Ital is Vital, and Other Lessons from da Jamaican Bush

0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 Google+ 0 Reddit 0 Pin It Share 0 Email -- Made with Flare More Info'> 0 Flares ×

by Lindsay Chimileski

I knew I would be in for an unique education when I enrolled at University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine, but I did not know that a few test-cramming months later, I would be in the Jamaican bush…

by Lindsay Chimileski



I knew I would be in for an unique education when I enrolled at University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine (UBCNM), but I did not know that a few test-cramming months later, I would be in the Jamaican bush studying medicinal herbs with my mentors and colleagues. Dr. Eugene Zampieron, ND, is one of the core clinical and academic faculty at UBCNM and has helped build the program from the ground up over the past decade.

Naturopathic Doctors (ND) receive an equivalently accredited education to Medical Doctors (MD) – four graduate level years, 4,100 hours of study and 1,200 direct patient contact clock hours – but Naturopathic doctors differ in the philosophy behind their treatment. NDs use mostly natural treatments, but more importantly, they look to identify and treat the underlying cause of the illness, not just the symptoms.  Individualized natural treatment options are then outlined for the patient, and the ND and patient work together to restore health and happiness.

During his undergraduate education in biology, Dr. Z began visiting remote areas of Jamaica. He returned there frequently, and during a subsequent trip for his graduate studies in marine biology, he fell ill with a severe case of dysentery. When the mainstream “Babylon” medicine only made things worse, he went to see an old friend, Jamba, and his Maroon healer elder, Pop-a-top, for help.  After three days of sacred herbal gathering, decoctions, chanting and drumming, they were able to restore his health, and a brotherhood had been formed.

Pop-a-top advised Dr. Z that the illness had a spiritual connection and it would change his life. Sure enough, the event provoked Dr. Z to leave the field of marine biology and to pursue a career in natural medicine at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington. After graduating, he moved back east, established a private practice in Woodbury, Connecticut and began his influential role at UBCNM.  Now, Dr. Z is kind enough to share this connection with his students once a year, and this past winter, a few of my classmates and I traveled to Jamaica to study herbs, immerse ourselves in the Rasta culture and reconnect with nature.

{vsig}LindsayChimileski{/vsig}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica1.png|Coconuts!|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica4.png|Prince Francis, Dr. Z and Jamba.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica5.png|Lion.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica6.png|John.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica7.png|Realigning Lion’s subluxed rib.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica8.png|Lots of love for Jamba.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica9.png|Lion’s boat at sunrise.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0lcjamaica10.png|Chiggernit bandaid.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica11.png|Bitter Melon.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica13.png|Nickel seeds and casing.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica14.png|Leaf of Life.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica15.png|Lion returning with herbs.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica16.png|Lower Tacky Falls.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica17.png|Upper Tacky Falls.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica18.png|Quaamen Falls.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica26.png|Breakfast with cassava, boiled banana, coconut oil sauteed calliloo, sweet orange and papaya.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica27.png|Bami crust pizza with mushrooms, onions and ackee.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica28.png|Ackee.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica29.png|Ethiopian Apple.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica31.png|Prepping guava jelly.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica33.png|Jamaican dogwood bark.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica34.png|Tuna cactus hair treatment by Lion.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|lcjamaica36.png|The point.|{/vsig_c}

Each trip is five days, which allows us to escape from the cold Northeast into the hot Jamaican sun. As soon as you get on the plane, Air Jamaica’s bright colored uniforms, alluring patois accents and cassava chips make you feel like you are already on the island.  A few Burning Spear albums later and we’ve really arrived. I have taken two trips to Jamaica, and something about that island resonates with my soul. Each time I arrive, it feels more and more like home.

