I had just returned from a two month stay at a homeopathic research center in India and have seen the meaning of a ‘busy’ practice. Could I ever get that busy? Personally, I could handle a busy practice, but my office manager, Nancy, would feel pulled out of her comfort zone if the practice got that busy. So, I was learning to be content with a ‘slow’ practice and enjoying the rhythm of life dominated by Nature. Spring: Think about new beginnings. Beware of mud and deep ruts where your car can get stuck. Watch daffodils bloom. Wipe the dog carefully after every walk or else your house will look and smell like a mud pit. Plant your garden. Summer: Look out for deer flies, noseums and the hornet nests hidden in the ground. Swim in the rivers. Fall: Enjoy the changing colors. Rake leaves and then rake some more. Dig out potatoes. Put the garden to sleep. Wait for the first frost and the freezing rains. Winter: Shovel snow. Watch for ice on the roads. Keep the fireplace running. Keep hope alive. Know in your heart that seasons always come to an end. It is a cycle. One must come and must go to make room for the others to come and go. It is Nature’s Law. You don’t question it, fight it, like or hate it, you just surrender to it.
This was a fall day. Most leaves were off the trees and on the ground. The trees stood naked, their brownish gray branches and trunks blending with the ominous sky that promised a lot of slow, cold rain. I saw a tiny leaf detach itself from the birch tree by the park across from my office, swirl in the breeze, and land gently and with great precision, quite in the center of the window pane that faced the village green, it’s yellow, smooth, upper side facing me.
Just as the seasons changed, the cases I saw changed too. Spring: Colds and flu from staying in-door, and from being reckless about cold nights and warmer days. Summer: Skin complaints, digestive troubles, bites, stings, ear infections, and aches and pains from hiking, biking and gardening. Fall: Colds and flu again. Winter: Weight gain, seasonal depression, lethargy, falls, pulled tendons and ligaments from shoveling, skiing and snowboarding. Sprinkled here and there were chronic cases with various complaints and a life-long history of medication. Some old folks in my practice were in their eighties and they came by once in a while. They always said they were getting better, but they felt that could use some extra help here and there and that my remedies helped them. They asked me if it would be okay for them to pay me in kind sometimes, say, a fruit cake just after Xmas, a few bottles of home-made jams using berries that they harvested from their own kitchen garden, a few cases of freshly laid eggs?
For now, my patients were settled. I had received the seasonal gifts of apple pies, and home baked cookies for making them well. Children in my practice were over their soccer season. Their sports-related injuries were healing. They were happy in their schools and waiting for the winter when they would make a snowman and go skiing. This seemed like the perfect time to call in Nancy and make travel plans.
Next morning, Nancy greeted me bright and early, ‘You are leaving this Saturday and arriving in Rio Piedra, Costa Rica, on Sunday, by 4:00 PM. I have asked Gary Russo to attend the call-in sessions three times per week. His ex-girlfriend will be house-sitting for you for the eight weeks you will be away. She needs forty dollars per day from her house-sitting job so that she can pay her dog-walker. She has five Great Danes. You do not want them romping in your building and sitting on your furniture. Rio Piedra does not have a homeopath. You could set up an office at the cottage of your host family that I found on the internet. They have agreed to the clinic on the condition that you would treat them for free. I am packing your remedy kit and have asked Helios to air-mail you remedies that you do not happen to have and may require. They will airmail remedies to San Jose and from there it is up to you to get it somehow. Your rental car is booked.”
I loved Nancy’s efficiency and meticulous attention to details. Only, I could not take her with me. She had a husband at home who thrived only when receiving her adoration and affection, and while he did not want any kids, she had succeeded in making him a father of four brats. Her family needed her a lot.
As I drove my rental car from the airport to Rio Piedra, I noticed a sign by a gravel dirt road that led into the village, “Baby plants. Warm café. Talk English. For sale”. I nodded to the sign, ‘I speak English’ and made a note to myself that I would stop by within the next few days.
