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!”
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.