Costa Rica journal: Mosquitos are Costa Rica’s first line of defense


You can see one problem with Costa Rica by taking one peek at my ankles. Mosquitos are deadly here. I haven’t been typing much this morning because it’s hard to type when your hands are too busy furiously scratching bites. They’ve all broken and my feet are a canvas of red op-art. It looks like I spent the night getting pecked by rabid roosters. I brought Jungle Juice which I’ve sprayed daily and nightly. Note to travelers: Don’t miss an inch. I must’ve skipped over a couple inches of flesh as an entire squadron of deadly mosquitos have bored in. If Costa Rica ever starts a military, those suckers will be the first ones deployed.

Now I’m hearing this isn’t just a passing itch. It can be deadly. Dengue fever is an epidemic in Costa Rica. More than 12,000 cases have been reported. What is Dengue fever? High temps, pain in the back of the eyes, rash, severe headaches and pain so bad they call it “bone-breaking fever.” The symptoms hit six-10 days after your bite. Hmmm. That means I should be doubled over in pain sometime while I’m in L.A. next weekend for the Pac-12 Media Day. “Excuse me, Coach MacIntyre, while I throw up on this buffet table.”

I’m not susceptible to tropical illness. In 1978 I contracted typhoid in Northern Thailand. Where were you that New Year’s Eve? I was throwing up all night in a bamboo outhouse. Nothing can be worse than typhoid. Migraine. 104-degree temperature. Severe dehydration. Vomiting attacks. Diarrhea. Dizziness. It’s like your entire digestive tract wakes up one morning and just says, “FUCK IT!” and stops working. I was two days hike from the nearest road. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3 and I was down to 138 pounds. My arms looked like garter snakes.

The good thing is Bangkok had a medical clinic on nearly every corner. The bad thing is, in the late ‘70s, those medical clinics mainly treated venereal diseases. Tourists came on sex vacations or backpackers would shack up with some Thai girl for the weekend after six months of celibacy in India. So I walked into a clinic looking like a gang leader in “Night of the Living Dead.” My hair has strung out. My skin was orange. My eyes were bloodshot. My tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the lobby and some Swede sitting there looked at me and said, “MY God! Who were YOU with?”

The benefits of typhoid are that it builds up an immunity system to fight off any bacteria known to man. That was 1978 and I haven’t been sick since. Yeah, I get colds and twice I had traveler’s flu for 24 hours but that’s it. I haven’t missed a day of work due to illness in 34 years in the business.
I don’t want to end my streak now.

Oh, to finish the disgusting Thai story: My mother grew up in a time when entire villages in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. I placed a call telling her I was going to a hospital in Bangkok the next day. She sent me $300, but the next day was the first day in five I hadn’t woken up to violent vomiting attacks. I even got enough energy to leave the squalor of my dive hotel room to walk around the block. I ate some plain rice and, shockingly, kept it down.

The next day I ate more and walked more. I didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, I took a long bus ride to the gorgeous, unspoiled island of Phuket (pre-tsunami, pre-airport, pre-resorts). For a week I swam in the Indian Ocean and ate curry shark. I sent Mom a postcard saying I was OK.

She never got it.

She thought I was dead. She had Portland’s Associated Press bureau, for which I worked part time in college, send a bulletin to the AP bureau in Bangkok, where I did some part-time work. They sent memos to every bureau in Southeast Asia. I’m surprised my picture didn’t land on the back of a carton of chai. No one could find me.

All the time I was drinking beer on Phuket or hiking a volcano in Sumatra or hitchhiking up and down both coasts of Malaysia. When I finally walked into the AP office in Bangkok, the bureau chief said, “John, you’d better call home.”

So please, folks, don’t take the Internet for granted. I sure could’ve used email in 1978.