Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Story: Critters by Bruce Mero (Part 2)

This post is the second part of a story published last Sunday. To read the first half, please go here

And here is what I said about this story on my last post:  This essay will be published in sections. Please understand I've heard these stories for years, but never with the detail that my Dad has given here. My early years were playing on Persian carpets that returned with them to the States and hearing stories about the early adventures of my parents. I think that is in part why blogging and seeing the stories that others tell in other countries fascinates me so. 

I am linking this up to Sian's blog for the Sunday Series she hosts on the first Sunday of each month. I always enjoy the photos and tales she tells and the other stories are great to hear. 

Thusly began our Peace Corps tour in Kerman. We never returned to Tehran to complete our language and cultural education. (We did return to Tehran for the birth of our daughter, Mitra a year later). Ours was to be an on-the-job training. The remainder of our belongings arrived at Jim and Cindy's house a couple of days later. Hassan, the Ostandar's driver was the delivery man. We quickly got to know Hassan. We saw him often.

          True to his word, the Ostandar's Hassan picked us up for work at 5:45 the next morning. Jim thought it a treat to have a ride to the office, he usually walked there, a mile or so away from the house and never so early in the morning. He'd not experienced the royal treatment we'd had when he and Cindy arrived in Kerman. Jim appeared to relish the attention.   

          I'm sure we overstayed our welcome at the Ranii's place. We landed in Kerman a whole lot earlier than we or the Peace Corps had planned, and Jim and Cindy accommodated their replacements graciously. It was custom for the new bees in town to take the house of the departing Peace Corps folks. In Kerman, the house that Jim and Cindy rented had been a Peace Corps house for a dozen or so years. We moved in like we owned the place, of course.
          Agah (polite for Mister) Astradeah was the owner of the house and he found a particular liking to renting the place to the "farangees" (foreigners).  The house was modern by Iranian standards and well cared for by the Americans. Astradeah was welcomed to tend the walled garden whenever he wished to irrigate the pomegranate and pistachio trees. More importantly to Agah Astradeah, the rent was paid on time, always.  

          Our plan to assume the Peace Corps house once the Ranii's left for home was aborted later that week. Cindy had applied for a staff position at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington and was told she had been hired. There was a catch, of course, and the catch was that the position wouldn't be open for several months and she and Jim would need to stay in Kerman until the job was unencumbered. Then they could move to Washington. This, of course, made their home unavailable to Gretchen and I for the near term, so we needed to find a place of our own until the Zariff Street house was vacant.

          The Raniis had been in Kerman for nearly two years. Being Americans, they had attracted much attention and made many friends. One such friend, Iraj owned an ancestral house in the Kerman Bazaar that had been abandoned many years prior. It was decrepit. It made the house we lived in Merida seem like a palace. However, it was available to us if we wanted it. We agreed. The rent was reasonable and we were able to negotiate a deal with Iraj to exchange repairs to the house in lieu of rent. We started fixing the place only a few days after we'd received the news that the Raniis were stuck in Kerman for a while longer. Since the day after our arrival, we'd been working in the State Engineering Office from six in the morning until one in the afternoon, six days a week, but our afternoons and evenings were free and spent readying our new home. The activity in the house attracted the curiosity of nearby shopkeepers in the Bazaar, of course, and we soon had many helpers and on lookers. Before little more than a week had passed, Gretchen and I were the onlookers, as a dozen unpaid helpers installed tile floors and applied fresh white plaster to the mud walls and ceilings in four rooms and a galley kitchen. The original house had no electricity, though miraculously a light socket and a single wall outlet appeared in each of the rooms being fixed. The only electrical appliance we'd brought from the States was a radio, though a tiny refrigerator was soon purchased for the kitchen. There was now also a water faucet in the walled yard (hayatt) upon which all of the renovated rooms faced. We moved into the house three weeks, to the day, after our arrival in Kerman

          We lived in the Bazaar for nearly a year. Month after month, Cindy's appointment to the post in Washington was delayed and their departure from Kerman postponed. It was not a problem for us, our little Bazaar house was comfortable, the location the very best way to immerse ourselves in the culture, which was literally at our front door.

          Not all of the old house was fixed during the renovation frenzy, just the few rooms we intended to use. More than half of the house remained in disrepair, including the bathroom. That room was a small, windowless, mud and straw, vaulted cave far to the rear of the house. During the renovation of the part of the house we lived in, fallen mud bricks were cleared from a short, arched tunnel and a pathway was opened to access the bathroom. Therein was a hole in the ground. One did one's business into the hole. Surrounding the hole was a masonry contraption one placed one's feet upon to stay clean and aim properly into the hole. There was no toilet (as we were accustomed), no toilet paper, either. The wiping of one's privates was done with a splash of water onto the left hand from a brass pitcher (called an aftabeah) held in the right hand. The wetted left hand did the cleansing. Repeated as needed. I learned quickly to remove my wallet, jackknife and change from my pockets before using the "toilet" for fear that anything valuable dropped into that hole was going to stay there forever. Gretchen is not one to carry much in her pockets, so items falling into that abyss from her pockets was not much of a problem for her. It was important to remember to fill the aftabeah before heading to the bathroom...there was no source of water back there. Nor were there electric lights, so a flashlight was also requisite.

