Tuesday, June 18, 2024

My other Mexican neighbors: the visiting varmints

Every evening in my living room, usually around dusk, I hear a high chirping sound that lasts for about two seconds. My hearing is not great, but one thing’s for certain: it’s definitely coming from inside the house.

What could it be? In my head, it’s an adorable tiny lizard that’s found a home up in the wood beams of my ceiling, calling out a sweet (if detached) “good night.” It’s my little buddy, a companion sharing the space. It doesn’t pay rent, but the presence of this critter is inevitable, so I sigh and pretend that I’m the one that invited it in in the first place.

And if you think about it, I kind of did. (We enthusiastic immigrants are nothing if not romantic.) 

Since I almost always have my windows open to let in the typically perfect breeze and often leave the back door slightly ajar for my dog to wander in and out — I’ve lucked out in having impenetrable back patios and yards — I can hardly expect to be the only species hanging out within the confines of my home.

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with what I’ll (romantically, of course) designate as “critters,” and chances are you have too.

My first scorpion was on purpose. I didn’t want it, but my boyfriend did, and I was so in love that I agreed to let him take “Fred” home from the pet shop. I cried in fear and disgust when he was dumped from the carrying box into the fishbowl and woke my boyfriend up at 3 a.m. when I got up for the bathroom and saw he was no longer there.

It was a long night, and at 7 a.m. Fred was finally located wandering amongst our shoes in the closet. 

Since then, I’ve had wild scorpions wander in that my mild-mannered dog She-ra mercifully hunted and killed, a bat fly into the living room that my current dog Lola trapped and killed before I could usher it back outside (I’m a big fan of bats, actually) and a tarantula that I caught creeping toward my couch — I trapped it with an old mayonnaise jar and tossed out into the woods in front of my house.

Lizards scurry into hiding when I walk outside, and squirrels eat the avocados from my tree before they’re ripe enough to fall down for our guacamole. Chachalacas (birds that look and sound like a chicken and a pigeon had a baby) gossip loudly in the early-morning hours, and one large spider with a golden web (the Xalapa-common nephila clavipes) stuck around so long and provided such excellent mosquito-trapping services that I named her Lupita.

If you’ve lived in Mexico for any extended period of time, chances are you’ve encountered your fair share of animals and insects. Chances are, too, that you’ve encountered them in your home, quite a bit closer to you and your family than you’d like or expect them to be. 

Depending on where you live, a whole host of critters could become close, intimate family members, regardless of whether or not you’re aware of their presence. If you’re “city folk” like I am, you’ve probably met these, depending on your disposition, with a mixture of squeamishness and bafflement. 

And herein lies, I believe, one of the bigger differences in home design and cleanliness preferences between Mexicans and more recent immigrants: while those of us from overall more intentionally sanitized through closing-off, climate-controlled worlds have long romanticized the idea of “getting back to nature,” there are also plenty of people here who have downright had it with nature. 

Getting covered in mosquito bites (or worse, the dreaded chaquistes – “no-see-ums”) when you’re outside, having flies swarm above your lovingly-prepared meals on hot days or all manner of tiny mammals and reptiles helping themselves to your stored food: they’ve all got a way of turning off our cheerful “Well, we all share this world!” attitude and activating the narrowing of our front-facing predator eyes in search of what’s bugging us.

After all, we’re animals too. The main difference is that we’re animals who think we’re gods.

In Mexico, this means that many of us go about marking our territory, not with urine but with a potent mixture of Fabuloso and bleach. Many people daily sweep and mop their homes, as well as the sidewalk in front of their homes; a home’s overall cleanliness almost always takes preference above its organization and decoration. (Curiously, few people install mosquito nets on their windows, though.)

For most people, prevention through extreme cleanliness — which, if they can afford it, will often include a concrete patio rather than a critter-filled yard — is the initial solution. When that doesn’t work, most are not afraid to call an exterminator to get rid of pests using pretty much whatever chemicals they need to get the job done.

Few and far between are the Facebook posts I see from Mexicans saying, “Who can tell me a safe, organic, humane way to get rid of [fill-in-the-blank pests] in my house?” Those types of questions are mostly from us foreigners.

Demand, and therefore supply, for these environmentally gentler types of services are typically found in areas heavily populated with foreigners unaccustomed to fending off unwelcome animals and insects but with a preference for lo más natural and generally with larger budgets.

In the meantime, I’d recommend focusing on prevention: keep things as clean as you can, including nooks and crannies. Get some mosquito netting — if not for your windows and doors, at least for your bed.

Shake out shoes before putting them on and your blankets before climbing into bed, especially during the rainy season when you’re likely to be accommodating some uninvited guests.

And hey, if you’re overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to call an exterminator or ask a gardener about options. They might not be able to get it done with vinegar and lemon juice (or whatever), but they can help.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com

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