Catching the travel bug: Attack of the killer mosqitoes

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

The swamp here could be the stuff of nightmares. Because this happens to be the rainy season, which lasts from October to March, the trails are meant to be waded, not walked. Yet I am utterly stuck, knee-deep in pungent red mud with stagnant water up to my waist. Ellen Meulman, a PhD student from the University of Zurich, doubles back to pull me out of the quagmire. It takes a few hard yanks. “Be careful,” she says. “You can disappear in these waters.” Thoughts of leeches and king cobras vanish, replaced by a more immediate fear.

We’ve been slogging and hacking through the Sumatran jungle for nearly three hours, on our way to rendezvous with today’s observation team. The field staff hustles day in and out to arrive at the nest-site before dawn and do not return until after dark. In between, they track the individual behaviors of the orangutan in excruciating detail.

But for now, I’m too busy worrying about myself. Asides from the immediate danger of disappearing into the quicksand-like mud and trying to balance on a crude plank trail that’s submerged in water, I’m being absolutely devoured by mosquitos. Before embarking on this afternoon trek through the jungle, I dumped half a bottle of herbal mosquito repellent all over my body, but that has made no difference. At one point, the constant biting and buzzing and circling drive me nearly to tears. Alas I’m too tired to cry.
That night, after returning to camp and getting deleeched (a complicated process that involved me screeching in a high pitch voice, “get them off; get them off”, to my driver), I noticed a patch of mosquito bites around my ankle. I started scratching them and soon enough, a half dozen bumps turned into a dozen.

My flight back to the states was set to depart in a couple days, and this swamp was something like 1,000 miles away from Jakarta airport. So I had to leave the very next day, up a winding river and then through the heart of Sumatra on a 10-hour overnight drive back to Medan. From there, I flew to Jakarta and left right away for New York.

Here the story stalls for about a week. I kept scratching my bites and they kept festering and oozing and doing all the other nasty stuff that I’ll just leave to your imagination. What was somewhat worrisome at this point was that these bites weren’t getting any less itchy–and keep in mind that a week has passed by now. Even worse, they started melding together into a few superbumps.

Then all of a sudden, I started walking with a limp. I immediately thought of the worst case scenario: I had contracted some type of flesh eating bacteria (and made the mistake of Googling the images … don’t). I ran down to my school’s health services, where something happened that you never, ever want to happen in a doctor’s office, which is to have the doctor say “hmm, that’s interesting.” He subsequently disappeared, and a few minutes later, came back with three or four of his colleagues. They proceeded to collectively give a “hmm, that’s interesting”. I could see the pity in their eyes. The end was going to come in only a matter of days.

And being the unlucky guy I was, this happened on a Friday afternoon. The nurses and doctors had no idea what I had, although they feared it was contagious. So they basically held me prisoner as an inpatient for the entire weekend. The following Monday, a dermatologist came to see me and declared that I had a “hypoallergic” reaction to the mosquitoes, which is to say that my immune system just went berserk from the utter number of bites I received.

Two weeks of heavy-duty antibiotics and a course of cortisteroids later, the scary rash that was climbing up my leg had abated. Looking back, would I have trekked out there if I knew that it would land me in the emergency room for the better part of a week? Probably!

Yo see, the orangutans in this part of Sumatra are pretty damn special. They’ve learned some remarkable tricks, such as how to fashion a seed-extraction stick to crack open the prickly shell of the Neesia fruit. The theory goes that this rather complicated skill developed from simpler abilities to use tools to dig for honey, fish for termites, and scoop for water. Yet primatologists know little more than that these smarter-than-we-thought apes possess culture; the pressing question now is to figure out how it’s acquired and transferred.

Though outsiders often refer to this swamp as “orangutan heaven but human hell,” the staff does not plan to jump ship anytime soon. They want to bring the station back to its old glory by this fall, with an new 6-room dormitory, solar panels for constant electricity, and three boardwalks (getting to the orangutans without them can take several hours). They’re even hiring-the graduate students need at least five more assistants to juggle the array of projects.

