After volunteering for three months in a Costa Rican jungle, I came home with an unwelcome souvenir: worms as long as spaghetti noodles. Malcolm and Liddy convinced me to lick a 9-volt battery. Malcolm, who grew up in England, reassured me that he licked batteries routinely as a kid as a de-worming remedy. So, I licked the battery. I also drank a Slovakian tea prepared by my then-girlfriend’s mother that tasted like liquid vegemite. I wondered if she was trying to poison me with such a vile brew. It was as bitter as grapefruit peels and burned like chlorine all the way down my esophagus where it promptly set fire to my stomach.
After returning from Costa Rica, I had become accustomed to nearly shitting my pants on a daily basis. The cramps that left me curled up in a tight shrimp ball were also considered normal. I remember lying on the front lawn of Pat and Rene’s lakeside cottage in the kind of position that someone would assume when fired out of a cannon. Pat Lane came out with a spoon and some Pepto Bismol. I said I was fine, but I couldn’t really move from my position. So, she brought me a beer. That’s what friends are for.
It was Cindy and Louise who convinced me of an old wives tale that would surely work. Louise said she had a tapeworm as a child, and her mother successfully lured the worm out with a piece of bread soaked in milk. After several months of intestinal agony, I thought, why not?
When I got home that night, Kate (whose mother made the poison tea) assisted in the worm-removal operation. Unfortunately we had no bread—only multigrain bagels and freezer-burned hot dog buns. We both figured the bun would be better, especially because the bagel had a hole in it. She put the white Wonderbread bun in the microwave and soaked it in a dish with skim milk. And then, while I rolled over prone in bed, she used hockey tape to secure the milk-soaked hot dog bun to my ass.
Milk ran down my legs and soaked the sheets. I was wide awake thinking of how big of a worm might crawl out of me in the night. And then what? If the worm ate the entire bun, then it would be taped to my ass until I woke up.
I’m not sure how I fell asleep with something so soggy attached to me, and come morning, there was nothing but a bun still attached to me. That’s when I gave up and went to the Tropical Disease Center at McMaster University. Six Vermox pills later and I was given a promising prognosis: I was no longer feeding a thousand.
Travel always brings about unexpected surprises, like intestinal worms that arrive months later like a misdirected postcard. It’s the Tumbu flies of Congo that give me a mild case of the heebie jeebies though. The adult flies lay eggs on drying laundry and when the eggs come in contact with your skin, they hatch and bury themselves under your skin. “Here they form a crop of boils, each with a maggot inside,” the Bradt guide to the Congo reports. But, by smearing Vaseline on the breathing holes, you can suffocate the suckers out of your skin. As they emerge to the surface of the skin, they can be squeezed out but the larvae also have spines which help them hold on. Ew. I have jungle stories about a similar maggoty fly, but that’s for another time. There are many other gruesome things to report on that are endemic to the Congo. Like the pneumonic plague.
The plague is transferred from small animals to the fleas that bite them. Humans can get transmission from flea bites, direct contact with the animal with the fleas, inhalation—or by eating the animal. This is why you shouldn’t eat your pet dog or cat.
The most common and infamous form of the pneumonic plague is the bubonic, acquired by the bite of an infected flea. Jungle towns and crowded mining camps are breeding grounds for such a plague, and Ituri, Congo, is the most active plague region on the planet. My hometown, Brantford, Ontario, proudly boasts about being the home of Wayne Gretzky. I wonder if Ituri has a welcome sign indicating “Most Active Plague Region on the Planet!”
Plague symptoms aren’t as dramatic as I thought: chills, diarrhea, fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes. The most obvious sign that you have the plague? Death in one week. There are antibiotics to treat the bubonic plague, but in the middle ages, millions of Europeans died of measly flea bites. Shame.
The Bradt guide has provided an intriguing breakfast read for me over cups of tea. I have learned that if I am bitten by an animal suspected to be rabid, I should scrub with soap, strong iodine, gin, whisky or rum, to stop the virus from entering my body. Traveling with the rabies immunoglobin is recommended, but I should be prepared to drop $800 US. However, “mortality is 100% and death from rabies is probably the worst way to go.”
