Monday, July 30, 2007

Ninfa, Healer

I am looking back at a certain glass of agua of watermelon consumed in Oaxaca as the cause of certain distress in the nether regions. Otherwise, I can´t think of anything I consumed that was different from the others in our party, who are feeling no ill affects.

Needlesss to say, I am disappointed by a sudden loss of appetite. We have been so careful, even to the point of probing waiters as to the origin of the ice cubes in our drinks. We of course want to know that the cubes have been made from purified water. We have been taking no chances with the water or with raw foods. These are our normal precautions and after several trips to Mexico in recent years I can´t remember a time that any of us has been stricken with the malady so often associated with gringo tourists.

When Ninfa learned of my distress, she took matters into hand. And thus I was given a glimpse into the ways that Ninfa´s native upbringing lives on in these hectic, modern times.

Ninfa grew up in a small hillside village outside the town of Amanalco, up in the pine-forested hills about two hours west of Mexico City. The road to the village was barely passable. In fact, it only recently has been paved. A quiet girl with the striking, bold features of the indigenous folk, Ninfa learned the local ways from her mother.

¨My mother was a very quiet person,¨ Ninfa says. ¨But when she spoke, she was very forceful.¨

Ninfa followed her mother into fields and hillsides learning to gather various herbs and flower blossoms for the folk remedies they practiced. They would mix herbs and flowers for all kinds of potions, to help fevers, stomach ailments, menstrual pains. This herb is for that, the mother would explain to the daughter, and that herb is for the other. And so the daughter learned....

As a grown woman, Ninfa became a nurse, working the night shift at a hospital in Mexico City. But she still actively maintains a collection of herbs and potions for teas. Some she grows herself. Others she purchases from sources in Amanalco and in the city. She keeps a rack on her kitchen wall well-stocked with her collection, switching out the herbs at least once a year if she is able.

So when Ninfa learned that I was having problems, she reached for one of her herb blends and began to make a tea. How did I feel about bitter? she wanted to know. I mean, really bitter, she said.

Oh, Ed loves bitter, my wife replied. And from my bed I confirmed that bitter would be just fine. In fact, the bitter the better, or something like that.

The first cup was intended as a cleanser, and yes, it was bitter. I wish I could report exactly what it was. Ninfa had a name in Spanish, but an English translation eluded us. Be sure to finish the whole cup, every drop, she insisted. And I did.

Later came another tea, something I recognized from my youth when I´d been an exchange student in Switzerland, had suffered some stomach ailment, and my Swiss host mother also had reached into her bag of herbs. It turned out to be lemon verbena--something I´d never known to that point--sweetened with honey. This, Ninfa assured me, would help sooth my stomach.

There was, Ninfa explained, an even stronger purgative, something made with fruit. Did I think I would need it? Ninfa asked. Let´s see what the morning brings, I replied.

In the morning, I felt better, but I requested the stronger tea Ninfa had mentioned. It couldn´t hurt, and I only wondered if it would be more bitter than the first. In fact, it wasn´t bitter at all. It had a faint flavor of oranges, from the dried peel of oranges, Ninfa explained.

I was getting to like the teas so much, I started making them myself. Tea and toast started to look like a fine meal. I wondered how many pounds I could drop in this fashion.

Now it is a few days later. I am not 100 percent--maybe 90 percent--but my interest in the local cuisine has resumed. Tonight we gathered around the dining room table here in the city for a simple dinner of green pozole--made with wheat berries and garlic in the style of Amanalco--and with cheese and bean quesadillas. So far I have not resorted to any medicines--just the teas. According to Ninfa, the local doctors would probably prescribe a serum of some sort, along with antibiotics. I suppose I could seek out Milk of Magnesia or some such at one of the local pharmacies, but I want to play this out. I´m sticking with Ninfa´s teas.

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