By David Myles Robinson
I recently read (listened to) The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, which I consider to be one of the most important, entertaining, humorous, poignant, and enlightening novels I’ve read in years. It is a hard look into the psyche of black people in America, dressed up in some outrageous satire and wit. It should be mandated reading for all white people in America, but I imagine it will be like so many insightful novels, movies, television shows, and well-researched news stories—which is that The Sellout’s readers will probably be the proverbial choir.
As I told my black friend who prompted me to read the book, white people should read it and learn from it and then mostly shut the fuck up about it in terms of trying to articulate their new-found understanding of how our black neighbors view and react to the world around them. But to me, there is a takeaway we can all talk about, which is that the premise of The Sellout can be applied to all races, ethnic groups, and religions, in America.
Just as the black narrator sees the world through the lens of his blackness, so do Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and whites. Latinos know all too well how they have been and are stereotyped, even before Trump call Mexicans rapists and even before he called for a wall along the only border we share with people of color. A Latino friend of mine in Taos, NM, whose family is multi-generational American, told me that since Trump became President he actually felt uneasy and even somewhat fearful driving across Arizona, where he saw confederate flags for sale at the side of a highway he’d driven innumerable times before. A rational fear? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The fact is that this was the lens through which my Latino friend was viewing his experience.
How many times have I heard white people try to claim that there was no more racism in America before Obama made the country so divisive, as if it was a racial irrelevancy that Trump and so many others maintained that Obama was not even an American? How many times have I heard white people maintain that race doesn’t matter if one simply works hard to achieve, as if there are no racial impediments to achievement?
I don’t expect myself to be able to view the world through the eyes of people who are constantly aware of how they are being viewed. The first black woman State Attorney for the State of Florida was recently pulled over by a policeman who, when pressed as to why he pulled her over, struggled to find a reasonable explanation. How can I or any other white person pretend to understand that kind of event and the countless other, more subtle reminders of one’s race?
What must it be like to be a Muslim-American now, particularly while traveling? Is fair for those looking at them through the lens of their righteous whiteness to shrug and argue that their Imams and other Muslim leaders must do more to stamp out the ideology of the extremists? As if we white people in America should do more to stop the white nationalist extremists/terrorists who have actually killed more Americans in America than Muslims? But that’s not what many white people see through their particular lens.
Obviously there is some generalization here, which in itself may be prejudiced or racist or even what some call reverse racism. Fuck that. The point I’m trying to make is that for whatever reason, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to truly see and understand the world through the eyes of people whose day-to-day, if not minute by minute, experiences are framed by who they are and what they look like.
Perhaps someday the color of our skin, or our ethnicity, or our religion will all be irrelevant. I am confident that will not happen in my lifetime. For now, I think all we can really strive for is a realistic level of understanding and empathy.
And in the meantime, read The Sellout. Perhaps it will modify the view through your particular lens.
Summer in Taos, NM is spectacular. At 7,000 feet it’s rarely too hot, although if the temperature does start creeping into the 90’s, relief is a matter of minutes away up the mountain to the ski valley. This year the Rio Grande is running high and strong, good news for the rafters and for those of us who like to picnic by the river. July is monsoon season and unless you’re golfing or hiking, it’s great fun to watch the storm clouds build, the thunder and lightning follow, and then a huge, refreshing, cleansing, release of rain. The storms are usually strong and short-lived, and even if we’re temporarily inconvenienced by the drenching, it’s rare to hear someone complain.
The evenings are sublime – a good time to sit outside and sip a pre-dinner cocktail, listen to some music, and stare out at the endless vistas. As the evening turns into night and the stars begin to blanket the sky, it is like a closing argument as to why we live in one of the many beautiful places our country has to offer.
I’ve lived most of my life in Hawaii and could not have dreamed of a better place to live and work. Marcia and I would come home from our respective offices and we’d be in a paradise resort. If we needed to clear the legal-world cobwebs from our heads, we’d jump in our 16’ Bayliner speed boat, cocktails in hand, and motor out to Moanalua Bay. If it was the right season and if we were lucky, we’d watch humpback whales breathe and breach around us. They would sometimes be accompanied by a pod of dolphins.
When we first bought our house in Taos, it never occurred to us that we would someday live here full time. We couldn’t conceive of leaving Hawaii. But once we were both retired, as the traffic and congestion in Honolulu became ever more irritating, and as forty years of Hawaii sun took its toll on my skin, we decided to try being mainlanders again. We don’t regret a minute of it.
Hawaii will always be a part of us. It’s wonderful to go back to Honolulu to see friends and family and gawk at all the new multi-million dollar high rise condominiums going up in the Ala Moana and Kakaako areas. We’ve traded one paradise for another and don’t regret a minute of it.
We’ve both worked hard to be in a position to choose where we want to live and to live well. But we are also the first to acknowledge that we’ve also been lucky and we won’t ever take that for granted.
By David Myles Robinson
One of my favorite movie lines of all time was spoken by Walter Brennan’s character Eddie in To Have and Have Not: “Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?”
I can’t say exactly why that line resonated with me, especially since I’m not one of those guys who make a practice of remembering movie lines. Perhaps it was the wonderful characterizations of Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Or perhaps it was the various meanings one could read into the line. One of those meanings might be this: just when you think everything is fine and you see no danger ahead, you might step on an innocuous-looking dead bee and still get stung.
That’s what happened during our August 2000 private safari to Tanzania. There were just the four of us—myself and Marcia, along with Ricky and Rich, both of whom we had met in Botswana many years earlier. We had designed a fairly high-end safari, staying in lodges and permanent camps and, whenever possible, flying from camp to camp. It was a far cry from the Botswana safari, when we stayed in two-person Eureka tents and carried our own sleeping bags.
One of our first lodges was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a luxury hotel built on the rim of the huge crater, home to a vast array of wildlife. In fact, it is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled caldera. It’s two thousand feet deep and covers an area of about one hundred square miles.
