July and Mangos

July 31, 2016

               Let me tell you about mangos, Mexico’s favorite drupe. This juicy, stone fruit is as common in these hills as apples in the Finger Lakes or persimmons on the limestone ridges of southern Indiana. Native to south Asia, mangos are ubiquitous in the frost-free tropics, and there are probably as many different types as there are people who eat them.

               Our daughter Abby, if pressed in the area of theology, will say that IF there is Heaven, she is certain that the entry gate is shaded by mango trees. Of course, she has also been heard to say that if there us a metro that takes people to Heaven, she is getting off at the Merced Market in Mexico City.

               Linda and I once stayed in a lovely little motel de paso in Guerrero, a few kilometers south of Cuernavaca. Even though moteles de paso tend to rent rooms by the hour, and have TVs with extra channels, and curtains to close off the carports from inquiring eyes, this one was a pretty nice place. Mango trees ringed the swimming pool, and the ripe mangos would go “plop” in the water as we paddled around. We peeled them as we treaded water, tossing the skins onto a pile on the side of the pool. We munched on the mango meat, gnawed the last stringy bits off of the pale white seeds, tossed the bare seeds onto the poolside heap, and paddled lazily around until we head the next “plop,” when we raced off like sharks to see who could snag it. As I recall we had the pool to ourselves, as most of the other guests weren’t there for the mangos. The downside of this motel: When it got dark a brisk wind came up, all night long it was “thump, thump!, ka-blang, ka-blang,” of mangos plunking the tin roofs of the carports. So we didn’t get much sleep either.

               All this is by way of saying that for us one of Mexico’s major attractions is mangos. They are for sale in every abarrotes store, in every street market. At 2:00, outside of every elementary school, there are ladies who sell them half peeled and stuck on a stick so the kids will have a walk home snack. On city street corners other ladies sell them sliced into plastic cups on the street corners: with a dusting of chili powder, ¡cómo no!

               Two years ago Linda and I located the perfect building site. It had a hill, and nice neighbors, and a historic irrigation ditch as its the back border, a healthy stand of bamboo-like carrizo, potshards poking up among the weeds, and a spectacular view of Atzompa and Monte Albán, But what really sold us was that the property’s biggest tree was a mango.

               It’s not like we had never before owned a property with trees, big ones, little ones, trees from which we could pick apples and boysenberries, or tap sap for maple syrup, gather fallen branches for firewood; willows and pines and cherry and birch. And here in Oaxaca we’ve got jacarandas (purple flowers), huajes (edible seed pods), cepillos and pajareas (magnets for hummingbirds), tuilipanes de la India (everblooming), and a dozen others that produce flowers or fruits whose barely pronounceable names we can never recall. And a mango.

Our mango tree shades the casita porch from the afternoon sun. For some reason it blooms twice a year. That is, half of it blooms at one time, and six months later the other half blooms. One trunk, full foliage, and a dividing line right through the middle of the crown. The leaves on side A turn rusty brown, and miniscule blooms that form along the branches attract bees and wasps and a low pitched buzzing that sounds like someone forgot to turn off a machine somewhere. Six months later that side of the tree is covered with green mangos, hanging straight down from thin, stems. The fruits turn slowly from greenish yellow, to orange-yellow, to orange, to an almost russet color. Tropical kingbirds, rufous-backed robins, and kiskadees start making regular visits, as much to eat the insects that are drawn by the syrup leaking from the overripe fruit as by the fruits themselves.

Meanwhile side B, six months out of phase, is starting the same cycle. This means for a stretch of about two months, twice a year, we are treated to a downpour of ripe mangos. In our wet season, when a gusty wind usually precedes the afternoon rain, the tree may drop 200 mangos in a half hour. On a calm night, maybe 75. In the dry season, the same, with a more bountiful drop in January when the night is particularly chill. Unfortunately, our tree only gives us four types of mangos: small, unripe and hard as a rock; bird-pecked and beginning to rot; overripe and really oozy; and wormy.

So, what to do with several thousand inedible and therefore unmarketable mangos? We can, and do, peruse the bounty on the ground for that perfect specimen that is yellow-orange ripe, firm but not hard and with no telltale soft spots, unpecked by birds and unpunctured by insects. When we find one we carefully peel back one end and . . . there, beneath the skin, is the start of a mushy tunnel of brown, and maybe a worm or two to greet us with a smiling hello. But there are thousands of them.

Right next to our organic household detritus compost heap, a square pit covered by some rusty bedsprings to keep out the tlacuaches (our local variety of raccoon), foxes, and field rats (well, regular rats, renamed to make people feel better about them), is a second square pit for the mangos. In time they make wonderful fertilizer. During that time they slowly putrify, let out a slightly astringent odor, andattract legions of insects that in turn attract towhees, and a variety of flycatchers. Every day during mango-drop season we cover the softening top layer with a new cap of last night’s fall.

You ask, couldn’t we spray the tree with something that will keep the larvae out? So that we could harvest the ripe mangos before the birds get them? Fill our stomachs with the select few and market the other thousands someway?

Yes, we could. There are such products. Probably three times a year. We’d need some high-pressure equipment for the spraying. And ladders bigger than the two we use for household chores? And to control the insects that lay the eggs that give birth to the larvae we’d have to get our neighbors who have mango trees to spray as well.

It turns out that mango trees are not scarce in Santa Cruz Etla. Almost every neighbor has one. I counted thirty burgeoning mango trees between our house and the Virgin of Juquila chapel at the ford during our dog-walk this morning. And with regard to mango trees, every village on the both sides of the valley is just like Santa Cruz. Whom could we market to? In fact, if we wanted to give them away, whom could we give them to? And if twice a year we found ourselves with thousands of perfect mangos just screaming to be eaten (within two or three days, because if they sat around, just imagine ...), we would feel compelled to do something with them. The pressure, every day, would be enormous.

But with the hard, unripe, overripe, oozy, populated mango mass, the pressure isn’t all that great. If we let them sit on the ground for another couple of days, what’s the loss? The only practical choices seem to be to let the mangos rot where they fall, as most of our neighbors do, although that would render much of the northeast portion our property … well, oozy. Or compost them into fertilizer. That seems pretty useful. And the odor isn’t all that bad. And picking them up is pretty good exercise. You know the song,

Picking up mangos, plop ’em in the bucket,

Picking up mangos, plop ‘em in the bucket,

Picking up mangos, plop ’em in the bucket,

Way over yonder by the mango tree.

If there are too many for a bucket, there is always the wheelbarrow.


               Besides, if we didn’t buy our breakfast mangos at the corner abarrotes store, doña Conchita would probably go out of business.


David & Linda