Feathers For Lunch; Honeybees For Dessert
By Carol L. Bowman
This wasn’t a trip we could reschedule, but a 36-inch blizzard two days earlier threatened to block our visit with Save the Children officials in El Salvador and a family living at the base of a volcano. As the clock ticked, the nail-biting, pacing and praying paid off. The welcomed grind of the township snowplow and the sound of a horn beeping shattered the tension. The driver of our scheduled limo SUV had maneuvered the one-lane ruts to take us to the Philadelphia Airport. We trudged through the shoveled path, threw the suitcases over a frozen embankment and jumped into the Jeep.
As we deplaned in San Salvador, the Central American heat burned away images of the cold. Eager anticipation of meeting our sponsored child, a six-year old first grader, filtered in as a taxi took us to the Save the Children Office. Daniel, chauffer of the officially marked Land Rover and Maria, project director assigned to Francesca del Carmen’s village, welcomed us.
After a four-hour journey through unpaved, mountain passes winding to an elevation of 6,000 feet, the rounded nipple of the volcano loomed above us. Despite the reduced humidity, beads of sweat bounced on my skin. Thoughts of having lunch with Francesca’s entire clan raced through my mind. My god, what will a poor family of 14 serve us? Will we die from cholera or typhoid?
Daniel maneuvered the Rover downhill on a footpath littered with plastic containers, rusted tools and remnants of poverty. In the clearing ahead, a ramshackle dwelling that provided shelter for Francesca’s extended family leaned, looking vulnerable to a strong wind.
A woman with frizzy hair stuffed under a red head scarf, wearing a flowered, wheat-sack dress and a soiled, white apron, was chasing a terrified, bony chicken around the yard. “That’s Luz, Francesca’s mother,” said Maria. “Mamá’s apparently trying to catch lunch.”
As we stepped from the car, Luz made a successful snatch and she greeted us with a squawking bird in one hand and a cleaver in the other. Francesca’s older sisters, her father and two brothers-in-law drifted over to give warm Latino hugs to the first gringos to ever set foot on their parcel of fallow land. Simple, unschooled Spanish matched our elementary command of their language, so conversations flowed easily.
I searched the brood for a six-year old, the centerpiece of this unlikely mingling of cultures. Stranded on the porch, a small dark-haired darling, wearing a pale blue organdy dress, twisted back and forth and stared down at her black patent-leather shoes, already coated with dust. I wondered what Mamá had sacrificed to buy her daughter this impractical outfit, hoping to please the Americans.
I approached Francesca, introduced myself as her padrina and led her to a split log doubling as a bench. Her starched skirt crinkled on the splintery seat, her tiny shoes dangled far from the ground. This was so much for her to comprehend. Gifts for the family lifted the nervous air. School supplies, a ball and jacks and a jump rope offered Francesca relief from the attention. She and her cousins giggled as they learned to hop over the twirling cordat the right moment.
Grandpa rocked his thin rail frame in his chair on the porch, soaking up these odd happenings. I presented him with a pair of binoculars, showed him how to adjust them and search the thicket for wild turkeys, boars, or mountain deer. Now they could spot their next meal, instead of killing egg-laying chickens. Fascination danced in his eyes.
While Luz plucked lunch’s feathers, I showed an older daughter, Rosa how to insert four of the year’s supply of batteries into a portable transistor radio. The antennae towers rising up on nearby Mount Picaelo serving San Salvadoran radio stations provided this remote area with strong reception. I tuned the FM dial until American music, popular here, blared. The mood matched the catchy rhythm of the 60’s. Grandpa put down the binoculars, took the radio, glided his fingers over the smooth metal frame, and stared at the mysterious sounds coming from the small box. This gift had found a keeper.
Mamá guided me to a banana tree, bunches of green fruit hanging low. Mixing the hard-fleshed plantains with corn meal made dough for tortillas, but instructing the gringa how to flap the mixture back and forth in her hands, failed miserably. My misshapen oval disks puffed up on a 55-gallon drum lid, seasoned with oil and flecked with rust, acting as acomal over the barrel wood stove. A caldron of boiling water sat on an open fire. I stiffened as Luz tossed in the cleaved pieces of chicken, still coated with stubborn feathers, a handful of root vegetables and unknown herbs. Lunch was served!
My husband passed a spoonful of the watery broth close to his lips and pretended to suck it in. I actually swallowed the concoction, wondering if I would survive this poor man’s feast. Francesca’s father diverted my fears, when he presented us with two bottles of Orange Crush. He walked to the nearest town to get them, he said. I forgot about typhoid and cholera and relished in this family’s generosity.
As we dined al fresco, sitting at a hand-hewn planked table, magic happened. Frank Sinatra’s distinctive voice drifted from the radio, as he belted out New York, New York. We told the family of his fame in America, but none understood the enormity of that moment; two displaced persons, sitting somewhere on the side of an El Salvadoran volcano, comforted by the familiar.
“Tiempo por el dulce,” said Luz, as she made preparations for dessert. She disappeared into the house and emerged looking ready for Halloween. Wearing a large brimmed hat with screen-door wire netting attached around the perimeter, a long sleeved torn jacket, rubber gloves, one red, one blue and calf-high black boots, she carried an orange plastic pail. Taking my hand, she led me up a well-trodden, wild flowered path.
A buzz hummed. Mamá pointed proudly to the base of a tree where a honeybee hive rested. A Save the Children project provided mothers with a live apiary and instructions on how to harvest pure honey as a sustainable source of income. She opened a removable frame, scooped out a section of honeycomb with her red glove and plunked it into the pail, angry insects trapped in the thick, sweet mound. As we picked through the combed dessert, stray bees swirled from the mismatched bowls.
Maria had a final surprise for us. She directed Luz, Francesca, my husband and me into the vehicle. I held Francesca on my lap, savoring precious time with this child. Daniel drove two miles, stopping under a hand-painted sign, Casa de la Familia Salud. The Family Health Center operated by Save the Children provided vaccinations for all the youngsters, pre-natal care for pregnant women and basic medical service for the villagers. We rounded the corner and twenty-five mothers, cradling babies and holding older children close, waved signs of Gracias and Bienvenidos. “This is the first time they can put a face with the benefactors who have saved the lives of their families, said Maria. “This gathering to thank you was their idea.”
Our monthly monetary contributions had materialized into a hopeful El Salvadoran family, while an American icon crooned in the background.