Apr/May 2008 Travel

The Shaman of El Mamon

by William Reese Hamilton

Marisol is having a bout with shingles, or what our Home Medical Encyclopedia calls "herpes zoster." Apparently, when you have your childhood attack of chickenpox, most of the virus is burnt off, but some remains hidden in your system. People over fifty are particularly vulnerable to shingles outbreaks. Here it's called "culebrilla" or little snake.

We go to our favorite dermatologist in Caracas, Hugo Naranjo--not to be confused with jugo de naranja (orange juice)--a joke I'm sure he's pretty tired of hearing by now. Mari thought the little stinging spot on the back of her neck might be from a garapata or some such insect. Self-diagnosis can be a dangerous thing. Hugo is sufficiently concerned, tells her to avoid strenuous exercise, puts her on an anti-viral pill (good old acyclovir) and some skin ointment. He also suggests she try yerba mora, a tropical plant with little purple berries. He's reluctant to prescribe it officially, because fellow doctors pooh-pooh such natural medicines. But he thinks it might just help. He wants her back in a week or two for blood tests.

Back in Choroní, when people hear, "culebrilla," they immediately urge us to see Don Cristobal. They say if culebrilla goes all the way around Mari's neck, she will die.

"Who's Don Cristobal?"

"El es shamán."

Everyone in Choroní swears by his magic power with prayer and herbs. Marianela, who has been suffering from a pain in her side, comes up the mountain with us, more than willing to give Don Cristobal a try.

About five kilometers above Choroní, we park across from El Mamón--the bodega, trading post and meeting place for people of this little community. Men who farm small conucos drive their burros down the mountain trails to this place, laden with platanos, bananas, corn and sugar cane. This time of year, banana and platano fronds are where the money is, because Venezuelans will need the leaves soon for their holiday hallacas. The campesinos park their burros in the little dirt placita. There are at least twenty burros hitched up along the sides. The men take their bundles of leaves into El Mamón where they will be paid, have a soda and get news of the outside world. They are shy men who are not used to strangers and listen more than speak. Everything slows down in these mountain villages. Dogs sleep in the middle of the road.

But when we descend from the road into the valley, we drop another hundred years into the past, crossing the river on a rusting foot bridge and following the sandy trail through Sabaneta's rich cacao plantation--great shade trees, mangroves, thick stands of banana, little stone bridges across well-kept acequias which have irrigated this land for centuries.

The burro path leads us up the other side through great gray boulders, always climbing. All along the trail, the trees are filled with cacao, a whitish green fruit ripening into a deep red. An old woman from El Mamón has followed us to make sure we don't get lost. At the fork in the path, she tells us to go left up the mountain. The right branch would take us to the colonial buildings of Sabaneta.

I have, in fact, been down that way before, fascinated to see where the trail might lead me. I came right up to the back gate and peered into the patio like some peeping-tom before I realized I had been there once before as an invited guest. I'm a natural trespasser, invader, prowler. I've gone uninvited into as many of the old haciendas as I can, eager to see how they're laid out and what they are now up to. Chuao, Aroa, El Portete, Playa Grande, Cepe, Torre, Santa Barbara. If I can, I unlatch the doors to the abandoned buildings, walk the corridors and look into the rooms. After all, these are not johnny-come-latelies. They go back centuries. I've read that as early as 1659 Chuao already had 102 slaves tending over 40,000 cacao trees. What must this place have been like in the age of the Gran Cacaos? Forgive me my trespasses. And my digressions.

Now we come to a widening of the path, where an altar stands under a towering mijao tree. The flat stone surface is covered with half-burnt candles, little plastic and porcelain saints. There we meet a driver with another string of burros.

"Don Cristobal?" we ask. He smiles and points up the trail beyond the altar.

"Up there. Four houses, on the right."

I have not a clue what to expect. Venezuelans go in for a lot of this sort of thing--mediums, tarot card readers, brujas who smoke cigars and read your future in the ashes. On the other hand, ethnobotanists are now combing the Amazon and Orinoco for shamans to tell them what plants can help with which problems.

The fourth house sits on a steep slope, partially hidden by rocks and trees.

"Don Cristobal?" Marianela calls out. We hear something up there, but no clear answer. "Don Cristobal?" Marisol echoes. There's someone up there all right, so we start up the steep stairs. A dark skinned man with salt and pepper hair looks down on us. "Don Cristobal?"

"Entre," he says, welcoming us up onto his front porch.

"Don Cristobal?" we ask again.

"Sí, sí," he answers, as if we might have guessed by now.

"Nelson, the son of your cousin Miguelina Palomino, told me to come to see you," Marisol tells him by way of introduction.

"Yes, her mother and mine were sisters."

"Nelson said you could help me with my culebrilla."