Since fieldwork stopped across Aceh, it’s difficult to precisely quantify the impact of the civil war on this biodiversity hotspot, home to elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, sun bears, tigers, and some 6,500 orangutans. While the primatologists at Suaq lost much more time than their neighbors-eight years of data-the 70 or so test subjects haven’t missed a beat. In fact, the concentration of orangutans here, where fruits rain from the trees year-round, is greater than anywhere else in the world (twice the density of other sites on Sumatra and five times the density on Borneo, the only other island where these apes can be found). The unusually high density has enabled these solitary creatures to “teach” each other skills like tool-use, making Suaq the ideal laboratory for studying the origins of human culture.

But for now, Suaq is still a friendly neighborhood. I still distinctly remember the afternoon that I finally spot two of the residents: the mellow Lisa and her 6-year-old daughter, Lilly. Lisa, ambling in the treetops, much prefered her sour melaka fruits to our company. But for a brief moment, Lilly swung down to investigate these strange-looking two-legged apes, and realizing we would not make suitable playmates, disappeared in a blur of orange.

This brief encounter with one of the world’s most intelligent and beautiful creatures was worth dealing with the travel bug.

Catching the Travel Bug: Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

SARS. The subject was worked into every conversation amongst the expats and long-term tourists in Vietnam. The government claimed that the virus had been contained in several northern provinces, far away from Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City to Communist Party officials and fresh-off-the-plane tourists). Still. There were rumors about people’s neighbors being taken away in the middle of the night to be quarantined because of a persistent cough. Mostly, that was just speculation, fueled by one too many beers or one too many years in country.

Nonetheless, when I came down with a cough and fever, I had thoughts of gasping for breath in a hidden away hospital ward guarded by CP officials who didn’t want their SARS secret to get out. I wrote my illness off as a regular flu bug I’d picked up from being in a classroom teaching eight-year-old Vietnamese kids how to speak English. When my chest started to tighten and my cough to turn into a wheeze, I started to worry a bit more.

I confided in my girlfriend who took me to a doctor who had an after-hours private practice in his home. I was assured that he spoke English. He spoke great Russian because he’d been schooled in Moscow, but only a bit of English (like “Injection” and “Infection”). Between my modest Vietnamese skills and miming and his pidgin of Russian, English, and charades, I was able to get started on an IV of antibiotics. But he wanted an x-ray to rule out the unspoken disease. He kept asking me if I had been up north, to the areas that were hit by SARS. I said no, but he casually slipped a surgical mask on before starting me on the IV.
I got into the x-ray at a hospital the next day. It took two hours in the waiting room, which was not the best experience. Radiology was located by a nurses’ station and there were several people on hospital beds just parked in the hallway. I found out from a smiling but nervous lady in a neighboring seat that they were on a death watch. The nurses could keep an eye on them until the end.

The x-ray technician was unfamiliar with practicing his trade on someone of my height. It took 5 tries to get it right. I paid him 150,000 dong ($10 US) to hand the pictures directly to me instead of putting them up with the others.

My next antibiotic session consisted of me and about 4 others, sitting in plastic lawn chairs in the doctor’s back room with drips hanging from hooks in the wall. One guy smoked the entire time, but no one said anything.

A few days later, I went through the x-ray ordeal again. This time a smiling technician got it right on the second try. Through my girlfriend the doctor said that he chalked it up to a chest infection.

“No SARS?” I asked.

“No SARS.” He chuckled, said something in Russian, and patted me on the shoulder.

Check out the past travel-bug features here.

Magic bullet for all your on-the-road stomache troubles

In honor of our ongoing series, Catching the Travel Bug (entertaining stories of Gadling bloggers who get violently sick … maybe “entertaining” isn’t the right word here), here’s a herbal cure that just might do the trick.

It calls for just eating a handful of Quassia, which contains “phytochemical quassin, the bitterest substance found in nature.” Apparently it’ll cure all sorts of nasty things, from amoebic dysentery to giardia and worms. If this really is proven to work, that would be quite impressive as these travel bugs are caused by entirely different creatures: an amoeba, a parasite, and well, a worm. And to top it off, you can get it at a herbal shop for a few bucks, no prescription needed.

