Life Aboard LULU

December 18, 2002 (Cartegena for Christmas)
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 One of these days, I’ll catch up on the last nine months -- most spent quite idyllically in sleepy Bonaire. But, noting Thanksgiving has already come and gone, that it’s now almost Christmas and the end of the year, I’ve decided to let go of any lingering obsession about clinging to a strict time line.

We left Bonaire in late October, sailed 35 miles to Curacao to have our emergency life rafts opened, inspected and re-certified. The certification process involved blowing them up and letting them sit for 24 hours at a qualified facility to make sure they were still leak-proof. 

It was curious and -- yes, a bit scary -- to see these peculiarly shaped, tented rubber rafts.  They popped  -- gaudily fluorescent, like comic-book fabrications – out of deceptively bland white boxes, no bigger than carry-on airline bags, which normally sit innocently on deck. 

As they inflated, I discovered that my lifetime preoccupation with style extended even into the area of entirely utilitarian emergency equipment. Once the unavoidable images of sharks, starvation, deprivation and dehydration had receded, I couldn’t help noticing that our life rafts, yellow and trimmed in a nifty red-orange with touches of basic black were far snazzier than the more quotidian safety orange rafts spread about.

There’s a pervasive feeling of distance and inhospitableness about Curacao. The people are more standoffish. Services for cruisers are hard to find, and the only place to anchor is the deserted southern tip. We left quickly for Aruba, 90 miles away. There we spent a grand first week of November with our daughter, Suey, son-in-law, Tony, and 2 ½ year-old grandson, Ryan, who must be among the cutest people to ever grace the planet.

They stayed in a hotel; we anchored off the hotel’s long strip of white beach. This guests-in-hotel arrangement, a first for us, worked well. We spent almost every day at their pool.   I spent hours and hours with Ryan glued to my shoulder, bouncing him up and down, trying to maneuver his thighs, his fanny, and finally his chest underwater. One of the joys of grandparenting is the unexpected advent of an almost saintly patience. You get to do childcare over, perfectly.

Late afternoons we dinghied out to the boat, for a swim and sunset. This routine was so well received that Suey and Tony actually refused a childless night out at a restaurant. I made three dinners aboard that week, setting an onboard record.

 The following week we readied LULU for a potentially difficult crossing to Cartagena, Colombia, a passage that ranks high on the worst-in-the-world list. It’s famous for fierce winds, that can approach 50 knots, and confused, angry, sometimes monster seas.  


If there is an ideal time to go it’s mid-November to early December and we were truly fortunate to get a uniquely pacific weather window. We had calm, almost listless, winds and gentle seas for 60 hours. A full, tangerine moon trailed directly behind us all three nights. Unbelievably, 3-knot winds the last day actually necessitated our motoring the last night. It was our longest “alone” passage as a twosome.

 We sailed entirely offshore, some 400 miles, along with Feisty and three other boats, maintaining radio contact every four hours with each other. Encoding our actual positions, we hailed each other as  “Wagon Train, Wagon Train,” because we were traveling West, a small convoy of five, into potentially dangerous territory. Twice a day friends in Cartagena and St Croix tracked our progress.

 For over a year, we’d debated the subject of Cartagena, yes or no. We read and listened carefully, salivating over the glowing accounts of cruiser friends who’d gone but trembling over the national news. Yet no one in Cartagena was ever accosted, bothered, robbed or even privy to any street crime.

 We were well aware of the virtually institutionalized terror in Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. The vicious guerilla-vs-government battle in Colombia has intensified in recent decades. The drug cartels are all-powerful in their own districts, while at the same time they have heavily infiltrated the central government. For some 30 years, provincial mayors, judges and the national government have been cowed and kicked about, forced to cede valuable chunks of countryside to the big growers. 

 We watched the violence escalate with the election of a tough-talking new president. Unlike any Colombian leader in recent history, Alvaro Uribe, seems bent on defeating both the right-wing paramilitary and the left-wing guerillas. Both groups are heavily armed and financed by narcotics traffickers. Attempts were made on Uribe’s life while he campaigned, on Inauguration Day, several times since and there was yet another just the other day.

