Leeches, Part Deux: Leech avoidance in the Himalaya

You may wish to read part one of the leech sock saga, if you haven't enjoyed it already

On the trail in Lava, near the Bhutanese border, northern West Bengal

...The leech socks remained tucked into the bottom of my backpack during a two-week stay in Somaliland. Somalia may have certain security issues, but leeches are not one of them. After a pleasant sojourn amongst the acacias of the Horn of Africa, I then flew to Calcutta and took an overnight train to the base of the Himalayas, in the northern extremities of West Bengal.  In Darjeeling, I hired a jeep to drive me east, to the village of Lava, surrounded by leech country. Here, finally, I would have a chance to put the leech socks, and the handiwork of my friend Ashley Singer, to the test. 

One looks a right nerd wandering the muddy cobblestoned streets of Lava in puffy blue gaiters, so I stashed the leech socks in my field bag and headed for the hills. After less than a kilometer climb up into the forest, I paused to catch my breath. There, bobbing and weaving at the tip of my boot, was my first leech. I flicked it off. Now paranoid, I had no desire to sit down anywhere to put on my socks, as this would doubtless allow hordes of leeches direct access to my soft, white flesh. Swaying on one foot, I removed the boot from the other. Standing on the one leg like a stork, I realized I was imminently going to fall over and harm myself. I sat down hastily on a somewhat dry rock and "socked up" in a hurry.

Like a lover, leeches smell your heat, inching their way towards where you stand in a moist and misty forest grove, contemplating the bounty and beauty of nature. Do you think inchworms are cute? There are only two differences I can find between them and their Austro-Asian cousins: arboreal leeches are black, and they like to suck your blood. They move exactly as inchworms do, by alternately moving the front and back halves of their bodies, stretching forward, then bending double as they bring their rear grabbers up to meet their front. This might look cute in green; on a leech, that moment of indecision when the creature lifts up on its hind whatevers, swaying its body this way and that, is particularly revolting. Because you know it is sniffing the air for flesh, your flesh.

If you think the answer to this problem is not to sit on mossy logs, then beware the leech that senses your warmth below and drops silently out of a tree onto your hat like a ninja. Or the posse of leeches that wait on the underleaves of a shrub, grabbing onto your pants as you brush past. I suppose technically they are insects, but I call them devilspawn.

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For the next seven hours or so, I thrashed about in the jungle, searching for rusty-bellied shortwing, blue-fronted robin,  hoary-throated barwing and other birds most people have never heard of.* Between bouts of sweating profusely, I obsessively examined the rich blue denim surface of my socks, I found nary a leech, and can therefore proclaim the leech socks an unqualified success. 

Warning: Graphic images follow. Parents, please control your childrens' internet privileges. I cannot blame any failure of the socks for the disturbing images you are about to see; I suspect the guilty leech came from somewhere up above.

Undoubtedly mashed to death by the binoculars bouncing on my chest, the remnants of the disengorged leech are here clearly visible.

*All seen except the blue-fronted robin. Leeches or no leeches, I suppose I shall have to go back.

Now with New and Improved Extra Melty Deliciousness!

Today's Semiotic Malfunction is from Ooty, in Tamil Nadu.


I love me some cloud forest!

In and around the village of Lava, in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal,  two weeks ago.


Rickshaw Richard

The indignities of the economic disparity between the poor and the rich are many, but the rickshaw is in a class of its own. In the west we routinely hire those less fortunate than ourselves to do the jobs we would never do: "illegal" Mexicans are paid substandard wages to pick our tomatoes while they live eight to a motel room; maids trying to get a toehold in the new world scrub our toilets. Nonetheless, the typical enlightened westerner is revolted by the human-powered rickshaw, a basket on wheels pulled through the streets by a jogging coolie. One person reclines in a padded chair, elevated above the other. His fellow human, reduced to a beast of burden, runs ahead, all the while pulling this wicker chariot by two sturdy steel bars. The truths this relationship exposes are too raw.

