I’m a big fan of rain. Rain, you’re awesome and I would totally hound you for an autograph, write you heart-bursting poetry, take you home to meet the parents if only you would look at me and see how true and deep I am, not like all the others.
I love you, rain, in the happy sun shower times. I love you even when you are angry and all hurricane-y. I even think it’s cute when you piss down on everyone, like how you do to the English all the time.
And then dear rain, in Thailand, you turn on me. You bring leeches with you.
In my second week in Huay Pakoot, the rainy season finally kicks in. Clouds move into the village and start pushing people around. It begins to rain several times during the day. The storms can be as short as ten minutes. Overnight, heavier rains give the jungle a good thrashing.
That means that it’s party time for the leeches.
Bugs I can learn to deal with, leeches just don’t have any good qualities. They’re sticky, slimy, and stubborn. And they turn me off of Italian food. The reason is because they look like cooked spaghetti—sickly gray-black cooked spaghetti that has come to life and wriggled out from the bottom of a trash heap.
Worst of all, their primary trait is a particularly nasty one: blood-sucking. Leeches are the closest real creatures that the jungle has to zombies. Like zombies, they glom on to you as they start sucking out your life force—only they suck out blood instead of brains.
While zombies are cool in books and movies, let’s face it, a real-life zombie attack would kind of suck. Leeches in the jungle are a real-life zombie attack. They slither out of the dead leaves and the mud, moaning as they swarm your feet and ankles.
Okay, maybe not moaning, but seriously, they grope for you… I have watched their little wormy torsos feeling for me, twitching and stabbing at the air for just a little piece of me to grab onto.
Our first hike with the leeches we have to stop every five or ten minutes, because someone has a leech squirming on them.
Contrary to popular belief, their favorite hangout isn’t water, except for the leech that rose up and took Chuck Norris down in Braddock: Missing in Action 5, The Leechening. They are most commonly creeping around in fresh mud or dead, moldy leaves.
Their first move is usually to hug the back of your shoe. That’s why on a hike when there are leeches prowling around, everyone looks like they’re checking their feet every minute or so to see if they’ve stepped in dog shit.
From the back of the shoe, leeches can worm in anywhere. Some like to slither into your shoe and go spelunking in there. Others burrow into your ankle—at least you can usually spot them there at some point.
One volunteer comes well-prepared for the leeches: good hiking boots protected by gaiters, which are worn over the lower leg and ankle. They’re usually meant to keep snow out of your boots, but he uses them to keep out the leeches. I think it’s a brilliant plan.
An hour into the hike he stops, unfastens the gaiters and begins to peel them away: three leeches in there. They writhe spastically as their secret hiding place is exposed. I scream. This guy is lost to the zombie leeches. I pull out my gun, before he turns into one of them.
–Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get the idea what these creatures do to me.
They can be sprayed off with a DEET chemical repellent, kind of like using a flamethrower to remove a mole. This method gives leech and victim instant cancer, but at least the leech curls up and drops off.
The mahouts make a game of leech control, flicking them off with a machete, toying with them for minute like a cat with a mouse, and then severing the little bastards in half.
I laugh and laugh. I guess I’ve found my limit to loving all creatures.
On this first hike with leeches they get all of my fellow hikers. They drop, one by one. Somehow I escape. I slam the door of the Outhouse-Plus, sweaty, tired, and leech-free, with the music on the soundtrack crashing into silence. I am safe.
Now I can celebrate my leeching near-miss by dumping polar ice cap-cold water over my head for a ‘shower’.
I start peeling off my clothes. I notice that my khaki pants have flecks of red in them.
Uh oh. I tug the pants completely off. The ‘flecks’ are actually large red blotches. I rip off the rest of my clothes like I’m on fire.
There he is.
A leech is wrapped snugly around a section of my upper thigh, sucking face on my leg. He is glistening and plump, and has grown from a cute little spaghetti into a strapping young penne pasta… because now he’s full of my blood.
I pause for precious blood-siphoning seconds, not because I’m unsure of what to do, but because I am terrified of doing it: touching him. I actually have to touch this slimy baby alien monster if I want to rip him off.
I know—he’s already touching me, because he’s eating my leg for lunch—but at least he’s not moving much. If I try to peel him off, I’m sure he’s going to wriggle around and… here’s where my brain goes: He’ll jump into my mouth. Ahhhhhh!… okay.
I have to do it.
I grab hold of him.
Sure enough, he wriggles and hugs me even tighter. I pry, scrape, fumble, juggle, and flick the fat little bastard from my leg to my finger to my shirt hanging on the wall, back to my finger—before I finally jettison him out of an opening in the Outhouse-Plus.
I take a breath, feeling very Sigourney Weaverish. She kicked an alien off a space ship, I bounced a leech out of an outhouse.
I run my hands all over my body—and I mean all over, dreading the feel of another slimy bloodsucker. When I find no more leeches… I check my body again. Five more times.
After this trauma, I feel heavy dread every time it rains. Although to my credit, I never pass on a hike when it’s raining, so I am constantly coming face to face with my bogeyleeches.
I Agent Orange my hiking shoes with DEET before each hike, acquiring instant cancer.–It’s okay, once I get back to L.A. a shot of wheat grass juice will knock that right out.
I wear shorts so I can see the leeches sneaking up my leg. I stop often to carefully examine my boots (dog shit check). And I develop a sixth sense for detecting leeches. I can spot them from yards away and many of them I can avoid, even if it means taking huge circling detours.
Days later I am on another hike, helping a girl perform a health check on an elephant. She is checking off something on a clipboard. Fwop. A leech plops onto the clipboard, practically dotting an I.
She freezes. Looks up.
Shivers run down my spine. Not much I can do when they’re falling out of the sky.