Marcia and I had been lucky enough on a prior safari to be among the last tourists allowed to camp out on the crater floor. Now even the native Maasai people, who are allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, must exit the reserve at the end of each day. Because of the popularity of the site, due mainly to the incredible concentration of animals, there are a number of hotels and tented camps on the rim of the crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is routinely listed among the top hotels in the world. The large, lavishly appointed rooms overlook the crater. Even our toilet had a view. We had a personal butler who made sure our fireplace was roaring when we returned from the chilly drive up from the floor of the crater each evening, and, of course, that our bar was stocked with our preferred beverage. Dinner was served to the four of us in an elaborately decorated dining room. The lodge is absurdly expensive, but if you have the money to splurge, it is well worth it.
So everything was going well on our private safari. From the crater we went to a luxurious permanent tented camp on the bank of the Grumeti River. Our large tent had a king-sized bed, writing desk, carpet, and an en suite bathroom. The camp featured a small pool in which the four of us relaxed, cocktails in hand, at the end of a hot and dusty morning game drive. The bar and dining area was quite literally on the bank of the river.
Unfortunately, the Serengeti was experiencing a terrible drought that year, and the Grumeti River was more of a mudhole than a river. Lethargic hippos wallowed in the mud. Cautious Thomson gazelles and impalas searched the river for water to drink, more at risk than usual from lions and cheetahs due to the reduced water access.
There were so many animals in close proximity to the camp that it was not uncommon to lie in bed and hear lions and elephants and the danger calls of monkeys.
But on our second night at Grumeti, the sounds were closer and different. We couldn’t figure out what it was—until the next morning when we walked out of our tent. The pool, which was the distance of two tents from us, had turned from the inviting blue we’d enjoyed the day before to brown. The camp crew was abuzz. A hippo, apparently fed up with the slushy mud of the river, had somehow managed to climb up to the pool and immerse itself therein. It must have sat there in total contentment for hours during the night. Unfortunately for us, the pool had to be closed for the remainder of our stay—not just for the crew to clean out the mud and hippo shit, but because it was too dangerous to have such an inviting attraction for the hippos so close to our living quarters.
I don’t know if the drought that year had anything to do with the strong resurgence of the tsetse flies, but for the first time in all of our visits to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, we became targets of these huge, biting flies with long proboscises. This is when things began to go bung—when we got bit by the proverbial dead bee.
All of us suffered bites from the tsetses, which are capable of biting right through clothing. Though all our bites hurt, only Marcia and Ricky suffered serious reactions. Marcia’s reactions were by far the worst. A bite on the top of her hand caused the hand to swell up to the size of a baseball. She had huge lumps on her neck, arms, and back. Ricky’s were about half the size of Marcia’s. And they hurt . . . bad.
Despite the bites, we still went on the morning and evening game drives, and the viewing was nothing short of amazing. The prides of lions with small cubs were huge, and we spent hours just watching and photographing their antics. But we were all in varying and increasing degrees of pain. It broke my heart to see Marcia in such agony, but other than give her the pain pills I always carry on safari, there was nothing we could do.
On top of everything else, I developed a head cold.
From Grumeti we went to Klein’s Camp, also in the Serengeti. Thankfully, Klein’s was built on an elevated piece of land, and a hundred or so feet of elevation made all the difference in the presence of the tsetses. Klein’s Camp became our temporary respite from the onslaught of the flying beasts. Unhappily, as soon as we descended from our oasis, the biting began anew.
It was a small stroke of luck that the wife of the camp manager was also susceptible to the tsetse bite, and she, too, had the severe reactions suffered by Marcia. So she had a much stronger antihistamine than we had. It helped, but I gave serious thought to canceling the rest of the trip. That would have meant giving up our dream of seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall lived while doing her research. Marcia said it would take much more than some bites to give that up. Little did she know how close we would come to doing just that.
One of the wonders of the African bush, and why we keep going back despite having experienced our fair share of hardship, is the element of daily surprise. Each day brings something new and amazing, so that even our experienced guides are often shocked into wonderment.
During one of our many game drives in the Serengeti from Klein’s Camp, we came across a leopard in a leafless tree, ridiculously close to the dirt track we were following. The leopard was staring intently toward the ground. At first we couldn’t see anything on the ground. The end-of-summer brown grass was knee-high. Then the leopard leapt from the tree, and within seconds it came up with a bushbuck, a small, brown-colored antelope which, when fully grown, stands about three feet tall at its shoulder. The leopard held the bushbuck, which looked very young, in its mouth for a few seconds and then, instead of making the kill and carrying it up the tree, it set the bushbuck down. The bushbuck was still very much alive, but was clearly in shock, as it didn’t try to run away.
We sat in amazement, snapping photos like crazy, as the leopard proceeded to play with the bushbuck, just as a housecat would play with a captured mouse. This went on for several minutes, and even our guide had retrieved his trusty old Canon and was snapping away between exclamations.
Eventually we all convinced ourselves that the leopard must not have been hungry and had decided to let the bushbuck live. The leopard even climbed back up to its perch in the tree, leaving the healthy bushbuck alone on the ground.
But this is Africa, and leopards are leopards. As soon as the bushbuck decided it might be safe to sneak away, and began to run, the leopard was out of the tree and onto the bushbuck in the blink of an eye. This time he made the kill and climbed up to his perch, bushbuck in mouth.
On that same day, we came across a small family of cheetahs chowing down on a fresh kill. The odd thing was that it was almost midday, and we’d been on our way back to camp. There’s a reason why game drives take place in the very early morning and late afternoon: the animals are generally only active during those times. They sleep and rest in whatever shade they can find during the intense heat of the day.
Yet these cheetahs were out in the open, sharing the inadequate shade of one lone, scrawny acacia tree while they enjoyed the delights of a freshly killed gazelle. Our guide explained that he’d only recently begun to notice this phenomenon. The prevailing theory was that the Serengeti tourist trade had grown to the point where the increased numbers of safari vehicles in certain areas were interfering with the hunting habits of some species. It was only during the harsh midday heat, when the tourists were back at their camps enjoying their own shade and lunch, that the cats could hunt and feast in relative solitude. At least, that was our guide’s theory.
With the bites, and the resulting pain, getting worse and worse, we jumped at the chance to take our first African balloon ride. For years we’d rejected the notion of missing out on a game drive in favor of a balloon ride. But this seemed like the perfect occasion, so we arranged for an early morning flight.
