Attack of the white ants

Part 1: “Aieee! Get the camera! Ewww…. What are they?!?”

When I first walked into my new home in Chennai, I was happy to find myself walking into a nice spacious two-bedroom apartment. Amy hadn’t really told me too much about the place before I came—just that it was big and that it was across the street from one of the most famous sweets-shop (Shree Mithai) in Chennai.

So, I walked in, dropped my bags in the middle of the totally empty living room, and Amy started giving me “the tour.” We started in the kitchen—furnished only with a small folding table, a couple of chairs, and a fridge. Bare, but nicely sized and somewhat functional with lots of counter space. There was a door to one side, and I looked at it questioningly. “Storage,” Amy said, “and the place that we lock up everything important when the cleaning lady comes.”

“Ok,” I thought, and we went on to the other rooms—all virtually equally empty. The living room—the room you first enter when coming into the apartment—was brightened by a wall of windows. There were two glass display cases on one of the other walls, a built-in floor-to-ceiling TV cabinet/cupboard thing on another, and a recessed section in the fourth wall that I can only imagine is a little shrine area. I stood in there for a moment, impressed by the sunlight reflecting off of our shiny polished granite floors, then moved on into the bedroom.

Like the living room, the bedroom was nice and bright. Amy hadn’t gotten a bed yet—just a mattress and some pillows. (She said she was waiting for me to come so we could pick out furniture together). The bedroom also had some built-in storage in the form of two big double closets side-by-side. There was also a bathroom attached, which is always convenient, “But the hot water doesn’t work in this one. You turn on the water heater on and it’s all kinds of sparks and smoke and fire….” “So where do you shower then?” “In the other bathroom, or I fill buckets with hot water in there and shower in here since this bathroom has better drainage….” That works….

After the bedroom, Amy took me to what she was telling me would be my room. Considering that it’s also the coolest temperature place in the house, we would probably also make it the “TV room” where we would watch all the videos I had brought with me. Although darker than the rest of the house, this room was actually quite comfortable. There was a door opening out to a balcony that was butted up right next to the neighboring building, and another door that led to the second bathroom, “Which has a really nice big bathtub, but the lining is plastic and there is a crack in it so I don’t know if we should use it.” Like the other rooms, the TV room also had a big built-in closet and pretty much nothing else. But I knew that would change eventually.

“Do you want to get some food before we come back and unpack?” “Sure–sounds good to me.” So we go out to eat.

When we returned from our big $1.25 lunch, Amy was all excited to give me my own closet. Normally she takes closets away from me, but this time, she had space to share. So, while I was unzipping my bags and separating clothes from non-clothes items, Amy was getting my closet ready, finding me some hangers, opening up drawers and so on.

“Aieee!” I hear. “Get the camera! Ewww…. What are they?!?”

I walk over to see what the excitement is all about and find her staring into one of the drawers. “Are they maggots?” she excitedly asks, looking at a drawer full of white-bodied termites crawling in and out of little holes in a termite mound they had built. “I guess we’ll share a closet for a while….”

During the next couple of weeks, we kept finding more evidence of termites. One of the drawers in the closet in the TV room was sealed shut with termite-dirt. There was a long termite-dirt tunnel coming out of an electrical outlet and leading to the balcony door. The bottom section of the TV cabinet was squishy and damp….

Part 2: Termiseal takes control

“What should we do?” Amy and I wondered, and decided that Amy would write a letter to the landlord and complain about the several different things that needed fixing and send it in with the rent. In the letter, she also threatened to move if things weren’t taken care of. Very quickly, the landlord’s cousin called us and said to just go ahead and take care of the problems, save the bills, and he would deduct it from our rent. So, Amy asked around her work and it was recommended that we get a quote from PCI—Pest Control India. Shortly thereafter, we had a guy from their office come to take a look at the place, during which there was much “Hmm,” “Oh,” “Uhh Huh,” and so on while he tapped on all the wooden surfaces in our apartment and made scribbly notes in his little book. “I will send an estimate to Miss Amy’s office,” he finally said.

Eventually, we got the estimate—Rs 7,000 ($155) for “full-treatment” which takes one day. We told the landlord, who wanted us to bargain on his behalf, which we did and got him down to Rs 6,000…. And the date was set for a Tuesday….