Rio Piedra in Costa Rica turned out to be quite rural and not very different from the little village where I lived in the US, except that at this time of the year, there was no snow and freezing rain to think about. It was warm enough. I did not need anything more than a very light jacket. The center of the village consisted of about thirty houses scattered on sprawling fincas that dotted the highlands way above the river bank. A tiny, handmade bridge with no railings, dangled across the river. The residents of one side walked over to the other side of the river after crossing this bridge. The local church was on one side, the one and only grocery store was on the other side, and so, people used the bridge throughout the day. This was the downtown part. The suburbs consisted of farms and pastures spread over thickly wooded and hilly terrains further away. Beyond that, on one side there was an un-disturbed swath of rain-forest that was assigned by the government as a reservation for Maleiku, a tribe of Costa Rican native Indians. On the other side there was a man-made lake that produced electricity for the country and supplied water for irrigating the dry lands by the beaches. A two-lane, immensely potholed, partially and very thinly paved road ran right through the middle of the village, alongside the river, and this road was the only highway that connected Rio Piedra to the rest of the country, and the world.
It took me less than an hour to settle into the cottage that Nancy had rented for me. It was just enough for one person. The front deck led into a small sitting area that served as my clinic. A kitchenette was in the adjoining room in the back. Opposite this I had a small and cozy bedroom with an attached bath.
My host family had several children all quite close together in age. The parents, Mrs. and Mr. Gomez seemed rather young to have had all those children. I learned later that the household was actually multi-generational. A few of Mrs. Gomez’s daughters lived in the same house. Some of the very young ones were in fact Mrs. Gomez’s grandchildren. This large family lived in a brightly painted, very neat house quite close to my cottage. As if the kids were not enough, they also had a few horses, goats, cows, chicken, pigs, dogs and cats. There was an enclosed greenhouse where tropical birds could fly about but not fly away. There was a little pond for the animals to drink water from. Mrs. Gomez raised a few ducks as well as fishes in there. This family enjoyed gardening very much. There were several compost piles and patches of vegetable garden scattered all over the land. In all, this setting resembled a very happy-looking-zoo-and-working farm combo where the animals and children roamed freely all over the place. My hosts had agreed to provide me with three meals, laundry and housekeeping services for a very modest amount that Nancy had pre-paid. I was supposed to eat with the family. As I drove in, I smelled coffee being brewed and within a few minutes a little boy appeared at the door, knocked gently and said, “Quiere cafe?” I learned that Costa Ricans drink coffee all the time. It is rude to say no when coffee is offered, unless you could produce a doctor’s certificate saying you had bleeding stomach ulcers and coffee did not agree with you.
As I unpacked and placed my remedy case over my desk, I recalled how, in the US, where I worked as a full time homeopath, I had to explain to people about homeopathy because they often asked, ‘what is it anyway?’ As I tried my best to make an interesting explanation I had often noticed the questioner’s eyes glaze over and dreamily focus on some distant object in the outer space. In Costa Rica, as I would learn soon, I did not have to explain. Rural Costa Ricans did not ask many questions. When I asked them questions like ‘Stomach pain – how does it feel? Where and since when do you have it? What time of the day or night? What makes it worse or better? What was going on in your life when your stomach pain started? What else is happening besides your stomach pain? Could you tell me a bit more about how your stomach pain feels? Is it burning, sharp, pulling? What part of your stomach hurts? Could you tell me little more?’ the Costa Ricans’ eyes would glaze over as they would mumble under their breath, ‘es este loco’ and then say, ‘No se’ to all my questions and then say, ‘Just my stomach pain. Can you fix it now –right now?’
Very soon I learned to do away with a long line of inquiry and trained myself to recognize rubrics amidst the brief and clipped descriptions of the presenting complaint. Most consultations lasted ten – fifteen minutes at the most. I would then pick a remedy from my kit and give them simple instructions about the dosage using a lot of sound effects, hand gestures and very few Spanish words.
Rural Costa Ricans were uncomplicated people who functioned and got sick primarily at a psoric level, though within a week of my rural practice, I had seen a couple of macho Don Juans who were into serial monogamy and having passionate affairs with the girlfriend of the moment. Their more or less constant scanning of the female population for a new and available mate indicated sycotic and not tubercular tendency. They just had to have more and more of what they liked, and their behavior was not because of any restlessness and suffocative dissatisfaction that made them move from mate to mate.
