Peace Corps Stories Section:
Main Page (Introduction and Contents)
PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general
I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters
Quentin, the World Traveler
Stalking Extremely Small Game
The Christians and the Pagans
We Visit the Land Dayaks
Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Christmas News Letters
Until the Peace Corps sent me to Borneo I had never crippled an insect. I grew up in California, where when you swing at a fly or spider you either kill it or miss it completely. In Borneo I found myself running around naked in the bathroom, swinging a broom at a spider as big across as my hand, I hit it three times, but it escaped, several legs broken. When it came back the next afternoon, I was ready for him. This time I used the stick end of the broom instead of the broom end. I managed to stun it with two shots, then administered a coup de grace.
I'm getting ahead of my story here. I want to tell you about one part of life in the tropics that doesn't get into the travel brochures, the insects that make life there interesting. I should go back to the beginning. My introduction to the tropics might have been staged, it worked so well . . .
The big chartered 707 from Oakland circled once over the coils of a lazy brown river and the orderly ranks of a rubber plantation, then landed in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. As the 175 of us trainees trooped up a ramp to the customs area a brown moth, as big as a standard paperback book come to life and fluttered by. We nudged each other and pointed. Two people took pictures, and the rest of as watched it sail over the palm trees. The less picturesque insects came later....
About three weeks later, to be exact. By then I'd moved to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. I was living in a house with seven other trainees. One evening, while minding my own business, I went upstairs and found my first cicada. How should I describe it? Imagine a squat housefly. Now imagine it was as big as three Ping-Pong balls laid end- to-end, sitting on your wall. I edged close to it. It didn't move. Closer. Wondering if it was dead, I poked it. Smack! It took off like a tiny buzz bomb, flew straight into the wall, bounced, hit the ceiling at full speed, bounced, ricocheted off another wall, and headed straight across the room.
"My God, it's going to hit me in the face and put an eye out!" I thought, ducking into a corner. It hit an open window and bounced into the night.
I found out later that I needn't have cowered, because cicadas are harmless, even if they do run into you. They are also stupid. Once they get inside they fly into things, oblivious to the difference between solid walls and open spaces. You have to either put up with them or throw them out, since they almost never find their way out unaided. The biggest one I ever caught weighed in at just over an ounce on my postage scale. That's as heavy as half a MacDonald's hamburger patty, for comparison, and if you can imagine someone throwing that against the wall while you were trying to sleep you can see why the charm of such exotic play fellows quickly faded.
At least the cicadas were harmless. The bees weren't. I met Sarawak's bees after I was posted to teach in Saratok, a small town with a smaller boarding school. I lived in a small house, with 9 hours of electricity a day, cold running water, and a colony of bees under the floorboards. Big as a fat thumb, midnight black and mean as a jealous snake, they were fun at first. I would take swats at them with an umbrella, awarding myself a number of bases according to the distance they traveled when I connected, or a ground rule double if they hit the side of the house.
There were two slight disadvantages to my little game. One, the bees, with an insect IQ of 140, soon learned to stay clear of me until my back was turned, and two, some of the ones I knocked about recovered their senses with astounding speed and came back at my throat. I needed a way to attack them from a distance.
Some time later I acquired it, a second-hand blowpipe and half a pound of garbanzo beans. (I could have used the poison darts that came with the blowpipe, but I didn't want to waste them.) After that I spent many a warm summery evening on the front step after dinner, enjoying the cool breeze and potting bees as they landed in the hibiscus hedge.
The bees were honest opponents, brave and resourceful; I would have felt guilty if I poisoned them like common cockroaches.
I poisoned common (and uncommon) cockroaches without a qualm. The first appeared one weekend, when I was cleaning up a storage closet. Out of the corner of my eye I saw what looked like a mouse run out from under a box. I looked again; it was a mouse-sized cockroach, running for cover. It hid under a scrap of paper, which I jumped on. The cockroach scampered out and headed for the corner, making remarkable time with three broken legs. I beat it with a blunt instrument until it succumbed. Back to the cleanup. There were still suspicious scurryings from the box. I got my spray gun, then pumped until the room was dim with mist.
Out they came! Whole families, clans and orders of the little devils had been hiding in there! Now they ran in frenzied circles, bumping into the walls, crawling over each other, skittering and hopping about, having a bug OD on Shell "Vapona." In ten minutes they had all rolled over on their backs, kicked several times in the air, then stiffened. In another ten the ants were carrying away the carcasses.
The ants carried off a number of things in my house; crumbs from the morning toast, bugs that died between the screen and the window glass, spiders I killed in the bathroom, and flakes of mildewing books. They were ordinary quarter-inch house ants, and, after they proved themselves immune to poison, I learned to like them. They could clean cracks in the floor better than I could.
We soon reached an understanding; things they were not supposed to get into went into a cabinet in the kitchen. The cabinet's legs rested in tins, and if I remembered to keep the tins filled with water, the ants remembered to stay out of the cabinet.
If there wasn't food out, the ants wouldn't come out to bother me. They stayed home, doing whatever it is ants do under the house in their spare time. If they came too early, or, if they hadn't finished when I came in, I'd beat on the table top and they would leave, following their trails. Most ants follow trails, laid out according to some insect instinct. Mine had laid theirs out along the edges of the counter top, so it was as straight as a yardstick with one right angle at the corner.
Thinking about ants brings one morning to mind. I was lingering over a second cup of tea and the local paper. An advertisement caught my eye. "ANTS!!" It screamed. "DIRTY, GREASY, DISEASE-RIDDEN ANTS!! Conquer them with . . ." I looked up. My ants were politely foraging about on the table, carrying away some stray grains of sugar I hadn't been able to reach. They were a bit early, I decided. So I drummed out a lively tattoo on the table, then watched them muster up and march off. As the ant at the head of the line reached the corner of the counter, I called out "Colummmmm Right!" just for effect; they turned it as neatly as a platoon of Marines on parade. "You can cope a lot easier than you can conquer," I mused.