After customs, baggage claim, and wardrobe adjustments are made, we emerge from the airport into steamy Kingston and scan the crowd for our ride. As Dr. Z greets the driver, our group piles into the van. We wind through downtown Kingston for a bit then begin to climb up into the hills.  We pass by many local vendors and stop to get a jelly coconut (Cocos nucifera). The coconuts are gathered fresh daily and sliced open with a cutlass upon ordering. The vendor simply pops in a straw and hands over the coconut. Not only does the sweet flavor quench our thirst, it is also the perfect antidote for dehydration, helping to replenish our bodies after the stress and dry air of the flight.

An intact coconut is waterproof and the contents are said to be sterile.  Coconut water is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium and glucose, which are the key electrolytes used in hospital IV drips.  If you’re lucky, after sipping on the water a delicious jelly will linger inside. Then you hand the coconut back to the vendor – he will slice it in half and return it with a chopped off spoon piece so you can scrape the inside and eat the jelly.

We continue through the hills, winding around blind corners, beeping loudly for any traffic coming the other way.  After about two hours, we come around a bend and see a perky sign that reads “Strawberry Fields Together”. We are there. We quickly admire our adorable eco-cottages that provide the basic amenities. Nothing too flashy, just how we like it.

My cottage, Hibiscus, is one open room with a queen bed, and two sets of bunk beds. It has a cute little bathroom with an offshoot shower room with eye-level windows overlooking our private beach. The shower is simple and runs with gravity. The water is heated by the Jamaican sun all day in large black containers on the roof. The Strawberry Fields’ grounds has its own beach, hammocks, gazebos, sitting areas, fire pits, outdoor brick oven and two pavilions that we can all congregate under for meals, planning and medicine making.

Being there with Dr. Z allows us to instantly overcome any social and cultural barriers as the Rastas trickle down to camp with the news of our arrival.  We immediately begin building our own relationships with our new friends and teachers: Lion, John, Jamba, Pinto and Natty Grant to name a few. They are as helpful, caring, entertaining and informative as anyone could wish for. They guide us through the hills, share all their knowledge, sing impromptu reggae songs, cook us delicious food, climb trees to get us fruit, catch us when we fall, and build ten-foot tall fires. Much respect!

Each trip is a little different and tailored to our requests for activities and itinerary.  Typically, the days start with staggered mornings, allowing everyone to wake up on his or her own and have some individual time before breakfast. You’re on Jamaican time now, no rush mon! Some mornings we do yoga, tai chi, qi gong or meditate. Other mornings we assist Dr. Z as he works on our guides, or with locals who need it.



I had a sample of what my future as a doctor will hold and the impact we can have on people. There is no better motivation for my studies.



Depending on our level of training, we assist with massage, manipulation and general health assessment. Once, while working on Jamba’s tight muscles, he whispered, “You know where the pain lives” – quite the honor coming from such a revered medicine man. Dr. Z will also make house calls if necessary. During the first trip, we accompanied him to visit a relative of one of our guide’s who had suffered a stroke a few months earlier. On the drive to the house we were cranking our minds and working through pathways we learned the week before in our Neuro class. During the visit, I had a sample of what my future as a doctor will hold and the impact we can have on people. There is no better motivation for my studies. I had such a sense of pride as Dr. Z ran through the cranial nerve assessment and I began to understand the patient’s picture, which portions of his brain were affected by the stroke, and most importantly, what we could do to help.

Other mornings, if the seas are calm, we can request to have Lion wake us at dawn to go out on his boat. We watch the sunrise, fish, and snorkel in the local coves, returning in time for breakfast.

After breakfast, it’s time to get cracking, gather our things and head out for the day.

On each excursion, we hike into the thick of the bush, constantly stopping to check out another herb.  The lessons are flying a mile a minute. Crush up some Chiggernit (Tournefortia hirsutissim) and squeeze out the juice to protect a cut or blister. When it’s dry, the herb makes a bandaid that is both waterproof and antiseptic.

Shame-a-lady is a fantastic little plant that bows and folds all its leaves inward when touched.   Ram-Goat-Dashalong (Turnera ulmifolia) is a common tonic. Someone mentions sore feet and they are instantly handed Pepperelder (Peperomia pellucida) leaves. Pepper elder is rich in essential oils and has a cooling effect similar to menthol. We are all instructed to crush it up and put it in our shoes to revitalize our feet on a long hike, or make a tea with it for a sore throat.

