Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Man or mouse?

In an epic battle of man vs. beast, I have been soundly humiliated by a mouse. But it’s not over yet.

Day 1
It was my first night in Mussoorie, a dark and stormy one, as it happens. First of many such nights, with the monsoon in full swing, everything damp, rain pelting my plastic skylights, jackals and monkeys yelling on the hillsides outside my front door.

Despite the weather and the wildlife, it had been a warm welcome to Woodstock School. First, a six-and-a-half train ride from Delhi to Dehra Dun, then a Chinese buffet, and then a winding one-hour bus ride up the mountain in the mist and rain. Throughout the journey, old staff and new came together for conversation and laughs. I discovered my new colleagues had come, for the most part, from the Chicago area (I’ll call Springfield, Illinois, and all of Minnesota part of the greater metro area) and came with a wide range of teaching experience and expectations. Several were just out of college looking to start life as well as their teaching careers. One was a former Woodstock student, current Northwestern University professor of medicine, leaving her job so that her two sons could have a quality education. Another was a 75-year-old firecracker who joked and flirted the entire way.

At the school, while our suitcases were soaking in the rain, we were greeted by old staff and some of their children and assigned “buddies” who took us up to our new homes. It seemed everyone wanted to say hello to each of us, and in a show of the friendly spirit, two old timers argued about who would take me out to dinner. They split the duties: One would take me to my place; the other would take me out to eat.

I immediately loved my apartment (well, as soon as I could catch my breath following a hike up a steep and rocky mountain path). It’s a loft-style place that’s been recently renovated. The hospitality department left some flowers and breakfast food on the table to help me get settled, and as soon I had the hot-water heating instructions settled, I was left to unpack before dinner.

Dinner was everything I had hoped for at this place: unbelievably hospitable colleagues and their children, going out of their way to make the me (and one of my neighbors) feel welcome with food, beer, and lots of conversation and laughter. My English-department buddy is another university professor taking a break to spend some time doing this.

After all that, I thought I’d get some sleep, finally. Back at my place, I crawled into bed. Tired, hoping to get some sleep, unlike the previous night, when the jet lag kept me tossing and turning. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. There were weird little noises that seemed way too close. I wondered if there were monkeys on the roof but laughed off my nervousness: I’m up in the mountains of India, I thought, there are bound to be noises. I dozed off.

Moments later a sharp pain on my left foot jolted me awake. A bed bug? A scorpion? I bolted out from under my sheets. I didn’t turn on the lights, though. In my sleepy mind I wondered if I had just dreamt the sting or bite or whatever it was, remembering my buddy’s words that most people have strange and vivid dreams their first couple of nights in the 6,000-foot elevation. I stayed there on top of my bedding, hoping this wouldn’t keep me awake. I started nodding off when ...

Another little nibble, this time on my other foot! I yelled and flailed, jumped out of bed and turned on the lights. I wasn’t dreaming. I noticed that the first bite, on my left foot, had actually slightly broken the skin, like a deep mosquito bite. What the ... ?

I pulled the sheets back. Didn’t see anything. But now I was awake, heart and brain racing. Was I going to deal with massive bed bugs for the next two years? I walked over to my computer. No Internet connection yet, but I thought I’d listen to music to calm my nerves. As I sat at my desk I heard a little rustling sound from the first floor below. I looked over the banister and saw a mouse on my dining room table, chewing through a pack of gum. Now what, I thought. Bed bugs and mice on the same night. The critter sensed it was being watched and scurried off the table and out of view.

I took a closer look and saw mouse droppings on my desk, next to my computer. I walked downstairs and found several droppings—on the table, a chair, the coffee table, the floor. Crap, I thought. Literally ... crap.

I considered phoning one of my colleagues—one had specifically said, “If you have any problems, no matter what time it is, give me a call.” But should I really call to see if she has a mousetrap at 1:30 a.m.? Perhaps I could walk over to one of my neighbors. But they are new teachers, too, and how would they be able to help? I quickly sensed that my real welcome to India was beginning, and I contemplated methods of eliminating two pests—a cat for the mouse (mice?) and fumigation for the bugs. How easy was this going to be to do tomorrow, a Sunday?

