Borneo: I was a different woman two leech bites ago

For Louise, because I owe you a story…

Forget the lushness of the forest; the shades of green so recklessly plentiful. Forget the determination of people in Borneo; houses build to defy the ocean currents and the steep rock faces. Forget all of it, I want to write about leeches.

Having spent so much time avoiding them, thinking about them and over-reacting to them, it is only natural that the first thing I want to write about my Borneo experience, is the leeches. Forget the lushness of the forest; the shades of green so recklessly plentiful. Forget the determination of people in Borneo; houses build to defy the ocean currents and the steep rock faces. Forget all of it, I want to write about leeches. I spent so much time with the leeches, I feel like we got to know each other as a species. The idea of being “blood enemies” comes to mind when I think about our relationship; the leeches wanted my blood and I was rather fond of keeping said blood flowing through my veins (selfish, I know) but I must admit that I did come admire the perseverance of the leeches. Of course, this is the sort of admiration that can only be shaped by distance. Place an ocean or two between me and the leeches and I’m all “Oh what marvellously resilient creatures” (I hope you heard my British accent and noticed that that version of me was sipping a cup of tea). Place a leech close enough for me to see it do that weird flip/jump manoeuvre and its full-blown ghetto version of me, pulling out a shotgun/flip flop/frying pan to protect myself from a creature not even half the length of my baby finger.

Preparing for Borneo, whenever anyone would ask me about whether I was ready for the trip, I would launch into a bravado filled discussion about leeches, hoping that if I pretended to be brave, I might actually start believing I was. I was beyond daunted by the idea that I would encounter leeches during our jungle trek but after the panic subsided (and I realised that the booking fee for the jungle trek was non-refundable), I deluded myself into thinking that it would be okay. How bad could it be? I’ve more than handled my own with cockroaches (flying ones included) and apart from fish moths, bugs don’t freak me out. I would be okay, I’m a calm, rational human and no leech would change that. Right?

I’m a calm, rational human and no leech would change that. Right?

I guess that’s who I was before a leech bite, I was a different woman two leech bites ago. All exaggeration aside, something shifts in you the moment you see a creature feeding on you the way a leech does. Nothing in my life prepared me for the sight of a leech attached to my forearm, merrily having an early dinner while I was none the wiser. Nothing prepared me for this sight, bearing in mind that this was my second leech bite, having discovered the first leech on me moments before. Perhaps some context is important here. It was the first day of our jungle trek, Husband and I had just arrived at Nepenthes Camp, the first rest camp on our journey, and I was eager to get my backpack off my shoulders and rest for the day. My feet and shoulders were sore, and I was tired. I had the nervous sort of energy that comes with fatigue and uncertainty but far worse than any of that, I was smug. You see. I had made it to camp, leech free (or so I had thought). Not that this was a competition, or that I would ever get joy from Husband’s suffering, but he had two leech encounters during the trek, and he had reacted with the sort of foul mouthed, panic ridden flailing arms that is nothing short of amusing to watch. I, on the other hand, was the epitome of calm. I soothed Husband, kept my laughter in check and told Husband that it was okay, it was not a big deal. Of course, I could see that those tiny creatures were harmless, poor Husband, he just didn’t have the composure I did. I’d watch our guide gently ease a leech of his hand every now and again and place the creature safely onto a leaf and I was certain that I would react in much the same way in the unlikely event that a leech did find its way onto me. You see I was smug (read delusional) on two levels; the first was because I hadn’t even so much as found a leech on my person and the second was because Husband was totally freaking out allowing me to believe in my dominion over all things, including him.

A fat leech having fed off our guide's foot

A well fed leech having hitched a ride (with a free meal) while attached to our guide’s foot

So there I was, at Nepenthes, staring at the rain and the imposing forest before me, sort of soaking it in that we’d made it to the first camp and that I was this self-aware human who had made peace with the jungle and the wilderness when I felt a sting just above the waistband of my pants. It’s the sort of sting breaks one’s ego. It’s the sort of sting that makes you question your sanity. The events that followed happened in slow motion so you must forgive me for replaying the exact sequence here, it is important only in the sense that this would be the same reaction I had every time I found a leech on me including the next leech I would find moments after this one. It’s probably even more important that I make mention that borne from that very first leech bite, was a new character we’ve never met before; Denira- Queen of the Leeches (Queen not so much because she reigns over them, but more so because of their affinity towards her).

