Purity in Portugal


By Judith Fein  |  

There I was in the Algarve, the beautiful coastal region in southern Portugal that’s every vacationer’s dream: white-sand beaches ringed by striking dun-colored cliffs and dotted with deliciously fabulous seaside restaurants.

I, however, would not be eating at any of those restaurants. Instead, I had come to do a two-week juice fast and detox program at Moinhos Velhos, a health retreat famed for its minimalist rituals. I was hoping to purify myself inside and out: I’d eaten too much for too long, and my life had grown hectic. By fasting, I hoped to slow down, lose a few pounds, and emerge feeling strong and refreshed.

Fortunately, the resort was set in a remote valley, well out of sight of those tempting restaurants. The accommodations were charmingly rustic, and the surroundings—including colorful, aromatic flowers and a glass-walled yoga temple—inspiring.

I was looking forward to the resort’s menu of spiritual offerings—twice-daily yoga, meditation, and chanting—but found its edible menu a little daunting (fruit juice three times a day and vegetable broth at night). Still, I was determined to adapt to foodlessness and crowed to my husband, Paul, about how great we’d feel.

Paul was sulking. He accused me of dragging him to the Algarve only to torture him with asanas and enemas. He threatened to go AWOL on an eating spree.

The first morning we were awakened at 6:45am for lemon water, yoga, and meditation. Frank, the co-owner and yoga instructor, led us in lilting Sanskrit chants, which Paul said sounded to him like "The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out." Later that day, Frank’s partner, Anne Karine, taught us the fine art of low-tech enemas, which we would do twice a day to purge our lower digestive tracts. As she described the procedure—which required a bucket, a hose, and a gallon of water—I felt my resolve falter.

Luckily, the daily enemas were balanced by massages and what the owners said were cutting-edge body treatments. In one, I lay on a massage table as I received gentle vibrations from the Bicom machine, which the therapist said would improve my allergies and reduce energetic blockages in my meridians caused by scar tissue. Frank hooked me up with a headband that connected to something called a Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface, or QXCI, machine, which is supposed to create optimal wellness. The machine screens the body’s reaction to various substances —vitamins and Chinese herbs, for instance—and recommends treatments based on these reactions.

So why, in the face of such wizardry, was I famished by day 2? No one else seemed hungry. In fact, by day 3 they were downright exuberant. I, on the other hand, visited the vegetable garden and almost gnawed at the compost heap. Paul had become cheerful and hunger-free.

By day 5, I was a flexible Gumby from all the yoga, but ravenous. I decided to bare my starving soul to some fellow guests, a group of Englishwomen. "Are you hungry too?" No one was.

I was growing fearful about my ability to complete the fast. When I asked Frank if anyone had dropped out, he said no.

I tried calming myself with deep breathing and meditation, but the nagging question persisted: Would I be a failure if I dropped out?

On day 6, I read the same paragraph in a book 482 times and still couldn’t understand it. My brain and body wanted out. Paul, who was growing wiser and thinner by the hour, lovingly said that if I didn’t feel well, I should follow my, ahem, gut. By the end of that day, I knew I could not hold out. I told Frank and Anne Karine I needed to eat. They graciously invited me to join them for a meal. They insisted I break the fast safely, with small bits of food. I chose a papaya, chewing each morsel 20 times and sucking the skin.

The next day, the others snubbed me. To this band of digestive tract ascetics, I was a traitor. The only time the English guests addressed me was to ask what I’d eaten at each meal. Physically, I was feeling a thousand times better; emotionally, I was plagued with regrets about quitting.

On day 9, we visited the nearest town. As Paul and the others nursed liquids in a juice bar, I slipped around the corner to a restaurant for the world’s best, plumpest, juiciest grilled sardines. God, I loved food!

By the last day of total fasting, everyone was buoyant—except me, weighed down by a suspicion that a serious flaw had prevented me from finishing the fast. As I watched the others break their fast, I thought that perhaps I just wasn’t spiritually evolved enough to override my body.

On day 12, I listened as everyone evaluated the fast, saying they’d lost weight and were committed to living more consciously and healthfully. Paul had lost 17 pounds. I had lost 2—from the self-recrimination.

At the farewell dinner (marinated tempeh, baked cheese, a splurge of chocolate mousse), I congratulated the others on their accomplishment and silently hanged myself from my mental gallows.

It wasn’t until I headed to the airport that it hit me: I don’t have a character flaw. I had fasted. Not for 14 days, true, but for 5, which for me is a pretty big achievement.

That moment of forgiveness turned out to be the detox I needed. Purified at last, I floated home on the realization that, as in a challenging asana, you can benefit from doing your best even if you can’t hold the full pose.

Judith Fein is a freelance travel writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.