Cartagena has remained walled off, both literally and figuratively. Its fortress physicality is one reason; there’s but one, well-guarded entrance into the city by land.  Otherwise it’s impregnable -- protected, as it’s always been, by its huge surrounding bay. A persistent rumor has it that Cartagena is peaceful because the drug lords’ mothers live there, and if there's one thing even powerful Latin American thugs respect it's their mothers.

 We decided to risk it.

 After our State Department designated Colombia dangerous for American tourists, many cruisers found boat insurance hard to get. For us, Colombia coverage was relatively easy but very expensive to get: a $2,000 surcharge for three months and not one day longer. After digging for months, Jackie and Mel got a much cheaper package, just last month.

 Cruisers on PIZZAZZ, had taken a coastal route between Aruba and Cartagena. It included exact waypoints, as well as local knowledge, and many subsequent cruisers had followed it safely. This route cut the long offshore passage into manageable daylong legs ending nightly in five safe anchorages offering the possibility of unbroken stretches of sleep. During offshore passages you sleep fitfully, if at all, because you must change watches every two or three hours. We’d hoped to follow PIZZAZZ but then, in late September, friends were robbed at gunpoint in the last of the supposedly secure anchorages, some 50 miles from Cartagena. Of the three boats traveling together, all friends of ours, ASYLUM and ECLIPSE had shut their hatches and locked their companionways for the night. Pat and Willy on MORNING DEW, the smallest -- unaccountably or perhaps merely rashly -- left the boat not only unlocked, but entirely open, to receive welcome breezes but also, as it turned out, unwelcome marauders.

 Katie and Jim on ASYLUM heard boarding noises around 9:30. Glimpsing two men in their cockpit, they had no idea the pack numbered five. Cruisers always debate whether to carry firearms. This was one of those occasions where smashing up the companionway with an onboard shotgun would likely have killed them rather than saved them. But they were not without defenses: they sprayed mace out their portholes, some part of which backfired and burned Jim’s skin

 ASYLUM then radioed the other two boats and raised Tom on ECLIPSE, who had not been approached. They got no answer from Pat and Willy on MORNING DEW: ominous because on potentially dangerous buddy-boat passages everyone sleeps with VHF handhelds close by and switched on.

 The ladrones (thieves), armed with .38s and “changones” -- homemade shotguns – had apparently hit MORNING DEW first. They’d come crashing down the open companionway, obviously drunk and swigging liberally from bottles, training their weapons on the terrified, naked couple. One of the men hit Pat across the nose with his gun. In the next hour they trashed the boat thoroughly. They completely stripped the boat of electronics. They tore off cabinet doors and emptied the contents of lockers, throwing food everywhere. They stole dishes, food, clothing, passports and whatever money they could find. They took passports, drivers’ licenses, credit cards, boat documents. The attackers took the $25 in a wallet but missed some stashed cash, forced ultimately to accept that the couple used credit cards exclusively. At last they left, tying Pat with an old skirt, Willy with some wire, and gagging both. As a parting shot, they made off with the dinghy and engine.

Was it guilt, drunkenness or genuine penitence that one of them trained a fan on the victims, blessed them before leaving and begged their forgiveness?

 The story preceded them via SSB. Cartagena officials and the Coast Guard were horrified and made every effort to smooth away bureaucratic red tape. The Coast Guard began investigating how to prevent further incidents, while still claiming cruisers are attacked more routinely in Venezuela’s than Colombia’s waters. The attack, they said, happened because they’d been easily cased. All three boats had stayed a second night so MORNING DEW could work on an ongoing engine problem.  


Notwithstanding this ordeal, just scant weeks later, ASYLUM, like everyone else we know, called Cartagena magic, a place not to be missed, recommended we not be scared off.

We fell under Cartagena’s spell from the instant we sailed into her colossal bay, perfectly alone but for a dawning ochre sun. From out of the mist came the arresting combination of tall modern skyscrapers and a sprawling medieval castello. And then, as we penetrated deeper into the harbor, standing gray against the pale sky and rising from the center of the encircling water -- as if in greeting and in guarantee of our safety -- a stately Madonna cradling her Child.

