Mama Nati


I was living in Banos again, but it was December. Fiesta! Viva Quito!

The yellow and blue flags of Quito were flying from every house and public building. The streets of the old town were crowded with noisy drunks. On every corner, in tiny wooden stands, Indians were selling the deadly thimble-sized cups of homemade aguardiente — also known as teeth-of-the-lion, pisco, white cane liquor, or firewater. You could buy your poison mixed with a squeeze of lemon or a drop of warm canned milk.

At the Gran Casino Hotel, also known as the Grand Gringo, rooms were scarcer than those lions’ teeth and people were doubling and tripling up. The toilets were backed up, and the only time you could get a hot shower was at 4 in the morning.

It was a great party, so why wasn’t I having any fun? Something was wrong, and I didn’t know what it was. I could barely get out of bed. I thought I might be dying. But of what?

My best friend, big blonde British Sheila, left me in the dust. She spent all her time with handsome young Eduardo, a wealthy Peruvian who was rare because he was actually taller than she was. He adored her. His pockets were stuffed with cocaine and he bought her presents. She adored him. She showed up at our hotel room only long enough to change her clothes.

I caught her on the fly one day and made her take me to the central hospital, where the doctors looked me over and said I had tracheal bronchitis. They gave me penicillin and a syringe and told me to take a shot every day. Sheila had been a stewardess on British Air, so once a day Eduardo brought her by and she give me a shot.

The sexy cowboy from the Popayan trip who was supposed to meet me in Quito never showed up. I dragged myself to one bullfight, but it took too much energy. I spent the rest of the week in bed, listening to other people have a good time and feeling muy, muy sorry for myself.

On the last day of the festival, Sheila announced that she was leaving for Peru with Eduardo.

“How about your stuff in Baños?”

“Leave it. Eduardo will buy me everything I need.”

And she was gone from my life forever.

I dragged my weak little body back to Baños and the Teresita Hotel. It was the best dollar flop in town. It had high, carved wooden beds and flowered sheets. And I knew I would be spending a lot of time in bed. I was still broke, but I had a kilo of excellent pot from the Popayan trip, so I chose the room closest to the central stairway. My plan was to keep my door open and offer to sell dope to the new gringos as they checked in.

Don Luis, the owner of the Teresita, greeted me warmly. He had become a good friend because Sheila was renting a small house on the other side of town from him, so we saw him often. He was a kind and courtly man, an alcoholic and a roué. He brought young girls to a little room he kept in the back of Sheila’s house.

That night, I went to bed white and woke up yellow. It wasn’t bronchitis.

Amazed, I stared at my yellow face in the dresser mirror.

An American traveler named Bruce walked past my open doorway. He leaned in when he saw me.

“Welcome back,” he said. “Did you hear what happened to Carol?” Carol was his girlfriend. “She’s got hepatitis.”

“What’s hepatitis?”

“Well, first you lose all your energy, and you don’t know why. Then your piss turns red and your shit turns white. Then you turn yellow. Carol can’t get out of bed. She’s down the hall.”


By sliding with my back against the wall, I made it to the shared toilet. There was someone in it and I thought I would pass out before he finally left, carrying his empty porcelain chamber pot.

Yup, my piss was brick red.

I slid back the other way, down to Carol’s room. Her little face peeked out of the flowered sheets. She looked terrible. She was as yellow as the flowers on the sheets. She was as yellow as a dog.

“Shit,” I said, sinking into a chair. “I’ve got it, too.”

“There are four guys in the Baños hospital who have it,” Carol said. “They’re lying over there with IVs in their arms. I heard there were five people sick in Cuzco, too. Five people who were here about a month ago. It’s an epidemic.”

I thought about the tiny Baños hospital, which had four beds and antique equipment. There wasn’t even a doctor in town; one came from Ambato a few times a week. I felt sorry for those guys.

“How do you get hep?”

“It’s an infectious disease of the liver,” Bruce said. He talked pedantically, which reminded me that I’d always thought of this pair as the worst kind of travelers. They’d had all the shots and carried all the guidebooks and knew everything except how to have a good time. Now look at what had happened to them.

Before, I’d avoided them. Now I was grateful for any information they had.

