Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chicha and the Leper Colony

In the Bible we read how Jesus healed the lepers. And they are everywhere in the Good Book. As a kid this was a curiosity to me. Ila Jane, my older sister, explained that leprosy was a skin disorder that left the individual disfigured and that it was contagious. As I read the Bible I feared that Jesus would catch it!

As a teenager the movie Papillon starring Steve McQueen and a buttlerfly chest tattoo came out. He was escaping from a prison island that it was impossible to escape from. He got a boat from some lepers at a nearby colony. The “chief” leper was smoking a cigar and handed it to Steve McQueen as a test. Steve McQueen took a drag off the leper’s cigar and returned it to which the leper said something about the difference between contagious leprosy and non-contagious leprosy. Something my man Steve knew about just looking into his disfigured face.

According to Wikipedia leprosy is known as Hansen’s disease and it can be treated with antibiotics. “Historically, leprosy was greatly feared because it caused visible disfigurement and disability, was incurable, and was commonly believed to be highly contagious.”

When I was in Bolivia in the seventies the country had a “faith based” initiative for the handicapped and otherwise incapacitated. It appeared to me to work like this:

The man with no legs would ride his “scooter board” to the doors of the Catholic Church. There he would sit all day with a hat or a cup and collect whatever pesos people would drop in there.

The treatment of lepers was a bit more sophisticated since they lived in colonies outside of town.

Another custom in Bolivia was to fly a white flag if you had chicha to share. Chicha is a fermented beverage made from a specific kind of yellow maize. It has a pale straw color and a milky appearance with sour aftertaste. According to Wikipedia it contains a slight amount of alcohol, like 1 -3%.

Wikipedia goes on to tell what I heard about “traditional” chicha when I was in Bolivia:

“In some cultures , in lieu of germination of the maize for release of the starches in the maize, the maize is ground, moistened in the chicha maker's mouth and formed into small balls which are then flattened and laid out to dry. The diastase enzyme in the maker's saliva releases the starch in the maize.”

One Saturday our principal, Bill Fennell, loaded us into the VW microbus and took us along the highway to Cochabamba. We went to see some anicient ruins. The ruins appeared to me to be a type of irrigation system. But according to some popular book at the time it was suspected to be a “landing spot for aliens” or something like that. Along the dirt highway there we passed a place Bill, who had come to Bolivia as a member of the Franciscan Order, said was a leper colony.

On our return, the leper colony was flying a white flag, -that would be the “Chicha Flag”. Bill sugested we stop. We did…

We were served a pitcher of “milky” looking stuff. We sat in the shade of of thatched roofed hut and drank our chicha from small glasses. I couldn’t help but think of Jesus and the lepers. But I had the knowledge of Papillon to ease my mind.

The Chicha that the lepers served seemed to be just “milky” not intoxicating like the tall tales of chicha that I heard. Of course about an hour later it hit…and what a new reality!

I am not sure that Wikipedia is correct about the 1-3% alcohol because I sure was speaking in tongues that night! But, one thing I did learn, Jesus and Steve McQueen were pretty well right about that leprosy thing because even today my wife thinks I’m good looking.



Blogger gawilli said...

I was always afraid that Jesus would catch leprosy too. I don't know that I would have partaken based on the movie Papillon.

And you are right. Your wife does think you are good looking.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad that you have written more about your South American adventures. That is a great reference to the McQueen comment about leprosy.

10:32 PM  

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