(warning: this article is not for the squeamish)
In Bahasa Indonesian there are two words for leeches. “Patcet” (pronounced pat-chette) is the small, land dwelling kind and “linta” is the large swimming kind. I have yet to encounter the linta, but I am very familiar with the patcet. They are about 2 to 10 cm long depending on how vigorously they are stretching themselves out. When they are hungry, and therefore have empty stomachs, they are only a few millimeters wide. Their mouths, lined with hundreds of microscopic razor sharp teeth, are the widest part of their body which tapers down to their ever searching foot. They seem to live on everything, leaves, vines, branches, rotting logs, waiting for some juicy snack to come within their reach.
I have developed a sixth sense for detecting the slight itchy twinge of a patcet trying to attach itself to my flesh. It is a sudden and subtle sensation, if missed you may not notice the little blood suckers at work. Usually, if you catch the buggers soon enough, you can just flick them off. After finding one on my stomach I took to tucking my shirt in and cinching the drawcord of my pants a bit too tight. I decided to also always wear long sleeves, which is downright uncomfortable in the sweaty heat of the jungle. It is also highly advisable to tuck your pants well into your socks. Then slather some deet bug spray on the few remaining exposed body parts. To my satisfaction I often catch leeches trying pitifully to suck the blood from my polyester pants. Naively I think that I have won the war.
I would advise anyone wandering the jungle to cover up well then put leeches out of mind, they are unavoidable and therefore worrying will only drive you mad. Despite all my precautions at the end of each day in the forest I peel off my gaiters to find leeches working their way into the eyelets of my shoes, sometimes squirming into my socks, other times sucking on the inside of my wind-shirt or creeping down the back of my neck. I have learned that on no occasion should you discuss leeches with your Indonesian friends. They will almost certainly tell you stories of doubtful merit intended only to freak you out. Over lunch on a river bank one day I ask Ahmed if patcets carry any diseases that I should know about. Initially he says no. Then he goes on to tell me about his friend. He was bitten by a leech in this jungle. The leech carried a parasite in its mouth that passed unnoticed to Ahmed’s freshly bitten friend. A few weeks later the parasite had grown to a long, squirming worm living under the epidermal layer of his skin. He could see and feel it moving around just under surface of his leg! Naturally the solution was for several people to hold the poor guy down while someone sliced his leg and freed the worm. I am filing this story in the ‘tall tale’ category in my mind. I am also refusing to google “leech transmitted parasites in Sumatra.” Denial is bliss.
At first my trips through the forest went off without a leech. I attribute this to beginner’s luck. Inevitably the day came when pulling off my gaiters and shoes revealed a large black blob firmly affixed to my ankle. Above it a gushing fountain of blood was staining my socks. The mangled body of a second leech lay dead in my shoe. I am rather proud that in that moment I stayed calm. I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out my hand sanitizer, poured a big goopy drop on the offending patcet’s head and he fell right off. What happened next I am not proud of. Staring at the fat wriggling creature on my porch I was overcome with the need to get rid of it. Without thinking I stomped on it with my still shoed foot. BAD IDEA. Never stomp on a leech that has been gorging on your blood for hours. I made a shockingly large mess of my deck. So while my sock absorbed the blood pouring now from two leech bites I scrambled to rinse the blood off the deck with water from my water bottle before my roommate showed up. This task complete I bolted for the washroom, grabbing the bedroom mirror on the way. After a thorough head to toe leech check revealed no further stowaways, I set about the most intensive bucket shower I have ever taken. All the while my ankle bled profusely.
Leeches release an anticoagulant as they bite you. This ensures that your blood flows easily into their mouth. It also means that long after they are removed you keep bleeding. All you can do is cover the bite with a thick patch of gauze and wait. After a few hours you may be tempted to peek under the gauze–DON’T! After a few more hours when you want so badly to cave to your curiosity–DON’T! Then when you are certain that you have clotted and peel back the gauze to stare at a dark black spot ringed with red it seems you are in the clear. You aren’t. I certainly thought I was. I took off the gauze, went for a late night tea, chatted with the rangers, meandered back to my cabin, looked down at my sandal to discover a gruesome swath of blood staining my foot and shoe. All this from two bites one millimeter each across.
Eventually the bites do stop bleeding. I have learned, after many more leech bites, that the time they bleed for increases with the amount of time they spend attached to you. The most irksome part may be that the bites itch intensely for weeks as they heal. More disconcerting is the image of wormy parasites slowly growing under my flesh that I can’t seem to clear from my mind. Every time I scratch my leech bites I unconsciously look for them. I have even mentally prepared myself for the day I have to cut one out. So far it has been two weeks since my first bite, but since I refuse to believe the parasite story, I am also refusing to look up how long it takes them to grow. Denial is bliss, almost.