November 15, 2006

Belize: A little capsaicin with our vacation

Mike and I went to our favorite mint-green Indian restaurant the other night. Because the Jaipur Café is small, everyone can hear everyone else’s conversations.

A man came in with his son. I listened and learned that the boy had just started college, and dad was treating him to an off-campus meal.

"We came here when you were young, and I got the vindaloo," said dad. "It was great. Why don’t you get the vindaloo?" Dad looked at the waitress for affirmation, and she said, "Yes, the vindaloo is very good. Try it. It is a little spicy." A worried look crossed dad’s face: "It was! I remember after I ate some I had to get a yogurt lassi to cool myself down."

The vindaloo burns because of capsaicin, an oil that lives in the webby, seedy innards of chili peppers. The yogurt contains milk fat, one of the few neutralizing antidotes for hot pepper burn.

As the man talked about how the lassi took the sting away, I thought about my naive encounter with killer peppers. Scorching pain that seared me from fingertips to elbows. A nightmarish, hours-long search for a way to make it stop.

We were in Belize on Ambergris Caye, a simple, no-frills island that’s best known as a launching pad for scuba and snorkel trips to coral reefs and diving wonderlands like the Blue Hole. We’d rented an apartment with a kitchen, and one day I set about preparing a dinner of spaghetti with veggies and tomato sauce.

I shopped in dusty San Pedro Town for the ingredients and was thrilled to find some shiny, little red peppers to add to the sauce. I bought a half-dozen, brought them home, and started chopping and cooking. Pretty little peppers, I thought, as I imagined the full sweetness they'd bring to the sauce. As I sliced through their skins in ignorance and bliss, the peppers' juice bathed my naked hands.

I called the family to dinner. A minute after gathering at table, we dispersed. The pepper attack (capsaicin is used in both athletic pain rubs and pepper spray) was on. The kids, especially Adam, were practically incoherent with pain, and their eyes were burning in their sockets. Just the smell and a tiny taste of their meals sent them shrieking. (Mike was curiously unaffected. Scientists should test him. Capsaicin ironman.)

As the kids screamed and suffered, I pumped them full of Benadryl and felt my own nightmare unfold.

My hands were on fire. On fire. Within 30 minutes of making that meal, my hands were hellish stumps of unbearable pain. I wanted to cut them off. They were killing me. The pain was driving me out of my mind. For four hours, while my kids endured hot pepper hell and then blessedly lapsed into a crude sleep delivered by divine intervention, I darted and bounced around our apartment, our complex, the beach, crying, desperate for something that would ease the brain-addling pain.

I tried everything: I wrapped my hands in towels; rubbed them with lotion; stuck them in the freezer; sat on them; ran cold water over them; slathered them in Vaseline; drenched them in olive oil; bathed them in the ocean; stuck them under beach sand; plunged them into the swimming pool; rubbed them with ice cubes; smothered them in pillows; covered them in Neosporin; doused them with Witch Hazel; jumped and stomped and cried on our porch while holding my horrible, hurting hands up to the wind that blew through the coconut palms.

Nothing did any good. At 9 p.m. I ran into San Pedro Town, desperate for help. I found an open pharmacy and told the clerk, in my limited Spanish, about the dinner disaster and the mean, mean peppers. The pharmacist identified them. "Si, habaneros."

Habaneros. Killer peppers. I’d messed with the meanest peppers on the planet. Turns out Belize is one of the world's top habanero producers. The pharmacist sold me a tube of zinc oxide, the white stuff in Desitin diaper cream and the stuff Australian lifeguards rub on their noses as sunblock. It didn’t help a whit.

Habaneros, the scarlet bombs I’d handled and tossed wholesale into my family’s dinner, are the hottest peppers known to man. Peppers that burn eyes, lungs and skin. Peppers that should carry labels with skulls and crossbones. Peppers that require extreme caution – and rubber gloves – while handling. Peppers that spawn online forums ("How do I get my hands to stop burning?" Suggestions: bleach, vinegar, motor oil, WD-40) wherein people share tips for surviving contact with these demons that register 325,000 and up on the Scoville scale, created in 1912 by chemist Wilbur Scoville to measure the pungency of peppers as a function of the amount of water needed to dilute their burn to zero. (To wrap your brain around the burn quotient of habaneros at 325K+ Scoville units, consider that bell peppers rank zero on Wilbur’s scale, and "hot" jalapenos and chipotles clock in at a wimpy 2,500-5,000.)

By 11 p.m, I was ballistic. I decided I needed to get to Belize City for medical attention. I went to the office of the complex manager to see if she could help me arrange transport off the island to the mainland.

I didn't need a boat or a plane, she told me. All I needed was "milk. Go soak your hands in milk." We'd run out of milk, so she gave me a bottle from the employees' fridge.

I carried the milk back to our apartment, poured it into a big glass bowl, and sunk my hands into it. Within a minute, the cooling relief I’d been seeking for a quarter of a day washed over my sad, half-dead hands. My world rejoiced.

The boy at the Jaipur Café ordered the vindaloo. Dad ordered a yogurt lassi, just in case.