Porous…thus Invadeable

Farm owner collecting sand to mix with compost to make planting soil, among other things

Living in New York I paid close attention to the weather, but it was usually to determine whether or not today was a day to incorporate rain boots into my outfit. Manmade cities may influence weather patterns with their concentrated emissions, but they can’t control them. They can, however, control how you experience them. How many times have you walked out of your office and been like, “what?! I had no idea it was raining!” or “why didn’t anyone tell me it was so nice out! I wish I had worn that cute short sleeved blouse and brought my sunglasses.”

Here, no one has any delusions about the weather. Even if you’re inside, you know what’s happening. Because it never gets cold (and maybe also because of cost?) all the buildings here are porous. There are screens on the windows to keep out bugs, but a 3 inch gap under the door. The windows with screens have only screens, no glass, and often no shutters, so when it rains hard enough the water splashes in and you have to move the table away from the window if you want to stay dry while eating lunch.

Ants, lizards, and even cockroaches scamper up and down walls, in and out the cracks between ceiling panels. Doors are left wide open and neighborhood dogs (and neighbors) wander in and out, often bringing lots of mud with them. Trashcans are non-existent; food scraps get tossed out to the chickens and veggie and fruit peels into the woods. When you sweep the floor you don’t sweep into a dustpan, you just open the front door and sweep onto the grass.

Cities are not the only places that do a pretty good job of keeping the outside out and the inside in; the cold rural climate of my hometown New Hampshire was just as effective at maintaining that distinct separation. Here, there is no battle to create a barrier between in and out; it’s as though people who live here know who always wins, and instead of trying to fight, have acquiesced and learned to compromise.

Where I’m staying now is rural upon rural and everyone who lives here earns his livelihood from farming. Farmers, probably more than anyone in the tropics, know the power of the elements and know that that only so much fight is worth your effort. The ways they know it are far more profound than the ways I know it because the weather directly influences their livelihood, and even though I’m here, I’m not relying on a crop yield for my survival.

But I still feel small. Living someplace where the weather has the power to drastically change the landscape at any given moment- often in a moment- is a reminder of just how powerless people are. Yes, we can build buildings that can formidably withstand earthquakes, snowstorms, floods and hurricanes, but ants can still eat the contents of your garden overnight, and rivers can still move mountains.

Living here, there is no mystery as to the force of nature. I’ve found that a lot of commonly tossed around metaphors have literal basis in the agrarian life: “Get to the root of the problem.” “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” “Get back on the horse.” “That really ruffled her feathers.” “Your kids are an army of ants- keep them out of my kitchen!” “That number 47; he’s a real force of nature as he rushes the 10 yard line!” That is no small claim. Nature can do some pretty forceful stuff.

After every rain storm the river changes; the bigger the rainstorm, the bigger the change. Bridges collapse, roads wash out, streams appear where they didn’t used to be, boulders roll down mountains, trees fall into the spring and cut off the drinking water supply. These things happen. When they do, people don’t whine (or maybe they do and I just don’t hear them); all I see people do is find a way to adjust. Compromise. Maybe if they had City of Houston-sized funding, people here would build unporous houses, construct fiberglass holding tanks instead of springs, and pave every single road. That would make things easier. But somehow I feel like everyone who lives in porous places has an advantage over those of us raised in places where we effectively keep the outside out; everyone here knows the power of nature and therefore knows how to deal with it.

When the “house cleaner ants” came and visited my neighbors house, she and her kids just made the rounds and visited the neighbors while the army of ants invaded her house- covering the walls, floors, shelves, furniture, ceiling, looking for cockroaches, spiders, termites and flies to eat. Two days later, as I was walking up to my house after work, I saw a line of ants climbing up the front wall, into the living room window and the overhang above. Another line was marching up the first column of the porch and a third around the corner towards the back side of the house. There were thousands, and they just kept coming out of the grass in neat files. “Fuck fuck fuck!” I cursed under my breath as I fit my key into the lock. I opened the door, expecting to see the inside of my house crawling. But there was nothing.

