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Strangers in Paradise

December 22, 2007

When God and His assistant Evolutio created insects, they were drunk on a nectar they had concocted the night before, so you can imagine the hilarity. It was Evo’s idea to add all the stinging/biting/poisonous bits to the creatures, supposedly to ensure their survival, but actually because it was more fun. At the drawing board, God’s imagination went wild and the designs He came up with were just unbelievable. “They’ll never believe I did this!” He giggled.

Now I have no way of proving that this comical cosmic team was behind the farce that landed me and my ex (not ex at the time) in the jungle, but there does not seem to be a better explanation. You could say that it was because my father, a man of ideas, persuaded ex, a laid-back potter, and I, a comfort-loving city-dweller, to both become managers of a strip of land shaved out of the insect paradise in the heart of Brazil called Mato Grosso, i.e. very big forest. Mato also means crazy, so: a very big, crazy forest. The idea was that the shaved strip would eventually become a vast ranch sprinkled with income-producing cattle, golf courses for rich tourists, and model cottages with attached jobs for thousands of homeless immigrants. It was not one of my father’s more realistic ideas.

There are humans and other large animals living in Mato Grosso but the indigenous population are largely insects and they do not let you forget this for one moment. When we soft-skinned, sweet-blooded strangers arrived, armed with mosquito-repellent and sunscreen, the insects laughed so much they nearly died. But they didn’t die because insects are workaholics. No wonder they rule the earth. They are the Starbucks and McDonalds of the underworld, branches everywhere and new ones opening daily.

Our home on the bald strip of land in the middle of Mato Grosso was one of a handful of prefabricated wooden huts. Surrounding us on all four sides of the clearing was dense jungle, humming with unbridled entomological activity which, in our naive enthusiasm, we aimed to record with drawings and photographs, when we were not too busy managing our native work force: four men, one woman, two children and a baby. More personnel was due to arrive later when things were ready but since neither ‘later’, ‘things’, or ‘ready’ had been clearly defined, we were there merely as entertainment for the natives and the insects. How they applauded when it became clear that whether standing, walking, sitting or lying down, we were irresistibly attractive to legions of tiny carnivores. The smaller the creatures, the more insatiable their appetite. Not for them a sensible siesta whilst digesting one’s prey. It’s suck suck chew chew crawl crawl buzz buzz round the clock. God knows when they slept, and it’s His or that demented Evo’s fault if they don’t sleep at all. I know I am being unfair to the innocent minority, those heavenly blue, iridescently shimmering, giant Brazilian butterflies, Morpho menelaus. We could see them flickering in and out of the lush vegetation but if we tried to get closer, busy little predators made sure we had to run for cover.

Human ingenuity being what it is, we sewed netting around the broad brims of our hats, lathered every inch of our skin with the latest repellent, wore boots and long-sleeved shirts. But human ingenuity is no match for ancient insect cunning. In the heat and humidity, covered up head to toe, we sweated profusely and became caviar for the beasties. Never mind mosquitoes, tiny flies or larger creatures, such as the rhinoceros beetle which knocked down my camera when I attempted to record its slow progress on our dinner table. What really tipped the balance was the jungle chigger. These invisible instruments of torture penetrated all our defenses, invading waist, armpits, groin, ankles — anywhere they could taste our delicious sweat — and stayed there until we were driven mad by the intense itching. And then they sent for reinforcements. I didn’t know it at the time, or care, but they are the larvae of mites belonging to the family Trombiculidae.

They pierce the skin and inject into the host a salivary secretion containing powerful, digestive enzymes that break down skin cells, which are then ingested, after the tissues have become liquefied and sucked up. Also, this digestive fluid causes surrounding tissues to harden, forming a straw-like feeding tube of hardened flesh (stylostome) from which further, partially-digested skin cells may be sucked out.

It was them or us and it was obvious that they were the fittest. We managed to endure a few months of sleepless torment, frantically scratching the red welts that covered our bodies, and then we gave up. Made our excuses, said our goodbyes to the unsurprised, un-bitten natives, and left.

As far as I know, the insects still rule in Mato Grosso, and God and His assistant Evolutio are still drunk on the nectar of creation.

by Natalie d’Arbeloff

Editors’ Note: Another version of this story appears in Part 7 of Natalie’s online illustrated memoir, The Burial of Mickey Mouse.

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  1. December 23, 2007 at 5:19 am

    Wonderful both to read & hear, Natalie. Your own angle on magic realism!

  2. Ernesto Priego
    December 24, 2007 at 9:51 am

    I loved it.

  3. December 26, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    This was wonderful to read but not to experience. Reminds me of the botfly that found me in the Peruvian Amazon and whose offspring emerged six weeks later when I was safely back in PA.

  4. December 26, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks Dick and Ernesto, and Marcia… Dave’s mother, I presume? So pleased to hear from you! Sorry to remind you of your bad insect experience. Those jungle critters are just too tenacious.

  5. January 2, 2008 at 1:23 am

    How delightful to hear your voice, Natalie. Excellent piece.

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