It was also fun to see young children who presented as perfect little picture postcards of Pulsatilla, Calcarea carbonica, Sulphur, Phosphorus, Nux vomica, Graphite, Carcinocin, Silica, Lycopodium, Natrum muriaticum and so on. Every day, I thanked these poly-crests and the homeopaths who had discovered their medicinal use. My patients – about 97 percent of them, spoke no English at all. I spoke no Spanish. But I saw these kids, heard their brief stories from their mothers, and the remedy picture was as clear as blue sky on a sunny day.
The village folks were happy for the free treatment. They did not have to stand in line for hours in the hospital in a big town over 40 miles away. Costa Ricans have a system of socialized medicine available to them throughout their country in the regional hospitals and the suburban and rural clinics. The system works well serving the masses with a missionary zeal, prescribing monumental doses of antibiotics and numerous injections for common viral colds, promoting mass vaccinations, birth control pills, routine elective cesarean sections, colonoscopy, mammography, pap smears and so on. Besides this, the Costa Rican cosmetic surgeons have learned about the American public’s quest for eternal beauty and youth. Numerous private medical facilities offer facelifts, dental work and smile correction, botox, breast enhancement and reduction, hair transplant and various other elective cosmetic surgical procedures. Clinics offering these services have their act together and they have successfully made Costa Rica into a destination for medical tourism. For very little American money, the seekers of idealized perfection get a lot in return…many of them go back to the States with all sorts of ‘jobs’ done on them and with some very truly real looking, but totally fake Brazilian butt that would give Jennifer Lopez an inferiority complex.
In helping the villagers with their ailments, I was also becoming very handy for them because, this year, the rainy season that extended from August to December, bringing about 200” of annual rainfall, was so rainy that a major flash-flood had washed out the highway that passed through the village. This happened exactly two days after my arrival in November. Instead of the pot-holed road, now there was a gash on the earth, fifty or more feet deep in places and looking very ominous, with uprooted trees and shrubbery lying around in twisted masses, and wet and slippery mud gathering in little pools here and there. If someone had to go to a real doctor, they would have to endure a very difficult journey across this gash, and then catch a ride in the local buses. Compared to this, a visit to my clinic was a walk in the park.
Eventually, I was told, the road would be built back. It could be any day in the near future, or even tomorrow, ‘maniana’. I heard maniana used so frequently, that I was sure everything could somehow be done tomorrow. I was almost tempted to design a car sticker saying, “Why do something today if it can be done tomorrow”. I would not put it up on my car though. Why offend the Costa Rican sensibility?
So, well, here I was, a couple of weeks into my Costa Rica adventure, seeing a few patients daily, and physically cut off from the rest of the world because the road had washed out. Back in the US, Gary attended my office three times a week, his ex-girlfriend minded my house for $ 40 per day, Nancy was on leave (but on call, if necessary), and my US patients were doing ok, as I had not heard otherwise.
Some of my Rio Piedra patients liked to visit my clinic right after their Sunday church. Afterwards they would go visiting their relatives on the other side of the river. I decided to work on Sundays, and take my day off on Mondays.
One Monday, I walked over to the place where I had seen the sign, “Baby plants. Warm café. Talk English. For sale.” Pushing aside an entrance gate made of twigs and logs that were tied together with nylon strings, I walked right in.
A couple of tiny dogs came running out, stood right under the sign that said, “Perros bravos” (angry dogs) and wagged their tails happily. Wanting to check me out, they ran over to me, sniffed me a few times, and then they both lay down to get their belly rubbed.
A handmade sign directed me toward ‘baby plants’. I ambled over to the site. I was now standing face to face with almost 150,000+ saplings (I was told this number and other details later). The growing area extended all the way to the other end of the fields, over the hills beyond the 30foot tall cluster of bamboos that were scattered all over the land here and there. Numerous old trees provided ample shade. South facing aspect of the fields also made sure that the saplings would get at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sun on the days when there were no clouds and rains. The lush greenery of the nursery spoke volumes about the good health of these saplings and the sign that said ‘baby plants’ was actually meant to be the sign for a nursery.
