Mango Season Madness – Playa Zunzal, El Salvador

Mango Season Madness
Playa Zunzal, El Salvador

There is a saying in the tropical north of Australia that women go crazy during mango season. As the mangos fall the heat becomes overbearing and the women turn loopy. The long suffering men of the tropics just shake their heads and advise confused newcomers to the Mango Territories, “It’s mango season, son.”

That apparently explains everything.

We are living in a grove of mangos where the fruit plops from the trees. Day and night mangos fall inches away from where we swing in our hammocks. The flesh is perfectly ripe for the eating, slightly warmed by tropical heat.

The humidity is high, the mangos are dropping constantly, and I’ve forgotten the mythology of mango season. But Australia is hundreds of miles away. Surely mango season doesn’t have the same effect here in El Salvador?

My amigo, Stuart, and I were deposited by chicken bus in this beachside hamlet of Playa Zunzal. In one day we’d crossed from the Honduran border to the north of El Salvador and travelled south to the Pacific coast; a day’s journey on three chicken buses for a paltry five dollars between us.

Despite their colourful, clanking appearances these buses de pollo proved themselves, landing us in Playa Zunzal at dusk. A faded sign ‘Surfers Inn’ heralds the guesthouse and family home of Milagro and her husband, Antonio. They are the queen and king of El Salvadoran mango farming.

Milagro’s prized mangos are enormous and are grown in the front garden of Surfers Inn. Milagro sells these mangos at her roadside stall. The other mangos that fall in the grove behind the house are for our eating or collection for the cows. The cows here live a good life of mango feasting, provided they don’t stray onto the road and into the paths of the diesel-spewing chicken buses or trucks.

The major coastal highway slices through Zunzal and huge trucks trundle through the village at alarming speed. The chicken buses potter along at a more sedate pace, slamming to a stop whenever a passenger appears roadside.

Life in tiny Zunzal continues sedately on either side of this busy road. The village boasts two tiendas, (small shops) a comedor (restaurant) and a puperia, a roadside barbeque for bean and cheese-filled tortillas. These delicious pupusas are wrapped in cotton hand towels and carried home for family feasting.

After a few days Stuart and I are installed as residents. Everyone knows our daily routine, our delight in mangos and pupusas, and our Spanish has improved ten-fold in just a few days.

Further proof of paradise is that, la playa, the beach, is deserted save for the odd surfer who knows Salvador’s secret and the local oystermen.

Richar the oysterman appears to us in a vision of brown weathered skin, flippers and oyster net. His black hair has been bleached red by years of Pacific sun. He plonks his net down, writes his name in the silvery black volcanic sand and offers us a fresh ostra. He wrenches the ostra shell open with his sharp fishing knife.

Richar sends his family of three children and shy wife to visit us in the mango grove. They offer us ostra, we offer them mango, and the five of us feast together. Everyone loves mangos.

It can only be mango season madness that leads me to follow Stuart’s example and accompany Richar out to sea to watch him dive for ostras. Richar’s eldest son, Miguel, is afraid of the strong ocean currents and only swims when Stuart and I accompany him into the water. The three of us swim close together in the shallows while Richar dives in the deep.

On this particular day as I accompany his father to sea, Miguel stays away from la playa. With a pair of flippers, a mask and Richar’s rubber ringed net in both hands I am, apparently, prepared for adventure.

What I’m not prepared for is the murkiness of the Pacific. After two weeks of vibrant clear sky, grey clouds have rolled in today and the waves have churned up the black volcanic sand, rendering visibility to less than a meter.

Huge rollers steam in from the depths of the Pacific to crash themselves on El Salvador’s coast. The surf is astounding to watch and even more astounding to swim.

I puff alongside Richar, clinging to the ring and diving under wave after wave. It feels like we’re swimming in one spot but just as I’m ready to convince Richar that we should give up, we find ourselves beyond the breakwater. We bob effortlessly in the gentle swell as the waves roll onto la playa behind us.

Richar pulls his mask over his face and with one deep breath duck-dives underwater. With a mere flick of his legs he’s swallowed from sight. I pull my mask on and stick my face under water but there’s only murkiness below me: no shadows, no Richar.

I look once, twice then come up for air, gasping in sudden fear. Open sea surrounds me, embraces me…terrifies me. This is the mighty Pacific and I am bobbing on top of it like directionless flotsam, completely alone.

My legs dangle below me and suddenly fearing the passing brush of something unseen, I kick vigorously then pull my knees protectively close to my chest. I tread water furiously, wishing myself back on la playa.

In a panic I spin myself around and around: all I can see is ocean stretching far away to the horizon. Richar’s been underwater for a less than a minute but it feels like eons to me.

Richar eventually surfaces for air and gives me a cheery thumbs-up. I shake my head and point to the beach. Richar intimates to wait a moment and dives down again.

I look back to shore…down to shore. I suddenly realise I’m metres above land and the waves rolling down onto the beach are enormous. Even the lone surfer has retreated from this vicious surf. I have another terrifying thought: how will I make it back to shore in one piece?

I’m scared to remain on the surface while Richar dives for ostra but equally scared swim under the murky water and join him. What madness possessed me to cling to a tiny rubber ring in the heaving Pacific?

There’s no denying it. I should have noticed mango season. This tropical lunacy has led me to ignore my fears of open water and the strong currents that terrify Miguel. Now I find myself clinging to a tiny rubber ring and bobbing about in an angry ocean.

Richar surfaces and stays up to give his lungs a rest. After much convincing on my part that the look of abject terror on my face is genuine, Richar escorts me back to shore and this time I’m in the lead.

We’re tossed and beaten by the waves that pummel us down and drag us back up in a froth of white water and swirling black grains of sand. Eventually we’re deposited in the shallows. I stumble rubber-legged toward la playa while Richar returns to the sea. We both know that his ostra diving is far more important than reassuring a mango maddened woman.

A few hours later and my ocean panic is known throughout Zunzal. Richar’s family come by with his catch, but I can’t face the ostra or mango feast today. Miguel gives me a knowing look: only mad people take on the Pacific rollers and currents on a rough grey day.

Yet another mango plops to the ground and as the resident madwoman I immediately run over to collect it. I hand the mango to Miguel. The mango skin is warm from the tropical heat. We share a knowing look: Yes, it’s mango season, son.

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