          Trips to the toilet were best made in the daylight. After-dark trips were sometimes challenging. During hours of darkness, the flashlight beam always scattered cockroaches (flying roaches, the size of hummingbirds), yellow scorpions and fast little critters that resembled dime-store turtles. Occasionally during our late-night forays, the light from the flashlight would illuminate the eyes of a feral Persian cat on the hunt for the very same cockroaches, scorpions and turtle bugs we were attempting to avoid.

          The bathroom was not a pleasant place. I did attempt to decorate it some, however, by hanging on the wall a colored photograph of Richard Nixon at eye level while squatting. Nixon was the guy who once proclaimed that a "junket in the Peace Corps would not defer a young man from being drafted to serve in Viet Nam". We never considered our time in the Peace Corps much of a junket.

          Getting to our house in the Bazaar was always fascinating. There was no access by car, we always walked. There were several ways we could get there, but generally we'd enter the Bazaar at Maidone Arc through an ornately carved plaster and tile arch. The space itself was akin to a mile long tunnel. It was constructed as a series of arched domes, twenty-five feet wide and twenty-five feet between columns. The ceiling of each dome was thirty feet from the floor and constructed of patterned bricks. In the center of each dome was a structure that brought beams of sunlight and fresh air into the cavernous space. On both sides were shops. Getting home through the Bazaar was no quick exercise, too much stimulus kept us straying off course. Quicker access was via a series of narrow passageways, called kouches, in a labyrinth between houses. At some places the kouches were less than six feet wide. Getting lost was commonplace, eventually we memorized the twists and turns. We could get to our front door in five minutes from Zariff Street thru this maze, if we didn't encounter a camel caravan using the same route to deliver goods to shopkeepers in the Bazaar near our house. In that case, we'd turn around and find an alternate route to our front door. We learned quickly that trying to squeeze between a smelly, dusty caravan camel and the kouche wall was a no-win for us.  

          Feral Persian cats were everywhere. No one kept them as pets, they were wild. They ate mice, rats and bugs. One little yellow female lived in the garden at the Zariff Street house and was amazingly adept at finding and killing scorpions without being stung. She'd then eat everything but the stinger. Scorpions were around. They were not abundant, but we did see them in the house from time to time. We developed the morning ritual of shaking out shoes and boots prior to putting them on our feet in case one had taken refuge there during the night. Sometimes the shaking would dislodge a cockroach hiding from the sunlight. We did kill the bugs whenever we encountered them. Squashed bugs were immediately seized upon by hoards of tiny ants, who could completely remove the carcass and squashed goo of a scorpion or roach in ten minutes. We would also see huge ants. Some were an inch or more long. They had the curious habit of lifting a date pit as large as they were and at least twice their weight, carrying the pits over their shoulders to a hole in the soil we assumed was their colony entrance. The engineer in me imagined they used the date pits to reinforce their tunnels.

          Dung beetles fascinated us.  We would never see them unless it was pushing a freshly excreted, neatly rolled-up ball of sheep poop. Daily, a flock of several dozen sheep would traverse the Bazaar, mostly unnoticed. Always the sheep would leave little strings of thumb-nail sized poops, an ephemeral reminder they had just been there. Just as routine and unnoticed and only minutes thereafter, the dung beetles would appear from between the cracks in the pavers to claim their prizes and roll their treasures to the unseen places they claimed as home.

A Bade Geer

          The entry room of our Bazaar house was most amazing. It was a two and a half story, mud-brick octagon with a domed roof. Atop the dome was a hole, a meter across. On top of the hole was constructed a mud-brick cupola with open sides. The cupola was called a bade geer. Its function was to scoop the wind and direct it downward. The searing desert wind, blowing atop the Bazaar roof of domes, was cooled as it was drawn into the silo-like room through the bade geer. When the doors into the main part of the house were opened, a refreshing breeze cooled the adjacent rooms. The entry room was called a ghombade. It was the only room in our house that needed no fixing before we moved in. The front door to our house was located in the ghombade, up a half dozen steps from the main level of the house. We entered the Bazaar and into another world when we passed through that door.

