Bugs in the night

Feb 1, 2003

There is one current commercial that makes me chuckle: it’s one for the online travel services site Expedia.com called Mosquito Nets. And it makes me think back to Paama Island …

First came the roaches.

Erin and I moved into our house in late January, after pre-service training was complete and our group of Volunteers had been sworn in in a ceremony at the University of the South Pacific Port Vila campus. We returned to Paama, site of much of our nine-week training, and moved into the ramshackle but quite large house that was a remnant of earlier, Presbyterian missionary days for the island. The house had a cement foundation, walls of masonite and a roof of rusting corrugated tin. Unlike the traditional bamboo-and-thatch huts of the villagers—cool places during the hot days—our house was a sauna.

On our second night, visitors cames unannounced after we’d settled into bed beneath the blue mosquito netting.

Thwack! Then a scurry. This was not the sound of people at the door. Something was inside our home. Then another thwack! And another.

Intrigued by the sounds, I courageously rolled out from the bed, held a flashlight and stepped into the main room of the house. At first I saw nothing, but as my eyes adjusted to the low light and my ears tuned to the vibrations of the air, I sensed an invasion. Cockroaches, big ugly cockroaches, were attacking, lumbering like B-52s through the air and smacking into the walls, where they hung for a moment before scampering into the cracks and corners of the room.

“We’re being attacked,” I informed Erin. “Come back to bed,” she called to me from the security of the netted bed. “They’re just bugs, and they’ll be gone tomorrow.” Back in bed, I listened to the buzz, smack, scurry, and closed my eyes to sleep.

Erin jolted upright beside me, swatting at the air. “There’s one inside of the net,” she moaned. Or was it me yelling? Moments later, we were jumping out of bed and running for the door, skipping out into the still night, giggling with nervousness. A lone villager, a man tranquilized by kava and sitting in the glowing moonlight on the cement retaining wall by the road, glanced at us. Great, I thought, tomorrow the whole island will know that I’m afraid of bugs. (The word was already out that I didn’t like spiders, since I’d shown my uneasiness around the harmless but palm-sized arachnids during training.) “Erin,” I said. “Let’s go get them.”

Embarrassed, but giddy also, we each picked up a flip-flop and reentered the house. To the symphony of the roach attack we added the whack of human defense. The sound of a flip-flop smashing a 3 inch-long cockroach to smithereens was a satisfying sound, and we swatted and smacked until 36 roaches were dead on the floor. I swept the casualties out the door, and we returned to bed.

The next morning, I asked Noel if the roaches came every night. No, he said, they only come inside all togehter before a big rain. That night, Cyclone Yali began dumping rain on the islands, and for the next six days we were hostages in our own home as the hardest rains I’d ever heard pounded down on the tin roof. Water dripped in on us through old nail holes in the roofing, and we sat between buckets reading, reading, reading.

The rats were next. A week or two later, the house dark and we in bed, a quiet clambering and scurrying announced a new visitor. A bit more calm now, I lay in bed listening, trying to discern this new patter. “I think that’s a rat,” I whispered to Erin, who shivered in the humid tropical air. “I hate rats,” she groaned.

I swung out of bed, lit the kerosene Dietz lantern, and walked through the house. I don’t see anything, I told Erin, and I returned to bed and blew out the lantern. The scratching of rat feet whispered through the bedroom again, then quickly retreated when I made a loud sound. Hmm, I thought. That rat sounds like it is coming down from the rafters.

I got out of bed, quietly this time and in the dark but holding a flashlight, and I stood in the doorway that separated the bedroom from the main room of the house. I waited. Quietly, but very, very close, the rat was coming down. I flipped on the flashlight, and there, 12 inches from my face was a Polynesian rat, suspended upside down on the doorjamb. It looked at me and then fled back up the doorframe to squeeze through a hole in the ceiling.

The quiet village no doubt wondered why I broke the peace of the night with hammering, but the two-by-four nailed into the ceiling blocked the rat’s entry into our bedroom. And the rat, no doubt, found a different way down into our house to rummage for crumbs. It took us months to beat back the rats. We used traps baited with roasted coconut, and soon after we distinguised the lanterns for the night we’d hear the spring slam shut in an execution. One night the rats waited, and we were both asleep when the trap sprung. An eerie cry that sounded so much like a human baby startled us awake, and I got up to find a small rat pinned to the trap, its back broken. I carried the trap outside and battered the rat dead with a piece of lumber. Later, with the introduction of Pima the puscat, Erin slept more soundly.

Why did we fight so vigorously to keep the creatures out? Why not be more comfortable with creepy-crawlies, as our village hosts were?

We come from an American society obsessed with hygiene and sanitation, so we wanted roaches and rats and ants kept away from our food and dishes and bodies. The Orkin man may be real, but a few times I wondered just how different he was from the apocryphal John Frum that the cargo cult Tannese worshipped. Both are looked to for relief, so maybe the nambas-wearing Tannese aren’t that different from the American homeowner.

Bugs play a different role for many Americans, too. They are characters in story books and animated movies and school-room experiments. Few of us learn to fearlessly pick up a bee or a spider or a beetle. Granted, the bugs on Paama were harmless. In my childhood I saw the Friday-night movie Tarantula, but also encountered black widow spiders in my cardboard forts. To this day, I feel guilty about killing a spider in the basement of my family’s Idaho home—when the spider crawled toward me, I grabbed the first book from the pile before me and I squashed the creature. I turned the book over to see the title: Be Nice to Spiders.

But Erin and I were fighting to make the house a home. We come from an indoor culture, where eating and entertaining and relaxing and conversation were all done inside. In Ohio, with winter six months of the year, life happens inside, whether it’s inside the house or the car or the theater or the restaurant or the church. On Paama, life happens outside. The Paamese, it seemed, were indoors only to cook and to sleep and to pray.

This active, outdoor culture in the idyllic South Pacific was a godsend to me. I enjoyed working and playing outside, hiking to the gardens, eating with the community on the lawn between the nakamal and the church, and sitting in the cool shade of the mango tree on a scorching afternoon. Still, Erin and I spent many hours inside our home.

To be continued

Anton Zuiker

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