The Good, the Bad, and the Itchy

I had debated whether to blog about this, but in the end, decided to do so for two reasons:

  1. Travelling is not just about the great stories and amazing experiences. It’s also about the rough patches and not-so-great times.
  2. Perhaps other travellers will read this and find comfort in reading about someone else having gone through the same thing.

Bed bugs.

Those two little words immediately conjure up feelings of dread and paranoia. Just reading those two words makes me feel like I need to scratch imaginary bites. Except this time, they were not imaginary.

Just a few days into our travel, I woke up with angry little red welts all over my arms and legs. We had just spent the night in a place that charges only $20/night. I remember asking Jason before we decided to take the place: “I wonder why it’s so cheap? it seems almost too good to be true”. Famous last words, right? (By the way, stay away from Hotel Aragon in the La Candelaria area in Bogota)

DSC00158 (1024x683)

Room with a view. Little did we know what horrors hid under the bedsheets.

Don’t get me wrong, not all cheap places have bed bugs. Even luxury hotel chains can have a bed bug problem. However, the risk of bed bugs are perhaps a little greater with cheap places since they attract a certain type of traveller. The type of traveller that covers a lot of ground over a short period of time, which increases the chance of picking up unwelcome hitchhikers along the way.

Getting bitten by bed bugs while travelling is different from dealing with a bed bug infestation at home. The former is a little easier to deal with, although the symptoms are pretty much the same. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, so I knew how to deal with them.

Nine years ago, my girlfriend and I were backpacking through western Europe and got attacked by bed bugs in Venice. We found that all the hostel options in Venice were too expensive for us and opted for a €12/night stay in a campground just away from the centre. We luckily had sleep sacs. The sleep sacs gave us a thin layer of protection between the old, scratchy blankets and our skin. We ended up with only a few bites on our arms and faces. We initially didn’t know what they were. They were a series of several tiny red spots, all clustered in a small area. We later found out they were bed bites when they turned into angry little red welts that took days to heal. This time around, I wasn’t as lucky. I didn’t have a sleep sac so the whole of my arms and some of my legs got covered in bites. They itch like crazy . It’s taking all my willpower to not scratch like a madwoman.

When a person’s home is infested with bed bugs, it’s a nightmare to get rid of. You need to call in expensive, professional exterminators to get rid of them. And even then, there’s a chance that not all bed bugs are caught. To get rid of bed bugs when travelling, you just have to leave the place that has bed bugs. However, to make sure you don’t carry them on with you, you have to isolate all the clothes that you wore by placing them in a plastic bag and sealing it shut. When you get a chance to, wash all those clothes in hot soapy water and then run them through a hot dryer cycle. Basically, keep the clothes at above 45° C for a minimum of 15 minutes. Unfortunately for us, a lot of the laundry services offered in Cartagena don’t use hot water to wash their clothes. So we boiled water and washed them in the sink. One cycle of boiling water to wash it, another cycle of boiling water to rinse it, and then we hang-dryed the clothing. For extra measure, we then sent all our clothes to a laundry service for another round of wash and then the hot dryer.

The humidity and heat of Cartagena (which is right on the Caribbean coast of Colombia) actually irritates the bites even more and makes it pretty unbearable. I was pretty miserable and itchy for the first few days after I got bit. Seriously, I was on the verge of crying. So we’ve rented an air-conditioned apartment for the week so that I can recover in comfort. It’s actually a little bit of paradise after the hot hostel we had to stay in. So we’re laying low for a the next few days so that my skin can heal.

cartagena apartment (1024x765)

Our little slice of air-conditioned paradise.

Interestingly enough, Jason didn’t show any signs of a bite until almost a week later. Different people react differently to bites. Some don’t react at all, some show signs within minutes; while for others, it can take as long as weeks for bites to appear.

Side note: here’s a good resource on how to check your hotel room for bed bugs before deciding whether to stay there (from the New York State Integrated Pest Management’s bed bug FAQs)

So how about you, any travel horror stories to share?