Sounds much better than getting Cipro, but I would recommend you check it out yourself as I’m not a MD (or even someone with a college degree).

Catching the travel bug: Midair malaise

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

It was 1989. In an effort to build flight time after earning my private pilot’s license in college, I managed to convince my boss at the hobby shop where I worked that it might be a good investment for him to loan me the $5500 I needed to buy a two-seat 1946 airplane called a Luscombe.

After tiring of touring around the local airport, shooting ‘touch-and-goes’ well into the night and giving rides to share the fuel costs with everyone I knew or even the strangers I sat next to in my classes at W.S.U., I decided to venture out on a cross-country flight.

What better excuse than the annual Luscombe fly-in which was held at a beautiful airport near the mountains in Columbia, California. The event attracted over 100 of the durable little airplanes and their owners, allowing the pilots and spouses a chance to socialize about two things they were sure to have in common: a love of flight and an interest in a small part of aviation history.

I flew out to Seattle the day before so I could join up early in the morning with another Luscombe that was attending the event. Since my airplane didn’t have a baggage compartment, I stuffed the full size suitcase, tent, portable VHF radio, Sony Walkman and a bag of groceries into the right seat of the airplane, strapped down so nothing interfered with the second control stick on the right.

We were to meet up at 6 a.m. on an early May morning before heading south toward San Francisco. Seattle isn’t known for it’s good weather in May, and this morning was no exception. A low layer of clouds hovered over Puget Sound, and if I weren’t following an experienced Northwest captain out of the area, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable flying an airplane with virtually no navigational equipment that day.

I stuck close to the other airplane as we worked our way around the Tacoma area, listening on the pilot-to-pilot frequency while a half dozen Cessnas were reporting their locations to each other and patrolling up and down I-5 to report on the local Seattle traffic conditions.

As we crossed into the state of Oregon, the clouds lifted and we made our first fuel stop. The formation flying made the trip go by in no time, and I was really enjoying the experience. I would follow the captain for another few hours before he had to make a detour towards San Francisco to visit his sister before arriving at the fly-in.

We parted ways as we flew past Mount Shasta and I broke off to land at another airport for refueling. The airplane held 14 gallons of gas, enough for at least two hours of flying. I dug into some yogurt and a breakfast bar before leaving again.

The final stop before Columbia was a little residential airpark in Cameron, CA that sold fuel. I visited with one of the residents who told me that Columbia was just another two hours south.

Up to this point I had been either following another airplane or navigating from town to town using my map, since I had no navigational instruments and my compass had a rather persistent tendency to only point east regardless of my true heading.

But this leg would be over the western portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains, over Yosemite park. I soon discovered how difficult it was to match up the lakes and mountains depicted on my map with what was on the ground below me.

I’d pass over a lake and then try to find it on the map with little luck. There were so many lakes and mountains, it was hard to be sure just where I was. I elected to stay a bit further east, so I would know the airport would likely be off to my right side after two hours of flying.

I began to doubt the wisdom in my routing as time went on. To make matters worse, something was happening to my stomach. A sharp pain hit me above my seatbelt, as if I had just swallowed an ice-pick. It’s funny how quickly the blame came together in my mind to identify the breakfast bar as the culprit. It might make more sense to blame the yogurt, but I knew that breakfast bar was bad news.

As the pain became debilitating and I was feeling nauseous, I discovered that not only was I completely lost, but the batteries in my handheld radio had died.

Fortunately I had come prepared, with an extra set of eight AA cells to pop into the radio. But doing that wasn’t exactly easy. As I flew along, heading south, indicating east, I had to take apart 4 philips screws in my lap, looking down while bouncing over the afternoon bumps that naturally occur over the mountains. I had the Terra radio apart in my lap as I opened the new AA batteries that were packed in their theft-proof plastic.

And then it hit me. I was going to eject one breakfast bar and a cup of yogurt in the next ten seconds. The only question was, where?

I frantically looked around the cockpit. There was no plastic bag, only a duffel bag and my suitcase. I had no choice. I threw open the side window of the airplane and leaned my head out the tiny window, knowing that I would have to explain the mess that ran down the left side of my airplane when/if I made it to my destination. Perhaps it would blend in with the green strip running below the window on the otherwise white airplane.