And we do feel utterly safe. Our marina, housed in one corner of a 400-year old fort, is patrolled 24-hours a day by armed guards. No one – neither local tradesman nor good friend – gains entrance unless the guardhouse out front is specifically informed. The guards outside look into every taxi, making sure they recognize the passengers. Trunks are opened and the undercarriages of all entering vehicles are examined for firearms and bombs using a large pole-mounted mirror that’s shoved underneath. Specifically designated Tourist Police patrol the squares where moneychangers attempt to swindle tourists. At night, armed police stand on almost every block.

 History is everywhere evident.

 Cartagena was the most strategic and fiercely battled-over seaport in the Spanish Empire, the central jewel in the Iberian Crown. During the 16th and 17th centuries, galleons arrived regularly from across the Atlantic bringing African slaves and carting off the accumulated treasure of the indigenous peoples. La Bahia de Cartagena -- the huge surrounding bay – was, over the centuries the scene of almost continual onslaughts by multi-national pirates, all bent on stealing the enormous riches awaiting shipment back to Mother Spain. The bay easily accommodated the hundreds of warships it was forced to play unwilling host to, as both England and France sent thousands of men to make attempts -- ultimately unsuccessful attempts -- at taking Cartagena.

 The city is entirely unlike any other place we’ve sailed to. The atmosphere is Conquistadorial, Old World, a feast of 16th- to 18th-century residences, churches and fortifications. Chief among them is the 17th century Fortaleza de San Felipe, cleverly designed against capture by massive slanted walls, stone guard towers, thick cannon bastions and entrapment drawbridges. The 10,000-square meter fort, ½ mile long and ½ mile wide, built over 20 years by more than 5,000 African slaves did prove itself impregnable in actual battle and is now the unforgettable backdrop to Cartagena’s charisma.

 Inside the walled Old City is a warren of slender streets lined with large stone mansions and solid old merchant homes, festooned with elaborate wrought-iron gates and window grates. Many have elaborately railed stone or wood balconies cantilevering out over the narrow streets on carved flying buttresses.

 While some of these wonderful old buildings remain residential, most now accommodate a typical assortment of retail stores – shoes, clothing, books, sundries -- plus a host of jewelry enterprises billed as emerald and gold "factories." Much of the commercial enterprise is set deep inside the buildings, so the handsome frontage remains relatively unspoiled.

Everywhere are thick, wood doors, heavily distressed by history, forming grand entrances to splendid stone courtyards, most of which have been converted into romantic restaurants. Embellished with ornamental bronze hardware, these basilica-worthy portals evoke everywhere the armored soldiers and horse-drawn carriages that passed through them over the ages.  

For the most part, Cartagena’s restaurants serve very, very good food -- whether Spanish, Italian, Argentine, Chinese -- at unheard-of prices. We regularly eat dinner for, like $18 a couple, including wine, though Gary insists I’ve made it my business to sniff out the ones where we can spend up to $50. (Well, it’s sin to waste your skills, isn’t it?) Food is so cheap here we’ve taken up the habit of lunching out, too, at a nearby cantina, where the “comida corriente’’ -- homemade soup, choice of meat, fish or chicken, plus rice, plantains and salad – costs 3800 pesos – about $1.25.

 Because I simply cannot grasp things like the economic consequences of, say international currency fluctuations or humongous trade balances I haven’t the faintest idea why it’s possible here to put together this bag of groceries: a romaine and an iceberg lettuce, a red pepper, a cucumber, a cantaloupe, two containers of real from-actual-oranges orange juice, two wedges of imported Jarlsberg, four cans of Coke and four beers – for less than $16. It always feels like we’re stealing but what I can’t figure out is -- who from?  

The first week we found Cartagena merely charming and steeped in history. But then it became clear it’s soon to be Christmas -- and in a Catholic country, one that takes the holiday seriously. 

On November 30, opening the season, came a tree-lighting ceremony amid the high-rise apartment buildings that line Bocagrande, the ritzy side of the bay: children scrambling about in pom-pommed, red stocking caps, parents and grandparents decked out in red and green tee-shirts; the Navy Band playing -- of all things -- Jingle Bells. Arriving amid a small parade, the Latin American Santa Claus -- Papa Noel. As darkness fell, from far across the vast bay, a silent parade of skiffs, sailboats, motor yachts and harbor ferries, all elaborately decorated in Christmas lights. Stirring.

