Part 1: Houseguests | Part 2: Pets | Part 3: Goats and Chickens
Peace Corps can be a lonely, frustrating, thankless job, and the unconditional love and affection of a pet can be just what the psychologist would have ordered … if there were a psychologist in your remote village. A later Arabic classmate who joined Peace Corps because of my stories had a pet fish at her site in Mozambique. Not as cuddly as a cat, but I could see the simple, low maintenance appeal of a fish for company.
My “pet” was just as low maintenance. I had a gecko. Or perhaps a series of geckos. It was hard to tell; they all look alike, and we had a very casual relationship. My gecko was pink, about as long as my hand, and generally preferred the top-most eighteen inches of my walls. Sometimes, when I was blessedly home alone, he chittered to me in a little sound like the clatter of tiny teeth. Sometimes I tried to chitter back with teeth and tongue. Once we got to know each other better, I sometimes talked to him in my own language—unloading about my day, inquiring about his, exchanging one-sided pleasantries about the weather. He was not always there, though, and sometimes I did miss his company.
One day, I was in the kitchen while Alya and Aiat worked on math homework in my bedroom/living room. The girls suddenly started shrieking. I emerged from the kitchen to find Alya with her shoe upraised, arm coiled above and behind her shoulder, ready to throw.
“What are you doing?” I exclaimed, seeing my gecko up on the wall. “Stop that!”
“But it’s an animal!” objected Aiat.
“It’ll kill you!” added Alya.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “It’s just a lizard.”
“It’s dirty,” said Aiat.
“If you touch its skin, it will poison you!” added Alya. Then her eyes got rounder. “What if it got into your food, Maryah? It could poison your food!”
“That’s not true.” I shook my head, imagining my gecko friend climbing into my soup for a bath. “It’s not poisonous.”
“No, it is!” insisted Alya. “My father says they’re poisonous! If you touch it, you’ll die!”
At the time, I assumed this was yet another case of junk science repeated so often by the rumor mill that the community came to believe it. And yet, her father Abu Anis was a well educated engineer, as well as a jokester like my own father. Now, I wonder if Alya’s father was just “making shit up,” as my father would say, just to tweak his kids for his own amusement, to see what he could get them to believe. My parents used to tell us that if we did not spit out our watermelon seeds, then watermelon vines would grow out our ears. Even as an adult, I retain what I know is an irrational reluctance to ingest seeds of any kind.
I shook my head at Alya and Aiat. “I know it’s not true because I’ve touched this lizard and I’m just fine.”
“What!?” The girls often seemed to think I was more than not “just fine,” but bizarrely ignorant about some basic truths of their world, which I was. Now they were looking at me like I was dangerously stupid.
So I explained, with words and gesture, how my gecko friend would sometimes fall into the shallow basin of my shower and be unable to scale the slippery sides. I would lift him out with my cupped hands. At first, perhaps, they thought I was not saying what I had meant to say because of the language barrier between us. Finally, I saw the understanding and then the horror slide over their faces. “You touched it? With your hands?”
“Well, sure.” I shrugged. My brother had geckos and an iguana when I was in high school, and since elementary school I had been holding black rat snakes my father had caught in the yard. Reptiles do not scare me. Neither do amphibians, which I probably handled far more often in my childhood.
“But weren’t you afraid?” asked Alya. Sometimes it would strike me that Alya, whom I thought of as a fairly bold child, was afraid of a lot of things.
“I’m not afraid.” Did I want to cradle him in my palm and rub his little head? No. But I was not afraid. “I mean, look how much bigger I am than he is! I promise you he is much more afraid of us than you are of him. Are you really afraid of such a little creature?”
Clearly, they were.