Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Done

Any seasoned traveler knows that traveling abroad is serious business, especially when you're traveling solo as I often do.  For example, you lose your passport in Hungary, at best you're looking at a major hassle, at worst you end up living under a train station on the outskirts of Budapest. Break your leg in India and at best you can expect a painful and very long trip home, at worst you end up with a botched amputation and a nasty case of gangrene.

Then there's that show Locked Up Abroad  which depicts every traveler's worst nightmare: being locked up abroad. Though the people profiled on that show generally suffer from either poor judgment or outright stupidity (here's a hint: don't want to be get caned up in Pakistan? Probably not a good idea to be an opium mule), there is always a risk of being innocently caught in the middle of an unfortunate situation.

As a result, the typical business traveler generally puts up their guard when traveling aboard. There are of course simple steps one can take: putting your wallet in your front pocket, always carrying cash, knowing how to avoid the common scams, and not eating the street food no matter how good it smells.
(Pav Bhaji vendor, Juhu Beach, Mumbai. For the foreign traveler you're looking at dysentary in a to-go box.)

But if you've ever been to Japan you know that its a pretty damn safe place. Leave your iPad wrapped in 10,000¥ notes on a park bench in the morning and there is a pretty good chance that it will still be there in the evening. That is, if somebody doesn't chase you down and try to return it to you. Japan is impossibly clean and orderly almost to a fault. Taxi drivers wear white gloves not to protect themselves from steering wheel cooties but vice-versa. And I know of no other country in which jaywalking is considered taboo, even by teenagers.

So when I am traveling in Japan I tends to let one's guard down a little more than I would in other countries. What is the worst that could happen? You start drinking Suntory whiskey in some smoke-filled divey Harajuku karaoke bar signing Barbara Streisand medleys with a bunch of Japanese salary men and wake up somewhere in the bowels of Ginza Station face down in a pile of soba noodles wearing a Sailor Moon costume. Not that I have any firsthand experience with this. Anyway, the point is that Japan feels really safe because it generally is very safe. 

When I was in Japan last year, I stayed for a night at a chic golf resort/hotel on a cliff overlooking the ocean. My room had a beautiful balcony with a sweeping panoramic view of the countryside below.  It was spring and the sliding glass door to the balcony was cracked open to invite the cool ocean breeze.

As I'm sitting in the room, still feeling a little green after the death defying demonstration gymkhana-style bus drifting I had just experienced on the way in, this giant flying thing comes in through the sliding glass door and begins beating its massive heft against the glass trying in vain to escape. The bug is the most magnificent insect I've ever seen alive--it looks basically like a fly but is about the size of a hummingbird. Now, I've always been interested in insects. As a kid I spent most of my waking moments crawling around our yard looking for bugs. I left no stone unturned in my search for crawling things (I mean this quite literally--I knew that lifting the flagstone pavers in the back yard nearly always betrayed the hiding location of a millipede or centipede). So at at that moment the only thought in my head is "you must capture this amazing bug before he flies away".

I do a quick mental survey of the bug catching tools at my disposal and immediately run towards the bathroom for the ubiquitous little hotel room highball glass (you know the one covered with the paper cap). Instinctively, I also grab the paper comment card sitting next to the glasses.  I run back over to the sliding glass door and in one deft swoop I pin the flying bug to the window under the highball glass, just as I had done with grasshoppers hundreds of times as a kid.  Then I slide the piece of card-stock between the highball glass and window and proceed to carefully move the entire unit safely to the coffee table.

And it is at this point that I realize the insect is very much not a fly. It is, in fact, a goddamn wasp.  Except it is no ordinary wasp.  It is a wasp that is like 2.5 goddamn inches long and who is very clearly no longer having a good time.It is pissed! The thing is biting and stinging and scratching at the table and glass and practically moving the highball glass around the table. It's that exact moment that I realize I have done something terribly dumb.   And, it is at this very moment that I hear a knock on my door from my Japanese business associates who have arrived to escort me to a very fancy dinner.

I tried to appease it with a cash offering.  No dice.

At dinner the kimono-clad servers bring course after course of beautiful food but all I can think of is that there is a gigantic bee in my hotel room waiting to inflict bodily harm upon my return. At some point during the 19 course dinner, I excuse myself to go to the "otearai" and sneak off to the lobby of the hotel which is the only place where WiFi is available (*Sidenote Dear Japan: What the fuck is up with not having WiFi in hotel rooms? You pretty much invented the electron.  Get your shit together.  Yours truly, Eric) and quickly conduct the following google search: "Japan giant wasp".  Here are the top search results I see:

1) "The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World"
2) "Hornets From Hell"
3) "Meet The Real Killer Bee"...

 Dear God, what have I done? I have, in a cup, back in my hotel room, a Giant Sparrow Hornet, the most deadly animal in all of Japan.

The more I read about these guys the more frightened I become. They are nicknamed "Yak Killer" because yes, their sting can take down a Yak.  In Japan they are responsible for some 40 deaths per year. Not only is their sting excruciatingly painful, they can sting repeatedly injecting a flesh melting venom with each sting. They have incredibly strong mandibles for tearing chunks from your flesh.  They fly much faster than you can run.  Best of all?  When they are distressed they can emit a powerful pheromone alerting others from the colony to come to their assistance. Pheromones!  The damn thing is up there signaling the entire fleet!  WTF am I going to do now?

I can't let the thing go or he's likely to kill me and I can't just leave him in the jar because he's likely to kill some unsuspecting housekeeper in the morning. Also, I certainly can't call the front desk and have them take care of my problem because that would be too logical. I've gotten myself into this mess, and it's up to me to figure out a way out. 

As I continue to read more about this terrifying animal I discover, like any super-villain, the Giant Sparrow Hornet has one mortal weakness: They cannot survive temperatures higher that 115 Fahrenheit. Honey bees, a favorite food of the Giant Sparrow Hornet, have discovered this weakness too and when their nest is attacked by one of these big bastards, the honey bees rub their tiny abdomens against the intruding leviathan to kill him with friction (honey bees can withstand temperatures up to 122 Fahrenheit).  Immediately, the answers dawns on me. What is the one thing virtually every hotel room on the planet has?


After the 42nd and final dinner course is served I excuse myself from post dinner Suntory Time and race up to the hotel room and cautiously peek inside. No swarm of angry hornets, just my angry friend under the cup. I dash into the bathroom and grab the hair dryer off the wall and quickly go to work heating the glass hornet enclosure. Within minutes, my Yak killer buddy is twitching a little and shortly thereafter it's starting to curl up and writhe around. I spend another ten minutes or so really cooking the thing. I leave the wasp under the cup until morning just to make sure it's not just playing dead then toss if off the balcony into the forest below. I love it when a plan comes together. 

Note: Since I wrote this last year The Oatmeal (one of the most entertaining blogs on the interwebs) also featured Japanese Giant hornets as part of a segment on Long Distance Running.  Read it, it's really an amazing piece. The hornets show up in Part 5, BTW.

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