There are few places where rickshaw-pulling remains a thriving trade. I did not see a single one in Vietnam or Cambodia in the two months I spent in South-east Asia this winter. Rumor has it they have been banned. In Vietnam, even the far more civilized tricycle taxi, or trishaw, seems endangered. Tourists are happy to ride in those, but in the era of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxi they are no longer a popular form of transportation for the locals, who are in far too much of a hurry. In Calcutta, however, rickshaws are still to be found on almost every block.

Photo: Shiva Sripathi Passenger: Uday Sripathi


I don't just want the muscle mass, I want the uncontrollable anger...

While wandering past Shivam Medicos, Chemist and Druggist of the central market in Darjeeling, India, last week, I noted that muscle-building supplements are given display-case prominence here in the land of the Gurkha, India's most notoriously fierce and loyal fighters. For all I know, these are over the counter steroids, but I rather suspect that like many "dietary supplements" sold in the United States, Mega Tripple Mass Truly Hardcore Supplement is essentially a concoction of vitamins.

The packaging, however, suggests that the box contents are intended to reproduce the effects of steroids, and I'm not just talking about the bulk and definition of your tricepticals. With Mega Tripple Mass you obviously get necklessness and skin-stretching muscle definition, but apparently you will also acquire the beady eyes, testicular shrinkage,* and irrational, semi-rabid fury of the chronic steroid abuser.

The extra "p" is for "Pissed Off"

*Granted, the testicles are not illustrated on the box, but we feel certain they have suffered some shrivelage.


Stalking the wild leeches of Red Hook

Now, I love nature and almost everything in it, perhaps more than most people, but there are a few creatures out there revolting enough to make one question the existence of God. The leech, for instance. Those which swim about in the warm shallows of pebbly freshwater lakes waiting for plump toddlers to go wading are bad enough, but the swimmers scarcely rank on the grotesque-o-meter when compared to the arboreal varieties of Asia and Australia. These prowl through the moist monsoon jungles, inconspicuous and thirsty, until, sensing the body heat of a passing mammal, they leap from the trees like kamikaze caterpillars. Brush up against the wrong leaf and your flesh will promptly be swarming with black, blood-sucking inchworms.

At home in Red Hook during a "comfort and fashion" leech-sock evaluation session in early April.

Short of a full-body Tyvek suit of the sort used to combat radioactive discharge at earthquake-damaged nuclear power plants, there is no entirely leech-proof costume. Precautions are possible, however. At Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam in late January, I met a party of German adventurers in the outdoor canteen, looking rather bashful as they sat drinking beers while wearing four sets of matching purple twill gaiters. These, they explained, were "leech-socks." January in Vietnam is the height of the dry season, widely advertised as leechless. Nonetheless, I had managed to collect two of the gruesome creatures that day, during a ten kilometer hike on a narrow and overgrown forest trail. I stared at the Germans in their aubergine accoutrements for so long that I was finally forced to assure them that I was not making fun of their socks, but was rather jealous. Where, I asked, had they obtained them?

Their outfitter had provided them. As it turns out, there are few places to purchase leech socks. The locals of the leech-infested zones don't seem to use them, and I could not find any for sale in Vietnam, much less in purple. Knowing I was to be in the Indian Himalaya in mid-May, primo leech drinking season, I attempted the mail-order route when I returned from Vietnam. Googling revealed this guy, who claims to sell the world's best. I briefly considered dropping the forty bucks he charges for a pair, but when I realized shipping and handling was not included and that I was looking at a $55 tab for a pair of socks, I temporarily forgot my fear of leeches. More googling. At last I found the sort of post I had been looking for.

The advice was simple. Cut off the legs from a pair of old pants, sew closed the bottoms, and add a drawstring at the top. Apparently leeches cannot penetrate twill or other densely woven cotton, as opposed to regular socks, which they treat like a revolving door, an access-panel to your hard-earned corpuscles. There is no need to use Tyvek, Gore-tex or anything else other than tightly woven cotton.

I'm not much of a quilter, so I consulted my friend Ashley Singer, one of the craftier people you will ever meet. She owns industrial sewing machines and knows Matt Damon's hat size. She spends her days making monsters and goblins for the sets of big Hollywood movies, and blocking custom-made fedoras out of beaver felt. She plays the harp.

