In October 2015, I was two weeks into my 2-month trip through South America. I had just emerged miraculously unscathed from the Amazon Jungle, and had taken a long bus trip to Cuenca, Ecuador for a bit of civilisation.
... to this...
... and this.
Cuenca is a small city full of colonial relics, and I stayed for two nights, mostly to recuperate. Unfortunately, while my roommate slept soundly, I found myself slapping away mosquitoes and getting bitten in the unlikeliest places.
They were super ambitious and persistent, these mosquitoes. As I struggled to fall asleep while simultaneously scratching awkwardly on my arms, my bum, my knees, the small of my back, I thought: They’re even worse than the flies in the jungle, honestly.
Of course, Cuenca isn’t the only place with an abundance of mosquitoes – the whole continent was full of them. I myself come from a similar tropical environment halfway across the globe, and am no stranger to pesky mosquito bites.
I scratched and scratched away, and eventually, the bites healed and disappeared as they always do. All except one, right above my right buttock, along my waistline, but I didn’t really notice.
I continued onwards to Peru, climbed up the Salkantay Trek, and poked around Machu Piccu. I then moved on to Bolivia, biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road and taking goofy photos at the Uyuni Salt Flats (because who can resist??).
Genies in a rice pot!
About a month after I left Cuenca, I crossed from Argentine into Chile, and signed myself up for a 5-day trek through the sublimely beautiful Torres del Paine.
By now, the one remnant mosquito bite had swelled and protruded off my back like a little hill on the otherwise flat plane of my skin. I definitely noticed it now, mostly because it kept spurting out blood and puss that ruined my shirts and pants. I was forced to buy a large supply of gauze and band-aids that I had to wear and replace every few hours.
Really, it was getting ridiculous. What bit me? The mother of all mosquitoes, and her massive proboscis?? Did South American mosquitoes have Queens like the ants do, who are ten times bigger than normal mosquitoes?
Something like this?? Source: Village-Lit
My trekking partner, Vicki, once saw the wound as I was replacing a soiled gauze in the girls’ bathroom that we shared, and had this to say: “Hmmm, that’s not normal. That’s really not normal.”
Tell me about it. But what was I to do? I was traveling too fast to have time to make an appointment at a clinic or hospital, much less stick around for treatment. Plus, the wound was right above my right butt – I was a little shy about going around shoving my pants down for strangers to inspect…
One and a half months after the bite, I boarded the expedition ship to Antarctica at Ushuaia, the ‘southernmost city in the world’ and a gateway to the White Continent. I found out that there was going to be a doctor onboard the ship and resolved to consult him or her, even if it meant I had to flash some butt cleavage.
In the medic room on a swaying ship, I had my wound inspected, and was told that the wound simply needed time to heal. “It seems to be getting drier,” the doctor kindly assured me, “so it should be okay in a few days. But let’s keep checking.”
We checked every few days, and every time it did seem as if it was getting better, but the lump remained in size, and I sometimes felt twinges of pain or a sudden itchiness that came and went.
It was so weird.
We arrived in Antartica, oggled at the penguins, kayak-ed in icy cold water, went mountain-climbing on some slippery slopes, and enjoyed the solitude of a mysterious, alien continent.
When you think there's only 3 of you in the picture, but there's really 4...
I was having the time of my life. Ain’t nobody got time to worry about stupid fat wounds!
A week after Antarctica plus a quick stopover at Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was back home in Malaysia, with Malaysian mosquitoes. And still, the wound persisted in bleeding all over the place.
My extended family included an abundance of doctors, so I went to an aunt and once again pulled down my pants. But then again, she had probably seen me naked a million times as I was growing up with her kids, so it was okay.
She too had the same diagnosis – a stubborn wound that had lost its ability to heal. “Why don’t you go get it surgically removed?” she suggested.
It seemed to me to be the best suggestion in the world. Heck yes, I would get it removed. This wound had driven me crazy long enough.
I immediately went to the nearest hospital and showed my butt crack to yet another stranger.
“Hmmmm,” the doctor said, “this is very unusual. It does look very bad. When do you want to remove it?”
The way she said it made it seem as if it was a simple 20-minute procedure, so I happily waited, confident I’d be out by lunchtime and wondering what I should eat. So I was surprised when they told me I had to check in as a patient. It was the first time I was being hospitalised, and though I'm all about having a first time for everything, this wasn't one of them. I was made to wear the sick-person uniform, and told to lie down on a stretcher. Then, even though I was perfectly capable of walking, I was wheeled all over the hospital, past multiple corridors full of gawking people and at long last into the surgery room.
They injected me with something, and the last thing I remembered seeing were the bright lights of the operating table before I passed out.
I woke up disoriented and confused in another room. There was no pain, and I remembered nothing. Did the surgery even happen?
A nurse came bustling over. “Oh my goodnesssssss”, she whispered a little too excitedly, “you won’t believe what came out of your wound!”
That didn’t sound very good.
“A maggot!” the nurse continued, still as excited. “A big, fat maggot! It was THIS big.” She demonstrated with her fingers. “Do you want to see it?”
I thought about it for all of 0.2 seconds. “No thanks.”
“Oh, but you MUST see it! It’s so huge!”
“No, I really don’t think I…”
But I was talking to empty air because she had already disappeared, off to retrieve the maggot.
The nurse came back with a clear, plastic vial, and I came face-to-face with the bane of my existence throughout my entire South America trip: a large, white and striped maggot, the size of my thumb, floating peacefully in liquid.
(I was not in the presence of mind to be taking photos of something that had been living inside my skin, but the doctor did, and the picture is absolutely disgusting. Only view at your own risk. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
CLICK HERE FOR UNAPPETISING PHOTO OF MY MAGGOT.
I became instantly famous within that hospital.
The doctors and nurses had never seen anything like it before and they studied the dead maggot that had been extracted from my body with the utmost curiosity. One male nurse, however, immediately recognized what it was from watching one too many Youtube videos.
So here’s basically what happened: The mosquito that bit me carried a larvae of an insect known as the Human Bot Fly, commonly found in South America. The larvae was deposited into my skin. It grew, and grew, and grew, happily ensconced within my swelling flesh and eating off my fat. As thanks, it would spit out blood and pus, and every now and then, it would wriggle, which caused the sudden pain and itchiness.
Recipient of Absurd Creature of the Week award. Source: Wired
If I had been a native South American, or if I had been a bit more clever or had watched as many random YouTube videos as that one male nurse, I would have been able to immediately recognise the wound for what it was and extract the little bugger before it got any bigger. But no, clueless Atiqah continued on traveling, all the while thinking she was doing a brave solo trip when in reality, she was accompanied by a little friend the whole time.
Because we’d been together for so long (unbeknownst to me), and it even came with me all the way to Antarctica, I’ve decided to honour it with a name.
This maggot, though dead and now forever preserved in a plastic vial in a Malaysian hospital, will henceforth be known as: Bottie.
(Human Bot Fly… Bot Fly... Bot... Bottie… geddit? I wanted to name it Betty at first, which sounds cuter, but I wasn't sure of its gender, so in order to be respectful and neutral, I changed it to Bottie. I gave this a lot of thought, you see, while prone on the hospital bed for two days.)
“So wait,” a friend asked very seriously after this traumatising episode, “does this mean you’ve technically given birth? Because the maggot came out of you?”
Ha ha ha. I need better friends. That being said, I do have a permanent Cesarian-like scar on my back to remember this little baby by.