Friday, January 23, 2009

Spiders, Insects, and Other Critters of Unusual Size

Africa, especially in the warmer coastal areas like Zanzibar, is home to all sorts of creatures (including rodents) of unusual size; among these: Centipedes, lizards, Rats, cockroaches (see Creepy Crawling things...) and SPIDERS.The first time I saw a frighteningly large spider (FLS) was in Mombasa, Kenya, at Fort Jesus, in the Old Town. Fort Jesus is an old Portuguese Fort which is now an historical site and tourist attraction. The first time I visited there, just off the entrance, there was a large bush that was covered with a massive web full of spiders the size of my hand and larger. They were fat and hairy. I didn't know if they were jumping spiders or not, but I wasn't about to find out, so I walked as far around the bush as I could to the entrance.

After Fort Jesus, we visited Mamba Village - a big crocodile farm. Unfortunately we missed feeding time, which is the only time you will witness any activity among the crocs. The rest of the time they just lie around in the sun with their mouths open. We discovered that throwing pebbles at them didn't phase them one single bit. Needless to say, we were bored.As we walked around the winding path that took us by various crocodile pens - including one of a giant ancient man eater - we passed a ravine, and at the bottom was another, even bigger, bush covered with a least 30 FLSs. My best friend Christine, and Kenny, the 10 year old son of the American Family we were visiting, competed with each other to see who could knock the most spiders out of their web, and extra points went to whomever knocked the biggest one down, which was giant. Normally, they wouldn't dare provoke such beasts, but because they were down in the ravine, we figured they would drop off down there and not be any threat to us... Fortunately for the spiders, Christine was not a softball champion, but Kenny was a pretty good shot and knocked several down including the big one... about that time I decided to peak and look down into the ravine only to notice that more than one of the spiders that had been displaced were already half way up the steep slope towards us. We ran like hell out of there...We also encoutered giant centipedes, I think, if not they were millipedes, either way pretty disturbing to see - they were about 1 1/2 inches thick and about a foot or so long.Geckos were a common site in the house, and some of them got pretty big. They didn't bother me too much, as they wanted nothing more than to stay as far away from us as possible and eat the insects in the house.

We have geckos here too but I don't see them as much as I did there. One time I woke up in the middle of the night to use the toilet, when I turned to flush it I jumped and almost shrieked at the site of what looked like a tiny little flesh colored "hand" gripping the top of the toilet tank from inside (someone had removed the top of the tank). In my sleepy state I wondered if some minuscule alien had taken refuge in the toilet. Slowly, I peered inside to see a little tiny gecko looking back at me... it was adorable and I wished I had a camera at that moment.

Many years later I encountered another not-so-cute visitor in my bathroom. We were living in Zanzibar at the time and had just moved to a villa in Mazizini, not too far from the hotel where I was working. I was using the bathroom off of my master bedroom. I was pregnant at the time so I made frequent trips to the loo. This time I was quite pressed, as usual so I ran into the bathroom quickly, leaving the door open. When I was comfortably seated on the "pot" facing the door, my feeling of relief quickly turned to terror when I noticed that a FLS (again the size of my hand) was happily resting on the inside of the door post.

Now the doorway to the bathroom was much narrower than a normal door, and I shuddered to think how close my head must have come to the monster when I passed through it, then I realized, that unless I had some way to hoist myself (7months pregnant and all) through the tiny bathroom window up near the ceiling, I would have to pass by the spider again. Slowly I washed up, trying not to make any sudden movements that might startle it. Though it had not molested me as I entered, I wasn't sure that it was not a jumping spider that could, at any time, especially if provoked, pounce on me.... photographs from a book that my high school biology teacher possessed depicting the after effects of bites from various venomous spiders played through my mind - especially the one the person with half of their face gone due to the flesh easting effects of one spider's venom. I reminded myself that the most horrible spiders were mainly residents of South America. I inched towards the door, but every time I almost got up the resolve to step quickly through it, I panicked at the thought of a giant spider entangled in my hair... I screamed, "Mariamuuuuuuuu" (she was our cleaning lady), but she was outside hanging out the wash and didn't hear me. I am ashamed to admit it, but I was shaking and I started to cry, "Maaaaaaariiiiiiiiaaaaaaamuuuuuuuuu" I howled again. This time she heard me and came running, I am sure she thought I was injured or something horrible had happened to me. When she instead found me in tears flattened against the bathroom wall and pointing at the spider, she started to laugh, and went to get the hand broom and dust tray. When she returned she quickly, but casually, brushed him to the floor with her hand and the swept him up onto the dust tray and threw him outside - chuckling to herself all the way. Her English was about as limited as my Swahili was at that time, but she managed to let me know somehow that she considered it bad luck to kill a spider. From then on, I was careful to check the door way before entering any room.

Perhaps even more horrifying than the giant spiders were the enormous rats that thrived in the Island's warm moist climate. Like the hordes of stray cats that feasted on the scraps littering the ground of the fish market in Stone Town, they were very well fed. I guess to be able to survive happily on a small island with such a large feline population, a rat would have to be quite large. There was one (at least) that lived in the tall weeds and shrubs around the apartment building in Kikwajuuni where we lived for a while. A couple of times it shot across the drive in front of our car as we were pulling in or out. It was a giant, fat nasty looking creature, much bigger than any of the cats - the kind that I am sure would readily attack a human if given the opportunity or reason.

In spite of my, probably unreasonable, fear of all of these creatures, none of them actually ever harmed me, and in fact, it was the tiniest ones that were the most lethal. The breed of Mosquito found in East Africa is smaller than the ones we had back, but infinitely more clever (it seemed) and definitely more dangerous. It always struck me as amusing that in Africa, where the mosquitoes and flies carry dangerous diseases, the window screen seems to be an unheard of thing, whereas in the US, where these insects are relatively harmless, all homes have them. No house that I ever visited, even a new one, had screens in the windows... so we had to use mosquito nets at night in coastal areas. In Nairobi, which is higher altitude, and much cooler and drier, we just had to spray the room an hour before sleeping, but on the coast, it was another story.

The second time I visited Kenya, when I was 20 years old, I traveled to Malindi, which is a town on the Kenyan coast, with my Friend Fatima and we stayed at the home of her aunt. When I woke up in the morning, my right arm from the elbow down, and my right leg from the knee down, were covered with what looked like a terrible rash. I showed Fatima, fearing that I had caught some strange tropical skin disease, coming from Nairobi, where mosquitoes weren't so abundant, Fatima was also alarmed at the sight of my limbs and called her aunt's husband. He looked at it and laughed and told me it was mosquito bites. The bites didn't resemble the ones I got back home - which were really itchy, light pink and swollen - these were small, dark red hard bumps that hurt more than itched. I counted them after that, I had about 200 bites in total concentrated on those areas, while the rest of me was bite -free. I realised that what had happened was that in my sleep, probably because it was so terrible hot and humid in my room, I had flung my leg and arm over the side of the bed- against the mosquito net, and the little demons had wasted no time in taking advantage of that to feast on me through the tiny holes in the mesh. Because I was only a tourist that time around, I was taking malaria medicine and was protected.

Later on, while living in Zanzibar, I had to stop taking the medicine because it is quite powerful, has side effects like insomnia and is bad for the liver... and I got malaria three times. Luckily the strain of malaria I contracted wasn't the worst; but there were other terrible strains there as well. Once while I was at work at the hotel, a haematologist, hired by the UN to work in Mnazi Moja hospital in Stone Town, came to use the pool and I got to talking to her. She told me about a patient she was treating, a Portuguese sailor who was very sick with malaria and she feared he would die. The next time I saw her at the hotel, I asked her about him and she told me that he had passed away a couple days after she spoke to me. Our neighbor, Babu Ali, had a baby boy the same age as Salman - named Suleiman - who was less than a year old when we moved from there to Dubai. At the time we left, he was a chubby happy little boy. Several months later we found out from my husband's aunt that he had passed away after falling ill with malaria.

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