Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Betel Nut & Pepper Leaf as Medicine

I don’t know about you, but even as I had personally been a beneficiary of modern medicine a couple of quite serious times during the past decade of my adult life, up until now I cannot forget a kind of “folk medicine” (if we may call it that) that had saved me a lot of trouble a number of times several decades ago when I was a child.

The medicine consisted of betel nut (muma in Isinay; bua in Ilocano; nganga in Tagalog), a piece of pepper leaf (called duwew in Isinay; gawed in Ilocano; ikmo in Tagalog; samat in Kapampangan; buyo in Bicol; mamin in Bisaya; ching chu in Chinese), a pinch of powdered river-shell lime (epu in Isinay; apog in Ilocano and Tagalog), and someone to chew these into a sticky polstice.

It was that simple. Or so I thought, for several decades -- until very recently.

Muma, the betel nut (Areca catechu)
That “very recently” came when I paid a surprise visit to Mrs. Primitiva Benitez Castro (Auntie Tibang for short) in one of my increasingly frequent visits to my hometown Dupax.

A reed-thin but formerly sturdy Isinay woman now in her nineties, Auntie Tibang didn’t recognize me at first, as she has only one good eye left. And so, when I embraced her in her wheelchair, she half exclaimed to my “accomplice in crime” for the surprise visit, Merlie Rodriguez-Castro: "Siran tiye?" (Who’s this guy?)

But when she heard my voice as I asked (in Isinay) how she was doing, she was teary-eyed as she went into a litany of how her arthritic legs has kept her confined to a wheelchair, preventing her from visiting her granddaughter Jona by her late iyuvot (youngest child) Ambeth Fernandez in Dagupan City, and keeping her from visiting her eldest son Andres in Quirino Province.

When I asked her what’s her secret for having lived long, outlasting in fact my Uncle Ermin and my father (who died one year after the other when they were in their early eighties), Auntie Tibang mentioned something like she loved dining once in a while on the meat of fruit bat (pani-i in Isinay; paniki in Ilocano; kabog in Tagalog).

It was when Auntie Tibang was telling how mapput (Isinay for “good for nothing”) and maro^lot (heavy eater) one of her previous household helps was, that I caught a glimpse of a shiny-leafed vine profusely clinging on her pader (concrete fence).

The vine was the betel leaf or duwew – an indispensable ingredient in the indigenous “chewing gum” called muma.

Duwew, the pepper-leaf (Piper betel) vine
As if on cue, my seeing the plant immediately conjured images of those days when Auntie Tibang would use muma to cure my hives, welts, or other such skin allergies that I acquired often as a consequence of having accidentally touched hairy or spiny caterpillars (or what I love to call “baby butterflies”).

You see, when I was a boy, I was a little bit of what they call in Isinay tiyapong (bulakbul in modern Isinay and Tagalog). I’m not sure if it was a case of hyperactivity on my part then or just plain defense mechanism against being assigned as baby-sitter to my sisters. But I always wanted out of the house when I have read all the pages of the latest issue of the Bannawag Ilocano magazine or when Papa had not finished his turn yet in Uncle Ermin’s latest issue of the Philippines Free Press

The call of the free and sunny outdoors reached fever pitch in summer when you could hear the grass singing and the cicadas and the birds in the trees alternately taunting the slingshot-itchy boy in you. If not the wangwang (river), the pasto (pasture land) and the payaw (ricefields) of Daya/I-iyo, my stomping grounds were mostly in the vicinity of Pitang behind our house in Domang. 

I loved to spend hours in Pitang, particularly the gitaw (semi-forested meadow) there, as it had plenty of guavas, sapang, kamiring, sarisay, mangoes and sompalo free for the eating. Besides, the atittino^ (dragonflies), the durun (grasshoppers), and the mantetteyav (birds) in that part of Dupax seemed to be very tame. 

Naturally, in my gallivanting in that bit of paradise, whether alone or in the happy company of other boys in the neighborhood, I would often be so carefree I didn’t mind if the bushy nooks I crept into were “guarded”  by bangbangawan ("baby butterflies"), kamiring leaves, and other such organisms and plants that cause allergies. 

At first, I would make do with Johnson's Baby Powder and/or Vicks Vaporub as medicine. But later, when the welts and itchy protrusions wouldn’t go away, I discovered that a very effective doctor for naburuwan cases was my Auntie Tibang.

Of course, the sight of the slimy saliva along with pulp bits of the betel nut and pepper leaf poultice would certainly stir to life the squemish person in you as you see them spread like paint on your infected skin. It is what they used to call in Manila Tagalog: “Kadiri to death.”

But just try getting stung by hairy and spiny caterpillars one of these days. Try getting to suffer for several hours the super itchiness of it all. And when all modern ointments and expensive creams fail, this time try the bloody-red juice of the muma direct from Auntie Tibang’s magical mouth... Lo and behold, the itching on your body parts would soon vanish after a couple or so minutes!

When I last saw her, Auntie Tibang revealed for the first time one more secret ingredient to her medicine: the prayer “I Believe” (or the Apostle’s Creed). “Mu manuttuwa a,” she said, “da^dan daat Apuwar an Dios si lom-an.”

Roughly translated, what she meant was this: Have faith and the Lord God of all will do the rest.

Merlie Rodriguez-Castro with Primitiva Benitez-Castro
Reunited -- the patient (Isinay Bird) and the healer (Auntie Tibang).


  1. More of this, please. We need to rediscover what we can to do get away from the overly westernized of understanding our health. Thank you, sir!

    1. Maraming salamat din, Ariel, for visiting my blog -- and for that magical word "rediscover". Yes, there are a lot of health-care gems out there in the boondocks awaiting rediscovery. I'll keep in mind to be alert for such vanishing/endangered/belittled/ridiculed/ignored folk medicine and health measures in my future trips to Dupax and other parts of Isinay country. Mabuhay ka!