Daily Archives: 2 October 2004

Mission to Siam: The Ants Come Marching …

The rains have begun. We watched the thunder storms in the valley this afternoon. It is so strange to see isolated storms dotting the country, with bright sunshine in between. Tonight, after the first rains, we saw a spectacular sight. We were watching the moonlight over the ranges when we noticed dots of light, like fireflies, here and there all over the valley. Eventually the whole valley was filled with moving points of light. We called our servants, and to them this was no mystery. After the first rains, the frogs come out by the millions, and the natives turn out by the hundreds to catch them. They use a spear made of bamboo, sharpened to a needle point, and to guide their way in the dark, they carry lanterns–the lights we saw. Frogs are a great delicacy to these people. They probably ate frog legs before the French even thought of it.

We came down from the heights this morning. Toward the end, we had to hurry, as a thunderstorm was building. We just made it to the house as the first raindrops fell. That wonderful smell of the first rains, of dust being dampened, of dry leaves plumping up with moisture–everything combined makes a wonderful odor in the air. Even the ponies rejoice. They want to run.

But the rainy season is also the season of ants, ants of every size and description. Some bite, some only crawl, but all make for the food storage closet–all except the “army ants.” The army ants are a real army, with officers and also a huge “elephant ant,” who acts as an ambulance for those with sore feet or exhaustion. These pile aboard him, sometimes three or four at a time, and off he goes, alongside the regular line. This army on the march is about six inches across the column and several yards long. It goes through the house as if the house did not exist. The ants seem oblivious to obstacles and never go around anything. Over or under is the order. If the obstacle happens to be a desk, over they go, leaving a black smudge behind them almost as if their feet were covered with tar, and this mark is as difficult to remove as if it were tar. After suffering with the army ants several times, I found that a kettle of hot water can cause them to change their route. The officer ants are amusing to watch. They tear up and down the column, shoving any stragglers back into line and probably reprimanding them too, if one could understand their language. It is a great waste of my time to have these ants march through my house, but they fascinate me.

Then there are the small biting ants that crawl into our beds in the quiet night. It takes time and a lot of activity to get them out. Another kind of ant one could almost class with scorpions. This is the mot daeng, or red ant, named after its fiery color. The natives put it in their curry; they like its sour taste. When it bites, it stands on its head, to make a greater impression, I guess. It is the most belligerent of all ants except the mot tin, or tongue ant, which is about an inch long and shaped like a tongue. The people tell me six of them can kill a man.

These visitors teach us new habits. We have learned to keep our clothes not in drawers but in closets with open shelves. That way, if a snake or scorpion or centipede has decided to make a home in your clothing, you are likely to see him before he gets to you. Also, we always shake out our clothes before we put them on. In walking around the compound, we have learned to watch our step. The other morning we heard the servants talking excitedly, and we went out to see what was going on. Two snakes were trying to swallow each other, tail first, and had formed a complete circle. The coolie solved their problem. He killed them both.

SOURCE: Mission to Siam: The Memoirs of Jessie MacKinnon Hartzell [1884-1968], edited with a biographical essay by Joan Acocella (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 43-45

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