Then, on December 6th, some hidden switch got turned on. Like magic. Overnight it seemed, Cartagena, virtually, all of it – protective outer walls, hotels, churches, official buildings and venerable residences; columns, eaves, lintels, rooflines, even San Felipe’s guard towers and long walls of saw-toothed cannon bastions -- was suddenly silhouetted in silvery white light. An entire city outlined, like the coloring-book effort of some talented child.

Festive illuminated arches strung between balconies, echoing each other down the narrow streets. Courtyard entrances dripping with cascading curtains of lights. More strands of pale light-pinpoints bent and curled around lampposts, sculpted into familiar holiday icons -- bells, bows, sleds, reindeer, Christmas trees, Papa Noel.

We can hardly wait to see what happens next.


But there's sadness here too, stemming ultimately from La Violencia. Refugees – some 700,000 of them -- have flooded into the city, thrust by the countrywide bloodshed from already meager existences on farms and in barrios. We see them every day in the streets, barefoot and begging, sleeping in stone doorways, many ravaged by malnutrition and disease. 

At an American Thanksgiving celebration we met Dan and Brenda, a doctor and teacher, Baptist missionaries, who work with this population/ They told terrible stories about the poverty and homelessness: saddest was the mother of infant twins starving the smaller infant because she had only enough milk for the larger. Only Brenda's intervention, with cans of formula, saved the baby, but who knows for how long and for what fate.

Because of the misconception that Cartagena, like the rest of Colombia, is dangerous, hundreds of regularly scheduled cruise ships have cancelled, leaving a deep gash in the local economy. There's no one around to sell to -- neither the cheap trinkets and shoddy tee shirts, nor the country's fine artisan crafts, butter-soft leatherwork and deeply discounted emeralds. Retail stores and street vendors are suffering.

Everywhere polite but persistent young men try to shepherd  us into emerald boutiques "only to look." They receive a commission for every body they get inside. Almost everyone we meet pronounces himself, however broken his English, a tour guide. On most blocks sit at least two or three sunglass sellers, hawking their wares -- a message that invariably starts with "Gucci, Gucci, lady, Gucci!"  As if the stationary dealers weren't enough, there are others pushing exactly the same fake Gucci's. If you tell them you don't like Gucci, they'll ply you with Armani.

 The street vendors have become bulldog-tenacious. With big families to feed, they simply won't give up. Among the few tourists, we've become prime targets. The tee-shirt sellers follow us down long streets, all thrusting identical products, turning them over and over again, reversing them back and forth with such flourishes, you’d think they'd developed the capacity to change patterns in mid-flip. "Barato, muy barato, 12,000 pesos" (about $4.40). All this while, and with every new salvo, the price gets slashed. By the end of the block, it's easily down to 6,000.

 Dip into a restaurant and they wait for you to finish your two-hour lunch, greeting you like long-lost family, with the exact same shirt, presenting it anew, as if some genie had miraculously transformed it from flimsy silk-screened cotton to the finest of suede. Buying one only increases the pursuing horde geometrically. Geniality can wear as thin as those shirts.

 Only once have I seen one stopped in his tracks. He was plying me unmercifully with sunglasses when a barefoot young woman with haunted black eyes approached – she couldn’t have been more than 18. A skeletal infant, possibly premature, suckling feebly at one bare breast, drooped limply down her belly, Behind her trailed a filthy, disconsolate little girl who looked 3 but could easily have been 5 or 6.

Horrified, and with yet another pair of “Gucci’s” thrust in my face, in a bigger voice than I’d yet been able to muster I said,  “No necesito.” I don’t need them. “Prefiero dar mi dinero a ella.”  I prefer to give my money to her.

 Late at night, downtown, we’re approached by shoeless children, their feet blackened by the dirty streets. We pass out small coins, knowing nothing can ever be enough. Locals tell us to stop; that it just keeps them from school. We have no way of judging, but to us they seem beyond the pale of such civilities as school. It’s heartbreaking to give, and even more heartbreaking not to.

Cordiality, Colombian-style

Whatever their problems, Colombians are effusive and proud of their country. Everywhere we are welcomed by pedestrians, shopkeepers, hairdressers, taxi drivers, even by patrolling cops.

