My parents were tough village people. Scorched my son, beaten down by the rain and hail storms. Working sweats on unyielding fields of hilly terrains, walking miles on foot to start their day with nothing but breath of fresh mountain air. Up even before the rooster had crowed and going to rest only after the dark has completely blanketed everything around them. And although different religions swept their communities time and again, their belief and practice and way of life were mainly influenced by nature. They believed in the force of nature and the forest spirits. And before the beginning of any gathering, hunting, pasturing or ceremonial activities it was important that these forest spirits were pleased. Prayers, hymns and small sacrifices. Yellow and white strings, dhajas(red cotton cloth) tied ceremonially around the tree trunks and rows of string flags.
With their ways of life, herbal medications like roots, barks, leaves and seeds were important to my parents. So was honey and certain animal products. I hope this now better explains my mother’s fondness for searching weird things as ‘medicinal’. The river frogs, rhino’s pee and god knows what. So, when the group of honey gatherers from her village offered her some wild honey, as you can tell, she wasn’ the one to say ‘No’. One day, she is just walking from room to room complaining of dizziness and feeling sick for hours. Appearing bloated and looking dazed, then later tells me she had some ‘mad honey’. I was well young myself back then and didn’t know what it was. Only now, when the internet has exploded with videos of hallucinogenic wild honey from Nepal on youtube, does it all make sense. She was tripping and was having a reaction because of the high dose. Most of my aunts and some of my uncles have their own story of this special honey and most of it ends with them ending in hospital with severe diarrhea and vomiting. Luckily it was unpleasant enough for them, not to try again. Now, it has been found that the honey contains something called ‘grayanotoxin’ which is derived from certain species of rhododendron flowers in Nepal. Rhododendron is Nepal’s national flower. I haven’t been out much to the rural outskirts of Nepal so wouldn’t be able to comment, but dad describes, ‘forest filled with just colours everywhere in spring’.
Reason my mom and her friends reported for consuming honey was, it is known to cure abdominal problems and blood pressure problems. Of Course they didn’t tell me, it is also popular for its likely aphrodisiac property. A bit extra dose and they might have had serious effects like heart blocks and even heart attacks. It works similar to pesticide poisoning and treatment in a hospital setting is with atropine. Gathering information is important here. It’s not just honey, it’s honey coming from certain parts of the world.
My parents’ community were not adaptive to bee farming in those days, as far as I am aware. Mainly because, sources for honey were plentiful and honey hunting was more of ritual. Few spoonfuls/ounces from these gatherings were shared with everyone. Local honey from working bees was plentiful nearby. My father reports he has been stung by bees and hornets many times. Mainly when he was a kid and one of their favourite times with his friends would be throwing stones at their nest and running away. He reports sitting down with facial swelling and puffiness for some of those days. ‘They can sting you multiple times and they really chase you’, he says. In their bee stories, my mom recently mentioned about my cousin, who recently went for honey hunting and ended up in hospital with multiple stings and swelling. ‘They had to give him IV fluids and I heard his kidney almost failed’. It is dangerous how little my parents know and our communities with these rituals know about toxic effects of some of these poisonous stings and their products. They do know they are dangerous and can be life threatening and I wonder if the appeal of ‘honey hunting’ is its adventure for the men, but they don’t seem to have a clue that there is a thing called allergic reaction. When asked, ‘don’t you think this is dangerous?’. My parents shrug it off saying ‘only the sting of the hornets and only if you get bitten multiple times. And yeah, that’s why you don’t eat more than a spoonful of that honey!’. Back in kathmandu when I was in 6/7 I got stung by a bee, a wasp or a hornet. I don’t know when I was in school. As I walked back home, I started swelling. Sat with my face and cheeks swollen for 3 days, unable to open a side of my eye. ‘You must have been stung by a hornet’, my mom said, ‘Don’t worry, it will settle down in 3-4 days.’ And it did. Mom was laughing at me. Needless to say, she has witnessed it multiple times in her life. I always presumed, anyone bitten by bees/ wasp/hornets would puff out. Only later did I learn in medical school there is a thing called allergic reaction. I might have had a mild allergic reaction.
My aunt recently told me why she would never dare try the renowned honey. ‘Because we don’t know the quantity we should take and I don’t want to take a risk with my life again. I was certain I was dying then. I was crying. My throat was very dry, I was constantly sipping water, fearing my tongue would fall down on my throat. My heart was palpitating so fast. Look how selfish our human mind dear, at those hours when I thought I absolutely was dying all I thought was, ‘if I could hear my husband’s voice one last time.’ He was out of the country. My little boy was with me. I was thinking if my older son comes back from the hostel, he might ask about me. All I thought was about my sons and my husband who wasn’t there. Didn’t even think about my parents for a second, who raised me all my life. I feel guilty now’.
‘I had an induced abortion that day. Like they recommend with all pregnant and lactating women, I decided to make myself a battis masala (32 herbs mixture) for recovery. I didn’t know the proportion I had to make and I had a lot of nutmegs at home, so I added it in my soup. The symptoms began a few hours after. I went back to hospital thinking they must have given me something wrong or perforated my uterus whilst on instrumentation. They checked me and said I was all fine and I was sent home. I still felt unwell with a dry throat, my voice receding, my heart beating fast and panicky. So I went to a different hospital. They too checked me and said I was fine. When I returned home a third time with doctors saying repeatedly ‘there is nothing wrong with you’, I just sat there preparing myself for the end. I told my sister ‘If I die, don’t let my sons be orphans. Put them in a hostel full time, so they don’t miss much home.’ I stopped drinking the soup. It was still valuable to throw away so I asked my siblings to take the remaining batch for themselves. The next day my siblings called me saying they were experiencing the same symptoms. That’s when we found it was nutmeg toxicity. We gotta be careful with these herbs, spices and medications dear. Sure they are good but only in the right amount. I wouldn’t dare try anything without an approved recommendation’.
My auntie has learnt valuable lessons from her experiences. My mom and other aunts are still sitting on the border. These are medicinal ailments they grew up with knowing most of their lives but never learning the precise effects. ‘Little knowledge is dangerous’, whoever said it, trust me, was very right.