Thursday, October 13, 2005

Langtang's Leeches

In the movies, intrepid heroes only pick up leeches if they've been wading through murky swamps (and normally, leeches are the least of their worries).

In real life, though, leeches come to meet you on the trail. Every overhanging vine, every shrub lining the path - they're all potential launching pads for these little invaders.

We inadvertently accumulated several leeches just walking on the trail (one girl picked them up during a bathroom stop - don't ask). If it's just been raining, you can expect a lot of them to be crouched in the vegetation waiting for unwary trekkers to walk by.

Over two separate days, I removed one from under my shirt (just above the waistband of my pants), one from my wrist (under my watch strap, which was under my jacket), one from my pant leg (where it was trying to make it through the fabric of my pants), and a tiny one from between my fingers. If I had to put salt in all those places I'd be a walking salt pillar.

On the first day, John was wearing black trek pants and looking cool and comfortable. By the second day he'd switched to khakis for easier leech detection!

Apart from a hyperactive imagination (where I feared every little twitch signaled a leech under my clothes or in my boots), it turned out to be not as bad as I feared. Typically a quick squirt of rubbing alcohol made the leeches curl up so they could be easily flicked off - no blood pouring out of the bite, just a little red mark on my skin to show where the leech was attached. The sherpas guiding us had two-foot-long sticks with small pouches of salt attached to the ends. Instead of squirting alcohol, they just touched the salt pouch to the leeches and voila, the leech would fall off.

Of course that all depends on somebody sighting the leech in the first place. Paranoid lot that we were, we stopped pretty often to do a quick check and make sure our clothes and skin hadn't been breached by the little critters. They're neither painful nor particularly dangerous, and they fall off by themselves once they've had enough. But still - when you ask someone to check your back, the last thing you want to hear is, "Too late... there are two well-fed leeches back on the trail somewhere!"

The scariest part was trying to fall asleep after having found two leeches in our teahouse bedroom. My more knowledgeable mountaineer friends told us that we brought those leeches in with us (riding on clothes, bags, or shoes), so perhaps a more thorough check would have allowed us to sleep peacefully. Every so often a yell would ring out from either our bedroom or the adjacent one, followed by a frantic search for rubbing alcohol and finally a spirited argument between the occupants about who was going to transport the leech outdoors.

Thankfully these leeches can't survive above a certain altitude. I was never so happy to have seen high altitude in my life!

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At October 15, 2005 11:03 AM, Anonymous mom said...

Dear Ching,

When I was 20 and doing volunteer work in the mountains of Davao del Norte, I was told by a Peace Corps volunteer that you can get the tobacco from a cigarette(s) and rub that on your body to prevent leeches from getting attracted to you. They (leeches, not the PCVs) don't like the smell of tobacco. I never got to test this solution but it may be worth a try, should you go there again.


P.S. I saw the pictures that John posted and know there's more. Hope to see them (and both of you) soon.

At September 05, 2006 10:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story. You must have started pretty low to get leeches, and they're generally only out for the months of high summer. Just unlucky, I guess.

But lucky that the wounds wouldn't bleed much. My experiences with leeches here (Bhutan) have been terrible. They bleed for days and itch for weeks.

Personally, I'd rather someone tell me that the leeches are long gone than find one still on me.



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