Matt Smith

Flea in your ear

tales of being ambushed by the animal kingdom

I mentioned here once previously the perils of immersing your treasured bodily parts in a Thai lagoon – one must beware the ‘bling’, a kind of fearsome aquatic leech. In addition, I have tousled with a giant ‘too-keh’, or house gecko, a monstrous green and purple beast that lived in a hole next to the doorhandle of a room in which I once lived – it would cantankerously burst forth every time I grabbed the doorhandle in the dark (and somehow, in the excitement of whatever had kept me up till the wee hours of the morning, and that had necessitated me sneaking in in the dark in the first place, I would always forget this was going to happen), and latch painfully onto my fingers. Nor am I a stranger to monkeys; in numerous locations around Thailand I have, in this order, dealt with hissing, imperious, and completely mannerless banana-grabbing fiends, as well as a close relative of theirs whose special characteristic it was to do the hop, skip and jump off a fence, leap onto a man’s chest, and then engage in a glaring tug of war with the actual rightful owner of the ka-noom that formed the rope in this equation.

Beyond any measure of doubt, however, my worst experience of animal ambush was when I went fishing in this big swamp out in Isaarn. Or rather, it was a wonderful big lake in the hills, one end of which was swampy – this was the lee end of the reservoir, or the uphill part of the dam in the hills where the water gradually became shallow, and as the water and charcoal gatherers had rinsed this area clean of forest vegetation there had become exposed a large number of tiny hillocks, now islands, that in the dry season poked their heads above the water. Separating them was a veritable Everglades, or a labyrinth of knee-deep, weed-choked and, wherever shallowness permitted, grass-infested channels – in this morass of tropical biodiversity there were more blah chon (snakeheads) than I have ever seen, and the idea was you just waded from one islet to another, and dragged your plastic frog down the waterways in between. The blah chon were hiding in mere inches of water off the bank, eagerly awaiting one of the numerous frogs that cohabited their environment to make a move – as soon as something green and wiggling splashed down anywhere near them, they were pretty much straight onto it, and so as you might imagine I became very intent on what I was doing.

Anyway, I’ve eagerly rushed over onto this one little island to chuck my lure down this row where I know I’m guaranteed to elicit a bit of interest straight off the bat – it was actually the remains of a charcoal furnace, and was thus almost perfectly dome-shaped on top, very much like a bald man’s head. It was nice and sandy too, as grass and what-not had been reluctant to grow back there after multiple firings of the clay from which the furnace had been constructed. In fact, it was completely unadorned, with the exception of one lonely, very miserable and rangy-looking twenty-centimetre thorn bush (the sort of thing you come back as in your next life when you are completely unfriendly to people in this one); in order to make a bee-line (quite literally as it turned out), to the most appealing place to plant my feet for my next throw, I headed straight across the middle of the island, just brushing the top of its single lonely floral occupant with the top of my foot as I did so.

The next thing, as I’m fishing away, I hear a noise just like a helicopter – they have a helicopter where I come from back in Australia that searches everybody’s farm for marijuana plants, and I am very familiar with the noise a small one makes as it approaches closely. In fact, to say that I am familiar with the intrusiveness of this sound would be somewhat of an understatement – although from afar they make a kind of thudding, or chopping sound, when they get close all you hear really is a high-pitched whine, like a turbo-powered mosquito (if you could kind of imagine a deranged mosquito, off its head on Benzedrine, trapped next to your eardrum, you’d be getting close to what I’m talking about), and this is very disturbing. This is the first thing I thought about, at any rate - the helicopter back home – as this mechanical whirring sound increased rapidly in volume in my ears; I wasn’t left long to wonder what it was, because the next thing I knew it was like someone had delivered a massive electric shock to the side of my head. And then another to the back of my skull. And then another one to my nose.

But at least I could see now what made this unsettling noise, and why such an unsettling noise was accompanied by such an unsettling level of physical sensation – buzzing around my head was a cloud of enormous wasps, whose island sanctuary I had obviously disturbed as I rustled the lone ‘palm’ in which they had taken refuge, and as they were enraged but in no way incapacitated by my affront they had swarmed out en masse to get revenge. Truth to tell, I’d never been bitten by a wasp before, the uncertainty about what would happen to me indubitably adding at this moment to my panic (I’d been well steeped in cartoons where the hornet’s nest is a frightful thing to encounter when I was a kid, to the point where fleeing and shrieking wildly was an action in which I almost instinctively engaged); fortunately, I had also read many accounts where the person or animal who had become the hornet’s victim escaped them by diving underwater (I had a bit of a story about a bear that did this when I was a kid, it sprang to my mind at that moment), and so instead of racing about madly flailing at my own head, I had the presence of mind to quickly jump into the water.

This was, most surely, what saved my bacon, or what prevented me from ending up with a head like Wile E. Coyote’s on a bad day – that they would have continued to sting me ferociously until I left their ‘perimeter’ (if this would even have been possibly by fleeing where they could see me) was evidenced when, as I surfaced about twenty metres away ( a distance that, despite having been encumbered by having only one arm to swim – the other was clutching my fishing rod – I covered in record time), I came up for air only to find that the wasps had been following my passage underwater, and were waiting to descend on me again (vindictive little bastards). I had to grab a quick gulp of air, and I literally felt wasps landing on my face even as I did so, and then with no more than a couple of fresh bites (lucky me) once more submerse myself beneath the water. I swam as far as my bursting lungs could endure – most thankfully, when I came up this time, the wasps had lost track of where I went, and had retreated to their nest.

I was subjected to twin indignities by this experience. Firstly, when I recovered from the initial shock of the bites and my headlong flight beneath the water, it gradually dawned on me that everyone else had stopped fishing and were, in lieu I’m sure of the puzzled expressions that must have been on their faces just moments previously, now grinning broadly. And yes, I wish someone had got me on video so I could check out the action myself. Secondly, I was left, for the remainder of the day, with ears and a nose that were so outrageously red and swollen that I’m sure, for my companions – especially as they made fun of it constantly – it was difficult to engage me in serious conversation; I was left looking like Alfred E. Neumann (from Mad magazine), with perhaps just a touch of the Elephant Man, as we’d imagine him to be had he spent all day on the beach drinking whiskey.

I guess then, it’s back to keeping your eyes on the ground, isn’t it? Had I been a little more careful which particular fronds I had chosen to rustle – or, and this could perhaps be the motto of my life, had I been just a little less hasty in getting to where I wanted to go and doing what I wanted to do – I might have spotted the wasp metropolis before I blundered into it. Oh, it wasn’t too bad, though, not that I’d want it to happen again – I can now add ‘savage Thai wasp’ to the catalogue of misfortunes that, when it comes to it, you find yourself able to put up with.

Blundered into any beasties? I’d sure like to hear of any experiences that were worse than mine


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