The Tuesday morning comes, and PCI calls Amy. “I’m sorry Miss Amy. We cannot come today for the pest control. We can only come again on Friday.” Needless to say, Amy’s not happy with that. It’s not the first time it has happened here in India—almost everything seems to happen either very late, or like many of the Indians like to say, “It’s not possible, Sir.” So, Amy lies to them. “No…. Sir, I have already made arrangements for accommodation for tonight. I have already paid for a hotel room. I cannot cancel. This has to happen today.” “Ok Miss, we will call you back.” Ten minutes later Amy gets another call. “We can come tonight at five-o-clock. Will that be ok?” “Sure.” Another ten minutes pass and Amy’s phone rings again. “Miss Amy, we can start in half-an-hour.” Forty-five minutes later, I am at the apartment still waiting. Another fifteen minutes and the doorbell rings. It is ten in the morning.

“Hello Sir. We are from pest control.” Two men are standing outside my apartment with an assortment of metal cases and black bags. They are wearing nice clean uniforms—dark blue pants… light blue shirt… and of course no shoes.

The first man—we’ll call him Mr. Polite—is somewhat tall and extremely thin. His pants are extremely high-waisted, and his hair is neatly parted. His shirt is tucked in and he is proudly wearing a shiny company belt, engraved with the letters “PCI” with a little fly in the middle of the “C.” Every time he speaks, it is prefaced with an “Excuse me sir,” and every time we resolve the problem he says, “Thank you sir, sorry to bother you,” and he returns to work.

The second man—we’ll call him Mr. Potbellied—is rather short and somewhat chubby. He has a very round face, and for the most part, keeps the expression on his face in a sort of scowl. He has one of those Indian rice-bellies, and wears his shirt un-tucked. He doesn’t say much—I didn’t get the impression that he understood much English either—and he walks around the apartment a lot just banging on wooden surfaces and sort of grunting remarks to Mr. Polite. All of his actions are very dramatic, and usually involve making some kind of unnecessary noise.

Mr. Polite and Mr. Potbellied set down all their tools in the middle of the living room and proceed to take a little walk around the apartment. After a quick ten-minute tour, a huge drill comes out of one of the metal cases. Mr. Polite smartly finds a pair of earplugs and a dust-mask and puts them all while Mr. Potbellied starts the destruction of our apartment. Starting in the TV room, he drills a hole in the wall—almost the size of a quarter—every foot or so. Now, our walls are all concrete, and our floors are granite, and we have no real furniture or anything to help deaden the sound, so the place is super loud with the sound of concrete being drilled just echoing off every hard surface in the room.

Mr. Polite, in the meantime, is preparing a mixture of “medicine” into a pest control spray can. “Excuse me sir. We will drill holes in all the rooms and in the cupboards and then apply the medicine. After that we will fill in the holes again. Do I have your permission to proceed sir?” Funny. I only heard him refer to his chemical mixture as poison once during the whole time they were in the apartment—and even then, I think it just slipped out. They were “curing” the white ant problem with their special “medicine” I guess.

Anyway, within an hour, our flat is a mess. There are these ground-up-concrete piles every foot or so on the floor, all of our stuff is piled onto our bed, and the few plants that we had acquired have been pushed into the center of the room. I’m hanging out in the kitchen with the door closed–I thought maybe I could get some work done while they were here, but after a while, the deafening noise of the drill-bit against the concrete becomes too much to concentrate, so I start doodling instead. Mr. Potbellied keeps walking by and kind of looking at my book very skeptically. Soon, with one room and one bathroom are almost done, and Mr. Polite comes up to me and says “Permission sir to go and take the tea?” and they take a little fifteen-minute break.

When they return from their tea break, the two of them are having a very heated discussion about the closet in the TV room. Mr. Potbellied keeps raising his voice, interjecting every seven syllables or so with a loud “Ahh” and a short pause. He is also pacing in a very small area and characteristically hitting the wooden surfaces in the room. Mr. Polite is somewhat quietly carrying on the conversation with him, and then finally turns to me and says “Excuse me sir. We must have a carpenter remove the wardrobe to do a 100% treatment of medicine.” “Uh…. Hold on. Let me call my wife. The owner doesn’t want the woodwork to be damaged.” So, Amy’s on the phone, I tell her to call the landlord’s cousin who “manages” the place—the landlord lives out of town—and tell him to come over to see what the situation is. There is a lot of phone calling back and forth between me and Amy and Vijay—the landlord’s cousin; during the whole time, Mr. Potbellied is grumpily pacing back and forth.

