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.
‘Tiny baby snakes are very cute. He showed me how to care for them. Any animal with a mouth can bite. My boyfriend got bit a lot. He hated it. I did not get bit. Somehow, the snakes knew not to bite me. I would open their cages every day to clean not thinking they would bite me. All the five years that I worked with the snakes, I did not get even one bite.’
‘My favorite snake was very long, skinny and calm. He lived in cage number 30. He was primarily black with lovely, bright yellow patterns on him. He wrapped himself around my arms. He was a jungle jaguar python, a type of carpet python bred in a certain way. This snake and I looked at each other in the eyes. I put him around my neck and walked about doing my chores for the other 299 snakes. He would not slither away. He was so content being wrapped around my neck. Every now and then I would kiss him on his head, and he would make an eye contact as if he knew that I was in love with him. He would wrap himself around my neck a bit tighter, as if to give me a hug. The tighter he wrapped himself, the happier I felt …almost an erotic feeling. Actually, being with this python, I realized that I do get highly erotic feelings if someone holds me tight around my neck, almost choking me, and making me out of breath. I feel very high, very sexual when this happens.’
‘I also liked rainbow boas. They are very enthusiastic feeders and they grab their food very quickly. Snakes can be very slow and graceful, very fast and dangerous. I love the way they move, the way their body feels and looks…slithery, shining, smooth, fluid, powerful, sneaky and purposeful. I love the feeling of my favorite python moving all over me. When I worked with the snakes, I felt in total control of myself, my movements, my actions, even what and how I felt and thought. I felt deeply connected to myself. Working with them was a meditation practice, not a job. ’
‘Snakes are so cool. They have that secret danger. I have some charity for the snakes, whereas some others would chop their heads off first. When my workers catch a snake I ask them to relocate the snakes to the deep jungle – which is not far from here. They are not allowed to kill snakes, even poisonous ones. They can catch them and release them in the wild. Nature made snakes for a reason, who are we to kill them?’
‘Well, the breeding facility reeked of snakes, blood and dead animals that were chopped up and given as feed. Pay was low. But I liked my job. I even liked the snaky smell. When a snake slid through my hands, it felt so good. If I ever have to have a pet, I will only have a jungle jaguar python. I also like lizards and turtles, but snakes are my favorite….I love snakes…..’
In this entire monolog, Luisa had not made a single eye contact to see if I was there, if I was listening, if I was still walking with her, if I was interested…once she got going with her snake story, nothing else mattered to her. But this exotic story had reeled me in. I had heard every word. Her snake story was almost like the fluid and strong wrap of her favorite python, and as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I felt the snake wrap getting a grip on me. There was no way out. I was charmed.
Walking on the hilly terrain takes much longer. The distances are deceptive. Every hill has an up-side and a down-side. Luisa walked up-hill very fast and almost ran down the down-hill. I, the gringo, walked up-hill huffing and puffing, and went downhill with a certain palpable trepidation expecting a snake to be springing at me from every hole on the ground. All the while I was straining my ears to hear every word of her snake story. Well, several ups and downs later, we were in an enclosure similar to one I had seen for the Bonsai plants. This enclosure was filled with over forty species of bamboo that are common to Costa Rica, grown in a miniature form – not exactly Bonsai, but miniature enough so that they can be placed indoors in five gallon pots.
By now, I was totally enchanted with Luisa’s snake story and completely drenched in sweat, my tee-shirt clinging to me like a second skin. The hardship of walking this far braving the harsh mid-day sun, and the swarms of bugs, to look at the miniature bamboo, had an effect on my decision making process. I decided that Mrs. Gomez would rather like the Bonsai fruit trees that were closer to the entrance of this sprawling nursery. I indicated that I was ready to walk back, pay my bills and move on.