The predawn hours of the African bush are often extremely cold. It’s hard to fathom that within a short time, the heat will drive humans and animals alike to seek shelter. It was a particularly clear and cold morning when we arrived at the balloon staging area. The large wicker basket, which could hold sixteen people, lay on its side while the huge, partially inflated red, blue, and yellow balloon hung limply nearby. At that moment it looked quite inadequate for the task ahead.
To take off, we were instructed to climb into the basket while it lay on its side. It was awkward as we climbed into our little two-person wicker squares, where we lay as if in a cupboard. Soon enough our pilot began to inflate the balloon, and the basket was slowly righted. Then we were flying.
The gush of the flame into the balloon is loud, but usually happened in short bursts. It was the intensity of the silence after the bursts of flame that first struck me. To fly in absolute silence is in itself amazing, but to fly in silence over the vast Serengeti plains was in a class of experience all its own. We watched the ubiquitous acacia trees sweep by. We watched herds of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests take off running, often in confused and opposite directions, as they sensed our low-flying pass above them. We watched the graceful lope of a running herd of giraffes. It was beautiful, thrilling, and chin-quivering.
Then we experienced yet another one of the brilliant African bush surprises. In the silence of the coasting balloon, we watched as a lone hyena took down a fleeing Thomson gazelle, the scene acted out in silence below us. It was part of the beautiful, deadly, brutal ballet of Africa.
The balloon pilot landed us far from where we had taken off, but precisely where a bountiful brunch, complete with champagne, had been set up for us under an expansive acacia tree.
From the Serengeti we were scheduled to fly in a small chartered plane to Arusha, where we would stay overnight at the Mountain Lodge. We would fly out the next morning on Air Tanzania to Mwanza, and then on to Kigoma, where we would take a boat down the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe Stream National Park.
I thought my head cold was gone, but apparently there was some remaining congestion. Moments after taking off from the dirt airstrip at Klein’s Camp, my ears closed off. It felt as if my head was going to explode. The pain was excruciating. It was frightening, but all I could do for the duration of the flight was hold my head in my hands and moan and pray that my head really wasn’t going to explode. Although landing was a relief, my ears did not unclog. I could hear almost nothing.
We had our driver stop at the Air Tanzania office on the way to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next day’s flights. Unfortunately, we learned that Air Tanzania had stopped flying from Mwanza to Kigoma. Kigoma was where we needed to be in order to get to Gombe. I left Marcia, Rich, and Ricky in the office and wandered back out to the van. I couldn’t hear, and my head hurt too much to participate.
After well over an hour of finagling, the plan was to spend an extra night in Arusha and then fly Air Tanzania to Mwanza, where we would pick up a charter flight to Kigoma. I was not displeased to learn I wouldn’t have to get on another airplane for two days. I was sure my head would be clear by then.
The Mountain Lodge in Arusha was a pleasant enough place, although on our most recent trip to Arusha, in 2014, our guide told us her company had stopped using the lodge because it had become too dangerous—as a result of people, not animals. It was basically a small village of round, one-room boma-like huts with thatched roofs and ivy-covered walls. The gardens were pleasant and luxuriant. By the time we went to bed that night, my ears still hadn’t cleared.
We didn’t do much of anything the next day except wander around town on our own. Again, that’s something we would be discouraged from doing today. Bill Clinton was scheduled to visit Arusha the next week, so welcoming banners were being hoisted onto light poles, and city workers scurried around sweeping the dirt on the dirt streets.
By the time we went to bed that next night, my ears had still not cleared. We each had our own bed. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear Marcia moaning. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was freezing cold and had a headache. Her stomach hurt a little bit. I gave her my blanket and a dose of Cipro, an antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. When she said she was still freezing cold (though it was not cold out), I summoned Ricky from his room. Ricky is an MD. Unfortunately, he’s an ophthalmologist and almost as old as we are, which means the non-eye-related medical stuff he learned in med school has mostly receded into the nooks and crannies of his mind.
Our rooms were far away from the hotel reception area, so Ricky went to track down a security guard to ask him to bring more blankets. We feared Marcia had contracted malaria despite taking antimalarial pills. We gave her some aspirin and stacked the blankets on top of her until she finally stopped shaking. Eventually she dozed off. Ricky went back to his room. I lay on my bed, my ears still plugged, worried sick about Marcia and about what would happen to me when I took off on another flight. I wondered if there was any chance at all that Marcia would wake up in the morning and feel well enough to travel to Gombe.
She did. She wasn’t 100 percent, mostly because she was tired and drained, but she felt good enough to travel. She wasn’t going to miss seeing the chimps for anything. The best guess as to what happened to her was a kind of post-anaphylactic reaction to all of the tsetse bites. We’ll never really know.
My ears were still plugged, and I was fairly terrified about flying, but we went to the airport and boarded our Air Tanzania flight to Mwanza. As soon as we lifted off, my ears miraculously unplugged. That which I had feared the most turned out to be the cure.
Once in Mwanza, we met up with our small-plane charter captain, and off we went to Kigoma. It was kind of a boring flight, although we flew low enough to see. The terrain was parched and mostly empty except for the occasional hardscrabble village, where children would inevitably run out of their huts upon hearing a plane and wave and jump around. Although we couldn’t hear them, of course, we knew they would be hollering, probably “Hallo!”
As if that day wasn’t surreal and sleepy enough following our difficult night, in Kigoma we were met and taken to a hotel on the banks of the Tanganyika. It was an old and dying hotel, although it may have once been fairly decent. From the cracked cement walls and faded, peeling paint to the dark reception area—possibly a result of no power—it was almost like being in a ghost town. Undoubtedly the lack of any more commercial flights into Kigoma was not helping the tourist business.
After learning that we’d have to wait there until the boat to Gombe was ready for us, we were directed to the hotel’s restaurant. We were frankly surprised there would even be a functioning restaurant, but off we went. It was lighter than the rest of the hotel, as it had large, though dirty, windows looking out on a courtyard and one-story hotel rooms, which were the lakefront “luxury” suites. A young, squalid-looking boy handed us menus, which were ridiculously long. They had everything from hamburgers to chicken Kiev to an array of Indian food.
