Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jungle Problems: Ectoparasites

Let me tell you something about living in the rainforest: You've got to get used to the idea that you are sharing living space with the hundreds of tiny little creatures who live here...They may not charge you rent for letting you live in their home, but there is a price you must pay. The jungle price.

In return for invading their space, all these creatures ask is that you allow them free passage to all the nooks and crannies of your body. Are you in the jungle? Yes? Well congratulations, your body is now a hotel for ectoparasites. There is no avoiding this, and it's just something that you'll accept as a fact of life when you live in the rainforest. 

What are ectoparasites? They're parasites that live on or mooch off the surface of your body. So at least you don't have to worry about parasites being inside you here (on second thought, maybe you do, but at least you won't know you have them.) They parasitize all the local mammals like deer, monkeys, wild pigs, and orangutans. In fact, you can see orangutans scratching themselves all the time because of them, and this is one of the adaptive uses of reciprocal grooming in primates: as in, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, and we'll both be ectoparasite free." Even though these ectoparasites already have plenty of choice in which species of host to invade, that doesn't mean they're going to ignore humans when they arrive. Quite the opposite: you're just like a walking buffet of fresh entire microenvironment for their parasitizing pleasure.

Let me give you some examples. I sleep in a tent on the ground here. Inside of it, I lie on a tiny little mattress pad made of cotton. It's no tempur-pedic, but it gets the job done and I've slept decently comfortably on it. One day though, I started waking up in the middle of the night with a terrible itch on one side of the body. I usually disregarded it, and just went back to sleep. I'd still feel itchy in the morning, but it would eventually go away, only to come back the next night after going in my tent to sleep. This went on for a while, and I just dismissed it as thought process was "ah,'s probably mosquitos or generic rashes from walking around in the jungle. Who cares." The night before I was set to go down to town for the very first time after having been here for two months though, I decided to inspect my mattress after itchniness woke me up again. I turned on my headlamp inside the tent, and got down real low to get a good look at all the little cracks between the seams that cover the whole surface of the mattress. I'm glad that it was my last night, because what I found out was not pretty. There were hundreds of tiny little ticks and fleas living on the mattress...sleeping with me every single night. They were dug in deep, but poke them and they would move around and find another little crack in the mattress to settle in. No wonder I would wake up in the middle of the night constantly...There were hundreds of little pests violating my body every single night. 

Now, a normal person in a normal situation would probably have left the tent right then and there and found somehwhere else to sleep. But I had to wake up at 4:30am to hike out of the rainforest, so I was like "meh, I want to sleep...and they're mostly on THAT side of the mattress, so I'll just squeeze a bit to the other side." When I got back from my break, I beat the crap out of my mattress with a broom, and evicted all those free-loaders.

Similarly, there's also the story of the tick that lived in my bellybutton. I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling something weird in my bellybutton. In a half-awake daze, I would stick my finger in there and feel something inside. I didn't know what it was, but it felt me touching it, because it would  apparently squirm around a bit and make me feel a tiny bit of pain. But I was too tired and dazed to really give a crap and do something about it, so I would just decide to check it in the morning. Except I would always forget. For three nights and three days, the cycle would repeat itself, with me waking up, deciding to check my bellybutton in the morning, and then forgetting to do so. 

Finally, I was eating breakfast one morning and just happened to scratch my belly. The tick squirmed a bit, and I was like "oh yeaaaah, I forgot, I need to check my bellybutton!". Now at this point I didn't know what was in there yet, so when I looked I was very surprised to find a huge tick with a red spot cramped in there, squeezing the folds of my bellybutton real tight. I tried pulling it out with my fingers with no avail, so I got some tweezers and a mirror. I tried playing self-surgeon, but I still couldn't get it out. Then Yadi, one of the indonesian guys here, offered to help. He stuck the tweezers in my bellybutton, grabbed a hold of the tick with the tip, and told me to get ready. Like a little kid that tied his falling milk tooth to a string and attached it to the door so their father could slam it shut and have the tooth come out, I closed my eyes and counted to three. Before I even get to three though, he just yanked it out full force, giving me an split-second 'outie' belly button and a good dose of ouch. 

So yeah...I then threw the half-dead tick into the trees. I hope it still lived so it can tell its friends what happens when they try to mess with me. Ticks and fleas beware.

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