We have been continually taken aback by the kindness and helpfulness of the ordinary people we run into, people you’d think too busy and too poor to offer the kind of assistance they do with such enthusiasm. They will stand patiently – neither laughing nor wincing in pain -- while you fumpher through one Spanish word after another trying to make yourself understood. You can tell they’re proud of you – so proud of you that, should they happen to speak fluent English, they will never let you know.

People can’t do enough for you. One afternoon our mission was to find a business capable of engraving the names of various switches an instrument plate we were restoring. Using our Spanish dictionaries -- paper and electronic – plus the local Yellow Pages, and availing ourselves of the help of strangers on the streets, we succeeded in finding the two businesses listed – more or less. One was long gone and the other had moved halfway across the city.

Undaunted, what with crosstown taxis costing about $1.00, we took ourselves to the relocation address, only to discover the “engraving” this company did was burning music CDs. Not to worry. The toothy young man who gave us this disappointing news enrolled himself in the project. He rushed to his Yellow Pages, located a company to do it, but told us – in a combination of rudimentary English and staccato Spanish – it was in far too risky an area for us and, besides, as “estranjeros,” we’d surely be overcharged. (Overcharge, you understand, might be as much as $2.00 more. But here that’s a lot of money and, besides, it was clearly a matter of pride -- national or personal it wasn’t quite clear.)

After a hasty consultation with his boss, he announced “Posible yo voy con ustedes,” – I can come with you. (After a fairly heavy dose of regularly scheduled Spanish lessons over the past two years, I can usually understand a lot of what’s said to me and can make myself understood – in full sentences, I’m proud to say – most of the time.)

 Javier -- for we were now introduced -- squired us into a taxi, telling the driver where we were going and what for. The irony of this Quest is that we were looking for someone to do exactly what we did, with the exact same machinery we had, at Plastic Works for 25 years.

Jorge, the taxista we lucked on was an ebullient man prone to rococo gesticulation, with an alarming need to maintain eye contact, making his choice of occupation somewhat trying for us. He, too, joined in, even more enthusiastically than Javier. Jorge informed us that he had solved the exact same problem, and for a boat owner as well, just the week before. Having spent two hours schlepping that guy from wrong place to wrong place, he now knew exactly where to take us. Well, sort of.

We raced back across town and pulled up to a skeletally stocked glass-cutting company that occasionally cuts Plexiglas to size. With what it wasn’t clear, given the scalloped edges of the pieces laying about. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) they didn’t engrave, but, grasping our need, the three employees of that establishment flew to their Yellow Pages like sparrows after a crust of bread.  

Eventually we did find a tiny sign shop downtown, but only because Gary remembered it among the many hundreds of small businesses we’d ambled by while walking the streets. Javier negotiated a price of $3.50 for engraving all nine words. The taxis involved cost more than the job. Since the piece needed a bit more preparation, we needed bring it back. Javier insisted we call him when it’s time, so he can make sure it comes out right.

Saying goodbye, I asked what we could pay him for his time. He almost recoiled.

“Nada, nada.”

No, please, we wanted to give him something.

Another polite “No.”

Not even a little something to take his novia (girlfriend) out for a nice dinner?

No again. He refused even cab fare back to his job, saying he’d enjoy the walk.

Addressing our obvious bewilderment, he said, “Dijé ayudiarale. Si tomo dinero, no sería ayuda.” I said I would help you. (If I take money, it would not be help.)

Astonishing. And yet our day continued in that very vein.

The Healing

During my Spanish lesson that morning (two-hour private lesson, on the boat, $12) I had been telling Amaury, our teacher, about the cough I can’t get rid of. I’d resolved to see a doctor. He began telling me about Señor Juan Plaza, a local healer with a big following, who’s made great strides with Amaury’s severely asthmatic  8-year-old son and with his wife, who is either a very sick woman with an array of terrible ailments…or a hypochondriac.

Amaury went on to tell me that Señor Juan Plaza, who’d had no medical training, suddenly “knew” one day, at the age of, like 8, how to cure people. He makes all his own remedies, of natural substances.

To paraphrase my ex-husband, Barry, this sounded right up my alley.