‘We will go back by the short cut’ Luisa said and took a different route. We went through small patches of thickly grown jungle that led to a sunny meadow. This was equivalent to the ‘full sun’ and taking advantage of this, Luisa grew vegetables here. ‘Our vegetables and our nursery are 100% organic. We make our own compost. Now mind you, compost piles attract rodents. And the rodents attract snakes. My workers have caught many snakes around the compost piles’ Luisa informed me and continued as we entered a patch of bamboo that grew over fifty feet tall, ‘Watch out for the pile of bamboo leaves underfoot. It is a favorite place for snakes to hide. I have run into fer-de-lance here. You can’t see them, because they blend in so well. This snake hunts by ambush, lying camouflaged within the leaf litter on the ground. Someone gets too close for the snake’s comfort without realizing it’s there and then the snake strikes. You get bit by a Fer-de-lanse, you are in serious trouble. It is one of the most deadly poisonous snakes. Every drop of its poison hurts the blood vessels and capillaries causing such severe swelling that the skin has to be cut to release pressure. Very ugly.’
Now I was wondering if there was one square inch of this nursery that was free of snakes. It was clear to me that Luisa was quite in love with these creatures but as enchanted as I was with her snake story, I was by no means eager to make friendship with snakes and begin to like them or love them. In fact I was quite put off by the creepy crawly creatures and spineless worms. They simply gave me shivers up and down my spine. Luisa stepped into a trail that passed through a slightly overgrown, grassy lawn, where she stopped and petted a few horses, ‘They are the best lawn-mowers, ever’ she said, ‘You have to be extra careful while walking on tall grasses. Heard the saying green snake in the green grass? It is true. I have seen green pit vipers here. And don’t think the shrubs and trees are free of them. They can be found wrapped around tree branches and lying coiled and hiding on the large leaves, sunning themselves. Be careful here. It is dangerous – but you see, the pythons I worked with are harmless. All they want to do is find a prey, strangle it real tight till it dies, swallow it whole and then lie down somewhere and be quiet till it is digested. They don’t kill us with their poison. I just love them and I love how they can wrap themselves around just about anything.’
We were at Luisa’s office by now. And I am not kidding – the office could have easily passed for a world-class snake art gallery. Not only were there color posters and pictures of every imaginable species of snakes on the walls, doors, notice boards, and under the desk blotters, as we walked in, I noticed that even her screen saver had a snake photo. I was not surprised at all to find that the snake peeking out of her computer and looking me in the eyes was none other than her longtime friend, the jungle jaguar python with his brilliant black and deep yellow pattern, his head resting over a tight ball that he had coiled himself into. ‘You like him? He is my sweetheart. I have never forgotten his tight grip on my neck and how that grip made me feel.’ Luisa said as she caught me taking a peek at her screen-saver. ‘He is cute, indeed’ I said as I handed her my credit card, ‘Do you mind sharing this picture with me? I would love to take a serious look at him in case one day I want to get a python for a pet. Send me his name, and price too. Would you also recommend the breeder, your ex-boyfriend, so that I could buy from him?’
‘Really? Really?? Would you buy a python? Here, just now I will email you all details. We are still friends. I think he still loves me. He has not said it but he always calls me and says he will never find another person who would love and care for his three hundred snakes the way I did. You can call him and say I told you about him. He is very nice. I would still be with him and with my darling snakes if his former wife had not showed up at his door all destitute and looking to move back in.’ Luisa spoke in a high pitch happy tone and with few clicks of her mouse she was done sending me the details. ‘I can tell you all about how to care for him when you get him’ she said, and springing right off her seat, she ran over to me, gave me another whole-body hug, wrapped her arms around me and whispered in a bit of a tearful, choky tone, ‘I am so happy you will get a pet snake.’ I was happy that she did not have her warm café mug in her hand.
