I have a very high tolerance for insects. One of Adam’s favorite stories involves me hoarding dead roaches in a Ziploc bag under our sink in Brooklyn. Normally, my reactions to bugs are proportionate to their size, and my philosophy is to calmly and quickly get rid of them. Minimal drama. I’m squeamish about crushing the big ones, but it’s no big deal: I just trap them under a glass and toss them out a window. I kept those roaches only just long enough to show Adam, because they were really huge.
In terms of insects, our Peace Corps service got off to an ominous start. The first night of our Cape Verdean homestay, Adam shut the bedroom door to go to bed and came face to face with an enormous spider. He ran to our host parents to ask—in sign language—if the spiders were poisonous. The family laughed uproariously. They just ignored the spiders completely. Adam came back into the room and ordered me to kill the spider, or he wouldn’t get any sleep.
We quickly learned the ropes. Spiders will sense you coming, so you have to attack quickly. You’re really in trouble if they happen to be carrying an egg sack, because then thousands of baby spiders explode from the impact. (Hasn’t happened to me, knock on wood.) You must promptly dispose of any insect carcass, or else undertaker ants will swarm and disassemble it piecemeal. Infestations of little kitchen ants are inevitable; it’s a game of cat and mouse. Double bagging helps. Sort your dried beans carefully before storing them, because whether gifted from friends or purchased at the market, they have pests which will tunnel out after a few days.
We’ve had no respite from the insects here in Benin. Our homestay was a mosquito hotspot. Beninese homes don’t usually have screened doors and windows. As soon as dusk fell, the living room was thick with mosquitoes, a large portion of them attached to Adam’s feet and ankles. This was especially disconcerting because malaria is rampant here.
We’re on our own now, and we live with a lot of bugs, in terms of both quantity and diversity. Adam mentioned the gargantuan latrine roaches on this blog before. These are the least of my worries, especially now that the cat has mastered the art of catching them. I also ignore the orchestra of crickets in our living room and the swarm of tiny flies in the latrine and shower. But then there are the ants. The total body mass of ants in our home is possibly equal to that of another human being—it certainly outweighs the cat.
The most common ants in our house are the teeny reddish-brown ones in the kitchen. Any time I see one of these ants, I know that writing mass of them lies in waiting underneath a foodstuff nearby. I pick up the bottles of oil and vinegar, the unopened olives, the nori sheets sent from home, each in turn, and eventually reach the jackpot. These ants are slow and weak. Disposing of them is simple: you can just wipe up the whole horde in one swipe of a damp cloth. Inevitably, a few will crawl up your arms, but they don’t bite so it’s all good.
These are the same ants that love bread. One of the greatest things about our town is that it has a bakery. Women come right to our door all day long selling fresh baguettes from baskets balanced on their heads. I used to buy bread to keep on hand for lunch, and that’s how I learned bread is essentially an ant magnet. When they get into a baguette, you have been defeated. And I mean into. A few ants on top hints at a swarm when you tear open the loaf. I tried hanging the bread in a bag from a nail on our shelf—basically dangling in thin air. Adam came home to a line of ants from the floor, up the wall, along the nail, and into the bag.
These same ants—adaptable little buggers!—hang out on the water filters. Open the nozzle and you might just shoot a few into your water bottle. We learned the hard way to take a good look into our drinks before chugging.
Recently, some slightly larger black ants have colonized the kitchen habitat. These ones gather in a diffuse cloud all over the workspace. They scamper around erratically, but with a particular affinity for the knives. I try to squash them with the old wet-cloth trick, but they disperse, only to regroup as soon as I walk away—it’s like they sense that I’m watching for them. This trick annoys me, but it’s small potatoes compared to the ants that form columns.
The column-forming ants are my Achilles heel—if anything will push me to quit Peace Corps, they are it. They are large, shiny and black. They form up thick hairy lines outdoors at random times and places. The lines are easily two inches thick. The combined foot traffic of thousands of ants digs a furrow into the dirt trail. The ants don’t carry anything. Who knows what they’re up to? And who knows where the lines begin or end… A nest? A food source? A pot of gold? Our Beninese neighbors douse these lines with gasoline to disperse them and then sweep away the trail.
These ants have always creeped me out. They just seem ominous. Then, one day a few weeks ago, I came home and made a beeline for the latrine because I had to pee really badly. After, as I was washing my hands, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Something—a line of ants—was climbing down the wall behind the water barrel. The procession continued down the corner of the stall, across the floor, up the opposite corner, over the top of the wall (it doesn’t reach the ceiling), down the other side, along the floor on the other side, and back up the next wall where our house—mercifully—ends. I don’t know or care where the line went after that. I shuddered mightily as if I had just received an electric shock, grabbed our highly toxic bug spray (probably a close relative of gasoline in an aerosol can), fumigated the back of the house, grabbed the cat, and ran.
These ants bite, and it hurts. I know this because a straggler from the invasion chomped on my hand later that day when I tried to flick him off the soap. I howled so loudly the neighbor responded with alarm. (The back walls between apartments don’t reach to the ceiling either.) My spirit was as injured as my hand was.
I slept fitfully for the next few days, afraid the ants would find us sleeping in our bed at night. Luckily, all that happened was a roach crawled across my face.