In the wild kingdom of my life overseas, I’ve experienced the company of bedbugs, cockroaches, centipede, scorpions, fleas, head lice, iguanas, jelly fish, lizards, frogs, mice, rats, pin-worms, ringworms, ticks, termites, goats and more.
Some of these critters also made appearances in my so-called civilized homeland in America, like the centipede who scurried out of the spout of my teapot when the hot water hit the pot’s interior.
Frugal travel in Peru in the early 1970s included a bag of flea powder. Per my experienced, young husband’s instructions, we would check into a simple pension and then go to our room. Turning back the covers to see apparently clean sheets, we’d sprinkle a generous amount of white flea powder on the bottom sheet, remake the bed, and leave the pension to explore the town and grab dinner.
He assured me that any hidden fleas would be post mortem when we went to bed. His experience growing up in Lima, Peru had given him an unerring ability to grab lightning-fast fleas and squish them between his fingernails. I felt protected from the unseen intruders.
A dozen years later after I’d grown past the ick-factor, we’d sit together on the tile floor in our home in Guayaquil, Ecuador to de-tick the dogs. He’d hunt and pick them off with tweezers, dropping them into an ashtray we still had in those days when people still smoked. I’d fry the suckers with a match.
Protecting the dogs would protect our family, at least from ticks.
In the mountains of Peru in 1972 during one bare-bones lunch, I stared at my plate of rice and beans. They moved. Looking up, I saw my husband happily munching away. Since there hadn’t been an earthquake, I was sure there was more on my plate than just rice, beans and a scrawny chicken leg. Saying I wasn’t hungry, I just drank the Coca-Cola that came with the meal.
I knew if I mentioned the likely infestation, my husband would just smile and say, “Bugs? Added protein!”
Clearly ahead of his time, years later he ate all sort of bugs on an appetizer menu in Cambodia and we shared tacos with flash-fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca. Added protein, you know?
When we moved to Asuncion, Paraguay in 1979, we rented a house from a landlord who lived nearby. Even in Paraguay our landlord was notorious, given his business of exporting legally (and not legally) exotic animals and birds. His for-sale hostages kept at his home business, occasionally broke out of their cages to go on the lam.
We knew because we’d wake up to find dead monkeys splayed across our home’s electric wires overhead with a few monkeys screeching their outrage. Another lesson in life & death for our two-year old, blasé daughter.
As for the lizards inside our rental homes in Ponce, Puerto Rico and Guayaquil, I welcomed them inside given their voracious mosquito-eating diet. Sadly one lousy dengue-carrying mosquito finally got me in Ecuador as I chatted on the landline with a friend. I recognized the mosquito as it bit me, though lucky for me it was a mild case.
In 1984 the International School of Curacao had a major outbreak of head lice in the First Grade, with an 85% infection rate. Rushing up the street to the school’s temporary headquarters, I found the young children and parents milling about.
After locating my daughter, I found a friend of her’s crying her eyes out. “Whatever is wrong, Susi? Don’t worry, everyone seems to have them,” I tried to comfort the child with the long thick brown hair.
To this she only bawled louder. She said it wasn’t fair, if all of her friends had head lice she wanted them too!
In Curacao I occasionally encountered the occasional cockroach in my jeans or closed shoes when I went to slip them on without shaking them first. Surprising, but not as bad as the night at the international airport. On opening the trunk of our car to put a visitor’s suitcases inside, my husband quickly slammed the trunk closed. Apparently he interrupted a family reunion of hundreds of cockroaches partying inside the trunk, which meant they lived inside it too.
I also learned how to grocery shop for pasta in the Caribbean. When faced with various packages of pasta, I held the box steady as I unblinkingly stared into the clear plastic window. After a minute or so, if I saw no movement I’d shake the box and stare once again. If the pasta moved, or I heard subtle noises from within the box, it meant the pasta was infested and I’d move on to another box of pasta.
I’d had the experience of dumping a one pound box of pasta into boiling water only to find the pot full of dying black bugs. Of course, I’d also had that experience with an antique box of pasta my darling mother-in-law had bought on sale to which she remarked, “Added protein?”
As for the 20 or so boxes of imported teas inside a closed metal tin, all were relegated to the garbage when I found all were infested. Our American free-standing deep freezer had a new job to protect pasta, flour, tea, etc. from infestation.
For some unknown reason nothing ever infested the leftover matzo from Passover.
In Guayaquil, Ecuador I learned the error of my habit to read while I ate. Engrossed in yet another book, I looked up in the nick of time to find a cockroach sitting on my plate sharing my meal.
The summer vacation we spent a week in Vermont, our young preschool son came down with what I knew was impetigo, common among the kids living in Curacao. With a referral to a local GP, we went to get the requisite prescription medicine. Older than the proverbial Methuselah, the doctor didn’t believe the young mother told him her son had impetigo. Then he looked the child over to exclaim, “Impetigo! I haven’t ever seen that in Vermont.”
Though Vermont is clearly a different climate from the Caribbean and Ecuador, Vermont was the place I got body lice. My GP in Canada pulled out the latex gloves for my visit to him.
Before Airbnb there were last minute rentals like my parents found for the one night before my brother’s graduation from the University of Texas in Austin.
With a child’s hearing, I heard sounds from behind the walls. But I said nothing. When the lights went out, out came cockroaches raining down upon my 11-year-old body. I remember burying my head and body so deep under the covers that I could hardly breathe.
Did I call my parents? Probably not, for though they were in a connecting room I imagine I didn’t want to get into trouble for bothering them.
Amazing what one can almost forget.
(Thus I end my 300th blog. When first asked if I wanted to blog, I thought–why? And said, no. Then my darling dearest daughter said, why NOT? As ever I listened and learned, and changed my response to the Chicago Tribune’s question–YES! Thanks to D3.)