BO

Kahondo, Uganda

I call this guy BO, and I’ll give you three guesses why that stands for “Bleached Okra.” Take your time, I’ll wait…

Just so we’re clear, I’ll spell it out— the bleached okra is in reference to his upsetting penis. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

You'll notice I start framing BO up in nice, TIGHT, headshots. Hey. In his defense, I know a lot of kids who don't have school pictures this good.
You'll notice I start framing BO up in nice, TIGHT, headshots. Hey. In his defense, I know a lot of kids who don't have school pictures this good.

Actually, I want to talk about the other type of B.O. here for a second, and yes, now I’m talking about body odor. In America, I just don’t encounter it all that often. Pretty much everyone here wears deodorant, so even in hot, sweaty places like the gym, it is exceedingly rare that I even get so much as a whiff of someone else’s stench. Don’t get me wrong, I do have a mental list of some especially gag-inducing subway journeys here in the states, as well as more than a few taxi cabs rides where the smell was so strong it made my eyes water.

Also, I’m not judging the people in other countries who might not have the cultural or financial means to access deodorant on a daily basis, nor am I saying that America is a better and superior place because we all smell so pretty. We have more than our fair share of social problems; I just don’t consider B.O. to be one of them.

What I am claiming to be true is that the infrequency with which I encounter the smell of body odor has left me somewhat sensitive to it and totally unprepared when I do encounter it. I’ll be the first to admit it— living in Dallas, my nose has become a delicate, pampered little pussy. And no matter how much I wish it wouldn’t, my nose freaks the f*ck out when it’s assaulted with certain bodily smells. The whole situation can escalate very, very quickly, and it’s extremely hard to ignore. Or hide.

I can’t help it: when my nose encounters the strong, malodorous scent of someone’s rancid body odor, a whole chain reaction is set in motion. I can go from a happy, healthy Ryan to an eye-watering mess in about five seconds flat. After that, my body will take me to the very brink of vomiting, and if the smell doesn’t relent, that’s exactly what’s inevitably bound to happen.

I knew we’d be traveling in several very remote parts of Uganda, and so I’d elaborately prepared for every medical eventuality known to man. Not only did I bring about five pounds of emergency supplies and medications with me from Texas, both preventative and curative, but every single piece of clothing I owned, from my underwear to my ball caps, had been sprayed thoroughly with permethrin before ever being packed. Obviously, I had gotten all the recommended and mandatory vaccines, but I had also brought enough flu and allergy pills with me (plus bandages and ointments and sprays and malaria medications and diarrhea remedies and… the list goes on…), that it probably looked like I was planning to open up a small roadside pharmacy stand.

And yet, for body odor — that old and familiar nemesis that shows up on every single one of my adventures in developing countries— there’s really nothing you can bring with you.

I often find myself wishing that I had some of that cream that the coroner always offers to detectives who visit crime scenes or the morgue. I remember it always being offered in old tv shows, and the detectives—who just moments before looked like they were about to gag and be sick— put it just beneath their nostrils, then suddenly they’re fine and can continue with their smelly murder investigation.

What is that cream called and where can you buy it?

Also, does it come in less noticeable, more polite shades? Because in the detective shows it’s always very white and very noticeable, and I don’t want to come off as an asshole... like, "Who's the obnoxious American guy who starts dramatically smearing stark white cream under his nose every time he meets a new local person?"

And now, actually, we’ve gotten to the meat of the problem. And it’s a paradox of sorts: what do you do when your body betrays you, and begins uncontrollably reacting to a stimulus that it is impolite to name?

Let me paint you a picture.

In large parts of Africa (and the world, for that matter) many of the vehicles you find yourself in will technically appear to have air conditioning. However, this is an illusion. Accept it and move on, strike it from your brain. Because the a/c in most cars either doesn’t really work, or the driver of the car will have a whole list of reasons why he refuses to turn it on. Even though you can see the a/c dials and the vents right there in front of you, you quickly learn to pretend like they aren’t there. Everyone else in Uganda certainly does.

So what’s the big deal? You just roll down the windows, right? Fresh air is invigorating, you tell yourself, and after you get past the fact that the “fresh” air is actually very hot and dusty and miserable, you eventually get used to it, right?

Wrong!

“Dusty” is understatement. Most roads in Uganda are unpaved (especially the ones leading to many of the remote places you’ll need to go to photograph the best animals), so your car will usually be barreling down the dirt roads in a perpetual cloud of thick dust. Sometimes it billows up so thickly from the tires that it’s impossible to even see where you’re going. The dust is like a thick but finely-ground reddish powder, and if all your windows are down, it will blow into your car as efficiently as if someone was blasting it in with a firehose.

The dust quickly covers every single square inch of the car’s interior, including not only all your belongings and clothing, but also any exposed skin, like your face. The locals jokingly called this “African makeup,” and after even the briefest of car rides with windows down, my face would be covered so thickly with red dirt that it indeed looked as if I had on about an inch of reddish-brown foundation. It was more amusing than upsetting, until you start realizing that all that dust is going into your eyes, mouth, nose and lungs, too. It makes your throat scratch and your eyes sting.

Okay, so new plan, this dilemma is easily solved, right? You simply roll up all the windows! No more dust!

Well, not so fast. Remember it’s 90+ degrees outside in Uganda, so the car quickly becomes like an oven. With the windows up, I’d start sweating profusely, almost immediately, and the rivulets of sweat dripping down my face would mix with the “African makeup” that was perpetually coating my face. Dirt plus sweat equals mud, so now my face isn’t just covered in dust, it’s covered in streaky red-brown mud. And don’t forget, everything else in the car is also coated with a thick layer of the reddish-brown dirt, including my shirttails, so there isn’t a single thing available to wipe the mud from my face. In short order— great, now we all have mud in our eyes.