After this traumatic event and still trying to fly an airplane that had an annoying habit of pulling to the right while I snapped the batteries in place and slipped a few screws into their holes, I began to assess my chances of finding the airport. I checked the time. Two hours exactly. I needed to turn west and hope for the best.

At this point, I was ready to land in whatever flat spot I could find. The “E” was visible on the fuel tank that was mounted above and behind my head and I knew I needed to be on the ground as soon as possible.

I tried to call out on my weak hand-held radio.

“Columbia traffic, Luscombe 71808, anyone in the pattern at Columbia?”

I’m not sure what I would have said if someone responded.

There was no reply.

As populated as the state of California is, the Sierra Nevada mountains looked like the Alaska range. There were no airports, roads or gravel bars below. And it was getting dark.

Maybe it was lucky that darkness had fallen. I scanned the horizon and then it hit. The brightest airport beacon I’ve ever seen. It was an old fashioned airway beacon that was used to navigate from point to point in the 1930′s, back when airplanes were equipped about as well as mine. But was it located on an airport?

I grabbed the full sized pillow next to me and put it in front of my stomach while I leaned forward, trying anything to relieve the pain. I focused on that beacon, descending at 1000 feet per minute and traveling at an excruciatingly slow 95 miles an hour.

I wondered how the landing would be. I crossed over the airport at 1000 feet, looking for the windsock below. I was relieved to see the giant letters written down the runway.

C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A

Whew.

I made an exceptionally abbreviated pattern. I can’t remember how the landing was, but I do remember turning off the runway, and heading straight for the parking area. I spun the tail around, shut the engine off and plopped out onto the grass beside the fueling pit.

I laid flat
on the ground, holding my stomach. This must be food poisoning I thought. Fortunately I was early enough to arrive – the first airplane, in fact – that there were no witnesses to the mess I made beside the fuselage.

I got up and placed a call on the nearby pay phone to my relatives who were my backup search and rescue team if I failed to check in. And then I set up my tent and collapsed inside for the night.

I felt fine the next morning, and as I cleaned off the side of the airplane, I vowed to keep this little incident to myself.

110 Luscombes showed up that year and I made a lot of friends, learned so much about my airplane and joined in some large formations of planes on missions to find the best pancakes in the area or to pass above the clearest lakes in the country.

I swapped planes with the guy parked next to me, a J-3 cub, and we chased each other around for the day while exploring the area. His compass worked fine, interestingly.

For four days, my secret was safe.

Then the Continental Luscombe Association would close up the event with an awards ceremony. I certainly wasn’t expecting to win anything, unless they had the “rattiest Luscombe” trophy perhaps.

But they handed out awards for the oldest pilot and even the youngest pilot at the event. Since I was 19, I accepted that plaque with a big smile.

Finally, they announced something called the “hard luck trophy.” An award given to the pilot who had the most difficulty getting to the fly-in.

Oh, boy. I knew I had to keep my mouth shut.

A pilot stood up and told about his experience flying through a bit of snow on the way there. Then he sat down.

“Anyone else?”

There was silence.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to confess.

I hadn’t realized how amusing the experience was until I was describing the vomit-hiding characteristics of a wide green strip down my airplane.

The only thing I had to worry about for the flight home was how I would get the three foot tall “hard-luck” trophy into my already stuffed airplane.

Then it dawned on me. I could make a little more room by leaving the box of breakfast bars behind.

Photos by Russell Croman

Epilogue: read about the fate of that little Luscombe and where it is now.

Check out Kent’s other flying stories in Gadling’s Cockpit Chronicles feature.

Catching the travel bug: N’Jowara, The Gambia

Welcome to Catching the Travel Bug, Gadling’s mini-series on getting sick on the road, prevailing and loving travel throughout. Five of our bloggers will be telling their stories from around the globe for the next five weeks. Submit your best story about catching the travel bug in the comments and we’ll publish our favorite few at the end of the series.

