“The mamacita says the guinea pig has a black mark on its heart, and so do you.”
“Yes, I can see it. Is it a serious problem?”
The mamacita stands four foot tall and speaks only Quechua, the language of los Indios, the indigenous people of this part of Ecuador. Her fingers are full of rings and in her hand is what remains of a Guinea pig. It’s hard to read her expression, but the translator doesn’t look happy.
Perhaps I should explain: for a few months some years ago, I lodged in Ecuador with a lady who ran a Spanish school that had an exchange programme for medical students. As part of their programme, med students from the US got to spend time in tropical medicine clinics and emergency departments with far less supervision than they would normally have. I’m not sure if that was a good or bad thing, but in Ecuador, any doctor is better than no doctor.
Where does the mamacita come in? As part of the programme, students have the option to spend a day in a traditional medicine clinic in Otavalo, a traditional market town where people come down out of the high Andes to trade alpacas, mules, food and handicrafts. And in this clinic, la mamacita performed a diagnostic ritual known as ‘limpiar con cuy’: ‘cleansing with a Guinea pig’. This was an opportunity too good to pass up.
To the indigenous peoples of the Andes, the Guinea pig is a sacred animal. Not in the way cows are sacred in India though; Guinea pigs are sacred in terms of what they can do for your health and for family feasts. Restaurants specialise in barbecued cuy for family gatherings – and they’re seriously tasty. But we were here for the health benefits, the barbecue would come another time.
The Quechua people believe that by rubbing a Guinea pig over your body, whatever ailments you have can be passed from you to the Guinea pig, who is then dissected so that you can receive a diagnosis. I thought I was healthy, but la mamacita didn’t seem to have any patients on the morning we were in the clinic, so I volunteered to ‘go under’ as it were. At $2 for the Guinea pig and $2 for the procedure, there was no need to check my travel insurance policy first.
So, I stripped to my boxers, lay on the treatment bed and la mamacita proceeded to rub a live Guinea pig all over me, from head to toe, while chanting in Quechua. As I understand, the Guinea pig normally expires during the cleansing process and before the dissection. Mine didn’t, but a quick flick of the wrist solved that, and la mamacita was able to gradually dissect and analyse every part of this poor critter.
I watched carefully, looking for whatever signs she would see; to my untrained eye, everything was going well, all the muscles were in the right place and the right shade of pink, the stomach and intestines seemed fine. Then she opened the chest cavity and there it was, like someone had been in there with a permanent marker and scribbled a big black circle.
“La mamacita dice que…”
What should I do, mamacita? Don’t worry, she said. This won’t be a problem now, only when you start to walk long distances in the future. The prescription was to drink coconut water for breakfast for the following two days, then again for two days a fortnight later, and my cardiac issues would be behind me.
The irony in all of this is that over the last few years I have started working with ultra-distance athletes and advising them on training methods to lessen the stress on their body, and to read about the protective benefits of coconut oil and water, bringing the words of la mamacita back into my consciousness.
Was her ancient wisdom able to pick up what modern medicine needs thousands of euros of tests to do? I don’t know. I do know that some more ‘primitive’ cultures had extensive medical knowledge and were able to use the concepts of placebo and nocebo for both health and harm, and that the mechanisms of such things are still only partly understood. I also know that a limpiar con cuy is not a great treatment for anyone who is squeamish or prone to nausea!
> Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.