It’s a beautiful spring morning in the gardens at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. After a weekend of relentless rain, the sun has made a triumphant return to its revolving perch in the skies above the little hamlet of Taipei. Even the city’s omnipresent pall of smog has been largely swept away by a gentle breeze, revealing a coy blue sky starved for attention. Fat brown squirrels scurry along the limbs of conifers, birds twitter from the canopy, and great blooms of pink, mauve and white blossoms adorn the branches of the plum and cherry trees that sand along the north, east and southern flanks of the imposing white hall itself.
And where there are spring blossoms, there are crowds. Young, old, men and women, brandishing cellphones, iPads, point-and-shoots and SLRs with great big zoom lenses perched on tripods. Everywhere are avid cherry snappers zooming, clicking, adjusting their hats, pouting, stretching, composing and recomposing in order to capture the perfect shot for their Flickr page or Line profile. Along the outer peripheryies of the gardens, retirees stroll arm in arm or conduct their morning exercise routines, slapping their arms or behinds or legs, stretching high and low, swinging limbs. The passageway that runs along the eastern wall is acting as an amplifier for the already amplified sounds of a karaoke-singing duo stretching their vocal chords, belting out typically mournful ballads with greater acumen than the average park singer.
It’s a park full of life and activity. And I’m the only one wearing shorts. The breeze is gentle and the sun is already high in the sky; it’s not cold. Perhaps it’s Taiwanese modesty, although I’ve seen the napkins masquerading as skirts on Friday nights in the metro, or the shirt pockets somehow converted into somehow functional pairs of denim shorts. Perhaps it’s a product of living in a place where the summers are like saunas; perhaps this is, relative to the extreme, a cool day.
I have another theory, and it involves blood. Specifically mine. I’m not talking about rabid squirrels, or pigeons driven to psychosis by pollution and the embarrassment of constantly crashing into smog-clouded skyscrapers. I’m not talking about teenagers toying with Ouija boards and attempting to summon a demonic entity to eviscerate their parents, or the driver of the Yangmingshan shuttle bus, whose constant exposure to ear-splitting MIDI ditties on endless loop will inevitably drive him to commit some sort of axe-related mass-murder suicide.
I’m talking about midges. Midges are like the civil service. Individually small, seemingly innocuous, barely noticeable as they alight on your ankle, but existing in numbers beyond your wildest fears and constantly intent on bleeding you dry. And even when you’ve waved them away or squished them beneath a swatting hand, you’ll be left with a mark to remember them by.
I was awaiting my first encounter with the mouth parts of the local fauna. Being in a committed relationship, it was unlikely to be of the adult consensual (or sensual, for that matter) sort, but rather the exchange of blood, tissue and potentially bone between me and some slavering, grotesquely overgrown arthropod. This is the subtropics, after all. You expect some shit.
I’ve seen my share of shit, and shared my share of blood. I’ll never forget that “sensory trail” in Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand – pouring cold sweat, nerves tingling, every sense honed to the sharpness and breadth of a razor, seeing the silhouettes of schnauzer-sized yellow orb spiders hanging between the trees every time I looked up from the overgrown path, where upon the tip of every frond and leaf was perched a small, green leech that raised its head as I approached and swivelled as I passed, inching forward frantically in an attempt to attach itself to me. When I paused to brush them off one foot, they swarmed across the leafy forest floor and up my other shoe, spilling over the tops of my secret socks. Sitting twitching on a rock in the river a short while later, I learned of the existence of leech socks when two pretty young university lecturers, their legs covered in carefully tucked layers, strolled blithely out of the forest and across the river, offering to lead me to safety.
I managed to survive a week in Mozambique – where stick insects are more like branch insects and the spiders have their own areas codes – with little more than a bluebottle sting and an infected toe from mashing it into a rock then strolling around the Tofo fish market (an antiseptic environment if ever there was one). My glee at the lack of major injury was short-lived, however, as I was bitten on the knuckle in homely little Port Alfred by a spider of unknown provenance and terrible oral hygiene. By the time we arrived back in Cape Town 18 hours later, blood poisoning had set in and I was a quivering, vomiting mess.
In Laos, it was the microbial nasties that got me. A juicy burn from my scooter’s exhaust in Pakse turned infected, and by the time I reached Vientiane my entire calf had swollen up and the skin down to my ankle was beginning to flake away. You don’t really know pain until you’ve lain face down on a rickety bed in a Laotian public hospital, negotiating with a doctor in pidgin French through gritted teeth while he tears strips of yellowing flesh out of your leg with a pair of forceps. I silently thanked Ms Kotze as I procured vast quantities of schedule 5 antibiotics for half the proposed price. ‘Pour l’economie?’ ‘Oui, pour l’economie!’
Yep, the tropics will get you. So I was expecting the subtropics to put on a good showing of trying to kill me. But a few brushes with spiders aside, it’s been slow to show its teeth. Or sink them into my flesh. Until the Day of the Midges. It was a Monday morning like any other. No slow crawl to the office in traffic for me, but the usual stroll to CK Memorial to sit on my favourite bench by the southern pond and bang out some words. It was cool and overcast, the sky threatening rain. The darters sat poised, staring at their reflections in the water, a squirrel chased a heron off a craggy branch on the little island, and I tapped away at my keyboard. Then I felt it. A faint pain, like the shadow of a pinprick, around my ankle. Then another, and another. I slapped and swatted, seeking the culprits, barely spying the pinhead-sized black specs as they burrowed their way into my hairy skin, limbs flailing, mandibles frantically biting and chewing, wings briefly dormant as their bodies were overcome by the heady, rich irons of sweet, sweet exotic blood – western dining at its finest!
It was annoying enough to chase me from my morning office, but I had no idea what I was in for. Two days later I awoke to find my legs inflamed, great raised round bumps from my knees down to my ankles, a few on my wrists and arms, itching with the fire of a thousand dying suns. No brown greasy ointment nor green oil nor cold teabag would allay the discomfort. I awoke in the middle of the night and clawed at my legs until they bled. When I walked I brushed my shoes against my ankles to scratch them. My entire body was a histamine response. It took a week of disturbed sleep and fragile mental health for the bites to subside. Even the mosquitoes gave me brief respite from their attacks, perhaps out of a sort of professional respect.
Taiwan finally showed its teeth. I just didn’t expect them to be so small.