Sunday, March 7, 2010

In the garden...

Last year I lost our Pakistani gardener, Ajas.
I know, even a small man like him is kind of a major thing to misplace, but it happened.

No, I didn't fire him, nor did he fire us. In fact, I'm still not quite sure what happened.

I should explain further; if you have a garden, you have a gardener. We were very happy with Ajas, (pronounced Aay-jazz,) Thomas and Bethy adored him. They would run out every morning to take him out a bottle of water while he was raking up the bright, papery bougainvillea blossoms that had fallen onto the lawn.

I don't know what it is, but while we drink the tap water the maids and gardeners absolutely will not. Go figure. Therefore I always have to make sure we have some bottled in the house.

The kids would give hugs to Ajas, discuss the flowers, and "help" with watering the grass and plants, and he and I would also exchange a few pleasantries each day. Once a month I would pay him 200 AED ($54) for his coming six days a week to keep our yard from becoming a sandpit.

Which trust me, without the guilt-inducing amount of desalinated water that gets dumped on it, it would.

Ajas and Thomas, 2008

We would beep the horn gently at him if we saw him out on his bicycle while on our errands, his bike always with the water from us wedged into the handlebars. I had thought surely others would offer something to help with the heat and thirst, but it seems not to be the case.
Sheesh, the things cost maybe a quarter apiece, and it gets bleeding hot out there!

In other words, we had a pleasant, low-key, working relationship.

My experience has been much, much better than that of my Scottish neighbor, who told me that people were knocking on his door claiming to be his gardener and asking for salary quite often. Not having sufficiently familiarized himself with his gardener, he wasn't sure who was whom and kept paying out until he caught on that he'd been found out as an easy mark.
It was very hard not to grin when he told me that.

Pretty telling when the Pakistanis can outfox a thrifty Scotsman. To resolve the problem my neighbor fired his gardener and found a new one to start over with, though the old one and his friends kept coming back in a display of impressive persistence for about 2 weeks until they finally gave up their former golden goose.

One day Ajas started showing up with another man, who he introduced as his brother, Aman. (Ah-mahn) For two weeks the men worked side by side in the garden. more Ajas. Aman has a great smile, but about as much English as I speak Urdu, so there was little chance of asking him where Ajas went. I thought Ajas had little English, but compared to his brother he was fluent.

Every morning I would say "good morning Aman," and Aman would say "good morning madam" nod, and smile, and if I said anything else he would smile and smile and answer me yes madam over and over, until I gave any extra communication up as a lost cause and would leave him in peace. Which was a relief for both of us, I am sure.

Thomas and Aman 2009

We have a small yard and I can do my own gardening, thank you very much, if I want something done that is difficult to explain. I like the small scale weeding the kids and I do, and I potter around with new plants to try out, and plant all sorts of seeds from our fruits and vegetables to see what comes up. (Pumpkins, peppers, squash, and basil, yes, potatoes, definitely not. They turn into mush.)

There are drawbacks, of course. One is that I have no key to my own walled garden, which is therefore accessible to us only through the house, and rely on the gardener to remember to lock the door behind him to keep kids and turtle in. Another is that the pineapple tops I plant to try and grow my own apparently offend. These get removed when I am not paying attention.
Aman was as gentle and thoughtful as Ajas with Thomas, with the one exception that he liked to douse Thomas with the hose. This could be annoying if one was planning to, say, go out the door in 5 minutes. I never had the heart to tell Aman not to do it, though. Thomas always loved having it done, and that grin from the both of them was worth the inconvenience.

One time the kids broke Aman's rake. I yelled at them and then spent the evening going around to every store I could think of to buy a rake. Of course none of the local places had one...why would anyone need a rake when the gardeners are so affordable?

Shamefacedly, I waited for Aman in the morning, ready to confess my children's misdeeds. Lo and behold he showed up with a new rake. Apparently the old one had already been broken, but I decided to offer to pay for it anyway. How much? I asked him. His face absolutely bloomed and he asked for a seriously inflated amount, which I gave him. What the heck. What's the use of being a "rich" expat if you don't get ripped off for a good cause now and then?

At Christmas he gave us a card. That seems to be a tradition here, the Muslim gardeners giving their employers a card which is blank inside except for the manufacturers printed message of holiday good cheer. On the outside of the envelope was carefully written: from Hussein.

Apparently Hussein is from Amman, Jordan. I felt like an idiot; I'd been calling him by the wrong name for 6 months, and he was too polite to correct me. I thanked him for the card and apologised for making a hash of his name. He seemed to find the whole thing funny. But then, he always seemed to find everything I said or did funny. Or had a nervous habit of smiling constantly to keep the white woman in her pyjamas from bothering him for too long.

About a month ago, Hussein suggested that madam would like more flowers in her garden for the spring. Well, of course she would. Marigolds? He queried, asking after painful minutes of sign language and both of us confused, for 35 dirhams for the soil and 35 for the plants, just under $20 USD.

However, day after day, no marigolds. Hmmm.
I asked, he said soon, Inshallah, and so forth.
Some days, (Muslim friends, I beg your forgiveness) it seems Inshallah means "not a chance, my friend." Just going with statistics, here.

Then, one day recently, he said to me, Ajas coming, madam. Tuesday he is here. Am very happy madam.

I am happy too, you must be pleased to see your brother again, I told him.

Wednesday, Hussein, formerly known as Aman, was nowhere to be found, but there, with his wonderful crinkles around his eyes, and not even five feet tall, was Ajas. We welcomed him back with open arms.

Ajas and Thomas with their mowers this morning

(I keep waiting for the day that Thomas wants to ride his bicycle pulling his lawnmower beside as we always see the gardeners doing.)

Then mid-month, Ajas asked for his salary. Here I had a little problem. You see, Hussein never did plant those marigolds, but he took the 70 dirhams. The money wasn't the issue here, so much as setting a precedent. I told Ajas what had happened, and handed him his salary, minus the AED 70, explaining that he must get the rest from his brother. Ajas looked very worried and apologised profusely again and again. (There are many gardeners, and fewer expats to go around, you see). I smiled nicely and after that nothing more was said about it.

Gaggle of gardeners

Every day Ajas and I say hello to one another and he tells me about the good rain and the very hot too hot sun madam. At this point one of us fetches him a drink. Now and then we discuss family, our homeland, even politics in a limited way, but mostly our two sentence daily conversations are about the good work of growing a garden, and the passing of days.

I'm glad he's back.


Anonymous said...

My friend, Kit once told me her Morgan horse colt did the same thing to her. He picked up the running water hose with his lips and doused her a good one.
Nice to have your gardener back.

Julia said...

I'm glad you were able to get your original gardener back after Hussein left. It's actually a good system they have going because this way neither one has to start from scratch to find employment if they just trade.

Natalie said...

Would you believe...Ajas showed up two days ago...with another brother!!! I shall be sure to get his name right this time, is all I'm saying. I wonder, is it a matter of too much work or not enough work that results in this musical chairs gardener scenario? Not that I mind, exactly...they have all done a great job.