Punctuality is not one of my superpowers. Especially, in the morning. However, Daniel, my trusty friend and driver in El Salvador, always shows up right on the dot. On that sunny morning we were to head up to explore El Salvador’s famed “Ruta de las Flores” in the mountains outside San Salvador, I had not quite gotten my act together by the time he arrived to pick me up. So, I asked him to stop someplace to get coffee before we headed out of town.
“Well, most of the best coffee grown here gets sold to Starbucks,” Daniel responded.
“Starbucks it is,” I directed without hesitation. And we were off for a cup of El Salvador’s finest.
I do love Starbucks. When I’m at home, I go to Starbucks now and then, but I’m really more of a Peet’s girl, to be honest. Or Philz. But, I’ve never seen either of those outside the U.S. Starbucks, on the other hand, is in major cities in many far-flung parts of the world. When I’m traveling, I generally prefer to go to local establishments, rather than an American export. But, once in a while, if a twinkle of homesickness flickers through me, or the road weariness sets in and I just can’t look at one more bowl of fish heads and chicken feet, Starbucks reliably functions as an oasis of familiarity. They are all exactly the same, the world over. I walk through the door, and it’s like being teleported home.
Even the different regional specialties in the glass case of pastries have a delightfully Starbuckian fungibility to them that renders them comforting. Down to their baristas’ relentlessly hilarious inability to ever get my name right on my cup, Starbucks is an amiable constant in my life of ever-changing scenery. When I need it, it hits my reset button, and sends me back out into whatever world awaits outside, refreshed and ready for the next new adventure. Plus, there are some places (*cough*Southeast Asia, except for the former French colonies*cough*) where instant Nescafe with Coffee-Mate powder is what passes for good coffee, and that’s just not right. Starbucks is truly a beacon of caffeinated hope in such forlorn places.
But, back to El Salvador and the Ruta de las Flores, before I forget what I came here to tell you.
The Ruta de las Flores—or, Route of the Flowers—is the sobriquet of a long squiggle of mountain road through El Salvador’s coffee country, and the five or so picturesque, colonial-era villages dotted along it. It’s a popular destination for a weekend drive, to poke through the artisan shops and historic churches, tour a coffee plantation, or enjoy a leisurely lunch in a flower-festooned courtyard restaurant.
Doing the whole route in one day is an ambitious itinerary, but that’s what I had planned. Due to my unplanned Starbucks run, though, Daniel and I were running a little behind schedule. Had we been on time, we would have long since whooshed past that uphill hairpin turn before that little, white hatchback conked out in the middle of our lane, right at the blindest point of the curve. But, we weren’t, so we hadn’t.
Traffic suddenly slowed way down to get safely around the disabled car and the two ladies nervously standing next to it. I was riding shotgun in our vehicle, so as we crept around them, my face came very close to the young woman standing next to the driver’s side door of the broken down car. Just as we passed her, she turned, and I caught her eye as she yelled, “Please, I need help!” (In Spanish, of course. I’m translating all the dialogue in this story for you. It’s just one of the many services we offer here at the QP.)
Now, I’m no rookie traveler, so, of course, I know that stopping to help allegedly stranded strangers is a giant No-No, and a quick way to get carjacked and/or robbed in many places, including the U.S. I also know that, sometimes, the bad guys use pretty young women as bait in “broken down car” trap schemes, because people are more likely to stop to help them than some big, sweaty guy. So, the rule is, if you see a stranded motorist, unless you know them, you are supposed to call it in to the authorities—not stop to help. Right? Right. This apparently goes double in El Salvador, where security is something of an issue, especially on the highways.
But, you guys, you should have seen her. I got a close look at her face as we drove past. Her lip was quivering, her eyes were big as saucers, and the sun glinted off the rising tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. She was in obvious distress.
“Stop, Daniel, we have to help them,” I said.
“What? You want to stop?” Daniel hesitated, torn between his wish to do what I asked and his training/instinct prohibiting him from stopping for strangers.
“Yes, stop, they’re in trouble!”
Daniel pulled the car over and rolled down the window. The young woman approached, and we could see she had what looked like professionally done makeup, and her hair was delicately coiffed and arranged around a little tiara-like headband embellished with tiny pearls.
A bride! On her way to her wedding! The poor lamb had her bridal gown, veil, cases of champagne for the reception, boxes of decorations for the party, and various trousseau items, packed in the back of her car, which had given up the ghost in the middle of that blind curve on the way up the mountain. Neither she nor her auntie, who was with her, were able to get a cellular signal, and, per the prevailing road wisdom, no one was stopping to help them. They were stuck there, melting in the hot El Salvador sun, while her wedding guests were already starting to congregate in Ataco, the last town at the far end of the Ruta de las Flores.
Normally, Daniel drove me around in a compact sedan. But, as luck would have it, that day, the sedan had not been available for some reason, so we had a minivan with plenty of room to transport the ladies and all the wedding regalia. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe Not. Either way, I’ve never seen a more relieved person than that girl when we said we would take her and all the stuff to the wedding venue. Seriously, a picture of her pretty face at that moment in time should be inserted into the definition of the word “relieved” in all dictionaries.
Once all the wedding paraphernalia was loaded into the back of our van, auntie agreed to wait with the car for the help that would be coming as soon as we could contact someone. The girl, whose name we learned was Maricela, climbed in the van and tried to compose herself. She was shaking, overheated, and tears were about to ruin her beautiful bridal makeup. I pointed all the air-conditioner vents at her to cool her down, and gave her some tissue to dab her eyes.