Of greater concern is the Ebola virus. In 2001 and 2003 there were outbreaks near the Gabonese-Congo border with 302 infected. Of that number, 254 died—with many family members contracting Ebola during burial ceremonies due to handling bodies in unsanitary conditions. It is fatal three weeks after transmission and can be contracted from infected bodily fluid exchange, contaminated needles, or eating (or handling) contaminated meat of gorillas, chimps, antelopes and porcupines. All have been crossed off my must-eat list.
Ebola presents like malaria and typhoid with a high fever, headache, exhaustion, dizziness and sore throat. But the bleeding from every opening in the body is the best indication of Ebola. Death occurs from organ failure or blood loss.
Chantal is fearful of the day the Congo is put in quarantine because of an Ebola outbreak. With no incoming or outgoing flights, the Congo would have to rely on its own water sources and produce–much of which is shipped in from South Africa, Kenya and Belgium. They would be shut-off from major supply sources, creating an even greater outbreak of starvation and violence.
The Bradt guide advises that if a hospital visit is required while in Congo, “you may be exposing yourself to even more risk.” Poorly sanitized and supplied, the book recommends flying to Johannesburg. “Under no circumstance should you receive a blood transfusion unless the option is your own demise.”
Sean Rorison, who bravely pieced the Congo guide together over a span of five years offers this gem: “whatever you think you may need in the Congo, bring it. It is not the country to be lean on what you bring.” The usual advice is to bring half the stuff and twice the money. In the Congo? Bring twice the stuff and three times the money. And a lot of Q-tips.
Rorison speaks of the corruption that I have been a witness to since the day I arrived. He suggests “unless an officer is standing in front of your vehicle, with his hands waving, blowing his whistle so hard a vein is going to pop—just drive around them. If stopped later, apologize and say you didn’t see them.”
Chantal’s advice—give them the 500 francs ($1 US). Although their guns are likely from the 1940s and sans ammunition, no sense in testing the theory.
And, under no circumstance should you perform any magic tricks (and I don’t mean a disappearing act). Rorison writes that being able to perform magic implies that you are possessed and communicating with otherworld spirits which is totally not cool with the Congolese. They will cast away their own children into the streets if there is suspicion of sorcery or magic. Luckily, I don’t know any magic tricks—in fact, I never did learn how to make a loon call with a blade of grass or make that really authentic farting sound by cupping your hand in your armpit and pumping your arm up and down. I think I’ll be safe.
I’ve already breached the traveller’s maxim of how to determine what to safely eat: PEEL IT, BOIL IT, COOK IT OR FORGET IT. Curiously, I stopped having diarrhea the day I arrived in the Congo. But, as Rorison scolds, “other fecal-oral diseases come from getting other people’s feces in your mouth.” (But your own is okay?) This happens when cooks don’t wash their hands after a dump, or you touch a contaminated door handle and possibly bank notes (as my friend Andrea warned me in Uganda—Congolese women keep money up their bums to hide it from their husbands). Gives a whole new meaning to safety deposit boxes and automatic withdrawals.
Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth wrote a very graphic article in the guide about how to identify what intestinal creepy-crawly you might have, characterized by if you are passing “blood or slime. If the diarrhea is greasy and bulky and is accompanied by sulphurous (eggy) burps, one likely cause is giardia.” She suggests Coke or orange squash (??) with a three-finger (and wash those three fingers!) pinch of salt to rehydrate. I think Wilson-Howarth should write children’s books, the content would be a genuine crowd-pleaser. What kid wouldn’t love talk about eggy bum burps? Or was she talking about burps from one’s mouth?
I do hope to remain worm-less this time ‘round, but if I do inadvertently find myself eating shit or licking bank notes, I know the remedy (which does not involve hot dog buns taped to my ass or Congolese money up my ass). I have been chimp-licked, French-kissed by a giraffe and shared cooties with four cheetahs in Kenya, so I’m crossing my sanitized fingers.
Please wash your hands after reading this, and remember– absolutely no magic tricks or porcupine burgers in the Congo. Sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.