For a “bug mag­net,” stings lead to un­ex­pected cul­tural ex­changes.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY CHRIS­TINE DELL’AMORE Chris­tine Dell’Amore is a dig­i­tal editor and writer for Na­tional Ge­o­graphic in Washington, D.C., where she car­ries bug spray in her purse be­tween April and Novem­ber. travel@wash­post.com

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.

JOSIE PORTILLO FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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