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And I don’t mean my phone. I leave that to the State Department [see note 1], which I’m quite sure was listening in last week as I regaled my sister with tales of the turtle project and other juicy tidbits.
No, I’m talking about critters, creepy crawlies, insects – what we collectively refer to as bichos. In general, bugs don’t bother me much. I’m a hike-in-the-jungle, camping kind of girl. I’ve seen tarantulas, been attacked by fire ants, and have encountered too many scorpions to count. Pitching a tent on the beaches of Cuba has taught me to withstand vicious mosquitoes and nasty, swarming clouds of sand fleas. I’ve caught scabies in San Francisco (who hasn’t?!) and laid down with bed bugs in Guatemala. But none of this prepared me for Havana’s day in, day out infestations.
Let’s start with the ants crawling out of the walls, across countertops, and from inside my computer. This last is episodic but makes me damn nervous. I have enough technological challenges as it is. They attack any stray crumb of food and swarm around, up, and over our thermos – thankfully our daily dose of espresso is hermetically sealed against their attempts to mainline pure Cuban caffeine. Sometimes I feel them on me, crawling around my ear lobes and along my neck. Creepy? Sure. Annoying? Abso-fuckin-lutely. Once or twice I’ve found a few stragglers in our bed and more times than I wish to admit I’ve taken a swig from my water glass on the bedside table only to discover – too late – it’s swimming with ants. Gross, I know [see note 2].
But wait, it gets worse.
Our old building – one of those Soviet-style cinderblock numbers – was completely infested with termites from Elvis’ ground floor apartment to Chino’s five flights up. One day, I put my thumb through our front door, it was so soft from their constant feeding and our ply board bed had to be propped on concrete blocks the wood was so damaged. More than once the hubby and I were doing that voodoo that we do so well and a corner board went weak, sending the bed crashing to the floor. Talk about anticlimactic!
I don’t know much about termite behavior up north, but down here we actually only see them once a year, when they magically sprout wings to pour from their hiding places and fly all around the apartment. They’re unconfident flyers and we’d bob and weave to avoid getting them in our hair until they dropped dead in bunches, their iridescent wings littering the tiled floor. Until they performed their annual death dance, the only termite interface we had was cleaning up piles of their droppings and fingering soft spots in the doorframes and windows [see note 3].
When we moved into our new place 18 months ago, I was happy to swap termites for ants. No more of their pebbly droppings on the soles of my feet. No more threat of the bed collapsing while we did the wild thing (although it did present a titillating element of the unexpected). Then one fine Sunday cleaning house, I found myself sweeping up their shit – again – and cursing our luck. But even the infestations of years past could not prepare us for the horror that awaited: while flipping our mattress – an occasional necessity since Cuban mattresses are crappy and lumpy and poke you where the springs have pushed through – we found termites had made a buffet of our bed, burrowing holes all over and through it. Even writing this makes my skin crawl and if I describe what termites eating a mattress looks like I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Suffice to say, it’s nasty. It’s downright fucking nasty and I wish I hadn’t even thought of telling you about it because now it’s imprinted on my mind’s eye.
So ants in my ears and termites in our bed. Looking on the bright side, we don’t have roaches, although our car was strangely infested a while back.[see note 4] At night, these little buggers the Cubans call cucarachas alemanes would come skittering out of the door panels, the dashboard, and the air vents. It was fairly gross and totally embarrassing when these ‘German roaches’ did a cameo for friends, family, and hitchhikers.
On the whole, Cubans are not bug tolerant and toxic chemicals are readily available for rapid annihilation purposes. We took the car in for one good, strong fumigation and we haven’t seen a cucaracha alemana since. Meanwhile, the ‘dollar stores’ [see note 5] are stocked with tall green cans of poisonous spray called I Killed It!, featuring illustrations of mosquitoes, scorpions, ants, and spiders (alas, termites don’t figure in). I take divine pleasure in dowsing the marching columns every so often with a healthy dose of I Killed It, but there’s no keeping those Cuban ants down.
I’ve tried every hokey folk remedy I know: boric acid, black pepper, and cinnamon don’t really work. It keeps them at bay for a while, but cordoning off my computer with a cinnamon blockade gets messy. One memorable day they attacked from multiple fronts, coming from the bathroom tiles, out the kitchen cabinets, and amazingly, from where the wall meets the ceiling in my office. ‘Basta, coño,’ I thought. ‘I’ll show them what opposable thumbs are good for.’ Four legs good, two legs bad my ass. Time to bust out the duct tape (another item I import in my luggage alongside the nuts and grains and Parmesan cheese.)
I shut off their exits mercilessly, trapping them like innocent club goers in a fly-by-night disco. It was almost too easy (and oh so satisfying) to slap a piece of the thick tape over the holes from which they poured. I was on a mission and even devised a way to shut off their hole in the 12-foot high ceiling, perching a swatch of tape on the end of a broom handle and jamming it up there ’til it stuck. They found other ways in eventually, obviously, but I left the tape up there as testament to my small triumph over nature. Besides, for 5 convertible pesos (that’s 6 USD in the real world), I can pay a professional fumigator to fill every single nook and cranny with his precious poison. By leaving the tape up, I’m making his job easier.
Next Up: Mosquitoes
1. This may sound like paranoia pure and simple, but I’ve been told numerous times that my “file” was first opened in 1993 when I came here (legally) on a volunteer program with the Quakers. I, and other Yuma living here in Havana assume are conversations are being monitored by Uncle Sam. For all I know, the Cubans are listening in too, yawning as they hear me go on about my husband’s high cholesterol and how to cook okra.
2. But not as gross as the time I was sipping coffee with my Mom in Kailua-Kona and drawing the mug away from my lips, I realized there was a roach in my mouth. Needless to say, this place did not make it into the guidebook!
3. Only years later did I discover that the bastards had pitched camp on a treasured watercolor by my oldest brother. The folks at the frame shop refused to repair it because of the threat the termites posed to their wood stock. Can’t really blame them…
4. I should clarify: when I say “our car,” what I mean is my husband’s work car, which is available to us nights and weekends only.
5. If you haven’t heard, Cuba operates on what’s called a double economy where Cuban pesos (worth 20 to a dollar) circulate alongside Convertible pesos (worth 80 cents to a dollar). Ironically, this hard currency is called a “convertible” peso even though you can’t change or spend them anywhere in the world but here. It’s also terribly funny (read: agonizing), that the artificial rate set by the Cuban central bank means they’re “stronger” than the dollar. That means when I go in with 100 greenbacks, I come out with 80 bills of this funny money. Many products – cooking oil, shampoo, butter, bug spray – are only sold in this hard currency. You can see the problems this causes for people without access to convertible pesos, but that’s another story.