“You can carry the disease and spread it for 15 days before the symptoms show,” Bruce said. “We could have gotten it at the hot baths, or at the Americano Hotel, or from passing a joint around. It’s a shit-to-mouth disease. Someone could have brought it to Baños, and when he shit at the Americano, a fly could have carried the disease into the dining room. You know how filthy their kitchen is.”

“Is hepatitis fatal?”

Carol winced.

“Not usually,” Bruce said. “It just knocks you out for a while.”

“Sugar and fat are bad for you, I think,” Carol said.

And that was the extent of our information.

I wondered about Sheila in Peru. I hoped Eduardo would still love her when her skin matched the color of her hair.

“Well, I’m not going to the Baños hospital,” I said. “What are you doing about this?”

“Mama Nati is taking care of Carol,” Bruce said proudly.

That gave me a scare. Mama Nati was a toothless old witch doctor who frightened the other Indians in town so much they crossed themselves when they mentioned her name. They said she was crazy.

She lived in a tiny cottage way up the hill on the other side of town, and you sometimes saw her chasing her old husband around the yard with a broom, screaming at him for being lazy.

“Doctors come from all over the world to study her techniques,” Bruce said pompously. “She’s a fine herbalist, and she’s doing everything she can for Carol.”

I remembered back to a few months ago, when I had spent some afternoons up at Mama Nati’s house while a friend was treated for an infected blister on her hand. We sat on tree stumps on Mama Nati’s porch, talking to her while she soaked poultices in milky liquid and draped them over my friend’s hand.

Mama Nati said she was 70, but she was ageless. Her eyes sparkled and her small body, with its witchy wrinkled hands and brown, deeply wrinkled face, was always vibrant and alert. She dressed like the other campesino women, barefoot, with full skirts and layers of dirty sweaters. Her dark braids were long and showed only the smallest streaks of gray.

We talked to her in broken Spanish, a second language for all three of us, since Quechua was Mama Nati’s native tongue. She told us she had married young and had been fighting with her husband for over 50 years. She warned us never to marry.

“Men are worthless; they lie,” she told us many times. “Before they marry you, they put you on a pedestal and worship you. After they marry you, they never do another thing. They sit around and expect you to do all the work. Worthless, worthless, worthless.”

Then, shaking her head, she would go into the kitchen to stir a soup and chase a guinea pig.

Mama Nati’s kitchen was low-ceilinged and smoke-filled, and the walls were black with soot. Dried herbs, rows of teeth and the bodies of dead animals hung from the low ceiling. She cooked over an open fire in a large hearth. Big blackened iron cauldrons bubbled in the coals. She made delicious soups.

We didn’t dare go in the kitchen. First of all, it was full of fleas, and we had to take baths every time we left. Then there were the guinea pigs, the cui. As a protein source, cui dates back to before the Incas. The Indians skinned and roasted them, heads and all, on sticks. Done, they looked like screaming cats, but they were supposed to be delicious.

The Indians didn’t bother to cage them, so hundreds of the furry little rodents were running free around Mama Nati’s kitchen, making strange high squealing noises like rats and getting underfoot.

The blister on my friend’s hand never healed.

“Mama Nati comes every day,” Carol said, bringing me back to the present. “She brings me medicine and oatmeal. She usually talks to us for a while, too.”

“Let me guess. She says men are worthless.”

I must have guessed right, because Bruce shot me an angry look. Clearly, I wasn’t showing enough respect for Mama Nati. Or for Bruce?

“How much is she charging you?” I asked.

“300 Sucres,” Bruce said. That was twelve dollars a cure.

“She’s taking good care of me,” Carol said defensively.

I had to decide. Was I strong enough to drag myself back to Quito, to get on a plane, to make it to my parent’s house in Florida? The answer was no. Also, I hated to admit weakness and defeat. If I went home, I’d never have the nerve to come back to South America. Hospitals were out of the question — alone, I would disappear without a trace.

I needed help. I had no money and too much weed. Wherever I chose to lay down next, it would be a long, long time before I was on the road again. Mama Nati made delicious soups. She was starting to look like a good bet.

“How long has Mama Nati been treating you?” I asked.

“Five days,” Carol said.

“Well, you’re still alive,” I said tactlessly. Carol winced again. “Could you ask Mama Nati to come see me when she comes in? Thanks. And good luck.”