By then we were punch-drunk and had begun to find everything stupidly hilarious. We ordered beers and chicken tikka masala and rice and laughed at almost everything. The food was predictably awful, but the beer was good, and after a couple hours of sitting around, we were finally on our way to Gombe Stream, home of Jane Goodall’s research station. We were taken there in a wooden longboat with hard wooden benches, a canvas roof for shelter, and crates of food and supplies for our three-night stay.
The cabin in which we stayed at Gombe was only yards away from Jane Goodall’s former house. Our place consisted of several sleeping rooms—cells, really—and a small dining area attached to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were covered with wire mesh designed to keep the baboons out. We soon learned why, as the large troop of baboons that lived on or near the beach seemed to know when the cabin was inhabited, which meant food and mischief. We often found one or more at a window or door, trying to get inside.
The camp was right on the lake. The beach between the lake and the camp was made up of large, smooth rocks, so that we immediately christened the beach “Nice,” after the rocky beaches of Nice in Southern France. The lake water was cool and clean, and when we weren’t marching through the jungle looking for chimps, we spent our days on the beach at Nice getting a tan, watching the baboons, and taking frequent dips in the cool of the lake.
It was not always easy to find the chimps at Gombe. The park is long and narrow, and runs from the shores of Lake Tanganyika up a steep incline. Searching for the chimps at Gombe was very different from trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which we did years later. There, the guides would communicate with park rangers, who went out every morning to find where each gorilla family was on that particular day. So even though some hikes to the gorillas could take several hours, it was a virtual guarantee to find them.
In Gombe, there were no personnel except the rangers who acted as our guides. Although the individual chimp families were territorial, their territories were large and the terrain was often brutally steep in dense jungle. So there was no guarantee of finding, let alone observing, chimps on any given day.
On our first day of searching, we took off straight uphill, following narrow, meandering trails made by the chimps. It was hard climbing in uncomfortable heat. I had to “short-leash” Marcia on a number of occasions to help get her up some of the steepest inclines. I was somewhat worried about her putting such stress on her body only a day after that terrible night in Arusha, but as it turned out, it was young Rich who had the hardest time. At one point, after a particularly arduous climb, I looked at him and saw he was deathly white and sweating profusely. He survived, but he declined to go on the next day’s hike.
We did find chimps that afternoon, but they were high up on the slopes and in thick foliage. Our periods of observation were counted in seconds rather than minutes. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing five-hour death march. Lake Tanganyika, however, felt wonderful.
Rich’s decision to pass on the hike the next morning was ironic, as we found a large family of chimps close to the lake and only about thirty minutes from the camp. They were, of course, amazing and wonderful, and we could see how Jane Goodall was willing to spend so much of her life studying and falling in love with these creatures.
It was a hard trip, but one of our best.
My wife and I recently returned from a cruise to Cuba. It was a small ship and we were able to circumnavigate the island, stopping in Havana, Cienfuegos/Trinidad, and Santiago. Since our return I’ve been struggling with how to write about Cuba without being overly trite or over generalizing. On the superficial (or potentially trite) level, there is, of course, the beautiful architecture, the ubiquitous old American cars (much more common than I had thought), and the music. On the more subjective (and subject to potential generalizations), there is the people and the politics.
Judging from the discussions on our ship, which were led by two Cuba “experts,” most people’s fascination with Cuba is grounded in the mystique of its geopolitical history, the uncertainty of its future, and the indomitable spirit of many of its people. Of course, had that mystic not been clothed in the delightful gifts to the senses, to Americans I suspect Cuba would be just another country with a troubled past and decades of hardship.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling the world, and particularly Africa, it’s that making learned-sounding pronouncements about the history or politics of a particular place is ill-advised and usually only partially correct. I liked the fact that the speakers on our cruise were perfectly willing to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
The Cuban guides, on the other hand, were armed with statements and answers with which they had obviously been programmed through their education. None of the guides we came into contact with had been alive at the time of the revolution, yet one guide in particular never uttered the word “revolution” without combining it into the phrase, “the triumph of the revolution.” All of the guides had adopted Fidel Castro’s term “special period” as a euphemism for the period following 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its ‘sugar daddy.’ The “special period” was a period of virtual starvation.
While on the cruise one of the speakers gave me a novel by a Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura. It was a mystery set in Havana in the late 1980’s, a good story, beautifully written. But what struck me was how much more one can learn about a country’s culture from a novel versus from a lecture or essay. The day-to-day lives of people can come alive in the course of a well-written novel. And, indeed, the daily hardships of Cubans, even in the years leading up to the “special period,” when not romanticized by propaganda, are part and parcel of Padura’s description of life in Havana. [I am now reading another Padura novel which takes place during the “special period” and the portrayal of people’s struggle to survive is enlightening and compelling.]
The people of Cuba have gone through some seriously bad shit. Assign whatever cause you want to it: America turning its back on Castro following the revolution, Castro turning to the Soviet Union, Communism, Cuban-Americans’ stubborn refusal to ease or lift the embargo, Castro himself, etc. The point is, there is more than enough geopolitical blame to go around and a phrase I think would be more applicable than “the triumph of the revolution” would be “the triumph of spirit.”
This is the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards For Best Travel Writing bronze medal winner for the category “Funny Travel”, although at the time there wasn’t a whole lot funny about it. This story, and my Gold medal winner, “From Tsetses To Chimps”, which will be in a subsequent blog, are part of a book of travel stories which I am working to get published. Enjoy.
In July 2013 my wife, Marcia, and I drove from our home in Taos, New Mexico, to Chicago to see the Broadway play The Book of Mormon. Although we knew the play was a spoof of Mormonism (and, as it turned out, all religions) by the creators of South Park, we had no idea that the play is set primarily in Uganda, where the two Mormon lead characters are sent on their mission.
At the end of one of the first scenes in Uganda, when the villagers are singing about how fucked up their lives are and how God hasn’t done a damn thing to help them, the village doctor ends the scene by stepping forward and proclaiming, “And I have maggots in my scrotum!”
