As we grind up the mountainside, a makeshift road block has been left meaning we have to halt. It looks like our journey is done. Three women and a small child arrive and laugh. They put down their huge buckets of bananas from their heads and inform us that local kids have created the temporary barrier to be able to charge a toll to use the road. They remove the obstruction so we can continue. The road is black volcanic rock, no more tarmac, and we twist and turn driving deeper into the São Toméan jungle. The crashing sound of the São Nicolau waterfall gives away its presence. With the rains the falls are powerful. Brown soily water pours violently from a high ledge down to a pool beneath, which in turn flows under the bridge André and I stand on and then down the mountainside. Here on the bridge, the spray is strong. To my left, there is a platform and a wooden walkway across the pool which gives the impression that it is usually much calmer. Today there is not much chance of walking across it or going for a swim in the pond.
Getting back into the jeep, André, my guide, notices that I grimace because of my hip pain. Immediately he is concerned and wants me to share the details. Once I have explained, he smiles and says, “We will go to see my aunt. She knows about the plants you need to cure pain and she does massage too. She is eighty years old.” Oh-oh, what am I agreeing to?
We take the road back towards the cidade and then André turns down a dirt road. Through Bobo Forro, we turn right into Madalena. “This is where my aunt lives. Actually she is my father’s aunt. Everybody comes to her for help. From all the villages.”
The town square consists of a rough concrete area used for the weekly market. It’s empty today. We park on one side of the square. The whole village seems deserted. André points to a wooden shack. A miserable dog barks angrily at us. We wait. Soon the wrinkled face of an old woman peers out from behind a wooden shutter. After a while her eyes focus and she recognises André. She beams a big smile towards him, exposing her bad teeth. She comes to the door and waves to André. She looks at me, curiously. Who is this white man? André talks loudly in a mix of Portuguese and Creole over the barking dog. Again after some thought, there is a wave and then a smile towards me. I smile back.
She beckons us in. The dog has a different idea of hospitality so the old woman takes a sweeping brush and whacks the dog’s backside with it. It yelps away and we enter a small room. It has a hard concrete floor, a short wooden staircase leads to the room she looked out of and a dirty curtain blocks the rest of the house. She points to a jagged wooden stool for André and to an old chair for me. On the small table, a tea cloth covers some bottles. A sideboard has other containers and jars similarly covered. There are a few pictures on the wall, including a calendar from 2012, all held up by rusty nails. André makes the introductions, “Pete, this is Aunt Zia.” Of course, she doesn’t speak a word of English. André says even her Portuguese is poor as she mostly speaks a local version of Creole. Olá, Aunt Zia.
As André explains the situation, she seems to come alive, her back straighter as she stands. She rinses her hands on her pinny. They talk more. The dog is back, lying under the table, close to my feet, sharing the space with two chickens. There are flies everywhere. Without warning, Aunt Zia walks to me and squeezes my right hip very hard. She then places her bony hand on my side. I have to stand straight, lean forward, backward and then sideways. Then she goes to the sideboard and removes a dusty bottle of something. Shaking the contents, she tells André she can do her stuff now. She will get some herbs from her garden and then she will need to buy some red wine. I was ready to go, annoyed by the flies and my strange surroundings, but this sounds interesting. I never say no to red wine.
I watch as Aunt Zia picks at the plants outside in her tiny front garden. She comes back with a handful of green leaves. The curtain is opened and she moves awkwardly into the kitchen. It is directly open to her messy back yard. A one ring stove is connected to a gas canister at one end of a thin wooden bench and a bunch of sharp knives and various chopping boards hang underneath. She takes a small stool and, with some care, she chooses a chopping board and a knife.
Hunched over the stool, she cuts up the leaves. I can smell tea but, whilst the aroma of the herbs is strong, I can’t decipher what else is there. She rolls the chopped herbs in her hands and shuffles back to us. She places them in a metal bowl and tells André that the mixture now has to sit. She asks André for some money for the wine. I show him what I have. He takes 20,000 dobras (less than £1) from me and gives it to her.
Aunt Zia goes outside and quickly returns with half a bottle of red wine. (Where did she get this from?) Back at her metal bowl, she pours in the wine and kneads the goo with her hands. Then she adds a long squirt from the bottle she had earlier. I look at André. He shrugs and says, “Sugar cane alcohol”. On top of the wine! This could be very interesting. Now we have to wait again. She and André talk as I try to ignore the flies.