When I stood up I almost fell backward. By leaning against the wall, I managed to slide myself back into my bed.

About an hour later, Mama Nati came so briskly that the tassels on her wool shawl were swinging. She moaned when she saw me. Throwing her shawl across a chair, she hurried to my bed, hauled down my blankets and pulled up my thermal undershirt. She lay her wrinkled brown face on my smooth pale belly and listened to my liver. She spoke to it in Quechua. It must have answered, because she smiled. Then she shook her head sadly and looked straight into my eyes.

“It’s your liver,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very hurt. It will take a long time to cure you. I can do it.” She spoke with complete authority.

“Please help me, Mama Nati,” I said. “I’m so weak.”

“Eat nothing today and tomorrow,” she said. “Nothing at all.” She leaned over and stared directly into my eyes. “Nothing. Eat nothing. Understand?”

Then she swirled her shawl around her shoulders and left, the tassels bobbing behind her.

Don Luis came up to visit me when he finished work. He brought his guitar and played for me. Every so often he stopped, smiled, put his hand to his head and said, “Mama Nati. O, Mama Nati.”

She came the next morning swinging both her tassels and the handle of an aluminum pot full of oatmeal. It was for Carol. I was hungry, but Mama Nati brought no food for me. There was no way I could get food for myself, because I was now too weak to lift my head. I couldn’t get out of bed without a great deal of pain, and I couldn’t walk as far as the bathroom. I had to use the chamber pot. Red piss, white shit. The maid emptied it twice a day.

Mama Nati lifted my shirt and listened to my liver again. She shook a worried head. “Very sick. Very bad. Eat nothing.” She waved and left.

She starved me for three long days and nights while I lay helpless, panicking, cursing her more every day, unable to move, my mind captive to my hurting body.

The kind travelers who checked in and out of the Teresita were my only connections to the outside world. Several times a day, someone would stick a head into my room to ask if I needed something. One girl picked wildflowers for me. Another bought me embroidery thread. I tried doing needlework, but I couldn’t hold my head high enough to see my hands. People donated books, but my eyes were aching.

On the fourth day, Mama Nati got to work. She locked my door behind her, dropped her shawl on the chair, shed two sweaters and pushed the sleeves of the other three up her arms. She undressed me and listened to my liver.

Then she lit frankincense in an ashtray. The room grew smoky and mysterious. She took a bar of cocoa butter and drew crosses all over my abdomen, arms and chest. And as the cocoa butter melted into my hot body, she sang an eerie, high-pitched song, half in Spanish and half in Quechua. I didn’t know who she was praying to, Jesus or a long-forgotten Inca deity. Or maybe both. She prayed over my liver for more than an hour.

Having set the mood, she brought out a little aluminum pot filled with green, lumpy, shinning liquid. She poured the repulsive stuff into a cracked glass and put it in my hand. It was the moment of truth between us. Was I really going through with this? She stared deeply into my eyes, challenging me. I drank. It was revolting. I drank it all.

Mama Nati sat on my bed and for the next ten minutes we exchanged meaningful looks. Clearly, she expected something to happen.

Then I had a sudden, urgent need for the chamber pot. Mama Nati was ready. She helped me off the bed and got the pot under me not a moment too soon. She held me up while a vile, foul, unknown substance poured out of my body. I couldn’t believe anything so awful had been inside me. It was like I had drunk lye and all the twisted corners of my intestines had been flushed clean. I wasn’t sure, but I think I saw stones glistening in the bottom of the pot.

When the waves had passed, Mama Nati nodded approvingly. I was literally drained, and it was difficult getting back into the high bed. I had to admit it. Her medicines were effective.

“OK, witch doctor,” I said in English, being rude to hide my helplessness, but in English because I didn’t want to alienate her. “Now feed me.”

She understood everything. She grinned in satisfaction, nodded, and said, “Now you can eat.”

Then she brought out another little aluminum pot which had another green liquid. I tentatively took the proffered glass and tasted it. It was smooth and sweet. I gulped it down and two more glasses after that. I drank the rest right out of the pot.

Calmer, I lay back.

Mama Nati dressed me and tucked me in. “More this evening,” she said. “Rest now.”

“Mama Nati, what was that first thing I drank?” I asked.

“Medicina,” she said, laughing.