Marcia and I looked at each other for a moment before convulsing with laughter, trying hard not to spill the vodka rocks we were nursing. You see, we had just been to Uganda (and Rwanda) to see the gorillas about six months prior, and I had, in fact, had maggots in my scrotum.
Here’s what happened.
Our group of nine tourists drove from Entebbe, Uganda, to our first stop on the safari, a primate camp deep in the rain forest of Kibale. The camp was quite nice, with a lovely open-air common area and individual permanent tented cabins with en suite bathrooms. I noticed that the zipper on the net “door” which separated our sleeping area from our bathroom was broken, and there were numerous small holes in the net windows in the bathroom.
Within minutes of settling in, I killed a huge spider in the bathroom. When we went to bed, I used the Velcro on the bathroom “door” to secure it closed. The bed was large and comfortable. As always, I slept naked, and Marcia wore a light cotton nightgown. Occasionally we could hear the calls of chimpanzees and monkeys in the forest.
We stayed at the primate camp for two nights. During the day we trekked through the rain forest looking for groups of chimps, which we then followed through the thick bush as best we could. It was a good stay, and neither of us noticed having received any significant bites.
From the rain forest camp, we moved to a beautiful camp with permanent rooms on the edge of a small lake. From there we explored the large Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we saw Uganda kob, a kind of antelope which was new for us, despite this being our ninth trip to sub-Saharan Africa. The park is also host to tree-climbing lions, which we didn’t spot until the third day of our visit on the way out of the park.
Now a word about botflies. The Oestridae are a family of flies variously known as botflies, warble flies, heel flies, gadflies, and such. Their larvae are internal parasites of mammals, with some species growing in the host’s flesh and others within the gut. The human botfly, Dermatobia hominis, is the only species of botfly known to parasitize humans routinely, though other species do cause myiasis in humans. Myiasis is the infestation of the body of a live human being or other vertebrate by fly larvae that feed on its tissue.
Myiasis is what happened to both Marcia and me.
It wasn’t until several days after we left the primate camp that both of us began to notice bites on our bodies. Because Marcia had such a bad reaction to tsetse flies on a previous trip to Africa, in addition to regular bug spray, I carried a lidocaine stick for the purpose of mitigating any pain or itch from bites.
As the days passed and our bites became more prevalent and painful, I began applying the lidocaine with regularity. I assumed the bites were from spiders we had seen in the primate camp, although as the days passed, more and more bite welts began to appear, and the welts became more and more painful. In addition to a powerful itch, we felt intermittent stabs of pain. It was all very odd. At any given moment, one of us might involuntarily cry out from a surprise “stabber.” We must have sounded like a couple of Tourette’s sufferers:
“Fuck, that one hurt.”
“Ow! Son of a bitch!”
We went on to Rwanda to see the gorillas. These were the last days of the safari. Two days of hiking to see the gorillas, then off to an overnighter in Kigali with a planned visit to the Genocide Memorial, and then we would fly back to Entebbe.
The “bites” had become so painful, and we had so many of them, that I finally mentioned them to a pair of doctors who were in our group. Actually we had three doctors, one of whom was Ricky, our regular traveling companion from Jackson, Mississippi, who was an ophthalmologist. Unfortunately, Ricky’s medical expertise did not include tropical bites or diseases. The other two doctors, a married couple, were a forensic pathologist and an endocrinologist. They saw how bad the “bites” now looked and recommended taking Cipro, the antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. The pain was such that we also began taking Vicodin as needed, which I also carry on such trips. (Who wants to get a pain shot in rural Africa?)
And so we spent the next two days hiking several hours a day to see the gorillas, which were so amazing that while we were with them, other than the occasional sharp “stabber,” we thought little of the profusion of bites. Unfortunately, when we were not so distracted, it was hard to think of anything else.
After a long day, which included the drive to Kigali, as we were checking into a beautiful five-star hotel for the last night of the safari, one of the doctors came up to me and told me that our guide, Henry, with whom he had ridden on the drive to town, told him that he thought our wounds were from botflies rather than spiders. Henry had already left us, as he was not staying in the five-star hotel, so Marcia and I were left with no information other than that statement.
Unfortunately for us, we knew what botflies were. During a trip to Belize a couple of decades earlier, our female guide told us she’d had a botfly larva in her skull. She carried the maggot around in a small vial which she kept around her neck. She seemed to take great delight in showing it off to her wide-eyed clientele. So we spent the night agonizing over whether we did or did not have a plethora of maggots growing inside us.
I suppose now is the time to tell you that I had no less than twenty-five of these “bites,” and Marcia had fifteen. Hers were all on her back, neck, and on and around her buttocks, with one particularly painful one on her chest. Mine were pretty much all over, top to bottom, including one on my skull, one in my lower lip, and two on my penis. Yes, you read that correctly.
As best we can tell, and from what African experts tell us, the primate camp had probably not changed—or at least ironed—the sheets on the bed in our cabin, which had probably been vacant for a couple of days. I’m not saying they hadn’t changed the sheets after the last guest, just that once they did so, the unit sat empty for a couple of days and the sheets became damp from the rain forest, thus making a delightful place for botflies to deposit their larvae. When we then slept in the bed, the larvae had two nice human hosts into which they burrowed and nourished. We had no idea at the time what had happened. Ignorance, at least for the week or so until we learned we had maggots growing inside us, was indeed bliss.
The following day our two guides, Henry and Sula, met us to take us to the Genocide Memorial and then on to the airport for a flight back to Entebbe. Henry was the older, more experienced lead guide. Sula was relatively new, but he had grown up in the area around the Queen Elizabeth National Park, and his father had been a park ranger. So we were shocked to learn that he had never seen botflies before. After all, they are well known to infest dogs and cattle and other mammals that are biologically amenable to giving “birth” to maggots.
I did want to do a quick tour of the museum, as it is always interesting to me to try to understand how people who have been neighbors, have intermarried, and have worked side by side can be convinced to suddenly slaughter one another. You may remember from the news in 1994 that the Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutus, something many simplistically wrote off as tribal animus. But, as always, the deeper answer seemed to be issues of power. As in most places where genocide has occurred, those in power found it convenient to keep the masses in line by fomenting racial, tribal, or religious divides.
