Friday, August 28, 2009

Monday Night-Tuesday Morning 1.30am

About five weeks ago our house was burgled. They didn’t get inside; they reached through the windows and grabbed what ever they could. Their prize for the night was M’s bag with cash, cards and some keys.

We changed the lock for the front door and thought that was that. But on Saturday evening we were burgled again, only this time they had keys, so they got inside (all the doors were secure). They took a lot of stuff from me, and only from me. Perhaps they got in through my balcony so mine was the first room they came to. Perhaps they went to straight to my room. Either way they took an External Hard drive with a year worth of work, photos, artwork, writing and the rest. I am still coming to terms with that. They also took small electronic stuff – my card reader, MP3 player and some leads and spare batteries. Plus some jewellery and a few other things. Suffice to say, I was not happy.

Three, sometimes four, people live here and both robberies happened at the exact time that all of us were out. Which suggests they have been watching us, enough to know our routines. Last night I didn’t feel comfortable walking up the road after dark. I live on a very dark, very quiet street, and it occurred to me that someone watching would know I have a laptop. They now know I don’t leave it in the house – it doesn’t take much to guess what’s in the laptop-sized backpack that I am never seen without.

So tonight, I decided not to walk up the road, but to stay home. I was relaxing on the terrace, listening to music, when... I don’t know, something made me look round. I saw something-someone next to the garage door, two metres behind me. It was all very quick... I didn’t know what was happening, I vaguely thought it was someone looking for my house-mate, but I knew it wasn’t right. I jumped out of my hammock and stepped toward them, which activated the security light on the corner of the terrace.

The next few moments are vivid in my mind. My step forward illuminated two men, wearing home-made ski masks and dark clothing, coming towards me with knives. The knife of the one in front looked like a prison weapon – the handle had frayed cloth wrapped around it.

I read somewhere that to be a victim, you must behave like a victim. I am simplifying of course, but you get the idea. This article suggested that when under threat, like this, you should be loud and aggressive. You must show no fear, as if you were dealing with a big, unknown dog.

When I opened my mouth to start shouting, I thought for a half-second that I might sob or vomit instead, but then I heard shouting and knew it was me. They both jumped. I got louder, then something strange happened: it must have been the combination of adrenalin and fear, but I became genuinely furious. The fury took hold of me, in fact I was more than furious – I was enraged. So now I’m really shouting at them, cursing them and threatening them. I advanced on the one in front, yelling into his face and they both backed away. Then they were running away and I was standing on the very edge of the terrace shouting curses and outrage into the night. I think, by then, I might have actually been shaking my fists.

I ran into the house and went straight for M’s machete. How did I know where it was? Thinking back, I remember seeing it last month when I was putting some clean blankets away in the wardrobe – The Blue Blanket actually – which is becoming a recurring ‘special guest’ in the outside-jane show), but I didn’t think I really took note of it, I just saw it.

None-the-less, I knew exactly where it was earlier tonight... but what did I think I was going to do with it? I stormed outside and did some more shouting. I think I could easily pass my Vogon Flight Officer exams now.

Then the fear hit me like a punch in the chest and I realised I needed to be inside the house right now. I grabbed my laptop and ran inside, locking myself in – hands suddenly useless and fumbling with the lock. Did I lock the machete outside?! You stupid bi... No! It’s here by my foot. Is that a noise? A shadow? Jesus, they had fucking ski masks? What now? Phone! I have a phone!

Can you believe, after nearly two months, yesterday I finally capitulated and bought a new phone. Yesterday. I already have two phones, but they won’t work with Guatemalan sim cards. I have been looking for somewhere that ‘unlocks’ phones. Then yesterday I gave up and bought a new one. Yesterday.

I phoned my house-mate. No answer. He’s the manager of a restaurant and it was Happy Hour. With shaking hands, I struggled to send the following text:

“2 men in ski masks at the house. I yelled and they ran. But am sacred. Please call police.”

