding vigorously as she did so, telling me she could see he had problems here and there.

“His upper spine is not too bad” she said “apart from a few knots which I can soon deal with”…. And then as she got down to below his waist…”aha, here’s the problem.  See that bone here?  It’s three centimetres to the left of his spine and we must gently push it back to where it belongs.”

I was mystified by what seemed to be the scale of what she was proposing to achieve, and she set to work, as John tried not to wince.

“Have you been here long?  Yes, it is a lovely part of the world here, isn’t it?  I’ve lived here all my life.  Your cousin Geoff comes here often when he needs help with his hip.  How long are you staying?  Have you observed the hummingbirds we have around here?  Did you know there are five different types, and some of them are exclusive to these valleys.  It’s the ideal climate for them, and they love that trumpet vine…”

Another failed attempt...

“What are you talking about?” said John, “please don’t forget I don’t understand, and I need to know what she’s doing.  What’s she found?”

“Just a little bone she said needs moving from left to right by three centimetres” I said, “don’t worry, everything’s fine.  The rest of what she’s saying is all about hummingbirds.”

“Three centimetres?  What are you talking about?  How’s she going to do that?”

“Just shut up and think of England”, I said.

Doña Tina worked hard for about twenty minutes, and finally sat back with a grunt of satisfaction in her voice.  “That’s done”, she said.  She pointed to the point on John’s back which she had been working on “that bone I told you – it’s moved over to the right now.”

“However” she continued, he’ll feel only temporary relief.  It’s likely that he’ll be in pain again tonight, so I need you to bring him back tomorrow, and I’ll give his back a thrashing  (“le voy a dar una paliza”).

In Biblical fashion, John stood up and the pain had disappeared completely.  He bent right over and felt no pain, he stretched and felt no pain.  The happiness on his face was a joy to see and for a ghastly moment I thought he was going to sweep Doña Tina off her feet and swing her round the room.

Before leaving, she gave a John an alarmingly sized jar and asked him to bring a sample of urine back with him the following day.

Just as she predicted, he had another uncomfortable night, but clung to her promise that she would sort him out on the second visit.  We presented ourselves bright and early once again and renewed our conversations with some of the people who had been there the day before, while trying to deal discreetly with the outsize jar of urine John had dutifully brought with us.

They were smug about John’s sense of wonder – they knew perfectly well Doña Tina would cure him, and now welcomed him into the fold as one of those who had faith in the powers of curanderas.  The wait wasn’t as long this time, but there was an interesting interlude during this period.

As we waited, a large expensive car roared up the drive going slightly too fast, and drew up in a cloud of dust at the end.  As the air cleared, a couple emerged from its air-conditioned interior looking fresh as daisies, and very self-important.  They were in their thirties, the wife carefully coiffured, perfumed and painted, her arms and hands jingling with gold jewellery.  The man was slightly heavy, wearing designer jeans, open necked shirt and shiny leather moccasins with tassels, a heavy watch at his wrist, the key fob swinging this way and that on his thumb, as if he were handling worry beads.

“We need to see the curandera” he announced to the slightly bemused audience on the mud patio.  “Where is she?”.

“Ooh, somewhere or other” answered one of the patients casually “just sit down and they’ll call you eventually”.

“Can’t do that” said the man, still swinging his keys, now revealing that he was chewing gum.  “We’ve come all the way from Buenos Aires, and we’re in a hurry.   We need to be seen to straight away”. 

The stooped old crone in black appeared as if from nowhere.  “Just sit down and take your turn” she said tartly, “all these people were here before you”.

“But we’re from Buenos Aires”....

However she had limped away by now, and they had no choice but to sit down, some way away from us.  Like accomplices we all gave each other knowing looks with barely disguised glee.  The arrogance of the people from the capital of the country was legendary, and unfortunately they usually had the money with which to back it up.  But this time it wasn’t going to work.  The little people had won.

Every time the old crone came to call the next person, Mr & Mrs Important would stand up, and she would carefully ignore them and usher in the next person in line, to the barely disguised smirks of the rest.  Then it was our turn. 

John bashfully handed over the industrial quantity of urine, which Doña Tina studied carefully and told him it wasn’t clear enough, but she would give him some herbs to make tea which would solve the problem.  Then once again she asked him to remove his clothes all but his underpants, and lay him flat on his stomach in a room next to her consulting room.  For the next half hour she kneaded him up and down his spine, and when she had finished said –

“That’s it.  I won’t need to see you again.”

In a speech prepared carefully by John, translated and given by yours truly, I handed over an envelope to her which contained the fee which he would have paid a chiropractor in England for two sessions, and then doubled. 

“We understand that you generously don’t accept a fee from your patients” I said “but John has asked me to tell you that he appreciates there will be many people you cure who can’t afford to give you anything for your services, and it is they whom we would like to help.  Please accept this little contribution on their behalf, and consider it as from them.”

She seemed delighted by John’s speech, and we parted the best of friends.  As we made our departure we noticed that the Buenos Aires couple had sunk into a sullen acceptance and didn’t even glance at us as the rest of us embraced misty-eyed, like old friends that would never see each other again, and walked to the car.

