Our Last Christmas in Puerto Rico.

By Circe Olson Woessner

About four months before we were to leave Puerto Rico, we put our house on the market, thinking we’d never rent it or sell it before we left. Within days, we had a nibble, and within the month, we had to move into a temporary place, till we could PCS.  We were shocked, but elated.

We packed up all but our essentials, and had our household goods sent on to our new post to be stored until we got there.  We found a crummy, small one -bedroom apartment in Ceiba, not far from where I worked as a teacher in Roosevelt Roads. My husband still had to commute across the island to Ft Buchanan, located in San Juan.

We’d moved from the beautiful resort of Palmas del Mar, from a gorgeous three bedroom villa to the partly furnished flat, which looked like it was used, primarily, for transient military personnel. How we knew this, was that the month’s rent was exactly our housing allowance, and ordinarily, we wouldn’t have paid any where near that amount for the slum it was, but the landlord would rent month-to-month, and it was available immediately.

We moved in and prepared to settle in for the next few months. It was an okay place, but we seemed to have an abundance of ants, roaches and mosquitos.  We had the bedroom; the kids were in the living room, and the kitchenette with its ugly dinette table and 4 chairs was the hub. If we used the living room, we either sat on the floor, or on one of the kids’ beds—I mostly sat on the cool, tile, floor.

Our apartment was behind a very busy convenience store in a very loud and boisterous neighborhood. The courtyard was a communal laundry hanging location, and cars, blaring loud music, cruised by day and night.

Life in Ceiba was very different from Palmas. Ceiba was not a resort, and we soon found out that frequently, we’d turn our tap on—only to have no water.  While the landlord had a “reserve tank” of water on the roof, the water that came out of it was sketchy at best—and often boiling hot. (In a diary from that time, I referred to the reserve tank as a ‘solar’ tank, and mentioned its scalding properties.)  However, this tank didn’t suffice for all the apartments, and so every so often, the water supply ran out. ) The Power, too, was iffy.

The enormous Conquistador resort nearby often hosted large events, and according to our neighbors, the community water would be diverted there instead. (I have no idea if that’s true, but…the times we didn’t have water, we had to carry jugs of water to and from school, or sometimes we’d stand in line for the civil defense water truck to bring us water. )

As the Christmas holidays neared, we’d already decided that we wouldn’t decorate or do anything fancy—I’d cook a meal on Christmas Eve and we’d go to a fellow teacher’s house back in Palmas on Christmas Day–and that was that. It was too much work—plus, all our stuff was enroute to Indian Head, Maryland, and it was, really, just another day.

Christmas Eve, I attempted to make a decent dinner on the hotplate because the two-burner gas stove had stopped working. Because we only had a couple pans and one burner, I had to be creative. I ended up making taco salad, very heavy on the chips and salsa.

We’d bought a bottle of wine for dinner, and as we attempted to open the bottle, the corkscrew broke.  We had no backup. We tried pushing the cork in, but that didn’t work, so in desperation, Bill got the electric drill, and drilled through the cork, and we managed to pour a glass of wine trickle by trickle.

The kids got a couple of presents, video games, mostly, and they spent most of Christmas Eve bickering happily and fighting monsters. Bill and I sat around feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves.

We turned in early—supposedly because Santa couldn’t come till we were in bed, but, truth be told, we were a little weary. We were ready to be at our new post, get our stuff back, and move on with our lives.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I kept feeling little pinches—like static, and my thoughts kept me awake. We were going to leave Puerto Rico by Cessna, and then catch a cruise ship in St. Thomas to get back to the mainland, buy a car, and drive to Indian Head, outside of DC. It was the thoughts of the Cessna that kept me awake that night…I’d never been on a plane that small—I’d never been on a flight which required the weighing of passengers, baggage and flight personnel. What if it…?

I centered my thoughts and drifted off to sleep.

The next morning we got up late-ish. The kids, in their beds in the living room, didn’t budge, so Bill and I tiptoed around them and got our coffee. We headed back to bed to sip our coffee and contemplate…I still felt an occasional odd pinch, but for the most part, everything was fine. I was sort of rested.

Mid-morning, I started to get dressed so we could drive the 32 kilometers to my coworker’s house. I pulled my undies, shirt, and pants from the closet.  Bill and the kids were dressed and messing about in the other room.

I was just putting on my makeup when I felt a sharp electric shock on my waist. And then another on my thigh and another…and another. I was confused—what was happening?

As the stabs kept coming, I pulled up my shirt–and saw—dozens of fire ants on my stomach and pants. It made sense now—fire ant bites are just like that—fire.  Knowing that fire ants often coordinate to sting at the same time, I yanked off all my clothes, which were now swarming with ants.  Where did they all come from?

I leaped into the shower to wash off the ants, but they were attached and stinging. Lots of soap and water, and scrubbing EVRYWHERE. Finally, I was pretty much fire ant free. There were dozens and dozens of blistery bites all over my legs, torso and stomach, and dozens of half dead and drowning ants on the shower floor.

Luckily, I was not allergic to the ants, because I would have had a fatal dose of venom. I was pretty blistered up.

Wondering why neither the kids, nor Bill were bitten, we looked for the source. We didn’t have to look far: The was a trail of ants on my shelf in the closet—just mine—and ants were walking back and forth all over the contents. None of the other shelves had ants…we smashed as many as we could and emptied half a can of Raid on them.

Christmas lunch was nice back in Palmas. The resort was lush and calm. My friends had water and AC and their stove worked AND they had room to accommodate our family of four and their own family of five.  We sat on the couch in their festively decorated living room and sipped adult beverages. Bloody luxury!

It was a soothing way to end a rather frazzling Christmas morning.

Even hours later, I’d feel a sting on my ear—and, still later, one on my hip—and I plucked the last remaining fire ants from my body and crushed their reddish-brown bodies between my fingers.

Bah Humbug!

To this day, ants—of all kinds—creep me out.









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