You know you are in the tropics when ….

You know you are in the tropics when the first discussion of the day revolves around cobras, and whether a check has yet been done at the factory construction site for their presence.  And whether it is safe to walk the American the 800 yards to the site, or if it would be better to drive.

By American, they mean me.  I work on a USAID project afterall and we all look the same really.

We drove.

Just to be safe I am told.  Not that that was in any way reassuring.

We did not meet any cobras at the site but we did run over one later in the day.    Unavoidable really– it was either us crashing into oncoming traffic or kill the cobra.  This upset the Buddhist driver immensely ….. I was personally relieved with his choice as to which of God’s creatures were to live another day.

Dengue is another scourge of the tropics, and it is a real threat.  Especially in Colombo.

The dengue-carrying mosquitos come out in the day time and don’t make a whirring sound, so you have no idea they are around until you discover you have been bitten.  There are other mosquitoes that rear their ugly heads at dusk and this variety cause more discomfort than anything else when bitten.  Deet is the only reliable repellent, the citrus-scented treatments work for about 30 minutes and then you have to reapply, not really very practical.  Even with deet, you have to reapply every 6 hours.  With all this deet, I’ll definitely have grown a second nose or a third ear with all these chemicals I am applying to my body multiple times a day!

Mosquito nets are great in principle but for some reason in Sri Lanka, there’s never any good hooks or corners to hang the net, especially in hotels who all swear they are mosquito-free (when they are most definitely not).

I know, you have heard all this before, but there is a reason for the repeat.  You see it’s the luck of the draw if a dengue-carrying mosquito finds the one spot of your body you missed and tucks into your tasty blood.

Luck wasn’t on the side of my roommate Maheshie who rather suddenly came down with a high fever, aching joints and no energy whatsoever a few weeks ago.  Within 72 hours of the first symptom, the diagnostic test revealed she had dengue fever.  There is no specific treatment for dengue, it calls for very close monitoring in a hospital environment with blood tests every 4 hours plus a whole lot of hydration.  After a 6-day hospital stay, Mahehsie was released home with a recommendation of one full month of rest, followed by a further two months of keeping her life low key. I’m happy to report she’s making a steady recovery this past week.

Dengue really is serious stuff and certainly not something to be taken lightly!  Everyone has some horror story to tell and depending on the level of dengue you happen to get, it can trigger internal bleeding, respiratory and neurological problems.  Maheshie’s variety was not too bad in comparison but it still scared the living daylights out of me to be honest.  It reminded me to be consistent in applying deet by day.

Fortunately the apartment in Colombo does not seem to attract mozzies all the way up on the 21st floor.  By night the stuff just rubs off when sleeping so I have taken to bringing one of those plug-in mosquito repellents with me when I travel.  In most hotel rooms I stay in, the mosquitoes “fall out of the sky” as it were after it’s been plugged in for one hour.  Sigh.  I’m monitoring for signs of that third ear, don’t worry.

The bane of our lives at the apartment is the presence of ants.  Teeny tiny ants that delight in any leftover crumb and march up and down the countertops, no matter how much we disinfect and clean them.  Every single solitary food item must be kept wrapped up in tupperware or ziploc bags, otherwise it is infested with the little buggers immediately.  This is normal, everyone sniggers when I ask what I can do to be rid of them.

Fire ants are the worst, their bite is really more like a sting and it’s actually an ‘ouch ouch ouch’ moment when it does happen.  We don’t have any in the apartment (the plus of being 21 stories high) but at the yoga place, I get bitten/stung nearly every class I take.  The yoga studio is located in a wonderful old building with seasoned old wooden floors, tall ceilings and floor to ceiling french doors that open onto the veranda.  Sounds beautiful huh?


But scattered through the lovely grounds are ant hills, dammit.


There’s no air conditioning in this lovely old building but fresh breezes and fans cool the temperatures somewhat … but do nothing to keep out the ants.

I have figured out the route the ants usually take and no longer place my mat by one of the french doors, but instead head for the centre of the room, away from walls and windows.  You get less of a breeze but at least you don’t get stung.

A girl learns pretty quick you know.

About Kate Coffey

After 30 or so years in the investment management industry, 2013 saw me turn my life up-side-down, making my way first to Nepal, then Bangladesh during that first ‘year away’. The year took me on a journey I did not expect, had me fall in love with Nepal and its people, and become inspired at the work of Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre (SIRC) located in Bhainsepati - 2 hours east of Kathmandu in the Saanga foothills. Since 2014, I have returned to SIRC numerous times, working closely with the folks there in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes. In Bangladesh I marvelled at the strength and resilience of marginalized women who have the courage and audacity to break the rules and make a better life for themselves and their children through microfinance programs with BRAC. 2016-2017 saw me embark on a totally new experience in Sri Lanka, a place I never would have chosen to end up in. It’s the 40C+ heat, big humidity and tropical snakes & animals that scared me! But I ended up love love loving! my time there, working with predominantly Tamil small business owners in remote villages in north and east of the country, trying their best to recover their businesses and the lives of their employees, after decades of a civil war. My time in Sri Lanka made me realize my hard-earned business skills and experience can really be put to good use! The work the BIZ+ team and I did there ended up earning me International Volunteer of the Year Award in December 2017, presented on Capitol Hill, Washington DC no less. I am currently home on Bowen Island, in the west coast of Canada, shoring up my finances before I head off to who knows where, for my next expert volunteer assignment. This blog initially started out as a travelogue of sorts to keep friends and family worldwide updated while I was off on my travels in 2013-2014. Since then it has morphed into a life story of the many places I have lived and worked and of the wonderful people I have met along the way. I hope you enjoy.
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7 Responses to You know you are in the tropics when ….

  1. Heather says:

    Love reading about your adventures Kate. There is an awesome book here one day s hound you feel so inclined. Your descriptive blogs transplant us all there. Watching the rain fall on our snow covered city this morning. Kids love it. Commuters not so much but it definitely feels like Christmas! Will be thinking of you. Love h, b, e & j

  2. Karen says:

    Questions, was that a fire ant nest?
    Does the dengue vaccine actually prevent the desease or just decrease symptoms?

  3. Kate Coffey says:

    Yup, those ant nests are all over the place, even as you walk through parks in the city. And no, there is no dengue vaccine, at least none that works. World Health Organization says so. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation should have focused on dengue, not malaria. Dengue does serious damage to a body!

  4. Betty Dhont says:

    and to think we only have snow and ice to think about..wishing you a very merry and cobra/ants/mosquito free Christmas! We will be thinking of you and raise our glas to your health
    Much love
    Betty and Thijs

  5. Mick Canning says:

    There are serpents (and mozzies and fire ants) in Paradise! Yes , dengue fever is one of those things you really don’t want to get, and probably worries me more than anything else when I travel.

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