Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ants Marching

Ever seen Tremors? Kevin Bacon, circa 1990? Allow me to refresh: Kevin and some pals are in a deserted desert town, when huge subterranean worms come and try to eat them. Remember how it made you pick your feet off the floor, put cherished belongings on high shelves, or at all costs remain on stepping stones or paved surfaces to avoid touching bare earth, possible sending seismic signals to the giant beasts?!? I never had these side-effects from watching the movies (of course), but from a far more serious and scientifically plausible demon.

It all began on a Friday dusk. I was relaxing in my hammock, doing some reading, being amazed at the complete serenity in which I'd managed to place myself. As the light faded, as it so quickly does at this latitude, I unhooked the carabiners, draped the parachute nylon over my back and retreated for nightfall, supper, and the nightly lighting game I play with the local flying insects.

Barbara (seen here), my girl back home, was leaving for the weekend and I wanted to have her call me before she left, but the cell phone was nowhere to be found. I would try to use the computer, but the power is out and the laptop is about dead. Aha! It must have fallen out while I was in the hammock. With flashlights a group of us look around the backyard, dodging the slumbering cows and the output of their day. No dice. We even try calling it, nothing.

Just as I'm working my way around the side of the house, I feel it. It's never the first one that you feel. He's always halfway up your leg by the time the first bite comes. First on your foot, then immediately anywhere else they might be. Safari ants, small, black, hunters. I jumped, swatted, ran to the house. Off with my sandals and pants, I vigorously rub down my feet, calves and thighs, seeing five or six fall to the floor. I stomp, hard. Turn the pants inside out and shake them out further, two more fall out. It's hard not to panic. They're now in my room. Is every corpse accounted for? Under the bed? My shoes? OK...painful, yet laughable. Step somewhere you shouldn't and you sometimes get ants in your pants.

Dinner is ready and I've talked to Barbara. The one place I didn't look, in the balled up hammock, was right where it was. On the porch we enjoy chicken, beans and rice, and a nice long chat. It's getting late, time to turn in.

My first thought was that I had tracked in more than I originally thought, and the first bite brought back all the anger and fear, feelings I thought I'd put away for the evening. But as Job and Sylvia ran into my room, my heart sank a lot more. From my bathroom were thousands on thousands of safari ants, marching along both adjecent walls. They entered the house just a few yards from where I'd been bitten earlier. We moved to the kitchen and saw what you see in this picture, and again the same thing in Job's bathroom. I started imaginig sleeping in the main house and tediously (and painfully) de-anting all my belongings.

Quickly, Job pulls together a plan. The safari ants hate parafin, and this seems to be our only course. We fill a wash basin with parafin from our lanterns and water to cut it, and sprinkle the stuff around the house. First to block their advance, which was by now threatening stacks of clothes and exits, then to drive them back. Their lines of advance were clear columns, finding them was easy, and a few shakes of the soaked broom to turn them around. Victory seemed within reach when we realized we were out of parafin, and dangerously exposed to counter-attack. Unfortunately, there are few places open at 10pm which sell parafin, but fortunately, it's right beside a pub. Now, I can't say if it was benevolent environmentalism, procrastination, or exhaustion (not plausible), but through our inaction we decided to let the ants make an organized retreat and recover their dead and wounded, while we enjoyed cold drinks.

I should've expected it, but it seems there's a symbiosis, a quid pro quo, between safari ants and humans, for when we returned we found them cleared from the interior of the house, but quite busy carrying termites out of the rafters of our humble home. Again an altruistic streak hit us and we decided to let them finish up. I slept well, but with the mosquito netting tucked into the mattress, and flip flops on my desk (with the flat soles for efficient stomping). In the morning the were gone. An empty trail pointed my attention to the next house down the street, and a girl washing clothes. Just then she slapped her back, calmly scooped up her siblings and gathered the clothes.


Bruce said...


Nancy H forwarded your blog to me. Very well written. I had my own encounter with fire ants two weeks ago. I feel your pain. But they were on a golf course and no threat to my living space. What a story. What an experience you are having.

Jordan thrives at Uchicago. I hope that somedayt he has the type of experience you are having in Uganda.

Step Daughter Jaclyn should be headed your way in January. I hope that the two of you will be able to spend some time together - but I have no idea how close your respectives posts may be.

Great writing. Keep it up. Be safe. Take care.

Jordan's Dad BH

Kate said...

john this made me laugh out loud. i know what you mean about ants, although my little pesky ones only bite occasionally and then are easy to squish. they're persistent though - keeping showing up in my sugar, toothbrush, ears... ew. hope all is well with you! xo