<TITLE>The Curandera of Oaxaca --- 1
My Sweet
Old Lady
Of the Mountains

Part 1

I think of old age aches and pains as just so many bugs on the windshield of life; they come in such profusion, and so messily, too. Liver-splotches, high blood-pressure, general fatigue, herringbone wrinkles (face, upper arms, upper legs), lumbago (great word, there), and all the many new surprises that are flowing from my personal Double Whammy --- polio, 1952.

There are, too, ankles (swollen), heart (palpations), joints (arthritis), septum (deviated), glaucoma (incipient), fungus (opportunistic), memory (fading) and what my doctor calls "pre-diabetes."

Most shamefully, for what's left of my vanity, there are wens, and moles (which the Spanish call lunas, eg, moons), and a disgusting collection of dewlaps, wattles and crowsfeet. Too, there is the wicked tendency of my head to grow up and through the top of my hair, and --- finally, and most tediously --- what that oldest of pornographic books, The Perfumed Garden, called "The Drooping Spout."

Not long ago, when I was wintering in my ratty old trailer in Southern Mexico, there came a new visitor to this overpopulated House of Malady: namely, a facial tic. It's not painful, this twitching, but it's like a drunken buddy from school, the one who appears on the doorstep, moves in, stays on (and on, and on), despite our hints. He bangs around at night, breaking bottles, wailing at the walls and out the windows, frightening the neighbors, amusing the kids...when he isn't sleeping it off.

My tic is somewhat like that. I'll be writing in my journal, or reading a book on (for example) the history of tautology --- and the son-of-a-bitch will start up, twitching my left eyelid in a grotesque parody of a wink. Wink-wink, it goes. Then a pause. Then wink-wink-wink. Then a pause, then a rat-tat-tat of a dozen or more. Just like a time-life salesman, just after he's told a particularly seedy joke.

I think about going to see a local doctor, but my Mexican friends tell me that there's an alternative. Since they don't trust --- or can't afford --- doctors, they use curanderas. For example, to help him get rid of his back-aches, plump Juan went to a local witch who wrapped him in sheets, did incantations, brushed him with laurel and leaves from the lemon tree, and then rubbed him with eggs in the shell. After she was done, she advised him not to bathe for two days. He reports that it's been months now since his back has been a problem.

It was more onerous for Leopoldo's wife. She was suffering from nervios --- so the curandera bathed her in differently colored waters (tannic; cherise) and told her not to have sex for two months. Poldo says the cure was quick and dramatic, but he's not in any way whatsoever enamored of being celibate.

Finally, when Chava had knee problems, he went to a curandera "chupandera." She had him lie down and roll up his pants, and she used her mouth to suck the poisons out of his knees. It's been almost a year now, and he tells me that his knees don't bother him anymore.

§     §     §

I asked José to find me a curandera to work on my wink. His village is a dusty one, under the shadows of the great Sierras --- so I figure there would be some purity to his brujas, as opposed to the ones that work under the shadows of the tourist hotels in Puerto Perdido.

After some investigation, he tells me that there are three in his village of Cozoaltepec. There's his aunt's friend who works in an abarrote --- the local grocery store. Then there's a taxi-driver by the name of Pedro "who looks like my father." Finally, there's an old woman who lives up the hill from town, "and I can't understand her when she talks." Turns out that she speaks Chatín, the language of the Indians of the mountains of Oaxaca. I figure that's the ticket. I'm not about to submit my tic to a grocery-clerk or a taxi-driver. Give me an old crone with the wrinkled hands and The Evil Eye.

It's a hot afternoon when we get to her place. They pull my wheelchair up the stairs, into a darkened room, with a bed, and shelves filled with bottles and trays with herbs and spices in them. The old lady looks just like you would expect: tiny, barefoot, wrinkled face, impenetrable eyes, long braid down her back, a plain white cotton dress with explosions of embroidered red and yellow flowers on it.

I don't think she stands more than five feet in the Altogether. She does, however, have Great Oaxacan Feet. Remind me to tell my friend Rich. He's a photographer who lives over in Puerto Perdido. He's been planning a Best of Oaxacan Feet Contest. He's going to get the old men and women to come down from the mountains, those people who've never worn shoes or huaraches. He'll be searching for the most organic feet --- winding, dark, serpentine roots you'd find buried in dark mountain lakes. He plans a ceremony, with appropriate prizes --- a pair of Nikes? --- and photographs for his collection.

--- L. W. Milam

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