The cockroach and other amusements

A bit ago I tantalized you (well, tantalized one of you anyway) with the promise of a cockroach story. This was set off by a reading of Rochelle Krich’e2’80’99s blog on July 21, with later mentions, about the cockroaches that had taken up residence in her microwave, and although I do know all about the German cockroach, an inch and a half or so long and quite capable of thriving in dishwashers (such as a rental I had one time in Hawaii, the source of endless discussion with the kids on where the creatures go while the water is splashing) the first thing the came to mind was my first face to face encounter with a cockroach.

Now, I need to set the scene here for a minute. When we married, my husband was teaching at UC Santa Cruz (and no, I was not his student at the time, so shut up with the remarks) but he’e2’80’99d made a commitment to take nine months off to travel to the South Pacific. So my honeymoon included Papua New Guinea and Ayer’e2’80’99s Rock. Doesn’e2’80’99t everyone’e2’80’99s?

Papua New Guinea is the tropics. Maybe not the highlands, where it gets cold (For a description of highland PNG, see ‘e2’80’9cThe Salt Pond’e2’80’9d in the collection Dana Stabenow edited, WILD CRIMES) but Port Moresby, the capital and main city of the country, is tropical indeed.

Including the wildlife. We moved into UPNG housing on the university campus, a pleasant if nondescript building whose most interesting feature was the papaya tree growing outside the door.

And its wildlife.

Tropical cockroaches bear about as much resemblance to their cool-climate cousins as T. Rex bears to the chicken, who science is determined to tell us is its modern relative. The cockroaches greeting us in this tidy, airy, breeze-block living quarters were larger than any mouse I’e2’80’99d ever seen, closer in size to a packrat.

But fast. Really fast. And because they were so big (Did I mention they were big? Really, disturbingly big?) you could hear them move. You would open the door and be greeted by the whisper-click of tiny feet scuttling for cover. Years later, hardened by years of travel with my chosen mate (or perhaps simply numb with exhaustion), we stayed for a while in a hotel in Madras where the old claw-foot tub that had been bathing residents since the Raj had for that same time been home to a community of similarly enormous cockroaches. There, I simply banged noisily on the bathroom door before entering, waited a minute, and took care to rattle around vigorously, occasionally bursting into loud and tuneless song, while I was inside.

But we were talking about Papua New Guinea and its cockroaches. Which were big. And fast.

And, it turned out, nearly impossible to kill, even with the sorts of chemical warfare sold in a can in any supermarket in Moresby, the kinds of chemicals responsible for the near-extinction of the pelican off the California coast and half the diseases known to old-time tropics workers. Nothing like having the houseboy dampen you down with the DDT spritzer as you sat on the verandah with your evening G&T.

But they hadn’t met Laurie King and her flying toothbrush.

As neither have you, until later in the week.

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  1. Chris on August 2, 2005 at 2:48 pm

    I felt squeamish even reading this story! I thought the Greek cockroaches were bad enough; when I lived there one Summer, I ended up moving my bed to within reach of the lightswitch, due a night-time experience. I’d stepped from bed in bare feet, and when I switched the light on, my toes were within an inch of the biggest (Greek) cockroach I’d seen all summer. NOTHING compared to the ones in PNG, I hasten to add, but bad enough if you have a phobia!

  2. Jamie on August 2, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you.

    I thought a Palmetto Bug (innocuous sounding Southern euphemism for corn fed flying cockroach) that decided to shower with me in a South Carolina hotel was bad.

    The only thing worse than encountering creepy crawlies with which we are unfamiliar is the reaction of the natives. I don’e2’80’99t mind laughter so much, but calm indifference is annoying. I tried to remember this last summer, when we were, for the second time in my life, invaded by the red-eyed Cicadas.

  3. Erin on August 2, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Hmm…I thought insects didn’t have ears. Would singing loudly really make them run away?

    Ew, I hate roaches. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with them so much in the desert environment I grew up in. My mom grew up in Florida, though, and she always tells horrible roach stories. About how they used to soap the bedposts because they thought it would prevent the roaches from climbing up to get them in the night. And one time she dropped a book on a roach and the bug kept moving right underneath it so it looked like the book was crawling across the room. *shivers* Ick.

  4. Erika on August 2, 2005 at 5:09 pm

    Ah, tropical wildlife! I would consider living in Australia (I studied abroad there for a few months) if it weren’t for the insects large enough to be considered household pets. Stupid, isn’t it – the roaches and spiders were essentially harmless, but restricted my nighttime movements around the house.

