Discover more from Here, There, Everywhere
The Spawn of Satan and the Sun
Part One of a trilogical think piece on mosquitos, the sun, and what exposure to or protection from them ultimately asks us to sacrifice and reevaluate
Am I a masochist?
The plunge I took in taking this trip—to Bali (during rainy season, aka high mosquito season, of all times) and then Thailand thereafter, with talks of heading over to Laos, Vietnam...wherever else we’d end up while out here—surely raised some eyebrows and seemed to answer a resounding yes to the above hyperbolic question. My track record with the sun and skeeters, evidenced by the number of bug bites and sunburns I’ve acquired over the last two-decades-and-some-change of my life, didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
If past experiences prove me to be a mosquito magnet, who burns like a tortilla left just a second too long in the toaster oven,1 then you’d think I’d stay as far away from Southeast Asia as humanly possible. Truth be told, that was my intention. Once upon a time, I vowed never to travel out here: a promise I made to myself based on fears wrapped up in health anxieties, not a lack of curiosity for what the Far East had to offer up culturally. But whenever I utter the word never, a funny thing happens: that one little word ultimately seals my fate, sentencing me to experience the very thing I’m hellbent on avoiding. (“Never” is word I’m actively trying to eliminate from my vocabulary, simply because the maxim “never say never” has proved itself true time and time again.) So, here I am: traipsing around Southeast Asia, simply because I said I never would.
In spite of my trepidations, our travel plans became definite, and my cognitive bias of rosy retrospection set in: Memories of the sun’s rays on my skin shone brighter than memories of bugs orbiting me as if I were their sun. As a kid who used to lay in the tub under the warmth of the heat lamp for what felt like hours, I’ll always—consciously or unconsciously—pick a battle with the bugs if it means I get to experience a place that promises the same warmth I enjoyed under that red glow long ago.
So, no, I’m not a masochist. I think I’m just hopelessly optimistic (with a dash of delusion) when it comes to envisioning myself in the tropics. Whether or not I’ll be thriving or surviving in a place where the sun shines bright and the bugs bite is largely colored by the fact that—when it’s all said and done, and my anxieties subside—my love of the sun always proves stronger than my fear of malaria. Moreover, I haven’t given up on the fact that there are outliers out there for everything. I’ll keep traveling and going through the trial and error of it all, in the hopes that, one day, I’ll be able to bask in the glow of paradise without being harangued by the skeeters.
So, you see, I had to venture out here, to a new tropical destination, to see if a) the bugs and sun are really a package deal, and b) if I truly am the mosquito magnet I claim to be. Armed with a knowledge that all experiments have controllable and uncontrollable variables, I packed my controls, my arsenal of sunscreen and bug spray, and have tried to embrace the uncontrollable, the weather and the skeeters.
Alas: My anti-mosquito ammunition wasn’t enough. Like a bumblebee has the knowhow of locating a lone flower in the concrete jungle, the mosquitos, too, have a knack of finding me in the least likely of places. Even on an enclosed train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the one mosquito aboard found me out and choo-choo-chewed me to death.
I’ve tried everything to deter these suckers from imbibing the sweet nectar that is my blood: picaridin (which actually smells quite nice), the burning coils, the zapping and smelly plug-in thing, citronella candles, citronella spray, essential oils that naturally deter insects, bracelets laced with bug repellant oil, not wearing deodorant, wearing unscented deodorant, using minimal beauty products and creams that smell, and, of course, DEET. Some people swear by the high-test stuff; however, when left with the choice of using that or nothing, the dangers of both DEET—being an endocrine disruptor2 and a carcinogen—and contracting a mosquito-borne illness fly across the sky of my mind like two competing aerial health advisories. (You really can’t win.) Even if I say “fuck it” and just use DEET, it doesn't seem to dampen the Bite Me Bat Signal I emit.
With the sun, you see, I can hide and evade, and it will not seek me. It, too, must sleep when the moon comes out at night. It must nap when the tropical rain clouds swoop in. The sun, unlike mosquitos, also provides light and, thus, life. It is, indeed, necessary. Mosquitos aren’t necessary—they can’t be! What do they do, aside from evoke misery and suffering? What purpose could these bloodsuckers serve?
