When you live in the tropics, you live with the wildlife. Especially if – as is the case here in Malaysia – there are no screens on the houses. I also have a family of civets living in the roof, and a myriad of hyperactive, anxiety-ridden treeshrews (which don’t live in trees and aren’t shrews) in the garden.
Sometimes the animal life is not as welcome. Cockroaches are part of life, and the war I declared on them when I first arrived will never be won. At least not by me.
For the last couple of days, a wasp has been building a mud sarcophagus, rather like an inch long turd, on the back of the bathroom door. Six turds in fact, built into a packet shape and doubtless containing not only an egg but also a paralysed victim whose fate is to be eaten alive. I tried removing the first effort, but she just came back and built another, so I shall wait until she is finished.
Wasps and I have a chequered history. After a number of painful encounters, I developed an allergy to the sting of at least one variety, and a single sting results in an inflamed lump six inches long. In fact, when people speak of the dangers of the rainforest, it’s the humble wasp that sends shivers of fear though me, not tigers and leopards.
The worst encounter I had was when we were walking though a mangrove swamp in search of the nesting colony of some Adjutant Storks. The guide, a local boy of about twelve, brushed against a wasp colony in a rotten tree stump. By the time I realised what had happened, I was being stung. I fled, yelling. No more picking my way through finding solid ground -I just plunged towards the bund, leaving my shoes sucked off my feet by the gluey grey mangrove mud. As I fled, I was taking my anti-histamines out of belt pouch and swallowing the strongest dose…but in truth, I thought I was going to die.
By the time we had left the wasps behind, I had thirty-five stings, more than my three companions put together. I was also caked in mud and barefoot – even my socks were gone, and there was no way I was going back there to have a look for my shoes! Luckily, I didn’t appear to be allergic to this particular wasp.
All of us washed up in the brackish drainage channel and began the long walk back to the car feeling very sorry for ourselves. There was a single house on stilts there next to the bund, and the owner took one look at our sorry band and invited us in for a drink. We sat on the bare boards of the floor (there were no chairs) and drank incredibly sweet tea. My friend produced a packet of imported biscuits from his pack – they probably cost as much as the owner of that hut earned in a day – and we shared them with the family.
Why is it that the poor always seem to be the most hospitable? When I remember that day, it’s that moment – sitting on the floor, wet and dirty and sore, drinking black tea-flavoured sugar – that resonates.