Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nicole vs. the Rats: Vermin in Vanuatu Part 1

We had been living in our new home, nestled in the heart of Lambubu, for less than two nights when we discovered that we weren't the only residents.

"RATS?!" squealed Nicole when we discovered that rats had stolen someone's malaria tablets and stuffed them into Dave's guitar, "We have rats?! Ewwww!"

Nicole, in my opinion, was hands-down the most interesting character in our group. Even at the end of our project, I think everyone was still somewhat mystified and confused by Nicole's decision to join the YCI program, because prior to leaving for Vanuatu, Nicole had never been camping. Not even for one night.*


Because of this, she will forever have my admiration for being ballsy enough to pick up, pack up (an obscene amount, mind you) and essentially go camping for six weeks solid amongst giant centipedes in a developing country.

That, my friends, is the mark of a truly intrepid woman.

However, after less than 48-hours in our community, Nicole was declaring war. On the rats.

The girls' side of the room. We slept side by side in a row: Nicole, me & Jo (sharing one tent), Becca, Tara, Rose and Liesa. Becca and Tara were terrorized during the night the most by the rats, which would run from the rope of Becca's tent down from the ceiling, and climb onto the dome of Tara's green tent every night.

We laughed at Nicole's squeals of concern and fear, and assured her that the when Morsen went to Lakatoro later that week, he would pick up rat traps and poison and everything would be fine.
That night, I had my first night terror in the community. My first nightmare in Vanuatu had been the week before in Port Vila, when I was sleeping next to Curtis. I had told warned him that I might have nightmares and wake up screaming, as I do often when I'm in an unfamiliar place. "Just tell me to go back to sleep, and I'll be fine" I instructed him. So when I drempt that wild dogs had broken into the Scout Hall and I woke up gasping for breath, Curtis was prepared and calmly assured me that it was just a dream.

The problem was, somewhere in the chaos of the boat ride to Lambubu and starting work on the school, I had forgotten to tell the 10 new members of my family that there were hazards to sleeping in close proximity to me.

So when I woke up screaming on our third night in the community, no one knew how to react. The sound of the rats scampering in the crack behind my head had entered my dream, and despite the fact I'm not afraid of rats in any capacity, I had a nightmare that the rodents had gotten into our mosquito net and started attacking Jo and I.

Jo, without knowing what was going on, was woken by my screams, and quickly joined in the terror by screaming and trying to rip down and claw her way out of the mosquito net. Meanwhile, without the reassurance that I had merely been dreaming, I continued my screams, and a terrified Nicole to my right hand side also started screaming and trying to escape from the confines of her bug net.

Hearing our screams, the manly guys in the next room somehow failed to realize their obligation as males, and didn't come running to our aid. Instead, they chose the other route. Also not knowing what was going on, they chose to laugh.

The rats would also use our backpacks as jumping points to climb onto the windowsills which we used as shelves.

This was the start of Nicole's sleepless nights.

At the construction site that day, Nicole eagerly waited for the Morsen's return from Lakatoro. "I can't wait until we kill them," she said eagerly, an evil little grin on her face.

Meanwhile, the men on the construction site, misunderstanding what the had happened the previous night, started teasing me about my alleged fear of rats. I had woken up the entire community, and when Jo went out to pee after the night terror incident, she reported that the entire village had been standing on their doorsteps (and by doorsteps, I mean dirt front lawns), wondering about the disturbance from the strange white people.

The girls' side.

When Morsen returned from Lakatoro that night, Nicole was waiting for him. "Did you get the traps?"

"Oh, I forgot," he admitted.

"You forgot?!" Nicole was completely appalled.

Samuel and Iven sitting in the much-less crowded boys' side. They did not suffer any clothing casualities to the rats, despite leaving their stuff all over the place.

Morsen went up the street to the Co-Op, and bought a glue trap, which he placed in the ceiling. It did nothing. The next morning, Liesa and Tara both discovered underwear that had been casualty to the rats. 

Apparently, dirty underwear is a delicacy to them. They rats also had gotten into the storeroom, and we were worried about our food.

We'd often nap on the boys' side because there was more room (Jo is napping during her lunch break on Dave's bed).

Liesa stepped up to the plate. She knew that Nicole couldn't survive without sleep, and she was vengeful about the loss of her panties.

"As your group leader, I will do something," she told us confidently. Using markers to draw a diagram, she concocoted what she thought was a brilliant rat-trap. Eyeing her brilliant illustration, she set to work making the contraption, while the rest of us looked at her doubtfully.


The trap involved a bucket, and a can on a rope covered with food. The theory was that the rat would climb onto the box beside the bucket, jump on the can to eat the food, the can would twirl sending the rat into the water, where it would remain and drown.

You can understand why we were doubtful of the power of Liesa's trap. (However, you may note that in the above picture Nicole was particularly optimistic and excited about the possible capture of the rats- look at the vindictive grin on her face!).

Two nights later, when the trap had attracted little more than a line of ants that paraded back and forth collecting the sugar, Liesa puffed out her chest and told us, "As your group leader, I will take care of this problem. I will get a cat." Again, we doubted Liesa.


That night, Liesa returned back to the barracks from her host father's with a confident stride in her step, and handed us a cat. "I told you I would take care of you!" she told us, proud of her accomplishment.


We were ecstatic. Jo told me that suddenly she felt more at home than she had in the previous two weeks, I had something to cuddle with (other than Jo), but most importantly, Nicole slept like a baby that night. Minnie kept the rats at bay, and they didn't dare come down to munch on our things.


Two days later, Becca's eyes were puffy and she couldn't breathe. She moved into the back room, away from everyone. That night, she stopped breathing, and had to take hits off Liesa's inhaler. The cat had to go. After all, we liked Becca "small more." And she was less likely to attract fleas. Minnie was returned to Liesa's host father (although she didn't want to go because it meant no more tuna) and Becca moved back into the main room.

Morsen went back to Lakatoro to discover that there was no rat poison on the island of Malekula. He managed to secure a rat trap, which caught one rat, but its prolonged death kept the entire group awake one night so I don't think the trap was ever re-set. (Nicole, however, refreshed our memories of that noisy night many times by gleefully retelling the story of how the rat suffered.)

As a result, Becca's jacket and several more pairs of underwear were devoured. Nicole's sparkly pens were not ignored by the rats, nor was her bathingsuit. I don't think Nicole slept well for the duration of our stay. Several weeks into the project, I rolled over and accidentally kicked Nicole's mosquito net in the dead of the night. It was a small kick, but within seconds, Nicole was sitting straight up in bed, and her flashlight was on.

"Nicole, it was just me! I'm sorry!" I was worried that she was sleeping with a bushknife at her side, ready to pounce on any rodents that messed with her.

Through our Environment and Agriculture Project, we soon discovered that rats are a major problem on the island of Malekula. They devour 70% of the cocoa crop and destroy garden crops, which are the ni-Vans main source of food. We're hoping that in the future the environmental report we submitted can be used to created environmental action plan to help educate the plantation workers on ways to deal with the vermin. Currently, their only defense is weeding.

Apparently Nicole's disdain for ni-Vanuatu rats was more justified than she ever knew.
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* Okay, I admit Nicole had been camping once. But it was only during the YCI preparation weekend.

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