Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 1 Jul 04 12:11
NIGHT OF THE ARMY ANTS By Mary Mackey copyright Mary Mackey, 1994 First Published in "I Should Have Stayed Home: The Worst Trips of Great Writers." Edited by Roger Rapport and Marguerita Castanera; Bookpassage Press, Berkeley, CA. (All royalties from this book are donated to OXFAM AMERICA, the international development orgnization.) My sister and I picked a good hotel: a clean, place with whitewashed walls, a quaintly thatched roof, toilets that worked, and hot water. It was a far cry from the other places we had stayed during the two weeks we had been in Guatemala. The room in Chichicastenango had been windowless, smelled of urine, had two straw-stuffed pads instead of beds, and sported a family toilet planted neatly in the middle of the courtyard. In Flores we had made do with a tin roof that leaked, chattering bats in the rafters, and spoiled pork for dinner. I had spent a good part of the past six years living in the jungles of Costa Rica and I prided myself on traveling tough, but my sister--who was new to the tropics--had had it. She had a stomach ache (soon to become a case of amoebic dysentery that would ultimately land her in Intensive Care--but that's another story). "For God's sake let's pay whatever it takes to get a toilet seat that doesn't fall off," she begged. She had been a great sport, but she was getting that glassy look in her eyes that meant she was about to crack. It was the same look she had given me when she was twelve, and I invited her to Mexico City, picked her up at the airport, and drove her through a riot, so I gave in. That afternoon we checked in to the nicest hotel in Tikal and spent the rest of the day in the park climbing the pyramids, watching the howler monkeys, and admiring the phosphorescent blue butterflies. At dusk, we even spotted a timid, deer-like agouti peering out of the brush. That night as we lay in our comfortable beds in our ever-so comfortable hotel, the jungle frogs sang us to sleep. I woke in pitch blackness, some time around midnight with the distinct sensation that I Was Not Alone. Suddenly, like galley slaves rowing to the same beat, a host of little things all bit me simultaneously. With a howl, I catapulted out of bed, and staggered around the room, slapping randomly. Roused out of a sound sleep, my sister went for the lights, but there were no lights. The electricity had been turned off at ten--not an uncommon occurrence in the tropics where fuel for generators is expensive. "Help!" I yelled as I continued my St. Vitrus dance around the dark room, slapping, stumbling, tripping over the luggage, and generally doing a great imitation of someone who had lost her mind. Being a level-headed sort, my sister located a flashlight, turned the beam on me, and to our mutual horror we discovered I was covered from head to toe with ants. Snatching off my nightgown, she began to beat me with a towel, smashing the little suckers while I went on hopping and screaming. When I was de-antified and a few degrees calmer, she directed the flashlight toward my bed. It was seething like an anthill that had been kicked in. Thousands of ants were crawling across the pillow and sheets, but that wasn't the worst of it: there were more ants streaming down the wall of the room in a column four or five feet wide and several inches thick. In many tropical buildings, the walls don't go all the way up to the ceiling. The ants had located the ventilation space and were rushing through it in unbelievable quantities. "Looks like a goddamned waterfall," my sister observed as the slick, black column poured down the wall. "In a few seconds they would have gotten to my bed. Thanks for sounding the alarm. I can just imagine our skeletons lying there, picked to the bone." Summoning what little dignity I had left, I brushed the smashed ants off my naked body. "New world army ants don't eat people," I announced. My voice grew shrill. "There is nothing to fear." "How do we make them go away?" "We can't. When the army ants march, the local people gather up all their food and move out of their houses until they've passed. The ants are a kind of pest control service. By the time they're done there's not a snake, rat, or bug left." I was always one for appreciating the balance of nature. "Son of a bitch," my sister said. "You mean we're stuck with these things for the rest of the