“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, February 3, 2017

Adventures in Parasites (and Ants)

Like a lot of people, I liked The Revenant, and the grizzly attacking Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most intense cinematic scenes ever.  After seeing the movie, people who know I travel a lot to wild places asked me if I’d ever had a dangerous wildlife encounter.  I’ve had sketchy encounters with wildlife so I tell them about stumbling on a black bear sow and her two cubs, a face-to-face encounter with a moray eel in a sunken wreck in the Bahamas,  skirting a caribou bull in Alaska and being charged by an angry bull elephant in the Serengeti.  I unknowingly parked directly under a leopard crouching on an overhanging acacia tree limb in Tanzania.  I’ve run across more snakes than I care to remember, found a scorpion under my sleeping bag in the Grand Canyon and tagged angry sharks in South Carolina
But my worst encounters were with nemeses smaller and much less menacing.
My most memorable experience (in many embarrassing ways) was caused by a microscopic critter called giardia lamblia.  Ran into this one on a canoe trip in Minnesota.  I picked up my little friend by drinking contaminated water in the northern backcountry.  My friendly giardia protozoa zeroed in on my gastrointestinal track where he immediately found things to his liking and proceeded to wreak havoc, his specialty being a nice little affliction called giardasis.    
 I don’t need to explain here the symptoms of contaminated protozoa in your small intestine, just suffice it to say that you don’t want to be on an airplane when those symptoms hit.  Which, of course, is precisely where I was.  Dominating an airline toilet when 150 other passengers are aboard does not make one a popular travel mate but I didn’t really care, I locked the door and spent the majority of the flight in rumbling seclusion.  Longest, most miserable flight of my life.  Followed by two more weeks of bathroom sprints and churning stomach aches before antibiotics finally kicked Mr. Giardia’s butt.  Lost five pounds and my dignity.

My Nemesis
The most painful encounter I had was with a one-inch insect.  I was hiking in the central cordillera of Costa Rica and my guide had just told me to watch for bullet ants—one-inch black ants with intimidating outsized pincers.  “They have a very painful bite,” our guide said and he barely had those words out of his mouth when I reached over a ledge and felt a searing pain in my middle finger.  I pulled my hand back and, yep, bullet ant with both pincers embedded.

Now you have probably been bitten by a fire ant and know the unpleasantness of that pain.  Trust me, you don’t know pain.  The Schmidt Insect Pain Scale Index (yes, there is such a thing), developed by Dr. Justin Schmidt, ranks insects based on the severity of pain of their bite or sting, 1.0 through 4.0, increasingly more painful.  Fire ants rank a lowly 1.0, bullets ants are alone at the top of the heap, the most painful of any insect on the planet, an excruciating 4.0+.  Schmidt further provides incisive, and rather humorous, descriptions of the various stings (a raving masochist apparently, he actually allowed himself to personally experience the bite or sting of each of the 150 ranked insects).  He describes a fire ant as “like walking on carpet and getting a static electricity shock.”  A bullet ant is described as “walking on hot charcoals with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”
I was hurting—HURTING—for eight hours, the pain crawling up my hand, my arm, into my chest.  I thought I was having a heart attack. I broke out in sweat, I panted, I was nauseous, I almost threw up.  Searing pain surged through my hand and arm, a severe debilitating pain that lasted for more than four hours.  I wished I had encountered a lion or tiger or bear instead of an ant. Our guide led us into a nearby village where the local shaman offered a cure, which I declined after seeing the concoction he wanted me to drink.  I gained a new-found respect for bullet ants.

So there you go Leonardo, take your wimpy old grizzly attack, ants and parasites are what I fear.