Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bugs ... everywhere

And I thought the rats were bad.

Well, they were, and thankfully we haven’t seen any in our new place. I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with the fact that we keep our kitchen as close to immaculate as humanely possible. All it would take is one stray morsel of food to fall in that space between the counter and the oven. As it would begin to rot, a rat undoubtedly would be drawn to the smell, and, after making short work of our scraps, he would run back to tell his buddies about all of the great food we have hidden in cheap tupperware and in between layers of flimsy plastic wrap. We would have to move. I’m rambling already.

Let’s hope it never comes to that. But while we have so far kept the rats a bay, there’s another problem that all of the cleaning products in Ecuador and even our meticulously cleaned kitchen have failed to prevent: bugs. Goddam subtropical climate, they are everywhere. From the microscopic to the so-big-I’ve-nearly-crapped-my-pants, we have them all.

In our apartments in New York, Joannah and I were always pretty lucky when it came to insects. The few times – usually during the changing of the seasons – when a cockroach would find its way into our bathroom, both of us would follow a pretty strict game plan: freak the hell out, panic, then get into a huge fight over who would have to kill it. After one of us smushed it, we would then get into another huge fight over whose turn it was to clean up the mess. Situations like these could last all night, if we had our act together.

The roaches here must be what New York roaches have evolved from centuries ago. Much like regular roaches, these things can crawl around at near lightning speeds. You’ll turn on the bathroom lights at night and you’ll know that you saw something crawl behind the garbage can, but you’ll rarely get a really good look at one while it’s trying to escape. Unlike regular roaches, for some sick reason these seemingly prehistoric creatures are equipped with the ability to fly. Unfortunately, they don’t fly very well. I’ll explain in a sec.

At least in our community, screening simply doesn’t exist. We have these giant windows in our apartment that, due to the climate, must be left open at all times, even when we’re not there (when we went back to New York for Christmas, we closed the place up tight, and when we came back a week later, the walls were covered in mold.) There’s not even a spot on the windows where screens would go if we had them. So the insects have free range to come and go – although it’s usually just come and then stay – as they please.

Which brings me back to the flying cockroaches. We’ll be relaxing in our apartment when one of these bad boys will fly into through a window. I’ve mentioned that they don’t fly well. It’s not that they don’t fly fast, or high, it’s just that they appear to have no sense of direction or orientation. As soon as one flies in, it flies right into the nearest wall … and again, and again until it knocks itself to the floor, upside down. Now is the time for action; there’s usually a ten to fifteen second gap while it struggles to get back on its feet before it either starts flying aimlessly again or crawls off to hide in some corner.

I really wish that Joannah and I still had the luxury of freaking out and fighting for a few hours, but we really don’t want something that disgusting starting a family somewhere in our house. It usually works like this: as soon as the bug flies in, we’ll both spring to our feet and grab the nearest flip-flop or shoe. Since there’s no predicting where this thing is going to fly, we’ll start waving our weapons around our bodies. The point is not to try to knock it out of the air. We are simply doing our best to minimize the chances that it would fly onto say, my shirt or Joannah’s hair. Once it’s down, we go for the kill immediately. Something like this doesn’t happen every day, but it’s definitely a weekly situation.

Nobody likes roaches, but for some strange reason, everybody thinks the six to eight inch long grasshoppers here are just adorable. Kids are always running around, grabbing them by their wings, sticking them on my back when I’m not paying attention, telling me that there’s one on my back, and then laughing hysterically while I lurch into a fit trying to get it off.

In all seriousness, these guys aren’t so terrible. Roaches are constantly moving and squirming and twisting their giant antennae around, but the grasshoppers just sit still. And they’re not that easily provoked either. Obviously, grabbing one by the wings is going to get it upset, but even if you try to brush one away with a broom, it might not even budge. They may be peaceful, gentle beings that don’t bite and won’t really bother you, but they are still f’n huge, so them being in our apartment is kind of an issue.

It’s really embarrassing making such a scene out of a bug that three year olds will toss back and forth to each other, but Joannah and I have not yet mustered up the courage to leave them alone. We actually haven’t seen one in a week or two, but there is usually at least one somewhere in our room when we wake up in the morning. And because they are so still, finding it is always an unpleasant surprise. I’ll be on the computer for a while, and realize that it’s been sitting two inches from my hand the whole time.

One time Joannah paid this really little kid a candy bar to get one out of the house, which turned out to be a huge mistake. All of the neighborhood kids, crazy for our candy, started basically throwing them at us, threatening more if we didn’t deliver the sweets.

Big bugs suck, but the little ones can be equally annoying. Every time we step foot out of the house, we get eaten alive by these tiny mosquito like bugs. Only, whereas mosquitoes have the decency to numb your skin before they bite, these things hurt. It’s like getting pricked with a needle. The itch afterwards is terrible. For some reason the locals don’t get targeted as much as we do. Lucky us.

