“Angiostrongyliasis, also known as rat lungworm, is a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. It is caused by a parasitic nematode (roundworm parasite) called Angiostrongylus cantonensis.”
We made it to the airport with a reasonable amount of time to spare (although not preposterously early, as I prefer) carrying two 49lb suit cases, four carry on’s, a collapsible sleeper (large baby crib), a multi-strapped car seat rated to 40 lbs, and a sturdy eight wheeled stroller containing our two year old daughter.
At what appeared to be the space where you enter the easily retracted seat belt human funneling fencing to the baggage weighing and tagging area, stood a permanently annoyed middle aged woman lurching and snapping at dumbfounded, bag laden passengers for not first grappling with the line of boarding pass verifying machines clearly marked as the first step in becoming a passenger for those inclined to gaze upwards 12 feet before reaching the checked baggage weigh in and tagging kiosks at the herding maze’s end. The skyward signage made it necessary for Alaska Airlines to position surly staffers unfit for duty elsewhere, or perhaps those being punished for tardiness or calling in sick too often, at what would be (if marked properly) the boarding process’s second step- beginning your travel day with a scolding at the hands of an understandably miserable person, barely able to hide her contempt for us, for herself, for somehow having come to this, and for life in general. I felt sorry for her and for all humans, with our elaborate systems and technical brilliance, all morphing and changing in a whirlwind to contort into the shape of some unknowable plane of stasis where all of this brain spawned lunacy produces painlessly whatever desired effect- which, despite our best efforts, remains permanently just out of reach. The sign could not be lowered.
The baby, stricken with something, feverish and with empty stomach (having barfed up her breakfast), made weak sounds of protestation as my wife deftly shifted her focus to the cold faced machine standing between us and vacation. I stood, puffy in the head from prescribed Xanax, and waited. Sweat was visible on her forehead and trickled down my back. The smell of jet fuel slithered between us. Arriving cars honked and jerked awkwardly at open spaces where passengers could be let off, often sandwiching in those trying to escape, building knots of sideways cars driven by angry friends and relatives roped into airport duty. We had packed for various weather contingencies out of habit and were drastically over burdened with very heavy options.
TIP- You don’t need anything besides swimming gear, a few pairs of shorts, undies, T-shirt etc. when going to Kauai. It is always at least warm, with blazing heat in the middle of the day. Even the rain is warm. Minimalism is the order of the day.
The machine accepted our info, but failed to spit out the required boarding pass, so we were grudgingly permitted into the herding maze by the angry woman who claimed the machine had been disabled by the likes of us yanking on the boarding pass prematurely, somehow gumming up its vital parts.
The adult form of A. cantonensis is only found in rodents. However, infected rodents can pass larvae of the worm in their feces. Snails, slugs, and certain other animals (including freshwater shrimp, land crabs, and frogs) can become infected by ingesting this larvae; these are considered intermediate hosts. Humans can become infected with A. cantonensis if they eat (intentionally or otherwise) a raw or undercooked infected intermediate host, thereby ingesting the parasite.
I have grown to despise travel of any kind. Real effort is required for me to be in the right frame of mind, a state of willful self delusion in which I assume the personality of a normal person who longs to “get away,” to visit exotic places, to pursue family oriented adventures. My hatred of travel comes from a sad and in my case, burgeoning, stick in the mud tendency; a state of being often seen in aging men who perceive extra routine maneuvering as temporary madness to be avoided. I am not a fan of this way of thinking, but recognize its strange allure pulling at me, somehow in proportion to the size of my gut and ass. Having lived chaotically for decades, I now crave sameness, stability and some measure of predictable order. In other words, I have become exceedingly boring. Luckily, I am married to a woman who helps me shake these habits with statements like, “You could get sick and die at any moment, so we are taking a vacation. There is no point in waiting for a better time than now.” Months ago, her wise words shifted the gears of my head from resistance to acceptance and I was on board, even excited to have our routine disrupted in an exotic paradise locale. I participated in hours of YouTube video watching, oohing and aahing at the sites we would soon experience for ourselves. As we were about to leave, a series of news stories tossed my newfound excitement down a flight of stairs into a pit of deranged paranoia. Rat Lung Worm virus was making headlines. Significantly higher numbers of tourists were left helpless and in horrific pain over the past few months as the parasite literally wormed into the meat of their unsuspecting brains. There is no treatment. A woman described child birth as a walk in the park compared to the pain she experienced at the tiny hands of the RLWV. I tried not to poison the experience by becoming hysterical, but I couldn’t stop reading about the goddamn parasite. The articles ranged in tone from- All you have to do is wash the fruit and produce you eat and nothing bad will happen to you! To, we have no idea why this is spreading so rapidly and in many of the new cases we cannot determine how the victims came in contact with this destructive parasite! Did I mention-
THERE IS NO CURE!
Victims are left incapacitated for weeks, months or years depending on the life cycle of the invader who cannot reproduce once inside a human host. So, for a few days in paradise you are left with a massive hospital bill, no job, the lingering psychological effects from prolonged physical torture and a worm corpse slowly decomposing in your brain. Or not…
As we battled our way onto the plane, grappling with our gear and constantly double checking the location and relative stress levels of our children, then partially disrobing and item wrangling at security, I questioned the mission, wondering if paying to enter RLWV territory was an act of madness. As we were digested by security and spat out shoeless into the screened bowels of the airport, I pictured our baby girl experiencing pain at the highest imaginable level, our soon to be ten year old son scarred emotionally for life, his boyhood book ended by paralysis and years of hellish, unceasing pain. We scurried, found the gate and enjoyed priority boarding, which is a great convenience for those tempting fate and travelling with toddlers. Once crammed into our seats, the now fully formed and wondrous cloud of Xanax told me it was OK, nothing bad would happen, these kinds of horrors always hit other people and usually they have done something stupid, increasing their chances of transmittal, like eating a salad, or forgetting to wash their bananas. The Xanax also reminded me how rare airplane disasters are.