Perhaps, after Eve’s misstep with the serpent, God made mosquitos to remind us that what we’re living in now is, indeed, Eden no more. (Nothing like mosquitos to make us remember our original sin, ey?) Or, perhaps they’re the spawn of Satan himself. They are pure evil, with no discernible purpose other than to pester and use us. I know, I know—that’s just my human mind demeaning them. In truth, they are just neutral, and they do do something in the cog of the ecosystem, providing some type of symbiosis for some organism or microorganism.
Practically, they’re a reliable food source for geckos, birds, bats, other large bugs. They multiply quickly; all they need is a stagnant water source to lay their eggs, and they’re good to go. (Talk about low maintenance reproduction.) Even though we perceive mosquitos as low on the food chain from our place at the top, we are not as high on and removed from this larger macro- and microscopic food chain as we like to think we are. When you think about all the microbes that inhabit our various microbiomes,3 and how they use us and we use them, we can start to see ourselves as less human, more like a microbial hostel or mega-bus.
From this perspective, we, too, can re-see the mosquito—and other bloodsucking vectors, such as ticks—as less a pest and more like helicopter taxi cab drivers, who provide free rides for various microbes. Oftentimes, these vectors are giving rides to microbes that can cause us the most problems, the microbes that take more than they give (think parasites, spirochetes—pathogens4). Okay, so mosquitos may be less like amiable taxi drivers and more like pathogenic henchmen, but can you blame them? Even opportunistic microbes have lives to live, hosts to hijack, and mosquitos provide a service for them. So, how do mosquitos do it? How do they transmit these pathogens to us?
Picture someone taking sips of different juices out of different cups with the same straw every time, all while trying to hold all the different juices in their mouth without swallowing. A sip of pineapple juice, a sip of apple juice, a sip of orange juice. Chances are, when they go in for that next sip, say, of grape juice, a little pineapple-apple-orange mixture will wind up in the grape juice glass. You: You are the grape juice glass when you get bit by the mosquito, and all those other juices are the mixed microbe-containing blood that the mosquito’s picked up from biting, say, Joe down the street (the pineapple juice), the neighbor’s dog (the apple juice), and the deer (the orange juice) before you (the grape juice).
Having just a layperson’s working knowledge of how mosquito-borne diseases are transmitted makes me wary of exposing myself, in the event my immune system cannot combat whatever new guy is introduced to my system. (After all, I did have Lyme, a vector-transmitted disease, and that was no fun, by any means. I have no desire to relive that battle and add to my microbial load.) Yet, this knowledge also prompts me to realistically assess risk factors, take precautions, and seek out preventative measures. Education leads me to necessary products, supplements, and medicines (if necessary) to feel like I have a fighting chance when I electively go into a mosquito-infested area. Yet, knowledge and prevention alone don’t lower my risk factor to zero. My knowledge is not a preventative forcefield. Mosquitos can still land on my skin as light as a feather, take a lil’ sip of my blood (potentially drop off a lil’ disease), and fly off, all before I’m even cognizant of their presence and can muster a slap. Enter cognitive dissonance. I let it wash over me and drown the fears that conjure up in the worst-case scenario I can imagine so I can focus on all paradise can offer, not just the potential nightmare it can bring to life.
As Walt Whitman states in Stanza 51 of “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).”5 Human contradiction, cognitive dissonance—it’s what allows us to know, to act, and to be, and those things don’t always align. They can’t. If they did, we'd never take risks. I need to allow myself to act in a way that contradicts my knowledge in order to live, to have experiences, to learn. Although I know the risk factors and am scared of the hell mosquitos can bring, I can't live in fear. I can only live prepared to face the fear, armed with preventative measures, but focused more so on the paradise that can be, that I can create in my mind, that can shape my reality.