I put my backpack on a chair and dug the bottle of 100% DEET out of my other backpack. Maybe I could stop them from coming in? Slow them down? Stymie and foil them? Does DEET do anything to regular ants? To these super ants? I frantically ran back outside and started spraying the line of ants. Nothing happened. Maybe the effect is delayed and a bunch of them will drop dead in a minute? I followed the line that curved around to the back side of the house. They were streaming towards my window. I ran back inside, pausing in the doorway to collect myself. “I will not cry. I will not be the gringa who cries because there are ants in her house. I can do this.” I walked into my bedroom and about 10 had come through the holes around my window screen. Shit. I sprayed them all. Then I started shoving all my clothes into my backpack, zipped it, and put it on a chair. Would that “protect” it? If I was going to be invaded I could at least attempt to keep some things safe. They idea of shaking ants out of my pants for the next week was not appealing.

I remembered that the day after the neighbor had them she said they’d stayed at her house until 9pm, meaning they were in her house for like 6 hours. It was 2:30. I decided to go ask her what I should do, try to be casual. I walked in and said, “Hola Carol, es que…pues…ahora yo tengo las hormigas.” “Hey Carol, it’s just that, well, now I have the ants.” Freddy was in the kitchen and must have heard, because he came out into the living room with a big grin on his face. Yes, this morning all 5 horses ran away from me and the men had to help me collect them. Now I’m coming to ask your wife what to do when an army of ants invades my house. Best day ever for the gringa.

Carol’s response was, “ah.” But, like, what do I do? She looked confused when I asked. She grew up here; she knew how to handle this tiny but terrifying force of nature. I had no idea. “You don’t “do” anything,” she told me, “you just wait and they’ll go away.” That was not the answer I was looking for. I was raised to understand that ants belong out, and when they try to come in, you should try to get them back out. “But just don’t touch them, because they get mad. And they bite like nobody’s business.” Awesome.

I went back to the house and they were still all over the walls, but no more had come inside. It was like they were making a perimeter, which gave me a sense of impending doom. I decided to grab my pile of dirty clothes and hide out in the laundry building next door. If they were going to invade the house, I didn’t want to be there to see it. As I loaded the machine, a gaggle of neighborhood kids ran by. Among them was the farm manager’s son, who called, “Raquel, we’re just going to pick some manzana de agua and oranges, está bién?” Sure. Go ahead; just pick all my fruit while I’m down.

An hour later, I had amassed enough courage to check back. The ants were still covering the first column of the porch, but they were crawling down, marching out of the space between the ceiling and the roof. Because that seemed like a good sign, I opened the door and walked in. Nothing. It was too soon to celebrate, but I was thinking I might have dodged the bullet on this one. I took a shower then hid back in the laundry room where I was trying to revive the machine because it had quit just before the spin cycle, so my clothes were festering in the water that wouldn’t drain.

As it was getting dark at 6, the line marching out of the ceiling was thinning, and there were no more on the walls or window sills. I was ready to sob with relief. It seems that for some inexplicably fortuitous reason the housecleaner ants had decided to take pity on the gringa the first night she was in the house alone while the other volunteers went to renew their visas in Nicaragua. Or maybe there is a perk to being obsessively clean- the scouter ants can’t find enough bugs to eat to bother invading your house.

Later, when it became clear that the washing machine had died and was not coming back to life, I was so happy to not have to fight off ants that I didn’t even mind pulling my clothes out of the tepid water and wringing them dry. If I can make it in a place where actual armies of ants threaten to invade your house and horses and household appliances rival each other daily for the title of most temperamental, then I can make it anywhere.

I wrote this Sunday. Monday morning, as soon as my alarm clock went off, I heard fluttering right above my ears. Two fruit bats were flying in frantic circles around the house. (Add “bat shit crazy” to the list of metaphors with quite literal bases). Just before lunch, Marcos calls me over to “come see the culebra!” Visibly shaking, I look into the rice bag where he stashed the boa constrictor the men came across while cutting cow grass in order to “relocate it” to the other side of the river. When I get home, who’s marching across the front porch? Housecleaner ants! This time, they stayed about 3 hours and only walked along the back side of the house, making a pit stop around one corner of the kitchen. While they made their rounds, the finca owner helped me chase one of the bats out. I’m not sure if I got the second one out when it showed up again Tuesday night; I chased it out of the living room in the direction of the open back door and then didn’t see it anymore. But it could just have hidden itself somewhere.

Today, Marcos killed one Fur de Lance in a field near the school and the men saw another one in the garden near the river, where I spend a good part of the day working. The outside is everywhere. 




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