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Curandera of Petatlán
beckoned me forward with a child-size bony finger
and placed her hands on my forehead."
Such things have come my way in twenty years of travel in Mexico and Central America, some subtle and some reality-shaking. I'll confess to feeling some strong presences at the ruins in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche. Ordinary words don't begin to describe my encounter with a medicine man in northwest Costa Rica, especially the part where the local villagers told me I had been talking to someone who had been dead for ten years. Then there are the spooky events that my Apache friends in the trans-Sonoran borderlands put me through.
But in Zihua I hadn't found any of that. No spirits of the bay. No wise old shaman dispensing guidance. No tricksters or shapeshifters playing with my mind. Just a recurrent dream of a tiny old woman.
This was the topic of conversation that I raised with a table of North expatriates when they invited me to join them for cold Pacificos at a little place on Calle Ejido. Casual mention of my interest in collecting strange tales brought me a baker's dozen of anecdotes. These ranged from stories of a vampire along the Rio Balsas, to a waterfall spirit south of Puerto Vallarta, to a clearly Mexicanized version of the North American hitchhiker urban legend.
But one little tidbit from one of the group members caught my attention. Mark, a thirty-something two years removed from Winnipeg, shyly mentioned a "medicine woman" near Petatlán. A few more Pacificos opened him up. A local Mexican friend had taken him to see this healer when a headache proved too difficult for ibuprofen. Mark was not sure what to make of the experience and was still a bit shaken by it. But he admitted that one visit took his headache away. He offered to take me to see her and naturally I accepted.
The next morning we headed south on Federal Highway 200 in Mark's jeep. He told me we had to drive 50 kilometers south. It was an interesting drive, with plenty of machete men working the roadsides and nearby groves. We turned east off of the highway at the outskirts of Petatlán and drove a kilometer or two up a dirt road. Here's where Mark surprised me. He parked the jeep and told me we had to walk up a stony path that climbed the slopes along the Rio Petatlán. I looked at the sandals on my feet and thought longingly about my hiking boots back at the Hotel Irma.
The walk was not long, perhaps 20 to 30 minutes, but it made us notice the growing heat. We met people coming down, smiles on their faces and warm greetings filling the air. I thought they might be laughing at us for puffing our breathless way up the hill.
We reached a collection of huts. One hut had a line of ten people standing in front of the doorway. That was the dwelling and office of "Tula", the curandera. Mark explained, "She's not a bruja, a witch, or a hechicera, a sorceress, her methods are all white magic."
Mark also offered other cautions, "Do not tell her anything. She will do the diagnosis just by looking at you. If she questions you or says anything I will translate."
When it was our turn to go inside I hesitated a bit. My eyes had trouble adjusting to the dim light. The room was filled with large glass jars, flickering candles, and shelves of animal bones. In one dark corner the little old Indian woman from my dreams sat on a bench. She beckoned me forward with a child-size bony finger and placed her hands on my forehead. Mark explained what she was saying. "She thinks you have an eye problem. She says you could see better.
She has medicine for you, she wants you to drink it all down."
Tula poured about a third of a liter of liquid into a smudged glass. I winced at the look of the grimy liter bottle in her hand. It had the taste of mescal, with an oily smell like kerosene and a chalky aftertaste. I wanted to ask questions but she motioned me away and Mark pulled me out of the hut.
"Hope you're not disappointed", he said as we walked back to the jeep.
I was already feeling the mescal. During the ride back to Zihua I felt a little queasy, but attributed it more to the heat. By the time we reached Zihua I was definitely "seeing better", in a way that had nothing to do with my need for prescription eyeglasses.
I told Mark what was happening to me. "You lucky dog", he laughed, "my cure just put me to sleep for twelve hours."
Weeks later I still see that curandera in my dreams.