Once bitten: or, why it pays to share your onion rings

When you are bitten by something unknown in a foreign country, there’s really little to stop you from thinking: This is it. This is how I die. And then if you don’t die, well. You had a nice little existential interlude, didn’t you?

I had one such interlude a couple weeks ago, and sometimes in my sleep now, I brush at my left shoulder blade thinking something’s there. The culprit, a centipede — which, frankly, sounds like the least harmful creature to ever try to kill you, but so it goes.

Me and Janelle in Kampot, a sleepy town on the river. I was half-awake around 7am in our cabin on the water, just thinking. As much as I would like to be able to report that my mental state was bliss and peace-infused while Janelle was visiting, it was not. She and I have “different travel styles” which means that she goes for 30-minute walks with a sun umbrella and three liters of water, while I have devolved into a dirty slum camper with no patience for transport slower than 30 miles per hour.

I can really spool out a laundry list of worries when given the space, so I just free-associated from there: love and money and art, just for good measure.

Then I glanced through the netting at the gorgeous hilly landscape outside and decided: Girl. Shuddup. Be happy. You are in an amazing place. You have friends, family and your health. (You always underestimate the importance of one’s health!) Let’s take a moment and just stretch and then fall back to sleep in this beautiful setting. You. Are. Lucky.

Not three seconds later, a pinprick. Ok, probably just a red ant. Those bites fade fast, but this got worse, radiating more and more. So I thrashed aside the mosquito net , launched out of bed and flipped over my pillow. I didn’t have my glasses on so all I saw was a dark curvy shape affixed to the underside.

Snake, scorpion, Jesus only knows. I woke up Janelle, who roused immediately to my aid.

With her night retainer still in and eyes half-open, she started calling out instructions, cruise-director style: Put on clothes. Don’t panic. Find your shoes. We’ll go to the front desk.

Tank top askew, shorts pulled too high, flip-flops half-on, I walked with her down the dirt path to the guesthouse cafe. Janelle began to explain in slow English, since hell if I knew how to say any of this in Khmer, and before I knew what was happening, a small cluster of white people was at my side. I can’t really explain it any other way. All of a sudden, a small cluster of white people, as though I were being checked by four doctors at once.

Turns out, I was being checked out by four doctors at once. They were tropical medicine doctors traveling through Cambodia. I recognized them from the night before, at dinner. We’d given them our extra order of onion rings.

They huddled briefly and then turned to me again. One of them explained he’d been bitten by a baby centipede earlier that week. “Hurt like hell,” he said, describing how the pain had radiated over one entire side of his body. “The big ones are really deadly. But we think yours was a baby. You’ll be ok.”

One of the doctors told me to take an antihistamine and some pain medicine, and ice it. And so I sat down to a riverside breakfast with a bag of ice melting against my shoulder, thinking, again, that I was lucky.

3 thoughts on “Once bitten: or, why it pays to share your onion rings

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