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When You Wipe With the Wrong Leaves

Just because there’s no poison ivy around doesn’t mean you’re in friendly territory.

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Identifying poison oak and poison ivy are pretty basic skills. You learn, you memorize, you take the knowledge for granted. Throw in a different ecosystem and some distractions—say beach camping and a sky full of stars—and things are bound to get iffy.

I was in the Galápagos at the end of a semester abroad, on a short overnight with friends to celebrate. After a few beers, I headed for the trees. I plucked a leaf, did my thing, and rejoined the party.

The burn was subtle at first. I thought I was sitting too close to the fire or that maybe my shorts had taken on a little too much sand. If only.

Something was not right. The pain became so intense I couldn’t hold a conversation. I excused myself again, spread my sleeping pad under the trees, and went fetal.

“Corey? Are you crying?” My friend poked her head into my jungle refuge. She hauled me out of the bush, marched me over to our somewhat intoxicated guide, and inquired about the likelihood of poisonous vegetation. He led me back into the brush to investigate.

“Is this what you touched?” He snatched a leaf and waved it in my face. I nodded. He stuffed it in his mouth. “This is mangle salado—the salt mangrove. It takes on seawater and stores the salt in its leaves. See? Salty!” I sagged with relief. Only salt.

Then he noticed something else.

“Oh, but this—” he picked a nearly identical leaf from a plant adjacent to the first. “This is manzanillo—the poison apple. I took a bite of this as a child and haven’t had feeling on that side of my tongue since.”

My friend and I exchanged panicked glances.

“Scrub with sand,” he recommended. A subtle gesture informed him of the affected body part, but he only shrugged. I waddled to the ocean.

Back in camp, word spread fast.

The advice was overwhelming. Had I tried rinsing with saltwater? Freshwater? I was gifted an alcohol wipe, which brought no relief to my sand-abraded skin. My friend found a park ranger, who said that orange juice would do the trick, then handed me a pocketknife and an orange.

I found a place to squat and squeeze. The pain made the stars swim overhead.

I crawled back to my sleeping bag, put a baggie of ice between my legs, and, eventually, fell asleep.

Filtered sunlight and the splashing of waves on the rocks woke me the next morning. I sat up in a puddle of melted ice, but that was the only evidence of the previous night’s pain. I was cured, though by which remedy, I’ll never know.

Assistant Editor Corey Buhay sticks to smooth stones now.

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