Por: Josh Freed, especial para Montreal Gazette
When my biking buddies and I chose Colombia for our annual cycling trip we didn’t know the country would make shrieking headlines days before we left home, with the message: “Eek — it’s Zika!”
Sure, we’d had an earful from people warning we were crazy to bike in Colombia, where we’d be hijacked by rebels, or machine-gunned by narco-gangsters on motorcycles. “When you’re kidnapped,” warned one, “don’t call me for ransom.”
We knew that was an outdated image of Colombia, a country well into rehab with a new government that has largely reduced drug violence. But we weren’t ready for front-page headlines just before we left home in a widely syndicated BBC story proclaiming: “Colombia: A Nation in Panic over Zika.”
It declared Colombia was the new hot spot for Zika, a mosquito-spread virus that could cause birth defects in babies — and possibly paralysis and who-knew-what-else in others?
One person joining us dropped out saying: “Why head for ground zero of a mysterious worldwide epidemic?” But most of us had booked our flights — so we spent our final Montreal days buying an arsenal of repellents from Deep Woods Off to Woodsman’s Dope.
Our first night in Bogota, we swaddled ourselves in long shirts and pants and slathered on 5 layers of DEET — like mosquito-hardened Quebecers. But when we met up with our Colombian bike guide, Tomas, he chuckled and told us:
“There are no mosquitoes in Bogota this season — too cold. We won’t see them until much further inland.”
So off we headed into the Colombian countryside, a breathtakingly beautiful land whose steep bike climbs literally took our breath away. As we cycled, the heat rose each day, along with insect life. There were ugly biting ants, large mutant cockroaches and weird flying things we studied like entomologists.
— I think that’s some kind of mosquito isn’t it?
— No, it’s more like a spider.
— Nah, it’s a moth.
When one guy got a slight fever we all secretly thought: “Zika!” But when we mentioned that to our corner pharmacist, he looked as surprised as if we’d said polio, or scurvy, saying: “There’s no Zika here — only on the coast near Cartagena.”
So on we cycled through stunning colonial villages, filled with Colombians who were gentle and polite — the opposite of their nation’s once-violent reputation. As our bike trip ended we arrived in steaming Cartagena, a magnificent but muggy seaside city, said to be Zika headquarters.
At last, a chance to use our bug artillery. That night we armoured up in thick clothing, despite the sweltering heat and bathed ourselves in DEET till we smelled like the jungle. Then off we headed to the Cartagena International Filmfest, a wonderful outdoor movie event that was a who’s-who of the city’s elite.
Everyone was decked out in sleeveless gowns, plunging necklines and enough naked flesh to provide a buffet to the city’s bug population. Yet no one stank of insecticide like me, as I sweated profusely in my anti-bug rain poncho.
Where was the much-heralded “nation in a panic?” Our aristocratic landlady offered a surprising explanation.
“Zika — bah, it’s nothing! Just journalists trying to scare away tourists and ruin our economy.”
“So there’s no Zika in Cartagena?” we asked.
“Of course there is!” she declared. “I’ve had it myself — like all my friends! You get a small rash and fever for two days — that’s all! But if you’re paranoid just spray yourself at 5 p.m. and you’re perfectly safe.”
Actually, she was wrong — we’d now learned Zika bugs don’t come out at night, only daytime. But when I got up next morning in the staggering tropical heat, who wanted to wear long sleeves and anti-bug goop?
The city’s beaches were mobbed with people swimming and tanning, with no sign of bug spray. Most people in a panic about Zika — were tourists.
I don’t want to trivialize the virus. Thousands of pregnant Colombian women have been exposed to Zika, though no abnormal births are definitely linked to it yet, as they are in Brazil. So pregnant travellers should consider staying away.
But for the rest of us, there’s more paranoia than Zika. A friend visiting Costa Rica reports tourism is way down because of Zika, though the bug hasn’t appeared there yet.
In Canada, we’ve seen avian flu and Lyme disease scares — and some unlucky people have suffered from them. But fear often outraces disease and makes us forget bigger daily risks like smoking, driving or falling, in Canadian winter.
In fact, we all returned home safely without gang shootings, kidnappings or Zika bites. I did get a nasty scab from a biting ant that took a piece out of me — as well as a bad sunburn.
But, thinking back on our whole trip, I never did see a mosquito.
Fuente: Montreal Gazette