In Rwanda’s case, the colonial power of Belgium found it convenient to maintain the divide between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples. The word Tutsi means “those rich in cattle,” while the word Hutu means “servant” or “subject.” The Belgians introduced separate ID cards for the two tribes. When Belgian rule ended, most of the land and power were in the hands of the Tutsi, while the Hutu were relegated to positions of forced laborers, or Akazi. The presence of the colonialists emboldened the ruling Tutsi against the Hutus, who then proceeded to independently embark on a genocidal massacre against their fellow countrymen. And so it goes. The Rwandans built a big, fancy museum so that such mass killings would never happen again, just like other museums around the world that are built after yet another genocide, and then another, and then another.
So Marcia and I cut our museum visit short, skipping the pictures of the masses of dead bodies, including children, piled in stacks or stacked in shallow graves. (We had, after all, been to the killing fields of Cambodia.) Instead, we went out to the parking lot and asked Henry to tell us about the botflies and about how to get rid of the maggots. We were in quite a bit of pain, as the little buggers were now maturing rapidly and the little barbs at their butt ends (not sure if maggots actually have butts, but you know what I mean) were causing the “stabbers” to occur more and more frequently. Perhaps we should have waited to get back to Entebbe to see a doctor.
Henry proceeded to show us how to “pop” the welt like a pimple so that the maggot, if it was fairly mature, would stick its little head out to see what the hell was going on. At that point, the object was to grab it and pull it out.
So Henry, dirty fingernails and all, began pushing and pressing and squeezing our welts in the parking lot of the Genocide Memorial while other guides, including Sula, crowded around with intense interest. Again, I was surprised at how few of the guides had seen maggot extraction before. Henry went to work at the large welt on Marcia’s sternum as she cried out in pain. He did extract a large maggot, and Marcia felt immediate relief, despite the growing red splotch on her chest left by being manhandled by Henry.
Then he went to work on a few welts on my calf and thigh. What we discovered was that it is considerably more painful to extract a maggot by this method in areas where there is very little or no fatty tissue. Like Marcia’s chest, my leg was purple and red with the remnants of the trauma induced by popping out the maggots. Henry popped out one maggot on my upper chest that was so large it started crawling across my chest. The growing circle of guides and drivers pointed and exclaimed and talked excitedly. I pointed out the irony that we were committing botfly genocide right there in the parking lot of the Genocide Memorial.
Anyway, after we extracted several whole and a few partial maggots from each of us, we asked Henry to call his company in Entebbe to arrange for us to see a doctor as soon as we got in that afternoon. After his phone call, he told us that it was set up, but also that the woman in Entebbe at the home office told him that if we put Vaseline over the “bite,” it would block off oxygen to the maggots and they would eventually fight their way through the petroleum jelly to find air—a bit like a seal popping up through a hole in the ice. Now you tell us, I thought.
We arrived back in Entebbe after a short half-hour flight, and, of course, the guide who fetched us at the airport had no idea he was supposed to take us to a doctor. This is Africa, after all. After a call to his office, he said he would take us to the International Medical Center, not far from our hotel. Our buddy Ricky decided to come along for moral support.
The clinic was in a small converted house in a pleasant residential neighborhood. Luckily, no other patients were waiting, though by the time we left the waiting room was full. We were checked in by a rotund African woman wearing a nurse’s uniform, who turned out to be receptionist, secretary, and nurse.
After a short wait, we were escorted to the doctor’s office and sat across from him at his desk. Dr. O was a kind-looking African, who at first did not seem to know what a botfly was. Apparently in the part of the country he was originally from, it was known as the mango fly. It also became clear that he had no idea how to extract the little devils. When he suggested taking blood samples, we immediately refused. No needles, please. Maybe we were being paranoid, but being poked by needles in a country still coming to grips with AIDS seemed a little risky. And what would be the point? We would be leaving Entebbe before any results could be obtained. And, of course, we were already well aware of what we were dealing with.
So Dr. O took us both into an exam room and called his nurse, who I soon began to think of as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—Dr. O decided he was going to work on Marcia’s maggots, while Nurse Ratched would work on mine. He then had Marcia strip completely naked and did not offer so much as a gown, or even a sheet. She demanded a blanket to try to maintain some elusive level of decorum. I stripped down to my underpants for Nurse Ratched, knowing full well that at some point those would have to come off as well.
The two then began to experiment with how best to get the maggots out. The procedure they settled on was probing the areas with hypodermic needles, which we took great pains to ensure came out of sterilized wrappings. They would poke and probe and dig and, if all went well, come out with a maggot.
At first Dr. O was clumsy and inefficient, and Marcia broke my heart by crying out for me as the good doctor dug around in the welts in her buttocks. “David, can this be right?” she implored.
There really wasn’t much for me to say, as Nurse Ratched was digging around in me with what appeared to be considerably less finesse than Dr. O. Soon he settled into a fairly smooth routine, and Marcia settled down. Every few minutes he would utter, “Got it,” as he extracted yet another.
Unfortunately, on my table things weren’t going quite as smoothly. Nurse Ratched would dig and dig, and I would pretend I could take the pain, and sometimes she would come up with a nice, full maggot. But too many times she would come up with a tiny piece of a maggot. Since she didn’t know any better, she thought that whenever she got anything, that meant she had been successful. I tried to keep things light by asking if one of the more mature maggots to which I had given “birth” (by C-section) looked like me, but she didn’t seem to get it. I reckon her job was just as gross to her as it was to me as a patient.
I know, I know, you want me to get to the part about my penis. Fine.
Once Nurse Ratched had pretty much exhausted the obvious little birthing stations, I said no offense, but I would prefer to have Dr. O work on my dick. He had finished with Marcia by then. Nurse Ratched promptly, and apparently happily, agreed. So off came my drawers, and Dr. O came at me with a needle. There was one spot about halfway down my shaft, while the other, most painful one, was right at the fold of my foreskin. Hey—you asked!
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Dr. O said as he stood over me, “this is going to hurt.” Truth in advertising.