Amaury said he would take me there after work. “There,” turned out to be one of the city’s barrios – places we dare not visit, dangerous, he said, even for him.

I went because I was curious. And because I believe that’s why we’re here. Here in Cartagena, here in life.

Gary, typically, supported me in this adventure, but not without a few “Eye of newts, toenail of clams.”  Just as typically, he began telling people we were off to consult the Witch Doctor. I preferred shaman.

At around 6PM, we taxied, Gary, Amaury and myself, about 20 minutes away, passing through the outskirts of the city, the neighborhoods becoming progressively more crowded with people, run-down cars, grimy buses and stores offering cheap merchandise. We wound into the hills; the homes now smaller and smaller, sitting closer and closer together. While hardly squalid, most were in need of paint or repair -- the unlikely touch of spare cash. Enormous families inhabit small houses. Privacy is clearly a luxury. The streets were crowded with neighbors talking and children playing -- football, soccer, a version of stickball.

Señor Juan Playa’s house was like all the others – concrete, high off the ground, a wrought-iron gate fronting a short, steep set of steps rising to a small outdoor porch. Gary surmised the houses sit so high because aboveground basements can accommodate many more people. A 2-month-old baby girl lay in her stroller, clean and fluffed, her father and mother leaning in over her with obvious joy. In the only jarring note, from across the way salsa blared out of two coffin-sized outdoor speakers.

Out came Señor Juan, wearing bermudas and rubber flip-flops: a slight, dark-skinned, completely bald man, gentle in demeanor, with a beatific smile and a twinkle in his eye.  We both got the sense of simplicity, directness and clarity. Both of us thought “Gandhi” – but felt he also had an uncanny, entirely contradictory, resemblance to Uncle Junior Soprano.

He asked me how long I planned on staying here, my age, where I come from, plus a few health-related questions. Taking my blood pressure with, I was surprised to note, a new-fangled electronic machine, he pronounced my pulse and heart “muy fuerte” – very strong.

Was it the man himself or just my faith in the possibility of the mystical that, he seemed, almost apriori, to have my case under control?

He suggested that old allergies and conditions – like bronchial weakness or, asthma -- sometimes return, that moving from sultry heat to icy air conditioning didn’t help, nor do coffee and red meat. Ouch. How had he hit two of my favorites? I chose not to inform him he’d somehow overlooked wine and spaghetti.

I also made no binding renunciation statements. Nonetheless, he promised I’d be a new woman by the time I leave Cartagena.

On the same dime (and, believe me, I knew it wouldn’t be much more than that), I figured, why not introduce a few other bodily vexations: a tendency to bruise easily -- when living aboard a sailboat most nearly approximates being the chrome ball ricocheting around a pinball table. This malady he also accepted with equanimity.

So, I decided, why not get right down in the trenches? Almost literally, the trenches.

 “What about these?” I asked, pointing at the small freeway’s worth of wrinkles on my face.

With an elfin smile, he indicated his own face -- smooth as a baby’s tush – and announced: “Settanta,”  that is, he is 70.

I put him on the case.

He told us Amaury could pick up my “remedios” the next day.

“Probably has to go out and catch a unicorn,” Gary whispered.

As Señor Juan disappeared within. On returning, and, flashing a pixilated grin, he handed me what I thought – absurdly -- was a business card, but turned out to be – even more absurdly – a New York State Driver’s License.

He told us his son lives in New York, in Queens. When I asked what his son does there, he told me, via Amaury, that he cuts apart cadavers.

”Ah,” I said, “tu hijo trabaja con los cuerpos muertos y tu trabajas con los vivos.” (Your son works with the dead bodies and you with the live ones.”)

From his surprised laugh, I gathered no one had ever made that observation. I hoped this little comment might further endear me to him in the Ponce de Leon department. He charged -- 50,000 pesos ($17) for the consultation, which included all potions to come. Amaury told us Señor Juan charges only those who can pay and frequently just treats those who can’t gratis. (In a similar vein, Amaury, like Javier, also refused to take money for his time.)

We said goodnight to Señor Juan amid a flurry of handshakes and hugs. Since cabs don’t exactly cruise the barrios looking for passengers, the three of us walked through the streets, now dark but still thrumming with life, toward a less residential corner, where we might encounter a taxista on his way home. We did not feel threatened, though maybe we should have, because the next thing we knew Señor Juan was standing next to us. He’d followed, concerned for our well-being. The esteem in which he is held locally protected us like an umbrella.

