Sharing news of Nicaragua

You must tell the bees your news, my mother had said, or they will leave your garden. And so it was that, soon upon our return home, I headed for the lavender patch to spill my news.  I gave them the good news from Ticuantepe, how the girls are thriving, I spoke of the many people we met, aunts, uncles, cousins, and Angie, the twins’ older step sister. I told the bees of how we had settled into El Mirador Suites and Lounge, the b&b that was our home for three months, and the special friends that we made there. But now my abuela heart is heavy and I must get used to filling my days without babies. Deep down I know that they are fine with their Mum and Dad, which is how it should be. The bees seemingly buzzed their approval, nod-nodding into a spike of lavender. 

We have been back one month now, and everyday new images show how fast Alice and Amelie are changing, images of their chubbier faces and wide alert eyes gradually wiping away the imprint of tiny faces etched in my memory as I bid them farewell on the verandah of the Ticuantepe house. They are now four months, they hold their heads well, another milestone which means that they will soon be ready for solids. They have already tasted banana.

They smile a lot and thrash their arms and legs as they gurgle back to their Dad, as though they could understand his every Spanish word. Hooray for Skype, Whatsapp, Facetime and so much more technology that I have yet to catch up with. Virtual reality babies, I am sure, are not too far off, and I wonder how tangible they will be, if at all. Meanwhile however, my reality will dwell with the garden. I want it to look its best when they come to visit later this year to meet their uncle and auntie and our vast family.

Of course, I also told the bees how happy I was to see them again and how I love the work that they do in my garden.

Double orange hibiscus grown from a cutting

New growth, old memories

The lavender has grown tall and thick in our absence, they must love this northern facing aspect and seem in no way bothered by the salt air blowing across from the river. The gardenias behind them are now struggling for space and I may need to transplant them to a sunnier position. The hibiscus bushes against the fence line have also doubled in size, gracing us with pink, orange and crimson flowers. A lone papaya tree has sprouted in the midst, now bearing sweet honey flavoured fruit, so delicious with passionfruit or a squirt of lime. I am always pleasantly surprised by what the compost yields.

Having grandchildren brings back memories of my own children and the precious little time spent together. ‘My mummy works’ my teary son, who hated kindergarten, had whispered to a friend of mine. Guilt. Most memories have faded while others seem to grow more vivid with the passing of time. How he loved riding his bike to the library, bringing back a basketful of books that he would read to his little sister. I loved his endless questions about matter, ‘Why is water wet?’ why indeed, but then, why not? His rational mind needed clear explanations and I recall his shock and disbelief at being told in his first catechism class that God was his father. I remember his love of Sesame Street and how he would move the hands of the clock forward so he would not have to wait another hour for the program to start. I recall his demonstration of Near and Far, à la Grover, along the supermarket aisles. Forty years on, I am hoping that Sesame Street will also teach my grand daughters how to read in English.

Like her older brother, my daughter also had difficulty in accepting Bible stories at face value, convinced in any case, that gospel truth could only come out of her brother’s mouth. She too questioned the mystery of the resurrection, assuring us that Jesus did not really die. He simply hid behind a big rock and came out three days later. I remembered with a smile the skinny toddler that she was, who whacked the kindergarten bully on the head, much to the delight of the staff who were amazed by the strength of this little girl who spoke little but watched so intently.

I wonder who of her daughters will be like her. The twins are not identical, and even at such an early age, manifest very different temperaments. Perhaps it will be Alice who will resemble her more. She is a tough and stoic loner, while Amelie craves touch and needs constant attention. I wonder who will be as eccentric as their mother. I recalled her ‘Red is best’ stage inspired by Kathy Stinson’s book, when everything she wore had to be red, followed by the black stage, when for a year she wore a black shiny satin evening dress bought for two dollars at a school fete. With a red flower behind one ear, she became known as the Carmen of Bellbowrie. Then came the bedouin stage, when she wrapped herself like a mummy in a large shawl covering all but her eyes. I took it all in my stride, knowing that she would turn twenty-one soon enough, but believing that she was taking her eccentricity too far, her brother refused to be seen in public with her. It was then that the sign in red letters appeared on her bedroom door: ‘No boys aloud’.