I walked back to bed, decided to pull off the sheets, blankets, everything. Maybe I’d put on socks and shoes, long pants, a sweatshirt, and somehow be able to sleep later. Then I saw a mouse dropping right in my bed. So ... the mouse had been there. Which means, I guess, that it’s possible that I was bitten by a mouse. But mice don’t bite, do they? And how the hell had it gotten under my sheets? And how am I supposed to sleep, I wondered ... ever again?

An hour later I had most of my belongings in out-of-reach spots. I sat down at my computer and began typing. After about a page, as I was clicking save, the mouse ran over my feet. I screamed. (Note: This wasn’t a terrified sissy yelp but more of an angry this-means-war holler.) I looked around for something to smash the mouse with, saw nothing, so I picked up my chair and smashed down repeatedly as my target scurried around the banister posts. Using the chair legs as a weapon, I had four chances with each slam to kill my tormentor, but really, I had no chance, and the mouse got away.

More awake now, adrenaline pumping, I scanned the area, wondering where the mouse’s entry point was. On the windowsill, mouse droppings. Ah, I thought, I had opened the window earlier, and the screen was a little loose. Just loose enough for a mouse to crawl in. “Fine,” I said out loud. “You came in this way, but you’re not getting out!” As I reached for the window, I let go of the screen; it swung down and nailed my thumb.

More screaming and jumping around. (Not a sissy scream, mind you, but a pained one.) As my thumb turned blue, I realized the mouse had just won another round.

Minutes later, as I walked back downstairs, I saw some leaves racing across the floor, toward the kitchen. The mouse was carrying off parts of the flowers the hospitality department had left for me. I ran after, determined not to be humiliated further. The leaves were in a corner. “You’re not getting these,” I said, tossing them into the trash.

I’d like to say I waged a brave war over the next three hours. But truthfully, I was a coward. For some reason, in my mind I still thought of the possibility of a scorpion or other bug in my bed. And I witnessed a starving, insane mouse running over my feet and furniture, fearlessly carrying off my flowers. I walked outside to see in any of my neighbors were up. Everything was dark.

So ... I came home and sat up on a dresser. Yeah, up high enough where there were no mice or scorpions.

The mouse came out a couple of times, brazenly ignoring me as I contemplated building a trap. I pulled out my tiny video camera and shot scenes for a future horror movie. A mouse crawling on a couch and dashing under a fridge. A mouse scurrying around on a fireplace. A grown man sitting on a dresser.

I eventually did the math: The creature in my bed and the one running around eating and crapping was the same one. I shouldn’t have to worry about being bitten again. I went back to bed, pulled the sheets completely off, wiped off the droppings, and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and slept for an hour.

Day 2
The sun came up. No, wait, ha ... it’s monsoon season, no sunrises for the next six weeks. The sky brightened, outside my windows the entire valley was shrouded in mist; there was a mouse somewhere in my house.

Now that it wasn’t dark, I was able to laugh at my fears. It was way too early to call someone about a mousetrap, so I busied myself learning to use my new home. A flip of a switch, and 30 seconds later I had purified water. A match to light the burner, and 3 minutes later I had water boiling for some instant coffee.

I made eggs. I learned that they take longer to cook at this altitude but somehow still burn more easily. I took a shower. I learned that my hot water lasts less than 5 minutes. I eventually phoned my dinner buddies from the night before. I learned that, even though I have known these people for less than a day, I already have concerned people around me who do two things you’d expect from lifelong friends:
  1. Immediately scramble to help.
  2. Laugh hysterically at my misery. 
At their house 30 minutes later, they made plans for the day: Call someone to have my place cleaned and mattresses replaced. Contact the school nurse—who lives downstairs—to find out if I need rabies shots. (Incidentally, after I washed the bite with soap and hot water the night before, the mark completely disappeared, so I figured I was OK. But she has a stash of vaccines in her freezer, so she came up and stuck me in the arm. Four more to go in the coming days.) Go to the bazaar to buy cleaning supplies and mousetraps. Have coffee. And the whole time, laugh. And whenever anyone comes over or phones, start the conversation with: “This guy was brutally attacked by a rabid mouse last night.”

We went to Mussoorie for some shopping. The town is a narrow, curving road, with loads of cramped and cruddy shops selling whatever you need, each with its own specialty in its small space. I got some cleaning supplies. My friends bought a dryer. (In monsoon season, things are just damp. Clothes take a week to dry, if they dry. Mold appears everywhere, although I’ve been assured that my home shouldn’t get any since it’s a newly renovated space. Still, I’m thinking of buying a washer and dryer in the coming days.) We checked seven or eight stores, but couldn’t find a mousetrap. The simplest things. They are the things one misses when living halfway around the world.

Eventually I bought a package of rat poison. The package notes that it is fast-acting, kills in one feed, and is effective against plague causing rats. Just the smell of it should kill a mouse. My purchase cost 9 rupees, about 25 cents. I gave the shopkeeper 10 rupees, and instead of giving me change, he handed me a candy. I thought I had been had, a stupid foreigner getting candy instead of money, but later I was assured that it was worth the one cent I was owed.

The afternoon was a tour of the town—which tailor to use, which grocer sends up the best produce, which shops sells the best bootleg DVDs. When the sky cleared, we saw the Ganges River far below in the valley. As we had coffee overlooking the busy street, we saw a cow trying to enter a fashionable clothing store. It was gently coaxed away. A friend who visited India a couple of summers ago said that finding a bar in this county is difficult. My new friends pointed out half a dozen decent places to get a drink in this town of 30,000. We had a few at The Tavern, the most popular of them with school staff.

After food and drinks, I returned home with my purchases. I scrubbed surfaces with bleach. I put a light bulb in my closet. (That’s one way to keep clothes relatively dry.) I unpacked my suitcases, realizing that I had, in fact, brought way too much clothing and not enough of anything else. I made a peanut-butter-and-poison sandwich. I placed two chunks in strategic places. “Nice knowing you,” I said to the unsuspecting mouse.

A while later, my neighbor and I headed to the school cafeteria for dinner. We sat with other new staff, and I told my story. They laughed. My neighbor, who had been on the shopping trip all day and had heard the story before, shook his head and said, “I think he’s just making this stuff up.”

After dinner, we hung out with the girls next door. Eventually, I asked if anyone wanted to see a dead mouse. We walked into my place. The poisoned sandwich in the kitchen was gone. I ran upstairs. The one there was still there. “All right,” I said. “Help me find the body.”

Someone spotted the mouse in the cupboard under the kitchen sink. It was still alive. It scurried into a little space. “It’ll probably die in there tonight,” my friends said.

Just to be sure, I chucked in a chunk of rat poison under the sink. For the next 10 minutes, we watched as the mouse popped out of its hiding spot to nibble on the poison. Everyone congratulated me, hoped that the mouse would die in the open, and left. At 10 o’clock, I thought I’d turn in and see if I could get my first good sleep in India.

Day 3
I woke up at 3. Not as much sleep as I hoped for, but better. Outside, some jackals howled (it’s a hyena-like laugh). I heard birds. But my apartment was silent. I turned on the lights and saw a troubling site.

The poison sandwich I had upstairs, the one that was still there the night before, was gone. I raced downstairs, immediately noticing something amiss. The remainder of the rat poison, which I had left on my kitchen counter, was gone. I opened the cupboard, and saw what I feared: The mouse, alive and well, darted back into its hiding spot. This thing was healthy looking and getting bigger. Why not? I had been feeding it.

And just to show how it felt about me trying to poison it, the vindictive little monster left about five turds in one of my shoes. One of the first things you learn here is to check your shoes before putting them on. Usually you’re checking for scorpions or spiders. For the rest of my stay here, I’ll be checking for mouse crap.

