I remember the scene from “Stand By Me” so vividly. My childhood crush, Wil Wheaton, is stomach-deep in water and emerges with big, fat, juicy, blood-filled leeches on his skinny frame. Frantic, he and his cohorts rush to pull the vampire insects from their bodies. Then, the worst possible thing happens: there is a leech. In that private spot no one EVER wants to have violated by said grossness. Cue faint.
Yeah, that is the only memory I have from the movie.
I think it is pretty easy to say the leeches made quite the impression on my young, easily-influenced brain.
So, when we go to Sri Lanka for a little elephant/human conflict exploration and monks whisk us from Colombo to land owned by one of the largest temples in the country, I am delighted. We pile into 4x4s with them so they can guide us on a tour of the mountainous region, namely the highest peak in the area. We hit switck-back after switch-back, wind whipping in our faces as we go (a little bit too fast) around the sharp curves.
Then, it happens.
We get stuck going up a mud road en route to the peak. For about 10 minutes, we reverse, shift into drive, reverse, shift into drive, simply spraying a layer of thick brown dirt onto the truck, and sometimes coming dangerously close to ending up off of the mud road and into the thicket of jungle.
When we are directed to exit the vehicle, I don’t think twice about stepping out of the safe confines of our ride and out onto the floor of the jungle.
That is … until my boss spins me into a panic.
“Oh, Diana. Leeches. Leeches.”
Hello, “Stand By Me.”
I immediately drop my gaze to the ground. No puddles. Just dirt and fallen leaves.
“Where? Where?” I ask, frantic. I see nothing.
“On you! On your legs!”
My world nearly goes black as I think back to poor Wil Wheaton and his unfortunately placed invader.
“Oh my god! Get! It! Off!” I scream.
My boss laughs at my Western Freak Out and without hesitation plucks the tiniest brown worm from my black pant leg.
“I thought they only live in water,” I explain, trying to calm myself down … to convince myself perhaps she is wrong, and these aren’t leeches, but adorable little brown worms who simply want to hang out on my leg.
“Noooo, Diana. Leeches.”
“But … why …” I stammer, my brain working overtime to come to terms with the difference between Sri Lankan leeches and the leeches in Hollywood.
And, that is when things go to insect hell.
Suddenly, everyone is squealing and jumping. Leeches are everywhere.
I don’t want to move. I don’t want to do anything but get back into the safe, leech-free confines of our truck. But, that isn’t happening. Instead, our group of 10, including two monks, has to hike it back down the mountain.
Through the land of these grotesque things.
“I don’t understand,” I keep saying, kind of like the way a cat purrs to calm itself down. “I don’t even see them.”
“They are everywhere!” My boss says as we begin to wind our way down, down, down the mountain.
Every few feet, I spy the jerks climbing up my legs. Then, I feel it. A tiny, sting-like thing piercing the top of my ankle.
Oh my god. I’ve been leeched.
I stop on the path — in the heart of leech territory — and pull up my pant leg. There the little asshole is. Ugly brown against my white sock. My fingers fly to my ankle and pluck it off, instantly causing crimson blood to seep through the fabric.
“I’ve been bitten!” I laugh-scream.
I mean … really? Me and leeches? In Sri Lanka? Come on.
Then, I start to notice leeches all over me. Crawling under my socks. Crawling up my legs. Crawling into the lacings of my hiking shoes.
Then, the laugh turns into sheer terror.
My boss laughs again at my panic, which immediately reminds me of the ridiculousness my Drama Queen antics.
“Be careful … Diana … they like to crawl into your belly button.”
Oh, for fucks sake.
I hate belly buttons. Despise them. They freak the crap out of me like no other. About 10 years ago, a popular jeans company did a commercial with belly buttons singing “I’m Coming Out.” I could barely watch a snippet of it without being sickened. And now? Leeches setting up shop in my belly button?
I will either puke or faint. Or possibly both.
I’m pretty sure my face goes nearly ghost white.
“They’re everywhere,” I repeat, coming to terms with the fact.
This time, one of the monk stops and comes to my aid. In his bright orange robe, he bends down and begins removing them from my shoes as I tear them off of my skin.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I repeat, knowing damn well he shouldn’t even be touching me, let alone grabbing them off of my feet.
“Do it like this,” my boss says, beginning to march down the dirt path. Knee-to-chest, knee-to-chest. “They won’t get you like this.”
So, I begin to do the same. Then, I begin to actually see them on the path. It’s as if they can sense my footsteps. Like little mini “Tremor” worms. They stick straight up in the air, then jump. Yes, jump, onto the body.
We continue down the path and every few minutes someone else shrieks at discovering a leech on their body. Finally, we make it to stone steps, and about 30 minutes later, we make it down to our meeting point where we are once again loaded into trucks and brought back down the mountain.
I emerge from the truck blessedly leech-free. And ready to get on with the Sri Lankan adventure … so long as there will be no more leech encounters.