Everyone asks us to tell our amigos that Cartagena is safe for them.

Consider it said.

And a happy holiday to all.

Louise & Gary

P.S.  Ahhh, but if you’ve read this far, you want to know about the potions and whatever magic or healing properties they possessed.

Amaury appeared the next day with about 15 pounds of assorted liquids, three different liquids in glass flasks, and a 5-liter plastic jug jiggling with some vaguely earth-colored brew.

”Take a capful of the “rojo” first, then take either of the other two immediately after, three times a day till they’re gone,” he said.

The “rojo” was more coral than red, the color of a pink-grapefruit. If any of the three could be said to pack a wallop it was this one: slightly syrupy, strongly sweet-sour, accent on the sour -- a puckery, persimmony kind of sour, with an undertow of stewing vegetables, maybe a bay leaf and maybe even meat, though that was clearly impossible given my red-meat advisory.

The second, a dark brown color and water-thin, gave off no herb or spice or plant I could identify, but smelled and tasted vaguely fermented, with a finish that was vaguely moldy, leafy, woodsy. I felt like the sole participant in some perverse wine-tasting experience.

The third was thin as the first but a yellowy brown, a hue that put it in the category of Diapers I’ve Changed. Tasting actually sweet, and unmistakably of anise, it brought back Switzer’s licorice and long-ago double features at the Brooklyn Rialto. Sweeter than the other two, it seemed the best chaser.

My most violent coughing stopped after the first doses.

Amaury’s instructions for the big jug were a combination of safely familiar and a lot weird. “Turn off your air conditioners. Put the mixture in a pot, boil it hard, like a soup, then sit over it, with a sheet over your body and breathe in the vapor for 10 minutes. You will sweat, sweat hard. And stay out of air conditioning for two more hours.”

Except for the whole-body involvement, the regimen made me remember countless similar childhood steam treatments, where my mother would stick me, gasping, over a pot of steam with a towel tenting my head. I have no idea whether, in this case, it was the full-body immersion or the effects of the vapor itself, but for 10 solid minutes a torrential sweat poured off me, one that left big puddles on the galley floor.

Whether this steam procedure was salutary or not – or whether my ameliorated condition stemmed from those triple swigs from the glass bottles – or all four -- I have no idea, but by the time we went out for dinner a little later I was feeling considerably recovered. Translation: I felt safe not carrying an extra pair of underpants.  

Part Two, the creepy part of the Soup Treatment: the next day, I was to get into the shower, wash and then and pour the stuff – which I think was a diluted solution of the # 3 Switzer’s Licorice Drink – over my head. And not rinse it off… that included my hair. Leaving it in my hair, for some reason, seemed the biggest corporeal intrusion of all.

The required shower did not make it onto my next-morning agenda. I dallied all day, telling myself, that after all, I was feeling so much better.

But the aura of gentle Señor Juan haunted me. Then I thought of that completely unwrinkled 70-year-old baby face, and feared that any reneging on my part would not escape his awareness. And what if that treachery awakened latent demonic qualities – might that adversely affect the potency of the Fountain of Youth creams?

So, when at last a shower was unavoidable, I soaped up and rinsed off, which seemed entirely gratuitous considering that upcoming final rinse in the yellow-brown stuff, redolent of anise and reminiscent of infant diarrhea.

I shuddered as Gary poured the brimming pot over me. While errant drops stung my eyes a bit, the brown bath left me feeling surprised and entirely refreshed. My skin felt awakened, and, without the application of body lotions, softer. Of course, for the rest of the night I smelled like a tin of Sen-Sens.

And now, all Witch Doctor obligations discharged, I await my Back-to Babyface unguents, convinced of their miraculous regenerative powers and wondering how to repackage them for an Upper East Side clientele – Juan Plaza’s Pore Restorer, Señor Shaman’s Wrinkle Busters? Uncle Junior’s Trench Tighteners? – knowing I will never come up with a name as instantly marketable as Botox.

In any event, I trust that none of you will recognize me in March.


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