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Stories from my garden

Kristina Georgieva

I remember my childhood like a Henri Rousseau painting. Vibrant colours assaulting my first encounters with the world and the heat of the tropics, thick and stagnant, forming a resistance to time. A great jungle lodged an assortment of creatures, casting its shadow upon a bridging path, asserting its presence in the pandemonium of its inhabitant’s nightly songs. This was my reality. 

I grew up in Caracas, the lively capital of Venezuela. Placed at the base of Mount Avila and a short drive away from Caribbean beaches with white sand and crystal waters, Caracas has it all. The Bulgarian embassy, where we lived, was an unreasonably large building in the diplomatic suburb of Las Mercedes. The front garden, blooming with cacao and avocado trees, greeted guests in their search for a parking spot. The back garden, generally hidden from unsuspecting visitors, housed an assortment of creatures within its tall grass. Snakes, scorpions, giant cockroaches, spiders, and aggressive rabipelados shared their living space with us. 


My personal worst creature was, for some reason, the least dangerous: flying cockroaches. I felt that crawling and slithering individuals had their limitations and, therefore, could be reasoned with: “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.” However, not everyone at the embassy felt this way. Emmi, one of the diplomats staying there, had the worst luck with our garden inhabitants. She loved cats, and the embassy was a large property, so she could house many of them. Cats, it turns out, don’t get along very well with rabipelados. The two groups declared war on one another, and our nights were filled with the awful sounds of their battles. In the mornings, the rabipelados were nowhere to be seen, and the scratched up cats gave us a look that said, “You should have seen the other guy. One morning, however, we found Mama Matza, the cat that had mothered most of our feline family, dead near one of the trees in the garden.The rabipelados won, and Emmi was distraught. 

The wilderness within this unkept garden provided a perfect environment to learn about the cycle of life. One morning, we heard a scream coming from the back door of the consulate. Once we made it to the source, we found Emmi pointing towards the door. An enormous anaconda had chosen the door frame as a resting spot, and Emmi was terrified of snakes. The anaconda was not moving and appeared to be unbothered by our presence. Having grown up in this snake-infested mansion, I wondered why she was so scared. I guessed that it could pay us a visit in our sleep, and it would have no trouble swallowing me—a six-year-old girl—should it have the appetite. Given that those present consisted of an assortment of suited diplomats, a journalist, and a child, my parents decided to call some professionals to handle the situation. Parque del Este, a zoo-like park, was close to the area and had rangers available during the day. When the rangers arrived, they simply used a special stick to grab the snake and placed it in a bucket to transport it to the park. The anaconda seemed unbothered by this, too, which seemed unusual. 

A few weeks later the rangers surprised us with a congratulatory call. The anaconda gave birth to over 100 babies, which explained why she had such slow reactions upon first contact. I’m not sure whether we ever told Emmi about the babies, but my parents and I went to the park to visit the new reptilian family. 

Although the snakes were quite good tenants, unfortunately, the venomous scorpions were not. They liked to lurk in the darkness, and shoes were a cozy favorite. As scorpions are common in Venezuela, it is normal to shake one’s shoes to make sure there are no creatures inside before putting them on. Jose, the embassy’s driver, forgot to check his shoe one morning and was stung by one of the garden inhabitants. He immediately captured the scorpion and called out for help. My father took him and the captured scorpion to the hospital; with the source of the venom, they could create antivenom and save his life. Jose had saved his own life by thinking fast and capturing the attacker; this was the kind of thinking necessary to survive the unknown threats of the embassy’s garden. 

Not all inhabitants were dangerous, of course, but some were rather unpleasant. The cockroaches were my personal worst due to their agility and my lack thereof. We had various species, I imagine, as some flew while others grew. Cockroaches up to 5.5 cm long would crawl up your leg if you accidentally placed your foot close to the wrong crack. These delinquents seemed to have designed a game, where points were gained by maximizing inflicted terror, arriving from above or below. It took me years after moving out of the country to learn to not run at the sight of a cockroach. I’ll take a snake any day; they are much better tenants. 

Because of the large trees and long grass, the garden was a desirable vacation resort for animals passing by. Papagayos and colibri frequented this inner city paradise, coloring the trees and bushes in their bright hues. Once, we had an unusual visitor. My mom was playing with me, when I suddenly pointed at the window, saying, “muna.” She turned to look outside, and was astounded to see a monkey sitting in one of the garden’s trees. At this point, I should probably explain what “muna” is. Our language at home has always been Bulgarian, and the word for monkey is “maimuna.” I had clearly decided that the “mai-” was too inefficient for a child my age to bother with, in order to convey such an important message in time. It turns out I was right to rush. The monkey did not stay in our garden long and continued its adventure through the concrete jungle of Las Mercedes. 

Whoever built the embassy clearly did not think keeping animals out was a priority. Apparently, rain fell under the same category of “acceptable natural phenomena” to have inside. The reception area was quite large. It was designed for large diplomatic events, which sometimes included musicians, ballet dancers, and lamp breaking children. This was, of course, in addition to the expected well-suited representatives of the world, who always arrived with large gifts, inevitably containing yet another tie for my father. On the left hand side of this reception hall, there was a large and empty water basin. I call it this for lack of a better word; it was the size of an indoor pool but too shallow to be successful at any such endeavor. Above this basin, there was no roof. Water poured into the house, by design, every day at around four; the tropical showers dictated. Luckily we had the empty, shallow basin to catch all the indoor water. This architectural choice was not only a conundrum; it also caused nervous breakdowns for birds. Our avian inhabitants would sometimes wander into the house through the roofless area and get stuck inside. The high ceilings, with full-length windows, created the illusion of an escape and required multiple people to guide the anxious prisoners back out. 

To many, the embassy was a palace of culture—remembered by its elaborate diplomatic parties that revolved around the appreciation of traditional arts. To others, it was simply another bureaucratic institution. And to me, it will always remain the jungle that shaped my infancy through its life and color.

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