night?" By now the other guests in the hotel were all awake, and, convinced we were being murdered, they had begun to pound on our door. "Are you two okay?" a voice called. We dressed, went out, and explained the ant situation to our fellow tourists. There were perhaps fifteen of us altogether, from Germany, France, Canada, and the United States, most young, most experienced travelers, but no one had been through an army ant invasion before. Since the entire staff of the hotel had mysteriously disappeared, we were on our own. Sleep being out of the question, we arranged ourselves on the sofas in the lobby, pulled up our feet so the ants wouldn't crawl over them, and waited. A few people tried to make ant jokes, but no one was in the mood. "I have to go to the bathroom," a German woman announced. Several of us picked our way to the door with her, but by now the bathroom floor was a heaving mass of ants. It was clear they were going to troop through every room in the hotel. We waited. Above us, the thatch began to make soft rustling noises. Suddenly there was a plop, and a scorpion about the size of a human hand hit the floor running. Fifteen tourists screamed simultaneously. No, make that fourteen. There was one guy, who wouldn't have screamed if you'd put a red hot poker to his forehead. "Scorpions!" "Are they poison?" You bet they were. The old hands insisted that the little ones were even more poisonous--even fatal--but that was small consolation. These were big, their bites could land you in the hospital, and by now they were falling like hail, dozens at a time, driven out of the thatched roof by the ants. "Umbrellas!" a guy from Chicago suggested. We rose like one person, fled back to our rooms, seized our umbrellas, opened them to keep off the scorpions, and retreated to the lobby, where we sat, hunched up against one another, like people waiting for a bus in a rainstorm. Occasionally a large scorpion would hit one of the umbrellas, bounce to the floor, and scuttle away, but it never got far before the ants mobbed it. After two hours of this, we were so tired we could hardly sit upright. It was then that a man whose name I never knew, but whom neither I nor my sister will ever forget, made one of the most generous offers one human being has ever made to another: "The ants haven't made it to my room yet. If you and your sister would like to try to get some sleep in my bed, I'll hold an umbrella over you." We checked him out. He was perhaps twenty-eight, thin, with dark brown hair, and he had a face that inspired confidence. Reassured that this wasn't some crazy plot to seduce both of us in the middle of an ant invasion, we agreed. For the next few hours, my sister and I lay side by side in his bed as he sat next to us, silently holding a large black umbrella over our bodies so we wouldn't get stung by falling scorpions. Somehow against all odds we fell asleep. When we woke the umbrella was neatly furled, and the chair was empty. He was gone and so were the ants.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Thu 1 Jul 04 12:49
not heartb roken, (mim) Thu 1 Jul 04 12:59
ack!!!! that makes me never want to travel again!
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Thu 1 Jul 04 16:56
(applause!) Just reading that made me itchy, Mary. so, what's this about vampire bats?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 1 Jul 04 20:35
(It's okay to hide it - Engaged handles it just fine.)
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 1 Jul 04 22:24
When I was living in the rain forests of Costa Rica, a vampire bat tried to crawl in my sleeping bag one night (they use their wings to sort of scoot along toward their victims.) I got a quick look at it before my flashlight suddenly gave out, so there I was trapped with a possibly sick (as in rabid)bat scooting toward me to suck my blood. Brooohhaaahahahaha. I hunkered down in the bag in 95 degree heat with it pulled over my head and hid out until it was light enough to see and avoid the bat which kept crawling over the bag most of the rest of the night. Later, I realized there was a good chance that a bunch of the critters were hanging right overwhere I had chosen to sleep. I don't mind bats, but I draw the line at feeding my blood to them. (Plus, when a vampire bat bites you, you can't feel it because they inject some kind of anaesthetic; so that makes them even more sneaky and dangerous.
Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 2 Jul 04 08:11
Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Fri 2 Jul 04 08:45
I'm constantly amazed at how able you are to maintain your sense of humor about scenes like the Ant Invasion, Mary (not to mention your sanity!). If it's okay to talk briefly about another of your novels - did you actually go to the then-Soviet Union to research your novel about ballet?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 2 Jul 04 08:48
oh my... You've had some pretty harrowing experiences, Mary. Yet you keep going back to places where you're likely to have 'em again. Are you a danger junkie or something?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 2 Jul 04 08:51
(paris slipped in while I was composing my thoughts)
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Fri 2 Jul 04 09:09
So do you get advances to cover all these interesting trips?:-)
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 2 Jul 04 09:51
<scribbled by mm Fri 2 Jul 04 10:14>
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 2 Jul 04 10:09
I did indeed go to the Soviet Union to research "A Grand Passion", my novel about three generations of women (grandmother, mother, daughter) all involved in ballet. The first time I went (in 1969) I had no idea I was going to write a novel set there. I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, in the process of getting a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. (The topic of my thesis was the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel: English, Spanish, French, Russian). To improve my Russian, I applied for a program that allowed 12 U.S. graduate students to go to the then-Soviet Union in exchange for 12 Russian high school English teachers who were allowed to come study at the U of M.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 2 Jul 04 10:12
I spent the summer of 1969 studying Russian in a world almost totally cut off from the West (in fact, I didn't even hear about Woodstock until I returned in September). I saw ballet in both Leningrad and Moscow, learned quite a bit about Russian culture, and became fascinated with the country as it had been just before the 1917 Revolution. Subsequently, I turned down the offer of a fellowship to go back to the Soviet Union for a year of graduate study in Russian language and literature (I couldn't stand the thought of the winters-in Moscow nylons freeze to your legs if you aren't careful and under the Soviet regime there wasn't a tomato to be had unless you grew it yourself. Also, the political repression was unpleasant and somewhat scary.) Later, when I set out to write a novel about ballet, I realized that I had already done extensive research on Russia-the precise place where ballet flourished in the late 19th/early 20th century. I visited the Soviet Union for a second time in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin wall, because I was planning to write a novel about Stalin's granddaughter, but that novel never quite came together. Still, who knows? I saw Stalin's hometown in Georgia which was as surreal an experience as one can have, and perhaps someday I will use it in a novel.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 2 Jul 04 10:20
I pay for the trips I take out of my own pocket because I need to write the novel (or at least part of it) to get an advance, and I can't do that until I have seen the locations I'm writing about. Am I a danger junkie? Hmm, good question. I'm definitely a junkie for the rainforest and the tropics in general, which tends to expose one to danger, but I don't seek out high risk situations. I learned long ago that if you want to do "Adventure Travel" you don't need to pay a lot of money to go with some company that feeds you catered meals and guides your every footstep. All you need to do is take off for somewhere remote, planning to spend as little money as possible. Or, alternatively, you can just look where I am going and go there too. I seem to stumble on adventures and disasters (or maybe they stumble on me). It's all part of the writer's life to travel hard (and be under machine gun fire every once and a while). (sorry about the scribble of post 87. It was full of typos)
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 2 Jul 04 12:14
Sounds like it's not "danger" you're seeking, but that it's a side effect of the off-the-beaten-track adventures that to pursue, Mary. It's hard to believe that two whole weeks have gone by since we started this conversation. It's just flown by! I want to thank you, Mary, for joining us, and you, Libbi, for so ably leading the conversation. Though we've turned the virtual spotlight onto another author there's no reason this discussion has to end. You're welcome to continue as long as you're able. The topic will remain open indefinitely.
Rip Van Winkle (keta) Fri 2 Jul 04 13:02
And you're also welcome to join me talking to Francesca De Grandis next door about The Modern Goddess' Guide to Life.
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 2 Jul 04 22:56
It has been a pleasure, Cynthia. Libbi, thank you for being such a wonderful interviewer.
Hoping to be a goddess, but settling for guru (paris) Sat 3 Jul 04 08:34
You're quite welcome, Mary. Thanks to you and to Cynthia for the opportunity to introduce you and your writing to the folks who read this conference!
Carlos Martins (arariboia) Sat 3 Jul 04 11:12
Great stories, Mary! To read, that is, not to experience... I won't even ask in what way the Triple Border connects to the plot of SR; I'd rather read the book, which I plan to do shortly. Just out of curiosity, when have you been to Rio, and do you have any plans to visit it again?
Mary Mackey (mm) Sat 3 Jul 04 12:15
I was in Rio a month ago. I don't have any plans to visit again for a while, but some time in the future I will return. I love Rio.
Carlos Martins (arariboia) Sun 4 Jul 04 07:51
Drop me a line next time you do, I'll treat you to a filé Oswaldo Aranha and a few chopinhos at Lamas...
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 4 Jul 04 17:29
ooh, sounds great, Calros. obrigada.
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