Looking back it was her kindness that nourished me as much as the fruit itself. A simple act of unexpected generosity, by a stranger in a foreign land with no expectation of anything in return. Have you heard of the Inca quickstep? What can I say? The quickstep is a lively ballroom dance that combines elements of the Foxtrot and the Charleston. The movement of the dance is fast and flowing, a loose light-footed motion interspersed with nimble hops and kicks. The Inca quickstep is a nickname for tummy troubles experienced by travellers to South America.
In the mid 80s a group of us were staying in a hostel in the Urubamba Valley in Peru, and word got round that the ‘gringos’ were suffering with the quickstep. One afternoon I was sat in a deckchair outside the hostel when a local Quechua speaking woman appeared with a basket of dark purple passion fruits. Her face was sun-beaten and her long black hair was tied in two plaits down her back. She wore traditional dress, a battered bowler hat, a brightly coloured shawl and a full skirt. Her legs were bare and on her feet she wore sandals made from old car tyres. With downcast eyes and fidgety pigeon-toed feet she swung the basket in my direction and offered me some fruit. Passion fruits were new to me, I’d seen them in the markets but I’d never eaten one.
I picked one out of the basket; it was round and firm with a smooth waxy skin like a plum. She grabbed it from me and put it back in the basket. With a series of quick gestures and facial expressions she conveyed that the fruit I’d chosen was unripe. She rummaged around in her basket and found the perfect specimen. This one was ready to eat and it would help my malady. It was shrivelled and shrunken with a dull wrinkled skin. It looked like a small rubber ball that had been left outside and had lost its bounce. I nodded my thanks, unsure what to do next and fearful that I had offended her. We barely looked at each other, which was the local way, it was bad manners to make eye contact with a stranger.
She intimated that we needed a knife and a spoon. I ran into the hostel and returned with the cutlery and a plate for good measure. She refused the offer of the deck chair and settled herself on the grass verge. She pierced the leathery skin of the passion fruit with the knife and sliced it in two. I was ready with the plate. She dismissed me with a quizzical sideways glance, which seemed to say, a passion fruit cut in half makes two perfect little bowls, nature always provides, why use a plate?
The fruit was sweetly sensuous with yellow flesh, a gloopy puddle of pulp studded with black seeds. It was soft and gummy like the jelly that surrounds frog’s eggs.
The seeds were like mini eyes all looking in different directions, it was like staring into the eyes of an otherworldly or alien creature. She pushed the fruit under my nose; to my surprise it had a light summery aroma, which was fragrant and exotic and instantly refreshed my spirits. I remember thinking if sunshine had a smell, it would smell like a ripe passion fruit. She scooped out the flesh with the spoon, taking care to avoid the cotton wool-like pith under the skin. She pulled a face to warn me that this part of the fruit tasted bitter. It had an exuberant tangy flavour, sweet and sour, tart like a lemon and sugary like pineapple. The effect on my taste buds was a mouth-puckering tingle, similar to eating sour boiled sweets like soor plums, or zingy rhubarb and custard bonbons. The flesh had a lumpy consistency like thick creamy tapioca pudding. I wasn’t sure what to do about the seeds, whether to swallow them or spit them out, so I swallowed the lot.
Her hands flew to her face and she glanced up at the sky. She handed me the other half of the fruit and made crushing and grinding motions with her teeth. The seeds were the best part; they were good for the stomach and they had to be chewed thoroughly. They were like glass and as brittle as bonfire toffee. Like frangible bullets, the seeds shattered into tiny pieces and it felt as if my mouth was full of gritty sand. Under her watchful eye I chewed for what seemed like an age, until at last she gave me the signal to swallow. The seeds tasted of nothing but they left a slightly dry aftertaste.
She took the passion fruits out of her basket and rolled them across the grass towards me. Like a hapless goalie I clambered about and caught them, which brought a wry smile to her face. Her work was done. With a nod she eased herself up from the grass and went on her way swinging her empty basket at her side. I shared the passion fruits with the others, over the next few days the quickstep lost its fury and we waltzed back to full health.
Did the passion fruits cure us? It’s impossible to say, but in recent years the benefits of passion fruits have been widely studied. It’s now known that they are good for promoting intestinal health and aid in the removal of toxins from the body. But I am sure of one thing; a little kindness enriches all our lives.