Originally published on March 16, 2016 on the Where There Be Dragons “Field Notes Board” at https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/blog/it-wasnt-about-the-ants/
I really thought it was about the ants. On the verge of tears, frustrated, sweaty and covered in bug bites, I couldn’t shake the image of hundreds of biting ants the size of sesame seeds burrowing through my backpacks. I was unfazed by the 12×7 ft dirt floor living place shared by the whole family along with many palm-sized spiders. The ever-present starchy yucca comprising the majority of our diet clogged up my insides but I took it in stride, “embracing the local food and culture.” Awkward attempts to bridge the enormous cultural gap inherent in my glaring privilege — emphasized by the disproportionate space occupied by my oversized backpack towering over the family’s collective belongings — were simply part of the experience: we were connecting on a human level. The only aspect of our homestays in the Amazonian village of Santa Rosa de Huacaria that really bothered me was the ants infesting my backpack.
Or so I thought.
I’m tolerant. I’m appreciative and grateful for what I have and I’m aware of my privilege. Dirt doesn’t scare me. My image of myself forced its way to the forefront, filling my every peephole of the world and inundating my senses. Conviction increased in the face of challenge and the colors of should were so vivid I felt myself blinded by confusing shades of contradiction. I let myself laugh at the eggs left in the beds by chickens who wandered into the house in the long, muddy hours of vacancy and thought less than once of my immediate designation of the loose wooden planks of my shared, displaced bed as humorous. Somehow, in some twisted way it feels acceptable to present my vision of Huacaria in its most exaggerated, shocking form as a foreigner tallying gasps back at home. My initial description of my homestay — the one I wrote a couple journal pages back before my self-disgust materialized as my protective veil of self-deception dropped with a resounding thud — was not demeaning. The images I recorded weren’t demeaning because I wasn’t judging. I was only uncomfortable with the ants.
So uncomfortable that with every step the tears became nearly impossible to withhold. I wanted to curl into a ball and sleep until Huacaria was far behind us and we had escaped the storied Amazon forever. Repulsion and dread filled me so heavily that I felt sure I would scream as I pretended to laugh and I couldn’t help but be amazed at the previously-unknown, latent power ants held over me.
As my slightly paralyzing and irrational fear of the ants marching through my excessive gear faded, shame of previous selves took its place. How silly I was to be so frustrated by ants. If only the ants were nonexistent, I would have been fine.
And the truth is that there would simply have been a different kind of ants. Or spiders, or chickens, or mud or yucca or insomnia or a language barrier. In essence, the ants could have been a figment of my imagination upon which I could fixate my discomfort. My self-perception endured long, unavoidable cracks and the ants simply became the sedative for my broken delusion. So convinced of my tolerance and awareness was I that I prohibited any recognition of my own hypocrisy. I couldn’t handle the jungle and the dirt floors conjured connotations of dirt poor and sympathy. Internal war raged as part of me felt entitled to a respite from the reality of the Amazon and other parts quelled it with all the force of a globally-minded yet inexperienced upbringing. I was uncomfortable with my own discomfort and the ants, well, they were just the unfortunate recipients of privilege unwilling to sit with its own insurgents.