I spent three years as an IT contractor at the US military base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. Our firm had been hired to perform a massive upgrade to all the information systems on the base. It was only supposed to take a year and a half. As these things usually go, it went enormously over budget and took twice as long as we’d estimated. I didn’t mind. One of my dreams growing up was to travel to Africa, so when I was presented with the opportunity, I jumped at it. Since I don’t have much family and wasn’t in a relationship at the time, I had no strings attached when I boarded that plane with my colleagues.
The base offered free basic housing and other facilities to their visiting contractors, which some of us took, but I wanted to live in town and embrace the culture. Djibouti City was nearby, extremely inexpensive, and replete with all the cultural experiences I ever wanted. I met wonderful people, learned a little French and Arabic, and discovered their local cuisine is not only some of the best on Earth, but far less fattening than American food. I must’ve lost 25 pounds while still eating like a king. As our IT project dragged on, I almost wished it would take forever. I just didn’t want to leave.
But, of course, all good things must come to an end. In April of 2005, with our task complete, we were on a plane back to Burlington via a New York layover. The team was given a month off to reconnect with everything back home. Those of us who didn’t have homes or families to come back to were put up in hotels until we could find places of our own. The hotel room was so much bigger and nicer than the tiny apartment in Djibouti to which I’d grown accustomed. It felt downright decadent to get to sprawl out and get comfortable. And as much as I loved the Djiboutian food, knowing a bacon cheeseburger could be room-serviced up to me 24 hours a day was a damn good feeling. I took advantage of it many, many times.
After being home for three days, though, a rather unpleasant situation arose. I’m not going to get graphic because we all have our own intimate knowledge of such a thing, but I’ll just say I was terribly constipated. Three days stretched into four, then five. I was extraordinarily uncomfortable at that point. Most of the advice online said to wait it out and make sure I was staying hydrated. I drank bottle after bottle of water, but, to my chagrin, my desired result continued its elusion.
Day number six was a repeat performance of the previous five. On the seventh day, I didn’t rest. I hauled my bloated self over to the drug store and bought some laxatives. Just the thought of the things grossed me out, but the promise of their efficacy did great work to quell my emotional misgivings. I went back to the hotel, read the directions, swallowed the suggested dose, and waited.
The medication acted quickly. Again, in an effort to avoid the all-too-familiar details, I’ll simply say the pressure and discomfort ended abruptly. The only pain, as I’d expected, was located on the, well, exit. Unfortunately, here is where I must start a period of elaboration. I assure you, it is not scatological. It is, however, profoundly disturbing.
As I went to clean myself, I noticed an obstruction in the area. It was not what I, or likely you, are thinking. No, as I learned rather quickly, it was far, far worse. I peered down between my legs and saw the most horrifying sight in my 42 years of life. Dangling into the the bowl was a thick rope of tangled, grayish-white worms. I screamed with such terrific ferocity that I immediately damaged my vocal cords, causing the outburst to sound as if it were produced by a dilapidated chainsaw. I flexed the muscle through which the creatures were hanging, hoping to dislodge them. Nothing.
Needless to say, I was panicking. I had no idea what to do, but I knew I had to get the things out of me. All my life, I’d been terrified of bugs and insects of all sorts. Having these monsters infesting me was beyond any level of abject horror I could’ve imagined. The next move I made, I would later learn, is not a recommended method of removal.
I reached behind me and grasped the writhing column in my fist. I involuntarily retched as I felt the thickness of the parasitic invaders against my palm. All bunched together, they were the diameter of toilet paper tube. I squeezed the atrocious things and pulled as hard as I could. For a moment, my only respite from the terror was the impossibly acute agony produced by my pulling action. A tearing sensation of pain exploded right below my sternum – practically in my chest. With dawning realization that the creatures were far deeper in my body than I could deal with myself, my panic mixed with deep helplessness.
Remember, this was 2005. Personal cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. While I had one in Africa, I’d turned it in upon my arrival home. It wouldn’t have worked on our network, anyway, and my company had yet to give our group new Blackberry devices. What that meant was I had to get up and walk to the bedside telephone. I distinctly remember the wet slapping of the repulsive rope on my bare thighs as I waddled across the room. I dialed the front desk, not 911 for some idiotic reason I can’t remember, and simply said, “medical emergency in room 1142.” I stood there, naked from the waist down, with a tail of twitching parasites hanging out of me.
The hotel staff who’d been trained in CPR and other basic emergency services arrived first. Without knocking, the used their own key to barge in. Each of the three looked puzzled, and, within a span of ten seconds, realized why they’d been called. One by one, they turned varying shades of white. The largest of the group, a man with a name tag labelling him as “Jeremy,” sat down on the bed and promptly fainted backward. The other two, “Maria” and “Tyshawn,” did their best to maintain composure. They asked me if I was having trouble breathing or experiencing chest pains or blurred vision. As the procedural questions dragged on, the real EMTs arrived.
Hardened as EMTs are, one of the two men who arrived audibly whispered “Jesus f*****g Christ” when he saw why they’d been summoned. Wrapping a towel around my waist, something I hadn’t even thought of in my panic, they helped me onto a stretcher and we went down the elevator and into the waiting ambulance. At the hospital, the ER doctor in charge of me just said, “well that’s a pretty bad case, huh?” I nodded, stupidly.
A few doses of specialized medication and two days later, I expelled the invading creatures. I was told I probably got them from eating contaminated food in Africa. Also, apparently I was lucky that I didn’t have to have surgery. Sometimes when they’re as deep as mine were, surgery’s the only option.
So, it’s almost 11 years later. I had a few scans in the months that followed my hospital stay to make sure I didn’t have anything new growing inside me, but each time I was clean as a whistle. Still, as you might imagine, I’m haunted by the experience. Worst was the feeling of how thick and heavy the tangle of worms felt in my hand. That, and how impossibly long the things were. I swear, I was convinced they’d made their way into my chest and were coiling around my heart, ready to squeeze the life from me. But all is well, I keep telling myself. Nothing is out of the ordinary.
It’s interesting, too, because the worms themselves don’t scare me anymore. I’m traumatized by the experience and the stress resulting from it, of course, but as the years went by, I could easily study the things online and in textbooks without shrinking away. In fact, I’m almost drawn to them. Today, I’d venture to guess I know more about that genus and species than even some experts in that field. It’s strange how our experiences can shape our interests, isn’t it?
A couple years ago, I quit my job in technology. Using the money I’d been saving, I started a food truck. The customer base started off small, but it grew pretty quickly thanks to word of mouth and social media. My customers love the cuisine and regulars line up every day to enjoy the outstanding Djiboutian food made by the quirky white American. As the business flourished and customers came in droves, all the diners were happy to report to me how they finally found a diet food that works. Even though hearing that warms my heart, I still experience a pang of jealousy that makes me feel a little empty inside.