It happened one night when Becca and I were starting in our on third helping of dinner, which was, of course, rice.
We had started cooking over the fire that week, after Tara's sinus infection made cooking with kerosene difficult and insufferable, the fumes causing her to cough harshly. Collecting firewood after work had become a new daily chore, and most of the time we'd only have to walk down the road for about five feet before the community members, with their ingrained knowledge of our every want and need, would send their children to us, their outstretched, eager, little arms burdened with dry sticks and logs. Most nights, we'd also gather kindling and twigs from the surrounding lots.
Becca, Dave, Jo mo mi were sitting on the dark kitchen floor which we had covered with tarps, while the Aussies sat around the fire outside and the ni-Vans were in a mystery location. We had been too lazy to light one of the lanterns, so we just turned on our head lamps occasionally to see what we were eating. ("Hmmm, I wonder if this is rice? Yup. Definitely still rice. Good, I was worried for a second there!") I had just settled back down on the floor with a fresh bowl of rice mixed expertly with a combination of soya sauce and sweet chili sauce. Leaning back on one hand, I started to dig in.
Moments later, I felt something clamp onto the index finger of my outstretched hand in the dark. The first thought to go through my mind was, "How did the crabs from the coral at the construction site make it back to our house?" I couldn't believe that a crab had its pinchers around my finger, and I was terrified at the sensation.
Screaming, I flung my bowl of rice across the room. "What's wrong?" the Canadians asked me, concerned. "Something just tried to attack me," I said, holding my hand. They looked at me skeptically, and then Dave turned his flashlight towards the ground. There, wriggling amongst the remnants of my dinner, was a a black insect the size of terrifying porportions. Its innumerable legs scurried away and we all yelped.
It was a giant centipede, Vanuatu's token poisonous insect. I had nearly been attacked by a centipede.
Jo and one of the "bird-eating spiders" as Liesa called them. This spider was about the size of my palm and staying in our room at the Scout Hall in Vila. To my knowledge, none of the spiders in Vanuatu are poisonous, and the ni-Van guys didn't hesistate to pick them up in their hands.
Liesa came into the kitchen to find out what was going on. By now, the group was used to my familiar screams of terror, although they usually happened in the middle of the night.*
"What's wrong?" she asked me nonchalantly.
"A centipede attacked me!" I sputtered, still terrified. I'm not one to be afraid of bugs, but this thing was like something out of a bad horror movie.
Liesa started hysterically laughing. She was an incrediably supportive group leader like that. I scowled at her, until she stopped. Two seconds later, she cracked a smile again. "Can I laugh yet?" she asked.
"No!" I told her, offended, which just made her laugh harder. I grew indigent. Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I am not afraid of spiders and generally could care less about insects, so when I show even the slightest bit of fear everyone should respond accordingly.
And then suddenly, her sadistic laughter halted to a stop. Liesa let out a scream that put my own to shame. Dave shone the flashlight at her leg in time to witness another smaller centipede making its ascent, before she threw it off her leg
At this point, our screams had attracted some of our neighbours. Dave, playing the part of the man, explained what happened. "Yu gat kill?" the neighbour asked me, concerned. [Are you bleeding?]
"No, it didn't break the skin," I told him.
"Gud." He proceeded to explain to us that had it broken the skin on my hand, my entire limb would have likely turned black and I would have been out of commission for a while. He also explained that we probably upset a nest when we were collecting firewood. In addition, kerosene repells them, while the smell of food attracts them. With all these factors combined, we saw three centipedes in total climbing around the kitchen.
That night before bed, everyone spent an extra 10 minutes carefully checking their bug nets before they went to sleep. Malaria was no longer our primary concern, giant centipedes were.
Dave scoffed at our fear. "Whatever," he said, "I'm not afraid of them."
Two days later on the worksite, one of the guys from a neighbouring village showed up with a live centipede that he had taken the poison out of. All the men on the construction site screamed in fear at it, throwing it at one another. Still shaken by the incident, I did the only sensible thing- I walked up to the owner of the bug, checked out the massive insect, and started asking him questions.
After googling the subject, most sites claim that there are no dangerous insects in Vanuatu. I beg to differ. I had a run-in with an insect that has the power of a crab pinchers in its legs, and can make grown men squeal and run away in terror. Apparently they are rarely seen in Vanuatu.
So, really, I'm lucky.
More on centipedes (oh, and I dare you to google image the suckers)
* The the story of my night terrors is yet to come.