At first, Vijay doesn’t want to come over, but eventually he gives in and shows up. Straggly hair, motorcycle helmet in hand, yellow teeth. He introduces himself to me then starts to check out the problem. It’s not long before I get the idea that he is convinced about the need for the dismantling of most of the closets, but he still needs to call John—the owner—before he can give the Ok. This seems to irritate Mr. Potbellied even more, and now instead of just pacing back and forth, he’s also glaring with squinty eyes at Vijay on the phone trying to explain the situation. In a dramatic move, he takes a cement trowel and starts stabbing it into parts of the woodwork which proceed to just crumble. He does it in two of the closet before Vijay finally stops him and says, “The landlord wants to see the problem for himself. For now, you can just do the normal treatment by drilling holes and putting the medicine.”

Neither Mr. Polite nor Mr. Potbellied are happy with this decision. “Sir, that would only be a 60% treatment. We want to do 100% treatment.” But eventually they give in and a resolution is reached that they would just go ahead and treat normally today, and then when John can come to see the damage first-hand, a PCI representative would be there to explain exactly what needs to be done. Vijay seems more than convinced, especially after I show him the photo of the termite problem that was in our closet drawer. That seems to make Mr. Polite and Mr. Potbellied a bit more satisfied. “Ok sir. We will continue after we take our lunch.”

So the PCI men leave to get lunch, and I run across the street to Shree Mithai to get some food for myself. I return and wait for their return. Mr. Polite shows up first and surveys the work that has been done so far and the work that still needs to be done. Five minutes later Mr. Potbellied shows up and the drilling resumes. The drilling goes on for about 15 minutes before Mr. Potbellied comes to me and says, “Machine break sir,” and then continues in a combination of Tamlish trying to tell me that we need to wait for a replacement drill. So, he sits himself down in the middle of the living room while Mr. Polite is still working away. Mr. Polite comes by and asks him something, and Mr. Potbellied just grins and looks away, kind of rocking on the floor. Mr. Polite asks him again, although sounding a bit more irritated this time, and voices start to get louder and more argumentative.

Finally, a cell-phone comes out, and a call is made to the head PCI office. Mr. Potbellied is talking, and Mr. Polite keeps trying to take the phone away from him. Mr. Potbellied keeps dodging him—he’s got the advantage of being shorter—and slapping Mr. Polite’s hand anytime it comes too close to the phone. Eventually he gets off the phone and says something to Mr. Polite and disappears for about 20 minutes. While he’s gone, Mr. Polite says, “I am sorry sir. He is a very difficult character to work with,” and he resumes his work in solitude.

When Mr. Potbellied returns, he looks around the apartment for more things to stab his cement trowel into, and finally starts helping with some of the preliminary cleanup that needs to be done. About another 20 minutes later, another guy shows up with a replacement drill for them, and the drilling resumes. This third man starts mixing a small batch of cement and starts filling the holes that had already gotten their “medicine” from Mr. Polite. Mr. Potbellied comes over and starts chatting with the new PCI man, and Mr. Polite says something to him that obviously irritates him, for Mr. Potbellied starts getting louder again and the lover’s quarrel resumes. Finally, Mr. Polite comes over to me and asks for my permission to get some tea, then walks out clearly frustrated. Mr. Potbellied walks by me with this huge grin on his face that says “Yes! I bugged the hell out of him again!”

When Mr. Polite returns, everyone works quietly for quite some time—except for the loud drilling that is still going on—after which something triggers another little argument. The third PCI guy just looks up and says something that I imagine translates to “I’m leaving—you guys finish this on your own,” and he splits.

Then things more or less quiet down for the remainder of the now early evening. Mr. Polite works in one room, Mr. Potbellied in another room in a different part of the apartment. They are both cementing up the holes in the wall now. Around seven, Amy comes home from work, and we decide to take a break from the mess and go across the street for Shree Mithai for dinner. So, we rush across, eat quickly, get some sweets to give to Mr. Polite and Mr. Potbellied, and return to the destruction in our apartment.

I am exhausted at this moment, but they keep saying “Just a little bit longer sir,” and insist that we stay and supervise their work. So we stay. And wait. And wait some more. And eventually, at around half-past-eight, they have filled in all the holes. It looks like they are getting packed up, but instead, they pull out the extremely toxic smelling spray canisters, and start spraying everything, starting at the back of the apartment and closing off doors as they completed each room.

Finally, well past half-past-nine, they are done. As they are leaving, Mr. Polite says, “Excuse me sir. Although you are the customer, you are also my boss. I hope you are happy with the work we have done.” Mr. Potbellied just grunts and hands me two pieces of paper to sign.

Amy and I leave for another adventure trying to get a hotel-room for the night—but that’s another story for a later day. In the meantime, we’ll just have to see how effective the Termiseal massacre was on the destructive white ants.

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