First there’s some self-talk lead by Composed Denira, “Deep breaths, you’ve got this” then an attempt, with the world’s worst hand eye co-ordination, to flick the leech off her body. Unsurprisingly ineffective. A deep inhalation and more self-talk, a less confident “Calm down” is offered. Composed Denira’s on shaking ground, she’s starting to doubt herself, she fights for control of the situation fearing her actions have only angered the leech. She issues another” CALM DOWN” to herself, this time in an altogether uncalm fashion before she’s able to reach for the leech and miraculously remove it from her body. Exhale victory. Exhale peace. The leech does some sort of back flip thing and sticks to her finger. Short sharp inhalations. Denira, Queen of the Leeches taps Composed Denira on the shoulder, she’s relatively meek at the onset, “What do you think you’re doing, this thing is going to eat us alive!”. Composed Denira shrugs her off, “It’s okay, it’s fine…I just need to stay calm. Look, it’s just a tiny creature…waving around…being…oh shit, it’s stuck! THIS THING IS STUCK TO ME!!” Just like that we unveil Denira, Queen of Leeches in all of her blind panic and sanity defeating glory,  “THIS THING IS GOING TO KILL ME, GET IT OFF. GET IT OFF”.  Someone’s screaming, no one knows who, all versions of Denira have shut their eyes. There’s more screaming and the violent shaking of hands as if the idea of dislodging a hand holds more promise than allowing a leech to settle on it.

By the time I’ve opened my eyes I’ve drawn an audience that includes Husband, the guide and ranger but thankfully not the leech. Embarrassed but glad to be alive I offer a frightened smile and say I didn’t expect myself to react that way. “I’m okay now, it’s okay”, I say more for my benefit than anyone else’s. Each time post that, I’m foolish enough to believe that my reaction to the leeches would be different, each time I discover myself to be a liar. I later turn my hand sanitizer into a leech stunning weapon and cover almost every part of my body but I never quite rid myself of The Queen of the Leeches title.

…each time I discover myself to be a liar

Here’s the truth about leeches, you simply cannot avoid them. Want another truth? They’re impossibly creepy, creepier than that old uncle in your family who drinks too much, or that sleazy guy at work with the moustache. In fact, a whole new word should be invented to describe their inherent creepiness. Worse still, that creepiness goes up exponentially the moment one lands on you. I think leeches are pre-programmed at some sort of leech finishing school to start behaving weirdly the moment the come into contact with humans. They start doing this terrible dance sort of jump thing that I’m sure is a form of hypnosis aimed making you lose your mind. I’m not sure whether I should be proud, scared or freaked out that I can not only identify two species of leeches by sight, but also by their bite. That you can’t feel the one type of leech bite is nightmare inducing stuff, at the least the Tiger Leeches have the decency to say hello with a sting before tucking into your blood. I will admit though, that at times of sheer exhaustion, when Denira, Queen of the Leeches could not be summoned, I had one or two clam leech encounters. I even saw a Tiger Leech land on my pants, and I admired its pretty colours and stripes before the ranger removed it lest I invoke Denira, Queen of the Leeches, and scare away the jungle creatures. Whether I had incorrectly identified the colours on said leech due to close contact with an hallucinogenic plant or if I had truly lost control of my senses is still to be determined but I’ll take the wins where I can. There’s no denying or fighting the notion that leeches are creepy, it would be easier to stop breathing. In the battle of man versus leeches, leeches win, every time. Am I ready for another jungle adventure? Probably. Am I ready to fend off ten million leeches to do it? Not a chance. Let’s leave Denira, Queen of the Leeches, where she belongs, deep in the middle of a Bornean rainforest.

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