Invertebrate Adventures – My Marvelous Mexican Midlife Crisis

I am a recovering arachnophobe.  I don’t know when or how I became so terrified of spiders, but it was completely irrational.  I remember driving down a busy major artery in Calgary (Memorial Drive for those who are familiar with Calgary) and making my husband pull over to kill a spider that was no bigger than my thumbnail.  It was hanging from a web on the passenger window of our Honda Civic; I was in the passenger seat.  I couldn’t escape and I was nearly crawling out of my skin trying to pull myself away from the slowly swinging spider.  My poor husband, his wife had completely lost her mind.  Realizing that I would soon be in his lap while he was trying to drive, he pulled over and disposed of the beast.  My hero!

After our son was born I worked very hard to not pass my arachnophobia on to him.  Whenever I found a spider I would force myself to see the beauty in those weird, beady-eyed, bendy-legged, mandible-laden creatures.  I would extol the virtues of how they eat mosquitoes (a very noble pursuit), the beauty of their lacy webs, and marvel at their speed, power, and agility.  It worked.  My son has no fear of anything with eight legs.  In fact, one summer Ethan actually tore after two bigger boys at a Calgary splash park in order to protect a spider.  I watched in amused wonder as they ran to their parents’ protection while being hotly pursue by my badger of a son.  When I approached Ethan for the story behind the conflict, he told me in an indignant rage that the boys had been trying to kill a daddy longlegs for sport.  They had ignored him when he told them to stop, so he defended the persecuted arthropod.  A minute later, he tenderly scooped up the poor eight-legged victim, and together we relocated it to a far corner of the park away from its tormentors.  As you can tell, I am still busting my buttons with pride about that day.  (For the record, I know that daddy longlegs are not technically spiders, but they have eight legs.  Good enough.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was preparing my son and me to live in the tropics.  When you live in a hot locale you also live with bugs.  They are literally everywhere.  When you hear people saying that bugs are the most numerous animals on the planet, you soon believe it after living here a while.  The variety of ants alone that I have seen boggles my mind.  Everything from little tiny sugar ants to large red ones that look like they could cut your toenails with their mandibles!

Many of us fear the big bugs, but often it’s the small ones that cause innumerable headaches in daily life.  The apartment I lived in when I first moved to Puerto Vallarta had sugar ants (at least I think that is what they are called).  Sugar ants are wee black ants that don’t bite, but are attracted to open food, particularly sugar.  They are a constant irritation and nuisance in the kitchen.  I quickly learned to cover all my food and to clean dirty dishes promptly, but the darned things kept coming!  I tried insecticide in various locations, but it wasn’t working.  One day I followed the miniature breadline, determined to find where they were getting into my home.  I traced them across my kitchen counter and along the foot of my bed to my wonderful west facing window.  From there I had the most incredible view of the ocean and the city’s rooftops.  When I looked down the side of my building I also got an astonishing view of the sugar ants marching up the side of the building to my third floor apartment and entering via the window!  I tried closing it, but found that the little beasties were working their way through a gap between the frame and the window pane.  Many Mexican homes are not airtight and my six-legged invaders had taken full advantage of it.

The other bug that had made its presence know in my apartment was, you guessed it, the cockroach (insert shiver here).  I remember reading somewhere that cockroaches are the animal most likely to survive after a nuclear war and I believe it!  The first time I stomped on a cockroach was actually in Costa Rica circa 1991.  I was visiting a friend at her home when one came scuttling out across her kitchen floor.  She told me to step on it, which I dutifully did, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.  When I lifted my foot the cockroach pulled its six legs back underneath its body and continued on its merry way across the kitchen floor!  I yelped in surprise and backed off.  How could a bug the size of my thumb withstand a stomp from 145 pounds of me?  My friend, who weighed about 110 pounds soaking wet, was disgusted with me and slew the insect with two solid stomps from her sandaled foot.

This memory was still very fresh when I first arrived in Mexico.  No cockroach was going to get the better of me this time!  My initial encounter was in the stairwell leading up to my apartment.  I stomped my foot down like a sumo wrestler taking full advantage of my now 170 pounds.  (Who doesn’t gain a bit of weight from their 20’s to their 40’s?)  Success!  That day I went on Facebook and crowed about my conquest.  I felt tough and worldly until one friend asked if Mexican cockroaches fly like the ones she had encountered in the Philippines.  Another friend asked if they bite.  Fly?  Bite?  I answered that I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to let them live long enough to find out!

Like the mini sugar ants, you can find cockroaches anywhere.  Usually, they are on the floor, but I did once find one on top of my upper cupboards when I was cleaning up there.  Without a doubt, the grossest place I ever found a cockroach was in my blender carafe.  Early one bleary-eyed morning, I grabbed my blender to make a breakfast smoothie and discovered a REALLY big cockroach lounging in the carafe.  Its antennae were so long that they actually protruded out of the top.  Shudders of disgust reverberated through my whole body.  I evicted the offending bug, disposed of it, and then thoroughly washed the carafe.  And then, I washed it again.  In the end, I decided to have bread for breakfast that day.  Blech!  One friend chided me for leaving it uncovered and advised me to cover everything in tropical countries.  I replied that I covered all my food, of course, but the blender was clean and dry.  I never dreamed that a cockroach would be enticed to crawl into it without the promise of food.  Clearly, I had a lot to learn!