I rang again. I remembered I have M’s number too. I sent him the same text. He called me straight back. From there it got better – he started ringing everybody.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m downstairs” I was pacing the floors, machete in hand.
“Go upstairs, you can close the door and stand on it” My room is an attic and I have ‘a door in the floor’. He was right, it’s the safest place, but thinking that scared me all over again. I went upstairs and stayed on the phone with M and his girlfriend until the Calvary arrived: Three Policeman, one policewoman, both house-mates, the restaurant night guards, his friends, the kitchen matriarch, and a customer from the restaurant who was brought along because he’s bilingual (fantastic – he translated for me, so I could talk to the police,) and maybe more! There were lots of people, a whole house full of people. People everywhere; people with lights; people searching the bushes; shadows in the bushes and everyone asking me the same questions. Too many people.

Finally everyone left, and two security guys came to watch the house for tonight. House-mate #2 and I finally sat down (I hadn’t sat down since I jumped out of the hammock earlier) and stared at each other in surprise.
“This is just crazy,” he said. And it is.


Now, it’s 1.30am I’m exhausted, but still wide-awake. So once again, in a crisis, I am opting to write about it. Do I live my own life vicariously through this blog? Do I distance myself, and detach, by externalising personal events into a ‘story’? Do I suppress my emotion by focusing instead, on finding the correct vocabulary? The most appropriate tone? Suitable jokes?

So what next? I love this place, I really do. I spoke with my Dad on skype earlier this week; I did the usual thing of turning the computer around so he could see where I was.
“It looks like an Impressionist painting,” he said.
He’s exactly right; it has that same idyllic colour scheme, warm light and peacefulness. Sometimes in the morning, I finish my yoga practice just as the mist is lifting off the mountains – soft light and long shadows falling across verdant hills – and I think it’s so beautiful here it takes my breath away. Except two men in ski masks threatened me with knives this evening.

So I think I’m going to have to leave. How very, very sad. What a truly terrible ending to a really rubbish week. But I can’t live somewhere where I can’t walk home alone, or stay home and relax for an evening. They came at 9.15pm. Usually I get home just before 9pm and the earliest my house-mates are home is about 10pm. So I am sure they knew I would be there, and be alone. I think they’re after the laptop – so sooner or later they will try to rob me again. And you only have 'the element of surprise' once.

I realise “these things happen” and you shouldn’t look for sense or order where, perhaps there is none... but I can’t help feeling that I’m being tested. It seems to be one damn thing after another in this Eden. First the spiders! Perhaps you wouldn’t believe it from reading these blogs, but I am terrified of spiders! I’m as jumpy as hell in this house. So I try to make light of it, to see the ridiculous side of the situation and of myself. But there comes a point when you run out of jokes. Then I get my first scorpion sting! That was only two weeks ago! For nearly two weeks we have no running water... and then the house floods. Two burglaries, then two blokes in ski masks. The Universe is coming at me from all angles and I’m not sure whether I’m bobbing or drowning.

So what now?

Friday Morning

The came again on Wednesday night. This time I didn’t see anything, I was inside the house. But the Night Watchman saw the security light go on, when he went to look he saw someone running down towards the river. Upon investigation, he also found a space in the bushes where someone had been sitting, presumably watching the house. The police came back and looked around, but he was long gone. It’s so easy to disappear in this environment, unless they’re caught red-handed, they won’t be caught.

Since Monday I’m not really sleeping and I’m very jumpy. I still feel kind of ‘surprised’ by the whole thing. It feels very personal – either they’re after the laptop or me. I have wondered whether I have offended someone without realising? But I can’t think when. People say ‘the lads’ around here must know who it is... so I also wonder whether ‘the lads’ are laughing at these guys for getting scared off by an unarmed, lone woman. This is Latin America, the home of Machismo, if they feel I’ve ‘made fools’ of them...

If they’re stupid enough to stick to the same pattern – Saturday, Monday, Wednesday – maybe they’ll come again tonight? We have lots of people staying the house now – some of whom are hoping they do come back.

I will leave very soon – just getting a plan. Fatigue.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Beauties & Beasties

This fella deserves a blog all of his own really. What IS IT?! (Answers on a postcard please). The photos don't do him justice - the wings were really quite beautiful - pale blue with gold ridges and silvery flecks, and so delicate. Then there's this monstrous head... with pinchers! Too weird. He stayed in the bathroom for a few days, but he's left now.

