In order to reach India in time to watch the monsoon make landfall, I had to leave so abruptly I didn’t have time for all my shots. The only thing I needed to worry about, my doctor said, were mosquitoes. If I were bitten by a mosquito during daylight, I would get dengue fever, if I were bitten at night it would be by a different mosquito and I’d get malaria, and if I were bitten a rural area with paddy fields I’d get Japanese encephalitis.
A week later I was on a barge in what I was pretty sure qualified as a rural area, just across the canal from some paddy fields. The first mosquitoes arrived just as night began to fall. Wonderful. I was about to attract a complete trifecta of mosquito-born diseases.
The insects themselves were unimpressive. I’d expected them to be as big as crocodiles, but they actually seemed smaller than those in Vermont. Of course, size doesn’t matter if you’re packing malaria, dengue fever or Japanese encephalitis.
Radhakrishnan, my guide, looked unconcerned. “I will bring fan,” he said. He set up the fan on a chair a couple of feet away from me. Trouble was, there was an awful lot of the lower half of me under the table that was unaffected by the fan, and I imagined the mosquitoes being sucked out of the air outside the boat, hurled against my middle regions, crawling dazedly downhill, coming to a halt on a bare leg, and thinking, “Phew! That was rough! Given me quite an appetite, that has.”
I took the fan off the chair and put it on the floor, but now my upper half was exposed, and at once two or three mosquitoes appeared in the lamplight cruising at that lazy velocity they use when they are calling the tower for permission to land. I went back to my cabin, rummaged around for my industrial-strength repellant, and sprayed myself.
Radhakrishnan reappeared. The fan didn’t seem to be doing the trick, mosquito-wise, I told him awkwardly.
He looked only mildly concerned. “I will light coil,” he said. He brought a small mosquito coil, lit it and placed it upwind of me. I’ve never had much luck with citronella candles, but this was India. They must know their bug deterrents here.
After all my research on meteorology, though, I should have realized that I had created a little microclimate in the cabin, and could have predicted what would come next. As soon as the coil got itself properly ignited, the thread of smoke drifted up, then got abruptly sucked sideways into the draft of the fan and blown into my face. I started to cough.
Radhakrishnan, hearing the sound of his guest in distress, hurried up from the stern. “The light is attracting them, sir,” he said.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” I told him, though it was barely nine o’clock. I’d had it with sprays, fans and coils. I wanted mosquito netting.
Radhakrishnan looked hesitant. “Air under net is getting quite hot,” he explained, but I was having none of it. I wanted to be out of the reach of these squadrons of insects with their payloads of biological warfare. Just as badly, though, I wanted to sleep under the netting because that was the mark of the true explorer, the sign of someone who had been Out There.
Radhakrishnan moved the fan into my cabin, lit a couple of coils and opened the rattan window-boards to let in the cool air. I undressed, sat in the middle of the bed, released the cord and, with a terrific sense of adventure and daring, let the mosquito net down around me.
At once I felt immense relief: I was in, Japanese encephalitis was out. I curled up on the bed, reached an arm under the netting and turned the light out.
At once, something came back to me from the adventure stories of my boyhood. When sleeping under mosquito netting, it was important not to be touching the net, or else a mosquito could land on the outside, insert her proboscis through the mesh and get you while you were sleeping the sleep of false security.
Hmmm. This was easier said than done. I am six foot three. The bed was about six feet. Subtract the parabola of netting-sag along each side, and the area of safe bed was only about five feet by two foot. I curled up, and at the crook of both elbows and knees, at my armpits and groin, at every place where skin touched skin, I felt the stickiness of several dozen applications of bug spray. I was adhesive with spray. I was disgusting with spray.
I couldn’t bear it. I crawled out from under the netting, making sure to let no mosquitoes in, and stumbled into the bathroom-cabin. The bathroom had a shower, but it was my duty, I told myself, cupping handfuls of water from the little sink and splashing myself ineffectively, to conserve fresh water in these deprived parts of the globe. Consoling myself with this and other idiocies, I went back to bed, climbed carefully under the netting so as not to allow any mosquitoes in, extended an arm to turn off the light, curled up as small as I could, and was just drifting off to sleep when the power went out.
With the fan off, the boat was very quiet. Tiny waves lapped against the hull. I was almost lulled to sleep when I went to turn over and discovered that my limbs had stuck together. Radhakrishnan had been right: under the netting, without the fan, it was quite hot. I uncurled my limbs, then quickly curled them again as soon as they touched the net. Every time I curled back up again, the temperature under the netting rose another two degrees. I turned over many, many times, then got up and washed myself off all over again. I climbed back into bed, careful not to admit any mosquitoes. I was slowly going insane.
The power came back on. The fan started up. I sighed a deep, grateful and slightly pathetic sigh, and fell asleep. Then the monsoon arrived.
The burst decided to arrive over the Alleppy canal system at midnight. For the next five hours, lightning flashed in through the uncurtained window of the boat, over and over, appearing to pass, then racing back again—not much thunder, not much rain, just endless lightning, like that torture technique of keeping the victim awake by flashing lights in his eyes. In the hallucinatory theatre of the sleep-deprived, I imagined poisonous snakes and spiders crawling in under the mosquito net, and river pirates swarming in through my window knowing I was bound to be some rich tourist.
In the morning, groggy and pouch-eyed, I found that the monsoon was even more to blame for my ghastly night than I’d thought. Normally they anchor in the middle of the canal, Radhakrishnan said, where there’s a good breeze and no mosquitoes. In monsoon time, though, the winds make that unsafe, and they have to tie up to the bank. Right next to the mosquitoes.
As wretched as I felt, the night had done me a lot of good. I had been bitten numerous times by mosquitoes but had failed to contract Japanese encephalitis–or anything, for that matter. The bites didn’t even itch that much. I was never going to use that wretched, useless, toxic, sticky spray again.— Tim Brookes’ book Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment is available at www.thirtypercentchance.com.