Why Did I Come To Ecuador To Live With A Lumber Mill On Each Side Of My House?

Leonidas Plaza

This may be completely to the side of everything else that is going on with the eco-city process in Bahía de Caráquez, or it may be part of the core. I’m too personally involved to know. It has to do with the close-to-the-bone experience of occupying Planet Drum’s new office/apartment in Leonidas Plaza. 

Although a first and last month’s rent was paid along with a security deposit, the landlord balked for the entire month of January about doing any needed maintenance on the place. There hasn’t been any water during three weeks while the paper-makers were there. Painting a new apartment before renting it is required by law, but that hadn’t been done. Six “broken” window spaces, or I suspect them to actually be unfinished windows because they are all at the rear of the place, weren’t covered by screens when I moved in despite a succession of promises. Without suspecting the adventure that lay in store, I left the considerable comfort of Casa Grande and spent the first night. 

When the rainy season begins in Ecuador, a powerful biological message resounds throughout the insect world. It may be a burst of sexual energy, it may relate to their homes being flooded in ground burrows, but crickets (called “grillos”) become visible in numbers that are beyond calculation. It was the night after the rains began, and as I went to bed at 10 o’clock, a patter of light thudding spread from the windows that were intact to the walls and floors of my room. Judy and I had brought tent-shaped insect netting with us on the previous trip. The sole time it was used then was on the chance that mosquitoes might come out while we were visiting a backcountry hot spring, but we left it in storage for some future emergency. Feeling like a gringo hypocrite and hypochondriac, I brought it to the new place thinking that mosquitoes might be a special problem because of the open windows. I have seldom been as grateful for such a relatively small item. 

They seemed to be giant flying cockroaches, and the first few gave me the familiar high-tension apprehension that those insects can cause. I grabbed the netting and draped it over the bed. Now hundreds began hitting the windows with flat-sounding bangs that I thought would break the existing glass. Whirring crickets flew into the room and hit the walls and netting. They crawled just above my eyes and mouth. My knees went up automatically to create a kind of ceiling of netting above my body while I waited for the invasion to subside, but it didn’t. So many crickets accumulated that they began to weigh down the net above me. I shrugged and punched to dislodge them, which succeeded to a degree but may also have been the reason that a few got underneath and began jumping with rapidly oscillating wings across my face. It was difficult to make the decision to lift the netting and slap away those intruders when the room outside is filling with more crickets. Obviously, a greater number might actually get in. I took the chance in a quick, confused, whirling dance with covering sheet and netting, ignoring as much as I could the crunch of squashed crickets underfoot. I brushed away those that crawled up my legs with frantic downward karate-style chops. Back in bed, I tucked the netting around my body and hoped that the level of cricket numbers wouldn’t increase and that no other insects would appear. I was wrong on both accounts. Cricket bodies hitting the walls and floor now put up a constant sound like radio static, and mosquitoes began biting through the netting stretched against my knees that acted as short tent poles. 

Then a condemned person’s balmlike feat of memory occurred . I remembered the first time I spent the night alone in the woods. It was in the Florida Everglades with a twenty-two rifle I bought as a twelfth birthday present for myself. A transplanted “Yankee” from New York at the age of six, I had never really learned or appreciated what I was doing or how to do it. My immediate family didn’t understand why I was doing this. The rifle was all that I brought along. When I was dropped off in a car at a random spot near a levee where I requested, the world turned quieter than I had ever imagined. It was early afternoon and the passage of time between then and sunset seemed eternal. I shot a small bird simply because it landed close enough to make a good target. It has always been one of those regretful moments remembered in adulthood for its sheer stupidity, but immediate payback followed as well. When night finally fell, mosquitoes began what was surely the easiest and most popular feast they would ever attend. Mosquitoes crawled and bit everywhere on my body. They bit on top of bites. I experienced pain, frustration, loneliness, feelings of stupidity, and a pure aching for the quick passage of time fully for the first time in my life. I don’t remember anything of the next morning after a completely sleepless night except that my arms and face were so swollen that it was difficult to move until I was gratefully picked up at an arranged spot. This memory might have become buried before now because ironically I was admired for what I had done and chose to forget how much of an ordeal it had been. 

All of that previous experience was recirculated in my consciousness by the relentless crickets. I went through a fatigued narrative repeating it several times and considered various alternative outcomes and possible morals. If I slept at all this time, it was flat on my back with knees in the air being gnawed by Ecuador’s mosquito cousins. I got up at dawn to the neurotic barking of dogs and crowing of roosters and noticed that the crickets weren’t flying anymore. Morning light had an increasingly stuporific effect on them. I brushed some off of my clothes and dressed inside the netting. They sleepily prefer dark places in daytime. A dozen fell out of my boots. 

The landlord was just outside the building to my angry good fortune. I ran out with a piece of screen he had left unused on the floor and waved it in his face. Suddenly, I was confident in Spanish. He flinched and arched backward while I bellowed about the windows and “mille (a thousand) cucarachas.” (I wouldn’t know they were crickets until later.) The insect invasion was obviously well known by everyone in the neighborhood because he apologetically turned to an assistant and described the problem. It would be fixed immediately. But I had heard this before! I left still unable to breathe without puffing, fantasizing about my options for revenge if the windows were still open later. 

A tired day passed, and there were screens after all. In addition, the crickets had been swept up. It wouldn’t be the last time, as I hoped during the epiphany of experiencing sealed windows. There was a significant pile after sweeping this morning and again in the afternoon. But it’s a condition one can live with now. The boatman Chino, who saved several people swept into the bay during El Nino mudslides by pulling them out hair first, gave me a ride and helped hang the netting properly by string and nails above my bed. There’s still no desk, chairs, or dresser, but the hopefully repentant landlord promised to paint in two days. I’m undeservedly euphoric. It’s the tropics, and pluses quickly take away minuses. 

Tomorrow we start the revegetation project in Maria Auxiliadora barrio. Eduardo, Nicola, Marcelo, and I had an enthusiastic meeting about what species and numbers to acquire or grow. Today I went to the main market to buy large used feed bags at about four cents each for hauling sawdust mulch. 

This is what I mean about pluses. The landlord maintains a sawmill on one side of the building where the cricket episode took place, and there’s a second mill on the other side. The whine of sawblades is banshee-like for five seconds every few minutes all day long (a working class district is a working class district), but we’ll have all of the free acidic mulch we’ll need to hold in water and neutralize the alkaline clay somewhat for young seedlings. 

South American surrealistic image of the month from Maria Elena Cedeno, who has first-hand experience operating a shockingly modern quick-stop store at the new gasoline station that is surrounded by pavement:

“If they could cement the sky, they would!”

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