Smoke and buzzes

On my first trip to Indonesia — to Sumatra and Java — in the 1980’s, I discovered many new ideas. Some of them were simply embodied in the rituals of everyday life. Mandi was one of them— washing the soap off of myself using a dipper filled with cool water from the tiled deep well of a bath. ‘Sudah mandi?’ (Already had a wash?) was a kind and simple greeting. ‘Belum’ (not yet) meant that I was still hot and grubby. ‘Sudah’, on the other hand, conveyed in one word that freshness and relaxation were already mine. It’s a poetic language, Bahasa Indonesia.

I was nineteen and each day was a satisfying adventure of discovery. New foods were enticing: eggs coated in chili sambal, little crispy dried fish cooked with peanuts, deep fried tofu, fresh coconut water chopped out of the husk just for me.

Mosquito coils were also new to me. In the simple accommodations my friend and I could afford, we lit them as the sun began to descend every afternoon. Separating the twin coils without breaking either coil was a patient art. They were spiral coils of incense, imprinted together and thus entwined. I broke a lot of them learning. I recall coils of incense unwinding into ashes at the entrances of various temples. I was wide-eyed and questioning. The coils made me wonder about the deeper meanings in the yin-yang circle I saw in them and sometimes painted on walls or gates in temple decorations.

Incense coils suspended from a temple ceiling in Hong Kong. Pic by  Nicolas Holzey .

Incense coils suspended from a temple ceiling in Hong Kong. Pic by Nicolas Holzey.

Learning to use Indonesian matches, in the days before the ubiquitous Bic lighter, was an adventure all of its own. Unevenly made match-heads randomly shot balls of flame in any direction. In any given box, a dozen matches were unlightable. Match-sticks were flimsy or splintered. As I learned to light the coils without using a whole box of matches and then balance the smoking coil on its little tin stand or the top of a bottle, what I was really teaching myself was that that the world was a bigger, riskier place for most people than it seemed from suburban Sydney.

At home in Australia I grew up in a time of lavish insecticides. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had not yet made an impact there. Nana had a nozzled pump to spray insecticide — still more environmentally sound than the throw-away aerosols we use now. Before bedtime in the summer one of the adults, usually Mum or Nana, sprayed our rooms, sometimes (it felt) to saturation.

We still got bitten, of course. Our tender skins swelled in lumps and welts, which we occasionally made bleed by scratching. One night when I was six, my brothers and I jumped on beds, heartily enjoying ourselves, as our room was heavily sprayed. Perhaps I was unusually thirsty or I was fighting off a bug. Perhaps I was just unusually sensitive that night. I got a sore throat in response to the spray. And as I lay down to sleep, the irritation in my throat became more intense.

Aedes Aegypti getting stuck in. Photo by  USDA , in the public domain.

Aedes Aegypti getting stuck in. Photo by USDA, in the public domain.

Lying quietly in the dark, I could hear the warm burble of the adults voices in the adjoining room. It was the sound of safety. But somehow, that lonely night, the nearness of my family was not enough. My awareness of my sore throat became stronger and I began to think Terrible Thoughts. I knew that pesticides were poison. As a flame in my throat flared with each breath or swallow, I became convinced that I had accidentally inhaled a toxic dose of the insect spray. Soon, I became convinced that I would die that night.

In the narrow bed, under my comforting, home-made blankets, tears of fear and self-pity began to stream down my face. I was only in second class, after all. I loved my family and (that year, at least) my teacher. I thought sombrely of how my friends would go on without me and wondered how my brothers would remember me.

After an interminable period of suffering, mainly caused by reflection and rumination on my imminent death, I decided it was only fair to let the adults know what was happening while I was still able to speak. Red-faced and little in my pajamas, I went out into the strange, brightly-lit world where adults live after the kids are in bed. I was afraid of ridicule (or being taken to hospital) if I told them the true gravity of the situation. So I asked, sobbing, “That spray is poisonous, isn’t it? If you got a sore throat from it, couldn’t you die?” An arm was slipped around my waist and I was given a glass of water and peremptory reassurance.

I went back to bed feeling that adults understood nothing of the serious dangers of this world. Lying helpless, I searched my religious pantheon, trying to make a deal with Jesus. I even prayed to Mary, just in case Jesus was busy. I tried to think of saints. I was not Catholic but my best friend was and I admired the beads and costumes. I even went as far as Buddha.

I cried for all the people going to hell for not going to church and for myself for a life to be cut so short. I made apologies to God for amending the Lord’s Prayer to suit myself. I wondered about sin and knew that I might go to hell when I died that night. I realised that small children in other circumstances could die. Some of them never even learned to count or read. I cried with fear and terror because babies could die without having any kind of interesting life at all.

As you may have guessed, I did not die that night.  Eventually, I gathered enough courage to open the door of my room wider so that I could hear my family closer and breath fresher air. I fell sleep.

This past week I’ve been on an island in the South Pacific, visiting recently bereaved friends. Our friend who passed was a powerful and successful patriarch, not a little child, I am profoundly grateful to say. We missed him every day we were there, our memories of him made more vivid by the companionship of his family in the place he lived and loved.

Battling mosquitoes was a feature of that trip too. It’s part of daily life there sometimes at this time of year. Tiny, vicious midges and big stripe-legged aedes mosquitoes drifted over us in clouds. It reminded me of when we lived there in 2014 during an outbreak of a mosquito-borne virus. We needed our anti-mosquito measures then and now.

As I patiently separated mosquito coils and held them in the fast burning flames of cheap matches I appreciated the simplicity of burning biomass with insecticide and the drifting comfort of our mosquito net.

Mosquito coils - seemed to demonstrate the ubiquity of yin-yang.  Haragayato .

Mosquito coils - seemed to demonstrate the ubiquity of yin-yang. Haragayato.

It was only a few years after my nineteen-year-old journey to Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal and India that I began studying acupuncture. Traditional schemas of yin-yang theory were a part of my studies. Nowadays I can see the yin and the yang of insecticides, as well as many of the medicines I use with my patients. Apparently mosquito coils themselves can be be pretty bad for you, with one coil releasing more smoke particles than fifty cigarettes. The middle way is somewhere between the smoke rising from the coils and the fumes of insecticides. And somewhere in the world, a seven-year-old girl may be crying in bed, having just realised, for sure, that everybody dies, but not yet aware that there is no hell except those that people create.


Smokey thumbnail pic byОлег Жилко