Music, Art and Caterpillars

Lay Chin Koh
The Dilated Pupil

I did not go to the recently concluded Urbanscapes 2013, obviously, because I live in London. But the mass-rash affliction suffered by festival goers recently was everywhere on my Malaysian-centric timelines, and I had to write about it. I confess, there are three main reasons why I felt I had to. Bear with me.

· I have had an obsession about butterflies and their lifecycles most of my life. Caterpillars are therefore, a related fixation.

· In the course of my travels over the years, which include the insides of rainforests, I have suffered similar severe rashes, allergies and complete bedding overhaul due to insects and bed bugs. Those who have had it would know that constant itching is nothing to laugh about.

· I have friends who have been and are in the hardworking Urbanscapes team that brings these amazing musical acts to Malaysia. I had to see Tegan and Sara in London, where the tickets were paid for in pounds, thank you very much.

Many festival goers were reporting pretty severe rashes and itchiness post-event that ranged from moderate to sick leave-worthy.

The organisers later confirmed that the condition had been triggered by caterpillars.

I agree itching sustained from contact with insects is extremely uncomfortable, especially when it is an allergic reaction. I totally sympathise with those who had to deal with their bumps, welts, and for an unlucky few, jabs in their bottoms.

It was a bit cruel, I thought, of some people to make fun of those who were suffering from these rashes – it doesn’t follow that those who post their complaints are immediately pampered city kids who are unfamiliar with nature. That’s just a wee bit insulting. And perhaps they were just being, you know, the Y Generation – they share their thoughts. A lot. On social media. You know, like you. Like everyone else.

There were also those sneering at victims, saying they wouldn’t be able to handle Glastonbury if they were complaining about itchy rashes. As someone who has been to Glastonbury, I can tell you people do leave with mud layers, hangovers and an assortment of other afflictions, and all right, maybe the cynical side of me does think: ‘Pffffth, these kids wouldn’t be able to handle even the loos on Day One.’ But that’s not very nice, is it? To be fair, moreover, I didn’t have to suffer itchy rashes days after Glasto ended.

Anyway, there have been things written about this topic already, but nobody has been nerdy enough to go full nerd on this topic. So here I go.

Why is nobody giving the full spotlight on these curious caterpillars?

· Could these be caterpillars with urticating hairs? It is the hairs or bristles that can cause itching, skin irritation and other allergic reactions. You don’t need to be sitting on grass to come into contact with them – the hairs can be floating in the air, drifting over 200 metres. So to those saying it just ‘couldn’t be the caterpillars’ because there was no rolling around on the greens, you may have your answer.

· Caterpillars with urticating hairs have them as a defence mechanism. The bristles are specialized and connected to venom glands, meant to ward off predators. This is not to equate festival goers with herbivores or birds, but yes, you were all probably in a mega urticating-caterpillar-protective-force field, as it were.

· There are at least eleven Lepidoptera (Butterfly or moth) species in the world that have urticating hairs, and one of them could be responsible for the allergic reactions post-Urbanscapes. They are the Nymphalidae species of butterflies, found in Peninsular Malaysia, which look a little like the caterpillars photographed at Urbanscapes. Entomologists out there are very welcome to indulge in full nerd talk correct me in any way.

· What do you do if you were affected? Here are some tips from Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, a forestry website:

Shower immediately, wash hair (rinse with soap, do not rub), change clothes.
Do not scratch; free possible contaminated areas of skin using adhesive tape.
Contaminated clothes should be stored in an air tight container and washed separately at 60 °C, or even hotter.
The affected areas can be treated with antihistamine (E.g. Fenistil).
Should there be extreme itching or if other conspicuous symptoms should appear a doctor should be consulted and he should be informed that the person has been in contact with caterpillar hairs.

The Urbanscapes team were not forewarned about these caterpillars, and quite frankly, I doubt the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang would have thought to warn the public about this, since a lot of its events are held in set-up air-conditioned spaces, or with visitors who don’t spend quite that many hours (or the entire weekend) on or near the grass.

When I was previously a reporter I covered MAHA International (Malaysia Agriculture, Horticulture and Agrotourism Show) at MAEPS. While there were thousands of people visiting, they moved in and out of covered spaces, with most of the activities during the day.

Perhaps knowing the cause and effect will end the suffering of some, and prevent future incidences. Knowing how dedicated the Urbanscapes team has been over the years in providing a fitting space for Malaysians to enjoy music, art and community, I’m sure they will take these notes and improve further.

Fault-finding is a terrible and unhelpful way to end a nice weekend, with what looked like amazing weather. Complaining about itching is one thing, those pressing for refunds and lawsuits (?) are in a different, infuriating league of their own.

The rashes will go. The music and good times will last a lifetime.

If you love music festivals and love Malaysia, this could be part of a continuing narrative you share with Urbanscapes, so that people can continue to enjoy these events in the country.

You had great music, and you hung out with some butterflies-to-be. There was rash solidarity, in music, art and nature. What more could you ask for?

I for one, remain envious that I did not get to go.