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September 19, 2012

“Odd” American Ways

Tom McLaughlin

Kampung Demak Baru, Borneo – My wife’s parents have become very elderly. Taking care of their quarter acre plot has become a challenge and I elected to help them out. After five or more years of seaside and condo living, I was anxious to get back to gardening.


I am not familiar with coconut trees. At the back of their property, three massive 50- or 60-foot tall trees had deposited over 100 brown coconuts. I collected 10 and brought them to my father-in-law, who speaks only Malay and is pretty deaf. I asked him to open them to get the flesh and water. I had no idea that they were useless as they were at the rotten stage. He must have thought his American son-in-law daft.


Fires are common method of disposing trash and other debris. They rarely spread as the ground is so wet and it is humid here. I arranged them pyramid style and found newspaper to set them ablaze figuring the dry nuts would inflame like the arrival of the devil. All they did was smolder with dense choking smoke. My father-in-law came back out, saw what I was doing and put the fire out. I saw him muttering to himself that I’m sure went like “what kind of guy did my daughter marry who sets fire to coconuts?”


After my failures to eat and then burn them, I arranged for the local boys to have a bowling tournament. We rolled the orbs across the seldom traveled lane into the government owned property. They never had so much fun disposing of the nuts with this white guy who made a game out of it.


In the kampung, people have very long poles which they use to work the ripe coconuts loose and they then fall to the ground. Many times they have a trained monkey climb up and throw them down. I asked my father-in-law, jokingly, if we could train my two-year-old son Dzul to climb up and drop them. I figured at least he would have a career if he didn’t do very well in school. He smiled.


Behind the kitchen many plastic buckets held what I thought were weeds. My idea was to dispose of them and plant pretty flowers. None of them I recognized as any kind of herb I had ever seen before. To make sure, I broke off a leaf and smelled.


I lifted the first bucket and headed toward an area where I had planned to dump dirt. Out flew my mother-in-law, stopping me. Getting up in years, she had quit walking through the jungle to get her medicinal plants she used to make potions. I was about to toss her most important plant. I think she now agreed with her husband that I was pretty useless.


The family had about 30 potted plants lining the driveway on open shelf boards. Most had died because they had not been watered as they were under zinc, carport-like roof. I took each pot and emptied the hard red clay along with the remains onto the pile. I mixed in some sand and ash to make what I thought would be a nice potting mixture. I also added some pellet fertilizer. Proud of my accomplishments, I showed the results to my sister-in-law who arrived two hours later. She informed me that it would not work because the ants would make a nest and eat the root tips. Only hard red clay would stop that.


I wondered what damage a few ants could do until a red one about the half the size of my thumb became angry at my gentle attempts to remove him from my hand. The pain was a strong sting. Fissures radiated from the site. I stomped him into the ground with great fervor looking for the rest of the family.


There were some plants that were pot-bound and lived out from under the carport. I took them back to my dirt pile and carefully turned them upside down. Then I separated the plants making sure not to damage the roots and to save as much tissue as possible. I lovingly replanted them into other pots gently adding soil.


My sister-in-law looked at me in disdain. She dumped a plant on the ground. The parang (machete) was karate chopped down in the middle of the plants, separating them. The root section was then cleaved to a perfect square. A pot was smashed. She took the pieces and put them at the bottom of the new pots. New clay was put in. Then the squares were jammed until they fitted the round pot. Other dirt was dumped on the squares. Then, pushing with all her considerable might, she packed down the soil. I must have seemed like a wuss in her mind.


I did have one good idea that redeemed me in my father-in-law’s eyes. There is a plant that has long thick stem with massive thorns. At the top were three or four large leaves. Earlier, they had a break in through their floor-level windows. I carefully repotted and placed them in front of the crank-to-open windows. The burglar would certainly think twice before breaking in with those impeding their way. My father-in-law thought so, too. The American finally has a good idea and there was hope for him yet.


I will continue helping my in-laws with their gardening, doing what I can to make life easier despite my ineffectual attempts. However, I am having fun just raking the leaves, picking up fallen debris, general weeding and burning trash.


…Life is good. . . . .


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