Okay, fine! Windows back down!

And you learn to proceed like this, day in day out, constantly rolling the windows up and down, down and up, trying to find the balance between when it’s best to suffer the heat or suffer the dust. All things considered, after several days, I felt like we’d gotten pretty good at this! I’d at least learned that, personally, I almost always preferred the dusty wind in my face than the stifling, sweaty heat that occurred if we kept the windows rolled up.

However, we haven’t even introduced the B.O. situation yet.

Frequently, it would be necessary for us to pick up local guides and take them short distances in our safari van, usually just to the trailhead of an animal tracking expedition. I mention that the distances were short because this is the only saving grace, and the only reason our van was not entirely covered in my vomit. These short, pre-hiking rides did, however, mean that I began almost every animal tracking adventure feeling as if I might hurl at any second.

Here’s how it would all play out. And it would continue to play out in this way— almost like clockwork— every single time we picked up a local guide. Which was often.

The local, non-deodorant wearing person would approach our vehicle and slide open the side door of the van with a forceful pull. This flourish of the sliding door would invariably create a sort of suction, like a whirlwind vacuum of bad smells, essentially siphoning the person’s underarm body odor stench directly from his armpits into my nostrils. Like a bullet.

A B.O. bullet, straight into my eyes and nose and down my throat.

My body would immediately begin its betrayal, its series of revulsions, and the guide hadn’t even gotten in the car yet.

If I was a cartoon character, by the time the local guide got in and swung the van’s door shut, and the car lunched forward to begin our journey, my face would be painted a putrid shade of green.

And we’re off!

Next, noticing that I looked ostensibly ill, the guide would immediately show concern and, without fail, recommend we do the most logical thing in his mind.

“All the dust from the windows is making this man sick! We should roll them all up!”

"OOOOOOOH! NONONONONONONONO!!!!!!" I'm thinking, but afraid to open my mouth and have the bile in my throat spew forth, I was usually unable to speak out in protest. So, before you know it, the windows have all been rolled up tight, and we were now trapped in the stiflingly hot car-oven with the new rancid smell.

Not to be too graphic, but B.O. has a very distinct smell, and it’s different from that of feces or a rotting corpse or any other terrible smell I can think of. From a very early age, I have found the smell to be similar to rancid Mexican food, because to me it sort of smells like week-old refried beans rotting in the hot Texas sun of a restaurant’s alleyway dumpster.

This is very specific, I know, but once the smell gets in my nose, I feel like it clings to the sides of my nostrils and I’ll never be able to get it out again, no matter how hard I scrub. I told you, I’m very sensitive to this particular smell, so yes, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.

With the windows rolled up the car really does become like an oven, and now it’s essentially cooking the guide’s body odor smell, accelerating the molecules, and amplifying the smell exponentially. We are trapped, and yet I never could think of a polite way to insist we roll the windows back down. To the guide, the dust was making me sick, and he solved that problem by rolling the windows up. Done and done!

I usually felt like if I could just sit quietly for the short ride and breathe into my shirt or something, I could get through it without incident. But then each guide (again, like clockwork) would start hypothesizing that, based on the way I looked, maybe I was feeling too sick to go on the expedition, as planned?

Nooooooooo! F*ck that! Photographing animals is the whole reason I’m here, the whole reason I’m in this miserable van in the first place, so the idea that it might all be for naught was maddening. I wanted so badly to be honest with them and say, “The whole reason I’m feeling nauseous is because of your intense body odor, but the second we get out of this car and back out into the open air, I’ll be fine! Please stop asking me what’s wrong and whether I’ll be okay for the trek!”

But alerting everyone to the real reason I was suddenly feeling sick wouldn’t solve anything, it’s not like anyone could do anything about it, so bringing it to everyone’s attention would accomplish nothing, other than possibly making our guide feel bad or guilty, or more likely, making me look like an insufferably pampered douchebag.

I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that none of the guides who got in our car had any idea that it was them and their smell that was making me sick, and I had every intention of keeping it that way. They were unaware of their own smell and the effect it was having on me, and I saw no reason to inform them otherwise. I did, however, learn that asking them please to roll the windows back down after the fact only made matters worse.

Much, much worse.

Again, every time like clockwork, they’d roll down the window closest to them, which meant that all the outside air had to blow past their arm pit first — picking up the smell— and then essentially blowing their B.O. straight into my face. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the B.O. bullet was back with a vengeance, a viscous and recurring cycle.

But you know what else happened like clockwork? Without fail, the second I was out of the car and back in the open air of the safari or jungle, the green would drain from my face and within minutes I’d be back to normal, ready to go track the animals!

Sure, the rotting refried bean smell had a tendency to linger in my nostrils for quite some time after each car ride, and occasionally an unsuspecting breeze would reignite the awful stench…

But you know what pairs nicely with refried beans, and helps to immediately take your mind off it?

Bleached okra.

Many people have asked me what the gorillas or the chimpanzees smelled like, but based on everything I just described, I honestly have no idea.

A Tex-Mex restaurant’s alleyway dumpster in the Texas summer, perhaps? I have no clue. That’s all I got, folks.

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You can read more about BO and the other monkeys HERE and HERE, or trek with me to find the lowland mountain gorillas HERE!