Beware the Tiny Tiger

One of the many reasons why we will continue to risk life and limb to discover perfection. Photo: Jason Childs         

The smell of death was upon me. I knew it well, and as I lay in my jungle compound, incapacitated and drenched in sweat, it’s what scared me the most. Back in Sydney before I’d left, I’d visited my terminally ill uncle just before he was claimed by stomach cancer. As I’d reached in to give him one last hug, my arms had returned slicked in his sweat. That thick, though sharp and acidic smell is something I’ll never forget.  Now it was my turn.

I’d seen the mosquito that got me, delivering three quick strikes to my chest, stomach and back before I could get it.  My heart sunk as I examined it in my palm: black and white stripes – it was almost certainly a carrier.

The virus came on quick, the dreams beginning straight away, all sped up and crazy – the same twisted shit that infects your mind after a weekend on the eccies.  The aches came next, gentle at first before turning crippling and arthritic. Then the fever. At first I’d actually enjoyed it. The novelty of wrapping myself in doonas to keep warm was one I hadn’t enjoyed in six months. But it wore off quickly.

Wet season in Bali is rife with viral mosquitoes. Tourism brochures might tell you dengue fever, chikangunya and malaria are a rarity here but like most state-sponsored media in Indonesia, it’s a load of shit. Kalani Robb famously got malaria here in the nineties and the situation hasn’t improved much since. All three viruses are still present throughout the island. Only in the pizza slice-shaped tourist precinct between Sanur and Canggu are they less so.

It’s the abundance of half-finished construction sites that make Bali so conducive to mosquitoes. When the rains come in late October, stagnate pools of water collect in the concrete constructions structures making the perfect environment for larvae. The species doing the damage is the Asian Tiger – easily identifiable through it’s black and white stripes – with the carriers operating mostly in daylight hours. So far the Tiger has wreaked havoc throughout Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. It’s even begun spreading to northern Australia, arriving in the moist inners of tyres or other transportable goods.

The Tiger is thought to be able to thrive in anything from the tropics to more temperate zones like Sydney and Melbourne. And as such authorities here are scrutinising it’s progress in the far reaches of the country’s north.

The intensity of the fever and aches is so severe your only recourse is to eat handfuls of opiates and groan it out. But the drugs also kill your appetite and after four days with no food your body begins to deteriorate very fast. You wake each night drenched in sweat and freezing. You roll out, swap the sheets, then do it all again just before dawn.
When you realise your travel insurance expired a couple of months ago you’re forced into the local Balinese medical system; tiny clinics, a frustrating language barrier, and long waits that lead to sleeping on the clinic’s wooden benches beneath halogen lights. On the way home the taxi drivers tell you about the times they’ve had a mosquito virus, and the hemorrhaging, bleeding noses, and bloody vomiting that comes with it. For the first time in three years living here I feel genuinely pitied by the Balinese. An affluent white man, I may be, but alone, exposed and very ill, the human tendency is toward compassion. I smile as I slump out of the taxi, then crawl back into bed. The hallucinations make everyone look like yellow-skinned zombies. But when I look in the mirror that’s what I see. Am I projecting a vision of myself onto other people?

A skype call from mum. “This is serious. You look fucked. Come home.” Fuck that. If the Balinese can deal with it, so can I. Then I wake to find my lungs no longer filling up with air like they used to. I’ve been self-diagnosing using google but this symptom isn’t mentioned anywhere.

Everything’s getting worse. A couple of hours ago my neighbour decided to get the entire neighbourhood sprayed for mosquitoes, only she forgot to tell me. So there I was, corps’ing out in bed, when the mozzie-busters came bursting in with their gas-masks and bazooka filling my house with thick poisonous smoke. I stumble out of my bedroom, choking into the street and collapse.

My lung capacity is fading and my temperature is doing a six degree pivot (from 33 to 39 degrees over a few hours). It’s fast becoming an emergency and I opt for the mercy dash home. I pack what I can, gobble a handful of opiates and make for the airport. As I stand in the queue I sweat like a Nigerian drug mule, but no one questions me. Guess I’m travelling in the right direction (away from Indonesia). It turns out to be surprisingly easy to expose a plane load of people to a potentially fatal infectious virus. I try and mask my symptoms with an extra handful of opiates but I overdo it and pass out. When I wake up I’m in a pool of sweat, and I discretely ditch my t-shirt in the toilet, spending the rest of the flight in an unzipped leather jacket.

The morning sun has just established itself over the Garie National Park as we circle Sydney Airport. A smooth east swell leaves trails of foam across the ocean and I can kilometres of rich bush and unspoiled beaches in every direction. As the city comes into view, standing tall and majestic over the most beautiful harbour in the world, I close my eyes and relax into my seat. This will all be over soon. My mum is waiting at the other end  and she’s gonna take me straight to some of the best medical facilities in the world. “You’ve got pneumonia,” explains the doctor, “but it’s in a strange part of your lung and we’re not sure if the drugs can treat it.” An untreatable virus eating away my lungs doesn’t sound good. What exactly the virus was that put me here in the first place is still a mystery, but after two days in isolation my lungs begin to respond to treatment and I’m released. A few days later I’m on my mum’s couch with a batch of Banana-mull-cake, watching Mitchell Johnson teach a bunch of Englishman how to dodge a red rock hurled at 150 kilometres. Things are finally looking up. - Jed Smith

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