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Mariana: the Coconut Lady December 28, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, Mariana the Coconut Lady.
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(Mariana touched our hearts deeply.  She is one of the unsung millions of heroic women of the world about whom we hardly ever read.  I don’t think anyone has ever seen the piece below.  I just felt an obligation to put what little I know of her story to paper.  As you will see, she had a tremendous impact on her extended family, and it is my intention here to extend it just a bit further.


On the day of Mariana’s funeral, which would have been New Year’s Eve, we traveled in my Trooper to the church in the little village where she had lived, about ten kilometers down the highway from us.  At the site of the burial, the  car broke down, and getting it fixed and towed home, which involved my spending hours in the punishing equatorial sun, was a story in itself worth telling.  That was the story I initially wrote; then I tore it up and penned the following. )



Mariana passed away on December 30 of 2005.  She was known as “the coconut lady of Playas.”  The grief felt by her family was profound, the mourning was intense; but she was from a typically poor Ecuadorian family where there would be no thought of publishing an obituary.  Since she was such a dear person, I wanted to write something and share it with my friends and family.


We met on the beach about ten years ago.  She was of indeterminate age; at the time I would have guessed between sixty and a hundred (I learned from her family that she was ninety-one when she died at year’s end).  She would not have reached five feet on tiptoe or weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet.  Yet she had no problem carrying her sack laden with ten juicy “green” coconuts, which she lugged virtually every day since god knows when, from her home ten kilometers down the highway, to our Playas beaches.  It probably weighed nearly as much as she did.


The tropical sun had transformed her face into a labyrinth of leathered wrinkles; and, if as some believe, every wrinkle is a wrinkle earned, then Mariana was hands down a furrowed millionaire.  Her single-toothed grin was childlike and infectious, and her laugh was more of a cackle than anything else.  The drill of purchasing a coconut on the beach goes something like this: she wields her machete with karate–like precision, slicing off just enough of the green outer rind to be able to cut a triangle into the next layer, thereby creating a hole through which a straw is inserted.  The coconut juice is not the concentrated milk-like liquid found in a ripe supermarket coconut, where you are lucky to get a cupful; rather it is sweet and watery, and a tender juicy green coconut might hold as much as a pint or more of this quenching nectar.  Once you have finished your drink, you return the coconut to Mariana, who, with a single swipe, slices it in two with her machete; and from the green outer rind she fashions a “spoon” with which you scrape the sweet gelatinous “meat” that lines the inner shell of the coconut.  Careful not to litter the beach, Mariana then collects the empty shell and puts it back into her sack with the whole coconuts.


I was basking in the sun, alone on the beach one day shortly after I had moved to Ecuador, and Mariana came by with her wares.  I was deathly thirsty, but had no money on me, so I asked her if she would extend me a coconut’s worth of credit and come by our house, whose whereabouts I described to her, at the end of her day to collect.  As Bogie said to Claude Raines in the final scene of Casablanca, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Mariana adopted Carmen, some forty odd years her junior, as a surrogate mother.  A visit to our home from Mariana would be heralded by her softly chanted “Mama Caaaaaaaaaaaaarmen,” at the outer gate.  She often would bring along an offering of fried fish and rice, which she would have bought from one of the seafood stands on the beach, and, of course, there was always a juicy coconut or two.  In turn, we would send her home with everything from sacks of rice and beans to boxes of Quaker Oats and bottles of multi-vitamins.


When there was an illness in Mariana’s family, Carmen (who is a clinical psychologist) would make a long-distance diagnosis, and we would send along whatever medicines were required (you can get just about anything over the counter in Ecuador).  This may sound irresponsible, but that is the way things are done in a third world country where people cannot afford doctor visits.  One day Mariana arrived at our doorstep in panic and desperation.  A great grandson had been caught stealing from an employer, who, with the support of the local police, retaliated by confiscating the family’s canoa (fishing boat) and outboard motor.  The source of their livelihood as fisher people.  Carmen contacted her friend and fellow poet, Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, who also happens also to be a juvenile court judge in Guayaquil, and he was able to rectify the situation.  From that day on, Mama Carmen was upgraded to Santa Carmen, and for a while we became the frequent beneficiaries of fresh shrimp and sea bass.


When we hadn’t heard from Mariana in a couple of weeks recently, we began to wonder.  Then on the last Friday of the year, Mariana’s son came by to tell us the Mariana had died that morning from cancer of the uterus.  She had worked plying her coconuts on the beach up until last few weeks before she became bedridden.  When I returned from school late that morning, I found a candle burning on our dining room table and Carmen bathed in her own tears.


An Ecuadorian velorio is the rough equivalent of sitting Jewish shiva.  There are no funeral parlors in Playas, so an open casket is placed in the family’s home.  It usually lasts only a day or two before burial.  People come and go, sit silently or converse quietly.   I won’t try to describe Mariana’s family home in detail because I am not good as physical description.  Bare walls, scant furniture, bare footed children scurrying about, competing for space with pigs, chickens and underfed dogs.    By any standard it would be considered a poor home, but it was constructed of cinder block, which is a huge step up from the bamboo homes of the poorest of the poor.   The lack of any landscaping or garden and the plethora of discarded items strewn about the grounds were for me not necessarily a sign of lack of pride but rather of ambient hopelessness.


A mass was said for Mariana in the morning of  New Year’s Eve, and not only was the priest an hour late, but his preachy sermon said nothing at all about Mariana, her stamina and courage, her difficult but rewarding and loving life.  Unfortunately, this is what is expected here, and I may have been the only one to have noticed its gross and indecent inadequacy.


At 91 years of age and the matriarch of the clan, you can imagine the size of her extended family.  I knew Mariana only on the beach and from her visits to our home, so coming in contact with so many other people for whom she was such an important person came as something of a surprise to me.  It shouldn’t have, but it did.  She was so much more then “the coconut lady of Playas,” than I had ever imagined; but I guess is not that unusual to know a single dimension of someone’s life.


Spending a few hours with Mariana’s family after she had already departed from this world went a long way towards filling in a portrait that already was rich with color.  Not only was she the sweet and industrious person I have known for the past ten years, but her strength of character and dignity were clearly a beacon that illuminated the life of a typically large extended Ecuadorian family surviving on the  bitter edges of poverty.  Her surviving siblings and children, themselves of advanced age, were struck with grief.  I got the sense of the magnitude of the loss that her death meant to them, from which I interpolate further the kind of person she was and the kind of life she led.


Mariana was one of those extraordinary ordinary persons.  I don’t believe in life after death or in Heaven or Hell.  The ineffable pleasure of having your life touched by the likes of Mariana is enough for me.  I wish you could have known her.