On the plus side, this rather lovely butterfly hung out and posed for photos yesterday. My housemate (human) has quite a way with butterflies, as you can see!

I don't know what the caterpillar, shown here, will turn in to! But isn't he cute! He was about 1 inch long and very fluffy.

Also, I think there was a Preying Mantis in the kitchen yesterday. Pictures to follow... my housemate (human) thinks this house may actually be an independent, fully functioning Ecosystem. One day people will come here to study. Just as Jerome anticipates medics completing their training solely on him, so Biologists and Zoologists will, one day, write Theses on my bathroom.

The house flooded yesterday - we've had almost no running water all week and then, overnight, a flood! I woke up to three indignant cats, perched in a row on the sofa, saying -
"Have you seen the state of this house? Are you responsible for this? No! Of course I don't know where the 'bloody mop' is! I'm a CAT!
The woman's a fool, I'm telling you. She can't even feed us without getting herself stung. You just can't get the staff these days..."

I swept the water out, but I suspect it will return. The immediate result is that the indoor frog population has dramatically increased.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

You don't say!

So yeah, Tuesday was a rather scary evening! Thanks so much for all the kind comments – I am absolutely fine. That night, the doctor assured me there are no scorpions in Guatemala that can kill you (there are in Mexico - but apparently those ones aren't seen here), but, of course, it would have been good to know that before I was stung!

Later that evening it got even stranger - I could actually feel the poison spreading into the shoulder and then down into my chest and ribs. I worried about that - but it didn't affect my breathing. Also, about 4 hours after the sting my whole mouth went numb and my lips started to tingle (like pins & needles). I wondered whether my tongue would swell up and maybe that's why the Mayans (a few people) told me I should cut my tongue? But nothing else happened, just numbness. And no, I didn't cut my tongue with a machete! Although the night-watchman offered to do it for me - with a foot-long cutlass! Can you imagine!

I had a look on the internet to see if I could find out more about tongue-cutting for scorpion stings, but there is no mention of it. This morning I asked some Mayan friends here, and they tell me that cutting the tongue is very old-fashioned. No, you need to take a machete and bite the blade, three times, as hard as you can. Or, if you can catch the scorpion, you can cut the tail off (and throw that away carefully) and then take the liquid that comes out of the body and rub it onto the sting. Or, drink some hot, very strong, black coffee. I told them that I had drunk beer, they gave that some consideration and said yes, they thought beer was also good.

The next morning my arm just felt dead. Remember when you were a kid and someone (in my case, one of my dear brothers!) would give you a 'dead arm' by punching your shoulder? Well, it felt like that - stiff and weak. It eased off during the day - I think it was a full 24 hours before I was fine again.

That evening I was taking a coffee cup off the shelf and what should be behind it? Uh-oh! Another scorpion! I was glad that I didn't feel freaked out or scared – I’m already jumpy enough with the spiders. But I certainly have gained a healthy respect for the little bastards! I'm not walking around barefoot in the dark any more. And I'm being more careful about picking things up, etc. Not an experience I want to repeat.

Strangely, what really scared me at the time was that I would pass-out on the road. There are no street lights here (no real streets - my 'street' is a mud track) and it's pitch black at night. So if I’d passed out in the middle of the road, the chances of getting run over would have been very high. And that's what was really worrying me! Why I should be more scared of getting run-over than dying of scorpion poison, I don't know. Perhaps getting run over is an idea that my brain could more readily accept? Interesting.

Of course now people want to share their 'scorpion stories' with me: one poor chap got stung twice on the leg when he put his trousers on and found one inside. Another guy was walking barefoot through the grass and trod on one. A girl got stung on the hand, feeling around for the light switch in the dark... When I say I was stung whilst feeding the cats, a few people have said how awful that I was stung while doing a good deed! Aren't people funny!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Really? Are you sure?

They made me laugh out loud. It’s so strange how your evening can change course so rapidly, so unexpectedly. I went inside to get my keys and the cats looked at me with such yearning and angst that I thought, ‘ah, poor little things – I better feed them before I go’.

