Strange revelations as Hurricane Noel hits the Dominican Republic

1,000,000,000,000V iridescent fractures rip the sky into small black pieces. Thunder rumbles through subtropical forest and electricity hums on the surface of my skin. Over the last two days Hurricane Noel has left the Dominican Republic with almost 100 people dead, 65,000 homeless and $77.7m in crop damage.

Outside it was raining bricks and cats were shitting out dogs. The horizon flickered brontide and as the foundations of our little wooden shack shook in the storm, there was one question that would not quiet; a question whose necessity called into doubt fundamental truths about the human condition and would repeat incessantly in the absence of any reasonable answer:

Who the fuck would call it Hurricane Noel?

playa grande
Playa Grande, because that’s what all beaches are called in the Dominican Republic

Three days earlier it all seemed so different. I had met my Dominican contact, Mr. X, in the small tourist town of Cabarete. Mr. X was a professional gambler from Britain who had been residing on the north coast of the Dominican Republic for the previous two years. His claim to fame was that he was ranked number one in the world in Heads-up No-Limit Texas Hold’em for approximately four minutes and 48 seconds before losing his title to a Scandinavian player he called ‘the pig fucker’.

We spent the morning on a beach whiter than the sun watching the tide wash in a neon polymer scum of kitesurfers while beautiful Dominican women sold us coconuts that we did not want, but could not bring ourselves to refuse. I collected a total of seven and Mr. X, being more experienced with the locals than I, ended up with three. We drank a dark Dominican rum known locally as Gasoline over ice with coke and a twist of lime. It didn’t taste like gasoline, though I enjoyed it regardless.

The sky was so blue it began to look like space and there were no storms, no floods, and the bones in my right foot had yet to be smashed into pieces.

Yes, many people would call this paradise. Not me though; I have self-destructive inclinations that prevent me from ever truly enjoying things that are nice.

above sosua
Clouds gather over the forests surrounding Sosúa

We hired ATVs and drove into the mountains south of Sosúa, into the periphery of the Cordillera Septentrional which runs parallel to the north coast scalping the island from Tortuga in Haiti to the Samaná Peninsula on the north east of the Republic.

Roads are scary places in the Dominican Republic. With infrastructure of third world standard, the median age of the average automobile well past senility and a ‘subjective’ approach to law enforcement, road accidents are part of day to day life here. There are no social taboos about drink driving and practically everyone we met would proudly display extensive scarring where the jagged edge of their broken femur tore out of their thigh or the white holes where the metal pins that hold their spine together went in, and regale us with tales of friends and family who never made it home.

The ‘road’ had become increasingly rough as we ascended into the mountains and my lack of ATV experience was beginning to show. Potholes, boulders and huge roots conspired against me and as we dropped down into a steep river valley, the inevitable occurred.

I never did figure out what it was that sent the ATV spiralling through the air, but when my foot slipped in front of the footrest panel just before the full weight of the ATV came down perpendicular to my ankle, it was a little too close to involuntary amputation for my liking.

I would have put it around a 6/10 on the pain scale initially, but when I stood up and began away from the upturned ATV, grinding fragments of broken bone sent spasms of blue grey electricity through my spine and into my brain, bringing me back down to the ground faster than you can say ‘why, oh why, did I not get any travel insurance?’

Mr. X dragged me from the burning ATV seconds before it burst into an orange mushroom that filled the sky with fire. As pieces of smouldering metal rained down around us, we were forced to entertain the notion that we would probably not get our deposit back.

We hobbled along the road in search of help until we arrived at a small wooden shack buried in the woods. The shack was occupied by the family of a local avocado farmer. The avocado business is a tough gig and despite clearly having very little themselves, they were eager to welcome us into their home and offer us a variety of breads and fresh fruit juices, though I was more interested in hard narcotics at that particular moment in time.

After explaining our predicament in broken Spanish and rudimentary hand gestures, the mother of the family disappeared into the darkest recesses of the shack before emerging with a strange looking bottle.

That’s when the rain began.

Hurricane Noel at peak intensity. October 2007

600 years ago, these were the forests of the Taíno, an Arawakan people indigenous to the Caribbean. The ancestors of the Taíno are thought to have migrated from South America before establishing themselves in Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica and Hispaniola (which would later divide into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), long before European contact.