“And the second pot?”

“Almidon.” And she disappeared.

I reached for my English-Spanish dictionary. Almidon meant starch.

Bruce came in.

“What did she do?” he asked.

I told him. He looked puzzled, almost insulted.

“She didn’t do anything like that to Carol.”

Great. In his eyes I had more status than Carol because Mama Nati gave my intestines an herbal scrub. I didn’t care. There were more important issues at hand.

“What do you know about this almidon?”

“In the beginning, she made Carol drink two pots of it every day. I went over there one time to get it. She grinds up some kind of a cactus plant and cooks it with water and sugar.”

“It must be the equivalent of the glucose they put in IVs.”

“Sure, natural dextrose,” Bruce nodded.

“I’m so hungry I could drink a gallon of it,” I said. “How long has Carol been getting oatmeal?”

“Six days now.”

“Well, she’s five days ahead of me,” I said. “I’m starving. I don’t know if I can last that long.”

It wasn’t Mama Nati who came the next day but her handsome young grandson, Carlos. I knew Carlos from around town because he was in love with marijuana and therefore hung out with the gringos. His family had sent him up from Guayaquil to live with his grandmother because they were afraid he’d get into trouble in the city. He was serious and gentle, and unlike the other young men in town, he never flirted. How did Mama Nati know that a handsome young man would have a calming effect on me, just like almidon?

I was in pain when he came in. My liver was so swollen I could actually feel its outline as it pushed against my rib cage.

I grabbed at Carlos’ arm. “Help me,” I gasped.

“The liver can’t clean out the poisons because it’s so weak,” he said sympathetically. “The poisons stay inside and make the muscles hurt.”

“Help me,” I whined.

He patted my hand, left, and came back with cocoa butter.

Then he took off my shirt. This could have been alarming in that he was a man, more or less a stranger and I was helpless in bed. But I could see that Carlos took his position as Mama Nati’s assistant seriously. He talked softly and reassuringly as he massaged my chest and belly with the cocoa butter. With his sure, gentle hands, he rubbed my sore glands, my aching muscles, my poor swollen liver, until we all relaxed. He massaged me for over two hours, until most of the pain was gone. Then he dressed me as if I were a doll and folded the bedcovers carefully under my chin. He fed me almidon with a spoon. I was in love.

“If the pains continue, use more cocoa butter,” he said.

I slept deeply and had lascivious dreams about Carlos. When I woke up, Mama Nati was at my bedside. I smiled sweetly at her and she laughed out loud. She knew.

Mama Nati said I could eat a little oatmeal, so I had a party. Bruce cooked pot after pot of it for me on his Primus stove, and I poured the sticky liquid into every empty bottle Don Luis could find around the hotel. I stashed some of the bottles under the mattress and some in the closet. I ended up with a room full of contraband oatmeal. I wasn’t going to be hungry again. I got two pots a day from Mama Nati or Carlos, and I swigged the rest out of the hidden bottles like an alcoholic.

My plan to sell marijuana was working out well. One day I was selling an ounce to an American couple when Carlos came by with my oatmeal. He was shocked when he saw that I kept my stash under the bed.

“What if the police come?” he said. “You’re too weak to get out of bed and hide it.”

I hoped he wasn’t suggesting I keep it under the mattress, because that was where I kept my hidden oatmeal stash.

But instead, he fiddled with the newel posts on my headboard. They made a squealing, scraping sound when he unscrewed them, but off they came. The posts were hollow. How did he know? I wondered. He stuffed my plastic bags inside and screwed the posts back on.

“Carlos, you’re an angel. Will you marry me?”

He laughed. I was thin, weak, yellow and hadn’t had a bath in over two weeks.

With the money I made selling the weed, I could afford the next step in my treatment. Mama Nati was excited. She brought into the room something huge and slimy wrapped in plastic bags. When she pulled it out, it turned out to be the entire spleen of a cow, red and livery on one side and white and honeycombed on the other.

I eyed it warily. Mama Nati advanced on me with the spleen. I used my elbows to back further and further away until I was flat up against the headboard. She sat on me and subdued me.

She slapped the spleen onto my belly. Yeech!. Then she wrapped wedges of newspaper around the meat and bound the whole thing tightly around my middle with torn sheets and safety pins.

