Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Polo & Me

A Stranger at the Gate
On a bright, sunny, Sunday morning in April of 2014, my life took an amazing turn for the better.
I was alone in the house we had just moved into a month ago, so I was puttering around, doing little things, and feeling generally happy. I had just finished brewing a pot of iced tea, and as I was pouring myself the first glass, I heard a familiar call from the road of “Good morning!” I sighed loudly and wished my husband were home to shoo the peddler away for me, but he wasn’t, so I had to handle it myself.

When I got to the door, I saw a little Maya man in a ball cap and big rubber boots on the other side of our gate. He wasn’t holding anything, so I figured he couldn’t be selling anything, right? So I went outside and said a ‘good morning’ back to him.

He said, “Are you the shaman healer lady?”

I had never been called that before so I had to pause for an inward giggle before replying, “That’s me. How can I help you?”

As I approached the gate, he told me his name was Polo, and then he said, “I had a dream that I had to find the shaman healer lady who lived in Bullet Tree”, and someone had told him where he could find me.

Stunned, I asked him, “How did you get here? I don’t see a car.” To which he replied that he walked to my house from the bus stop, which was only about a half mile away, but the whole route was in the direct sunlight.

I invited him inside because, at 10am, it was already close to the 100 degrees that the weather station had predicted for today, and I was afraid he might pass out.

As we came into the living room, I asked him if he would like a glass of iced tea and I started pouring before he got the “Yes, please” out of his mouth.

As I returned to the living room with the tea, awareness dawned on me; ‘I know who this is! He’s the man who sells contribo vines at the market!’ I thought to myself. I felt a little better now that he wasn’t a complete stranger.

I sat down with him and asked, “What can I do for you, sir?”

To this he said, “I was looking for you, not because I am sick, but because I want to talk with you for a while. Is that OK?”

Amused, I said, “Sure. What should we talk about?”

“First,” Polo asked, “What kind of medicine do you make? Because I am a bush man and I make plant medicine”

I said, “I am also an herbalist. I’m a Master Herbalist and Board Certified Holistic Health Practitioner, so I deal in nutrition, vitamins and herbal medicine. I’ve been doing this for most of my life, as my mother and grandmother taught me.”

He clapped his hands and stomped his feet, rocking his body back into the chair and forward again, the excitement growing in his eyes when he said, “I would like to teach you about the Belizean herbs. Do you want to learn this?” I guessed he had an idea that I would say ‘yes’ because I had a copy of  Rainforest Remedies, by Rosita Arvigo and Michael Balick sitting on my coffee table.

Skeptical about this little old man’s qualifications, and just his whole story up to this point, I said, “I would love to learn all about the medicinal plants that grow here,” Then my ‘Jersey’ came out and I said, “but I don’t know anything about you. Who are you?”

With that, he reached out and picked up Rainforest Remedies from the table, then he thumbed through the first few pages to the acknowledgements, and he pointed to his name.

I read, “Mr. Polo Romero, an accomplished snake doctor and bushmaster, who learned his craft while working in rubber, mahogany, and chicle camps.”

Wow! I had been studying this book for a year, trying to learn as much as I can about native plant medicine, and now I can’t believe this guy is sitting here, in my living room, drinking tea with me!

“Ok,” I said, “Yes, I would love to be your student. I feel like a kindergartener in Belize; up north I could identify every weed growing out of the sidewalk. Here? I have to start all over again, but I love it!”

He began telling me about his time spent in the chicle camps. Sometimes they would be out in the bush for six or nine months at a time, with nothing but their wits and their machetes. He told me he was 13 years old when he started learning from the camp shaman, and watching him work on everything from the most common infections, to snake bites, to serious wounds and broken bones. They would have to treat everything that came up with only the plants they had access to.

I was rapt for about an hour as he told me these tales. Then I asked him to tell me more about the spiritual aspect of the Belizean healing methods, because a great portion of my practice involves spiritual healing energies. He said that he knew an old Maya Shaman who could teach me all about that, but he only speaks Mayan, and I would have to use Polo as an interpreter.

“Tell me about your spirit medicine.” Polo said, and as I explained about the oneness of all things, and the energy that connects everything on the planet, he would nod his head and tell me how the Maya believe the same things.

Then, to my complete and utter surprise, he began to ask my thoughts on sin. “Can a man ever be forgiven for his sins?” and tears began to fill his eyes. In that one moment, he shifted the energy in the room from that of teacher-student, to patient-doctor.

I caught his eyes and held them with mine as I explained, “We are all here to learn about relationships. Our sole purpose on this planet is to have experiences, make mistakes, and learn lessons from them. What do we learn when we never mess up? Nothing! It’s our job to get in trouble, so we can get ourselves out of trouble again. So sin? I don’t believe in that. I think that is a man-made concept that was invented to control the masses. So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: our relationships with others, our integrity, our reputation, are all that matters. Mistakes? We all make them, but our task is to learn to seek forgiveness, not from God, but from those we hurt, and that’s much easier to do.”

With that, he unburdened his soul to me and we talked for another hour about human nature and all the dumb things we all get ourselves into, and we healed each other.

We finished the entire pitcher of iced tea as we talked, and we had a wonderful morning. As he left, he promised to come see me at the market and we would make plans to go into the bush for medicine.

My head was spinning as I watched him walk away. “Did that really just happen?” I asked myself, and before I could process the answer to that question, my husband returned home and I told him about my amazing morning.

Our First Jungle Trip

Not long after that, Polo took me, and two others, on a medicine gathering trek through the jungle. We drove up along the Macal River until we were deep in the bush when Polo told us we had arrived at the spot he had in mind. It didn’t look any different from any other spot along the road. Not to me, anyway, but he knew exactly where he was and what we were going to find.