Highly skilled in agriculture and with no monetary system, the Taíno were a matriarchy that thrived and lived in peace on Hispaniola. An abundance of flora and fauna ensured a rich and varied diet, and every settlement would have a healer (or bohique) to advise the community on health matters. Though exceptionally healthy in general, villagers would use medicinal tea to treat a myriad of illnesses when necessary.

The tea was brewed from a variety of herbs, roots, barks and leaves native to Hispaniola. Since nature and its spoils were seen as sacred, consuming tea was considered to be akin to consuming the essence of life itself, creating a deep personal connection between the individual and the external universe in which the Taíno existed.

Because the ingredients were regarded as sacred riches provided by the island, tea was considered a privilege rather than a commodity. As such, it was produced and distributed to whomever needed it at no cost, in what could be thought of as the original socialist health care system.

But it wasn’t to last and like countless other societies indigenous to the Americas, the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century would prove catastrophic.

The Taíno were devastated by smallpox and other diseases far beyond the healing powers of tea. Those who survived faced war and enslavement. It is estimated that the indigenous population of Hispaniola prior to European contact was around 500,000. By 1548, just over 50 years after the Spanish first landed, there were less than 500 Taíno remaining.

mamajuana dry ingredients

Rude drippings of sky tears trespassed onto the corrugated tin roof of the shack in an imposing dribble. The old woman handed me the bottle. It didn’t look good. It contained a dark, murky liquid filled with what appeared to be twigs and leaves and other assorted unknowns.

She called it ‘Mamajuana’; a local medicine derived from the recipe of an ancient herbal tea brewed by the Taíno, an indigenous people who once inhabited Hispaniola. I explained that I was familiar with the Taíno and had briefly outlined the pre-Columbian history of Hispaniola in the previous paragraph.

She continued regardless.

After the decline of the Taíno, the tea became an obscure folk medicine which lay almost forgotten for hundreds of years until the 1950s when a San Juanian named Jesus Rodriguez revived the recipe with one major addition… alcohol. Mamajuana came into fruition.

The base mixture of modern Mamajuana is a blend of herbs, leaves and tree barks. There are a few standard flavours such as basil, clove, chamomile and ground cinnamon, before we move into more exotic realms with star anise, agave leaves and coconut palm root. From here things become rather esoteric. It is difficult to compile a definitive recipe for Mamajuana largely because there isn’t one. However, the following items are cited as ingredients by a number of sources:

Bojuco Caro or Princess vine (Cissus sicyoides)

Bojuco de Palo Chino or China Root (possibly Smilax china)

Bojuco de Palo Indio or Cocolmeca (possibly Smilax aristolochiifolia)

Bojuco de Tres Costilla or Basketwood (Serjania triquetra)

Palo de Brasil or Brazil Wood (Caesalpinia echinata)

Marabeli or Milkwort (Securidaca virgate)

Anamú or Guinea Henweed (Petiveria alliacea)

Timacle or West Indian Milkberry (Chiococca alba)

Canelilla or Wild Cinnamon (Cinnamodendron ekmanii)

Hoja de Canelilla or Rosewood (Aniba canelilla)

Guayacán (unknown species of Guaiacum)

Guauci or Minnieroot (Ruellia tuberosa)

Osua or Bay Rum Tree (Pimenta racemosa)

Optional ingredients common to Mamajuana preparations include raisins, strawberry, molasses, lemon or lime juice, grated tortoiseshell and sea turtle penis.

The dry ingredients are cured for a few days in white rum to release the natural flavours and reduce bitterness before being soaked in dark rum (usually our old friend Gasoline), red wine and honey. It should stand for at least a week before consumption, but the longer it is left, the stronger the flavours become.

The old woman poured me a glass. She explained that the ingredients in Mamajuana are magic and the drink acts as a panacea and aphrodisiac. In the city, young people often call it ‘liquid Viagra’, which is fine, but I didn’t see how an inconvenient erection would improve this particular situation.

Mamajuana is used as a traditional cure for the following ailments: common cold, influenza, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, ovarian cancer, various prostate disorders, kidney disease, liver disease, blood disease, depression, mania, anxiety, schizophrenia, diabetes, fatigue, impotency, infertility, arthritis, rheumatism, high blood pressure and poor circulation.