A man working in the field raised his head above some flowering bushes and approached me while speaking into his cell phone. ‘Que quiere?’ he asked me. ‘No se’ I said, proud of being able to use the Spanish words that I had heard most often in these past few days.
‘Uno gringo, senora’ he said. I could hear a woman’s voice at the other end. After what seemed like a very, very, very long answer to the man’s phone call, the woman stopped talking. The man put his cell phone away in his pocket, rubbed his ear that he was holding the phone to, smiled at me and walked back to the field.
I felt a bit strange standing there, not knowing why I had come. But soon, my attention was drawn to a woman’s voice asking me in sweetly accented English, “What can I do for you?” I turned to look in the direction the voice came from and saw a short, fair and very strong woman walking briskly towards me with an extended hand. She had a mug of café’ in her other hand.
Now, a few words about how the rural Costa Rican women shook hands. They extended their hand all the way out toward you and then tilted the palm down in a ninety degree angle from the wrist. As you extended your hand for a shake, if you aimed right, you might grab the second and third phalange of their fingers, and if you were out of luck, you might just get to hold the nails – and mind you, most of them grew nails at least half an inch long, or used artificial nails from a manicure shop, and then they painted them with brilliant colors inspired by the rain forest. Many women had cold hands – as I had found out from my clinic handshakes. These women did not offer a palm-to-palm, executive style grip for a handshake. Men shook hands a bit more vigorously, looked you briefly in your eyes, patted you on your shoulder and then quickly looked away or down. Rural campasinos and cowboys smacked you very, very hard on your back as they shook hands and you could use some arnica for the black and blue bruising from these friendly handshaking and back smacking rituals.
Expecting a Costa Rican woman style limp, wimpy and cold handshake (or finger-shake) I extended my hand to the woman who had addressed me with a question. But that is not what I got back. The woman grabbed my hand, squeezed it rather very tightly, pulled me close to her, gave me a full body hug, and patted my back with the hand that held the coffee mug. I felt coffee spilling all over my back. As advertised on the sign board, it was warm, not hot.
If someone saw us right now, we might appear as if we were long lost lovers who had found each other again and were reuniting, except that I was standing stiff, not knowing how to respond to such a warm handshake and full body hug. Sensing that she had shocked me, the woman released me from her grip, ‘I am Luisa’ she said, and smiled broadly, her two, longish upper canines flashing oddly in the midday sun.
‘I am looking for some house plants for Mrs. Gomez. I am their guest’ I said, ‘maintenance free, bug free, and nice-looking plants. ’ ‘Oh, I know Mrs. Gomez loves to have indoor plants. Follow me.’ Luisa said and began walking at a fast clip, her ample behind swaying ahead of me and catching my attention, making it difficult for me to look away.
I had heard about Costa Rican death march from the other gringos living in the village. They had warned me, ‘The locals, especially rural men, know their terrain very well. They are used to the humidity and heat. When they go for a walk, they do not stroll – that is the style of the gringos. We couch-bound Americans just cannot keep up with the locals. For us the rain forest heat is stifling and the non-stop perspiration is exhausting. Not for them. We need to rest after a few steps. The locals just kept going. You look out for yourself when they take you out on a death march…’
I wondered if Luisa was taking me out on one of those famous death marches that I had heard about. I was quite relieved to see that she had already entered an area that had green nylon mesh for walls and an A-frame of transparent plastic boards for roof. These materials allowed sunshine and fresh air into the enclosure while providing protection from the torrential downpour that was quite a normal and regular feature of the rainforest area where this nursery and Rio Piedra were located.
The inside of this enclosure looked like a laboratory with a table for tools, wires, Bonsai growing containers, bags of Bonsai potting soil and fertilizers, and many books lined up neatly along one side of the wall. The other three sides had shelves built in and on these shelves an impressive display of Bonsai plants were arranged. There were tiny trees with dime size mangoes, brightly colored oranges and lemons, figs, guavas, and other local varieties of fruits whose names I was yet to learn. One whole side was devoted to Bonsai pines and evergreens. Shelves on another side had rows and rows of Bonsai flowering plants.
