Leishmaniasis: Inception

A winter in the jungle leading to a fateful January 8, 2011

After struggling with an open wound on my face for nearly three months, I found out that I had a flesh-eating parasite called Leishmaniasis. I had visited several doctors, contemplated empty theories, had chunks ripped off of my face in biopsies, and in the face of the growing realization of the situation I was in, I was actually relieved to learn I had Leishmaniasis. At least I knew what I had. I knew what I needed to do. I had known about Leishmaniasis and should not have denied the idea when the Bolivian doctor said she thought it could have been Leishmaniasis. While we were living in the jungle I knew to avoid the river banks and getting bitten by the sand flies because they can carry Leishmaniasis. I had even seen Leishmaniasis on one of the workers at the lodge; our friend Ruben had a wound on his leg and Shalynn – being the most medically adept with experience working in a veterinary clinic – gave Ruben his daily, twenty minute injections to heal his Leishmaniasis.

With all this thinking about Leishmaniasis, I finally figured out how I got Leishmaniasis: I jinxed myself.

Shalynn and I went on this trip through South America primarily as a volunteer expedition. I had just graduated with a desire to make documentaries, and so I wanted to help people tell their stories of how they were fighting to make the world a better place. Shay had just graduated with a degree in Zoology and wanted to become one of the people fighting to make the world a better place. She choose a volunteer position in the Peruvian Amazon in the Manu Biosphere – world renown for its pristine, primary rain forest and its high biodiversity. While there I was filming and photographing the lodge, the animals, the environment. I produced media to promote the work of the lodge, the Manu Wildlife Center, and their mission: by bringing in tourists they were to buy land and protect it against the logging and gold mining that are destroying the Amazon and leeching thousands of tons of mercury into the rivers.

My time in Manu was the most exciting period of my life. I had always dreamed about being a wildlife cinematographer. Growing up watching Steve Irwin, Animal Planet, and then the Planet Earth Series, I felt my true calling was to explore the natural world with a lens. In Manu, right after Shalynn and I got engaged at Machu Picchu, I found myself living in the most beautiful place in the world with my only prerogative to film animals. Beyond this amazing situation, the lodge was hosting a film crew from National Geographic. Working on the upcoming NatGeo show “Wild Americas,” world-class wildlife photographer Alistair MacEwan was filming Black Spider Monkeys and Brazilian Tapir. I stumbled over myself in offering help to carry gear, and within a week I was helping Alistair set up his camera and wade through the mud to put up the infrared lights in the trees. Some of his gear broke down, too, so I ended up hiking back to the lodge every morning to correspond with his producers while he filmed the spider monkeys during the day and then hiked out with dinner to help set up for the night shoots and stay awake to watch for wildlife. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life! We ended up getting a couple of great shots of tapir entering the clay lick.

His wildlife guide Marlene (Mar-lay-nay) gave me tips to filming some smaller animals. One trick is to set a sort of “pee trap,” in which you pee on the mud by the river that’s exposed to direct sunlight. The heat evaporates the moisture and the remaining salts and nutrients of the urine attract butterflies. Salt is hard to get in the jungle so far away from the oceans, so many animals eat mud and sweat to get sodium.

It took me a while to actually set up such a simple trap. Mostly I was just distracted by hikes and seeing animals. After staying at Manu Wildlife Center for 6 weeks, we moved on to another wildlife lodge operated by InkaNatura: Sandoval Lake Lodge. I got some shots of the lake’s resident Giant River Otters, took some clips of the lodge, rooms, trails and food, and then moved on to another lodge to make a promotional video about that one as well. The Heath River Wildlife Center is on the Bolivian side of the river that divides Bolivia and Peru. On the Peruvian side of the river is a large clay lick for Red-and-green Macaws. When coming back from a morning on a floating blind to film these birds, I set a “pee trap” on the shore at the lodge.

I finally decided to set this trap because we would leave the jungle in two days. In two days I would regret not having done this simple trick to see a bunch of butterflies, so after our group disembarked from the boat I hung back by the shore. After they left I let loose, then went to shower. I came back twenty minutes later to check the trap – there were swarms of neon yellow, bright orange, and phosphorescent green butterflies! I ran back to get my camera and lied down on my stomach to get some shots level with the butterflies. I set my tripod as low as I could to get videos of them flurrying around. I had Shalynn drop a rock nearby the thickest concentration so I could get shots of hundreds of wings scattering together up into the blue sky, above the brown river and the green plants. This was the shot, I thought, that could end a highlight video about the abundance of beauty in this region.

I spent about ten minutes photographing this urine-induced salt frenzy. Since I had just gotten out of the shower, I was only wearing a T-shirt and soccer shorts. As I focused on focusing, as I was distracted by the dozens of butterflies, I ignored the bites I felt on my legs. With the camera rolling on my tripod I rubbed my legs free of bugs, but while taking photos I just let them bite to get the shot. Each shot looked better, so each time that I thought “well this will be the last one and then I’ll get out of here,” I was excited by the results to take another photo, and another. I brushed off my legs. Some flies were on my hands and arms. I took more photos.

Shay admonished me for my carelessness; my legs looked like they had chicken pox from the sandfly bites. I agreed that it was dumb, but decreed, enthusiastically, sarcastically, confidently, stupidly, ignorantly, and the words I wished I’d eaten before it ate me”
“Well I hope I don’t get Leishmaniasis!”

We never noticed the small bite on my cheek.

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