Not exactly something you say every day, but every once in a while the situation calls for it. Like when you’re laying on a dock on a lake in the Guatemalan jungle and you feel something burrowing its fangs into the corner of your eyeball.
“It’s not an ant. You’re imagining things,” was what my Belgian roommate said after I screamed at her to get if off.
“Noo! I’m not!” I yelled, feeling a little hysterical. I waved at my eyes, too afraid to touch them in case it caused the ant to retreat any further and go into hiding under my eyelid. “I can freakin’ FEEL it!” Only I didn’t say freakin’.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know all too well what it felt like to be bitten by a fire ant. I’d only been bitten at least a dozen times by those same fire ants 30 minutes prior during dinner, when they’d decided to stop in their trek across the dining room for a quick munch on my legs. And their stings felt a lot like getting jabbed with a needle…If that needle had been dipped in acid and set on fire. Not exactly something you easily forget.
And now one of them had apparently hidden itself in my clothes and waited until I was laying comfortably on the dock and enjoying the sunset to come out of hiding and try to blind me.
“Oh. You’re right,” my roommate said in surprise as she spotted it at last. “Here it is…” She pried it off of my face, scraping the underside of my eye and possibly taking a few lashes in the process and then flicked the ant into the lake. “Okay. Don’t worry. It’s gone now.”
It seemed as though this was turning into a reoccurring theme of our trip. A bug tries to permanently disfigure, kill or maim me and my Belgian roommates insist that I’m hallucinating everything. We’d been on a week-long trek around the Guatemalan countryside, visiting the Mayan ruins of Tikal and kayaking along the River Dulce; taking a break from where we worked and studied Spanish in Xela, Guatemala.
I’m not as tough as I seem. I may have a compulsive addiction to moving to random countries but when it comes to things like snakes, scorpions or crocodiles, I’m a big scaredy cat.
So scared in fact that at first, I refused to go swimming in the lake. “There are no crocodiles on this side of the lake, no problema,” the hotel owner told me, trying to be reassuring. I followed his eyes to the lake in front of us and noted the complete lack of giant wall or netting separating the two sides of the lake.
“Um, you guys.” I said, broaching the subject with the Belgians after we were out of earshot from the hotel owner and headed for the lake for an afternoon swim. “What’s stopping the crocodiles from coming over to this side?”
“Oh, stop being such a wimp.” They said dismissively. Only the didn’t say ‘wimp’.
Which is also what they said when we went swimming in the Rio Dulce. This time, it was a different hotel owner who offered up his version of a reassuring crocodile theory. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully. “The villages caught and ate them all.”
“But that means that there USED TO be crocodiles,” I said, hesitating at the edge of the pier. Suddenly every branch or mangrove root looked like a the top of a crocodile head and every flick of a fish fin was the tip of a croc tail. “What if they missed one?”
“Oh, stop being such a wussy,” the Belgians sighed, only they didn’t use the word ‘wussy’.
And then there was the time at dinner when a cockroach fell on my head. Of course, I didn’t KNOW it was a cockroach at the time. I was envisioning something more along the lines of a snake or small tree alligator. Which is the only explanation I have for why I screamed “EEE-ahhh-eeee! Get it off! Get it off! Ahhhh!” My Belgian roommates just looked at me. I swatted at my forehead and off plopped the cockroach onto the table.
“It’s just a cockroach. Stop being such a girl.” Only they didn’t say…Alright, you get the picture.
“Whatever, I don’t think I’m doing that bad here,” I said, loosing it a little. “Give me some credit. I mean, a cockroach just fell on my head. I think the fact that I’m still sitting here means that I’m freaking braver than most people.” Only I didn’t say freakin’.
It wasn’t that my roommates weren’t kind people or capable of a little human sympathy. They just honesty believed that I was making a ginormous fuss over nothing. My only explanation for this is is that all Belgians must go through rigorous outdoor survival courses as children, sent into the woods as five-year-olds with only a supply of Belgian chocolate and a giant stick. Because MAN, my roommates were hardened wilderness experts. Nothing fazed them.
“There’s a scorpion,” my roommate pointed out one evening as we were getting ready for bed. She bent over to get a closer look as it inched up the wall of our bungalow and wondered nonchalantly: “Do you think this is the sort that can kill you?” And then a few minutes later, she called out from the bathroom: “There’s a frog in the toilet,” and the way she said it made it sound like she was saying that someone had forgotten to put the seat down. Blah. Ho hum. A giant bull frog is using our toilet as a swimming pool, but well, do you guys think we can get cell reception out here?
Her boyfriend was no better. In fact, he was WORSE. He didn’t just admire the creepy crawlies, he collected them. Everywhere we walked, whether it was a hike to a waterfall or a jungle trek to some Mayan ruins, he’d keep his eyes glued to the ground, on the look out for some rare beetle or endangered species of cockroach. And when he found one, he’d cradle in it his hands and study it for a moment and then carefully wrap it in a bit of cloth or toilet paper and place it his backpack.
“What are you going to tell the customs officials when you have to go through Immigration in the States?” I asked after he’d stooped to pick up a snake skin. I was generally curious. He and his girlfriend were planning on spending a few days in New York before heading back to Europe. I could just imagine the conversation.
Some bored, barely awake immigration officer asks him “Do you have anything to declare?” And out he whips his miniature Guatemalan rain forest; aloe plant in a bag full of dirt, giant wooden stick, snake skin, bug cemetery and all (seriously, he was carting all of those things around in his backpack).
He just shrugged. “They’ll like the bugs. You’re the only one who doesn’t like them.” He was teasing of course, but it was true.
But I did get better. One of our last nights in the jungle bungalow, something large and black landed on the bridge of my nose and fanned itself out so that it obscured part of my vision. My roommates and I were seated at a long table with about 11 other guests of the hotel, including the British hotel owner and his Polish wife. Not wanting to embarrass myself again and determined not to overreact, I turned to the American backpacker sitting next to me and calmly as I could, asked:
“What’s on my face?”
She looked at me in shock. “It’s a moth.”
“Could you please get it off?” I didn’t want to touch it; too scared it might suddenly sprout fangs and lunge for my jugular. She waved at my face and it back-flipped off my nose and fluttered back into the night.
The hostel owner looked at me appraisingly. “Well done. Most people would have run around the dining hall screaming if that had happened to them.” I figured that there was no point in bringing up the fact that that had been precisely what I’d done only a few days prior, and took the compliment with a little smile.
And then, trying to be humble, I said: “It was just a bug. No need to be a wimp.” And yeah, I said the word wimp.