The day before I found out how “sicker than a dog” really felt, I had a motorcycle ride unlike any other.

There I was bouncing along narrow dirt roads, skirting freshly plowed peanut fields, and clutching the waist of the family planning worker. He had offered to take me to the villages near N’Jowara, The Gambia where I was to live for the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in order to show me around.

As we bounced, I noticed the furrows of the not green at all peanut fields that waited for more rains to come.

At each village, I smiled, ran through my small repertoire of Wolof greetings, and felt totally lost. Still, I went to bed giddy that I had finally had a day of something to do besides settling my belongings into my humble, one-room abode.

I’d only been in my village for a week after being sworn in as a volunteer–just the right amount of time to figure out how little I knew.

For example, getting water out of a well using a rope tied around the handle of an empty cooking oil can bucket was no easy task. Forget about carrying the bucket to my house without sloshing out half of the water before I got there.

Still, I was optimistic. One of my closest Peace Corps friends was going to visit me the next day, and eventually-my job as a primary health care educator would start. Eventually. No one knew when. But, eventually.

Yep, I was optimistic– until I woke up the next morning moaning.

I clutched my stomach, chilled, shivering, achy, willing myself to health. “OOOooooarrrrrrooooooo.”

“Amie M’Bye. What’s wrong?” asked Janneh Badja, through the closed corrugate door to my room.

“Jamie,” he said, using my real name, just in case I didn’t hear him.

I was given Amie M’Bye as my African name in a ceremony in Peace Corps training. It was a Wolof name and from what I understood, meant everything.

At this moment, I had a little of everything not good.

I thought I had moaned quietly. I felt mortified. I didn’t know Janneh that well. I wanted to appear capable and not like an American who couldn’t help herself, much less anyone else.

“What’s wrong?” he asked again.

Janneh lived with his wife and two children in one of the three rooms at the back of what was once a Lebanese trading store. N’Jowara was once a vibrant trading town before independence in the 1960s. After independence, the Lebanese moved mostly to Banjul, the capital. With them went most things to buy and the village was left with an odd deserted aura about it.

The front part of the building where we lived was a former store front. It was totally empty. The three room living quarters directly behind was spacious by Gambian standards. My room was to the left; Janneh’s family to the right, and a shared room in the middle. Janneh was a civil servant, educated, and knew English fluently.

His wife Coogie was not educated and spoke Mandinka. I knew my smidgen of Wolof and no Mandinka. She and I mostly smiled and repeated each other’s names whenever we interacted. Our conversations were riveting, truly, but I liked her. She had a kind heart. I adored their eight month-old daughter Mymuna.

So far, in those early days, Mymuna seemed to get me the most.

“I’m sick,” I groaned out from where I lay on my bed’s foam mattress pad, noticing just how hot my room felt—the kind of temperatures where bed sheets stick like glue.

“I’m sorry,” Janneh said, still though the door. “Can I get you anything?”

“Nooooo,” I whimpered out, unable to stop myself from feeling pitiful, even though I’m the type of person who would generally limp along on a broken leg insisting that nothing is amiss.

I buried thoughts of being stuck in an African village, the only westerner for miles. The only taxi that left the village in the morning had already gone. Because there weren’t phone lines, I didn’t have a phone. Crap.

Yep, I was pretty much stuck. I lay shivering, sweating and wondering what I could have possibly caught.

I’d been faithful about boiling my drinking water. I was taking my anti-malaria medicine faithfully. I had had my shots, lots of them. But, then again. . .there was that fresh milk someone gave me the day before on the village sweep. Could TB set in this early?

There was another knock on the door.

“Amie?”

It was Hadi Jobarteh, the only female teacher at the village school, and so far, my only close friend. Janneh must have gone to get her.

I crawled out of bed to let her in, sick that I was feeling so sick instead of my chipper, I can handle anything self.

“Amie, come to my house. Don’t be alone.” Hadi wouldn’t accept no for an answer and waited for me to feebly shrug into clothes, and then led me on my wobbly feet up N’Jowara’s dusty main street (kind of the only street) to her two room house that was part of a larger compound of buildings.

