Burying the Umbilicus

Leslie Korn on Mexico, medicine and more..

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He who makes an enemy of the earth makes an enemy of his own body. The Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life

Posted by lekorn on November 6, 2009


I began touching people therapeutically in Mexico, where I have lived in the jungle since 1973. The first people who came to my palapa, which overlooked the Pacific, did so because they were in pain or hoped to   relax their mental strain.

Palapas get their name from the coconut palm fronds, which the men cut, and measure, and then drag down the mountain by burro. They weave and tie the fronds to handcrafted ironwood frames, forming a huge straw hat over open space. The roof sways and lifts with the wind, breathing and absorbing moisture like nostrils, mediating the inside and the outside, which often merge during the wet months in the jungle.

I first worked with the Mexican-Indian women, whose childbirths I had attended and who because of the burden of multiple births and relentless work under the sun often looked more like the mothers of their husbands than their wives.

They brought their widely flattened sore feet and muscular shoulders, indented by the iron- like bras that cut deep grooves across the top of the trapezius muscle. We shared village gossip and they were both honored and amused at my interest in traditional ways of healing. They told me that dried cow dung rubbed on the head cured baldness, and then offered to demonstrate on me. They told me stories they had themselves been told about snakes that lived near the cascadas and were known to be so dexterous that they could unzip your dress, get inside your pants, and get you pregnant. As we got to know each other better, they shared the trauma of their lives and loss of family members to the hardships of the jungle and sea: drowning, tetanus, amoebae exploding the liver, rape, and incest. 

The women brought their little ones in when they fell off horses and hit their heads or fell out of hammocks or over the bow of the 40-horse-powered pangas as they hit the beach on an off wave, bruising the ever so tender sacral bone at the base of the spine. The men came in for treatment accompanied by their wives for the first session, just to make sure nothing untoward would take place. They sought relief for a variety of problems that usually had to do with occupational accidents: diving and the residual effects of too much nitrogen in the blood.  Some of the men did not survive. Those who did rarely went diving again, nor did they ever walk the same way again. 

One night Ezekiel, an ever-grinning, gold-toothed carpenter, whose wife Ophelia made the best coconut pies in the village, was brought ashore. I was asked to his house where he lay in bed, inert and unable to urinate. I arrived amidst the crowd of neighbors ritually dropping emergency money onto his bed, body, and clothes. No one needed to mention that the delay in reaching the charter medical flight to Acapulco, still an hour’s boat ride away over rough, full moon seas, was due to lack of money. And while Zeke’s pockets were stuffed, his pants half on, belly exposed and scarred from previous battles unknown to me, I placed needles in his abdomen according to Chinese tradition to help him relax while he waited.

They said it was a miracle that Zeke survived. When he returned from the decompression chamber in Acapulco, 800 miles down the coast, he came for treatments and I worked on the firmly muscled legs, which betrayed him only when he walked. As I pressed hard into the core of his calves and the fascia lata on the outside of his thighs, he talked of the terror when he and his cousin Ruben were diving deep in search of sleeping lobsters and the hundred-foot hose choked off the air at the moment the panga stopped vibrating because the generator in the hull faltered too long.

 A few years later, after my thatched-roof house had burned to ashes, Ezekiel had fully recovered. I asked him to take a buzz saw and climb the 200-foot Coconut palm, which grew out of the center of the zalate, the dying strangler fig tree that had given my house its name years before I arrived. Invariably, when passersby saw this symbiotic site for the first time, they would cry out with an astonishment that reflected their confusion about which tree came first, the zalate or the coconut. It was difficult without knowing their history, or nature itself, to tell by looking. The coconut tree appeared to rise straight up out of the middle of the fig; or was it the other way around? Like other parasitic intertwinings, the exact nature of their relationship was not evident upon first glance. However, the Strangler Fig, whose shape and skin was like elephant bark, got its name because its seed popped down into the coconut, which was already quite old when it ineluctably became host. The fig then proceeded to wrap its way around the palm and the landscape, its roots ruling the hectare of hillside like huge thighs and forearms elbowing their way through all my attempts to make steps from rocks on the path to my door. Twice yearly, the zalate bore fruit, dropping a hailstorm of green fig balls as quickly as they popped open. They tapped upon my roof around the clock, appreciated only by the bats, which, as they made their nightly pass through my house to see if the raicimo of bananas were perchance left uncovered, left their sticky, fig-filled droppings on my floor.

  The zalate died a slow giant’s death after the fire in 1982 and I missed cleaning up the thousand-figged parade that signaled another half year gone by. However, with the shade veil from the zalate gone, along with the garden, which now served as a burial ground for the shards of my grandmother’s heat-burst china, there was sunlight all day long. This prompted Ophelia to bring me several flowering bushes from her garden, some of them sweet, red, and pink cabbage roses to plant near my gate, which needed some color and a stubborn hold on its steep, eroding side.

  The last of the zalate’s roots did not dry and merge with the earth it had faithfully served until six years after the fire. By then, the roses were strong and in full bloom and Ezekiel was able to climb the Coco to amputate the remaining limbs of the zalate. Then, sadly, as he shimmied down the smooth gray skin, he had to cut the still-live Coco herself, who now without the support she had grown accustomed to, threatened to topple over onto my new roof whose dried fronds, barring another unthinkable fire, would not need replacing for another four years.

 The majestic Coconut is never willingly toppled, being the source of roof, oil, milk, and soap. But when she comes down her bounty is as rich in death as in life. My neighbor Alicia asked for two -dozen thick-sliced rippled rajas whose scratchy center resembles the scruff of the nut, and when faced inside the house and tied side by side form walls against the sea air. The zalate then proffered her base as a table, and six three-foot stools for my kitchen, with four more going to Ophelia and Zeke. Finally, we had her heart of palm, to which we added oil and lemon and gave thanks as we ate.



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