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My Adventure In Jamaican Medicine

July 3, 2015

              Normally, the idea of a attending a destination wedding at a giant all-inclusive resort is not one that I would entertain. I'm more of a run-around-in-the-woods kind of guy. I like to look at the stars at night and experience the silence that can still be found outside the city. I find the opulence of resorts hard to stomach sometimes, considering the extreme poverty of the locals that often surrounds them. However, when the opportunity came up to visit Jamaica for the first time for a friend's wedding (and considering how long it had been since my last vacation), I agreed to go. I was expecting a fun, relaxing trip with some good friends at most, but what I found on that island proved to be a great deal more than that.

            The first day there involved a group trip to the beach - a 5 minute walk from our room. Once I arrived, I realized I had forgotten my towel and had to return to the room unaccompanied. On the way down the path, I came across a groundskeeper with a shovel in his hand. As I passed by, he said "Ya, mon!". Now, this on it's own is not out of the ordinary. While on the Island I did not once hear anyone say "Irie", or "We be jammin" as I had been told to expect. I did hear "Jamaica, no problem" quite a few times, but Ya Mon is heard in every single converstion. It is something special. It has many different meanings. It can be used to say "Hello!". It can mean "Yes!". It can imply agreement, approval, dismissal, or the end of a pleasant conversation. It can suggest a certain underlying joke - a verbal wink, if you will. This particular Ya Mon was different. Without making eye contact or even turning his head, this man said Ya Mon and communicated a sense of acknowledgement - as if to say "I recognize you". At least that's the feeling it left me with. I returned his Ya Mon and carried on my way. It took a few more steps before it sunk in that something important had just happened. I stopped and came back to him to initiate a conversation. I learned that his name was Albert and I asked if he was doing any planting that day. I use a few Jamaican herbs in my practice and seeing them growing in the wild was something I had been looking forward to on this trip. He said no, no planting and looked at me with curiosity. I explained my interest and asked if there was any Jamaican Dogwood or Sarsaparilla growing on the resort property. He thought for a moment and said that he wasn't sure but he knew someone that would know for certain. I hurried to fetch the towels with a little excitement building in my belly.

           I made my way back down the path to find Albert waiting for me, standing beside another groundskeeper wearing an identical green uniform. This new fellow was named Ainsley and he shook my hand warmly and gave me a sly half-smile. He asked me a few questions about my herbal practice and then told me to follow him. 20 meters off the path he stopped and pointed to a tall tree which he identified as Jamaican Dogwood. Without another word he hopped over the fence and produced a machete the size of my leg. He hacked of a 2 foot strip of bark (cut vertically, not from around the tree, so as not to kill it - a clue that I noticed but didn't register) and offered it to me. I was speechless. First of all, I was taken aback by the generous gift, but I also hadn't planned on trying to take a big chunk of bark across an international border on the way home. Ainsley asked me what the bark was used for and I explained how we use it in Canada. He seemed interested and showed me a few other medicinal plants on our walk back to the path. It was obvious that he knew the difference between medicinal and non-medicinal plants. He cut a branch from a hedge called Rock Rosemary, offered it to me and told me to come and find him the next day and he would show me some other things. He instructed me to take the bark and branch back to my room and let it dry in the sun for the rest of the week. He was clearly giving me experieced advice, but I still wasn't getting it.

            The next day, I found Ainsley waiting for me in the same spot (although we hadn't arranged a time to meet). It was as if he knew when I'd appear. I noticed this detail as well, but something still wasn't clicking for me. He took me over to a wide green table, under which he stored his tools. The top of the table contained 3 or 4 bunches of plants drying in the sun. He told me what they were and how they were used to treat health problems in Jamaica. He told me that they were for me to take home and try and that he had done this with a few other Canadians and I would have no trouble getting them past customs. He also invited me to call him Lee, as his friends did. I spent a few minutes tasting and smelling the plants and trying to express my gratitude but I was still in awe of what was beginning to happen, even though I still didn't understand. Perhaps it was sunstroke or too much rum. All I knew was that I had to keep coming to spend time with him and that this was very quickly becoming the purpose of my trip.