          A nightly ritual was to lock the front door before we went to bed. This habit was performed in spite of the fact that we felt absolutely safe in our house with the knowledge that the eyes of the entire Bazaar watched and protected our house, even at night. Crime was punished severely in Iran. Convicted thieves had their right hands cut off, a deterrent to crime which was very effective. (Remember the bathroom ritual? It is difficult to perform that function with only one hand. Left-handed thieves had to toilet, somehow and eat with the same hand).

          It was late and we needed to sleep. I entered the ghombad, climbed the six stairs and turned the latch on the front door lock. As I stepped down from the door I turned and found myself face to face with a huge, hairy Tarantula clinging to the wall next to the door. It was totally white, bigger than my hand. I was so close I could see its black eyes beneath the hair on its face. I spooked and jumped the last several steps to the floor. I yelled to Gretchen to bring me a 2 x 4. I thought I'd whack the spider with a board, but forgot that wood in Iran was very scarce and that there probably wasn't a 2 x 4 within a hundred miles of that ghombad. Since she had no idea of what I wanted a 2 x 4 for, she assumed (correctly) that I intended to squash a bug, she brought me a sneaker.

          "There is no way I'm getting that close to that spider to hit it with this sneaker," I complained to Gretchen, who starred, wide-eyed at our visitor.

          "Holy [crap]", she replied, "I saw a movie with these once...'Thirteen Ghosts. Those spiders really do exist. How are we going to kill this thing? There's no way I'm crawling into bed and going to sleep knowing that creepy thing is still in my house."

          Several, it seemed, minutes elapsed, while we stared at the hairy white Tarantula..

          "Naft" we exclaimed in unison. "Naft".

          Naft was the Persian word for kerosene. We used kerosene in the Aladdin heaters that were used as room heaters during the winters, which, incidentally were very cold in Kerman, and also which we were using to take the chill out of occupied rooms every evening. We had a can of Naft stored near the bathroom.

          Gretchen ran to the kitchen and then to the Naft container. She poured a couple of cups of kerosene into a tin can she'd saved and brought it to the ghombad, where I was starring at the spider, transfixed and praying it didn't move. I splashed the critter with the Naft and it leaped backward as the kerosene hit him. It ran around on the floor for ten seconds, climbed the ghombad wall a couple of feet and shook spasmodically for several minutes.  Then it was still.

          "It's a goner", said Gretchen. "Smash it with that sneaker, just to make sure."

          "No way I'm getting that close," I replied. "It's dead. Close the door and let's go to bed."

          We went to bed.

          The next morning...the spider was gone.

          The State of Kerman Engineering Office was in a state of complete turmoil when we told the story of our previous night's experience. According to legend, we should not be there, or alive, for that matter. Our white spider was a "Routail". Local legend regaled the Routail as a ghostly creatures, unseen my mortals and an instant demise to those who encounter them. Legend tells that the spider drops onto the shoulder of its unsuspecting victim from the bade geer, in a ghombad, then biting the mortal in the neck. It then returns to the bade geer and waits for the spirit of the dead mortal to appear there to be carried to hell. Since we encountered the Routail in our ghombad, topped by a bade geer, the critter should have bitten me, at least, possibly Gretchen also, then awaited on the roof at the bade geer to transport both of our spirits across the Bazaar roof to Hades. That we'd survived a Routail was astonishing to our co-workers, though none admitted to have ever encountered one. They were the stuff of legend.

view from yard at Zariff St house of Yak done (icehouse)

          Eventually, Cindy 's post in Washington came through and she and Jim left Kerman. We moved from our house in the Kerman Bazaar and into their house on Zariff Street. The cockroaches there were bad, we locked all of our food into the refrigerator every night and stored all of our dishes and glasses upside down to keep them out. Essentially, we abandoned the kitchen to them after dinner, by morning, they had taken to hiding from the light. We had a few scorpions in the garden. The resident yellow cat, followed by a litter of kittens kept their population in check. Ants we had, both kinds, no routails though. For that we were thankful.

          A year later the Peace Corps transferred us to Nicaragua. The prophesy of the LA alumni we'd met a couple of years earlier had finally been fully realized. By that time we were accompanied by a delightful critter, 9 month old daughter, Mitra, born in Tehran in late December. Our assignment in Nicaragua was to help the city of Managua recover from a terrible earthquake that had completely destroyed the city a year earlier.

