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Horrors: Panama Canal

I've Got Him Under My Skin

October 18, 1998|FRANZ LIDZ | Lidz is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated and author of the memoir "Unstrung Heroes."

Death by bacon. That was the sentence Redmond O'Hanlon meted out for the botfly tunneling through my left wrist. The little larva had begun freeloading off me during a 10-day, 74-mile expedition last year to retrace Vasco Nunez de Balboa's historic trek across the isthmus of Panama. Now, three weeks later, he was making like Charles Bronson, the Tunnel King in "The Great Escape."

"The path Dennis has traced through your skin," notes O'Hanlon, "is not unlike the one Balboa took through the isthmus in 1513."

O'Hanlon, the peerless British travel writer and naturalist, is something of a connoisseur of the tropical botfly. Though he has never had one burrow into him, he has seen plenty while tramping through the world's most remote jungles. "This is the first live botfly that's ever visited my home," he says excitedly in his Oxfordshire study. "I'm truly delighted!"

Exactly what O'Hanlon finds delightful about botflies eludes me. If you think horseflies have bad manners, you should see botflies. An adult looks something like a bumblebee, if a bumblebee were covered in unbristled black hair and had bright green headlamps for eyes. The horse botfly--known to scholars as the gadfly--leaves about 500 eggs on its victim's forelegs, nose and lips. The larvae remain in the eggs until the horse licks itself, whereby--stimulated by moisture and friction--they emerge, get swallowed and spend the next 11 months dizzily cruising the horse's alimentary canal. Cattle botflies bore into the hide of a cow, then bum around subcutaneously for a few months before settling in Claribell's back. The hideous lump each larva causes is called a warble. Deer nose botflies are supposed to be the fastest flying insects, with a top speed of about 50 mph. They're swifter, but not nastier, than the sheep botfly, which leaves nits in the nostrils of its hosts, causing a nervous condition called blind staggers. The less said about the rodent botfly, the better. (It attacks the testicles of squirrels and emasculates them, if you really have to know.)

Which brings us, inevitably, to the human botfly, a circumspect little critter that attacks travelers to the tropics. The female attaches her eggs to mosquitoes and stable flies, which do the dirty work for her. Ninety-eight point six turns out to be the perfect temperature to hatch botfly eggs, and the larvae enter your skin. After 40 days of squiggling, the botfly grub emerges. The grub becomes a pupa and then a fly and then . . . well . . . here we go again. Zzz zzz zzz zzz zzt, says the female botfly. The most ill-humored females say simply zzt. Females tend to be sly and conniving; males, downright irresponsible. Many male bugs procreate and die, but the male botfly procreates and procreates. No wonder we hear so much these days about the breakdown of botfly family values!

*

I feel a certain affection for the orphaned Panamanian botfly that has taken up residence in my arm. Dennis, I call him, after Dennis (The Worm) Rodman of the Chicago Bulls. As he writhes in my wrist, Dennis makes tortured little semaphores. A week before I arrived at Redmond's, he had formed an "S." Yesterday, a "P." Today, Dennis has outdone himself--taken the rather complicated shape of a "Q." I recall--or perhaps hallucinate--how Lassie once alerted her dim human masters to a blaze in the barn by spelling out "F-I-R-E" in Timmy's oatmeal.

While chewing over the Dermatobia hominis in the library of his cozily cluttered cottage, O'Hanlon suddenly barges off to another room. He returns with a travel book about South America titled "Jaguar."

"When I was natural history editor of the London Times Literary Supplement, I devoted an entire page to 'Jaguar,' " he says. "In one chapter, a botfly bites the author's girlfriend on the nipple, and the author is called on to squeeze the botfly out. It was all extremely erotic."

Endless debugging stories is one of the burdens a botfly-bearer must suffer. A few days earlier, a friend had related the tale of an Angeleno who had been de-botted by a pet parrot. Another friend told me about a Manhattanite whose Costa Rican botfly had festered into a great blue welt. One day, as the New Yorker attended a ballgame at Yankee Stadium, the grub emerged and buzzed off. Whether the infield fly rule was invoked is unclear.

O'Hanlon believes a botfly is a gift that must be shared with his loved one. "Belinda!" he shouts to his wife. "Come look at this."

"Look at what?" shouts Belinda from the kitchen.

"Dennis."

Belinda comes and looks. O'Hanlon says: "A handsome botfly, is he not?"

"Ughhh," Belinda said.

O'Hanlon furrows his eyebrows into a long smudge and forms a tent with his fingertips. "Belinda," he says, "Do we have any fat?"

"Fat?"

"Yes."

"No."

"What about bacon, then?"

"Sorry. We're all out of that as well."

"Are you sure? I bought a rasher this morning. It should be in the fridge." Belinda sprints to the refrigerator, finds the rasher and unwraps it.

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