We think of them as pests, but maybe the time has come to re-think our point of view on the creepy-crawlies of the world – they might very well end up contributing a great deal in solving the puzzle of how to feed the exploding human population.
The Urban Huntsman took a trip back in time to hunt for solutions for the future and got some life lessons along the way from the indigenous Mexican Zapotec people.
It’s dry and hot, damn dry and damn hot! The sun is fighting the clouds in the sky for the right to dominate darkness and light over the desert as the rays pierce through and illuminate a vast mountain range dressed in forests of cactus.
The AC in the car is struggling to keep the cabin somewhat cool and the water supply planned for my two-day road trip to the high desert of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, is, after five hours of driving, already running low and my feet haven’t even touched the dusty ground yet!
The vultures hover over the seemingly lifeless scorched earth.
I question if this landscape could possibly hold any meals for the majestic birds.
But even here in this unforgiving world, life flourishes in the billions, from small to big, but mostly small. Armies of small, actually.
I’ve heard of Mexico’s caviar: escamoles, ant eggs. A very sought-after and expensive delicacy, supposedly very hard to harvest due not only to the ants’ rough and rural natural habitat, but more so to the challenge of actually finding the little warriors and stealing their eggs and withstanding the hundreds of bites from the protective armies of ants. So therefore, I ventured into the desert on a quest for ant gold.
I leave the car and road behind, armed with a shovel and a knife, hoping I will be properly equipped to fight off whatever I might meet on the way and, of course, penetrate the ant fortress and rob them of their eggs.
I’ve heard of the dangers lurking behind the next rock or the next cactus – deadly rattle or coral snakes, scorpions and spiders – so I scan the ground carefully before each step.
But I don’t see anything – it’s just sand, rocks and cactus as far as the horizon.
Ahead, a mountaintop casts a shadow in the valley.
I stop to rest a little while, considering turning around as I’m now about three hours’ walk from the car and very far away from any road or help, should I need it.
The wind plays the only sound here, except from a few screams from hawks patrolling high in the sky.
My eyes scan the ground around me and suddenly I see an ant running. I jump down and start following the little fellow. A few feet ahead, another one joins in from the right, then one more from the left and now it’s an entire caravan of these little oxen, carrying straws of grass, leaves and other unidentified objects.
Ants in biblical proportions are now marching in from all angles, heading directly into small holes in the ground on a small hill.
The time has come! I’ve arrived and, after a few deep breaths, the shovel goes flying. My foot hits the metal and penetrates the dirt.
In the same instant, the first soldier ant is razing up the shaft and bites me on the hand –FUCK! This is no fun. That little bastard packs a punch!
Now they come, all of them, in the thousands – they are all over. I try to dig further in the hive but they are stinging and biting me all over – face, arms, legs, neck, ears, balls!
I see small white eggs now. I reach into the hive and pull out the cluster of dry grass, small branches and dry leaves that forms the incubator for the eggs. There are lots of eggs here, but many more ants, and it’s been several minutes now with hundreds of stings and bites and it’s getting to be too much to handle. I can’t take it anymore – it’s too painful and agonizing and I’m starting to get a little dizzy.
I was warned about dizziness and fever from the bites, so I stop and cover up the opening with big stones, dirt and branches so predators won’t be able to raid the hive.
The walk back to the road and the car is very long. I’m not feeling good and I see the vultures starting to congregate above me. At least I think I see them, but there is no Viking dinner for them today!
I keep marching forward and finally reach the car just at sunset.
The next morning I’m still feeling feverish as I head to meet Don Manuel at his house on the high plateaus of the mountains close to Cacatlan.
My local friend Leo joins me to help with translation as Don only speaks Spanish and Totonaca, his tribe’s own language.
We turn off the paved road into a dirt hole – sorry, I mean onto a dirt road. I’m focusing hard on avoiding the massive potholes that undoubtedly will put the poor rental can on its belly with a direct hit!
Don Manuel, his daughter, his son, his grandson and a very happy-looking dog greet us.
I’ve heard stories about Don – he’s known in the area for his pulque, a pre-Columbian alcoholic fermented drink made from extracted milk from the maguey plant, which normally is used to produce tequila and mescal. The harvested liquid ferments as it’s stored without refrigeration for about two days and served at room temperature. (Hot! It’s Mexico!)
It’s 11:15 a.m. and judging from the look and color of Don’s eyes, he’s already had quite a few sips of the fermented delight!
He has promised to take us hunting today. We are hoping for a rabbit, a snake and at least some maguey worms that live in the big sugary leaves of the maguey plant.
But there’s a well-respected tradition at hunting parties anywhere in the world: we first need to glaze our throats with a little liquid.
We are invited into Don’s beautiful, simple and primitive home.
Here we meet a few of Don’s friends; they have a similar look in their eyes to the Don has, and I’m trying to figure out if the party started really early today or if it’s still going from the night before.
Don is smiling and laughing, and his energy fills the tiny house, with all the pots and cups forming a tree crown on the low ceiling.
Our glasses get filled with pulque and chatter flows as I try to communicate with Don’s very engaging grandson.
After an hour, I signal Leo to get us out of here to go hunt, but with no luck – as soon as our glass is close to half-empty, Don generously pours it up again.
The minutes have turned into hours and Don’s two eyes have turned into four!
We finally leave the cozy house, but now I’m in no condition to handle a slingshot – yes, a slingshot! They hunt with slingshots, not guns –keeping it real in Mexico!
Don, on the other hand, seems completely untouched by the pulque as he resolutely picks up his machete and a slingshot, and marches outside. The hunt is on!
The seasoned hunter’s eyes scan the landscape from underneath the big cowboy hat for signs of anything moving, but not a living thing is in sight.
I eagerly point out a rabbit running a few hundred yards away, but Don is not engaging at all and I’m starting to think he’s more concerned that the pulque could possibly over-ferment during our little hunt!
Don spots the first dark taint on a maguey leaf, indicating a possible parasitic worm lives here.
The machete goes flying and there is it – a white, big, fat, delicious worm! Don swings the steel over and over again and we have a meal!
Back at the house, we celebrate the successful trip with another glass of pulque and as the milky liquid rolls down my throat, I conclude that the party most likely didn’t start yesterday or this morning, for that matter – it’s clearly been going on for many years for this happy gang.
Living off the land, you don’t need all those fancy things in life to be happy. Just family, friends, and of course, an endless supply of pulque.