"Sientate, sientate," he says graciously, pulling up stools for us. He has a friendly face with dark, lively eyes, a man in his late sixties or early seventies, barefoot, in shorts and a buttoned shirt. A young man is at work in a room off the porch. And a little boy peers shyly at us from behind a bush. Eventually, the boy gains courage and joins us, stretching out on a bench to watch the proceedings. In the yard, a great white turkey gobble-gobbles his warning to keep off his terrain. On the wall is the ubiquitous election poster for Chavez, the ex-lieutenant colonel and failed coup leader who is now president of Venezuela. Alongside the poster hangs a torn magazine page with a color photo of the church and plaza in Chuao and a certificate of merit from the state of Aragua with Don Cristobal's name on it. The two Maries chat with the shamán, while I try my best to follow their conversation. They tell him where we live, what a fine place Choroní is, the good things they've heard about him. Every once in a while, another burro driver goes by below, calling out his greeting.

Each Saturday, Don Cristobal tells us, he goes down to El Mamón to meet with his patients. It's easier for them. Many people come to ask his help. They come from all over. Up from Choroní, Camping and Invasión, down from Romerito, Tremaria, Uraca, Paraparo and La Esmeralda. We can also meet him there in the future if we wish. They are all good friends of his in El Mamón.

He looks at the spot on Marisol's neck and says, yes, it is culebrilla, and sends the young man off to find the right herb to prepare for her treatment. Marianela tells him about her side, showing him where it hurts, on the right under the ribs.

"You are not going to have a baby, are you?" he kids her, smiling.

"No, I cannot."

"Why not?"

"It is something I was born with."

"You have a stone," he then says very seriously and definitively. "When you go back to El Mamón, tell them to get you rompe piedra." I'm anxious to see what kind of weed carries such a strong name as "stone breaker."

The young man brings Don Cristobal a pestle in which he has prepared a dark green potion. The shaman softly mumbles an incantation over Marisol's neck, dipping a feather into the concoction and marking little green crosses all around the small wound. Mari says she feels a sharp sensation deep inside.

"What is that?" she asks.

"Yerba mora," he answers, the same plant our dermatologist has recommended unofficially in Caracas.

Marisol now wants the healer to check out the rash on my hands, something no two doctors have been able to agree upon. The first dermatologist asked me if I was under stress and I laughed at her. Then she mentioned the strong sun, which sounded reasonable. The second dermatologist I consulted in the States believed I was allergic to mangos, and in fact I had been on a heavy diet of mangos just before seeing her. My internist in Caracas felt I was allergic to the heavy pollen count in the rainforest. Some respond to allergies internally, he told me, others externally. But all any of them prescribed were moisturizers, sunscreens and hydrocortisone creams.

Don Cristobal adds another diagnosis. This is also culebrilla, he informs us, one of seven different kinds. He applies the same treatment to my hand he used on Marisol's neck--little green crosses all around and over my red blotches. I try to believe it might do some good, but I have my doubts. He tells us Marisol has gotten her culebrilla from my hand. For three days we must drink a potion of yerba mora and lemon, then apply it externally to the affected areas. The capper to his treatment is that for three nights we must sleep in separate beds. "This could be the end of a beautiful relationship," I say to her.

"Well, listen," Marisol says. "We'll just think of it as a scientific experiment."

Mari and I present Don Cristobal with a bottle of rum. One is not supposed to pay for his services, for it will rob him of his God-given powers. When Marianela puts several thousand bolivars in his pocket, she is careful to tell him that it is to get something for the little boy, who is his grandson.

"When did you first know you had this power?" Marisol asks.

"When I was a young boy, voices spoke to me. My father tried to beat them out of me, but I continued to listen."

At El Mamón, they search in the field for a handful of rompe piedra for Marianela. It turns out to be a small, innocent-looking plant with white buds. And Marisol tears off a large branch of yerba mora from the plant growing at the bodega entrance. We all head home, full of hope. Or curiosity.

But does it work?

Box Score:

Marisol's shingles disappear with a steady dosage of yerba mora and acyclovir.

Marienella's abdominal pains subside with the help of rompe piedra, and when she is examined by an internist in Caracas, he tells her she has only a slight gravelly residue in her gall bladder.

While chatting with some neighboring doctors about my rash, a visiting physician from Holland adds yet another diagnosis.

"I think I know what you have. A while back, I was in Yugoslavia. Those people are hard drinkers. We were drinking slivovitz, a strong plum brandy, while sitting in the hot sun. I broke out in just such a rash. You see, the alcohol from the strong booze passes through your pours as perspiration, irritating your skin."

I give up rum and my rash disappears.

So we'll give the Shamán of El Mamón two out of three, for a .666 batting average, which is one hell of an average in big league baseball, but perhaps not the average you're hoping for if you have a life-threatening illness.


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