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How I came down with the “Sevens” virus
(and some other nasty bugs)

by Mauricio Sanmartin
Part 1 of 2

Several of my friends and website visitors have asked me how I got the fever for ‘Sevens’ rugby in the first place… Well, here’s my story, in living colour.

My life as a rugby player actually began in Argentina, a nation with a long history of the sport. There are more than 90 rugby clubs in the city of Buenos Aires alone, each with several divisions, from the tenth division, for kids under 10, to the first, for adults.

I started with my team at the San Carlos school, but went on to play the next year for C.U.B.A (the University of Buenos Aires), one of the country's major clubs – in fact, the only club in the history of Argentine rugby to have won every division in the same year (1967, if memory serves me).

In 1976, I was 16 and had been playing and building close friendships in Argentina for more than three years, when my family moved to Venezuela.

For months I was sure that rugby was not to be found in this new country, until one day I saw a brief report on the TV news about some foreigners playing a strange sport.

A few weeks of asking around led me to Guy Dieu, who was at the time the biggest booster and advocate for the French team in Caracas, the RCC.

I began playing for the RCC in Venezuela at the tender age of 17. It was a tough lesson: a disorganized season, played on miserable pitches with impromptu referees, a slew of novice players learning the ropes, and worst of all, no sign of the traditional ‘third half’ for making new friends.

Disappointed, I abandoned rugby for the time being and turned to my other passion: basketball.

Soon, though, I enrolled at USB (Universidad Simon Bolivar), and one day, feeling bored, I wandered over to watch the team training. Thus began my acquaintance with the best friends I have ever had.

In those days, rugby was growing at a snail’s pace in Venezuela. There was plenty of enthusiasm, but very little in the way of resources and virtually no support from the University itself. We had to do it all ourselves: prepare the playing field, play, referee and coach, all the while putting up with having to play on abysmally bad pitches.

After three years of playing the same teams, hoping to compete at a higher level (and certainly on better turf), I began to look for places nearby where one could go to play (information in the pre-Internet '80’s was extremely difficult to find).

The USB had been to England in 1980, and toured New York and Boston in ’82, but Maclyn Black, one of my friends from the University got me interested in Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela's next-door neighbor.

He showed me photos of the rugby pitch at St. Ann’s (near the Hilton) and told me about the Pelican Inn and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Port of Spain, the capital.

My appetite whetted, I decided to go to Trinidad to see this rugby paradise for myself one way or another.

My brother Diego had recently bought a guide to Venezuela at a book fair, written by a Brit whose name I don’t remember.

In that book, written many years earlier, the author related how one could travel inexpensively from Venezuela to Trinidad in a fishing boat called the Maria Gabriela, sailing from the port of Guiria, in the eastern part of the country. This was apparently the cheapest way to get to the island.

Those were my student days, when I couldn’t afford the luxury of purchasing a $300 plane ticket to go make Rugby contacts.

At any rate, in 1985 I headed out in search of adventure. One day I took the plunge and boarded a bus leaving the old Caracas terminal of Nuevo Circo at 3AM, arriving at midday in Guiria after an interminable ride.

The trip was quite picturesque, with the Caribbean Sea on the right hand side for the first half and the calm waters of the Gulf of Paria off to the left in the final hours before reaching Guiria.

I was expecting to find a bustling seaport with ships laden with cargo and passengers arriving and departing, bars and the occasional woman-of-ill-repute, as in any Gabriel Garcia-Marquez novel.

What I found was not at all encouraging: an empty pier with few launches and little activity, and a handful of people sitting under a tree to shield themselves from the burning tropical sun.

A group of locals played dominos under a zinc roof, not even bothering to look up at a stranger just arrived from the Capital.

My quest for rugby in the Caribbean

With this desolate scene as backdrop, I began to walk through the streets near the “harbor.”

After just a few yards, I stumbled upon the Office of the Capitania de Pesca (Port Authority), which struck me as a somewhat pretentious name for a virtually empty office with just one desk, a decrepit fan, and some guy perusing the odds for the coming Saturday’s races. I introduced myself to this worthy and asked him about the Maria Gabriela, to which he responded:

“The Maria Gabriela… You see that boat run aground at the end of the bay? That was the Maria Gabriela, a gale whipped it ashore many years ago, and it hasn’t sailed since.”

