Sunday, January 21, 2007

Fred the Hobo Rat

I’ve done Peace Corps. The mouse-and-rat thing is something that comes with the gig. I’ve dealt with it before and I’m sure I’ll deal with it again. But this one involved a box of $5 cereal that I can only purchase in Hanoi.

Shortly before I arrived in Vietnam, a certain population of mice and rats discovered the office here. In some ways it’s surprising that they didn’t sooner – we’re perched right up above the riverbank and in a general area that is more likely to have a rodent population. As for our office, the ground floor could hardly be said to be secure from miniature four-leggers – the building is open on 2 sides and the entrance area is secured against larger intruders with sliding metal doors. One half of the basement floor is our motorbike parking area. There is no door to block this area from other half – our kitchen. And the kitchen is really rather short on storage area – just a couple of cabinets underneath the stove and sink that is also home to our rather shockingly large dish collection. All of our dishes compete for space with my cook’s supply of rice and other dry goods that she uses for feeding me each day. I spent the weekend before totally clearing out this space and trying to get rid of any extra dishes/utensils that we never use in order to make space for some more things. Then I put in a small collection of my own supplies for when I do my own cooking. So now this cupboard contained dishes, rice and other dry grains in plastic market bags and some of my prepackaged pasta and cereal.

On Tuesday night my translator took me out for street food, so I didn’t cook. My cook also had had the previous two days off – so nobody had been cooking for a couple of days. When I got back that evening I almost went right on upstairs, but I noticed that some dishes were still out and should be put away (another disadvantage to this open-air arrangement to the kitchen – besides being extremely cold in the winter – is that it gets extremely dusty, especially now they’re fixing the road right outside our non-existent doors), so I reached down to open the cupboard and immediately noticed that something wasn’t right.

There were dishes and bottles of things tipped over haphazardly and then, there was a strange little rustling noise that came from the back. Immediately I knew what had happened – and a second later my nose confirmed it – that rat had been in there long enough to make that whole place quite ripe, and he was in no mood to leave. Why would he? He’d found little rat heaven right here on earth – warm, dark, and enough food to eat himself into oblivion.

So he was in there, I was out there, and he wasn’t moving. I tried banging. I tried yelling. Like that was going to convince him (even I knew that). So the only other choice was to take everything that was keeping him in there out. I reached in there and started removing, piece by piece, everything that he could be interested in. It took quite a bit too – either he was hopeful I would just go away or he was just too scared to move. Finally, as one more rat-pee soaked bag of rice spilled out, he gave it up and jumped out. Two days of rice slowed him up quite a bit and I could’ve stepped on his tail as he was fleeing. But it was one of this split second things and I chose not too.

This rat is no stranger to me. I’ve caught him coming around corners and trying to sneak into the kitchen to get at the garbage before. He’s a big one, but moreover, he’s ugly. He must’ve gotten into a tussle with a neighborhood cat or dog – he’s missing half the fur off of his back and runs with an odd limp. He must be old too because the hair he has left is shaggy and not so young looking. Before I had tolerated him – the staff has attempted to trap and remove all of the “Freds” living in the office, but this one is either too big for the trap or too smart to go for it (or the traps are so poorly constructed…well, you get the point). Either way, this Fred is definitely a local hobo rat – low on the ranks for even rats.

So I spent the rest of that evening digging out – gingerly – all of the torn and spilling bags of rice and whatnot and dropping directly in the trash and pulling out the dishes that became rat porta-potties to be washed. Fortunately Fred the Hobo, being as lazy as he is, decided that it was going to be too much effort to chew through the plastic that was wrapped around most of my own personal foodstuffs down there. So those also got stacked on the counter to get washed off. But one item that did go regrettably into the trash was my box of Natural Selections cereal - $5 at Citimart in Hanoi – that Fred must’ve decided would make a nice soft bed. And yes, in case you are wondering, rats do wet the bed.

I must’ve scared Fred enough that night that when I came down the next morning the trash can was undisturbed. So we had at least one rat-free night downstairs. For this I was grateful as I had some important visitors for strategic planning arrive on Wednesday night and my cook and I were hosting them for meals – I didn’t want them getting the wrong idea (although perhaps the story is a good justification for our desire to move our kitchen to the 4th floor – or at least for putting in real doors to seal off the bottom floor.

But the Fredlessness didn’t last – the very next night as I was walking our guests down the stairs to let them out that evening I got to the bottom of the stairs and promptly tripped over and followed through with a fairly admirable boot kick of something large and furry. Sure enough – Fred was back, and then gone again just as fast. Thank goodness it is winter and I was wearing heavy socks, and long pants with my house sandals. Shudder – we are going to solve this rat problem before spring arrives.

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