It’s kinda hard being an entomologist. Insects have a special place in my heart. But it seems not to be very mutual. Wherever I go, insects somehow always seem to be out to get me. They can smell an entomologist coming from miles away. Many of the fun insects and other arthropods run as fast as they can when they see me coming, even if I usually don’t carry a butterfly net. Others, most notably the irritant bunch that I would rather keep at a distance (such as the botflies that I have talked about before), will always swarm around.
Especially mosquitoes. They want to suck me dry. They seem to like my wife and son even more, but I think they do this to make me feel bad.
The reason for this is clear. When I was writing my Bachelor thesis, which is now a decade ago (God, time flies), I worked on mozzies. My research was particularly gruesome and involved killing them by the hundreds (if not thousands). I studied how cannibalistic feeding affected larval development, survival and adult fitness. To this end, I killed and dried larvae, ground their dried corpses to a powder, and simply fed the unrecognizable leftovers to their brothers and sisters. They did not seem to like it much either. If I remember it all correctly, they did not survive very well, but those that did were much smaller. This research focused on two mosquito species, namely Culex pipiens (a very common mosquito in western Europe) and Anopheles gambiae (an African species, and one of the main vectors for malaria). Those mosquitoes that did survive me, held a grudge, told the stories to their future generations, and they spread the word to their cousins.
I have no other explanation why, when I traveled to southeast Asia in 2013, my first time traveling, swarms of tiger mosquitoes (Aedes aegyptii) were waiting for me wherever I set foot outside my accomodation. Given that this was the first time I traveled, I was careful. I read all the advice on everything from avoiding sunburns, to protecting yourself against mosquitoes. All the sunscreen in the world did not protect my stupid white boy skin against sunburn, so I was red as a lobster most of the time. Similarly, all the DEET and citrus sprays that were recommended by Lonely Planets and the local 7-11 did not help me much either. Neither did those carcinogenic smoke things that Thai people put all over the place to keep the mozzies away. Nope. These fuckers were ready to avenge their fallen forefathers, or well, those of their distant cousins.
I remember the first couple of evenings in Bangkok were quite okay… People had clearly exaggerated the mosquito situation. I only figured out later that the evenings are not really the issue. Aedes aegyptii is very active often from, say, 3PM. At times where I would still happily be walking through the bush. They are also the only mosquitoes that I have seen land and bite through freshly applied high concentration DEET spray, that made my skin feel like it was peeling off. These girls are no joke. The guys are though, they can’t even bite…
So we traveled for about three weeks or so, where we had a great and memorable week or so in Kho Tao in some deserted bay that we had mostly to ourselves (rare on Kho Tao). Another week we spent in Khao Sokh National Park, which is still one a memorable experience. Seeing Lar Gibbons smoothly swing from branch to branch and hearing their calls to warn rivalling clans was absolutely amazing. It was also absolutely loaded with tiger mosquitoes. By that time I had pretty much given up, I didn’t care about the itch.
So at the end of the third week, we ended up in Krabi. I’m not too sure why people would visit Krabi. For us, it was supposed to be a brief stop, on our way to Ao Railay. One night, or so we planned. I felt so awful the next day that I spent the following three or four days mostly in my hotel bed. The first day started with fevers and chills, the next day my hands and wrists and other joints started hurting like crazy. Two days later I had stomach and gastrointestinal issues. It was horrible. All of it was accompanied by the most intense migraine I had ever experienced. An intense pressure that was present mostly directly behind the eyes, but flared out from there to cover the entire scalp. Classical symptoms of dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever, referring to the intense joint pain. Dengue sucks in that you cannot do anything about it. You have to sit it out and wait for the body to kill off the viral disease, introduced to you by the wonderful vector, Aedes aegyptii (or other species from the Aedes genus). It can be pretty dangerous, too, when it becomes dengue haemorrhagic fever, a condition where your blood platelet counts become so low that you can start bleeding from all your cavities. I got lucky, I just got the ‘normal fever’, which still was rough. I was pretty sick, in a tropical country, where I did not speak the language, sleeping in a hotel room with a fan-only. I have seen better days.
My wife, girlfriend at the time, was very eager to still make the most out of it, and often convinced me to go and do stuff. I can still remember how awful I felt looking at mangrove crabs and mudskippers in the mangrove reserve – an activity that would any other day keep me busy for hours. After four or five days, we decided to do something intensely stupid, mostly initiated by my wife, but I was of the opinion that feeling miserable could be done anywhere, so why not travel further to something resembling paradise. Such a fucking dumb thing to do. A tuk-tuk ride, a boat trip and a rough uphill hike with 25 kg of luggage (first time traveling eh). Not a fun thing when you have dengue fever. But at least we were in paradise.
It took me at least two or three days of doing nothing in particular to recover from the trip to get to paradise. The symptoms still changed from day to day, dengue is a very strange disease like that. On one of the last days, still in paradise, I got the final symptom that dengue is well-known for. A skin rash that comes super abruptly and is so intense that you will have no clue what caused it (I did not know at the time it was a dengue symptom). It disappeared as abruptly as it appeared.
And even though my dengue story is almost at its end here, the mosquitoes were not done with me. They decided I needed more punishment, but this time they targeted indirect pathways. Two months of travel through Thailand, Malaysia and Laos, and we had mostly forgotten the dengue episode, although the typical headache and overall fatigue remained and often returned (for many years after). But then, horror struck again, and this time it may have been worse. My wife got the first symptoms of dengue fever in the bus ride on our way to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. She did (or could) not leave the darkness of our hostel room for twelve days. If you have never been to Phnom Penh, good for you. I am not sure what’s worse, twelve days of dengue, or twelve days of spending time, alone, in the hellhole that is Phnom Penh. This is probably one of the most depressing cities I have ever set foot in, with remnants of the Khmer Rouge era at every street corner, a city with child labour so omnipresent that it makes you want to cry your eyes out. I’ve seen kids get beaten by their ‘bosses’ (parents?), because they were playing a game of soccer with some guys working for an NGO for street kids. That puts things in a weird perspective, I can tell you. Anyway, the experience of Phnom Penh was as depressing as my own dengue fever was horrible. Cambodia definitely has many reasons to visit, but this city ain’t one.
So, I guess the lesson in this story is be nice to insects, because if you’re not, they will fuck you over, twice! (or maybe more generally – don’t feed dead, dried and ground carcasses to others of the same species, it’s morally reprehensible if you think about it a few times…)