‘Did you grow all these plants?’ I asked. ‘Yes. I learned Bonsai from a Japanese man who was visiting his daughter who was married to an American. For seven years, I was the au-pair for their three kids. The old man lived at his daughter’s house for months at a stretch. He felt I had a green thumb. I apprenticed with him. I still contact him if I have any questions.’ Luisa said while proudly glancing at her artistic creations that could win a first prize in any high-end Bonsai competition. ‘He taught you well.’ I remarked.
‘As I said, I know what Mrs. Gomez likes… these mangoes and lemons. She does not have these in her house.’ Luisa was pointing to two very beautifully shaped mango and lemon trees that were loaded with scores of ripe fruits. ‘These are nine years old. Like all Bonsai, they need some loving care from time to time. I can help Mrs. Gomez.’
With this assurance, it was hard for me to resist the recommendation. Though, I wondered how Luisa knew about exactly what plants Mrs. Gomez liked. Well, in a small village with just thirty families, perhaps words had a way of getting around on the gossip train that traveled faster than light.
Luisa got out of the Bonsai enclosure and began walking again saying, ‘Over the hills and beyond the pond – I have more plants that Mrs. Gomez likes.’ I prodded along, swatting at the swarm of bugs around me. ‘They bite you but do not cause any diseases.’ Luisa spoke in defense of the bugs and then she continued, ‘You must wear knee-high rubber boots next time. My country is famous for nearly two hundred species of snakes. About 20 of them are poisonous. Deadly I mean. You can die within minutes after a bite. No time to say good bye or update your facebook status, ‘I got bit by a snake, I am dying…yay…yay…c – u – later.’ Snakes are all around here. Rainforest is their land. We are the rude intruders.’
I looked woefully at my LL Bean leather flip-flops and knee-length khakis. Exposed toes and heels, exposed calves… if Luisa was right, then any moment a deadly snake could sneak up at me and take a bite. As if reading my thoughts, Luisa said, ‘Snakes love to bite on the calves. My gardeners also get bit on their arms…’ She looked back and gave me a very seductive smile just as I was crossing my arms over my chest as if doing so would put a bit of distance between the menacing snakes and my arms.
‘I worked for over five years with three hundred snakes in a snake farm in Arizona. The breeder, my boyfriend, ran a roaring business of python breeding. I loved his snakes. It was so peaceful being with all those snakes. He bred pythons for pets with traits like less biting, good feeding, pretty colors and good health. He was playing god…he could make these pretty snakes and give these wild animals a home and a caring human to share life with. I thought that was pure bullshit. His exotic breeds with fancy colors would be spotted by the birds of prey very easily. Bred snakes do not survive in the wild.’
‘My boyfriend had a vast spread in Arizona, some ancestral piece of land that he had inherited and he donated a big chunk of this land to nature conservancy. I had free run of the land – being his girlfriend and all that. I loved to be out and about amongst the trees, and jump right at him as he happened to pass by. I loved to hide in caves and from there watch the leaves rustling, the moonlight making strange shadows in the desert landscape. There was an old, abandoned cemetery in the nature conservancy. There were unmarked graves from 1700s, mostly, piles of rocks heaped over the bodies that were buried in a rush. This land was so undisturbed and so quiet. I loved to touch the dirt, walk on it, feel it underfoot and on my body, just like my snakes would love to, if they had the freedom to live a free life in nature and not be in a breeding program.’
‘As I said, I always liked snakes. The reason I took this job was to learn more about the snakes, care for them, live in his home and try to understand why someone would want to breed, sell and buy a pet snake.’
‘Everyone thought it was a crazy job for a girl, but they did not know my wild side or my love affair with snakes. I am not afraid of snakes. My boyfriend had a very hard time finding someone who would care for his three hundred snakes and manage his breeding program. When I saw the ad and applied, he could not believe how comfortable I felt amongst the snakes till he saw me working with them. Many of his employees had run away from the job. Not me. I am not afraid of rattle snakes even – I have been around a lot of them in Arizona. They do not bother me. Well, I got the job – the best one I have ever had. With snakes, I felt at home.