“That’s why I asked for you,” I replied. I didn’t want to lash out in pain and hurt his nurse.
Standing near the exam room door, Nurse Ratched smiled and said, in the first sign of a sense of humor, “That’s why I’m standing way over here.”
And so it went. Once we had extracted the maggots from my dick, I asked the doc to check me out to make sure we got everything. I had a tingling pain on the top of my head, but one of the gorillas had knocked down a bamboo shoot right onto my skull, and I had been assuming it was a scratch from that. But I asked Dr. O to check it anyway.
At first he agreed that it looked like a scratch, but as he parted more hair, he decided that it was indeed another botfly larva. Thankfully, after all I had just been through, it was virtually painless to remove, despite being quite large.
We were finally done. Dr. O prescribed another antibiotic but told us to keep taking the Cipro as well, which I thought was a little odd. He also prescribed a pain pill, something less than a narcotic but which we don’t have in the States. We paid in cash, some ridiculously small amount. In the waiting room, Ricky was sitting with the woman from the tour company’s head office, who had showed up and had been regaling him with stories about how her dog got botfly bites all the time. The local guide then took us to the pharmacy and then, mercifully, back to the hotel, where we immediately headed for the bar.
We had a full day and another night to spend in Entebbe before our flight to London, so the next day we took a long, uncomfortable, and rainy boat ride out to an island on Lake Victoria to see a chimp preserve. It was a diversion. It was also clear that the good Dr. O and his Nurse Ratched had not rid us of all our maggots. Although we were considerably more comfortable, despite the residual pain from the pinching and probing and digging, we still had “stabbers” from various sites. In the doctor’s defense, it does take time for the maggots to mature, and until you start feeling the pain as they wiggle around inside you, it’s easy to miss those where the welt is not obvious.
The next day we finally boarded a British Airways flight for our business-class trip to London. Marcia and I were scheduled to stay for a few days in London, and we had tickets to Wicked, the Broadway play based on The Wizard of Oz. Ricky would head directly back to his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
About halfway through the flight, I went to the head, where I proceeded to pinch yet another maggot out of my thigh. When it dropped to the floor, I took pains to squash it. If the maggots are allowed to mature in the host body, they will eventually work their way out and drop to the ground (presumably dirt in Africa) where they then turn into actual botflies, anxious to have sex and find another unsuspecting host to do the dirty job of raising their children. I didn’t want to be responsible for the birth of a botfly on its way to London.
We checked in at the Hilton Metropole, an older Hilton on Edgware Road in the decidedly Middle Eastern section of town. Iraqi, Iranian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Lebanese, and other Middle Eastern restaurants abounded.
One of the first things I did when we checked in was to go to the business center and log on to the Internet. I Googled botflies and began to learn about all the various, and considerably less invasive, ways to extract the maggots: Vaseline, duct tape over the area, and bathing in Epsom salts, all of which sounded considerably better than pinching the buggers until they popped out. We walked to a nearby pharmacy and bought Epsom salts. As I clearly had more residual maggots than Marcia, I took a long bath in the Epsom salts. At least one more maggot deserted my body during that experiment. More remained.
The next day we both felt fairly good, and as we usually do in large cities, we took off on a walk. We walked the length of Oxford Street to Piccadilly Circus. I bought a great sleeveless winter vest, since we would be moving from Honolulu to New Mexico in a few months. We ate lunch at a nice Italian spot in Piccadilly Circus. We then walked all the way back, taking a different route toward Hyde Park and Marble Arch. We were planning an Indian dinner that night at Bombay Palace on Connaught Street, where we had eaten about ten years earlier and loved.
But when we got back to the room, I noticed that my right leg had swollen up to an alarming size. I thought about Henry and his dirty hands and fingernails pinching at the welts on my leg there in the Genocide Memorial parking lot and thought, Great, now my fucking leg is infected, and I could lose the damn thing. I lay down on the bed and elevated the leg.
Although the restaurant was not far, we decided to take a taxi instead of walking. By dinnertime the swelling was down, and we had our usual Indian fare: saag lamb (lamb chunks in spiced spinach), murgh makani (butter chicken), dal, naan, and raita. It was delicious. We taxied home despite the pleasant August London evening.
The next day the swelling in the leg seemed much better, as I had slept with it elevated all night. That morning I extracted what turned out to be the last of Marcia’s maggots. It was a long and painful process. I would squeeze, and it would stick its little head out, and its two tiny black eyes would seem to look around, and as I tried to grab it, it would dart back into its hole. At one point I said to Marcia, “When did digging maggots out of each other become the new normal?”
When I finally grabbed it and pulled it out, Marcia let out a small yelp of pain as the barb pulled through her skin. It was a big, mature thing that fell to the floor and wiggled around in apparent wonderment until I took some Kleenex and squished it. Marcia’s ordeal was finally over.
We decided to take the Tube to the area where the theater was to scope out a pre-theater dinner spot. After lunch, we took the Tube to Westminster. I love the Embankment and the sculpture of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, so I insisted we could walk the few short blocks there from the Tube.
Bad idea. By the time we got to the park, my leg was grossly swollen and sore again. I limped back to the Tube, and we got back to the hotel for a fine afternoon of leg elevation. Luckily, the Tube entrance was directly across from the hotel, and the restaurant and theater for the evening were also close to a Tube stop. So we went to Wicked and thoroughly enjoyed it.
We boarded our British Airways flight to Dallas the next day. The business class had full recliner seats, and I was able to keep my leg elevated virtually the entire trip. I continued to stress over whether some horrible infection was spreading in my leg. We were heading back to our place in Taos, and our itinerary had us going to Dallas and then Albuquerque, where we would get in too late to drive the two hours home. Of course our American flight to Albuquerque was canceled, so we had an additional three-hour layover until the next flight. A long day got longer. We stayed in a hotel in Albuquerque and drove home the next morning.