At night the bugs are everywhere. There are beetles, mosquitoes, giant moths … you name it. Some nights are worse than others, but our house always has at least a few unwanted guests. Thankfully, we have a nice net surrounding our bed, which on those really buggy nights gives us something close to a sanctuary from the outside world. The one thing the net didn’t protect us from was scabies: microscopic bugs that live in your bed sheets. Apparently, scabies will burrow under your skin to lay their eggs. You know you have them by the pencil dot marks you find all over your body. That was definitely a first for us.

Nighttime is definitely when the bugs are at their worst, and usually while the sun is up, things are relatively quiet. Still, there are bound to be a few surprises during the daytime hours.

Just a few hours ago, Joannah brought down a load of laundry that had been drying outside all day. And then she sets up the ironing table. I’m definitely not trying to come off as complaining, but since when do my t-shirts and jeans need to be ironed? Apparently Joannah’s mom gave her a tip to iron all the clothes in case any stowaways have tried to make your clothes their home while they were outside drying.

It seemed a little obsessive, but whatever, we did already have scabies. I was busy hammering some nails into the wall for a would-be shelf, when Joannah let out a scream so loud, and so terrified, that the hammer flew out of my hand and smashed into the opposite wall. A scream like that can only mean one thing: bug. I instinctively ran into the kitchen while asking what happened. It could have been a snake, she screamed so loud, but it could also have been a ladybug that had just gotten to close.

Joannah had been ironing my jeans when a giant spider had crawled out. I’m talking like five inches giant. It had hair on its legs and two visible claws popping out of its head. For the moment it was crawling around on one of our plastic chairs, but Jo and I were both basically too paralyzed with fear to know how to get this monster out of our house.

Before coming to Ecuador, I had basically expected to find spiders bigger than I had ever seen before. And there are tons. One time I even saw a tarantula in our backyard. But on one of our first nights here, I was taking a shower and saw a nickel-sized spider in the shower. I went to kill it, but instead I decided to cut it a deal. For the next two years, I told it, I wouldn’t kill any spiders as long as they kept their distance. Obviously I was bound to see them, even in my apartment, but so long as they stayed in the corners and other out of the way spaces, I would give them a pass. I figured they weren’t technically bugs anyway, and they were too busy killing actual nuisances to spend their time terrorizing me.

This giant spider climbing out of my pants and holding fort on one of our chairs totally threw a wrench in our agreement. But maybe this was a test. Could the spider be provoking me to see if I would attack? Even if I could somehow kill this beast, would the deal be off therefore inviting all of his friends to make my life a nightmare? I decided that I wouldn’t kill it unless I absolutely couldn’t get it out of the house without touching it. Luckily, it was still on the chair. I bravely told Joannah to open the door and then valiantly threw the whole chair outside. The spider landed just outside our doorway.

I had to be sure it wouldn’t come back, I mean, it was only a few inches outside and was staring straight back in, so I tried to shoo it away. With a nearby broom, I went to give it a little push, but before I could make contact this thing moved maybe two feet in less than half a second. It was obviously holding back; it could have been running laps around us if it wanted to. Next I tried moving the broom really close to it, without touching, just to scare it back a little further, but now it stood its ground. It was as if it knew precisely when I was faking it and when I actually meant to touch it. I didn’t want to see it move that fast any more, but I kept touching it little by little until it was about eight feet away, backed up into some corner.

I walked back inside and through a window I could see it where I had left it. It was just sitting there, but definitely facing right back at me, almost like it was still looking at me. This staring contest went on for at least ten minutes; I just felt like as long as I knew where it was, there was no chance of it surprising me again in the not so distant future. Finally, I turned my back, but only for a second. And when I looked to see if it was still there, it had vanished.

Who knows where it is right now? I’m going out of my mind. Is the deal still on? I mean, I didn’t try to kill it or anything. But maybe he perceived me throwing the chair outside and poking it multiple times with a broom as an assassination attempt. I just wish that I knew where it was so I could at least try and explain myself.

I’ve attached a quick video of the spider on our chair so you can see for yourself how big it is and that my ensuing craziness isn’t completely irrational.

Oh yea and we had ants in our kitchen for a while, and we couldn’t get rid of them, but then my mom bought these poison bait station and that problem cleared right up.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lost in translation (yet another cliche title ...)

Here’s a funny little story about me not being able to speak Spanish and the chaos that follows when I try to act like I know what I’m talking about.

So Joannah and I were giving a nutrition class to a women’s group at a small community about 20 minutes away from our site. The goal is that, eventually, Peace Corps wants us to convince each family here to build and maintain a small organic garden. At this class, we were trying to sell the group on the benefits of home gardening. I told them that it was much cheaper to grow your own vegetables, that it’s not that difficult, and the produce that you collect should generally be a lot healthier.

