Eating Ants, etc.

I ate some ants today. I’m not sure what that says about me. Here’s how it went down: I tend to snack more than prepare and eat discrete meals these days. I had several bananas and mangoes for breakfast and I wanted a snack around 10:30 that had some carbohydrates. I’m slightly ashamed to say that I often buy a pack of Ramen soup-in-a-cup for lazy snack moments like these. Bought a chicken Ramen and started boiling water to put in it. I got into the article I was reading and didn’t really pay attention as I opened the package and poured in the water. I covered it up and let it soak for three minutes with the top on. Then I uncovered it and noticed something on the lip of the styrofoam cup. There were three dead ants stuck in a drop of water on the outside of the lip.

โ€œCrap. I hope they died just now as they were trying to crawl in,โ€ I thought. I pushed it out of my mind and kept reading as I stirred the noodles, trying to cool them down. The next time I look into the cup, however, I see specks floating to the surface. More ants. Tiny, dead ants in my Ramen. My mind strains to resolve the problem through denial. Maybe a couple crawled in while I was waiting for the water to boil. I kept trying not to remember the time a few weeks ago when I bought a Ramen and found ants crawling through the entire package even though it was sealed. I kept reading and ignoring the situation. Finally I had to confront it and, to my disappointment, saw dozens of ants, all expired, permeating the entire cup. Now what? The way I saw it, I had four options.

1) Toss it and buy a new one. They cost about 60 cents.

2) Bring it in and show them the problem, get a new one for free. Worked before.

3) Pick the ants out and eat it anyways.

4) Eat the ants with the noodles.

I knew the first two were the more sensible options from the perspective of not eating any ants, but they would take time and energy. I could try to pick out the ants, but there were so many that I knew I’d never get them all out. If I was going with option three, then I would probably end up eating ants anyways, so why not just go with option four? Still, I was having a hard time emotionally with four. Intellectually I knew that I probably wouldn’t get sick, it probably wasn’t bad for me, other cultures eat ants, and the water was boiling hot and had killed and cooked them. Still, they were bugs. This tug of war continued internally for about ten minutes as my soup cooled down and I kept reading my article as a futile means of escapism. Finally, through a concerted effort to shove aside the instinct to gag, I simply looked away and ate it. Images of tiny ant bodies flashed through my mind after every spoonful, but I forced myself to keep reading and ignore it. Through this combination of selective denial of reality and misdirection I was able to finish it, probably consuming at least 50 ants in the process. So I return to my original question; what does this say about me? Am I that lazy? Am I brave? Am I making too much of an insignificant moment? I’m not sure. All I know is that I ate ants and I haven’t gotten sick yet, though every time I think about it I do feel slightly nauseous. What do you think? I’m open to suggestions about how I should handle this situation next time.

In other news, have I mentioned that food and drinks here are often served in plastic sandwich bags? I mentioned it to my parents over skype once, but I thought I’d share a picture of what this looks like and how it works. You simply order something to go and the cheapest way to give it to you is in a sandwich bag with an open top. They either fill it with food or liquid and either leave it open, tie the top closed, or stick a straw in it. To drink from a bag that is tied off, simply bite off a corner of the bag and suck or squirt it where desired. To eat chicken and plantain chips with cabbage salad (yum) you’ve really got to be comfortable eating with your hands. It took me a while to get over the perceived indignity of licking my fingers, tilting my head back to drop the food into my mouth, and navigating the difficulty of holding the bag with one hand and picking the food out and eating it with the other. At first it felt weird, unclean, and foreign, but now it feels natural. Here’s what it looks like:

Delicious

Plantain chips, chicken, and salad in a bag next to beet juice in a bag.

…aaaaaand here’s a book review I wrote a while ago and still haven’t posted.

