[Better than Bitters?]
By Karrie Ramirez with Naturalight Productions
The mounting pressure in my sinuses and constant sneezing was a sure indication of a ruined holiday weekend. Achoo! "Noooo! I can't get sick now!"
In Belize, the 9th of March is a three day weekend honoring the paraplegic English sailor and benefactor of Belize who was buried in Belize City and whose monetary bequests in 1926 funded several town markets and the original Bliss Institute, now the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts in Belize City. A more recent development on the same weekend, the La Ruta Maya Canoe Race, a challenging canoe race starting on the Macal River in San Ignacio, Cayo and culminating 4 days later near the mouth of the Belize River in Belize City, has developed a burgeoning fan base. This year I planned to follow the race from start to finish and there was no room for a cold or the flu on this journey! While the month of March falls toward the end of the "official" United States flu season (the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says it can last from October to May), apparently the nasty little bug that was invading my body wasn't aware that March in Belize with warm temperatures and refreshing trade winds was outside the boundaries of wintry weather and the CDC! Ok, so I am originally from the United States but I moved to Belize years ago.
I made a dash for the medicine cabinet in search of the most potent and effective
antidote to stop the symptoms in its tracks. There I discovered a store bought
dark green liquid with a pungent smell reminiscent of long forgotten antifreeze
(definitely not needed here in Belize). After downing a hefty dose followed by
two glasses of water and slathering myself from head to toe with my grandmother's "cure
all" – Vicks Vaporub, I was shining like the evening star and smelled like
a hospital room. In no time my eyelids grew heavy and my bed called. My last
thought before oblivion was that I had conquered this miserable virus and would
be up to the weekend's 4 day adventure.
Hours later I awoke to synchronized banging - at the door and inside my aching head. Unbelievable, I was NOT better and now my body felt as if I had been in a fight and lost. Shuffling to the door I was greeted by a loud and cheerful Kirsty, come to finalize plans for our upcoming adventure. She took one look at my hangdog expression and said,"No trip, gyal I no whe u need. Put awn u clothes, wi gwine see mi fren. He whe gat wa kure fi you kwik time." [Don't worry, girl. I know what you need. Get dressed and we will go see my friend. He will have a cure for you in no time.]
About half hour later, after a painstaking attempt to look presentable to the world, fifteen minutes of weaving around large potholes on the town's unpaved street and 5 minutes stumbling down a narrow path under a canopy of mango trees, we were greeted by a brood of chickens, two lazy dogs and a colorful garden of exotic tropical plants. "We reach, gyal." announced Kirsty. [We are here, girl.]
From the open doorway of an unpainted house, emerged an older gentleman with a white beard and a straw hat who greeted Kirsty with a quiet smile and "Mawnin'." [Good morning.] Kirsty quickly explained that I was catching the flu but had to be better by the next day. The old man looked me up and down. "Kom, yu need bittas". [Come with me, you need bitters.] I followed him behind his house to a thatched shed which appeared to be his warehouse of medicine. A quick peak inside revealed several buckets, a few boxes of freshly washed recycled glass bottles; walls covered with drying vines and clear plastic bags filled with dried herbs. The room was filled with a tart and heady fragrance.
While the old man prepared to strain a honey gold mixture from a large pitcher into a pint sized bottle from the box near the door, I wandered around the room looking, touching and taking the occasional sample of aromatic herbs to my nose, "What is all of this?" I asked. "Dis da whe a mek mi bittas. ih name bitters seka di bitter taste fram the herbs and yet ih sweet seka di aniseed whe a put inna it." [This is where I make my bitters. It is called bitters because of the bitter taste from the herbs, yet it is sweet from the anise that I add to it.] He went on to explain that for many generations several of Belize's cultures have steeped various parts of local plants in water to be used to treat upset stomachs, de-worm children, stimulate the appetite, aid in digestion, build the immune system, and help draw "cold" out of the body. Apparently the latter is what I was in need of. Having lived in this small town for many years, I had great respect for the elders and was willing to give it a try.
Interested in the conversation despite my aching head, I wanted to know how it was made. He showed me stacks of buckets and herbs and explained how different plant materials are gathered from the forest then cleaned and prepared by beating and mashing the roots, stems and vines needed for each mixture. The three major "active ingredients" used are Contribo bark which helps with colds; flu and indigestion; Billy Webb bark to clean the internal organs and give energy; and Jackass Bittas used to flush out intestinal parasites. The herbs are placed in buckets and covered with rum then left to soak. Over time, "strong rum" [150 proof] has been substituted for the water, increasing the shelf life of these medicinal blends. After a week the alcohol is strained off and mixed with a little anise to sweeten the taste.
Pouring a sample into a small glass he handed it to me with instructions to "Drink." With a deep breath I brought the cup to my lips and took my first taste. As the gulp of bitters went down, it warmed my throat, then my chest, until it reached my belly. I could feel the strength of the herbs. It's taste was mild but bitter and somewhat sweet. My sinuses opened up immediately. "So, how?" the old man smiled. "Nice!" I replied tentatively.
"Tek dis." [Take this.] The old man handed me a pint bottle filled with freshly made bitters. He prescribed a small cupful three times a day with a meal until the cold was gone. With a respectful thank you and a small financial contribution (as is the local custom) I was on my way home to continue preparations for the weekend.
My body felt better and my spirit was lighter. I like being part of a community where the knowledge of the elders is respected and used even by the younger generation who seem to be caught up in the nonsense that is shown daily on the television. To keep culture and tradition alive it must be kept in practice and steeped into everyday life – kind of like the way those bitter herbs are steeped in strong rum to heal and strengthen.
And just maybe my bottle of "bittas" would come in handy to give strength to one of those paddlers in the grueling Ruta Maya race this weekend. It was definitely easing my aching body.
Italicized quotes are spoken in Belizean Kriol - Belizean Kriol is a Creole language widely spoken in Belize. It is derived mainly from English with a little influence from Spanish. [A loose English translation is provided beside each quote.]
For more information
Say it like d'Belizean
Images courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography