Oaxaca Journal, V.7: This Bug's Life

By    Monday August 13, 2007

According to experts there are about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that is, 10 quintillion) insects in the world. I estimate that roughly half of them are in our backyard here in Oaxaca, Mexico.

My fascination with entomology, which dates back to my first reading of Sam and the Firefly, at the age of four, has been reawakened since we began our sojourn in Mexico over a year ago. Being here has reminded me of the thrill I experienced as a child seeing the remarkable colors of butterflies and moths. It's also reminded me of the jittery horror of encounters with stinging parasites and blood-suckers that makes me thankful for Raid.


Illustrations, left to right, by Peter Kuper: Self-Portrait, Buggin' Out, Bee Kind, courtesy of the artist.

As every rugged traveler knows, bugs are part of the weft and warp of any foreign voyage. I've swatted swarms of flies in Sumatra, tangled with tarantulas in Tanzania and sent centipedes skittering in Singapore. Being stationary here in Oaxaca is no exception. Dealing with flying, flitting, scurrying creatures (besides our daughter) has been a daily occurrence and the simple act of brushing your teeth can be an obstacle course of scorpion booby traps just waiting to be triggered.

My first encounter with those nasty buggers happened during the first days of scorpion season (which seems to run from early September through late August). It was 6:53 am and as I reached, bleary-eyed, for a dry towel, I spotted its coiled ochre form nestled in a fold just before placing it to my cheek. That was many months and at least nine scorpions, six Black Widow spiders and an array of other stinging, biting and gnawing creatures ago. Now I'm a seasoned pro, casually flicking them aside as I reach for my tortilla. As if.

More and more I'm seeing insects as a metaphor for our life experiences. The beautiful Monarch butterflies that have traveled thousands of miles to reach Mexico, parallel our own story. Watching Leaf Cutter ants decimating bushes to construct labyrinths under our front steps replicates our New York Upper Westside window view of hundreds of tiny workers dismantling familiar buildings to erect monstrous skyscrapers. Many seasonal beetles arrive for a few weeks like tourists (on some package deal, no doubt) only to vanish with the first rain. To say the Black Widows and scorpions are interchangeable with countless politicians is too obvious and does the bugs a disservice.

Last month our neighbors (a couple of professors from Indiana) completed their sabbatical and headed home with their two young children. Though they too had many near misses with a parade of deadly insects marching through their home, fortunately they escaped Mexico without incident. As the husband unpacked his suitcase and slipped on his hiking boots caked with chocolate-colored mud, he was reminded of an aspect of his Mexican experience. When a stowaway scorpion's stinger jabbed his heel, the yell he emitted may have been heard as far as Oaxaca..

The population of Oaxaca City is about 350,000, roughly a third the size of a single ant colony. Sitting here in our kitchen watching tiny trails of sugar ants as they stream down the walls, across counters and along the edge of our tiled floors, I'm certain that the meek have already begun to inherit the earth. I'm just as certain when I stare out the window past an orange tree, through violet Jacaranda flowers, towards lush green mountains and blue sky, this rich Mexican experience won't be diminished by sharing it with a few million roommates.

This is the seventh installment of a regular communique from Peter Kuper, a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines internationally. It has been republished in its entirety with corrected byline. -- PR

Peter's coming-of-middle-age graphic novel, Stop Forgetting to Remember was published by Crown last month; a collection of Spy vs Spy strips, which he has written and drawn for Mad magazine for the last eleven years, will be published by Watson-Guptill this fall.