DON’T MONKEY WITH ME

What could be more idyllic than a backyard banana plantation? Roxan Kinas enjoyed being a fruit farmer. Then the monkeys arrived

Illustration by James Hackett and Warren LePlatte

“You know,” said my friend, an English chef, “I could use
miniature vegetables.” He was looking at the spare land around my house,
which is in the middle of Barbados, surrounded by hills and gullies. And
he was thinking of all the unusual side dishes and salads he could concoct
in his hotel kitchen.

It sounded like hard work. But then, enormous wealth from my freelance
writing had been mysteriously slow in coming, and I could use some extra
revenue. So my gardener and I cleared a hundred square feet of dense bush,
and built twenty garden beds. I installed drip irrigation. I’d gardened
for years in temperate zones, so I figured this would be a piece of cake,
and I’d make a decent chunk of change.

Well, duh.

As the young plants appeared, trouble began. First it was white fly. Then
a variety of mildews assassinated my cucumbers. Next came a tactical invasion
of snails and slugs. Soon, I was spending untold sums of money on every
spray in the garden store. Clearly, I’d produced a tantalising buffet for
bugs, plus dessert for mildews and rusts.

Then the morning my first baby corn crop was ready, I called the chef to
tell him I’d deliver that day, and went out to reap my harvest. What did
I find? Three rows, each with hundreds of baby cobs, stripped from the stalks.

This was the last straw. I needed someone to blame, and was considering
nearby villagers until I spotted a series of unmistakable butt-marks in the
beds. Monkeys. They’d sat between the corn stalks earlier that morning,
feasting like kings.

I’d failed. And I gave up. The land lay empty, the long humped beds looking
like a burial ground for Jolly Green Giants.

Then a helpful agriculture friend suggested I plant bananas from new tissue
cultures being developed in Barbados. These French Grand Nains had thickened
skins that could withstand the ordeal of harvesting and shipping without
bruising.

I planted 75 suckers, and in nine months the garden was lush with tall,
large-leafed banana plants. I propped up each plant with a sturdy pole to
support the weight of the growing bunches, then wrapped each new bunch in
thin blue plastic and tied them off at the bottom with twist ties like the
ones on garbage bags. Blue bags are supposed to help the bunches ripen more
evenly. The bunches were huge, some of them with more than two hundred bananas.

It takes about three months for bananas to mature. With thirty or forty
bunches maturing at any one time, I completely lost track of the progress
of the bunches.

This led to a new and even more appalling discovery. Sometimes, when I
untied the blue bag to check on the fruit, there was nothing there but a
bare stem. Or part of the bunch had mysteriously disappeared. I cut what
was left and hung them out for ripening to sell to the hotels.

But the great banana theft continued. And I could not figure out who was
the culprit, or how the crime was committed, since the blue bags remained
innocently in place, their twist-ties still intact.

Then one day I was working in the yard and noticed an old persecutor, that
connoisseur of miniature vegetables, an adult Barbados Green Monkey. He
was ambling among my bananas. I stopped to watch him. To my amazement, he
climbed up one of my props, untied the blue bag, opened it, and peeped inside
to see if the bananas were ripe. This bunch wasn’t. Completely unfazed, he
retied the bag and left it just as it had been. He sauntered down the prop
and wandered back into the bushes. I was frozen in awe.

Since two troupes of monkeys came through my land every day, I had to watch
my bananas a lot closer. For a while there were daily disputes between me
and the monkeys. Then we worked out a deal. The monkeys picked methodically
from the bottom up, because those bananas ripen first. Those bananas are
also very small, and not saleable. The monkeys could have them. But I got
the saleable ones at the top. The monkeys stopped re-tying the bags, because
they knew that I knew what they were up to. Watching monkeys turned out to
be a whole lot easier than waging war on bugs and mildews. Not to mention
cheaper.

So, for the moment, the little larcenists are my friends. But let them
put a single hand on my top bananas, and we’ll see what’s coming to them.