Now, all of us had brought specimen bags and our machetes, and of course we were all wearing the big rubber boots, but there was no shovel.

“Polo,” I said, “Nobody brought a shovel. How are we going to collect plants without a shovel?”
To that he started walking away, and I thought, “Great. I get this incredible opportunity to collect medicine with this man and what do I do? I piss him off.”

He walked about ten paces and started looking around at the trees. Nobody spoke. This could go really bad, really fast, and I think we were all holding our breath.

Suddenly, Polo dropped all of his things, grabbed his machete, and began chopping away at a tree! Once it fell, he walked about eight feet up its length and chopped the top off. He then returned to the lower end and chopped it into a sharp chisel shape. Satisfied with his work, he picked it up and said, “Shovel.”

The collective sigh was audible. What a relief!

Then, because sometimes I have more balls than brains, I said, “Now you have to plant the top part so it will grow a new tree.” And without hesitation, he did.

Polo carried this heavy pole around all day long, using it with amazing precision to spear the ground around our specimens and then lift them from the earth. I had never seen anything like it. And every time he cut a tree or plant, he would take a piece and plant it back into the ground.

We collected vervain, cows foot, and several other plants, and Polo found what he called a ‘water vine’, and chopped it so we could have a drink. That was the topper on the day’s adventure, for me. I just thought that was the coolest thing!

Aguacate Lagoon
 On another trip into the bush, my husband, Damon, and I took Polo up into an area that he used to spend a lot of time in the chicle camps; Aguacate Lagoon.
The Chicleros, or collectors of chicle, would spend months at a time, chopping trees for their sap, which would be exported and turned into chewing gum.
The area is steep and it was muddy that day, but he walked the trails like a young man and never lost his breath. He was in his home away from home, and he was excited to show us everything he loved.
At one point I mentioned to Damon that I wished I had a walking stick to help me navigate all these hilly trails. With that, Polo stopped, walked a few paces off the trail into the bush, selected a sapling, and chopped it down for me. 

 
    Copal Sapling turned Walking Stick    

He chose a length of the tree with a branch coming out of it, and chopped it so that the branch would form a handle.
Then he planted the cut off top in the earth, and we resumed our climb.
 
                         
Chicle Sap

Cohune palm sling
As we were walking, Polo asked us, “What would you do if somebody broke their arm?”
By now, I knew him well enough to know that he didn’t want me to answer. He wanted to tell me his answer, so I just said, “I don’t know? What would you do?”

Again, without a word, he just walked off down the trail until he came to a cohune palm tree. He studied it for a bit, then he selected the perfect palm and chopped it down. He then selected the portion of the palm that would suit his purposes, and chopped away the rest. “Can I have a volunteer?” he asked, and I rose to the challenge.



He placed the palm frond against my torso and had me place my arm along the length of its spine; my elbow to the center, and my hand at the end. He then tied the fronds around my neck in such a way that my arm was, indeed, immobilized.

***

One Saturday morning, he stole me away from the Cayo Healthy Living booth at the San Ignacio market that I share with several other practitioners in the area He asked, “Do you have your camera?” To which I told him I had my phone, and that has a camera, so yes. 

He said, “I have to show you a tree. It’s in the middle of town and you have to come with me now.”

“Ok, girls,” I said, “watch my stuff. I’ll be right back.”

We walked the long way through the center of the busy market, Polo stopping to greet his friends the whole time. When we emerged from the entrance out onto the road, he asked me if I minded being seen with an old man like him.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “You are my teacher and I am proud to be your student.”

On this short walk through town, he pointed out several plants that were growing through fences and behind sheds. He knew every property as if it were his own. He told me about the plants that used to grow in ‘this yard’, and the plants that used to grow in ‘that yard’ like he was recalling past lovers.


Finally we made it to the property with the tree he wanted to show me; the Bay Cedar. It was a huge, beautiful tree ripe with berries and it made him very happy. He pulled off some leaves and berries for me as he explained that they were good for diarrhea, and then he chopped into the bark and gave me a piece of that and explained that a tea made from the bark is good for use on cuts and scrapes to keep them from becoming infected.

***

He never did get to introduce me to the Maya shaman to talk about spirit medicine, as he died shorty after Polo and I spoke that first day.

Polo came to see me almost every Saturday morning at the San Ignacio market until he died in February of 2016, and always he would hold me close and kiss me on the mouth and ask me if my husband was jealous of us. What a character.



Silly Saturday Morning Selfie
(I don’t know why he put up with me)

I will always treasure these memories, but still I tell the Universe that I wasn’t ready to let him go.

I still have more questions.

*****

Polo, a traditional Maya Shaman, worked in cooperation with the NYC Botanical Gardens taking samples of, and identifying, the medicinal properties of hundreds of rain forest plants. He taught us about his green, leafy friends and he charmed his way into our hearts.
We promise to pass down this valuable information to future generations.


Leopoldo ‘Polo’ Romero
1943 - 2016
Healer, teacher, mentor, friend.

***

On the very first day of our meeting, during the two hour conversation in my living room, Polo told me that for all of his knowledge, he held no degrees. He always wished for a piece of paper so that he could show people his expert qualifications. On that morning he dictated to me his resume, and I wrote a letter to my alma mater to see if they could present him with an honorary degree. It was a beautifully composed letter, full of information about my teacher. I got a short email response that said simply: 

"Dear Bonnie, I am very sorry that we cannot be of assistance"

I wrote this blog post in the hope that he will finally get the recognition he deserves from the world, for his expertise.