           On the third day, after being presented with a fresh batch of herbs (my hotel balcony was quickly becomeing a busy herb-drying operation), including a beautiful mango picked from Lee's front yard that morning, I finally had the presence of mind to ask him where his knowledge came from. He smiled and said a member of his family (he never mentioned who) taught him. That family member had passed on and left Lee a collection of books, one of which he was willing to sell to me. He said that people actually call him 'Dr. Lee' and that sometimes people come to stay at his house while he takes care of them with plant medicines. Finally like a boulder bouncing off of my skull, I understood. I was in the presence of a genuine Jamaican medicine man. A bush doctor from a long lineage of healers that pass their knowledge down through the generations. Albert was his apprentice and shared plenty of information as well. I couldn't believe it took me so long to figure out. I was immediately humbled and began thinking back over the past 3 days, hoping I hadn't made an ass out of myself. The look on Dr. Lee's face told me that everything was fine (not to mention the fact that he had invited me back each day) and I relaxed again. In that moment I had immediately become his student and realized what a tremendous honour he had bestowed upon me. 

           The bush medicine tradition in Jamaica is referred to as the Maroon tradition. Slaves were taken to the island from Africa by the English and they brought with them their knowledge of plant medicine. When they arrived, they found similar types of plants useful for food and medicine that they had known at home. At that time, there was very little access to medical doctors and as the Maroons became more knowledgeable of the West Indian plants, they came to be very well respected and sought after. As with many indigenous healing traditions, the Maroons kept their knowledge secret, protecting it from outsiders. As infectious disease increased, they began to share information but it is still not widely known. 

            This is significant because the thing that drew me towards the study of Herbal Medicine in the first place was my interest in the cultures of Canadian First Nations people. My mother used to read me the stories of Grey Owl as a child and I remember a particular fondness for history classes that focused on the early settlers' interactions with native Canadians - a time when First Nations healers shared their knowledge with great generosity. In fact, many of our ancestors survived here in the New World because of the medical knowledge given to them by "Indian" healers. Tragically, our western governments have abused and betrayed their relationship with First Nations so badly that opportunities for a white man to study that medicinal tradition are extremely rare. John Redden, who is one of my teachers was invited to learn directly from a native healer but he is the only person I have ever met that had that opportunity.

           So, as you can imagine after having said all that... the fact that Dr. Lee was sharing with me so openly and with such generosity was an extremely profound experience. He actually invited me to come back to Jamaica to stay with him and offered to take me out into the bush. He produced the book which he had mentioned the day before. He had 2 copies of it and was willing to let go of the extra one. I gathered as much money as I had left and all the supplies from the herbal first aid kit I had brought with me as a means of showing my gratitude and looked forward to being able to read about all of the plants he had given me. 

          Each day, I was presented with more herbs and food, but now he had started preparing things for me too. He brought a bottle of Nooni juice. Nooni is the white fruit seen in the picture at the beginning of this post. He juices it, mixes it with honey and uses it to treat "52 different things". One morning he brought something called breadfruit, which is the size and shape of a cantaloupe. He had roasted it over a fire and brought it to work still warm and when he cut into it, I discovered that it has a delicious taste similar to a potato. See photo below.

 

         By the end of the trip, I was inundated with gifts. 2 shopping bags full of dried plants in little bundles, mangos, nooni juice, and 2 pieces of the most amazing-tasting cake I have ever had, made with coconut, ginger, brown sugar and a few other things. Then there was the book - my Jamaican treasure. On the last day, my girlfriend (who had started coming along on these visits around day 3) and I found Dr. Lee and Albert to say goodbye. We had written a letter to express our gratitude and managed to scrounge up a litte more money, but still felt like we needed to give back much more. The only thing Dr. Lee ever asked for was a book that he'd had trouble finding. 

        We had a long and (for me) somewhat emotional goodbye that involved the collection of phone numbers and addresses and Dr. Lee reminded me that I had a friend in Jamaica and that I should come back to see him. I can't wait to take him up on his offer. It seems he has already given me some homework for the interim. As I looked through Dr. Lee's book on the flight home, I realized with a laugh that only 2 of the many plants that were currently in my luggage were listed in this book. Most of the descriptions were of plants that also grow around here at home. Dr. Lee's gifts remained a mystery. Once I got home, I had to begin research to discover the details of these new roots and leaves - a search that continues, which I'm sure was Lee's plan all along. Herb teachers do that kind of thing. I have plenty of time, as I have many batches of tea to make and sample and I must say that I'm happy to stretch the process out. Each sip I take and each page I read take me back to that week when I became the student of a Jamaican bush doctor.

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