Little did Luisa know how the minds of homeopaths worked and what aroused their curiosities. Little did I know about what I was yet to learn – that the words we speak in our day to day life, while playing our role in our daily drama, are just as powerful an indicator of the inner leanings and workings of our vital force as the words and gestures expressed during an official consultation. Rather, they are more powerful, even though they look and sound like simple life-stories we tell each other to kill time, unmindful of the listener – and not caring if they hear us, or enjoy our story or are on the verge of death due to sheer boredom of having to listen to our story. In fact, the official consultation is limiting in many ways simply because it is official and not spontaneous. The stories we tell each other are spontaneous indicators of the vital signs of our vital force. We just have to stay sharp when we listen and pick up hints. What we would do with these hints, and the intelligence we gather by just listening to a story, is hard to predict.
‘Let us pick your plants’ Luisa said as she handed me a credit card receipt for my purchase, ‘Mrs. Gomez is going to be so happy. Can you imagine getting a gift of something that you always wanted to get? I am sure you will feel like that when you receive your python in the mail.’
Well, about a couple of hours ago, the only snakes I cared to know about were those that have been turned into homeopathic remedies. I had never met those snakes in person, nor do I ever want to, because seeing their picture on the internet was creepy enough for me. And, never ever in all my life, till I met Luisa and heard her snake stories, did I ever knew someone could actually love snakes enough to want to have them as pets and kiss them on the head, as Luisa had done. Receiving a pet python in the mail for myself – really? Right now, after hearing the snake story in such details, I got jumpy if a leaf rustled in the breeze, and I looked around nervously to see if Mr. and Mrs. Snake and their half a dozen babies were going by for their meals or just slithering about in the rain forest grounds – which was their natural habitat after all, and where we were the rude intruders, as Luisa had pointed out.
On my way back, I wanted to stop by the sign that said, ‘Baby plants. Warm café. Talk English. For sale’ and change it to, ‘Baby plants. Warm café. Snake stories. Talk English. For sale.’ Fortunately for Luisa, I did not have a can of spray paint with me.
True to Luisa’s prediction, Mrs. Gomez was extremely happy on receiving the gifts of Bonsai mango and lemon trees. She rattled off in Spanish and the only word that I understood from what she was saying was ‘gracias’. She had used this word over and over again and I started repeating it back to her. She took that as a hint and she stopped with her ‘Thank you’ speech.
That evening, I took a flash-light with me as I walked to Mrs. Gomez’s house for dinner. I read the materia medica on snakes. At bedtime that night, it was hard for me to simply lie down and fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I turned all the lights on, checked every nook and cranny of all the rooms, saw under the tables, under the bed, and in the kitchen cabinets and drawers to see if any snakes were hiding in the house. Saying that I had become paranoid was being very polite in describing me and my behavior. I could now understand how a person would feel when he said he checked and re-checked the house to see if there were any intruders. Well, I did not find any snakes. Maybe I will see some in my dream???
When I awoke in the middle of the night, it was in response to the very loud and strong breeze rattling my cottage. Unable to enter a state of deep sleep again, I tossed and turned – seeing images of snakes and wondering how and why Luisa knew so much about snakes. ‘Well, her country has over two hundred snake species. She loves snakes, so, she learns all about snakes. What is the big deal?’ ‘But do all Costa Ricans know and love snakes just because they happen to be citizens of a country with two hundred species of snakes?’ ‘No, you idiot! As a homeopath you should know that though we are all members of the same species, Homo sapiens, each one of us differs drastically from everyone else because of our strange, rare and peculiar features.’ ‘Is knowledge of and love for snakes Luisa’s strange, rare and peculiar feature?’ ‘How do I know, I was not taking her case. She was just chatting away without even bothering if I was listening or not.’ ‘But you were listening.’ ‘What was I supposed to do, insert a pair of earplugs and tune out her voice?’
As I began to doze off again, tired from this internal bantering, my sleepy mind recalled every detail of the full-body handshake and full body, wrap-around hugs that I had received today from Luisa, and the smell of the warm café dripping down my back. I woke up with the same imagery and a voice telling me, ‘DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.’
For reasons that were not clear to me, or to my rational, logical mind, I drafted an email to Luisa’s snake breeder ex-boyfriend, introduced myself, and requested him if he could please help. Then I deleted that draft. I decided to wait a couple of hours and then call him. That would be much better in case he had any questions coming up in his ophio-philic mind.
