Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Platano Orientale

Santiago does an awfully pretty spring.  We’ve got jacaranda trees that bloom purple on every block, dropping pools of purple color on the streets beneath them and casting pools of purple shadow all around them on the sidewalks. We’ve got Ceibo  – the original burning bush, with its small spring leaves blotted out by scarlet pods like clouds of hanging red flame. We’ve got wisteria hanging over walls, heavy and honey scented. We’ve got bright golden Californian poppies, spreading thick across the verges and the hills -
            But most of all we’ve got the Platano Orientale.
            A plátano is, in direct translation to the Spanish, a banana, but the Platano Orientale has nothing tropical or edible about it. It is the Eastern or Oriental Plane Tree - once beloved of Hippocrates, and today equally beloved of Santiago’s municipal councils.  Tall and spreading, with a leaf rather like that of a maple, it grows like a weed, spreading up and out to make shady green tunnels of our hot summer city roads.  And twice in every spring and early summer, it sprouts a crop of fluffy brown pods, which launch themselves on the summer breezes and inundate Santiago. The air fills up like a glass bowl full of dandelion clocks. Walking down the street is like walking through a storm of ash, thick and furry.  On windy days, sheets of platano seeds come drifting across the sidewalks, piling up in gutters, and snagging in trees and bricks and paving stones.
            Platano seeds get everywhere.  They filter under window -frames and blow through keyholes .  They catch in your zippers and your pockets and you trouser cuffs, and they catch in your eyes – which weep, and in your nose, which itches, and in your throat, where it  lands on your tonsils with a shock like a live electrical wire.  And then you cough – a terrible, barking electric cough.  You cough and you cough and you cough you cough – bent double, helpless and weeping -
            My first spring here, I spent three days in the hospital after that terrible electric cough met my outgrown childhood asthma and brought it all back in full liquid-lung terror.  There’s an awful lot of asthma in Santiago.  It’s not just the pollution – and Chile produces smog like it’s the mainstay of the GDP. It’s the way the spring belongs to the Platano Orientale.
            Mr Tabubil, who has never known an allergy in his life, succumbed within weeks of arriving, and passes the spring red-rimmed and hacking.  My Dad, equally hardy, visited us last spring, and half-way across a traffic intersection, he stopped dead in the road and doubled over with that terrible electric cough, locked in an attack that required every instrument in my mobile asthma arsenal to bring under control.
            And I have quite the arsenal.  Since being released from the hospital, spring comes pre-loaded with an arsenal of sprays and drops and inhalers that would make a hardened hypochondriac blush. Our municipalities might love the Platano Orientale, but every doctor I’ve met would, given half an opportunity and an illicit batch of Agent Orange, defoliate the whole city in one fell swoop if it would get rid of That Tree. Medical committees, armed with infographics and statistics, make eloquent claims on the public interest and the public health.  They bring in experts on horticulture and respiratory medicine.  They drag in respiratory patients for dramatic personal narratives. But the platano grows like a weed in poor soil, and when have sense and logic ever prevailed against a budget-minded municipality anywhere?
            And doctors talk darkly, in surgeries and over cocktails, of axes in the dark.

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