Once home, I immediately looked through the Yellow Pages for a dermatologist. I wanted someone to check out our wounds and make sure everything was gone. Although I had visited a dermatologist some years earlier during a ski trip in Taos, I discovered that there were no longer any dermatologists practicing in town. We had no local family doctor yet, as we were still only part-time residents. I called a family practitioner who was the treating doc for a friend, but learned that the earliest appointment was in a week. We went to bed that night in Taos without knowing what we were going to do about seeing a doctor. The good news was that my leg felt fine.
The question, at least for me, was answered the next morning when I woke up with the most excruciating headache I have ever had. All I could do was tell Marcia to take me to the emergency room. I couldn’t even brush my teeth.
Once the shot of morphine kicked in, I was able to tell my story to the ER personnel. The doctors and nurses were all rather astonished, and even excited. Some came back and told me they had Googled botflies. “Gross!”
The concern now was whether I was suffering from some tropical disease. The tests began. MRI, x-rays, blood tests, and even a spinal tap. The headache continued, softened only by the regular intake of narcotics. I insisted that Marcia go and play in a golf tournament she had been slated to participate in for some time. It was a four-person scramble, so they needed the fourth person, but it wasn’t imperative that she play well. She fought me, of course, but there was no point in her sitting at my side, doing nothing but worrying. I texted her regularly with updates:
They think it may be malaria. How’s the game coming?
She would text back that she was too worried about me and was playing like shit.
Now they don’t think it’s malaria. Could be pneumonia. Playing any better?
Just started making some clutch putts. Pneumonia’s better than malaria, yes?
And so it went. I was finally moved into a room late that afternoon. It was a two-bed room and the other bed was occupied, but I paid no attention to him. I couldn’t sleep much except for an hour or two right after a pain pill. It was a long, long night.
The next morning the fellow in the next bed figured out that we knew each other. He was a friend of friends, and we’d had dinner with his wife and him at our friends’ house some months earlier. He was postsurgical bowel blockage and hoped to get out that day. He’d been listening to me tell my story to the various doctors and nurses.
Just as he got out of bed and made his way over to my side of the room to sit in the chair and talk so that I would be distracted from my pain, a nurse came into the room and told him he had to change rooms. His doctor had heard about my “African illness” and was worried about infection.
That day the doctor who had forced my roommate to leave came to see me at the behest of the night nurse. She and I had been trying to get what was obviously another maggot out of me using the Vaseline technique. Since she hadn’t been able to grab the little bugger whenever he stuck his head out (she was too timid to grab hold of the damn thing), she called for the surgeon.
What followed was painfully funny. The surgeon came in with his assistant and a shitload of stuff—pads and gauzes and surgical towels and whatnot. He rubbed the shoulder area with a numbing agent, then placed surgical towels over me and laid out some tools, and then proceeded to dig for the maggot. And I thought Nurse Ratched was heavy-handed. Once he got the maggot, he dug around some more, saying that the tissue looked damaged and he wanted to make sure he got everything. I wanted to scream, “Of course the fucking tissue is damaged. The maggot has been eating on me for two fucking weeks now!” But I didn’t. To this day, of all the botfly scars I still have, that’s the worst.
The doctors finally decided on pneumonia. I’d never known that severe headaches could be a symptom of pneumonia, but when I texted Marcia that the doctors were now thinking pneumonia, she went online and discovered that it is indeed included in the list of common symptoms. My immune system was probably so compromised by everything that had happened that my body had just given in. So I was started on more antibiotics and oxygen. The headache gradually subsided to a manageable level.
On the third day, the surgeon came and pulled yet another maggot out of me. This one was on my flank. This time he came without his retinue and plethora of surgical supplies. But as he tried to shoot me up with anesthesia so he could start digging away, I could feel the liquid running down my flank and buttocks. I wondered how much had actually been injected into me. Not much, as I soon found out. But by then I’d been butchered pretty much every way imaginable, so I just let the pain wash over me and hoped that this was the last of the maggots. Thankfully it was.
I got out of the hospital after three days and stayed on oxygen at night for the week after that. Marcia was fine. We went to a party about a week later, but after about two hours I turned sheet-white and felt like I was going to pass out. Marcia got me home. Too early to be out drinking, I guess.
I’m fine now. We both have a few scars. You can imagine, though, how tempting it was as we were watching The Book of Mormon to want to stand up and yell out, “I’ve had maggots in my scrotum!”
By David Myles Robinson
I finished my first novel, UNPLAYABLE LIE, while I was still living in Honolulu. Naturally I put the word out to my friends and acquaintances in the legal community in which I had worked for thirty-eight years and to fellow members at my golf club. I breathed a huge sigh of relief once I began to receive in-person and on-line reviews. Except for those people who either hated or didn’t know anything about golf, the reception was very good, and even among most of those people, the consensus seemed to be that although they tended to skim through the golf parts, they still enjoyed the book. Until then, I’d only had the novel read by a handful of people and, of course, my editor and publisher. The fact that a publisher had accepted the book and was willing to invest in its publication was important, but ultimately it is the acclamation from readers which is most comforting and rewarding, for it is only then that you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you aren’t a complete laughingstock.
One day, a couple of months after UNPLAYABLE LIE was published, a fellow attorney (not a close friend) came up to me at our golf club to say how much he enjoyed the book, but also to confide that he’d always wanted to write a novel. The main thing holding him back, he said, was fear of embarrassment. I knew exactly what he meant. Established novelists can write without fear (or at least with less fear) than those of us just starting out. They can give the finger to a bad review, knowing their readers will cut them a lot of slack (at least for a while). But all novelists, whether rookie or journeyman, must allow their readers a glimpse into their souls. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I harbor no illusions that I am a great writer. For now I am content in the knowledge that I write well and can tell a pretty good story. With each completed novel I can see and feel myself getting better. I told my attorney acquaintance that to some extent writing was like being a trial attorney or an actor, or, for that matter, a golfer. Ultimately, you have to be willing to put yourself out there and risk humiliation.
David Myles Robinson
As will become readily apparent, my blogs will not just be about my books or even writing in general. They will be about whatever suits my fancy--and yes, I'm sorry, but that may include politics from time to time. We live in an interestingly tempestuous time and as a writer I find it impossible to ignore the worldwide psycho-drama (and, at times, psycho-comedy) being played out before us on a virtual daily basis.