A while later, when I was sitting with my first patient of the day, I had to take a break in the middle of the session because I found my mind drifting to the conversation I just had with the snake breeder. I was going over every word that we had exchanged. I was wondering, ‘Will he? Won’t he?’ and also wondering if the line of action that I had chosen to take will lead to something. It was hard for me to focus on my patient and casetaking, though I was trying my best. I had trouble keeping my mind clear.
For the next few days, I took a little time off from my practice and helped the villagers in building a foot-bridge over the chunk of the road that had washed out. Without this bridge, people were just walking down the rubble and walking up the rubble with their happy, smiling faces. At the top of the washed off road, the town buses stopped to drop off and pick up passengers. Private vehicles gave free rides because simply everyone knew everyone else and in general, Costa Ricans were very helpful and friendly people going about as if their whole life was a series of festivities. This attitude was reflected in their national greeting, ‘Pura Vida’ meaning ‘Pure Life’. I often looked around to see if I could catch one grumpy sour-puss complaining about the slow pace in which the government relief efforts worked. I did not find any. ‘Road is washed out? We will build it back again, maniana, may be later. We can climb up and down the rubble, hitch a ride and move on.’ That was the general sentiment. The only people troubled by the rubble were the village women. They loved to wear very fancy looking six-inch high stilettos when visiting their family and friends and it was hard for them to walk on the rubble in their high heel shoes. Their cute and deadly shoes got muddy. They did not enjoy that. It was amazing how spotlessly clean they maintained their homes, clothes and shoes. They did not even give a full hand for a handshake fearing that your dirt might stick to them…except Luisa, who had given me the full-body handshake while spilling warm café over my back.
I also knew walking on rubbles with high heel shoes was hard for these women because I had several cases of sprained ankles in my practice lately, and they were all women. I had a strange desire to go around at night with a silent chain saw and saw off the heels from all the high heel shoes. Just like cigarettes these deadly shoes must be banned from planet earth.
The footbridge was soon completed. For inauguration the village children made national flags out of red, blue and white plastic bags, sewed the flags onto bamboo poles and planted these flag poles all along the two railings of the foot bridge. Luisa donated several pots of flowering plants and they were hung from the flagpoles. I thought the local mayor or governor would be invited for the inauguration, but the rural Costa Ricans are not very political. They invited the local priest instead. He prayed briefly, nailed a cross on the entrance and exit points of the bridge, sprinkled some holy water and then joined his congregation in drinking some local beer. All the three hundred residents of Rio Piedra including the guest residents like myself had shown up for the inauguration and we saw the priest taking the very first walk across the footbridge. He must trust in Jesus completely – he had prayed and if the bridge broke and he fell off, Jesus would certainly save him. I did not know what the rest of us had in our fate as we walked across the newly built and inaugurated footbridge.
Well, this footbridge worked well for my practice. I was beginning to get patients from nearby villages. Most of them were somehow or the other related to some one or the other in Rio Piedra. One person wrote in the patient intake form, “Referred by: My step-brother’s wife’s aunt’s grand-daughter’s ex-husband” It took me a while to figure out the family-tree. Believe me, I would have treated him even if he simply wrote that he had taken a flying saucer service and just arrived on earth. But I had learned that in Costa Rica it was important to tell others how you were related to so and so and so. I also speculated that perhaps the word about my free treatment was spreading like wildfire or perhaps my treatments were so dramatically effective. Who knows why and how a practice gets busy. I was simply happy to be doing my bit of work and helping people from the neighboring villages.