“Thirty-six hours,” she said. “It will draw out the poisons.”

It took less than two hours of body heat before the spleen began to decay. It stank. I smelled like a year’s supply of used Modess pads. The meat bled through the newspapers and the bandages. It seeped into the bed sheets.

The maid came in to empty the chamber pot. She gave a horrified yell.

“This isn’t a hospital, it’s a hotel” she screamed at me and ran for Don Luis. He wouldn’t come into the room. He stood in the doorway and laughed out loud. He put his hand to his head. “Mama Nati,” he said. “O Mama Nati.”

I spent the night in a state of hysteria. My belly itched, but when I reached inside the bandages to scratch, the smell of the spleen on my fingers made me gag. I was too weak to wrestle the damn thing off. Panicked, I passed the night inventing tortures for Mama Nati.

But when she came the next day, I was so happy to see her I could have kissed her dirty naked foot. She was expecting my complaints and laughed them away. I thought she was going to take the foul thing off. Instead, she tightened the wrappings. “Very good,” she said. “One more day.”

Bruce smugly told me that Carol had reacted the same way.

As my reward, Mama Nati sent Carlos to take off the spleen. He peeled it away from my body. The white honeycomb part, which had been next to my skin, had turned a filthy black.

“You see,” Carlos said gently, “There is the poison.”

He washed me down with a sponge. The maid came in, cursing, and put clean flowered sheets on the bed. I sucked down a bottle of oatmeal and wondered what was coming next.

Mama Nati called it a plasma. It was a thick mixture of egg yolk, parsley and butter. She spread it around my middle and again wrapped me in newspapers and linen. The plasma was uncomfortable, but at least it had a fairly pleasant smell. I could scratch my belly and lick my fingers afterward. The next 36 hours passed without turmoil. Unfortunately, the parsley seeped through the wrappings and dyed the sheets green.

The maid quit.

Don Luis was a saint. He said nothing to me about the sheets or the maid. Anyway, we had a bigger problem. I was complaining that my beautifully flowered bed had bugs. Every night I was badly bitten, and every morning Don Luis had to spray. When Mama Nati came to take off the plasma, I was finally well enough to notice that plump and healthy fleas were jumping back and forth from her sweaters to my blankets.

I told Don Luis. We didn’t want to insult Mama Nati, and, as she was my doctor, we certainly couldn’t keep her out my room. What we needed to do was keep her from sitting on the bed. So he, the great gentleman that he was, carried a carved wooden throne of a chair into my room and placed it beside my bed. When Mama Nati came with the evening oatmeal, he courteously helped her into the chair and explained that he put it there especially for her comfort. The energetic old woman was touched by his thoughtfulness, and after that, he only had to spray the room once a week.

I still couldn’t stand unaided, but Mama Nati was clearly pleased with my progress. I was yellow-tinged, dyed green around the middle and smelled, but the plasma had been a success and now I could have real food.

I sold an ounce, gave the money to Mama Nati and she bought a chicken. The soup was delicious, and best, I didn’t get the head. Carol did. She dipped her spoon into her bowl and brought it up — eyes, comb, beak and all. I heard her scream.

The new maid was young and frisky and giggled all the time. One afternoon she knocked on my door.

“Someone is looking for you,” she giggled.

In burst the cowboy, Robert Dan (I think everyone in Texas has two names), just off a 20-hour bus ride from Lima, filthy, uncombed, unshaven except for his bristling mustache, rumpled, and so sexy I wanted to jump on him right then. I had forgotten all about him. He dropped his pack and raced to my bedside. Then he got a good whiff and backed off.

“Joyce Susan! My darling girl! I was on my way to Quito to meet you, but I was so late coming back, I thought maybe you were back here. So I took a chance and came. I asked some people on the street if there was a cute little gringa in town with curly hair. Everybody knows you. Hepatitis, huh?”

He tried to look sympathetic but he couldn’t hide his shock. It made me wonder what I looked like. I knew what I smelled like.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” I said, trying to console him.

“I brought you a present,” he said. “I guess I got the right thing.”

He pulled a white pillowcase with green doves and the words “Te Quiero” embroidered on it out of his pack. Te quiero. I want you. I love you. Watching from the doorway, the little maid giggled some more.

