On itching

Last week I did some creative work outside. Because I am an idiot, I decided the short period of time I was going to be outside didn’t merit bug spray. I don’t like the way bug spray smells and I didn’t want to scrub it off me.

This moment of idiocy gave me the opportunity for another flashbacky revelation. When I hear mosquitoes, now, I have two reactions. First, I think “Yuck, a mosquito,” like a normal person. But simultaneously I am overcome with the strongest wave of nostalgia. They say scent is the sense most closely related to memory, but I’m telling you: that mmmmmmmMMMMMMMMmmMMM whine gets me every time.


Every now and then, the scientists studying interesting things will publish some new finding about why some people are more attractive to bugs than others. It’s the diet… the blood type… the hormones… whatever. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is: I’ve got it.

And when you take that propensity for being an insect-Siren and transport it to a different continent containing bugs with venom entirely new to your immune system, you’re asking for a disaster.

The first week in Jordan I had only a few bites. I think this is probably because we were staying in a nice-ish hotel with screens on the windows, and also because we were so jetlagged nobody was staying up outside very late at night. But at the end of our first week we were all shipped off to homestay families, in a country where most windows don’t have screens and most families leave their doors open at all times, weather permitting. And that’s where the itching started in earnest.

Every bug in the entire nation of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan flew to my homestay village and bit me during the summer and early fall of 1999. I’m not exaggerating. It has¬†to have been every single bug.

I had bites on the sides of my hands and the tops of every toe: tiny, fluid-filled blisters that ached if you touched them and itched ferociously if you didn’t. I had nickel-sized mosquito bites on my arms and legs and looked like I had a blotchy virus. And every other week or so, I’d wake up with one eye swollen shut and know that some entrepreneurial little bugger had found my eyelid during the night.

The first sentence I learned in the imperative in Arabic was “Don’t scratch!” My host mother would usually whack at me with a pillow, a dishtowel, or whatever was handy when she caught me. But I had never itched like that in my life. Even with chicken pox, I had the luxury of good antihistamines, cool baths, and the knowledge that it would be over soon.


I soon gave up all environmental and health principles and resorted to The Vape. This is a device that looks like a fat little donut with a metal plate in the hole. It plugs into the wall. You put a toxic-blue pad on the metal plate, close all doors and windows, and leave for five minutes to kill everything with lungs. I don’t want to know what it did to mine.

There were the army-issue mosquito nets, of course: heavy as human bodies and just as hot and sticky. Ensconced in a net-tent, you could hear the breeze blowing outside and feel none of it on your skin. The bites were almost better.

There was also the army-issued bug repellent: an oily, smelly cream in a dully colored tube covered in fine print. Some of the fine print said things about not putting the cream directly on human skin and washing it off immediately if such skin-contact occurred.

We put it on our skin anyway.

Finally, I developed a system. I was of course sleeping in long pyjamas. Even when I was finally in my own home, I still often slept in long pants: I never quite escaped the sense of constant eyes on my legs if I didn’t. This is a subject for another post (or many, many other posts).

But here the long pajamas were a blessing. I would coat my feet and hands in the oily slime, nuke my room with a Vape pad for half an hour, and then tuck my pants into some socks. Better yet, I’d tuck my hands into socks as well. With some care I was even able to slip a rubber band onto each ankle and each wrist. Then I’d lie down and offer the safety of my face up to whatever Powers That Be.

The first time my host mother saw me doing this, she laughed. Then she explained to me that I was going to catch a cold if I got that hot in the summer.

I was so hot and itchy I didn’t even try to mime out a comprehensible rejection of her science. I just waved a be-socked hand at her and headed to bed.

And then the real fun would begin. If you’ve never lain awake in the choking heat of a Middle Eastern summer, waiting for the inevitable whine near your ear, you really haven’t truly lived. You lie there praying it doesn’t come, bargaining with whatever deity you choose. You think maybe TONIGHT is the night that all mosquitoes suddenly died in a freak accident. Maybe. And just as you begin to drift off… mmmmmMMMmmmMMMMMMMM!

The good news is, when you hit yourself in the face with a hand covered in a sock, it hurts a little less than it might otherwise.

One Reply to “On itching”

  1. It’s one of Larry Gonick’s History of the World books, I think, that has a bit about a tribe which refuses to swat mosquitoes. Their folklore holds that, long ago, a great council of animals came together to decide what to do about all these upstart humans running amok. The decision to wipe them out was almost unanimous- only the mosquito spoke up for us, because we’re just so darn tasty. And so humanity was spared, and mosquitoes earned an eternal measure of gratitude and forbearance.

    It’s not a story that really resonates with a lot of people.

    [minor note- typo in second to last paragaph, ‘diety’]

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