Cerasee or Bitter Melon (Morordica charantia) is cultivated in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean for its fruit and is used in Jamaica primarily as a digestion-stimulating bitter. It also became popular after preliminary studies showed it has a hypoglycemic, or a blood sugar lowering, effect. Because of this, it has potential to be used in the treatment of diabetes. In most cases, type II diabetes can be managed or reversed by making medically guided lifestyle changes. In folk medicine, Bitter Melon is both a tonic and a general cure-all used for bad blood, skin, and fevers. It has been said to treat other disharmonies as well, including cancer, high blood pressure and malaria. Bitter Melon is now available in the U.S. at health food stores and through online supplement providers.

Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina) relieves spastic muscles and makes a great tea for sore muscles.  We mix it with Strong back (Morinda royoc) at the point later that evening when we are sore from the first hike. Spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum) has medicinal properties as well as a wonderful cilantro-like flavor for cooking. Nickel seeds or Horse-eye seeds are to be worn around the neck for protection and as a good omen.

Leaf-of-Life (Kalanchoe pinnata) can be taken internally as a tea or tincture for general well-being, asthma, bronchitis, colds, gut problems and hypertension. Externally, one can warm and crush the leaves and juice to treat boils, swelling, insect bites, skin problems and mouth ulcers. Being able to see, feel, taste and understand the herb in its habitat makes each one so meaningful and easily remembered. The Rastas live on and for the earth, and for them the bush is the only medicine. Being with them there allows us to feel the same connection and appreciation.

We go on a different hike each day, to the Black Sand Beach, Quammen Falls, Tacky Falls or to Lion and Jamba’s farms. They are all beautiful, isolated spots that make you feel like you are the only people on the planet. They are almost untouched by the outside world and have a natural vitality now lost in the more touristy locations.

We stagger up and down the steep climbs, along treacherous edges and through the rivers and streams, and our Rastas run alongside us barefoot, singing and carrying anything we can’t manage. Occasionally we find a scary spider or stumble upon a stray goat or donkey snacking, but for the most part, the wildlife and birds kept to the depths of the bush surrounding us, serenading us with their songs from afar.

As a student of naturopathic medicine, the curriculum can often seem like a lot of work with a faraway payoff, so the physical challenges and accomplishments throughout the trip to Jamaica are very rewarding.  Sometimes it’s nice to just see a giant rock and say to yourself ,“Yep, I wanna climb to the top of that”,  then walk right up to it and just do it.

In the jungle, we too become one with the earth, eating its fruit, drinking its herbs and swimming in its cleansing waters. Lion lead us in a sing-song chant, in time with each step. He sang the words “Ital” and “Vital”, knowing we’d be more than happy to echo his words as the back up reggae singers we long to be.

Ital is a patois word and concept derived from “vital”, and it is central to the Rasta religion.  It is used to accentuate their appreciation and unity with nature. I interpret it as being pure, connected with the earth and all it’s people. The concept can be explained in relation to their food choices.  It would be easy to conform and eat the Babylon (processed) foods, but they choose not to because they value the earth more than the convenience of processed foods. The entire process of gardening and harvesting the food is sacred.  Being ital is what is vital to them.  Living in line with nature guides their lives and dictates the food they eat, unlike the majority of the Western world where it is an afterthought, if that.


In the jungle, we too become one with the earth, eating its fruit, drinking its herbs and swimming in its cleansing waters. Lion lead us in a sing-song chant, in time with each step. He sang the words “Ital” and “Vital”, knowing we’d be more than happy to echo his words as the back up reggae singers we long to be.



