I, Parasite Vessel: The Caterpillar, a Botfly, and the Foolish Aloofness of One Man

The curl-crested aracari is one of many animals displaying hypnotic colors in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.
The curl-crested aracari is one of many animals displaying hypnotic colors in the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru. | Photo: ggallice/Flickr/Creative Commons License   

I like to crouch and look. Our fascinating world bears close examination. And so the other day I was crouched in a park near my Ventura home, examining a caterpillar making its way to wherever it is caterpillars go. I don't know what kind of caterpillar it was. It was dull green. Big and fuzzy. I just liked the way it moved, with quiet determination and a bunch-and-stretch sense of style. It was headed wherever it was headed, a survivor without distraction.

I concluded my examination of the caterpillar and then I rose respectfully to my feet. Normally I would have gone off on my self-important way, dismissing the caterpillar to the forgettable mass of less important creatures. I am so big, and my kind has created entire civilizations, the Internet, and pay-per-view television. The caterpillar, so small, was striving mightily to merely inch its way across the park. We trod the same patch of grass, but its world and mine were distinct.

So I once thought, but these days my hubris is no more.

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We are not at all disconnected from the smallest things, and I was recently reminded of this in graphic, and somewhat nauseating, fashion. This reminder began far from Ventura County, because sometimes lessons must take your further afield. My lesson unfolded in the Amazonian rainforest in the southeastern corner of Peru, a protected area known as Tambopata National Reserve. Few places showcase the astonishing breadth and width of Nature like the Amazonian rainforest: otherworldly creatures, astonishing adaptations and terrible Darwinian battles for survival, up, in and under a riotous canopy that comprises just two percent of the earth's surface, yet holds 50 percent its species. The Amazonian rainforest contains more than 500 species of fig trees alone. It's ridiculous. If you have never been to the rainforest, you should put this column down and go.

Tambopata National Reserve is an eye-popping place -- with monkeys flying among trees like mobile fruit, and Jackson Pollock birds, and neon blue butterflies and jungle that breaths life because, well, it is life. But beneath the hypnotic colors and the thundercloud-stacked skies flicked with lightning, a savage war of survival is waged. Birds that release a horrific smell to repel predators; strangler figs that crush the life from their host tree; innocuous ants, a half size bigger than your average ant, possessed of the same poison as a King Cobra (fortunately in a much smaller dosage, but you still don't want to get bitten). Suffice to say in the rainforest you do not crouch too close.

Walking along a trail one morning, my guide Enzo Mariche Ancasi did crouch, although he didn't touch.

Given Enzo's crouch, I assumed it was safe to do the same.

The two of us looked down on a shiny black beetle.

"The crying beetle," said Enzo. "You hear that?"

I listened closely. The sound was like feeble crying from some distant corner.

"Parasites," said Enzo. "Parasites are inside the beetle, drinking its blood. They drink more and more, and then more and more, and then the beetle finally dies. Slow motion killing. The shell of the beetle is so hard it defends against the birds. But not the parasites."

Enzo rose from his crouch, slowly shaking his head.

"Imagine the beetle," he said.

I looked sadly a last time at the suffering beetle, its lot so far removed from mine. A parasite vessel, it would cry through the forest until it cried no more. Enzo and I were returning to our spiffy lodge, where hot rolls and marmalade awaited.

I returned home to Ventura with the Amazon's Darwinian lessons reverberating in my head. But in the brilliant manner of subtle tutelage that is Nature's wont, there was something more up there in my head. Initially I experienced a swelling on the back of my head. This was followed by some discomfort; actually, at times, a stinging pain that saw me jump about and swat at my head like a madman. In the quiet of my own home, I might have cried out faintly.

When I finally went to see our family doctor he examined the swollen lump and prescribed antibiotics for what he took to be an infection. If the swelling didn't go away in a week, he said, I should come back.

It didn't. I came back. This time our doctor put me on the table, applied a local anesthesia and scratched away at the lump. I looked down at the floor, trying to ignore the scraping being performed on my head.

"Hmmmmm," our doctor said, in the manner that medical professionals do when things are not going quite as planned. "Hmmmmmmmmmmm."

He fell quiet. Numbly I felt him working away.

"Well, this is interesting," he said, and then, "Mother of God!"

Okay, I made the last part up. But he was surprised when he gently extricated a botfly larvae.

Given entomology is not our family physician's specialty he sent the tiny form out for definitive analysis. He called me the next day, his manner perky.

"It was a botfly larvae," he said. "When the female bites you, it deposits eggs inside you. It mostly happens to animals, but there is a human version." He told me he had done a little research, including watching some YouTube videos of other human botfly hosts trying to remove the parasite on their own (Later I watched a few of them too. They produced a hypnotic, albeit queasy, fascination).

Our doctor paused on the other end of the line.

"Anything you're concerned about?" he asked.

I thought of the crying beetle.

"No," I said.

"Well if you develop another one, we'll just take it out."

Now I did have concerns, but he had already hung up.

I did not develop another one. But I did develop a firmer understanding of my place in this world in which we are firmly entrenched.

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