A stomach bug made its way through our house a few months back. It was likely something we picked up during our rushed trip to Knoxville for a great-aunt's funeral. Coming over to lend his ever helpful hand, my father in law diagnosed our illness as "old people germs". I have to admit that I discounted his observation at first; in my haze of dizzying nausea I thought it much more like that I was simply exhausted, dehydrated, and feeling the after-affects of bad hotel food. Later that night, however, as I began to regain a clear view of the world and prepare a lesson plan on traditional Mexican medical beliefs, I began to see some truth in his diagnosis.
I have always been fascinated by traditional healing and medicine. In my travels throughout Mexico and El Salvador I availed myself of traditional healers and readily accepted advice steeped in ancient beliefs quite different from the ones passed down to me by my parents. The sobador who massaged my twisted ankle (and ego) back to health after I slipped into a craggy San Salvadoran gutter two days into my first trip abroad...the KIIS program director who scolded me for wanting to buy an ice-cold paleta to sooth my raspy, catarro-ridden throat, offering me instead a bottle of lukewarm water...the Oaxacan curandera who after 20 minutes of ritual cleansing pronounced that I was affected by the aches and pains of having traveled quite far from home...these people have influenced my understanding of illness and healing over the years.
So, what can traditional folk medicine teach me about my family's post-travel stomach crud? Well, I'm pretty sure that any abuela worth her salt would diagnose our illness as empacho, a stomach ailment thought to be caused by soft foods sticking the lining of the stomach or intestines. Common symptoms include indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting or lack of appetite, just what everyone in my house has been complaining of for the last few days. Since empacho is considered to be a cold illness, appropriate treatments are those which warm the body: chamomile tea and massaging the abdomen to dislodge the stuck food, for example. In our case, extra sleep and home cooked meals proved to be the best cure, but I have to admit that heat was an important component to both of those.
More than anything, folk medicine can teach us to step back from life, take a break, and listen to our bodies. One of the most important part of a curandero's work is the platica, the chat. Part healer and part psychologist, curanderos think about illness as more than a compendium of physical ailments. To them, and many of the Hispanic folks I've known over the years, illness includes an important social dimension. From envidia to mal de ojo, the symptoms of physical ailments are often a clue to an emotional unbalance of some sort, best remedied by confronting that which is ailing you. In the end, sleep, rest, and being home cured our empacho; but I can't help but to wonder if didn't also help to clean the "old people germs" off of our great-Aunt's knickknacks and give them a place withing our home.