When the World Calls:

The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years

By: Stanley Meisler

 

This book is great for anyone interested in getting a good understanding of how the Peace Corps has evolved as an institution. It’s a quick read, informative and inspiring. The author worked for the Peace Corps as a program evaluator for two and a half years in the mid-1960s, giving him a valuable perspective on both the day-to-day lives and work of volunteers as well as the pros and cons of the central bureaucracy in Washington. He has a profound respect for the work that volunteers do in the service of the United States and the countries where they serve, but he does not shy away from talking about the failures of individuals and the Peace Corps as an organization.

He follows the history chronologically and lays out the formation and early years of the Peace Corps in detail. The initial conditions that set the course of the organization are constantly referenced in the book. One of these conditions is the independence that the Peace Corps has from other organizations, like the state department or the pentagon. Another theme is the tension between the image of the organization and its support of the volunteers. Meisler uses these two lenses to explain much of the successes and failures of the Peace Corps through both friendly and antagonistic political climates.

The failure to remain independent of foreign policy has been most pronounced in the programs of Latin American after the Cuban Revolution, in Central America during the Reagan administration, and in the Balkans after the fall of Communism. Programs were introduced or expanded in order to support a political agenda rather than responding to the needs of the people being served. While growth of the Peace Corps can be a very positive thing when done correctly, if rushed it can contribute to unproductive and dangerous situations for volunteers with little to do and little support from Peace Corps staff. The political clashes that Meisler recounts arose sometimes because of volunteers speaking out against US foreign policy and sometimes because of differing visions of how the Peace Corps’ role in US foreign policy should be defined. Should volunteers have the right to protest American involvement during service even if it jeopardizes the foreign policy interests of an administration? The answer has tended to be ‘no’ and is contentious. Still, this tension between being a part of the US government and having independence within it has given the Peace Corps its unique character and allowed it to be as effective as it has been.

The failures of the Peace Corps when image and reputation have been threatened have acquired special meaning since the ABC 20/20 program detailing the failed responses of the Peace Corps to several cases of murder, rape and sexual assault of female volunteers. Meisler talks about past failures to adequately support volunteers when program expansion or public image were at stake, as the 20/20 program highlights. Meisler doesn’t deny the mistakes, but shows how the Peace Corps has taken steps to improve their responses to such risks and tragedies and gives contextual information about its broader safety record, which is very good. His descriptions of the failures of the organization do not detract from the positive work of volunteers, but they point out mistakes that should not be repeated.

The stories of individual volunteers are woven into the institutional narrative that dominates the book and Meisler is explicit about the volunteer being the heart and soul of the organization. The last chapter especially is inspiring and highlights a few of the more than 200,000 unique stories and experiences of volunteers in the past 50 years. It’s an uplifting book in its thoughtful criticism and optimistic faith in the energy and idealism of Americans who choose to dedicate more than two years of their lives to service abroad. In the end, the Peace Corps is not, nor ever will be, a perfect institution, but it remains one of the most powerful symbols and agents of change in the world.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Good man, Andrew! Insects are an overlooked source of protein. And they’re never far away.

    One of my favorite treats in Senegal is bissap (a drink made from red hibiscus bracts–the ones in Red Zinger Tea) sold in old brake fluid bottles. You have to return the bottles when you’re done.

    Reply

  2. Andrew,

    I mentioned your post to my friend Susan, an animal behavior ecologist who can go longer without a shower in the field than anyone I know. She said that she dumps out her coffee when it has ants in it because she can taste the formic acid. She didn’t agree that it was just another spice.

    Cindy

    Reply

  3. Posted by Allie on April 12, 2011 at 12:08 am

    I know I am super belated on this, but I just want to say…I think it’s awesome that you ate the ants. I think it says, more than anything, that you’re adaptable. And that’s a good quality to have in the Peace Corps. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hugs from Philly!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Hannah on May 18, 2011 at 5:37 am

    Andrew! I agree with Allie. I love it that you ate the ants. It was a brave and humble move, and you got some extra protein that day. So funny.

    Reply

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