It was a new bag of cat food and as I took it out of the box, I worried about spiders. I lifted it very tentatively – ready to jump if something black and hairy appeared. When nothing did I felt quite relieved, and that was when I picked up the bag properly and the black scorpion hidden in the fold stung me on the soft skin between my thumb and first finger.

The first moment of pain was like a flash of light. I think I actually saw a flash of light. I did have the good sense to look to see what it was. Then I just swore loudly. It’s a shock! I mean obviously it’s a shock. But I mean really – I was very, very surprised by just how much it actually hurt.

I ran to the sink and plunged my hand into the cold water and then I just stood there. Swearing occasionally and then stopping to listen to the strange silence, only broken by the heartless cats trying to break in to the bag of cat food that I’d dropped on the floor.

Upon seeing the scorpion I had, of course, realised that I was about to experience an extortionate amount of pain. That’s all anyone ever says about scorpions – that you couldn’t imagine just how much it hurts. And you really can’t. It’s quite surreal. I stood there, observing myself and found I couldn’t fathom how anything could hurt quite this much. There are moments of clarity (and loud, fierce, bitter obscenities) then moments of, “really? Are you sure? This can't be real? Perhaps I’m going to wake up now?”

Then I started to think. How serious is a scorpion sting? Am I going to pass out soon? Because my house-mates (the human ones) won’t be home for hours. The clinic is 15 minutes away – do I need to leave now? What is going to happen when I take my hand out of this cold water? Can it, could it, actually hurt even worse that this? Is my arm going numb? Can I still move my hand? (I could – but didn’t do that again for a while – moving it hurts a lot more.)

I realised that I knew nothing about how bad or dangerous the scorpions are around here. I wondered how I could be so stupid to not ask something like that before now. I realised that I had to leave the house right now.

I didn't cry until I was outside and trying to get my shoes on - tieing my laces was agony. But I got it back together and soon I found my self stumbling up the road in the dark, holding my hand aloft like a torch. Self-control. It’s all about self-control. ‘Pain is just a feeling’ I kept repeating those words. I'm screaming inside. But I'm still walking, so I'm fine. Its just pain. Excruciating, unfathomable pain, washing over me like giant pacific waves. By the time I got to the first house I was drenched in cold sweat. I was quite surprised when I realised this, and quite alarmed when I realised I was light-headed.

I saw my neighbour in his yard. “Conoce escorpiones?” I asked called out (Do you know scorpions?)
“What?” he replied, walking over “what scorpion?”
“A small black scorpion” I replied, “It is dangerous? I need a doctor?”
He shone a light in my face “where? When?”
“About 10 minutes ago, here” I showed him my hand.
He said I needed a tourniquet; it took a while for me to understand that. He said I needed a machete. I mimed chopping my hand off and laughed. He smiled grimly and mimed cutting my tongue. I asked him “will I be ok?” I realised my tee shirt was soaked through with sweat. And it’s cold tonight. He said I should go to the clinic now. I left.

So I found myself stumbling down the road, light headed, sweating, my hair band tied tightly around my wrist, feeling bewildered and frankly amazed by how much pain I was in.

The doctor at the clinic said I would be fine. He offered anaesthetic. I asked “do I need it?” (I don’t use anaesthetics unless it’s an emergency – I had too many as a child). He said I didn’t actually need it. He told me the pain would wear off in a few hours. So I walked back to the bar.

Still drenched, still feeling quite surreal. They looked startled when I walked into the bar. “I’ve just been stung by a scorpion” I announced.
“Wow” said the bartender “you must be in so much pain”
“Yes” I said, choking back tears. I actually put my hand over my mouth and had to turn away for a second. I am proud to say I am not a woman who cries in public. “A beer please”

And so here I am, several beers and 2 hours later, sitting upstairs in the bar, letting the pain sweep through me like a warm summer breeze. It’s definitely not as bad as it was. Although I still can’t move my hand without great swathes of pain engulfing my head. It still feels quite surreal. I am typing this with one hand and trying to remember whether I locked the front door. Bizarrely, I am pretty sure I fed the cats before I left. Did I really do that? I think I did. The beer is certainly helping – as (strangely) is writing this.