Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023

Banda Aceh, Indonesia/Ann Arbor, Michigan

Emily Peterson

There is a recurring image that pops into my mind now and then; I wouldn’t necessarily call it a daydream. In it, the house where I live (lived) is torn down by a bulldozer and a wave of ants emerges, gathering their collective might into a single mass after being freed from the concrete confines in which they’ve been trapped for years. They run over the construction workers and their equipment and carry on to take over the rest of the city.

I had become familiar with the ants over the course of my months in the house. My first encounter was in my bathroom, behind the large water bucket used for showers. Ants had collected there, swarming incessantly around what I can only assume was their main source of water. Prime real estate. I had seen Saifan, the handyman in charge of the upkeep of our house, tackle the ants by drowning them, flushing them down the drain with huge cupfulls of water. I attempted to do the same with these ants, flooding their swarm with the shower bucket. The smart ones ran to dry land, crawling up the walls and onto my legs. I splashed water around and flailed my legs frantically, wiggling all over because of the tingly ghost feeling the ants left on my body. I brushed at my ankles for hours afterward.

The ants gave me a sense of my power and powerlessness in equal measure. After the shower bucket incident, I learned about the spray that would draw the ants out of their nests in our walls and then poison them. The spray left behind a mound of ant bodies on the floor and a squeaky lemon scent. But as soon as I had swept up the dead ants and felt my head swelling with satisfaction and omnipotence, I would turn to discover a new swarm forming around a piece of mango skin left on the kitchen counter. I couldn’t help but admire their tenacity, their drive, their work ethic. I was a fascinated onlooker as ten ants hoisted a cockroach into the air, swaying a bit under the strain, but successfully moving it across the floor. When not in a swarm, they liked to arrange themselves single-file, hauling away small paint chips they had pilfered from our walls. I discovered a dead cicak, a small gecko-like creature ubiquitous in southeast Asia, on the floor of our back porch where we hang the laundry. I meant to sweep it up along with all the dust and leaves that had collected, but forgot about it. The next day, half of the cicak’s tail was gone, left down to its bone, and a slow trickle of ants was walking towards and away from it. I shook my head and thought, ‘I’ll leave them to it.’

I’m not in that house anymore, in fact, I’m very far away from it. I needed to leave the house with its paint chips and constantly collecting dust and back porch because of the pandemic. That house, and the city it’s in feel very far away now, and I have found it difficult to keep two places–where I was and where I am now– in my head at once. Though this particular virus has unified the entire world in its quest to defeat it, it hasn’t managed to make me feel connected to the place I left. The particular smells– the neighbors burning leaves, lemongrass, durian fruit spilling from trucks on the side of the road, and feelings– driving in the coolness of night, or stepping out of my air-conditioned bedroom into the muggy thickness of the living room, are hard to hold on to. Traveling the grueling 24-hour journey from one side of the world to the other can feel like getting sucked into a black hole, one that twists and swirls you around, then unceremoniously spits you out in a new location, leaving you whiplashed and unable to remember who you were before the journey.

But ants have, in their own way, kept me tethered to the place I left behind. Lying in bed, at home in Michigan, I feel the familiar tickle of a small ant crawling its way up my arm and I brush it away, only to discover it is not an ant, but a thread that has come loose from my blanket. Going on a walk with my parents, I spy a familiar vibrating mound on the sidewalk, and bend down to observe my old friends the ants, doing whatever it is they are always so intent on doing. ‘Remember us?’ they seem to be saying.  


Though currently sheltering at home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Emily Peterson is an Oberlin Shansi Fellow to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where she had been teaching English to university students and recent graduates.