Despite my posturing on Facebook, in Canada I would often practice catch and release of bugs that I found in my house.  Here in Mexico, however, I practice it much less often.  The change has to do with the sheer number of critters.  A few months ago, we were invaded by centipedes.  Every day, I found at least four or five, and sometimes, more of these little guys skimming their black inch-long bodies across my white tile floor.  At first, we just threw them outside, but after a few weeks of this, with no end in sight, we desperately began killing them.  We never did find out where they were coming from.  According to our landlord, they often show up in the rainy season.  We finally got rid of them, but it took two visits from an exterminator and the change of seasons to finally eradicate them.

Most of the bugs I have encountered in my house are not dangerous, but I have found two scorpions.  Yikes!  The first one was so small that I nearly missed it.  It was a little bigger than the sugar ants that I told you about earlier.  I think the only reason why I noticed it was because it was black and it stood out on my white floor.  I remember glancing at the floor and noticing a lone sugar ant, which was weird, because sugar ants are almost always in a group.  On the second look I realized it was a little bit too big and it was the wrong shape.  Why did it have a curlicue on its back?  I looked closer.  Whoops!  Making sure the thing didn’t move, I quickly got my bug swatter and—whap—no more scorpion.  Actually, it was so small that I almost felt sorry killing it.  I didn’t harbour the same feelings about the next one.

I was sweeping up and organizing my back patio one afternoon.  I lifted my husband’s bike bag to sweep under it and discovered scorpion number two.  This one was almost as long as my thumb and had powerful looking body segments that reminded me of a body builder’s muscles.  It was completely white; so white that it looked a bit transparent.  I think it was an albino.  It did look very cool, but I was more focussed on how close my hand had come to this amazing creature.  I wanted to ensure that it didn’t get away and end up finding a new hiding spot.  The last thing I wanted was to lose my pale little friend and get stung on a different day.  Luckily it wasn’t too inclined to move.  I zipped into the house and grabbed my trusty orange bug swatter.  Once again, I let it rip.  Three vicious swats and my foe was vanquished.  When I told my neighbour about the second scorpion she was fascinated.

“Wow, those are rare around here.”

“Well, lucky me…I guess.”

“You should have kept it.”

“KEPT it?  What would have I done with it?  No way!”

The two experiences scared me a bit, because they highlighted a gap in my knowledge base.  What do you do if you are stung by a scorpion?  I don’t know.  It looks like I need to do a bit of research.

Despite the unwanted curly tailed guests, I quite like my house.  It is in a relatively quiet neighbourhood (by Mexican standards) and it has a park where my son can play.  The only major annoyances are dust (many of the roads are not paved) and one particular type of insect.  In my area there are many green spaces and undeveloped lots.  This means an abundance of tall grass and trees.  And what loves to live in tall vegetation?  Yep, mosquitoes.

My house does not have any screens on the windows.  Many Vallartense homes do not.  It also did not have air conditioning when I first moved in.  On hot days, (and there are more than a few of those in Vallarta), I had a choice to either sweat to death with the windows closed, or cover myself head to toe in a protective layer of deet, and open the windows and doors.  It was pretty awful walking around my home smelling like a can of “Off!”, but the alternative was simply too stifling.

One thing is for certain.  Mexican mosquitoes love international dining.  In Canada, I would get my fair share of bites, but here my status has been elevated.  As far as Mexican skeeters are concerned, I am five star dining.  My husband, who is Chinese Canadian, and my son also get bitten, but not nearly as often as I do.  I am caucasian and very fair skinned.  Without fail, I will get four to five bites for every one that they get.  Mexican mosquitoes must be attracted to my neon white legs. Yes, I am a mosquito beacon.  A caucasian co-worker from England supports my hypothesis, saying that she gets far more bites here than she ever did back home.

If you have never been bitten by a Mexican mosquito you are very lucky.  The itch from their bite is singularly awful and is dreaded by rich and poor alike.  One day at work, another co-worker of mine who hails from Spain, suddenly jumped up and smashed his hand down on what I guessed to be a mosquito.  The speed and ferocity of the attack were impressive.  When I recovered from my surprise, I asked if he found the mosquitoes worse here than in his home country.  He nodded affirmatively, “There are all kinds of mosquitoes in the world. And then, there are Mexican mosquitoes!”  I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my chair.