Finding solace and hope in the garden

As I strolled along the side of the house to the backyard, I recalled what a roller coaster of year it had been, and how the garden had help me cope with stress and anxiety. I ploughed and ploughed, dug and planted, propagated and created new life where I could, daring to remain optimistic. With each cutting that I put in the ground, I thought of tiny babies growing. I talked to the plants, to the bees, or to whomever or whatever cared to hear me. My egocentric cat no doubt took my ramblings as being addressed to her, and she would have been purring her contentment stretched out on the sunny lawn.

Red eyed fig eaters in the leopard tree

The top corner of the backyard is dominated by a leopard tree, so called because of its white and grey mottled bark. It has a special story, having sprouted from a seed picked up by the previous owners during a ceremony in Brisbane’s ANZAC Square. We have promised to never cut down this magnificent specimen that has survived droughts and floods, and fifty years on still graces us with its vast canopy of yellow flowers, celebrating the resilience of the ANZAC spirit. Red eyed fig eaters shelter in its foliage early summer, providing the occasional close up photo opportunity from the back deck.

This is my multicultural corner, my haphazardly grown jardin créole, where all plants have at least a double nationality and are now prospering in this little patch of Australia, their lucky country! The leopard tree is host to a sturdy vanilla orchid and a purple petrea, both native of South America, and both of which grow abundantly in my native Mauritius. The petrea requires more sun, and I am hoping that plenty of compost tea and sweet talking will push it up to the top of the tree where it will find enough light to produce masses of purple wisteria like flowers. Maybe by the time Alice and Amelie come to visit, the vine will be strong enough to bless my garden with an exotic Latin American display.

It will have to compete with the vanilla orchid, which has snaked its way more than ten metres up the leopard tree. Vanilla also originates from Latin America, Mexico to be precise, and it was introduced in Europe in the mid 16th century, and then spread to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Réunion by the French. They failed, however, to bring along the Melipona bees, which, I believe, are the only ones to pollinate vanilla and may now be extinct? Have you ever wondered why vanilla is so expensive? The flowers have to be hand pollinated, and it was a twelve-year-old Réunionais slave who devised this method of producing the bean. If Edmond Albius only knew how much the global vanilla industry is worth today thanks to his ingenuity!

Vanilla orchid vine on leopard tree

My vanilla flowers are unfortunately far too high up the leopard tree for me to attempt pollination, and I must remain content with admiring a short-lived display of orchids from the deck. If you do ever go to Réunion Island, treat yourself to a visit to the vanilleraie at Sainte Suzanne to see how black gold is cultivated, hand pollinated, picked and cured for months before turning up in your kitchen … or your bottle of rum. In Réunion and Mauritius, rum & vanilla is a match made in heaven, but it seems that Nicaraguans have not developed a taste for rhum arrangé flavoured with vanilla, dried fruit and orange peel, possibly because theirs is the best ron in the world and perfection cannot be perfected.

A jardin créole 

A jardin créole is a hotchpotch of plants, where seeds are thrown, and cuttings are just stuck in the ground with the hope that all will thrive. And they usually do. My little ‘creole garden’ is sheltered by an old frangipani which has struggled for years in the shade of the leopard tree, and has come to accept that it will not get its full quota of sunshine. Reluctantly it yields some bunches of pink and yellow flowers whose fragrance waft on to the deck on a hot summer afternoon. This shady corner of the garden provides an ideal oasis for a variety of medicinal herbs and shade loving plants such as the ever-thirsty Madonna lilies that flower all year round. The Ayapana, also from America, and much prised in Mauritius, though rare in Australia, is now thriving and I have started infusing the leaves to ensure healthy digestion and a good night’s sleep. The Baume du Pérou (from Peru as the name suggests) will soon cover every bare patch of earth with its thick and furry pale green leaves, which, when pulped, can be consumed or applied externally. It has the power to draw fluid, hence its application on swollen skin to reduce inflammation, or its consumption to clear the chest of mucus. Does it work? My oath! You ask any old wife from Mauritius.

Fantastical pets

This little corner of my garden brings back memories of my own childhood, much of which was spent running wild in a large garden of bare earth (terre battue), much like the Ticuantepe yard, with its patches of lawn, its flower beds filled with a hotchpotch of roses, hibiscus, anthuriums, Cana lilies, and orchids. Where chickens roam in open spaces between the large fruit trees, where ripe avocadoes, mangoes and papayas plop to the ground and are given away by the basketful to anyone who cares for them.

