It’s not every day that you’re walking along and suddenly hear a voice from high up in the treetops.
“You like coconuts?” we heard from above as we walked by.
Isla stopped in her tracks, looked at me, and then looked up in the palm trees, thoroughly confused.
That's when I saw him, an elderly local man with a fluffy white beard in cramp-ons and jeans smiling down at us from up in a coconut tree.
Always one to take the opportunity to show our girls the beautiful and unique moments that our lifestyle presents (and being something of a child at heart) I pointed up excitedly:
“Look Isla,” I exclaimed with a big smile, "It’s the coconut man way up in the palm tree! He climbed up there to bring some coconuts down.” She craned her neck way back, brought her hand over her eyes to shade from the sun and squinted.
There was a pause as she focused on him in the shadows of the fronds, and yelled:
“Can I have one?”
Kids are nothing if not direct.
“Isla, that’s not polite,” I reminded her in a hushed tone. “He’s working for those coconuts. And that is not how we ask for things.”
She looked at me, and then back up at the palm top.
“Can I have a coconut please?” she corrected, louder.
“Sure,” he said with a smile as he started down the tree, his climbing gear clanking and banging like a Caribbean Jacob Marley. He was old, with a kind face, deep wrinkles and full beard bleached white from age and sun. His voice had a sweet hiss indicating, perhaps, that he was missing a few teeth. His body, despite being covered in a tee-shirt and jeans, was strong and wiry.
"I’m going to climb up that big tree over there and get some more, come back in ten minutes and I’ll be up there, then I will give you a coconut," he said with a smile.
We agreed that we’d come back, and continued on our stroll.
When we returned he was where he promised he’d be.
“Stay clear down below. Gimme lots of room,” he warned waving his arm at the ground beneath him. Getting hit by a three pound falling coconut from twenty-five feet up would really put a damper on our day. We gave him a wide berth and watched him work with his lines and machete; cutting, tying off the stalk and then gently lowering the coconuts to the ground in a bundle. He moved swiftly, like the pro that he was.
“You’re cheating!” another local fellow walked by and chided looking up referring to coconut mans use of heavily spiked climbing shoes and rope. Both men laughed heartily as a bundle of coconuts were lowered gently to the ground. The girls were mesmerized. Our new friend soon followed, machete in hand, beckoning Isla over to watch him.
With samurai precision he cut off the top of the water nut in three swift hacks, exposing a small hole at the top. He then reached into his pocket, produced a straw and handed the coconut over to Isla. He told us his name was Shalom.
I have had a very long love affair with coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk) and it could be said that my girls were literally swimming in it in utero, I drank that much. It’s full of nutrients, incredibly hydrating, and islanders claim it to have tremendous health benefits. As a result, all three of our girls love the stuff - particularly Isla - so she made no haste in accepting Shalom's offer for a drink.
“Do you do harvest coconuts all over Tortola?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “There are only a few of us who do it this way.” I got the impression that climbing trees for coconuts was perhaps a dying art, kind of like scrimshaw, but I couldn’t be sure. “I do hundreds of trees on de island.”
“I need to come every six months to get dem down,” he continued, “Or else de residents get upset. Falling coconuts are no good. Kids play here.”
Isla and I finished off the water from our young coconut. Shalom took it from us and with another swift hack, cut it in half, and then pulled off a piece of the husk, handing it to Isla. “A spoon,” he said, “To get out the jelly.”
Young coconuts (often called "water nuts") are very different from the “old” ones that most of us are used to. For one, they are green and not brown. Instead of the tough, dense, white meat (the stuff that we usually eat in chunks or grated), the inside of a "water nut" is gelatinous and slimy, almost like a thin filet of fish. There are hints of the coconut flavor that we are all used to, but the consistency takes some getting used to and is something of an acquired taste.
Isla is not a fan, and immediately upon putting it in her mouth, she spit it out.
Shalom laughed and produced another coconut which he opened for us to drink from.
Knowing that coconuts were this kind man’s livelihood made me feel guilty for taking from his stash “Oh, thank you,” I started. “Here, let me give you some money for these…” I fumbled for my wallet.
He put up his hand and shook his head emphatically.
“No no no, you need to drink this. Stay strong and healthy!” he started laughing and indicated our three girls seated before him, “You are a busy woman, you need the strength.”
I smiled and thanked him as we finished off the water. We shook hands as we parted.