When it comes to announcing what the best mosquito prevention is (if, in fact, there is one), the jury is still out. After reading a somewhat old article published by Smithsonian Magazine, I reacquainted myself with some facts and theories—and also corrected myself on some points I had misremembered—related to mosquitos and one's tendency to get bit. You can read it for yourself, but let's just say it's a good thing I don’t have Type O blood, am not that much of a beer drinker, and am not pregnant—although, I do wear a lot of black clothing and breathe; so, I’m still a bitable candidate no matter how hard I try not to be.6 (As Charlie Brown would say, "Rats!") So, if I don't want to forgo visiting regions where mosquitos reside, I guess I'll have to live with being a walking snack and put my faith in fans, fans, lots of fans, some type of spray, long pants, crossed fingers, and lots of gin and tonics.7
The true preventative measure, though, lies in my privilege of electively choosing to travel to a place like Bali or Thailand. I don’t have to deal with the skeeters day in and day out. And, because of this, my risk factor of contracting a mosquito-borne disease automatically decreases. Plus, I can afford preventative measures, which I can take with me when I travel; and when traveling, I can choose to stay in regions (that are, most often, more affluent) that take measures to lessen mosquitos, and thus mosquito-transmitted diseases, in order to invite tourism. Living in the States, a place that isn’t overrun by malaria, Zika, or other mosquito-borne disease, it’s easy to forget and/or downplay the risk mosquitos carry. Growing up in a place that has access to the medical and financial resources needed to treat mosquito-borne illnesses (the ones that are treatable) makes me more confident that, should something happen, I’d likely come out the other side okay. So, I have a baseline knowledge of how these diseases are transmitted; the financial wellbeing of being able to afford treatment, if need be; and I was able to get health insurance before I traveled. Thanks to where I’ve been born and to whom, I’ve been given a seat higher up in a multi-dimensional hierarchy that keeps some distance between me and the mosquito. Literally, mosquitos can only fly so high (most don’t fly above 25 feet8) and socio-economically this pans out as well: Mosquitos and the diseases they carry affect people in lower social-economic classes, in developing countries, more than they affect those who live in developed, affluent countries, higher up on the socio-economic ladder.
While in Bali, toward the end of our stay, our Airbnb host asked us if we wanted someone to come fog our villa to ward off the mosquitos. (Duh! Absolutely! Yes!) If we were staying in a more remote area of the island, there’s a high chance that we wouldn’t have had access this option, and our time with the mosquitos would have been a lot more trying. After the fogging, I had less bites for one, two, three days…I had hope! But then I emerged with my ankles absolutely chewed up, looking like I was wearing a red dotted anklet.
This method of prevention didn’t eliminate the problem completely, but it did provide some relief, even if for just a short amount of time. Same can be said for all the preventative methods we purchased, used, and sought out. Our comfort-level—as visiting Westerners—was made a priority, and we were staying in an area of Bali that made this comfort a priority. So, you see, there are a whole host of factors that allowed me to take the risk, to go to a place with a higher risk factor, because, in truth, the risk was not as high: It was skewed by the prevention I could find and afford. The risk will always be less for those who can afford for it to be. But, again, that doesn’t lower the risk to zero. Mosquitos are a great equalizer. They don’t care who you are or what arsenal of protection you can afford against them. Eventually, one way or another—on an island, in a marsh, on a train, in the city, or in the twilight of the evening—they will find you and bite you. To them, we are all equally viable blood banks.
Paradise is an illusion, a feeling that lives in our minds and becomes almost tangible when the sun caresses our skin, but it doesn’t last, in part, because it doesn’t actually exist. Nothing is purely paradise—and not being able to have sun without mosquitos or biting ants (as I, unfortunately, became acquainted) is proof of this. The tropics have been and always will be a mixed bag. They’re proof that some of the most beautiful places have uncomfortable realities lurking among the picturesque views and, even, around and within five-star resorts. (Hello, White Lotus!) The first couple days in Bali reconfirmed this very real reality for me, as I dealt with both the enjoyment and enemies of “paradise”.
