The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Bloody Parasites

Roaming the world and staying at the dodgiest places, I had curiously few encounters with blood-sucking parasites. Among those encounters, the most unnerving ones were related to bed bugs. For a long-long time, I never came across bed bugs. I even survived a visit to New York without seeing any. Then the time came: a sleazy hotel in Penang, Malaysia, introduced me to the beast. Having a hatred for cotton, I always slept in a silk liner, so I was hermetically sealed from potential invaders. I woke up in the middle of night to see a tiny black shape crawling towards me. The black shape was promptly executed by a book, then I switched the light on to study the situation. I saw other black shapes suddenly disappearing in nooks. The deceased evidence, flattened as it was, matched the description on Wikipedia. I was under attack.

Shady hotel in Penang

Take the hint: if a hotel does not even bother to properly light up its own name, they probably do not care about bed bugs either.

My belongings were thrown on the table, a safe distance from any potential feeding area for bed bugs. I went through my clothes, nevertheless, and sprayed my 100 % DEET insect repellent everywhere on my bag where bed bugs might have hitched a ride. The great environmentalist I am, I trust nothing but 100 % DEET and banned pesticides. I was curious to find out whether DEET actually worked against the blood suckers. I sprayed a circle on the bed, turned the light off, sat in the middle of the circle, and waited for them to come out. They played a waiting game and won out. I dozed off without ever learning the efficiency of my line of defence. When I woke up, I complained to the manager, showing him the heroically dispatched specimen embedded in my book. He went into adamant denial, pretending that he knew not what a bed bug was, and that it was the first time he saw a book. The latter was probably true.

I spent some time reading about bed bugs after the incident, learning that they copulate by traumatic insemination. You definitely do not want your next romantic companion to be a bed bug. The second encounter with these traumatic inseminators came just a few days later. Travelling further south, I put up camp in a friendly hostel in Melacca. My room smelled strongly of pesticides, but the owner was so easygoing I did not care. Then the night came, crawling time for zombies and bed bugs. Zombies were absent in my room, but bed bugs were not. I squashed them on the wall, only to notice that I was not the first one to do so: the wall displayed a pattern of patches consisting of disembowelled bed bugs. Malaysia has the best vanilla ice cream chocolate durian ice kacangs, and warm-hearted people to match such delicacies, but some aspects of the country are sadly neglected.

Bed bugs come in swarms, but they are not the only gregarious blood sucking vermin. Who wouldn’t like good company? Mosquitoes certainly do. The closer you get to the Arctic Circle, the more they like congregate in large groups. We were on a long, dull drive to a supposed hot spring paradise on a side road in Alaska, not far from Fairbanks. The air space was densely populated with mosquitoes. By the time we arrived to the hot spring paradise, a cemetery of mosquitoes manifested on the windscreen. We dreaded the moment of stepping out of the vehicle. Our hot spring paradise consisted of a lady with an attitude, an overpriced hot tub, and 6.02214×1023 elementary mosquitoes per unit volume — each of them being hungry for human blood. The sheer amount of living protein in the air was astonishing. The thrifty adventurers we were, we spent almost a week sleeping in the car, so we developed a most atrocious smell. We were looking forward to taking a bath, but the hot spring was closed for the night. We were confined to the car yet again, and we could not even let the windows down, unless we wanted to donate blood to the deprived. My mate tolerated the situation by imbibing his $3 Walmart wine. Having no such options, I suffered greatly.

Alaskan landscape with mountain range in background

Love mosquitoes? Visit Alaska.

Tropical areas have a different pattern of mosquito infestation. In Northern Benin, three different species of mosquitoes were feeding on my arm in parallel. The three species were probably vectors for at least ten deadly diseases. As Darwin put it, nature is niggard in innovation but prodigious in variety. We cannot expect nature to spontaneously spawn a new, intelligent mosquito species that would apologize for the sins of its lesser family members, and launch a marketing effort to improve the image of mosquitoes. If we want to stop hating them, we need to appreciate variety, and watch how the different species suck our blood and infect us with malaria, dengue, toe cancer, and stupidity.

The ferocity of air-borne and bed-borne blood suckers fades compared to their religious counterparts. The most pious of them all is the Ethiopean flea. The jointed-legged devotees dwell in the straw mats that cover the floor of Ethiopean orthodox churches. You are strictly not allowed to enter with your shoes on, so as you walk about the temples, you are bound to collect a few hundred new friends. Bumping on a dirt track in a jalopy on the way back from a cave church, I noticed the divine presence. I was wearing a thermal layer, and as my new friends were seeking a patch of skin, they made their way up from my feet, and started teeming around my wrist. A manual extermination campaign was launched as I warned my fellow victims. We were zealously killing them, it was nothing short of a holy war. Since my mates were not wearing a thermal layer, dozens of red dots marked where fleas had already perpetrated an outrage. The moral of the story: stay warm and safe, always wear a thermal layer.

Model of flea

Behold the Ethopian Orthodox Flea

The fleas suffered great losses, but the war was not over. The rapscallions retreated to the folds of our clothes, and other places where we could not find them. It was getting dark as we reached back to town. We obtained cans of an unclassified substance called RoachKiller. Back at the courtyard of the guest house, a strange ritual followed. We stripped to undies and lined up our clothes. I had my caving headlight on, and with the RoachKiller in hand, I stood ready to spray at anything that was tiny, black, and crawling. My friend was putting every part of each item of garment in the spotlight, ensuring that no bit went unchecked, and I sprayed viciously at any suspect. We lost our feminine companion in the process, she showed no interest in half-naked men playing around with dangerous chemicals in the dark.

The worst of ectoparasites, property agents, already have a treatise dedicated to them. I am yet to have extensive experiences with leeches, sandflies, and ticks. The world is a fascinating place to those who are able to admire parasites.

4 Comments

  1. Yeah, that’s funny that you use the Avogadro’s number to describe it, ahahah!

    Among all the species the human being is the weakest so that’s for sure we have to be aware of those symbiosis that can affect our health.

    1. Peter Peter says:

      First I wanted to use the unit mole, but then I realized the number itself would be more expressive for the chemically inclined.

  2. It would be nice to see some graphical representation of that holy war in Ethiopia. Do you have photos by any chance? I counted 84 red dots on my left thigh two weeks after the incident. Even though by now I am physically recovered I still have nightmares about that night.

    Also I think there are a lot of stories untold on the subject – one example being the mosquitos in Finland.

    1. Peter Peter says:

      The Finish mosquito swarm from hell, I have completely forgotten about it! I need to follow that up. Perhaps in a post about how to acquire swollen eye lids.

      I do not have photos of the incident, but since we violated the Geneva Conventions by deploying chemical weapons, the disturbing images of the war are better unreleased.