On the banks of the Madre de Dios river in the Peruvian Amazon’s Manu National Park, I learnt firsthand the power that parasites yield.
While conducting field research for a project studying different trees in diverse forest types, we ventured deep into untouched jungle, carving paths with our machetes. Very few humans had been where we were, but lurking in the uncertain forest flew mosquitos infected with one of nature’s more stomach-churning parasites: the botfly.
Females from the most common human botfly species, Dermatobia hominis, lay eggs on blood-sucking arthropods, such as mosquitos or ticks. Eggs are laid in warm-blooded mammals when mosquitoes bite, transferring the fly larvae to its new host. There it will feast on flesh until it is big enough to survive on its own.
I was lucky enough to have my teammates find four botflies in my head, and there they lay for the next two months, using my hair follicles as a surrogate mother until they matured.
Towards the end of the journey with my botflies, we formed an unnatural bond, which now seems like a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. They stirred when I woke up in the morning, and were not particularly fond of tequila or the 21-hour flight home.
But until this point, besides a series of sharp intermittent pains throughout the day, and willing myself not to think about them, I hardly noticed they were there.
The real challenge was yet to come, especially when on one particularly tough day after coming home, half my face swelled up, a reaction to the foreign protein in the form of tiny, teething worms.
I was unrecognisable and was promptly driven to two travel doctors by my white-faced parents, visibly regretting letting me venture to the Amazon rainforest.
Each doctor had the same reaction: “There is nothing in your head, perhaps consider seeing a psychiatrist.”
Convincing people that there are parasitic worms in your head is no easy feat. But eventually we got the help we needed, and one large tub of vaseline, two boxes of cigarettes and eight hours later, my mother had enthusiastically rid me of my parasitic friends.
Staring at the lifeless larvae in a glass jar after the ordeal, and realising they were only a few centimetres long, was a humbling moment. I knew then that I may be bigger and stronger than a botfly, but if something so tiny could wreak that much havoc, I am rather insignificant in the greater natural scheme of things.
If that wasn’t enough, a bout of tick bite fever earlier this year rendered me feverish and unable to move.
But I do not regret my experiences with parasites. And something tells me there will be more.
They have taught me that everything in nature has a place and a purpose, and never to prioritise myself before that integral process.
For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.