“It was like someone stuck an ice pick in my collarbone, in my chest and in the back of my neck. The majority is in your head and the pain is just excruciating.”
The next five hours are hazy due to the Xanax and beer and my inability to stop dozing into little pockets of near sleep as my wife attempted to entertain our baby enough to keep her from screaming, while settling turf disputes between her and her brother, wars over cracker distribution and headphone induced melees. I thought I was helping on an equal footing, but was asked to maybe take a half on the flight home so I could help out instead of drooling and gazing at the nothing space between my face and the seat in front of me.
“It was like my nerve endings snapping in my feet. I was feeling like there was fire ants, hundreds of them, crawling on my feet . . . like a luau of fire-ants.”
As the flight dragged on, beautifully smooth, with very slight turbulence nudging us from side to side, the baby slept, then woke bleary eyed and quiet. Something was wrong. Her silence and inactivity, set off alarm bells. Gone was the never ending chatter, the squirming, the testing of boundaries, the snuggling and intermittent shrieks of joy.
On the ground, the first striking thing about paradise is the heat and humidity’s ability to envelope and nearly smother the temperature delicate Northwesterner. It was like deplaning into a vat of soup. The Lihue airport is small and dingy compared to the sprawling, art slathered Seatac. Once reunited with our checked luggage we stood in the heat waiting for a shuttle to the rental car, wondering what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into. As the Xanax faded, I reawakened to find I was in fact very excited to explore Kauai with my family, despite the heat and discomfort and exhaustion produced by sitting in cramped quarters for five hours nibbling on peanuts, climbing over and around strangers, urinating in a moving phone booth and fretting holes in my invisible Xanax security blanket about looming Ratworms and the statistically possible air disaster. Once delivered to our rental car company, the kids and I lingered in the shade watching locals towel dry freshly washed, brand new looking cars. After about fifteen minutes, just as my wife emerged carrying the paperwork and keys, or daughter projectile vomited onto the sidewalk what looked like blood and the entrails of a rat (strawberry something eaten during the flight), causing a broad shouldered woman sitting on a bench to gag and run away. We asked for a hose and were led to our waiting car.
With my baby girl covered in sunscreen, wrapped in a towel and curled in my lap, I went in and out of consciousness to the sound of the wind and far off crashing waves. We sat among the chickens (Kauai is covered in chickens, supposedly descendant of a rag tag group of escapees who busted out during a hurricane) our long, adjustable sun chairs placed in the shade of the cabana. My boy was burning in the sun, his milk white skin unable to absorb the pounding sun’s radiation despite multiple layers of 4,000 SPF sunscreen. His excitement over endless water slide repetitions fueled by the 27,000 grams of sugar poured into his shaved ice lunch, made it impossible for him to follow simple orders like, “get the hell out of the sun for a few minutes.” The chicken closest to me made cooing sounds as she gathered her chicks under her in the sand. I held mine as she slept. In front of us, a young German couple read books; the Fraulein on her stomach in the sun, the young man, tediously adjusting his chair to remain perfectly centered in the patch of shade cast by a tree. He applied sunscreen every 15 minutes in an obsessive way, behind the ears, between his toes, adjusted his trunks, moved the chair, read his book for ten minutes, then repeated the process. Closer to the pool, a French couple plopped themselves into the pool, the young man standing on his hands, trying to impress his partner and failing. The heat was starting to feel good. The mai tias, sacraments to recumbent lethargy, were plentiful. Charge it to our room? Why yes. We lounged, but couldn’t relax completely because the baby was ill to the point where we determined a hospital visit would be needed if her fever didn’t break. RLWV was lurking. Ever vigilant, I kept looking for evidence of slug encroachment on our turf. I was also suspicious of marauding chickens, the shifty bastards. Surely they could drag a knuckle across an infected slug trail and spread the incurable parasite like wildfire. Mama chicken, all wide and puffy protecting her chicks, remained still and content next to me, but the roosters were actively seeking out rivals to intimidate and below at. Who knows where they’d been. I threw sand at a surly fellow with an amazing red tail. He scurried away, cocking a beady eye at me from a safe distance.
We awoke in comfortable beds to find the baby had shed her fever and was hungry. From there, I let go of my parasite fear and was swept up in the deep narcotic of hardcore relaxation punctuated by unforgettable tourist type adventures with verbose tour guides who drug our pasty flesh through the bush and along the coast with real flair, and a bit of cruelty.
Kauai was as advertised. The Na Pali coast tour was a highlight for all of us, besides the member of our party who became seasick and was shown no mercy by the boat captain, who extended our tour chasing yellow fin tuna as she and a handful of other victims heaved the contents of their stomachs over the rollicking boat’s edge. The coast seems virtually untouched by humans, with massive outcroppings that look like frozen three dimensional sound waves. There are caves with black stone and coral pounded by water so blue, it doesn’t seem real. We swam briefly in the warm water and were nearly carried away. I recommend the Kauai Backcountry Adventures float trip for adults and kids as young as 8 or 9. The hour long float moves through a system of canals and tunnels used in the 1870’s to move sugar cane and is both invigorating and relaxing.
A spell is cast on Kauai, a kind of hypnotic calm conducive to rum drinking and long periods of silence punctuated by dips in the pool or bouts with the surf. The surf and wind are in harmony, lulling you into an expansive trance, erasing days, imploding your will to gnaw on stress or to be concerned about anything besides what’s for dinner.
We avoided the dreaded Ratworm, survived a second flight, and vowed to return with a third of the luggage.