“Don’t cry,” I said in as soothing a tone as I could muster. “They can’t start without you!”
“That’s true,” she laughed, relaxing a little.
As we chatted, getting to know each other and distracting ourselves from the Herculean job Daniel was doing behind the wheel to get us to the church on time, I asked how long she had been stuck there by the side of the road. When she said it had been about 20 minutes, I commented that her angels must be looking out for her, because if we hadn’t stopped at Starbucks before leaving San Salvador, we would have missed her. “I work for Starbucks,” Maricela said. I guess her angels have mermaid tails.
Maricela eventually got a cellular signal, and was able to alert her waiting family and fiancé that she was, indeed, en route. “Yes, I’m on my way now. A tourist in a minivan picked me up and is bringing me. Yes, a tourist! I know, can you believe it?” Her fiancé, Rodrigo, asked to talk to me, and thanked me profusely, in perfect English, for rescuing his bride from the side of the road, and effusively promised that I would always have a place to stay in El Salvador from now on, anytime I wanted to come. I guess it really is unusual to stop and help stranded motorists there.
Finally, we arrived—on time, no less! Go, Daniel, Captain Punctuality!—and deposited the bride and all her things at the appointed place for her to get ready for the nuptials. Maricela, of course, insisted that Daniel and I come to the wedding. I was hardly dressed for it, but she was adamant. We were coming to her wedding.
We had about an hour to kill while the bride finished getting ready, so Daniel suggested we go take a quick tour of a coffee processing plant just down the road. It was interesting to see the process, from when the beans get delivered from the plantations, through sorting, fermentation, drying, to bagging.
The warehouse was full of large, stacked, burlap sacks of El Salvador’s premium coffee beans, ready for export. (They export all the best quality beans, and sell the runts and broken reject beans—which taste the same, but don’t look as pretty—locally.) I asked the attendant where those sacks of beans were headed. “Starbucks,” he replied. Of course. It was like Starbucks’ advertising department had purchased product placement slots in the movie of my day.
Back at the church, Daniel and I sat in a pew about halfway back, on the aisle. The other guests filed in, all dressed to the nines—statuesque women in beauty pageant-worthy gowns, clean-shaven men, redolent of aftershave, in stylish, tailored suits, little boys pulling at their starched, white collars, and little girls in poofy, pastel, ruffled confections. And then there was me. Perspiring away in my khaki cargo shorts, a big, floppy, broccoli green, gauze tunic top, and dusty, clunky Birkenstocks. Fitting right in, as usual. Daniel was dressed professionally, so he was fine. But I stuck out like a sore, underdressed thumb. No one said anything to me, but from the looks I was getting, I could tell they were all thinking “What the heck is that tourist lady doing here? Can’t she tell a private event is about to take place?” Believe me, you ain’t seen no Stink Eye until you’ve gotten the Salvadoran Stink Eye. It stings.
But, then, Maricela came down the aisle on her daddy’s arm, as beautiful and radiant as any bride ever was. When she saw me, her face lit up even more, and she waved to me. She leaned in and told her dad “That’s the one who picked me up on the road,” and his face lit up, too, and he nodded to me. After that, everyone knew I was not some rude, foreign wedding crasher, but a bride-approved attendee of the event, who obviously just didn’t know how to dress for a special occasion.
The wedding was beautiful. Fireworks announced the new couple as they emerged from the church, and we pelted them with rice. Once outside, both mamas—the bride’s and the groom’s—and various family members, came up to thank and hug me, and make sure I was coming to the reception. Word spread like wildfire after that about the whole car breakdown debacle, and my role in it. I instantly went from suspicious interloper to celebrity. All my sartorial sins were absolved.
The reception was quite the fancy shindig. I would have felt really self-conscious in that setting, clad as I was, were it not for the nonstop stream of warm, friendly people coming up to make a fuss over me for helping Maricela, and hear my account of the harrowing rescue. Everyone embraced me so enthusiastically, I worried for a moment that maybe we should leave, so as not to draw focus away from the newlyweds. It was their day, after all. But, I shouldn’t have worried. The second lovely Maricela and her handsome new husband entered the room, the sparks of happiness emanating from them commanded all attention, as it should have been, and I was able to go back to inconspicuously snatching fudge-covered strawberries from the chocolate fountain table, unheeded by the crowd.
After Daniel had listened to me tell the story of rescuing Maricela for about the hundredth time, as soon as we had a moment alone, he said to me, in his soft-spoken, gentle way, “Miss Quin, you know, with all due respect, if I hadn’t been able to see that she was clearly a high class lady, from how she was put together, and how she spoke, I would never have let her in the car, no matter what you said.” So, there you have it, gentle friends. I was greedily basking in a shower of love, affection and gratitude for having bravely saved a damsel in distress on her wedding day, taking all the credit, and when all was said and done, it really wasn’t even my call. Sorry, Daniel! Thanks for looking out for me. I hope this post sets the record straight.
On the drive back to San Salvador that night, I looked at my phone to check the time, noticed the date for the first time that day, and smiled to myself. It was my parents’ wedding anniversary. If my mom was still with us, it would have been their 52nd. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, a good sign for a long and happy marriage for Maricela and Rodrigo, for sure. There is, apparently, no traditional gift associated with the 52nd wedding anniversary, like paper, glass or silver, etc. So, let’s just say it’s coffee. Starbucks’ Reserve El Salvador Estate beans, to be exact.