    Microwaves and dishwashers seem to be the favorite hangout of roaches. A friend of mine lived in the Merrill College apartments at UCSC and had roaches in both…they survived everything.

  5. Anonymous on August 2, 2005 at 9:05 pm

    Living in Florida, you get used to palmetto bugs/roaches to the rest of the world. They also fly. And crack when you step on one. Gross gross gross! Here is a tried (and truthful) way of getting them out of the room–mix borax & ripe bananas, roll into little balls, place around the room–I swear a friend did this for years! A much better and easier way is to keep bay leaves around–roaches of all kinds hate bay leaves, dont ask me why, but I’ve lived in Florida for 25 years with bay leaves around, and rarely have a roach of any sort! I hate roaches. When the world ends, there will be one watching all living things go!!

  6. Jacqui on August 2, 2005 at 9:13 pm

    Eeww. Luckily We don’t have roaches where I live, just horrible swarms of ants. My sister had cockroaches. After hearing her horror stories, I would much rather have the ants!

  7. vian on August 2, 2005 at 9:42 pm

    I never encountered living with roaches until I moved to Santa Barbara. My husband was unimpressed with them and couldn’t relate to my horror. He had lived in Thailand for 4 years with massive roaches and other assorted nasties. (He still won’t talk about the centipedes). Now we live in Atlanta, another roach aka “palmetto bug” capitol. I find boric acid powder in the windowsills, and cabinets etc. a good deterrent, and non-toxic. I’ve heard it clogs their respiratory systems. We also have a creature known as a “Cave Cricket” : imagine a cross between a roach and a large grasshopper. They thrive in crawl spaces and love corrugated cardboard.

  8. WDI on August 2, 2005 at 11:51 pm

    Ah, cockroaches — they will inherit the earth, I’m sure! I had no experience with them, myself, until I moved to Albuquerque (where we also had cicadas the size of small birds — but I liked those!). They were everywhere, especially in the kitchen of our first house. That would be the kitchen with the lovely avocado appliances and the (get this) *carpet* on the floor. That would be carpet, as in “the perfect medium for soaking up cockroach attractant (spilled food etc.); carpet, as in “something under which entire nations of cockroaches can breed.”

    That same house was located in the northeastern sector of town, up near the base of the mountains. Whenever the roaches got too bad in the neighborhoods downtown, The Powers That Be would gas the sewers, sending the roaches swarming up to our neck of the woods.

    But you know what? I housesat for a friend in Kansas City and would gladly have welcomed all of my Albuquerque cockroaches if only they could have promised to get rid of the brown recluse spiders . . .


  9. ShySusan on August 3, 2005 at 12:09 am

    Ahhh, high altitude desert. No roaches, no malaria, no yellow fever, no tsetse fly, no horrible parasitic worms. Why would anybody live anywhere else?

  10. ShySusan on August 3, 2005 at 12:17 am

    Back again…
    Erin, I did a quick Google search on cockroach hearing, and it turns out they hear through their antennae–and quite well.
    –ShySusan again

  11. Anonymous on August 3, 2005 at 1:54 am

    Are you sure you did not encounter the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” during your honeymoon in Papua New Guinea?

  12. Anonymous on August 3, 2005 at 1:54 am

    Are you sure you did not encounter the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” during your honeymoon in Papua New Guinea?

  13. bluekrisco on August 3, 2005 at 1:57 am

    While we were in Southern California for schooling, I (a northern girl) was traumatized by the cockroaches, with which I was completely unfamiliar. One evening, while looking for something in the garage, I opened up a large box and about a hundred (literally) cockroaches began scurrying up the sides of the box, under the things in the box, everywhere. I dropped the box, screamed (not usually much of a screamer), and spent the next two hours feverishly turning out the garage — it was futile, but I was in the grip of temporary insanity. Mice and snakes do not cause me agony, but roaches reduce me to the screaming Mimis, as my mother-in-law would say.

  14. Anonymous on August 3, 2005 at 2:20 am

    If bay leaves work, I bet the aromatic oil extracted from bay leaves would work. Also non-toxic. You could get it from the kind of place that sells soap-making or candle-making supplies.

  15. QweySpiral on August 3, 2005 at 11:29 am

    eeew! your story gave me flashbacks to Palmetto Bugs! When I lived on the inercoastal I became quite adept at using a broom like a golf club and hitting them out of the kitchen over the deck and into the water. Valium would have helped when they started flying! The absolute worse thing was to have them land on you while you slept!