“And all those jerks laughed at me yesterday,” I thought. “I knew I had reason to be scared of this, this super mouse that can't be killed.”

I eventually slept fitfully. At one point during the night, a mosquito or some other insect buzzed my ear, and I sat up startled, wondering if it was the mouse. I waited for the light of day, just so I could get out of this infested house.

The community at Woodstock was soon rallying around me. Everyone I met asked, “Are you the one with the mouse problems?” They laughed, they told me their own horror stories of mice rats snakes monkeys scorpions leaches, they assured me this was the first time ever that anyone had been bitten by a mouse, they laughed some more, but the whole time, they were extremely supportive, offering advice or poison or a cat or a bed at their homes in case I felt too tormented to sleep in my own.

And so that’s going to be my reputation here, at least for a while. The guy emasculated by a mouse. I guess it could be worse.

Whenever starting in a new place, it’s important to stand out in some way. Dozens of people meeting you every day, and you want them to remember you as someone funny and interesting, not shy or standoffish or sarcastic. So, I came up with some standard lines, the new people laughed while my neighbor rolled his eyes, having heard them over and over again.

Back at home, I noticed evidence that my mouse was still alive.

Day 4
I woke up with a new strategy. “I’m going to ignore the mouse,” I thought. Whenever anyone asked me about it, I would laugh off the subject and try to talk about something different.

That proved difficult. Every new person I met wanted details. Guess they really hadn’t ever heard of anyone bitten by a mouse. So, the standard line: “I crawled into bed, fell asleep, and felt a strong bite on my toe. I thought to myself that this country has some incredible bed bugs. But when I discovered the mouse droppings, I realized that it had been sleeping there and I had invaded its nest, so it was defending itself or just trying to get out. Now, how about that devotional service? Wasn’t that exciting?”

Probably not the best attempt at changing a subject; this is a Christian school, and while the vast majority of students and most staff members aren’t Christian, or at least aren’t here for that reason, there are some very devout people too. I haven’t figured out who’s who yet, so I’m trying to walk the fine line between the believers and the others, trying not to offend either. And, here’s the shocking part: While I’ve been a practicing agnostic for many years, I actually was impressed with the devotional service. There was some singing, and I was amazed at the quality of the voices in the room. There was a talk by the chaplain, who happens to be one of my next door neighbors, and I was amazed at how friendly and welcoming he was to everyone in the room, stepping on no toes, demanding nothing, and just asking us to consider the greater good of the community in everything we do this school year. Being the self-centered person I am, this struck a chord.

Afterwards, the new people had a meeting to introduce us to this 154-year-old school and to each other. Of course I talked about the mouse.

“Rest assured this kind of thing doesn’t happen,” said the guy running the meeting told the group.

“Be afraid,” I corrected him.

Following that, I tried to get down to preparing for the school year. I’ll teach several unfamiliar texts this year, plus drama, so I realize I’ll have precious few moments of free time (read: blog posts will be a few sentences and sporadic). But I was easily convinced to put down my book by two groups: three fellow new teachers wanted to walk to the bazaar at the top of the hill and a veteran couple wanted a few of us to stop by for dinner. Done.

The hike up the hill took a while, mostly because I took the lead. It was quite breathtaking in more ways than one. First of all, I’m still getting used to the elevation and the steep climbs. I hope to be used to it soon. But I hope I don’t get used to the stunning beauty of my surroundings. Even when the clouds rolled in, and we were literally walking in a cloud with little visibility, the natural beauty was overwhelming in its silence and simplicity.

One of the new girls, who’s just out of college and beaming with life, showed how to face nature’s pests with grace: At one point, she bent over to look at her foot and said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding, my first leach.” Attached to her leg, just above the sock, was a dark little worm. She lifted it, saw that it was embedded, and said, “Well, don’t want to pull it out because the head might get stuck.”