          We moved into a fairly new house in a crowded suburbs of Managua called Altamira del Este. Since the city center was still uninhabitable, much of the population now resided in the outskirts of the city or had moved to nearby cities or villages. Our house was very modern. We again had a wall- enclosed yard. It was small, approximately 50' x 50', a perfect place we assumed, for our little girl to learn to walk and play. Or so we thought. We discovered a large hole directly under the door leading to the yard the first time we visited the house. When we moved in, we decided to make the yard safe place for Mitra to play, so filling that hole was one of the things we did the first day. By the next morning, the hole was open again, our fresh dirt scattered several feet from the hole. I pushed the dirt back into the hole and stomped it firm with my foot. After work that afternoon we went to check whether or not the hole was still filled with dirt. We both stood in the doorway looking into the yard. To our amazement, the dirt had again been scattered several feet from the spot and the hole was again wide open. What we failed to notice while we were staring at the hole beneath our feet under the door sill was the three and an half foot long iguana running at us from the far side of the yard at full tilt. That hole we'd been concerned with was the iguana's den and he was headed there as fast as his legs could get him there. He dove for cover directly under our feet before either of us actually realized what was happening. The iguana was out of sight before Gretchen or I jumped out of the doorway and slammed the door. We could feel the lizard thru the concrete rustling around beneath our feet.

          It was several days before we attempted to return to the yard. The iguana was on our minds when we slowly opened the door to see if he was in the yard. He was and he'd seen us and was headed for the hole. The door slammed at the same moment he dove into his hole. This scenario we repeated for several afternoons. We soon realized, however, that once the critter was in his hole, he would not come out so long as we were in the yard. A compromise, of sorts had been realized. He could use the yard while we were away from the house. When we wanted to use the yard we'd spook him by slamming the door. He'd stay in his hole while Mitra played there.    

          Quickly we discovered a new menace in the back yard, fire ants. Actually it was Mitra who first encountered them and ran screaming to her mother while she was bitten repeatedly on her bare feet and legs. She was an early talker, her first word was "hormiga", the Spanish word for ant. (Actually, her first word was an English expletive that her parents apparently used more often than we should have with little ears close.) We found the ant's mound and drenched it with insecticide. The problem abated for a while, only to re-emerge in another spot in the yard. More insecticide. More ants elsewhere. They were insidious.

          Soon we discovered that the ants were in many of the yards in the neighborhood. Everyone was using poisons to chase them away. The folks who lived in the house next to ours had their whole house and yard fumigated. Those damned ants came thru the electrical outlets in the common wall we shared and attacked us in bed that night. More insecticide. We were able to kill those in our house after several applications of spray, but those in the yard were never controlled no matter how much bug killer we used. Eventually the yard was abandoned to the ants and the iguana.

          We are now back in the states, permanently, we think. We are still dealing with critters, though familiar critters for the most part. Spring on the Tug Hill brings the black flies, summer the mosquitoes and deer flies and the autumn finds field mice trying to take over the house and barns. The deer eat our vegetables and flowers, the red squirrels the sunflower seeds we put out for the birds. We've chased possums out of our chicken coop and a skunk from the barn. Muskrats drill holes in our pond bank and beavers once dropped a white birch tree into the water and ate it. Coyotes wake us up with their howls and the roar of a bear made Gretchen's hair stand straight up one night. We'll take them all, though. There's nothing here that has spooked me more than that routail in Kerman nor made me madder than the hormigas in Managua.


  1. First of all, those are the most adorable pictures of Mitra! How stinkin' CUTE!!! Secondly, the history of your all's life, is just amazing. I love how you emersed us into the culture with the descriptive words, what an amazing life. I will however, pass on those flying roaches...OMG...those things are horrific! To this day I still have nightmares about them. YUCK! I do NOT like them, not one bit. I'll take bears anyday as well. :)
    Thank you for a fascinating Sunday Story.
    Lisa xx

  2. what an amazing story. for me cockroaches r the lil creatures which march across the ward from one bathroom to another in the middle of the night..............Mrs NHS would be most cross I shared that one but hey,
    jo xxx

  3. Wow, what an epic adventure. One of the things I love most about blogging is the way it gives me a chance to share in a story completely unlike anything I have experienced personally. I found this one fascinating! Thank you

  4. Squatty Potties are indeed a cultural experience, the bugs and iguanas however I'm grateful not to have experienced - glad that your Dad is writing them all down tho'! Such a change from life in the US.

  5. What an exotic start to life and sounds like you were dodging quite a few bullets as a youngster LOL!!

  6. Yes, I agree re: the cute Mitra picure as well as the fascinating cultural ones...great story, just amazing & that ghost story sent shivers down my spine:):)

  7. I LOVE the fact that Mitra's first word was a curse word. ROFLOL We wage a daily war with fire ants here that's made worse by the fact that my son is allergic to them. The spider part of the store made me shudder.

  8. *story

    Apparently I can't type today.

  9. I was totally enthralled by the story of your early years Mitra..your dad writes wonderfully!
    Alison xx

  10. gosh what an interesting story from far far away I used to live with some cockroaches but that is another story!


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