I work at a private school here in Vallarta.  None of the classroom windows at my school have screens.  As such, I sometimes have gotten some unwanted visitors in my classroom.  The first time I encountered a spider in my room was definitely interesting.  It had been hiding behind the wastepaper basket and scurried up the wall with lightning speed when one of my students moved the basket.  A collective scream rose up from the class as the terrified arachnid crouched at the very top of the wall.  Half of my students were out of their desks; all eyes were on the arachnid.  So why was my entire class in a complete tizzy over a bug?  The spider was approximately the size of my hand.  No it wasn’t a tarantula.  It looked more like a daddy longlegs on steroids.  It had long thin graceful legs and was covered in beautiful blonde fur.  In fact, it was a shade of blonde that many women pay for at salons across North America!  Essentially, it was the spider version of a leggy, blonde super model!

The spider did not look aggressive at all.  In fact, everything about its body languages said, “Get me away from these freaky, screaming giants!”  Nevertheless, my twenty three grade two students were completely losing their heads.  No amount of reasoning was going to work.  I had to get rid of the spider.  But how?  It was almost on the ceiling and I was not tall enough to reach it even standing on a chair.  And while I had presumably overcome my arachnophobia, I had never tested my newfound bravery on such a (gulp) large specimen.  Lastly, was this species poisonous?  I had no idea.

I decided that I needed some help.  I stepped out of my classroom and saw one of my coworkers.  I called him over and explained my predicament.  He offered to catch the spider and then release it into one of the trees on campus.  Standing on a chair, he snatched the spider up in a dusting cloth faster than I thought possible and carried it out of the classroom while my students cheered their conquering hero.  After the students had left for the day, I asked him if the spider was venomous.  He said that no, they weren’t poisonous or even aggressive.  They were just big.

On a different day, I had a visit from another big bug.  This time I was teaching grade one when a large bumblebee found its way into my classroom.  Once again my class was in chaos.  All eyes were fixed on the movements of the bee and not on the teacher.  Although the bee was right near my open classroom door, it was stubbornly head-butting the florescent light above the door jamb over and over again.

By this time, I had been teaching at the school a few months and no longer considered myself a “newbie”.  If the lights were turned off, I reasoned, the bee would lose interest and find its way out the door.  I walked over and turned off the light switch smartly.  I was correct.  The bee did lose interest in the lights; however, it suddenly became very curious about me.  Instead of flying out the door, it turned around and made a beeline straight for my head. (What?!  Somebody had to say it!)  I looked up, lost all my composure, screamed like one of my six year old charges, and ran to the other side of the room, ducking my head.  The bee, which now seemed about the size of a school bus, buzzed over my head and out a window on the opposite side of the classroom.  I quickly closed the window and turned back to my class.

Seventeen startled pairs of eyes stared back at me.  For the first time all year, the entire group of children were struck dumb.  Their teacher, who had been admonishing them to keep calm a few seconds earlier, had completely lost her cool.  I couldn’t help myself, I started to giggle.  Soon we were sharing a large belly laugh.  A few of the braver students took the opportunity to do their best impersonation of Miss Carmen in distress.  I am certain more than one parent heard the story about how the English teacher ran across the classroom screaming like a darned fool that day.

Actually, I was very surprised at my students’ reaction toward bugs.  I thought since kids in Vallarta live in a tropical environment, they would not be as scared of bugs as Canadian children.  After all, they are exposed to arthropods all year round, not just in the summer months.  Not so.  My Mexican students are just as terrified as the Canadian kids that I know.

I am aware that I have mostly discussed the bugs that make your skin crawl, but there are beautiful ones too.  One morning we found a small beetle hanging out on our front door.  It was a bit larger than a good-sized ladybug and it was golden.  The colour was so real that it actually looked gold plated.  As well, we are frequently visited by beautiful chocolate-coloured moths and butterflies of varying colours in our carport.

Luckily, most of the really big bugs don’t seem to hang out in urban centres.  There are exceptions, of course, like the centipede that zipped under my washing machine in my back patio one day.  It was as thick as my thumb and a good four inches long.  (I bet that some of my friends have just sworn that they will never come to my house now.  Don’t worry guys.  The exterminator killed it when he killed the little ones.)  Anyway, if you want to safely check out some of the larger and more exotic varieties of bugs, I would recommend going to the Botanical Gardens south of town.  On display, they have examples of all kinds of creatures with two, four, six, and eight legs.  Some, like the butterflies and hummingbirds, take my breath away with their delicate beauty.  Others, like the oversized beetles with mandibles the size of my fingers, make me glad that I live in the city!  If I remember correctly, the animals on display were mostly found at the gardens, but don’t let that deter you from wandering around the numerous paths.  I’ve been there three times and never had a close encounter with any oversized bugs.  The only insects I would caution you about are the mosquitoes.  Make sure that you wear good shoes, a long sleeved shirt and pants, and/or use bug repellant.  As I mentioned before, the mosquitoes are relentless!

I have been living here a while now, but I am still not a bug lover.  I would definitely prefer that they took up residence somewhere other than my house or classroom.  Nevertheless, they have not detered my desire to live in Puerto Vallarta.  They are part of living in a beautiful, warm climate.  Dealing with them is much better than living with the cold of Canadian winter!


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