Oniontown Pastoral: Trip to El Salvador, Part One
Just now, sipping iced bourbon and milk from a tea cup and saucer, I realized that a coconut could fall on my head. Six cling to a treetop, which bends in warm February winds. The odds of disaster are remote, but given the absurd gravity of fate, I step under our lodge’s overhang.
A few sips later, air conditioning welcomes me back inside to my unorthodox cocktail’s freshening and into luxury. (Travel has a way of dogearing what I take for granted—a thermostat, for example.)
Obviously, this report comes from neither Erie nor Oniontown. No, wife Kathy and I are visiting dear friend Claudia, who is stationed in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. She is putting us up, driving us many kilometers to the sites, sharing the sparkling view from her apartment balcony night after night and holding steely vigil over our purchases—nobody is going to make a chump of the Colemans.
At present we’re staying overnight at a resort some two hours from San Salvador. Kathy and Claudia are enjoying a cruise to check out mangroves and other wonders. I’ve chosen this comfortable silence to think. A few hours ago we handed ripe plantains to spider monkeys, who approached in a rustle of leaves high above at the cackling invitation of 90-year-old Miguel. In recent days we visited a fish market, a craft fair with vendors who come at you like bullets when you near their kiosk, and botanical gardens with flowers vibrant enough to shame any vocabulary.
And we’ve seen coconuts, thousands of them often arranged in pyramids at stands lining the roadway. Not the brown, hairy variety you’re probably imagining, though. I’m talking about bald, pale green and yellow orbs full of mildly sweet water. Kathy was anxious to try one and wanted me to join her.
Pulling off the road is tricky, as is getting behind the wheel in the first place. A to B in this country is a relentless negotiation with speed, distance and daring. In congested areas, vehicles are bumper to bumper in a system thick with roundabouts. To this foreigner, right of way seems to be decided by breakneck tournaments of rock-paper-scissors held in the heads of individual drivers, but obviously passengers arrive intact thanks to a sense of give-and-take acquired over time.
Adding spice to the roads are trucks loaded with folks standing untethered and jerking about as if riding on choppy waters. Delivery motorcycles are the ghost peppers of the transportation grid, taking even the seasoned driver’s breath away by changing lanes helter-skelter.
On the outskirts of San Salvador, the intensity eases some. The population thins. Dusty fields appear. Scrappy little dogs lope along, knowing better than to cross. With caution it’s possible to head for the berm and buy coconuts, a transaction that took us 60 seconds. The young woman who came up from behind Claudia’s Audi took our order for two and returned with fruit, the tops hacked off with a machete and straws sticking out the top. Her yield: $2.00, American.
Meh. That was my verdict, honestly. We sucked down our tepid treat and moved on, the stands on what we’ve named Coconut Road waiting endlessly on both sides. An elderly woman in a black skirt took a broom to dust covering hard dirt in front of her wares.
One dollar, one coconut. Even with bananas, papayas, fiery tortilla chips, bottled agua, straw hats and toothpaste staged beside the main attraction, how could such sales provide sustenance? And meters away, another stand of lovely coconuts, then another.
My description here is observation, not judgment. In fact, the sweeping woman and I are absolute equals. (If this isn’t true, consider me a fool, one much to be pitied.) What might fall on my head she tries to sell. And who’s to say which one of us is more fortunate? Claudia tells me that in El Salvador, more people die annually of a combination of gravity and coconuts than a swim with the sharks.
During a drive in the mountains days ago, we stopped at an overlook for pictures. Vista after vista, bougainvillea everywhere extended like open palms. An ivory and brown dog came up and we made friends. He cried as I talked to him, ran my hands down his flank and scratched his neck, breathed in the pure nard of his wanderings.
If only he were with me now, lapping from his own cup of virgin milk. My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose.
Miguel calls down the monkeys. One woman keeps good order. An aging pastor sips whiskey with dairy at midday. Meanwhile the Great Mystery beholds us and, I’ll wager, plays no favorites.