“Don’t chew it! Let the chocolate melt under your tongue and the texture will turn creamy over time,” he said. It was too late.
Much to my chagrin, I had already gobbled the chocolate, a reflex of an insatiable sweet tooth. Even more disappointing, the chocolate was bitter, healthy, not indulgently sweet. Nevertheless, I managed to rescue the morsel just before it passed from my vallecula to my esophagus.
At that time, I was a neurology resident on vacation, or, as medical trainees like to call it, a “sanity break.” Before leaving for Costa Rica, I was working the Stroke Service, notorious for allowing only two nights of protected sleep each week. The pace, day and night, was not unlike the famous chocolate factory scene in I Love Lucy, where Lucy frantically tries to keep up with an ever-accelerating conveyor belt of candy. Except here, the chocolates were patients, and the consequences of falling behind were potentially devastating. If you made it through the week without having an emotional meltdown, it was a success.
Just 24 hours after my last shift, I was at an Airbnb “spiritual jungle oasis” as described by Shlomo, its builder and my host. Tall, lean, and a committed vegan, Shlomo appeared “much younger than stated age,” as we say in medicine. I had so confidently pegged him as a fellow 30-something that when I learned that he was turning 57, I let out an audible gasp.
Shlomo had followed his girlfriend from Israel to Los Angeles and “fell into” the bustling film industry there. When the relationship ended, he absconded to the jungles of Costa Rica. With the industriousness learned while in a kibbutz and in the Israeli army, he built up his new Costa Rican property from scratch. All the materials were taken from the surrounding jungle. The structures he built reflected a simple utilitarian beauty as well as a sense of both danger and calm. Seeing the scorpion in my shower was mitigated by soothing jungle sounds that lulled me to sleep each night.
“Ginko Leaf” by Hannah Singer, MS4
I was struck by Shlomo’s ability to straddle the line between hippy socialist and enterprising capitalist. In addition to running a successful Airbnb, he was a purveyor of his own organic homemade hummus and teas sold at upscale ecotourism hotels and restaurants in a neighboring yogi-surf town. He also played gorgeous, meditative music that emanated through his property and transported guests to an instant dreamlike state.
Shlomo called his music “medicina.” At the sound of the Spanish word for “medicine,” my ears perked up and I felt a familiar skepticism rise from deep within my scientific-minded being. Shlomo explained that this music was meant to accompany the yearly Ayahuasca retreats he hosted (not advertised on Airbnb). Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew, is traditionally used by the indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin in spiritual medicine ceremonies, and has been gaining popularity amongst American hipsters.
I had never sampled Ayahuasca, and inquired about the vomiting it’s rumored to induce. As someone who hates puking, this side effect was a huge hallucinogenic deal breaker. Vomiting is a “soul cleansing,” pleasurable experience, Shlomo explained. Tribal children partake in the libations, he added, but since children are pure of soul, they do not vomit. While this did not sound scientific, I was intrigued.
Music and Ayahuasca were just two of the forms of “medicina” that Shlomo offered; another was the medicinal chocolate whose administration I had so gravely bungled. The chocolate was 100% pure cacao distilled over 24 hours by the indigenous chorotega tribe. The label was elaborately painted with flowers and trees. The back described its medicinal properties, including “unleashing the creative spirit.”
As I held the salvaged bits of chocolate in my mouth, the flavor changed gradually from bitter to spicy, then to creamy, and eventually to sweet. Had I rushed through the moment, devouring it in my typical expedient way, all that complexity would have been lost.
The pathway of medicine, so rife with forward momentum, has a tendency to propel you out of the present, while forgetting the beauty, pleasure, and connection gained from losing track of time. This is antithetical to what attracted me to medicine in the first place, a desire to mindfully connect with patients.
Perhaps the true medicina is this reminder to slow down. The next morning, after I shared a cautious shower with the scorpion, I sat down on the wooden floor and amidst the jungle soundscape and began writing for the first time since entering medicine.