Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Sarawak Stories 3 : in which the leech socks are tested

I have been inoculated against polio and small pox
But my leech defense is green elastic socks
The little blood suckers attack without mercy
and if the sight of blood drives you crazy
Stay clear of the mud and stick to the rocks

(Limerick composed by Madhusudan, edited by Sujata)

"Are leeches afraid of elastic socks?" we wondered.  The three of us in Sarawak - our friend Madhu, my husband and myself.  Well, the time had come to test them.  We would soon know.

And so we awoke at the crack of dawn, to the sounds of the jungle creatures.  We were slowly getting accustomed to these noises but they were still not something we could take for granted.

We got ready and packed our bags - there was a small debate about shorts vs pants.  Our guide, Lucas, seemed to live in shorts.  But an older guide had suggested pants because we would be walking through caves filled with bat guano.  I opted for pants and this turned out to be my Achilles heel in the fight against leech invasion. 

Lucas kindly brought me a pair of rubber shoes for crossing the river and all of us were given a small packet of food and drink.  Then off we went, along with a French couple, walking through the forest, towards the cave that housed three million bats.

We saw a family of monkeys along the way, chattering and swinging from branches, high up in the canopy.  While crossing a little stream, Lucas stopped and pointed to a green and brown branch that was suspended close to us.  "A racer," he said calmly as the branch began slithering towards the trees and bushes, away from us.  A long, green snake with a pointed head - just like a creeper!  We watched in fascination as it lifted itself effortlessly and began climbing one of the shrubs.  It seemed to be in no hurry and we left it there, and continued our walk along a little wooden path that led up into the gigantic, dark caves.

Green foliage, which reveals-
A racer!
We all wore head lamps and we needed them in these dark, slippery caves as we climbed rock after rock.  I preferred to use my hands (despite the guano) rather than slip and fall into a pile of unseen and unknown stuff below.  

Traversing the cave
The caves are inhabited by a few creatures who have adapted to life in the dark.  There are some centipedes, blind crickets, small blind fish in the river that runs through, grey racers (snakes) that feed on the bats and swiftlets.  It's a very different world within.  The rocks break open (sometimes because of persistent tree roots, sometimes because of erosion by the rain and river - water with plenty of dissolved carbon dioxide) to allow some light, air currents and sprays of water.  Stalactites and stalagmites (and other formations in between) grow slowly and silently.  The river gushes below, the water level is high right now for it is the monsoon season.

A cave cricket
A cave racer
I slipped and slid over the last stretch (which involved climbing with a small rope) and was relieved to eventually get out into the bright sunshine (refusing to think about my return though the same path).  My shoes had been neatly hidden behind one of the rocks by Lucas and I had on my rubber shoes that were wet and filled with bits of sand.  But the sun was warm, the river cool (though strong) and we criss-crossed our way from bank to bank, slipping occasionally on stones and pebbles but quite enjoying it.  Eventually we reached the base of a hill and began climbing.  

Out in the sunshine
The path was muddy and slightly steep but there were ropes along some stretches and it was not too hard.  I wondered if there were leeches here and how I would recognize them.  I needn't have bothered thinking about it.  As soon as we reached a relatively flat stretch, we saw them - rushing towards us, wriggling and writhing with excitement and jumping onto our hands and legs.  There wasn't an army of them, but even a few are enough to cause temporary havoc.  Lucas got six and the number diminished along the line of people - the French woman who was the most exposed and the last in line didn't get a single leech.  I got one which I flicked off and then another which I couldn't get off.  I was standing perched on a rock, trying to climb down to another rock and simultaneously attempting to pull a leech off my leg.  It was hard and I was a bit squeamish about these strange new parasites.  Lucas kindly came and helped me get it off.  He seemed to be rolling them into little balls (somehow they didn't stick to him) and killing them.  We clambered down in this manner, keeping an eye out for leeches, till we reached a rocky place that seemed leech free.

Our gentle guide, Lucas

Above us gushed a waterfall, forming a beautiful green rocky pool.  My husband and I headed to the pool for a swim, Madhu splashed in the shallow rocks while the others sat below and began opening the packets of food.  The pool was cold, the water flowed swiftly through and once we were immersed in it, we couldn't see anything around.  Just a big beautiful wall of water on one side and rocks everywhere else.  It was a strange feeling to be so close to the power of nature.

After a short swim, we dried ourselves and sat on the rocks, eating our fried rice and chicken.  Then we put on our leech socks, packed our bags and began our return.  It was here that I made the mistake of rolling up my trousers and putting on the leech socks (everyone else was in shorts).  I didn't want my clothes to be drenched in the river.  But what happened was that the leeches were able to climb up the socks and crawl unseen between my trousers and my legs.  Of course there were not too many of them but one of them crawled up my knee and wedged itself there.  Fortunately, I didn't notice it and I peacefully climbed down with everyone else.

While going back through the river, I had a fall.  I slipped on a large, smooth stone and crashed, palm down on a spiky rock.  Fortunately, nothing terrible happened but the base of my thumb was sore and I knew I would not be  able to put any weight on it in while clambering over rocks in the cave.  The others had gone on ahead by this time and as I waded towards them, I noticed a growing red circle on my knee.  I thought I had probably scraped it during my fall but it wasn't hurting at all.  It's a strange feeling to see so much blood without feeling any pain.  Anyway, there was no place to sit and look at it so on I went.

Wading through the river

Back into the dark rocky cave and I gingerly managed to get past the rocks and onto flat land.  Lucas immediately noticed my patch of blood and said it was a leech.  We slowly wandered back, spending a little more time looking at the caves, some of which were quite spectacular.  We returned to the base, had a cup of tea and I unfolded my trousers and checked my socks - fortunately the leech had fallen off.  The others had no leeches on them, so the socks did work if properly used.

I get a leech bite!
We waited till sunset for the bats to come out - it is apparently an incredible sight to watch them streaming out of the caves, followed by bat hawks.  But the sky was cloudy and they did not emerge.  So we walked back, slowly, happily to our rooms, looking forward to a hot bath and a large dinner.

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