Some of my remedies were running out. I was expecting a package from Helios any day now. Mrs. Gomez gave me the address of one of her relatives who lived in San Jose. Helios would mail the remedies to him. He would visit Rio Piedra, get a free treatment from me and give me the packet of remedies when they arrived. I did not mind this arrangement at all. Imagine how happy I felt one day when this gentleman arrived at Mrs. Gomez’s house, a large packet from Helios tucked in his hands, and as I unwrapped the packet, I found among scores and scores of remedies a few vials labeled, “Jungle jaguar carpet python, Morelia spilota, 30c, 200c, 1M”. I wanted to swim across the pond and give the Helios boys and girls the same whole-body hug and handshake that I had received from Luisa. That strange hug had inspired me to contact the snake breeder and ask him to send a piece of molted skin from jungle jaguar python to Helios and request Helios to make some potencies for me. As usual, Helios had risen to the task with efficiency and urgency. I had the remedy in my hand. However, I had no idea how or for whom I will use this remedy.
Well, the news of my practice must have reached Luisa, because one morning I heard her chatting non-stop with Mrs. Gomez and as soon as I opened the office door for my first appointment, she walked right in. ‘I was telling Mrs. Gomez about the snake Giovanni caught yesterday. It was a five foot long Coral snake. Poisonous of course, but very pretty. Tomorrow Giovanni will release him in the jungle.’ ‘It is a poisonous snake, why not just kill him?’ I asked.
‘No. You don’t kill a snake. He is a good snake. We are proud of our snakes. Tourists come to see snakes here.’ she said, and I wondered if good snakes were sweet and cuddly like good dogs and wore a discreet smile that their owners could detect and reciprocate.
Over with the latest snake story, I asked Luisa how I could help her. ‘Well, I am bleeding, non-stop, since last two years….My period troubles started about fifteen years ago when I had broken up with my snake breeder boy-friend, my dog had died, my father had died, and I had just given up on the idea of living in the US. I moved back to Costa Rica. I was starting my baby plant business. I married a man here. He was very clingy. If he needed me, he would wrap himself around me so tight I could not even breathe, but once he was done, I would not see him for weeks. I left him within a year. In the past fifteen years, I have had a lot of bleeding with large clots, and it would last for weeks on end, stopping for less than a week and then starting again. I have been through the doctor route…they have done all kinds of tests. I can send you reports. They said that I was totally fine. Then why am I bleeding? For the past two years, it has been a daily affair, any time of the day, blood can come gushing out. I used to be quite embarrassed, but now everyone knows what is happening. They see me bleeding, I just don’t care. I clean myself up and move on.’
Though the reason for this visit was uterine bleeding of fifteen-year duration, Luisa did not dwell in her complaint and describe her pathology in any great detail. She was anti-medication. ‘When nothing is wrong according to them, then what are they treating? Why are they poisoning me with their drugs?’ she asked and instead of telling me more about her presenting complaints, she regaled me with few more snake stories that she had missed telling me the first time we met. I let her carry on. There was really no way to stop her and ask a question. She had so much to say, any question would just break her flow of words and when that happened she gave me an intense glare that made me want to just shut up, and listen.
Thanks to the snake breeder boy-friend’s co-operation in collecting a sample and sending it over to Helios, and Helios’ efficiency, I knew just what I would give Luisa. I had no repertory to refer to and find out about the symptoms this remedy would address or produce in a prover. I did not even have enough rubrics to search the software and find a conventional and proven remedy. I pulled myself past the constraints of formal procedure and methodology. I decided to simply follow my heart and listen to my instincts. I gave Luisa one dry dose of Morelia spilota 1M in my clinic and a bottle with a few pellets dissolved in an ounce of water, for later. ‘Take a spoonful from this tomorrow and day after tomorrow at bedtime. Then stop. Come see me in two weeks from now and we will assess your response to the remedy.’
Luisa sat around till the remedy dissolved in her mouth. Then she continued to sit for some more time – may be fifteen minutes, looking at me now with soft and dreamy eyes, and asked me a few questions about homeopathy. Surprise!! Instead of Luisa, I was talking. When I had first met her, I could not get a word in – all I could do was listen, and she was hell-bent on talking non-stop whether I heard her or not. Now, Luisa was actually taking an interest in me as another human being who, perhaps, had a thing or two to say. But I am not into chatting up with my patients.