  16. Anonymous on August 3, 2005 at 11:55 am

    I’ve lived in south Florida, Texas and now South Louisiana and still get the creeps from palmetto bugs. Cats are a big help. Mine are top notch roachers and we seldom see them in the house. Live ones, anyway.


  17. 2maple on August 3, 2005 at 12:35 pm

    Cool travels’e2’80’a6 you’e2’80’99ve definitely gotten to see more of the world than Paris, London, Rome and an Alp!

    The school my kids go to in addtiion to summer reading requires the 8th graders to do a bug collection over the summer (find 40 or more creepy-crawlies). We’e2’80’99ve been through this once and are doing round 2 this summer. The kids end up keying them all out and doing this big ‘e2’80’9cevent’e2’80’9d parents and other kids’e2’80’a6 that cockroach would absolutely have been the star of the show!

    At least these tropical residents probably aren’t associated with filthy living like the ones that infested my grad school apartment building because of a slob of a neighbor!

  18. riobonito on August 3, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    I blush to think of the complaining I’ve done about earwigs, after reading these posts. An aside, Laurie, I’d love to read your autobiography, and I saw Locked Rooms in Costco last week, thrilled to see it, have my own copy of course, but hoped it meant big sales for you?!

  19. Anonymous on August 3, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Oh what fun! Thanks for this great report, Laurie. I definitely got my required dose of healthy laughing at this one!!

    linda in delaware

  20. Erin on August 3, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    ShySusan: Thanks for the note. I had no idea!

    Laurie: I find it seriously amusing that the cockroach post has gotten the largest number of comments of all your posts thus far. *grins* Now I want to keep track and see which, if any, future post can surpass the roach.

  21. WDI on August 4, 2005 at 11:07 am

    Hey, ShySusan:
    Which high-altitude desert? You could be in the land of bubonic plague and histoplasmosis 🙂

    I love the high desert, myself, and quite agree with your sentiment. Why anyone would *want* to live elsewhere is a mystery; why we sometimes have to is all too familiar . . .

  22. Anonymous on August 4, 2005 at 9:07 pm

    WDI, I wouldn’t know about histoplasmosis; never heard of it. But yes, people here on the Colorado Plateau do occasionally get bubonic plague. And hanta virus. Life’s a dangerous business, eh?

    Which high desert do you hail from?


  23. WDI on August 5, 2005 at 1:07 pm

    Hey, Shy:
    I did my graduate work in New Mexico, and consider its deserts to be “my” high deserts (I love the Sonoran and Mojave as well, but have spent little time in either).

    Histoplasmosis is sometimes called Valley Fever — it’s a fungal parasite that infects the lungs. The spores stay dormant in the soil and are kicked up during dust storms. It’s one of those fun diseases that many folks wind up being exposed to and kicking without ever knowing it — it’s the unfortunate few who actually get sick.

    I’d forgotten about Hanta, but should have remembered. I know a bunch of folks who worked on Hanta when it was still “Four Corners” virus or “Sin Nombre” virus.

    Of course, if we’re talking deserts, we could talk about centipedes and scorpions 🙂 Did y’all know that scorpions glow in the dark if you shine a black light (UV light) on them? It’s pretty cool . . .

  24. Christy p. on August 5, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Ohhh, don’t get me started on scorpions!Hailing from “Up North”, I had never seen a scorpion in my life. For the past 5 years my husband and I have been going down to Mexico in the winter, but still, I had never encountered one.

    Until Thanksgiving night last winter. Wouldn’t ‘ya know it, the very first scorpion that I ever encounter in my life and the bugger stings me?! I’m pretty pround of myself, though. For a “Northern girl”, I stayed remarkably calm which really, really helped in keeping the venom from spreading.

    A shot of anti-venom & 3 days of high doses of Allegra 180 later, I was fine. Thankfully we were fairly close to the 24 hour, emergency, walk-in clinic with “english speaking” doctors (that’s a relative term).

    Needless to say, I’m a bit more watchful now.

  25. Kelvin Acevedo on December 5, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Not bad.

  26. Anonymous on April 11, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    I live in Dallas, TX. My neighborhood, is upper-middle class, and we used to have cockroaches – they’d be in the streets, and of course, they’d get inside as well. They were the big, black kind, and sometimes, they were big enough to fly. Terrifying!!! Well…. I am happy to say that my neighborhood has been ROACH FREE for years now!!! How did this happen? One glorious day, the little “house gecko” lizard was introduced to our neighborhood. About a year later, we suddenly realized there were no more roaches, but LOTS of house geckos… yep, the geckos eat the roaches. No matter where I go in the world, I will take house geckos with me!!

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