Opposite the kitchen door, in the garden of my childhood, was a large lychee tree where we had tied up our pet Monkey, MooMoo, a magnificent macaque specimen gifted to my father for his services as a family doctor. I remember this intelligent creature with profound sadness. How cruel we have been. How ignorant, no wonder he looked so sad. These beautiful, intelligent creatures who are thought to have been brought to Mauritius by the Portuguese 400 years ago are now exported the world over for scientific experiments. Help!
Our poor MooMoo would have thought of himself as one of the children, like us he loved ice treats, screaming for his share when we got ours. Like me, he also had a special fondness for potatoes baked in the skin and served with lashings of butter. MooMoo adored my mother, she was the only one who could keep him reined in, the only one who could bring him back home after he had let himself loose and run amok in the neighbourhood, breaking into chicken pens, eating their eggs, and literally scaring the shit out of them. MooMoo was so named I believe, because of the kisses he seemingly blew my Mum. He died of an infection after being shot in the tail. My father tried to frighten him down from the top of the lychee tree after he had let himself loose, but the bullet from a .22 rifle unfortunately pierced his long dangling tail. The single bullet missed the sky and went right through MooMoo’s tail, would you believe it? Life is indeed stranger than fiction. His passing left a big hole in our children’s lives.

Donald’s grief

I told the bees that my mother, who was twin, would have delighted in the news of twin great granddaughters. She had a heart as big as the world, loving every creature that came into her care. Sometimes I wonder if she had not loved the menagerie more than her four children, given the unconditional love that they gave her in return, while us kids were at times an uncontrollable lot. She had a special gift with animals, and was the only one who could have rescued Donald the gander after he was locked up in a police cell for attacking passers by in the street. It took a few policemen to catch him, but he sat quietly on my mother’s lap across the desk from the sergeant during the exit interview. Donald had become seriously aggressive after his lifelong partner, Daisy, died. He had subsequently taken a fancy to our dressmaker, Lea, and he had followed her everywhere, wanting to sit on her lap, to be cuddled by her. As she did not return his love and was fearful of the consequences, Donald had to be locked up and the only place he would remain quiet was in my parents’ bedroom, where for hours on end, he would look sideways at himself in the mirror, one side then the other, pining for his unattainable Daisy. These creatures that shared my childhood taught me that animals grieve intensely. They too shed tears for their loved ones.  Maybe it was the angry stage of grief that got Donald locked up. Will we ever know?

The natives

But back to my Fingal Head garden. Beyond the leopard tree, along the fence line is a row of Lily pillies now in fruit. As I walk past, I grab a handful of their small bright pink fruit, blow away the ants and toss them all into my mouth. The tart flesh reminds me of jamalac, a much larger fruit of the same family, also known as Java apple or rose apple and which abound in Mauritius. It has a shiny pink skin and white and juicy crunchy flesh tasting of lemon and rose water. I eat the lily pilly fruit, seeds and all, telling myself that the acrid slightly bitter taste of the seeds is indicative of their medicinal properties, whatever these may be. If you are less inclined to raw bush tucker, these fruit make delicious jelly, so exquisitely pink you will want to wear it.

In front of the Lily pillies are three king grevilleas, adored by the honey-eaters and noisy miners, who have been nicknamed the ‘garden police’. They have assumed responsibility for everything that happens in our backyard, warning me of other birds and cats, of water dragons and snakes. They complain when the birdbath needs a clean and a refill. The fresh water soon attracts packs of lorikeets, who screech and swing from nearby branches in a colourful display as they sort out their pecking order of who is to wash and splash first. The awkward ibis then hops in for a sip of whatever water is left, or maybe just to find out what all the fuss was about. Despite its size, it remains at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to swimming pool access.

The edge of this garden bed is lined with Daniellas, a grassy looking plant with white and purple lily-like flowers, and whose potentially dense foliage is intended to eventually attract the smaller birds that forage for insects on the ground, and who are intimidated by the noisy miners. All this was planted last year in my frenzy of creating new life, of keeping my hopes up, of killing time as I waited to fly away to my daughter and her babies. Everything has grown, is growing, is flowering and bearing fruit in a true celebration of life.

I told the bees

Past the birdbath are the bromeliads, and the famous quince tree. It is the odd one out, but a must in my garden. The poor tree been transplanted three times, and threatened to die twice, but with much TLC, sweet talking, and plenty of home made compost it had settled in its new spot next to the birdbath. Thanks to the bees, it is now bearing five plump quinces that will hopefully end up as paste on a cheese platter by mid winter.

And in the spring, when the quince is flowering once again, there will be two little girls and chickens running in the backyard. This will set the garden police amok, I told the bees.

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