I was skeptical.

I wanted barbiturates. I wanted benzodiazepines and opioids. I wanted d-tubocurarine and desomorphine and EA-2277. I wanted a sledge hammer to the back of the head.

But beggars can’t be choosers and I took a long sip of ruby red twiggy mud water.

Mamajuana is something approaching a port; it is sweet and pleasantly heavy, but the bits of bark, twigs and leaves deliver a definite tree-ishness. After port and tree, tertiary aromas of wild basil and bandages fill the glass with a subtle suggestion of Victorian era industrialisation. Dense and complex, both in terms of flavour and weight, it has a long, herbal finish like a bad trip to the dentist or mailing empty envelopes addressed to nobody.

The old woman was right. It was good and I did actually feel a little better.

Mamajuana failed in one area, however: the groin area. I didn’t have an erection, but perhaps not having an erection should be considered a bonus when you’re sprawled out across the floor of a farmers’ shack in the middle of a forest in the mountains of the Dominican Republic as a hurricane makes landfall and four strange children who don’t speak a word of English and probably think that all white people are monstrous incarnations of Satan stare at you in silence.

They don’t even blink.

Why are they not blinking?

The old woman poured me another hit. It was gone in a second, but Dominicans believe that once consumed, Mamajuana remains in the body permanently and will resurface to aid in times of need. I wiped a red smear across my face and picked tree bark out of my teeth.

I was one with the forest.

mamajuana brown bottle

The sun didn’t rise the next morning. We watched the rain come down and the flicker of lightning. We watched trees buckle in the wind and 20 years of soil erosion in a matter of hours. We heard reports of roads being washed out, then roads became houses and houses became villages.

Floods in the south. Landslides in neighboring Haiti. Hurricane Noel was one mad bastard indeed. But we were fortunate. We were on high ground and our position appeared to be tenable.

Mr. X and I looked for solace in Mamajuana. The incessant machine gun rattle of the rain seemed to fade to a reassuring drone; reassuring, yet somehow also irritating, like the sound of a river or the laughter of a child. We travelled through time and space, we saw the forest through the eyes of the Taíno, but nothing could change the fact that we were completely and utterly fucked.

post noel
Cabarete in the wake of Hurricane Noel

Approximately two days later, on what we thought may have been a Wednesday, there seemed to be a break in the weather. We took our chances, thanked our new farming friends and limped down the road and stood in the rain, sinking into the mud, waiting for the guaguas.

The guaguas is a private and unregulated network of buses that runs across the country. There is no fixed schedule and no fixed route and guaguas tend to be overcrowded shit heaps with 12 seats and 35 people hanging off the roof.

Eventually, a guagua stopped to pick us up.

The vehicle was actually in pretty decent condition and, even more remarkable, we were the only passengers, so we sat upfront with Carlos, our driver, in the most comfortable seats in the house. It looked like our luck was beginning to change.

We hit the road.

Carlos’ English was excellent and he was instantly making jokes and telling us about his life in the Dominican Republic. He offered us cigars, which we both gladly accepted, before reaching under his seat and pulling out a large bottle of Mamajuana, much to our amazement.

The sky began to clear for the first time in days as we made our way east towards Cabarete. The sun shimmered over the ocean as the city disappeared and the road opened up into a spectacular tropical panorama. The highway was empty and Carlos, Mr. X and I passed the bottle around and smoked cigars as we sped towards the horizon.

I sank into the warm embrace of Mamajuana.

Medium calm.

Moderate serenity.

Urge to weep… now can’t be bothered.

I had given up on the idea of going to a doctor – it didn’t seem like there would be much they could do by that point and I had no money or insurance anyway, Hurricane Noel appeared to be in retreat and, given the events of the previous days, a bus driver with one hand on the wheel and the other pouring hard liquor down his throat didn’t seem like such a big deal to us anymore.

Mamajuana had already shown me salvation. I realised that suffering is but a grain of sand in the vast ocean of the universe. Nothing that happens to me will be remembered. Nothing I do will be of consequence. Everything is transitory in nature; nothing is permanent and that is what makes us free.