Today’s lesson learned: leech bites are most painful approximately six to eight days after they are incurred. I’m bonding with AfterBite as we speak.
Yes, mmm, leeches. Last week the twenty-three Deshpande Fellows and I traveled to Honnemardu, where we spent the week with Adventurers, an ecotourism NGO working toward increased awareness about the need for conservation practices. This was my first – and I hope my last – experience with leeches.
Kindly refer to Exhibit A, my feet following partial removal of tennis shoes, after approximately 5km of trekking through an overgrown path, moist from the tail-end of monsoon season and saturated with leeches. The trail we were following was to the villager’s home where we would be spending the night. The idea of living this far into the forest was simply unfathomable for me; we still had another kilometer or two to go, and our starting point was the nearest bus stop.
The feet in Exhibit B belong to Pramodkumar (PK), who bore his pain with a smile. Exhibit C is my hero, Shrikanta (on the right), who was the fortunate soul who got to walk behind me and dutifully pick the leeches from my shoes as we traversed the trail. Really, though, after about an hour I had graduated from being terrified (inwardly) and hopelessly attacking the buggers with a stick (or letting Shrikanta get the ones I couldn’t) to yanking them out of my shoes, with my fingernails if necessary; dealing with them when they were stuck to my fingers was much easier. My running shoes had a mesh portion that the leeches had no problem penetrating. Obviously. When I was getting into my pajamas later that night I was disturbed to discover blood on my clothing, which led me to the markings of a leech, right in the middle of my chest. How it got there, I’ll never know.
The trip wasn’t all bad, however; in fact, it was mostly good. The highlight for me was the swimming. Not because the scenery was beautiful (and it was) or because the water was warm (another bonus) or because swimming in a lake was new for me, but because this was allll new for the Fellows. Really new. So new that when they waded into the lake with life jackets on I had people older than me shrieking about being immobile and squealing my name – both the men and the women. If only I’d been on dry land with a camera instead of giving swimming lessons. Half of them were up to their ears in red jacket and couldn’t even turn themselves 90 degrees. But were they ever having fun.
The next morning I, fortunately, was permitted to take a swimming test, which only took me swimming free style for about 20 seconds for the guide to be convinced, and ditched the jacket. Happily, this removed some of the drag I was experiencing on Day One, but not all: females wear a “bathing costume,” not a bathing suit. In most cases, this doesn’t much matter, as women barely wade into the water and wear the salwar or sari they have on. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering I just told you none of them could swim. But even when the intention is to actually swim, they remain fully dressed. When I put on my Speedo, I don’t think any of the girls wanted to be the first to tell me it was inappropriate.
The Fellows: Blank stares. Very little eye contact.
Me: “So what if I pull on my running shorts?”
Them: Still no response, some uneasy shifting.
Them: “Ahhh! Yes. That works.”
Me: Pull on pants. “Right. So then I can go out like this?”
Clearly this wasn’t working. I ended up in pants and a t-shirt. I was then more than a little dismayed to find the boys in their tighty-whities. (We won't include a visual.)
We swam, we paddled (in circular boats I’d never used before), we pitched tents and built a campfire on a little island. We used no soap to wash our dishes (for the most part… there was a little soap zone where I couldn’t help but rinse the grease off my Tupperware), and I didn’t wash my hair until Friday (ew). I wish I had a picture of the rainwater well from which we drank, which had a slightly green glow and was home to a few frogs but tasted fresh and clean nonetheless. The rest of the time we filled our bottles from streams. I had never been on such a bumpy road in my life (this includes Costa Rica, and that’s saying something), never been so close to a cobra (ahhh!) and never slept so tightly between two people that I couldn’t put my arms at my sides.
And I had an amazing time. The Fellows were all wonderful, watching one another’s feet intently for leeches, dressing wounds, salting shoes, sharing snacks and washing one another’s dishes. For a group of young adults, all the same age, to live together in such close quarters in less than ideal conditions so peacefully – I was impressed. I’ll be bummed when these guys head out in December and will definitely look back on this week fondly.