Spiders

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In 2011, I went to Botswana. It was a two-week safari, and a dream fulfilled. I am an animal nut, so being in the Kalahari, the Okavango, and in a white rhino reserve were all ecstasy for me. I saw every African animal imaginable, with the exception of a cheetah.

But I’m not writing about the mammals today–although I could write pages and pages about the lions and the elephants and the hippos. No, today, I’m writing about the spiders.

When you go on an African safari and you’re staying in tents, you’re not permitted to go anywhere in the dark by yourself. This is for the very obvious safety reason–no tour company wants a client eaten. So, you wait faithfully for your guide–in my case, Francis–to walk you to and from your tent when the sun goes down.

One night in the Okavango, we were staying on a small island surrounded by rich, green marshland. We had gone out in mokoros, or narrow canoes, in the afternoon, and had been serenaded at dinner by snorting hippos. It was a lovely day. It was pitch black when Francis walked me back to my tent. As the only solo traveler in my group, I was often the last one dropped off by Francis. I opened the wooden door of my tent and said goodnight to Francis. He told me he’d be back for me at five a.m., and said goodnight.

I stepped into my tent and flicked on the small light by the door.

Someone had lit my mosquito coil, and it burned lazily in a red clay dish in the middle of the room. The smoke curled slowly upward, and for some reason, my eyes rose with it. The ceiling of the tent–dark green canvas gathered in the center at a large, looping knot–was covered with dozens and dozens of spiders. Big spiders, medium-sized spiders, small spiders. Spiders with spots, spiders with stripes, spiders with long, arching legs that looked like they were made for leaping.

Now, I have spent the majority of my life afraid of spiders. And at the moment that I flicked on the light in that tent, I was afraid of spiders. I’m the girl who used to scream when there was a daddy-long-leg in the shower, hoping my Dad would come in and kill it with a paper towel.

But in the Okavango after dark, you can’t leave your tent alone.

So, what did I do? I looked up at that ceiling, and I said, “I am no longer afraid of spiders.” Then, I climbed into my pajamas, slid into bed, and turned off the light.

In the morning, the spiders were gone, away back to whatever crevices of the tent they called home during the day. Francis came for me at five a.m., as promised, and we went to breakfast.

This story comes back to me now as I battle sudden-onset hypothyroidism. I have been very sick for nearly three months with extreme fatigue, weakness, and muscle pains. I am blessed to have a job that is seasonal, and I have had the time off to rest and try to get well. But Tuesday, the junior hockey season begins, and I return to work. I am not yet one hundred percent. And I am scared.

But I am no longer afraid of spiders. I stared dozens of them down in Africa despite a lifetime of fear. And so, I face Tuesday with the knowledge that I can overcome fear and I can overcome odds. I am strong–my trip to Africa taught me that in a hundred different ways.

Right now as I type, I am afraid of what Tuesday will bring, I am afraid of how I will feel physically when the alarm goes off at five a.m. on September 4th–but when the time comes, I will look at the day squarely and say, “I am no longer afraid.”

The spiders taught me that.

Ana de Osorio

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Ana de Osorio was the Countess of Chinchon, a Spanish noblewoman assigned with her husband, the Viveroy of Lima, to a post in Peru.  The assignment came in 1630, and by all accounts, Ana was not thrilled to be leaving Spain for the New World.

Very soon after arriving in Peru, both Ana and her husband came down with malaria, a mosquito-borne illness endemic to South America. Ana tried many home remedies to solve the crisis of their fever, but none worked. She soon learned of a local cure, and instructed her servants to search for the specific magical plant which would solve their illness.

Eventually, the plant was found. Its bark held the ingredient quinine, which when ingested by Ana and her husband, had them quickly on the mend.

In 1638, Ana and her husband were sent back to Spain. Ana, thinking ahead, put some of the malaria-curing bark into her luggage. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as they arrived in Spain just in time for a malaria outbreak there. Ana shared the wealth of her quinine bark, and cured many a sick Spaniard. Ana became famous throughout Spain as the woman who could cure malaria.

A century after Ana brought quinine to the Old World, famous Swedish botanist Linnaeaus developed his Latin-naming structure for plants and animals. In a honor of Ana, Countess of Chinchon, he named the quinine plant’s genus Chinchona.

In British India and elsewhere in the tropical British Empire, gin and tonic was consumed because of the quinine found in tonic water, thus preventing malaria in the consumer.

 Although it has been replaced in modern times by artemisinin medications, today, quinine is a major preventative treatment for malaria worldwide. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medications.

All because of the discovery of a woman you’ve probably never heard of—Ana de Osorio.

Uppity Women of the Medieval Ages

Quinine