For a “bug magnet,” stings lead to unexpected cultural exchanges.
The Quechua healer sat me on a chair and peered at my ankle, swollen to the size of a tree trunk and hotter to the touch than the steamy rain forest surrounding us.
Ecuador’s chiggers, which had been feasting on my North American flesh since I’d arrived for my study abroad program, had infected my foot, he said as my teacher translated. Not the most encouraging news when you’re a three-hour hike (plus a canoe trip) away from any sort of motorized vehicle.
But Augustine, who had welcomed me to Rio Blanco, his indigenous village in the heart of the Amazon, knew what to do. He disappeared into the dense forest, mashed some carefully selected plants into a green paste — including one that smelled like anise Christmas cookies — and applied it to my ankle, tying the poultice in place with a bandanna.
“It seemed unreal that instant,” I wrote inmy journal 15 years ago. But the rain forest remedy quickly did the trick, and my 20-yearold self was back to swimming in waterfalls and chasing tarantulas in no time.
Chiggers weren’t the only things to bite me on that trip: By the time I flew home from South America, I’d officially gotten the travel bug. A decade and a half later, it’s taken me all over the world, from Africa to Antarctica, and to nearly all 50 states.
The constant throughout my journeys, with the exception of a few destinations such as Jordan and Iceland, is bug bites. No matter how much DEET I douse myself in, or how consistently I wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, chances are I’ll go home polka-dotted head to toe with itchy souvenirs. I am a bug magnet.
So what? you might ask. Well, unlike many people, whose bites tend to fade within hours, mine turn into quarter-size welts that burn for at least two days. It’s horrible, and as a result I tend to remember a place through not only its food and architecture, but also the robustness of its insect fauna.
My legs, scarred year-round, are prime targets. I’ve also been bit on my eyelid in Cambodia, all over the tops of my feet in New Zealand — sandflies love me, too — and on the arm riding the Buenos Aires subway. (I get no relief in cities.) My worst encounter so far took place on U.S. soil, at a scientific research station in the Alaskan Arctic. Alaska’s mosquitoes are so big they’re nicknamed “the state bird,” and they can bite right through many types of clothes, even denim. These polar pests devoured me to the point that my back resembled a map of the Milky Way, writ small in red welts.
Sometimes my bug attraction has amplified my hypochondria. When I woke up with the shakes in a Bangkok hotel room several years ago, I was convinced I had contracted dengue fever. Hailing a midnight taxi ride to the nearest hospital, I burst into the emergency room, near tears and babbling. A patient Thai doctor calmed me down, examined me and, with what I swore was a twinkle in his eye, discharged me with painkillers and a medical certificate that read: “Diagnosis to be influenza.” It remains in my photo album, next to pictures of Buddhist temples and floating markets.
In my more rational moments, I’ve honed insect-coping strategies. For instance, in Isla Holbox, a small island off the Yucatan Peninsula, I figured out the best way to watch a beach sunset — when biters are most active — is shoulder-deep in the ocean. If I have to stand on land when bugs are out, I march in place to prevent them from latching on. Yes, I have found effective bug sprays and anti-itch creams over the years, but these products generally don’t last long, and the critters even track me down indoors. (Fun fact: My first bite of this year was in Washington in early April, in a CVS.) And while we’re on the subject, please don’t tell me I have “sweet blood”: It’s more likely to do with my genes, a recent study found.
Being a nature person helps put all this in perspective. I regularly remind myself, for instance, that mosquitoes not only provide food for bats, but that they also pollinate the flowers we look forward to each spring.
What’s more, my buggy allure offers at least one benefit: Connecting me with people when I travel.
A few years ago, I explored Jeju, a volcanic island off mainland South Korea, with a driver and guide who spoke little English. As we drove along craggy coastlines, the driver stopped in a small town and got out of the car. A few minutes later, he handed me a small green bottle covered with Korean writing and the unmistakable drawing of a stinging insect. He then pointed to my bite-covered legs and smiled. Gladly applying the cooling balm, I realized that we broke the language barrier. I still keep his gift on the shelf with my other bug fighting paraphernalia.
Recently, re-reading my journal entry about Augustine, the Ecuadoran healer, it hit me that I already knew bugs could bond.
“I’m almost glad that chigger infected my ankle,” I wrote all those years ago, “just so I could have that experience.”
I remember a place through not only its food and architecture,
but also the robustness of its insect fauna.