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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


A Jungle Excursion

Last week I wrote about an adventure I had in India. I was just heading towards Tibet where I had an unplanned four hours with the Dalai Lama. All week the memories of that trip triggered another memory that is one of my favorites. I will get back to the India trip next week.

When I was in the Peace Corps, I worked for the inter-American Institute for the cooperation of agriculture. The institute covered the islands in the West Indies, Central America and South America.We educated farmers, helped to obtain equipment for farming, and lots of experimentation for getting power to remote places. We worked beside USAID which is an agency that does a lot of good for agriculture, which is life in developing countries. Solar power is the only way for some of the remote places in South America.

One of the guys showed me how to generate enough power to play my FM radio by using compost, seawater, oil cans and some copper. Since my place had no electricity and batteries were expensive and usually had very little power left in them by the time they reached Grenada this was a great trick for me. I like my music. Late at night I could pick up music from neighboring Trinidad. East Indian music soothed me to sleep. The more I listened to it the more I liked it because It brought back memories of my trip to India.

Because of the music I realized Trinidad had a huge Indian population and culture. I would try to get there from Grenada someday. My chance unexpectedly came by way of an invitation from Guyana to the agency I work for. The head of agriculture in Guyana needed us to help solve a problem they were having. I jumped at the chance to go when I realized two of the days would be spent in Trinidad and Tobago.

The problem that needed to be solved in Guyana was that the agricultural cooperation had squared a deal with Hi-C to grow all the carambola or starfruit they could and Hi-C would buy it. I didn't even know Hi-C “Fruit drink” still existed. The problem is the areas of Guyana that farms are low and swampy with canals running all over the place. The farmers use these canals to get their produce to Jonestown to market. By the time the starfruit with its tender, thin skin arrived in that heat, it was mush. I was with a task force of 12 people from varying countries and agricultural backgrounds who, over a 10-day period, developed a floating processing plant.

The flat bottomed boat would pick up fruit along the way to Jonestown. The farmers would get to the canals and meet the boat with their starfruit. The processing happened on the boat so by the time it arrived at the destination, it was shooting out the finished product into Hi-C’s vats. Problem solved. As far as I know, they are still using the floating processing plant.

I see starfruit from time to time in the “weird” section at Kroger. It makes a great drink addition. When you cut the fruit it leaves a star shaped piece that is great on the sides of salads or just a garnishment for the plate.

When the project was finished, we were treated like dignitaries one night at a dinner. The Guyanese Symphony Orchestra presented a tribute to Harry Belafonte whose music I love.

When I wasn't meeting with the task force, I was staying with a host family in a neighborhood in Jonestown. The family wanted to show me everything about their country that they were so proud of. The country was amazingly beautiful. Like Trinidad, the east Indian culture was very prevalent. The music, the food, the people, the cows wandering loose in the streets, the rickshaws all brought back memories of India.

One of my new friends offered to take me on an adventure into the jungle. A helicopter was going to drop some gold dredging equipment deep in the jungle. He said if I would help them unload the equipment I could stay in the jungle with them until the helicopter returned with the second load. Then I would return to Georgetown on that ride. Of course I jumped at the chance to see tropical plants growing in their native habitat. Everywhere I looked, there were tropical plants I recognize as plants we call houseplants. They were just 10 times bigger. It was amazing to see the giant Pothos Vining over huge ficus trees big enough to climb. I saw poinsettia trees people could sit under for shade. Orchids were growing parasitically in the trees along with bromeliads.

I also went to the mangrove swamps. Most of the houseplants one sees at garden centers were growing there. The houseplant industry is huge for the tropical countries where they are produced and sold all over the world. The plants to be shipped overseas are grown under very shady conditions to prepare them for a darker enviroment where we enjoy houseplants. I saw shade areas that were covered on top and on the side with heavy cloth that went for miles in the jungle. This “hardening off” process is what makes it possible for us to keep houseplants alive at home.

House plants need very little water once they adjust to an indoor environment. They don't drink much water in a house that maintains a constant temperature in the ‘70s or some houses in the ‘60s. Most house plant problems come from overwatering. We get used to the frequency we have to water outside and tend to overdo it inside.

The best way to get in sync with your house plants’ watering needs is the finger method. If you stick your finger in the soil and its dry deep down, it's ready for a drink; otherwise, let it roll until it dries out some. You will eventually get into a regular pattern with their watering needs. I got off track again.

As we were about to begin loading the gold dredging equipment plans changed. The neighboring country, Suriname, was having some civil unrest and bandits were confiscating any food being sent in. The military asked if we would drop some crates of flour and rice to a place in Suriname where it would be distributed to the people in that region. I got to make one run with them. On the way, we flew over the area outside of Jonestown where Jim Jones’s camp was where all his followers drank the Kool-Aid. Nine hundred and nine people died after he convinced them the Kool-Aid would take them to a better place. It was barbed wired and completely overtaken by the jungle. Such a strange sight, cabins and houses, an entire village with no one there.

On my last day in Guyana, the guys in the neighborhood I had gotten to know in the evenings presented me a 10-foot-long boa constrictor skin. They hunted a boa, killed it and scanned it. When the skin had dried they signed their names on it. I still have the skin in my trunk full of stuff from other places. I will never forget the hospitality and opportunities I had to see our house plants growing in their native habitat. We will get back to India; I just had to reminisce about this visit to the other India that luckily came my way.

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