Night of the Army Ants
By Mary Mackey
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.
“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.
copyright Mary Mackey, 1994. All Rights Reserved.
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 organization.)