I was not one of those children, unlike my son, who was ever fascinated by creatures from the insect world. While I’ve never been one of those who run screaming from a cockroach or spider, I have generally preferred to encounter them dead rather than alive. And I’ve absolutely never cared about their eating habits, mandibles, exoskeletons, number of legs or whether they eat their mate after sex (although I have wondered why that one is called a praying mantis?). Insects have just always been there, a category of minor annoyances and low interest in the background of life. This peripheral concern became one of life’s most pressing issues when I packed up my three children and ex-husband to live in Costa Rica for a year. Not only do the insects and spiders simply demand attention by their sheer number and variety, it’s just damn hard to ignore a dinner plate-sized, orange-knee tarantula strolling through your living room.
My ten year old son watched a scorpion walk across the floor the first night we arrived in Monteverde and later wet the bed for the first time in his life. But he quickly learned the need to shake out his shoes and clothes before getting dressed, how to pull back the bedcovers all the way to make sure he was the only one going to sleep there each night, how to redirect the shower head away from the specimens occasionally hanging out on the shower wall. While their menacing look never endeared themselves to his truly insect-loving heart, he did develop an appreciation for those huge momma scorpions that carry dozens of little babies on their backs.
My initial response to the surrounding infestations was to buy the largest can of bug spray I could find at the supermercado. For the first few weeks, I poisoned us all with my attempts to kill any insect big enough to make noise (mere appearance alone didn’t merit death by spray), which unfortunately meant that some undeserving katydids quite unfairly died before I learned who was what. It was so unnerving to look up while taking a bath, such a spot of vulnerability, and see all those legs and antennae marching my way.
After a few katydids and deserving scorpions perished, I gave up entirely on bug spray. We learned to co-exist, even if uneasily from our point of view. I, for one, always wore socks to bed. I made ceaseless attempts to create obstacles to the relentless columns of ants after returning home one night to find one line of ants walking across the courtyard, under the front door (homes are quite porous there), across the living room, into the kitchen and up the cabinets to the bag of bread into which they’d chewed a hole. A parallel line of ants were making the reverse trip with bits of white bread bobbing on their backs. We eventually trained these ants to enter by the back door and take their nourishment from the compost we left beside it. Amazingly we would find an empty bowl every morning that had been full of food scraps the night before. The number of ants required to complete this task remains truly incomprehensible.
The first time we saw the tarantula provided great entertainment to the young Tica babysitter we’d hired for our young daughters. As we screamed and jumped on the sofa, Maria just laughed and got a broom to gently sweep this spider out the door. The female tarantula and I became old friends when I discovered her nest next to our house. I took many pictures of her climbing around the walls to send to disbelieving friends and family back home. When one friend, a true entymologist, visited that fall, I commented as we were all eating breakfast that I sure hoped she could see this spider…who was already sitting on top of the Barbie coloring book in the corner next to the kitchen table. As friendly as we all were with one another by this time, that still felt a little presumptuous to me.
Alongside the army ants and scorpions, the insect world of Costa Rica also offered breathtaking beauty for our admiration and appreciation. Iridescent (maybe salad plate-sized) blue morpho butterflies would accompany our walks through the forest, alongside numerous other mariposas of all colors and sizes. At night pale green luna moths would flutter at our windows, drawn to our light.
The insects were only one aspect of this multi-layered, incredibly difficult and wonderful experience of living far from home and all that was familiar and known. There’s also a chapter on the rats in the ceiling, the posotes (these are not small mammals!) in the courtyard, the monkeys dancing on the roof and peering in our windows as if we were the ones in the zoo. And another chapter, perhaps a book, on the deepening realization that our daughter’s developmental delays weren’t attributable to her parents’ divorce or the logistics of being a twin. My son maintains that so far this was the best year of his life. I return every chance I get, having found surprising peace among the many unassuming members of the insect world.