"How would you feel about helping me make a pair of leech socks?" I asked. (I suspect both of us knew this really meant: how do feel about making some leech socks for me?) A pair of old lightweight jeans, ten or so minutes with the sewing machine, and presto.

When I asked her if my new leech-socks made me look like a brave and intrepid explorer, Ashley suggested that it might be best if I peered out at the horizon "as if scanning the area for leeches."

All photos courtesy Ashley Singer



The Broadway Hotel, Kolkata

Yellow shutters and soot-crusted screens. In the bar, curtains, the warm beige of dim lightbulbs and eighteen ceiling fans on full; their whirring rush of air dulls the incessant honking outside on Ganesh Chandra Avenue. (Calcuttans simplify life by using the horn in lieu of brakes, clutch and turn signals). The dark wood-wainscotted walls of the Broadway Hotel saloon are made of primeval hardwoods no longer available at any price. Smoking is prohibited these days. A sign announces that it "is an offense,” but the tall walls are a suspicious dingy ochre, as if they had had the chance to collect smoke for many long-passed decades. This hotel does not have a faded grandeur; it has whatever it has always had, unchanged.

The waiters wear wrinkled burgundy Nehru smocks with black embroidered patches above their hearts, reading: Broadway Hotel. Oh, how I wish there remained such a place on Broadway! Squat red leatherette chairs crowd against brown formica tabletops buffed almost white in places; there is little left of the original faux-burl woodgrain pattern. Mildew specked mirrors along one wall double the already ample space, which has soaring ceilings. The soap at the men's handwashing station is dispensed from a swinging tin bottle that pivots on a mount, bolted to the wall above the sinks. If it ain't broke please Lord don't fix it.

When I alight from the elevator cage the children of the manager are laughing and howling in their adolescent Sikh turbans, playing narrow soccer on the polished red cement floor of the fourth floor corridor. Moments after I have dropped my bags on the single bed, the half-deflated miniature basketball is kicked through my still-open door. On purpose, I am certain. It rolls about the room, and within seconds the curious duo are peering through the curtain at the door, sticking their noses right into my room, demanding to know how tall I am. I've been here ten minutes, and I could live here forever.

 The hotel's website (they are not out of date) almost proudly announces that none of the rooms are air-conditioned. The bed, edged away from the wall, better to be under yet another churning ceiling fan, has no top sheet. This saves everyone time and bother. You would be no more likely to require a top sheet than to walk out into Calcutta wearing a sweater.

It is 11am. I stretch out under the helicopter downdraft, close my eyes, and lean into the single pillow. I have flown all night from Africa, with a 2am to 6am layover in Mumbai. I couldn't be more tired, but I am ecstatic to find myself in the most splendid ten dollar hotel in all of Asia.


Somaliland Safari

More on this later, but the people of Somaliland would like you to know that they represent a politically distinct entity unaffiliated with the terrorists, warlords and pirates of Somalia. That this autonomous enclave on the northern side of the Horn of Africa remains unrecognized by any other government annoys them. Security, hospitality, and chai are all comparatively abundant. Travel, even independent travel, is possible here.

At the end of a recent film shoot in and around Hargeisa, I squeezed in an all-too-brief safari with wildlife guide extraordinaire Abdi Jama. Emerging from the Somali bush this morning, we drove directly to the airport, and I'm writing to you now from the wifi convenience of the very comfortable Ole Sereni Hotel in Nairobi. Here's a slideshow:

Saïd, packing the truck in front of the Ambassador Hotel, Hargeisa

Passing the Airport on the way out of the city. Camels occasionally wander onto the runway at inopportune moments.

Random obligatory shot of cute rural toddlers.

Obligatory shot of self in desert.

Big sky country.

Abdi Jama enjoys a Somali chai.

Minuscule mosque in teensy windswept village on the Tuuyo plains.

The end of the day on the Tuuyo plains.

Improvised rain cover.

Camp One.
Termites can be a problem.

But they make beautiful houses. No two alike.

Abdi Jama, stalking the Somali Lark on the Tuuyo plains.

The crew. Chief cook and bottle-washer Saïd, birder and bushman extraordinaire Abdi, and my personal security force, Mustafa.