I have found the fountain of youth.
It’s rather unassuming, really.
It’s just a bucket.
“Hoy fue un poco más difícil.” It rasps out of my throat like a lost object dragged out from under the couch, dusty and momentarily unfamiliar. The nurse leads me gingerly out of the room, my hand pale and quivering, the needle of my pulse bouncing shallowly in its groove. Outside, I stand shivering in the sun for a few moments, my white bathrobe hanging limply around my goose-pimpled legs. “You can wait by the pool while I prepare the bath,” the nurse informs me in Spanish. I flop down on one of the loungers and turn my sunken cheek against the plasticky weave, my feet hanging off the bottom edge, sprayed with sun.
It’s day three at Dr. Marcus Oliveira’s Ayurvedic clinic in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and I haven’t eaten in 72 hours. I’ve come because of a constellation of symptoms that have been plaguing me for years. It started with chronic fatigue, then headaches, then emotional fragility and anxiety, then skin and hair issues, then digestive problems - allergies to wheat, then milk, then chocolate, then alcohol, then peanuts, and so on. The list balloons: the Big Dipper turned into the Milky Way, a nebulous, leaky slash through the uniform fitness of my cosmos. Doctors are stymied. Or, they would be stymied if they considered the situation for longer than the time it takes them to jot a note to run blood tests and leave the room looking mildly apologetic. So I have taken matters into my own hands. It’s time to detoxify.
Dr. Marcus’ clinic is usually attended by people suffering more severe health problems. The two other patients while I’m there are a woman with kidney disease and a woman suffering from scleroderma. The woman with scleroderma has been in the center for a little over a week. She arrived with claws instead of hands, and now she’s already able to lay the lightly puckered pads of her fingers flush against the glass table in the common area. The doctor comes up to caress her hands and inspect her nails. “Look, how beautiful!” he exclaims. He beams beatifically.
In my first consultation with the doctor, he hands me a black-and-white printout of several photos of what looks to be a giant chain of black, malformed pieces of plastic. “This came out of the colon of a patient,” he states proudly, the shock of white hair that streaks back from his forehead bouncing gleefully as he nods his head. I gag a little bit and hand the paper back to him. Colonics are the foundation of the detoxification program here. In this medical tradition, toxicity is the root of all disease and toxicity comes from a build-up of lethal sludge in the colon. Cleaning that sludge out and utilizing various other techniques to restore the balance between the three Ayurvedic “doshas” or mind-body types is the key to laying the foundation for robust physical, mental, and emotional health.
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I seem to have fallen asleep on the lounger, and I wake to the nurse gently shaking me. “¿Como se siente, Señora Sasha?” she asks me, her broad, friendly face marked with gentle concern. I wobble upright and rub the bumpy, mesh grooves left in my cheek by the chaise. “Ay, muy rudo el colonico hoy,” I manage to mutter, before closing my eyes to the dizziness that sucks me under me like a wave whenever I sit up.
The first colonic is a nightmare. Subsequent days are easier, but still deeply visceral, difficult experiences. Afterwards, we all try to regain equilibrium as the staff shuttles us around on unsteady legs, little fawns squinting in the light after having plunged into the yawning darkness of our depths. The nurses massage us back to life, contort our feet in reflexology sessions, drip warm oil onto our forehead, sit us in jacuzzis that are never quite warm enough. They wrap towels around our necks and lock us into blocky steam pods that look like an antiquated vision from a future imagined in 1940. Between therapies, we drink water mixed with either psyllium husk, clay, apple cider vinegar, or crushed niacin that makes your face flush red and fiery. Lunchtime is a special affair because it’s served at the table in the common room: a bowl of hot water with a quarter-teaspoon of miso paste and one teaspoon of chopped ginger. I savor it, taking long, slow slurps, my concave belly warming.
After lunch we usually get to watch a movie. I slyly consider proposing The Hunger Games, but we’re limited to documentaries about the evils of the food industry and videos of inspirational speakers like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. One day the nurses sit us down on the squeaky white couches and pop in a DVD about the colon’s critical role in maintaining optimal health. A youthful-looking doctor with a radiant complexion and a head full of glossy, thick brown hair materializes on the screen, proclaiming that he’s actually FIFTY YEARS OLD, can you believe it! He tells us that when the colon is healthy, we should be moving our bowels like babies: three times a day, after every meal. A fifty year-old man with the face and the colon of a baby. The mind reels. It begins to reel in the direction of the infamous horrors of infant feces. The backseat disasters. The diapers leaking toxic waste. Apparently this is what we’re striving for, but ok. I’ve anted up and joined the game already. Deal me another, croupier. The video goes on to tell us that cleaning out the colon and keeping it healthy is the key not only to strong digestion, but it can also reduce or eliminate hair loss, wrinkles, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, depression, anxiety, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and all of those other age and lifestyle-related infirmities that beset us as we grow older.
In essence: age is the build-up of toxicity. Eradicate the toxicity in your body and you can turn back the clock. You can live happy and healthy. Forever.
If I’m honest with myself, what I miss most about childhood is the ability to eat 40 bowls of Grape-Nuts in a row on weekend mornings and then do several hours of gymnastics afterwards without vomiting. The doctor gently tells me that, given my particular dosha, a diet of 5 boxes of cereal for each meal is probably not going to be possible, even with a sparkling new Cadillac of a colon. And I have to admit that although I’m pretty disappointed in that answer, there are subtle signs that the toxicity in my body is subsiding, and maybe this Brazilian witch-doctor knows what he’s doing. Still, that euphoric, childish rush of energy that all everyone claims comes on after three or four days of fasting never hits me. Most days, I lie out in the sun between therapies like a leathery, retired snowbird in Florida, my papery, industrial, spa bikini bunched around my chest and legs like a preschool craft project gone terribly wrong. I’m a heat-seeking senior, looking for that potency that seems to have evaporated before I was ready to let it go.
In 1513, Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida while searching for the fountain of youth. He combed and clawed his way through the dense jungle of the peninsula in his folly, seeking out the magical spring that could bestow him with immortality and grant him the vigor and beauty of his prime years. And although he left Florida with his goal unfulfilled, his hair as gray and his body as ragged as before, his mission seems to have suffused into the sandy soil, luring millions of retirees with its perfume of eternal youth - the promise of the hourglass as proxy, the silky slip of its granules upended in its final minutes, suspended and lay to rest in place of you.
More than 500 years later, the mestizo descendants of these desperate conquistadors are telling me that they got it all wrong. That all the time and energy those Spaniards spent destroying civilizations and enslaving indigenous people in their rabid search for youth and gold was a big waste of time. Because they were starting in the wrong place. The West Indies is not the same as the East Indies, no matter what name you slap on it.
If their astrolabe and sextant’s had charted their course true to India, they would have found the fountain of youth hanging on the wall in every Ayurvedic doctor’s office. Just a bucket.
By the seventh day in the center, I’m a champion with the colonics. Irrigating the length of my colon with a bucket of herb-infused water is a cakewalk. Which is good, because this is only the beginning. They sterilize and wrap up my catheter in brown butcher paper and tape to give me when I leave, like the world’s most disappointing Christmas present from your grandmother’s caretaker. But when I consider that, in a way, that skinny taupe package is the gift of life, I reconsider. I tuck it gently into my bag and hoist my backpack over the twin knobs of my scrawny shoulders, a modern-day conquistador fulfilled in my quest and singing of its glories.