I wanted to say “I told you so” to my past-self. The anti-itch cream I brought with me got a lot of use but didn't offer much relief. (Benadryl, I have a lil’ bone to pick with you!) The bug spray was a 50/50 success. At one point, when I was composing this post, the side of my face looked like I had hormonal acne when, in fact, it was just a cluster of mosquito bites I got when I was lying in bed all day asking the Grim Reaper to visit me when I had Bali Belly. But what good would scolding my past self do? What comforted me, finally, was the fact that Brooks, who is rarely ever on the skeeter’s radar at home, was also getting bugged and bit. (Finally: I wasn’t the solo snack!) After almost two months of cohabitating with the mosquitos, the score is as follows:
Margaret (& Brooks): 0
Mosquitos: *points so high I can’t even count them*
In the bed, by the pool, on the toilet, and when dining al fresco, Brooks and I continue to swat, clap, and slap. The mosquitos have zero chill, and nor do I when it comes to putting up with their constant pestering. Try as I might to understand them from a different perspective, I’ll never be like Agent Pleakley from Lilo and Stitch, whose obsession, admiration, and romanticization of the mosquito initially knew no bounds—that is, before he came to Earth and actually experienced what them liking him meant.9 Ultimately, Pleakley comes to learn what we all know, where I started this thought exercise, and where I'm landing once again: Mosquitos are chaotic evil. There's no romanticizing them or trying to see them in a positive light based on the reality that they'll never be in symbiosis with us in a way we can appreciate, desire, or benefit from. (Maybe that's a bit selfish, but all life is self-serving to a degree.)
That said, I have come to appreciate how large the mosquitos are out here. They’re large enough for us to see their black—sometimes black and white-striped or polka-dotted—bodies and slap ‘em with precision! I’ve also come to admire their no quit attitude. Ironically, it seems the mosquito and I are a lot alike. Just like the mosquito will forever seek me out, I will forever follow the sunlight as if it were the scent of blood.
Seeking out the sun comes with its own set of risk factors, too. The sun is not the cartoon sun with cool guy sunglasses. It may be a healer and a provider, but it can also spoil food and burn your skin: a true double-edged sword. And to what extent the sun touches us all—literally and figuratively—in this dichotomous way is darker than we realize.
Questions or comments after reading? Hit me up in the comments.
Like what you read? Throw this newsletter a like and/or share this post with your friends!
Thanks for reading! A great way to support my work, aside from the above, is to subscribe!
A total tangent, but I learned the hard way in college not to put tortillas in the toaster over. They get hot and puff up way too quick, and there is smoke and fire, and soon you find yourself yanking the plug out of the wall and throwing the toaster out the door into your apartment parking lot in the rain. Don’t make the mistake I did. If you actually read your toaster oven manual, it tells you, point blank, not to put tortillas in the toaster oven for this exact reason. Moral of the story: Read your user manual.
If you don’t know what endocrine disruptors are, please educate yourself. (Click here for a quickie rundown from the Environmental Working Group.) Our hormones are the messengers of our bodies. We don’t want to f-up their communication by inadvertently interrupting them or trying to mimic them.
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the word microbiome or the phrase “gut microbiome”, but did you know that we have an oral microbiome and (for those with one) a vaginal microbiome, too? The body is full of microbiomes, and these microbiomes are made up of resident microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that are in community with one another and help us. No microbe is “good” or “bad”, per say, but there are optimal levels of each that can be more or less supportive. When levels of beneficial microbes get too low, opportunistic microbes can take over and cause symptoms that we associate with disease or imbalance. You know the saying “the dose makes the poison”? Same goes with microbes and whether or not they’ll present as beneficial or opportunistic.
Pathogens aren’t specific microbes. “Pathogen” is an umbrella term for organisms that cause disease in a host.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself (1892 Version) by Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version.
From the Poetry Foundation website:
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" from Leaves of Grass (: Norton, 1973)
Sourced by Poetry Foundation from: Leaves of Grass (final "Death-Bed" edition, 1891-2) (David McKay, 1892)
Ideas alluded to can be found in the following publication:
Stromberg, Joseph. “Why Do Mosquitoes Bite Some People More than Others?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Magazine, 12 July 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-do-mosquitoes-bite-some-people-more-than-others-10255934/.
Ever wonder what makes tonic biter? It’s the quinine, a substance sometimes used to treat malaria.
Staff, Author. EarthEclipse's Editorial. “How High, Far and Fast Can Mosquitoes Fly? (Answered).” Earth Eclipse, 17 Aug. 2022, https://eartheclipse.com/animals/insects/how-high-far-fast-can-mosquitoes-fly.html.