A Spicy Story: The Mouse and The Cottage

I was living in rural Nepal, in a village called Odanaku, or Oda for short. To put it simply, Oda is remote. From Surkhet, the closest proper city, it is roughly a twelve-hour Jeep ride and two hours of walking to get to. There, I was working with The Oda Foundation’s education department. My responsibilities varied, from teaching supplementary English classes to local students to helping with the administration and management of one of the local government schools.

During this time, I lived on the Oda Foundation’s campus in a retrofitted chicken coop that we called “the cottage.” The cottage was initially built to be used for housing chickens until it was decided that the foundation needed more housing for staff members. It consisted of two rooms, built with a stone wall exterior and a tin roof. For comfort the inside was carpeted, had cement plastered walls, and a plywood roof below the tin one for added protection from wind and the elements.

To say it had two rooms is being generous. More so, there were two doors to the cottage. To make this into two rooms, wooden boards were erected, separating the interior in half. These boards had slight gaps in them and if someone had a light on in one room, it clearly shone into the other. The interior was painted bright green like a parakeet, as if someone took a handful of those birds and smeared them on the wall. In one room, there was one bed and a table, in the other, two beds and two tables.

I lived in the room with two beds with Anmol, who was there helping with the local clinic as a public health intern, doing complicated tasks setting up an electronic health record system and crunching numbers on data from the villagers. In the other room was the other education fellow, a woman named Tanisha who came from India. To say that is all of the residents of the cottage is to be disrespectful of its other inhabitants, however. We had a variety of guests at all times: from the birds who would sit on the roof or sometimes wander inside like our pet bird, Basil, would; to the spiders the size of our hands who would remind us that it wasn’t just us who thought our coats and jackets were comfy; and the mice. We had mice living above the cottage, in between the plywood roof and the tin roof. Most of the time, we’d only see reminders of their presence, and never truly see them. They’d leave their droppings on the floor for us to clean, or their scat would fall through the cracks of the plywood onto us while we were sleeping. Sometimes our cat, whose name was Aalu, potato in Nepali, would sneak into their room and chase them around. She would catch one every now and then, waking us all up from our sleep, and then be on her way.

Generally, the mice wouldn’t visit the humans’ rooms in the cottage. They respected our privacy and we respected theirs, living in a tense harmony where neither party really wanted to see the other one and pretended like they didn’t actually exist. Once I saw one come down and get into Anmol’s food, though I kept it a secret. I knew he would stress about the mice not asking for a bite to eat and just assuming he’d share his dried mangoes.

Mid-December through mid-January were holidays for Anmol, Tanisha, and me. We all left Oda and the cottage for places with internet connection and more consistent electricity. It seemed obvious that, despite being gone for a month, all residents of the cottage would uphold their part of the imaginary lease in our minds and stay in their respective rooms. This, however, and as leases tend to go, was not the case.

I arrived back in Oda with a backpack full of fresh supplies, luxuries to keep me content for the next four months. There was fresh ground coffee, a couple kilos of dates, and hot sauce. One may find it weird to bring hot sauce to Nepal, a country whose food is already fairly spicy. I found it weird but was excited to have the hot sauce. The food in Oda was monotonous, consisting of rice, lentils, and potato curry. While delicious, it is the same meal and the same taste every day. Some hot sauce would add a slight variety, and this wasn’t any old hot sauce. This was akabanga, a Rwandan hot sauce made of habanero peppers. It comes in an eye dropper, as any hot sauce with a solid kick should. It is oily and orange and a good substitute for a workout with how much it makes you sweat.

I have nostalgic connections to akabanga, despite having never been to Rwanda. My mom works there on occasion and always bring me a little oily eye dropper back. I’ll take it backpacking and on alpine climbing trips, a little spicy reminder of family. To have it for Oda would add enough alternative spice into my life to keep things existing gastronomically.

With Anmol and I back in the cottage, I placed the hot sauce on a low shelf of our table, worried that its oily fire would either stain or burn a hole in the backpack I stored my food in. The first week back in the cottage, Anmol and I couldn’t get any sleep. The mice had decided that their lease had expanded, granting them access to our room. They would run around, crawling and scuttering about. The noise of a mouse running across a floor makes me cringe. In the darkness it is hard to tell where the noise is from – is the mouse above me, below me, in my food, about to crawl over me? The stress these mice brought on a nightly basis was enough for us to get practically no sleep at all.

As the week went on and the tensions rose, there was one night in particular that was a bit peculiar. Around midnight, it seemed as though a mouse exploded. One moment it was on my side of the room, running seemingly for its dear life, then the next on Anmol’s side. The way it ran over his food sounded like a crowd of people intentionally wrinkling plastic bags all at once. What would follow was silence. Complete and utter silence. A few minutes later the crashing would begin again. Was it truly a mouse under our beds or children hiding and messing with our stuff? We would frantically flip on the lights and look under, imagining what sort of monster could make this sound. We saw nothing.

The sounds, followed by complete absence, again followed by a ruckus chaos, continued for a handful of hours. What had caused such a loud noise? It had to have been the mice. Right? Our tactics for dealing with them increased. Aalu slept inside in our room. We cleaned under our beds as if we had dates coming over and they were to sleep beneath the platforms. We would sweep every corner, save for the under the table with the low shelf on it, as it is difficult to get under there.

Perhaps due to being tired, perhaps due to wanting a change in taste, I decided to grab the akabanga for dinner one day. I went to the table, to the low shelf, and couldn’t find it. I swore I put it on the table, but maybe it was in my backpack. I opened it up, poured everything out. Nothing. No akabanga anywhere. I asked Anmol if he had seen it, I checked the kitchen, I checked the classroom I taught in. Where had I put that hot sauce?

Eventually, I checked under the table. Sure enough, the eye dropper was there. There was, however, no hot sauce inside the container. Just holes. Perfect, little, mouse-mouth sized holes. Slowly, I realized what had happened. The night, the night of the noises louder than a college frat party, made perfect sense. Having easy access to the low shelf, a mouse knocked the hot sauce off the shelf and brought it under the table, curious for the oily taste. Nibbling its way into the container, it drank intensely spicy habanero oil. Like anyone who just had way too much spice in their life, this little mouse hit the wall. It freaked, running around violently and sporadically until the spice subsided. No longer dying a fiery death from the inside, the mouse wandered back to the akabanga. Perhaps mice have short memory loss, perhaps the hot sauce burned all capability of consciousness from the mouse, but it drank the dangerous oil again and again and again. Each time, resulting in a massive panic and race around the room trying to rid its mouth of lava. Each time, forgetting that its life was becoming a fiery hell from this hot sauce and proceeding to drink it again.

Not long after I discovered the hot sauce issue, we stopped having problems with the mice letting themselves into our room. Maybe the mouse whose tongue had burnt off remembered just enough of that night to warn the others of the dangerous elixir, the toxic potion that lay in the room of the two large, hairless mice.

I was upset to have lost the hot sauce to a mouse, but being able to return to restful nights, it was worth it. Plus, now there are legends of the power of Rwandan hot sauce spreading through mice populations throughout Nepal. Akabanga, it seems, is getting the respect it deserves from Nepali mice.

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