Friday, April 30, 2010
I Can't Feel the Bed Bugs Bite
Really, I can't feel them gnaw on me and their bites don't make me itch or cause a bump. I found this out the hard way.
On my first research trip to Malaysia for Lonely Planet I did a bunch of pre-research, trolling the web for comments about hotels and hostels around the country. When it came time for me to book a cheap backpackers for myself in Kuala Lumpur I was hit with a terrible realization: nearly every place I looked at had bed bug complaints. Now at this point, as far as I thought I knew, I had never slept with a bed bug and I really, really didn't want to start, not ever in my whole life.
All parasites gross me out but bed bugs are the worst - I mean, is anything more disgusting than having bugs crawling over you all night sucking your blood? No, there isn't. A little mosquito buzzing in your ear, micro-bugs surreptitiously living on your scalp or even a quick working leech, they are all parasitic ladies and gentlemen compared with the invasive and crafty bed bug.
So I booked the only place I could find within my budget that didn't seem to have a bed bug problem. It was depressing, windowless, next to the bus station and a few notches below mediocre, but that all seemed OK as long as there were no bugs. I was so tired from traveling when I arrived that I went straight to my room to go to sleep. But wait . . . . what's that in the corner?
It was a tiny beetle-like bug and I was sure it was evil. This was a bed bug, maybe - or maybe not. I had seen computer terminals in the guesthouse lobby so decided I'd bring out the little beast and see if I could ID him online. I'd been traveling for about 30 hours at this point, was dehydrated, hungry and could hardly keep my eyes open but I tried my best to compare the little squirmy guy I had in a napkin with an online picture. He kind of looked like a bed bug and kind of didn't. So I brought him up to the front desk and asked the guy at the counter.
"No," the guy said. "Not a bed bug. We don't have bed bugs here."
OK, cool. So I went to bed.
Now you're probably waiting for the punchline here about how I got brutally mauled during the night, but that didn't happen. I slept peacefully then spent the next two years traveling back and forth to Southeast Asia without incident. During that time I saw dozens of people with severely bitten arms and legs - but I never got bitten, not once. I began to think I was charmed, miraculously getting all the bed bug-free rooms from riding on some groovy travel Zen.
But then it happened: I was on Tioman Island, once again in Malaysia, in a perfectly OK room on the beach. I'd been in the room two days already but the last morning I had to get up in the dark, early morning to catch a boat out. My alarm went off and I turned on the light next to my bed. Bed bugs were everywhere, crawling around the bed, trying to escape up the mosquito net and under my sheet. I almost threw up. I checked myself but I didn't have a single bite. I had slept soundly and hadn't been disturbed by them at all until now.
There was nothing I could do. I quickly wrote a note: "You have a severe bed bug problem in room #4!" and left it at the front desk then went and caught my boat. I felt violated and dirty. While on the boat I called my favorite author buddy Brandon in Borneo who icked and eeewed with me. He decided I just had some weird travel writer gene mutation that made me impervious to bed bug bites - this made me laugh and feel better. When I got home I burned my (luckily old and falling apart) backpack and all my (luckily old and falling apart) clothes.
Who knows how many times I've slept with bed bugs? I now have a permanent case of the creepy crawlies and an annoying habit of waking up at 3am just to turn the light on to make sure the bed is free of blood-suckers.
The new Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei guide has a whole boxed text dedicated on how to avoid and/or deal with bed bugs - I seriously rallied for this addition. There is also some great info on the web including a very well-informed blog post from Health Conscious Travel that inspired me to write this story. Check it out. Even luxury hotels get bed bugs and it's better to follow protocol than to bring bugs home - the ultimate bug nightmare!
If you're still curious, here's a short video on the bed bug's horrific come back from the perspective of an etymologist and an exterminator cowboy: