[This post is for my sister who requested that I write more than once a week.]
This is a mural on the wall of the compound where I live. In it, you can see my landlord Armando (in the hat), driving a speedboat while simultaneously commanding a fisherman to catch a giant marlin.
It is an accurate depiction. Once a lobster fisherman and black coral diver (free diving, no oxygen), Armando is a ruler of nature. Now in his 60s, he struts around the compound in a speedo wielding a machete, doing battle with the jungle plot that he’s cultivated into the compound’s garden.
The thing about a jungle garden is that nothing’s really tamed. Fixate on any seemingly solid spot and something will be moving, a camouflaged lizard say, or a gliding white moth that turns out to be dead but is being carried by ants. A vine that was tiny yesterday is suddenly ten feet and strangling the flowers. It’s not just that things are alive here. It’s that they’re growing, multiplying, and threatening to consume you.
Given this, Armando’s control over the garden is almost superhuman. Here’s a picture of his work:
The garden has brilliant tropical flowers, delicate orchids, several types of banana trees, avocado trees, papaya trees, bitter orange trees, lime trees, chili plants, cilantro, mint, dragonfruit, aloe beds and chaya (an edible green that can only be picked when there’s morning dew which, frankly, seems like a pain in the ass). In the middle there is a pool that gets filled with fresh water piped in from a cenote, a limestone sinkhole somewhere in the jungle.
There are also creatures up the wazoo. On the domestic side there are the cats of Armando’s wife Sonja who stare you down and inevitably poop nearby when you’re eating. In addition, there are big ants, little ants, geckos, tree lizards, humming birds, fluffy yellow song birds, cave scorpions (not dangerous), regular scorpions, (more dangerous), hand-sized millipedes, tree frogs, and giant hairy moths.
My apartment is across the compound from Sonja and Armando’s. I climb a wrought-iron circular stairway from the garden to my kitchen, which is patio style, covered but outdoors.
Since it’s on the second floor, I’m in the trees, so I can sit at the kitchen table and watch birds singing and lizards creeping. It also means a fair amount of the wildlife get in, which in turn means I have to decide what to kill. I kill the tiny ants, the ones that appear in literally seconds if I leave a crumb of food on the counter. When a swarm explodes I exterminate it with the side of a fist, hammering until what’s left is a gray, mashed film. Is there a less dramatic way, maybe a shoe? To me, not in that instant.
But for the most part, I try to leave the living things alone. In my apartment I encourage visitors toward the door, or if they’re being difficult, trap and release. I have done this with geckos, spiders, flies and yesterday with a giant grasshopper (four inches) who refused to move even when I poked him with a broom.
The bathroom roaches are the most brazen. On any given night I’ll open the door to find one sitting on the counter by the sink, facing me, waggling its antennae. I move closer and it will stare me down at which point I’ll slap a hand to make it move. Sometimes the roach retreats behind the sink cabinet, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it leaps two feet into the air which makes me decide I don’t need the bathroom.
My coworkers have different attitudes toward the wildlife. One refuses to kill ants but is murderous about the roaches. She also risks being stung by scorpions by refusing to wear shoes, her theory being that “if you’re gonna get scorped, you’re gonna get scorped.” We have discussions about whether the threat is just to the bottom of a bare foot, or whether a foot supposedly safe in a sandal is also at risk.
Despite the dangers, or perhaps because of them, I am starting to relax into this jungle life. There’s something nice about living someplace where it’s freely admitted that nature has the upper hand. When I enter my kitchen at night, I turn on the light then pause to look around and see who else is there. Establishing that it’s just the usual—lizards, maybe Mothra—I make dinner. Then I sit at the table and watch my ceiling geckos chirp, doing me the favor of eating the mosquitoes. I kindly request that they not mate among my dishes.