Trumpet Vine

Nancy and Geoff's cat

We bade goodbye to my cousins the following day, and made our way north west to the foothills of the Andes, where I had predicted there would be a good earth road.  The scenery was spectacular, and my newly discovered photographic hobby was put to good use. 

Round every bend was an unmissable view, and I kept asking John to stop the car so I could capture it.  The road was stony, and as we rattled and bumped along I wondered whether the oil sump would survive. 

Valles Calchaquíes, Province of Salta

However the serious problem that day was John, who had felt reborn thanks to Doña Tina, and was now convinced he was being tossed back into hell by my choice of “good earth road” and frequent stops.  I was excited by the photographs I was taking, yet worried about John’s back and my role in its possible downfall.  All the same, I was optimistic as hour succeeded hour on this nine-hour journey and the car’s engine was the only sound breaking a silence that was even stonier than the road we were on, and when I would ask him how his back was he would reply grumpily “OK at the moment”.

We stopped at the lovely little town of Cafayate, where we installed ourselves in a small family-run hotel and ventured out for an al fresco dinner on the plaza. 

Street art - it was unusual back in 1994

Many glasses of wine and some excellent steaks later, John finally admitted that his back was perfect, not a sign of a twinge or any indication that the wine needed imbibing for medicinal reasons.  We have laughed many times about this since.

And as the saying goes, he was cured.  To this day, seventeen years later, although he’s had twinges in other locations of his spine, that area has remained completely pain-free, and John often dines out on the story. 


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archives

More pictures from that holiday (Salta & Tucumán)



Matvi. said...

I'm trying to update on your posts, as I have been somewhat busy on my being-a-doctor hobby. It has snowed heavily, and cold weather gives us extra work. Anyway, I try to read your blog which I find very entertaining, and specially well written.
Your pictures are excellent, as well.
Speaking of "curanderos", I suggest you write about some practices like the healing of "empacho".

Un abrazo patagón

Lonicera said...

Thank you very much Matías. My delay in replying to you is because I was asking an Argentine friend to remind me what curanderas do for empacho, since I remember it as being the national malady (indigestion?) but have no idea what they do to cure it - I was hoping she would remind me and it would all come flooding back.... However she hasn't replied to me, and I don't want to delay my acknowledgement to you any longer - so have to be honest. My friend's husband has gone to curanderas many times over the years, and I'd love to hear his stories - I'm sure it would be enough for another post!
It's lovely when someone tells me they've enjoyed reading the stories, and it encourages me to keep looking for them. Thanks again.

Lonicera said...

My friend's just replied, and I realise I had absolutely no idea that they cured empacho with chants and measurements - I'm still open-mouthed, and would like to test it myself one day... then come back and write about it! Her husband has had lessons and claims to cure animals of basic maladies. I had no idea either.

Joyful said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this well told and wonderful story. How fortunate that you took a holiday to where this woman could cure John. I wish I knew such a woman here to "tweak" me now and then. Your photos are great also!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Joyful... I had to hunt among thousands of slides for the ones taken in 1994, and I was so pleased when I found them. After uploading this post I then found another two magazines with more pictures from that time. I'll enjoy sharing them. However I'm still rubbish at photographing birds...

Anonymous said...

Howdie there cuz, its me Judith smile.. I just read your account of John's back episode and found it most interesting, doubly so since you were visiting my uncle and Nan. I never met Nan although she said when I was a toddler she met me.. so seing the photo of her and Geoff was a lovely surprise. Last I heard she was bedridden at Bello Horizonte and of course Geoff has passed away. My sister Rosalind paid them a visit (lucky thing, this poor sis can't afford it) But I was thinking that I'm sure Harold and Fern would love to read this story and see the photos so I wondered if you would send it to them or I could maybe copy and post it to an email if you like with your permission.. I add that I love reading your accounts on your blog with so many reminders of our families... Shame we can't get together one day for a good ole chinwag, you are so like me in the way you think about everything I'm sure we'd get on like a house on fire.. How we both feel about being fat is so similar.. smile.. anyway it's all great cuz.. you are a lovely person.. and I love you even though I haven't seen you since I was 21yrs and I'm nearly 63yrs now.. Keep up the good work cuz.. and if you ever make it to Qld. Australia you are welcome here... Lots of love Ju xxxx

Lonicera said...

Hey Ju - what a lovely comment!! (You've got my old e-mail address by the way - first bit is the same, last bit is now btinternet.com).

Isn't Harold on the internet? You could just send him the link... ?? I've never forgotten what fun we used to have when I visited them at the Cortaderas a few times - I enjoyed his company despite the difference in age. He used to make me laugh a lot.

At the time that pic was taken (1994) Geoff was suffering quite a lot from a hip in bad need of replacement - but his sense of humour was still the same. Nancy was sweet and very hospitable.

I know we're quite similar you and I - very Bridger. I'd love to chat to you too, and come out and visit you one day...


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Lonicera said...

Thank you Bruno for sharing your experience.

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