Returning to Las Flores evoked a feeling of coming home, seeing a beloved friend, grown and changed, but with the same warm smile, the same tender heart. Three years ago, the sign welcoming tourists to Las Flores was shiny and new, bright with hope at the promise of work, money, a better life. Now it is pockmarked by stickers, indulging in a decadent feast of surf tourism. The landscape is similarly changed. New hotels have sprung up like weeds along the road, which has been widened and flattened, laid in parts with cobblestones, bridges. Droves of surfers toting shiny new boards file out to the waves.
But the same thatch roof structure stands proudly in the center of the beach, the high tide splashing up under its hammocks, struggling to drag it into the sea. When the tide retreats, the same two ladies shape pupusas with their wise old hands. One of them sports a yellow shirt with green letters in bold capitals: I ONLY SLEEP WITH THE BEST.
Behind the thatch roof stand is a row of small cabinas owned by a local family that also runs a tiny store. The cinder block cabinas each sport one tiny, barred window that conjures up an image of a jail cell. But in the past three years, bathrooms had been added, and incredibly, internet. The wifi didn’t quite reach my room, so I sat on the porch of the store to use it, as dogs, turkeys, chickens, and children darted by my feet and a parakeet pecked at me from the back of my chair.
Inventory at the store was unchanged by the years. Water, soda, beer, chips, and packages of pound cake were piled haphazardly around the small room. I bought water and pound cake for breakfast the next day. I would have preferred fresh fruit and coffee. But sometimes one just has to make due.
After I’d gotten settled in, I set out for the top of the hill. I told myself I was just going for a walk, but in my heart, I was looking for something, or rather, someone. The first post that I wrote on this blog was about making the decision to go on this trip, and drawing inspiration from the memory of a family that I met one day when I was climbing a mango tree.
It was nearing dark when I turned onto the road where they had lived. I saw a glow of light, some people in a modest dwelling. Tentatively, in Spanish, I inquired, “I am looking for a family with a small boy named José.” Someone called into the house, and a boy emerged, a little taller, features a little more pronounced, but with the same black cowlick of hair and the same million dollar smile.
Reina, his mother, got up from her hammock. “Sientate,” she said, “Sit!” She gestured to the hammock, just as she had done three years ago. I explained how her husband, Josito, had once rescued me from a mango tree, and she laughed as she recalled the memory. Josito was working, but he would be home the following day, and Reina invited me to dinner with the family. I accepted, and promised to bring a special treat for dessert.
The next day, I woke up at 4:30, anxious to surf the new swell, and hired a boat with three other surfers for Punta Mango, literally jumping up and down with excitement on the beach as we prepared to leave. A powerful right point break with two potential barrel sections, Punta Mango might just be my favorite wave of all time. And that day, it delivered as promised: double overhead, glassy, and consistent. This was what the voice inside of me had been urging me not to miss, this one small window, before the wind came up, when the swell was at its cleanest. If I had one complaint, it was that I tried too hard to pull into too many barrels instead of just consistently making my waves. Oh well. That’s a good mistake, in my book.
After returning to Las Flores, making quick work of six pupusas, and buying a loaf of pan dulce for dinner that night, it was back out to the main break for more. The nice, easy takeoff and smooth, sloped wave were a welcome respite for my aching muscles and whiplashed neck, after the steep drops and death pits I’d been charging into all morning. I didn’t know it at the time, but my old friend Consumo (aka Torre) from Nebula Surf Trips was up on the cliff taking video. I sat just inside the pack and picked off countless waves from the point to the beach. Then it was time to shower and head up the hill for dinner.
The whole family greeted me warmly. I complemented Reina and Josito on the improvements to their house. Since I was there last, they had installed actual cinder block walls, divided the dwelling into rooms, added a stove, and a refrigerator. My eyes stung with happiness for them. The influx of tourism surely played a part in their drastically improved living conditions. Josito was currently working at one of the surf hotels. How can I complain about crowded surf if it literally puts a roof over these people’s head?
Reina made me a huge plate of chicken, rice, vegetables, and tortillas, urging me to eat before it got cold. The others slowly filled their small bowls with food. I didn’t see anyone else with chicken; I wondered if I had been given the one piece they could afford. Though their situation had improved since I last saw them, they were still poor, at least by middle class American standards. Josito told me how he had worked two jobs for months, subsisting on no sleep. The lines on his face, the empty spaces between his teeth, told the story. He jokingly referred to their youngest child, one and a half year old Robin, as a cajero, or cash machine.
They had asked to see the pictures I had taken years before, and I brought my computer to show them. Of course it wouldn’t turn on, so I asked Reina if I could put it in the freezer. She thought that was hilarious. But lo and behold, fifteen minutes later, when I opened the frosty screen and pressed the icy button, it came to life. Everyone crowded around as we looked at the pictures. Then we took new pictures, which I promised to have printed and mailed to them as soon as I got home. Josito carefully printed their address on a piece of paper, telling me that he had only attended a year of school in his life. It was too dangerous to go to school, with all of the violence and gangs. He had taught himself to write. We lingered, talking, until I decided it was time for bed. Josito walked me back to my cabina with a flashlight.
A sweet taste lingered in my mouth, and it wasn’t from the pan dulce. Spending time with this family had the sweet, round, buttery taste of a perfectly ripe mango, fresh from the tree. Mangoes are my favorite fruit, though it is sometimes hard to separate the juicy flesh from the tough outer skin. It is impossible to eat a mango without getting your hands dirty. You’d better plan on being covered with a rich, sticky juice that runs to your elbows. Local mangos stick in your teeth, leaving sweet threads of fiber that brush against your tongue like a memory. And oh, what a seed. It is a king of a seed, as tough as a coconut. It’s true, there are easier, cleaner, richer fruits to eat in the tropics. But I will always love mangoes best.