Through the curtain, I am lead to another small room. The floor is dirty and oily. I manoeuvre on to a bit of old cardboard. There are shelves full of paraphernalia; pieces of wood, old cloth, bottles of green and yellow liquid, plastic containers and rusty saws hanging up. A dirty white sheet covers a lopsided bench. What the hell? André points to the bench. “Lie on the bed.” Bed! “This is Aunt Zia’s treatment room. Everybody comes here,” he says proudly.
He can see my confusion, “On your stomach.” That wasn’t what my confusion was about. I am about to clamber down, when they talk again. André tells me to take off my t-shirt and shorts. OK, I do so. I look at the bed and decide to put my t-shirt on the sheet to avoid the filth but André takes it from me. The bench is lumpy as well as dirty. I think there is actually old straw underneath the sheet. It smells like rotten wood. My head is right up against the wooden wall and my feet dangle off the other end. What the hell am I doing here?
Face down, I feel Aunt Zia’s cold hands on my skin. She marks three crosses on my back and mumbles something. Then my undercrackers are sharply pulled down. One hand tightly grabs my left buttock and then there is the strongest jab to my left hip. Bloody hell, where does she get her strength from? It’s on the wrong side too, but at least now both sides are damaged. Then she does the same to the right side. Then my undercrackers are pulled completely off.
Each leg is bent backwards and then jarred sideways. Then I feel the slimly potion being applied from my arse to my shoulder. Her thumbs jam into my back. She calls André back in. She has her thumb on my back just above my right buttock. André says that she wants to know if I feel any pain here. If I didn’t before, I do now. Whilst André translates, her thumb twists deeper into my muscle.
André then repeats her instruction for me to stand up and he is sent out again. I manage to stand, clumsily. I have my back to Aunt Zia as she jabs her thumbs into my body and applies more goo. She turns me around. She starts to apply the green stuff to my ribs, then stops abruptly. She calls André again. When he comes in, a white man (me) is standing stark naked in front of his eighty year aunt. Nonplussed, he translates again, “What have you eaten today?” I tell him. Once it is relayed, she approves and carries on applying green yuk from my ribs to my neck and from my fingers to my shoulders. Quite how this helps my hip, I have no idea. Her thumbs dig sharply into my wrists and my shoulders. Then she stretches my neck, looks me up and down, washes her hands on a dirty cloth and offers it to me. She wanders out and I guess she must have finished.
André speaks to me from the other side of the curtain, “Stand and let it dry.” The red liquid drips off me. I look down at my body and bits of green goo are stuck to me as slimy globules drop slowly to my feet or the floor. I look at my surrounding and shake my head at what has just happened. It’s chilly standing here too. I can feel the breeze through the wooden planks that make up the walls.
After a few minutes, André passes me my clothes. I dress and join them again. Aunt Zia pours a glass of the sugar cane booze from earlier and drinks it quickly. She then pours another and hands it to me. I drink it. It burns but I need it. André again translates Aunt Zia’s instructions, “No shower today, only tomorrow morning and then you must wash with warm water and red wine.”
I double check, “Red wine?”
“Yes. From the head first, then down your body. Mix the red wine with warm water. Wash thoroughly.”
I nod in agreement as if this is a completely normal conversation. After some silence, I ask André if I should pay Aunt Zia. He says that usually people give her a gift (red wine maybe?) but as we don’t have anything he takes 100,000 dobras (£3.20) from me and gives it to Aunt Zia. She smiles, says, “Obrigado,” and pours herself more alcohol satisfied with a job well done.
André wants to take some photos outside, but my head is still reeling a little. For the pictures, Aunt Zia takes off her pinny and puts her hair in place. As I pose with her, I notice that next door is the police station and an officer stands outside. He waves to us.
On the way back, we stop to buy some wine for my morning shower. In the hotel, my shoulders and wrists burn. Fix one problem and another one arrives. I settle in a comfy seat in the hotel lounge. It is air-conditioned and I have a cold beer. I wonder if Aunt Zia has ever been in a place like this. At eighty years old, she must have experienced a lot. Whilst slavery had officially been abolished, the Portuguese continued exploiting the land and the people. The São Toméans were still not free. Independence was only achieved as late as 1975. I provocatively wonder if Aunt Zia’s therapy session contained a little payback for all the atrocities she has witnessed by the white man. If so, no problem, I would let her do it again. Bless you, Aunt Zia.