As we passed villagers on the way, I wondered if they thought they’d been stuck with a clunker of a volunteer. I looked like shit.

Hadi tucked me into her bed with a cup of hot tea (boiled water, of course) and went back to school to teach for the afternoon after assuring me that Mama Badja, the elder woman in her compound, would watch out for me.

As I lay in Hadi’s bed, in one of her two small rooms with its two glassless windows and a curtain that fluttered in the breeze in the open doorway, listening to children playing in the midst of chickens and goats while women talked to each other while doing their morning chores, it felt comfortable-safe.

Mama Badja, whose face was wreathed in clichéd wise wrinkles, stopped in to pat my leg and tell me that I’d get better.

I would, but not yet.

Instead, by the time John, my Peace Corps friend arrived that evening, I was even more green around the gills and desperate to feel better. I had started taking malaria pills as a just in case.

John helped me in the taxi the next morning-the first step of my trip to Banjul where I could pay a visit to the Peace Corps nurse.

“Stay as long as you want,” I whispered to John, collapsing onto the torn vinyl of the backseat. “Hadi said she’s making you chicken yassa.”

I love chicken yassa, and I was too sick to stick around. Plus, John was my first guest. He’d have to enjoy my hospitality without me.

Years later, I can still conjure up the desperation after leaving the black sedan style taxi, and cramming into the back of a bush taxi, a reconfigured pick-up truck like vehicle. I sandwiched my shoulders between two other people’s until I shifted enough so that I could turn in order to rest my arm on one of the slats of the taxi’s side, one cheek on my arm.

That taxi, after crossing the branch of the Gambia River on the small ferry that chugged across from one mangroved shore to another, bounced and bounded down the red dirt road, wafting dust each time it stopped. I was too sick to notice that my ears were slowly filling.

A man on the taxi, who spoke English fluently, noticed my sorry state and promised he’d help me get to the Peace Corps office and the nurse.

He did, staying with me on the next ferry crossing, this one a choppy journey across the mouth of the Gambia River on a ferry loaded down with enormous trucks mounded with goods, cars, cattle, and people on foot who balanced luggage on their heads as if practicing for a circus act.

“Good luck,” the man said as he left me lying on one of the couches in the Peace Corps office’s common room.

The Peace Corps nurse pronounced that I had a virus and not malaria–medicine would not help, and sent me to a nearby town where a training was going on at a Peace Corps owned training center. Since I didn’t have another place to stay, this seemed sensible. Volunteers share rent on apartments near Banjul so when they come to the city for R&R or official business, or get sick, they have a place to stay. I didn’t have a place yet.

“There will be volunteers and staff who can take care of you,” the nurse promised as she sent me on my way in a Peace Corps vehicle with a driver.

I didn’t want to tell her I had only one change of clothes and little money since I hadn’t wanted to appear that I had come to city for a long stay, using being sick as an excuse.

Turns out, the training was over that night, but I had a place to sleep and bedding. No towels though. No soap. No phone. No food. There was toilet paper and electricity. Yeah.

I moved the mattress to the floor since the bed-springs were funky. The bed felt like my head was lower than my feet. Plus, the pillow smelled. I threw it across the room.

I’ve been left to die I thought.

Obviously, I didn’t.

The next morning, after hallucinating that weird people were milling about in the room and climbing onto the matress with me from time to time–it was the malaria drugs I’d been taking, I hauled myself down to the western style grocery store to buy saltines and tomato soup, stuff my mom use to make.

A friend brought me a can opener and a pot since the center didn’t have either.

Finally, the sun shone. The Peace Corps nurse, hearing that I was in an abandoned state, came to fetch me the next day feeling awful. She took me to her house where she fed me, I watched the video Grease with her young daughters, had a bath, she gave me clean clothes, and I decided that there is heaven on earth after all.

As far as catching another bug over the two years I was in the Peace Corps, I didn’t. If we don’t talk about the small case of impetigo I had above my lip once, the time I was bitten by a puppy and the rabies shots that made my face swell like a balloon, and that bad case of gas from girardia that made me feel as if there could be a mighty explosion.

Other than those things, it was smooth sailing.