A few years ago I spent Christmas and new year on a remote Cambodian island with some friends. We stayed in basic wooden huts, swam in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, adjusted our palates to local cuisines that were sold out of a singular shack on the beach, and invented hat-making competitions to pass the time left empty by scarce electricity and internet resources. It was paradise. And the icing on the cake was, I managed to avoid getting a single insect bite during my entire time on that little patch of heaven.
Bites were one of my concerns going into the trip. I had some horror stories under my belt, including a deeply unfair few days in Barcelona that resulted in a swollen ankle and a temporarily disfigured face. You expect to get eaten alive in some locations, but a music festival in an urban centre in Spain was not one of them. I went to Cambodia armed to the teeth with the best stuff I could find: 100 per cent Deet, or diethyltoluamide, a chemical that deters the little vampires from landing on your skin and biting. I wasn’t messing around. I wanted the poitín of bug sprays.
I was soothed to learn that Deet dissolves plastic no matter what the concentration. ‘Brilliant! Sounds perfectly safe!’ I thought
When, after only a day or two, the 100 per cent Deet I brought with me started to eat through a plastic airport liquids bag, I felt like I was on to a winner. I applied it carefully around my ankles every evening, trying not to breathe in the fumes, and told myself not to worry as it dripped down on to my flip flops and began to melt them. I used one of the nine daily minutes of electricity and internet on the island to seek Google reassurance that my lungs weren’t melting the same way as my Havianas and was soothed to learn that Deet dissolves plastic no matter what the concentration. Brilliant! Sounds perfectly safe, I thought, and continued to spray liberally while several of my fellow holidaymakers went down with near-terminal itching, a combination of night-time mosquito bites and daytime sandfly infestations.
It sometimes feels like Mother Nature looked down on the Irish people thousands of years ago and decided that they should feature some inbuilt warning systems when it comes to enjoying any bit of heat. Firstly, many of us have potato heads and pale, blue skin which signals an alert and goes bright red as soon as the sun hits its mid-April point in the sky. Secondly, insects seem to love to feast on many of us, and we in turn love talking about how much they love to feast on us. Penneys should be selling slogan T-shirts with “Kiss Me I’m Irish and I Get Eaten Alive Every Summer”. The actual scientific reasons behind why some people are more attractive to insects than others seem mostly down to genetics. Everything from blood type to metabolism and even what you eat and drink has been pointed to as a reason why you’re the main attraction at the mosquito buffet.
I dropped my guard one night and relaxed my evening ritual of bathing in Deet. I lived to regret it
New research in Zambia – where 2,000 people die from Malaria every year – tested which smells mosquitos are drawn to, in an effort to discover what is the precise mixture of body odours they favour. Scientists basically built a human perfume factory and piped different body smells out to an open-air arena of mosquitos. Oily skin secretions and carboxylic acids proved to be very attractive to the little biters, while one individual’s scent was actually repellent to the insects. Could this person’s sweat and morning breath be the new 100 per cent Deet? The research continues. While we have mosquitos in Ireland, they don’t carry fatal diseases like they do in Zambia and countless other countries. Their distant cousin, the midge, loves to lurk around an exposed ankle on a warm summer night. Insect repellents, smoke, wind and light-coloured clothing might save you from the dreaded itch but let’s face it, we’re Irish. They can’t resist us.
When we left that Cambodian island and travelled on to Ho Chi Minh City I dropped my guard one night and relaxed my evening ritual of bathing in Deet. I lived to regret it. Between the bites and lingering dysentery picked up in Cambodia, the long journey back to Ireland was a trial, clutching my antihistamines and Vietnam’s answer to Immodium. I’d go back to the island paradise in a heartbeat, though, despite the insects and the parasites. The wooden huts were on stilts, for goodness sake! You just can’t get that kind of glamour in Wexford or west Cork.