“Te quiero,” he said passionately, taking my hand. “I saw this in the Lima market. I’ve been carrying it around for a month. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”

The maid helped him fit the pillowcase onto my pillow, and he gently lowered my head on it.

He bent to kiss me, which was brave. “I’ll be back in the morning,” he whispered. “Take a shower.”

Even though Mama Nati said I wasn’t to bathe for another week, the new maid understood my pressing need for soap and a bowl of hot water. Between the two of us, we accomplished a credible sponge bath.

Robert Dan was carrying flowers when he came back in the morning. He was all shaved and slicked up in his cowboy boots and his cowboy hat. It felt odd to have someone around who had known me before I’d gotten sick. I’d built a whole world out of strangers in that little hotel room.

He stayed by my bedside all day, holding my hand. He told me about his trip to Lima. His Australian friends had been robbed. He hated Peru. Two of the guys had gone home, but the third had come back north with him.

I told him about Mama Nati. He thought I was joking.

Then Mama Nati came in, swinging the afternoon soup pot. She looked Robert Dan up and down and I could see her thinking — in Quechua — “Worthless, worthless, worthless.” She shook her gnarled finger in my face. “Rest!” she warned me. “Rest!”

“What the hell are you doing?” Robert Dan exploded after she left. “Are you nuts? Pack your things. We’re going to Quito. I’m getting you to a doctor.”

I drank Mama Nati’s delicious soup and explained that I had come too far to quit.

So Robert Dan resigned himself to spending time in Baños. He rented a horse and rode in the hills all day. In the evenings he rode up to the Teresita. The giggling maid helped me onto the balcony, and Robert Dan would rise up in the saddle, tip his hat, and serenade me. It was muy romantico.

But his restless energy wasn’t meant for a sickbed, and I was relieved when he made plans to go to the beach and wait for me.

Yet I was longing for one little taste of his body. So I asked Bruce if he and Carol were having sex yet. He said yes, Mama Nati had said it was OK. So the day before Robert Dan left, we gave in to the heat between us. We stripped and slithered all over each other for hours, kissing, licking and fucking.

In the middle of this sweaty sex, Carlos came in with my afternoon oatmeal. I’ll never forget the look of sadness on his face as he saw what I was doing and backed out of the room.

The next morning I was yellow again.

Robert Dan fled.

“Before I kill you with my love,” he said.

Despite the setback, I was getting stronger. I was able to do more for myself.

Robert Dan sent telegrams every other day from the beach. He told me how much he missed me, and how I had to hurry and get well so we could start our life together. One of his telegrams said, “Happy New Year.” Without my noticing it, 1974 was going away.

Christmas had passed quietly, but Baños celebrated New Year’s Eve in the streets. In the park outside the Teresita, the town put up a grandstand, and at sunset, a stoned gringo rock band started playing Chuck Berry covers. Indians, natives and tourists were drinking and singing in the plaza. People were setting off firecrackers.

Early in the evening, Don Luis came in to make sure I was OK. He was tipsy and happy. At midnight, he came back and tried to crawl into bed with me. I gently talked him out of it. At three in the morning he came back again. This time he demanded we have sex. The music was still playing, and Don Luis was weaving back in forth to the beat. I managed to get up and help him out of the room. Then I locked the door.

A few days later, a happy Bruce and Carol stopped in to say good-bye. Carol was well, and Mama Nati had said that she could travel. They were going to finish their trip, but they sold me their Primus stove for $1.50 so I could make my own oatmeal. We cried and hugged good-bye.

Soon I could walk to the market, buy my own vegetables, and make soup for myself on the stove. Mama Nati stopped coming by. Don Luis read somewhere that dandelion tea fortified the liver, so he started making pots of it for me. We sat in the garden in the afternoon and sipped tea. He played his guitar, and we never mentioned New Year’s Eve.

Then a gringo came in from Quito with a letter from Carol. The day after they had arrived there, she’d gotten sick again. Then Bruce turned had bright yellow. He didn’t want anything to do with that world-renowned herbalist, Mama Nati. They were flying home. Carol sounded sad.

Just before I left to join Robert Dan at the beach, I ran into Mama Nati in the market. She took my arm proudly and introduced me to all the vendors and shoppers, dragging me into every store, bragging about her miraculous cure.

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