One part of my argument was that homegrown vegetables don’t have any preservatives, or chemicals. So I kept saying the word “preservativo” which, I thought, translated to “preservative” in Spanish. I started to get some funny looks from the women, but I stammered on. By the end of the class, I knew that I had messed up something, but I couldn’t pinpoint where I had gone wrong.

Anyway, cutting to the chase here, I later found out that the word “preservativo” in Spanish translates to “condom.” It’s no wonder there was confusion in the crowd that day as I tried to preach the benefits of condom-less organic vegetables.

Joannah has a similar tale of embarrassment and miscommunication. Although, to be fair, whereas my story was a result of not knowing how to speak Spanish, Joannah sort of had reason to believe that what happened to her was the fault of her Spanish teachers back in high school.

You see, when Joannah and I were learning basic Spanish in our respective high schools, we were both taught that the word “bolsa” meant “bag.” One day Jo was helping to administer an English test to the local students and found out that in Ecuador, the translation was slightly different. During the test, Joannah spotted a student constantly reaching for something in his backpack. Calling out the cheater, she asked him, “What do you have in your bolsa? Give me your bolsa.” The whole classroom immediately burst into laughter.

Joannah wasn’t entirely off the mark here. I mean, the word “bolsa” kind of translates to “bag” … well, “sack” would actually be more like it. In English, this “sack,“ it’s a reference to a part of the male body. Hopefully I’m making myself clear here without being too vulgar.

Yes, we mess up the Spanish pretty often, and thankfully, no, not every screw up has to deal with condoms or scrotums, but overall, the language integration is, for both of us, way more of a challenge than we thought it would be. After over six months living in Ecuador, during everyday conversation, we have gotten used to stammering, sounding like idiots, and looks of confusion from those to whom we are speaking.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t entirely get our points across, nor that we aren’t improving every week. It’s just that instead of a our progress being a straight line going up, it’s more like a stock market graph, with peaks and lows, all hopefully moving in a gradually upward direction. There are some days where I feel like I’m almost fluent; I’ll be talking fast without having to constantly translate everything in my head before it comes out of my mouth. Other days will be the complete opposite, where I can’t understand anybody and vice versa.

Jo and I just came back from a weeklong Peace Corps meeting called “Reconnect,” where all of the volunteers met up with the staff and discussed how our first four months on our own had being going. Part of this meeting was a required 15 minute presentation, in Spanish, about our experiences, our communities, and our plans for future projects.

During my talk, I went through this rehearsed part where I was trying to explain how it’s very easy to be frustrated on a daily basis: people giving us higher prices, people cutting in line, etc. Instead of fighting with everyone when difficult situations occur, I was trying to say, it’s better to exercise a little patience. That’s when the Peace Corps language facilitator cut in and explained that you can’t use the word “fight” in Spanish to convey arguing or disagreement. The word in Spanish literally means to get into a physical fight. So here’s a perfect example of me speaking grammatically correct Spanish, and still not being able to get my ideas across.

And sometimes I’m not sure if I’m learning Spanish as much as I’m learning how life goes on down here and how people operate. For example, the other day I was riding in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other people, and a lady said something to me in Spanish. I immediately banged on the window, signaling the driver to stop so this woman could get off. My reaction was totally natural, almost unconscious. Afterwards, I was trying to remember exactly what she had asked me to do, and either I wasn’t paying attention to what she said, or I hadn’t understood the words. But it didn’t even matter; I didn’t miss a beat in what I was asked to do. You get so used to doing certain things that in some situations language isn’t even necessary, it’s just a formality.

I wonder, if everyone down here spoke English, and I had just arrived in country, and I found myself in that same situation, where someone had asked me, “Hey, bang on the window for me,” or something like that, I probably wouldn’t have understood what was being asked. So, for me anyway, I think that knowing how to conjugate verbs or memorizing vocabulary, while important, will only get me so far in terms of actual communication.

And there are always going to be stupid mistakes. A while ago I was talking to a mother with her one year old daughter, and the daughter would cry hysterically every time I looked at her. I tried to say to the baby, “You don’t like me very much,” but it came out as, “I don’t like you very much.” The mom made a face and I immediately realized and corrected my mistake, no harm done. But I just can’t let myself feel too bad. I mean, I make stupid comments in English all the time. Communication will never be perfect in any language; there will always be awkward misunderstandings.

It’s hard to measure improvement on a daily basis, but we can definitely feel that it´s coming along. Slowly but surely, hopefully over the course of the next year and a half, our Spanish skills will be closer to where we want them to be. Either that or one of these days someone’s just going to punch me in the face.