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Travel Horrors : Our Second Annual Halloween Collection of Scary Stories About Trip-Ups : Travel Horrors: Guatemala : Night of the Army Ants : They came four by four, then zillions by zillions, but the last hurrah was what fell in from the roof : She directed the flashlight toward my bed. It was seething like an anthill that had been kicked in.

October 30, 1994|MARY MACKEY | Mackey is a writer of poetry, articles, screenplays, and six novels, and is an English professor at California State University, Sacramento. Excerpted by permission from "I Should Have Stayed Home" (Book Passage Press). and

My sister and I picked a good hotel: a clean place with whitewashed walls, a quaintly thatched roof, toilets that worked and hot water. It was a far cry from the other places we had stayed at during the two weeks in Guatemala. The room in Chichicastenango had been windowless, smelled of urine, had two straw-stuffed pads instead of beds, and sported a family toilet planted neatly in the middle of the courtyard. In Flores, we had made do with a tin roof that leaked, chattering bats in the rafters and spoiled pork for dinner. I had spent a good part of the past six years living in the jungles of Costa Rica and I prided myself on traveling tough, but my sister--who was new to the tropics--had had it. She had a stomachache (soon to become a case of amoebic dysentery that would ultimately land her in intensive care--but that's another story).

"For God's sake let's pay whatever it takes to get a toilet seat that doesn't fall off," she begged. She had been a great sport, but she was getting that glassy look in her eyes that meant she was about to crack. It was the same look she had given me when she was 12, and I invited her to Mexico City, picked her up at the airport, and drove her through a riot, so I gave in.

That afternoon we checked into the nicest hotel in Tikal and spent the rest of the day in the park climbing the pyramids, watching the howler monkeys and admiring the phosphorescent blue butterflies. At dusk, we even spotted a timid, deerlike agouti peering out of the brush. That night as we lay in our comfortable beds in our ever-so comfortable hotel, the jungle frogs sang us to sleep.

I woke in pitch blackness, sometime around midnight, with the distinct sensation that I was not alone. Suddenly, like galley slaves rowing to the same beat, a host of little things all bit me simultaneously. With a howl, I catapulted out of bed and staggered around the room, slapping randomly. Roused out of a sound sleep, my sister went for the lights, but there were no lights. The electricity had been turned off at 10--not an uncommon occurrence in the tropics.

"Help!" I yelled as I continued my St. Vitus' dance around the dark room, slapping, stumbling, tripping over the luggage, and generally doing a great imitation of someone who had lost her mind. Being a level-headed sort, my sister located a flashlight, turned the beam on me, and to our mutual horror we discovered I was covered from head to toe with ants. Snatching off my nightgown, she began to beat me with a towel, smashing the little suckers, while I went on hopping and screaming.

*

When I was de-antified and a few degrees calmer, she directed the flashlight toward my bed. It was seething like an anthill that had been kicked in. Thousands of ants were crawling across the pillow and sheets, but that wasn't the worst of it: There were more ants streaming down the wall of the room in a column four or five feet wide and several inches thick. In many tropical buildings, the walls don't go all the way up to the ceiling. The ants had located the space and were rushing through it in unbelievable quantities.

"Looks like a goddamned waterfall," my sister observed as the black column poured down the wall. "In a few seconds they would have gotten to my bed. Thanks for sounding the alarm. I can just imagine our skeletons lying there, picked to the bone."

Summoning what little dignity I had left, I brushed the smashed ants off my naked body.

"Army ants don't eat people," I announced. My voice grew shrill. "There is nothing to fear."

"How do we make them go away?"

"We can't. When the army ants march, the local people gather up all their food and move out of their houses until they've passed. The ants are a kind of pest control service. By the time they're done there's not a snake, rat or bug left." I was always one for appreciating the balance of nature.

"Son of a bitch," my sister said. "You mean we're stuck with these things for the rest of the night?"

By now the other guests in the hotel were all awake, and, convinced we were being murdered, they had begun to pound on our door.

"Are you two OK?" a voice called.

We dressed, went out and explained the ant situation to our fellow tourists. There were perhaps 15 of us altogether, from Germany, France, Canada and the United States, mostly young, mostly experienced travelers, but no one had been through an army ant invasion. Since the entire staff of the hotel had mysteriously disappeared, we were on our own.

Sleep being out of the question, we arranged ourselves on the sofas in the lobby, pulled up our feet so the ants wouldn't crawl over them, and waited. A few people tried to make ant jokes, but no one was in the mood.

"I have to go the bathroom," a German woman announced. Several of us picked our way to the door with her, but by now the bathroom floor was a heaving mass of ants. It was clear they were going to troop through every room in the hotel.

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