Recovering from my shock, I asked him, “So how am I supposed to get to Trinidad?”

Surprised by the question, he said the only way would be to go out with one of the small boats that carried fruit to Port of Spain each morning, which normally charged $75 a crossing.

I knew the trip was dangerous because that is the place where the waters of the Caribbean meet both the Atlantic and what is left of the outflow of Venezuela’s largest river, the Orinoco. The idea of getting on a boat and crossing the Bocas del Dragon (aptly, "Mouths of the Dragon") sitting on a sack of fruit, without a life-jacket, was not very appealing.

Also, what kind of welcome would the Trinidadian police give a young Colombian hitchhiking so to speak on a fruit boat, sitting on watermelons? Would they believe me if I said I was looking for new rugby horizons?

More likely, they would hold me for several hours to ascertain whether I was carrying drugs or entering the country for illicit purposes. In the end, the idea of shelling out $150 for a trip on a flimsy vessel when I could travel by jet for a few dollars more led me to reject the plan.

It was already 2 PM, and I was wiped out by the long trip and the stifling heat. The bus back to Caracas left at 6 and there was nothing to do in town but sit down under a mango tree and play dominoes.

I bought the newspaper from the capital and looked for a hotel where I could shower and rest up for a while.

The hotel was a two-story building with six rooms that obviously had seen better times.

To get some respite from the sweltering heat, I took a cold shower and then lay down naked, watching the perpetual motion of the blades of the ceiling fan, similar to the first scene in the Apocalypse Now motion picture.

The monotony of this movement and the indolence of the afternoon soon lulled me into a deep sleep.

A couple of hours later, I woke up in alarm, knowing that if I missed the 6 PM bus, I’d have to wait another day in this hellhole, watching my rugby paradise (Trinidad) from afar.

I made it back to Caracas in time to slide back into my university student routine, joining my friends in the local tournament.

A few days later, one of my testicles began to itch.

After a couple of days the itch was often unbearable, and I began to see a small lesion that was bleeding slightly.

One night, desperately uncomfortable, I decided to do a self-examination and observed with incredulity that a small white tube was poking in and out of the lesion, looking for all the world like a tentacle from some creature out of science fiction.

I got some alcohol and a pair of tweezers, got up the nerve, and managed to get hold of the white tube.

I pulled hard and almost fainted from the pain.

After the shock had passed, I saw with astonishment that what I’d pulled out was a parasite, like nothing I’d ever seen. Ugh! And I’d had it in my privates… how humiliating!

That same night I called my father, an MD specialized in vector-borne tropical diseases. After hearing my description of what had happened, he thought for a moment and explained that I’d been bitten by a mosquito, and what had taken up residence in such an incomfortable place had been a Dermatobia homini.

Where and how could I have picked THAT up, he asked me…

In that hotel, during my adventure in search of new rugby horizons!!

Click Here: Part 2 Finally getting to know Trinidad (and Trinidadians) and becoming a Rugby whore.

About the real bug (Dermatobia Homini) (*)

After mating, the female fly seeks out a biting arthropod, such as a mosquito, a tick, or other blood feeding insect to act as a mechanical vector. She is able to capture the insect by holding its wings using her legs, and then attaches 15 to 30 eggs on its abdomen. She will capture a number of insects in succession as she can produce 100 to 400 eggs during her life span which lasts 8 to 9 days. If a suitable insect vector cannot be found, she can lay her eggs on plant leaves which may then be deposited on a host as it comes into contact with the plants.

When the biting insect lands on a warm blooded animal, the increase in surrounding temperature causes the eggs to hatch, depositing a first stage larva on the skin. The larva then enters the skin anterior end first by burrowing through intact skin, entering through the bite of the ins ect vector, through a hair follicle, or through damaged skin. The patient is unaware of skin penetration occurring which may take between 5 to 60 minutes.

The larva, which does not migrate from the original site of entry, spends between four and 14 weeks in the skin developing into a third stage larva or instar which can measure 2 cm or more in length. The larva then emerges from the skin, again usually without the patient being aware, and falls to the ground. It then spends between 14 to 30 days in the soil in order to pupate, finally producing an adult fly.

(*) Taken from : Alberta Microbiology and Public Health (parental discretion advised)

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