The authentic Jamaican and ital food at every meal fuels and cleanses our bodies. Ital foods are to be in their natural state, pure, from the earth and in most cases, vegetarian. They are eaten to nourish the body and strengthen its natural energy. Working in synergy with all the herbs, hiking, fresh air and good company, the ital food makes the trip into the bush an experience unique to any other. The food joyfully affects you on all levels: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Breakfast offers items like boiled bananas, coconut pancakes, cassava, baked oatmeal, papaya, sweet orange, salt fish and coconut oil sautéed calliloo with veggies. Ackee, a fruit that is poisonous when eaten before it blossoms, tastes similar to eggs. Throughout the hikes we snack on trail mix, protein bars, and fresh fruit gathered along the way – soursop, custard apple, jackfruit, star apple, breadfruit, Ethiopian apple, sugar cane and guava.

We get dinner after returning to Strawberry Fields and showering.  The Strawberry Field’s kitchen staff prepare lavish meals boasting coconut rice, Jamaican curry, rice and beans, oven-roasted cassava (gluten free) pizzas with custom toppings, and even Jamaican jerk goat for my non-vegetarian colleagues.

Throughout the day we also work on various delicacies, preparing sorrel wine, tinctures and guava jelly to take home.

Amongst all the projects, my friends and I managed to get our spa on as well, with fresh Aloe Vera applications to sun burns, Tuna cactus (Opuntia tuna) hair treatments and the epitome of it all, the bush bath. On our final night, we gathered huge bundles of soap bush, Quaco (Mikania micrantha), Cerasy, Pepperelder, Sea Rosemary and Sweet Basil. We filled a tub with the herbs and poured warm water in, kettle by kettle. As we slowly filled the tub with warm water, we worked to break apart and macerate the plants, pulling out sticks or branches.  When the tub was about three quarters full with a variation of green leaves and increasingly green water, we each took a turn submersing ourselves in the bush bath.  We each sat in the bath for about 10 blissful minutes, allowing ourselves to relax in the aromatic and tingling water.  Afterward, we felt refreshed, clean and connected to earth.

Later in the evening, we congregate, collect the treats gathered on our hikes and make the short walk through the bush overlooking our beach to the point, where we will be until bed. The point has a welcoming serenity. Stepping out there at night with herbs brewing and ital food simmering away, you slip into an abyss and travel through time.

You can feel the essence of Rasta ancestors doing the very same thing in the very same place for centuries.  On a typical night, Jamba and Pinto work on rockfish stew or coconut rice with Jamaican eggplant, wing bean, peppers, and Jamaican pumpkin while Lion and I make fried plantain over the flames. At the same time, we boil down our fresh guava jelly and sorrel wine on the fire, make medicinal teas and softly listen to reggae from a battery powered CD player.

I’ve gone to Jamaica (and will continue to go) to learn herbal medicine directly from the hands of the healers who use it, and to immerse myself in a culture that values the things I wish our own did.  “Ital is vital” really sums it up.  The building blocks of your life have to be pure – mind, body, fuel, intention and action – if you truly wish to build up.  The sunshine, fresh water, happiness, ital mindset, sweat and herbs are the perfect way for me revitalize myself, refresh my mind and motivate me to live a more ital life every day.

Always consult a Naturopath or other qualified medical professional before altering any existing treatment plan or introducing new supplements into your life.


For more information:

…On Naturopathic Medicine  

…On EcoTours For Cures       

…On Dr. Z                           

…On UBCNM                       

…On Strawberry Fields Together




Lindsay Chimileski grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. After graduating high school in 2005, she received her bachelor’s in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2009. Then she found her true calling, naturopathic medicine.

Currently, Lindsay is attending University of Bridgeport’s College of Naturopathic Medicine with anticipated graduation in 2013. She is studying Chinese Medicine and becoming a licensed acupuncturist as well. Lindsay also studies bush medicine with shamans and Rastas in the Jamaican jungle each spring. The naturopathic and acupuncture clinic at UB serves the community with affordable health care. It also reaches out through several satellite sites, including one in the greater Danbury area.

Lindsay is not a doctor and not giving any medical advice, just spreading the word of natural living, and the pressing health revolution. Lindsay is a citizen writer for and has her own blog at Visit her blog for more health tips and information on naturopathic medicine.


by & filed under Health & Humanity, World.