She calmly walked on. The other two girls and I exchanged grossed-out looks. We eventually found a shop, she bought a container of salt for 10 rupees, and sat down. A few granules of salt and the leach writhed out of her skin and she flicked it away. “Look how bloated it got,” she said. “Remember how thin it was when we first saw it?” She tried to step on it to watch it burst, but like a balloon, its body expanded.

If she could handle her first leach like that, I thought, surely I can handle a mouse.

I was late to dinner, and as soon as I sat down, half the group left for the local watering hole. “Just eat in the taxi,” my hostess encouraged me. “You can give me the plate back another time. We’ve got plenty.”

I stuck around, had some great food and great laughs, and eventually went to another neighbor’s house. “Hey, great to see you,” he said. “Want to borrow the cat?” Earlier in the day, we had arranged for me to take one of his cats to get rid of my mouse once and for all.

“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m actually concerned about the fact that this mouse ate a lot of poison. I mean, it might not have killed the mouse, but it still might harm your cat.” So we sat for half an hour, had a glass of wine, and talked about the wonders of mountain living. He invited me back for a pizza party on Sunday that he’s throwing for all the new people.

Back at home, the first thing I saw was my mouse scurrying around. Little did it know that I had a secret weapon—not the cat, but more poison, a gun-powder-like substance the shopkeeper at the top of the mountain assured me was one-hundred percent guaranteed to kill any rat or mouse. For 5 rupees, I sure hope so.

I made three little balls of bread and peanut butter and 100-percent-guaranteed poison. I set them on a paper towel in the corner of the room. But then I started worrying about all the advice I had heard: If the mouse dies in his hiding spot, I’ll never find him, and my whole place will stink for a long time. The way the poison works is it makes the rodent so thirsty that it leaves the house searching for water, sort of how peanuts send people searching for beer. Thing is, if the mouse can’t get out of the house, it ends up dying who-knows-where. Damn, should have taken the cat, I thought.

So then I decided to build my own trap. I tipped a bucket over the poisoned balls and positioned it in such a way that I could knock it down from above. Yes, I was going to wait for the mouse to go for the food; then, I would toss something like a rolled-up sock down from my loft, knock the bucket over and capture my tormentor. There are many, many things that could go wrong with this plan, I realize. In fact, just writing I see how stupid a plan it was. But here’s the thing: It worked!

I didn’t even have to wait long. As soon as I went up to the loft, the mouse was running around down below. I have to give the mouse credit: it was fast, darting around, seeking food. It ignored my trap once, but minutes later it went in. I couldn’t exactly see if it was under the bucket, but then I heard it munching on the bait. I actually heard it slurping down the peanut butter. I tossed the sock, the bucket fell over, and there was no sign of the mouse. It had to be in there, right?

I quickly realized I had a few new problems:
  1. I couldn’t see into the bucket, so I didn’t really know if the mouse was in there. If I lifted the bucket to see, it would escape.
  2. I didn’t know how long I’d have to keep the mouse covered up until it died. If the poison didn’t work, I’d have to wait until it died of hunger or thirst. How many days would that take?
My first problem was solved very soon. After 10 minutes, the mouse tried scratching its way out from under the bucket. I put an English anthology on top, telling the mouse: “Most high school freshmen can’t lift this book, so you won’t be able to either.”

As for my second problem, I don’t know what the answer is. It’s now Day 5 of this saga. My fifth day in my new home, and the whole time I’ve been consumed with this creature. The war isn’t over, I realize, but at least I got a point.

Friday, July 04, 2008

D gets the money

A final update on D, my student whose laptop was stolen and then replaced by readers of this blog (click on the label below to follow the entire story): I met with D a couple of days ago to present him with a "scholarship fund" of $1,000. The money, most of it donated by a group of amazing people, will go toward upcoming travel and other expenses relating to his college search. He said he's spending this summer preparing for his senior year (four of his teachers assigned summer work) and visiting various campuses. Plus, at some point, he'll try to relax.

Initially, we thought we'd use half of the money to start up some sort of charity, but with me leaving, that became something of a challenge. So ... yeah ... here he is in front of the school (with a rare smile on his face):