BLUEFIELDS – The way my friends described her, I figured she was a witch. Martha Pérez, or “doña Martha” as I later learned to call her, gives massages, practices acupuncture, prescribes herbal tea remedies for colds and cancer and waves a thin metal rod over your belly to discover the names of the parasites living inside.
I took in this information with a straight face; my friends, after all, swore by doña Martha. Me, I don’t believe in any of that, even though stories about curses and magic are legendary here.
I’d flown into Bluefields a day earlier to relax, to check out the Palo de Mayo festival, and definitely not to get suckered into some natural medicine scam.
But there was a crick in my upper back, the result of three long weeks of near-insomnia. And the more my friends sighed dreamily about doña Martha’s soft-hand magic, the stronger grew the temptation to make an appointment. “Pero sólo un masaje,” I made clear on the phone, when I finally called her number. Just a massage.
At the designated time, I arrived at the spread-out, lavender-painted wood home in the Ricardo Morales neighborhood. A grinning bronze-skinned woman in medical whites led me inside, past a half-dozen people sprawled on a couch, their eyes fixed on a North American action film, and into a tiny room with uneven boards for a floor.
Somebody had carved a rectangle out of the wall for a view of the neighbor’s lush green field-slash-jungle. A simple bed had been placed in the middle of the room.
But what dominated the space were the cubbyholes, each labeled by hand and packed with tiny plastic bags of herbs, dried flowers, spices, animal hairs and other things unknown to me.
As I stared curiously at the names, doña Martha swept into the room. I use the word “swept” because her presence was like a burst of wind that blows open curtains and slams shut doors. I couldn’t take my eyes off the flowered scarf on her head, or the way she waved her arms when she spoke. She nodded at me knowingly, told me to undress and lie down, then disappeared again to see a pregnant woman in her office who needed tea.
Finally, after I’d wrapped my body in a towel and stretched sleepily across the bed, doña Martha returned. She switched on a fan, closed both doors – the one to the mysterious movie watchers, and the one to her equally mysterious office – and then, in little louder than a whisper, told me that “every client is sacred” and, from here on out, she was there for me alone.
This is what her hands did to my body: pull and push, rub and smack, caress and pinch. I was cringing, and I can’t say whether it was from pain or pleasure. At one point, doña Martha was swinging my legs over my head; at another point she was pounding on the crick in my neck. The welcome assault lasted an hour, maybe several; I lost track of time, and my watch had disappeared somewhere on the floor.
All the while, doña Martha told me her story, hesitantly at first and then with confidence.
She was once a nurse at the local hospital who fell in love with a man she later married. But he was jealous of her job and asked her to leave it. One year some foreign nuns began teaching natural medicine classes in Bluefields and she became their student.
But her husband never liked the idea and asked her to quit.
Then there came an opportunity to study natural medicine and massage therapy in Managua. This was the last straw and her husband told her to choose between the classes and him. She chose, and he left her.
To this day, two of her sons blame her for their father’s departure. At this point in the conversation, the massage, which had turned into a scalp rub, was becoming hair-yanking. Artfully, I’d like to think, I changed the subject, and complained about my split ends.
Doña Martha smiled and told me she Is studying to become a beautician, too.
Without hesitation, I asked her for a haircut and she quickly found a pair of scissors.
This woman is a gem. I don’t know whether it’s because of her soothing voice and kind eyes, the foreign aroma emanating from the wooden cubby holes, or her magic hands, but
I left that place some three hours later feeling very at ease with the world. The pain in my back? Gone.Worries and tension from work?
I could barely remember why I had needed to relax. Bad hair? Ha. It looked good.
Doña Martha, 51, has been on her own for the past decade or so. She continued learning about natural medicine in Managua and across Latin America, opened her little natural medicine clinic three years ago and found clients who adore her.
If you find yourself in Bluefields soon, I recommend a visit to a certain woman who is not a witch, who lives a block down from the Tip-Top distribution center in Bluefields, and who sees her work as sacred.
Call her up: 572-0065. There is no telling whether an hour-long appointment for a massage might turn into a love consultation, an acupuncture, a pedicure or something else. Whatever happens, the experience will leave you charmed.