Always up for a chat, he was especially curious to hear of our holidays in Indonesia, having lived there as a child. We encouraged him to revisit but he always said that he didn't want to see it changed, that he wanted to remember it as it was. John had fond memories of Indonesian food and one night we invited him to share an Indonesian feast starring kangaroo rendang with us, thinking the meeting of two cultures would amuse him.
I had been lucky enough to be given a kilo of vanilla pods and after the meal had been savoured and a doggy bag packed for John to take home, I bought them to the table for John to see. It had an impact I could never have imagined. As a child in Java, John had played in the vanilla plantations. I am not sure if his parents owned them but he certainly knew a lot about them. It was a profitable business to be involved in and much favoured by the Dutch.
Johns eyes filled with tears as he inhaled the sweet fragrance. John was a young boy when the Japanese invaded Java and with other Dutch families were herded into detention camps, the men to prison camps. We heard many stories that night of life in the camp, the hardships and lack of anything for the children to do. John was a lucky one. The Japanese were aware that for the vanilla crops to continue, the groves would need to be worked. Being young and agile, John was released early each morning to walk the many miles to the vanilla groves.Using a sharpened stick, he gently eased the pollen out to press behind the stamen. Over and over, up and down ladders, on his own until it was time to head back. He was proud of his work, the freedom it gave him and the extra food he was sometimes able to find. Three years later, the Japanese were defeated and the Dutch East Indies became Indonesia. John and his family went to live Holland from where he immigrated to Australia.
In 2016, John seemed to be slowing - a couple of accidents in the bush while working alone didn't stop him and his sons gave him a mobile phone. The death of his favourite dog impacted on him and his ute often refused to cooperate. We wondered if it would be better to stop ordering firewood as no matter what, he would deliver, though one of his sons was often with him now. Last year he seemed to vanish from sight, the phone went unanswered and was eventually disconnected and I stopped bumping into him in town. No one seemed to know where he was.
Just before Christmas I decided to use some of the vanilla and started some vanilla essence, extract and sugar. I gave all my friends a bunch of pods for Christmas. A call one evening in early January told me John had died. It was especially poignant that I had been surrounded by the fragrance of vanilla for the last few weeks. I would have loved to have bought you some John but ever the gentleman, you didn't want a fuss and left quietly.
This little part of the richness of your life that you shared with us I cherish. Your memory will live on for me in your story, in the warm fragrance of vanilla and as I use the sturdy chopping block you cut for me.
Go well my friend x Nirala