Luisa got up to go. She did not offer to pay but said, ‘If you need any more plants for giving gifts, I will not charge you.’ I walked over to open the door for her, and she extended her hand – in typical Costa Rican’ women’s style, with her palm drooping at a ninety degree angle. Thank God, being a professional gardener and nursery owner, she worked all day in the dirt and was not into growing real or false nails. But, really, whatever happened to the whole-body-hug-and-handshake?
I cannot deny that very quietly, in the back of my mind, I was watching a tiny hope raise its head like a cute baby snake, ‘the remedy is beginning to work.’ But I had to ask myself not to cling to the result and maintain vain hope. ‘Who am I – a direct descendant of Hahnemann, or a blood relative of Rajan Sankaran that I just instinctively feel that a certain substance could have medicinal use for a certain individual. Helios makes me the remedy because I pay on time, I give the up-to-now-unknown remedy, and the patient begins feeling better and behaving better within ten minutes??? Ha-ha-ha, I had to be a bit more grounded and realistic than that. Perhaps Luisa was respecting the decorum of my clinic, even though I did not wear a white coat and throw a stethoscope around my neck. Perhaps she was just respecting the doctor-patient relationship.
I heard a few days later that some members of Luisa’s extended family were hurt in a car crash. They had all survived, but a couple of them had sustained serious injuries when their car was carried off the road in a major mudslide. Luisa was off to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose, to help her extended family. ‘Patient unavailable for follow up’ I wrote in her case file.
She stayed back in San Jose for the next several weeks and we did not connect even once after the remedy. My eight weeks of vacation in Costa Rica were coming to an end. One morning I packed my bags and drove myself to the airport. As I passed by the sign that said ‘Baby plants. Warm café. Talk English. For sale’ I smiled, remembering the whole-body-hug-and-handshake from the woman who owned this nursery.
I eased back into my routine work in my US clinic. But, something was feeling very strange and different. Besides my regular patients, there was suddenly a very sharp spike in the number of patients with family names like Alvarez, Benitez, Cruz, Diaz, Escobedo, Flores, Gonzales, Hernandez, Perez, Sanchez, Ramirez, Torres, Morales, Chavez, Ramos… and so on. They came from towns and villages within about three hundred mile radius of my village. They mostly had extended families and a few members of each family needed to see me for some reason or the other. Some of them spoke fluent English, some spoke haltingly, some spoke no English at all. They would drive all the way up to my village, check themselves into the only local Bed and Breakfast (the owners sent me a thank-you note for the increase in their business due to my patients) and then throughout the day, I would see various members of this family.
Besides the fact that my income suddenly rose to extraordinary new levels, and Nancy received a hefty bonus, I was stupefied with this sudden prosperity and had no way of understanding how it had come about till one gray and rainy day in the fall, Luisa found me on the Facebook and sent in a friend request which I immediately accepted.
On Facebook, Luisa informed me about her health. Her bleeding issue had gone away completely. Now she had regularity in her periods that she used to have when she was a very happy teenager living with her dear family in the rural village of Rio Piedra, years and years ago. It was now over six months since she took the remedy that I had given her and she has not had any single concerns regarding her bleeding. She was happy and doing well. When I asked her if she had something to do with all these Hispanic families showing up at my office, she said, ‘I don’t know. I just told one of my friends back in the States who had known all along how I was suffering, that I had seen you only once, taken the remedy you gave me only three times, and I was now completely well. If she spread the news about you, you have to ask her. She is Patricia Fernandez and I can ask her to friend you on the Facebook.
To such an offer, I could not say no. I also could not say no to Nancy, when in the beginning of fall, she asked me if I wanted to go back to Rio Piedra for eight weeks in the winter, ‘By all means, Nancy, get me there for all of November and December’ I said as I watched a tiny leaf detach itself from the birch tree on the park across from my office, swirl in the breeze a few times and then gently land with extra-ordinary precision, right in the center of the window pane, its yellow side facing me, making me marvel at the precision of random events and encounters and how they shape our lives.