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BO-gaw-taw

Colourful (Bogota, Colombia)

Colour & graffiti

I didn’t know that Bogota was pronounced BO-gaw-taw until only 3 months ago.  I pronounced it ba-GO-tah (similar to Pagoda).  Good thing the travel agent corrected us, otherwise we would have travelled through the whole of Colombia mispronouncing their capital city.

We spent a total of 6 days in Bogota, but I have to admit: our first impression was a little mixed.  The beautiful historic area we stayed in, called La Candelaria, was pretty charming.  Beautiful, colourful Colonial-style buildings covered every block and the streets were teeming with people.  Bogota has managed to pull off this cosmopolitan-big-city-meets-old-world-charm kinda vibe.

Plaza de Bolivar (Bogota, Colombia)

Llama rides in the pigeon-filled Plaza de Bolivar

Graffiti in La Cadelaria (Bogota, Colombia)

The pretty kind of graffiti in La Candelaria

On the flipside, Bogota is covered in graffiti and garbage.  Next to many beautiful colonial structures are decrepit, run-down buildings.  Our guidebook also warned us about very dodgy (and even dangerous) areas that we should avoid, which has made us a little nervous of just wandering and discovering the city.  Our hostel had signs posted all over, warning us to keep all credit/debit cards in the hostel and to only bring with us enough money for the time we were out.  But honestly, how much is “enough money”?  What if I’m in a dire emergency and need to purchase a new hat?  OK,all joking aside, we were always a little skittish when walking around at night.

Almost everyone we’ve encountered didn’t speak English, so we’ve resorted to impromptu games of Charades and a lot of hand gestures (aided by a few broken Spanish phrases) with the locals.  So for the majority of the first few days here in Colombia, we had no idea what we were ordering to eat (Good thing we’re both adventurous eaters!)

Authentic chicken stew (Medellin, Colombia)

Fish stew in Medellin

One of our first authentic meals here (in a restaurant that was hidden in an alleyway off the main Avenue Jiminez) had us ordering a platter full of meat, rice and avocado & onion salad.  It was delicious!  We started with a thick stew or soup that had plantains, potatoes, and fish in it.  You add in a splash of lime and enjoyed the hearty soup like a meal.

A little while later, we stumbled across a stall that had a whole suckling pig in the window.  They serve it in a mixture of yellow pea puree and corn, with a side of rice arepa (which is a type of bread).  It’s a traditional dish called Lechona and it was delicious!

Lechona (Bogota, Colombia)

Lechona – traditional pork dish in Colombia

Freshly stuffed with pork, corn, and soup, we wandered outside of the historic area of La Candelaria and saw a crowd of people on one of the main pedestrian streets.  We poked our heads in and saw this highly entertaining sight of a guy racing guinea pigs. Yes, guinea pigs!

Street guinea pig race (Bogota, Colombia)

All the guinea pigs revving their engines at the starting line

They were so well-trained! That’s coming from someone who used to own a guinea pig – so I know how “untrainable” they are.  They lined up side-by-side, completely still, by the start line. At the finish line were about 20 colourful bowls placed upside down, with little openings cut into each one.  All the bowls are numbered and people place bets by setting down a couple of coins on top of the bowl they think the guinea pig will run into.  Once all bets are taken, the announcer gave one guinea pig a little pat to get him running down the track!  It was really quite amazing…we watched them for a good half hour. We even came close to winning one race, but the little bugger scooted into the next bowl at the last second!

Street guinea pig race (Bogota, Colombia)

Photo finish!

After the exhilarating races, we decided to call it a night.  Our new hostel had a giant medieval kitchen that Jason wanted to use, so we picked up some groceries on the way back for some delicious tomato & sardines pasta. Yum!  Jason can whip up a good meal anywhere!

Homemade dinner (Bogota, Colombia)

Homemade paste for dinner by chef Jason

We’re here!

I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to our trip. Oh no, I’m not talking about the 6-month adventure we were about to embark on. I’m talking about the 20-hour trip to Bogota. The one where we had to :

  • catch a bus from Toronto to Buffalo at midnight (after cleaning, packing, moving for 16 hours)
  • sleep over at the Buffalo airport (which Jason and I have now pretty much perfected to a T, especially after we slept outside the airport in Saigon, Vietnam on the first night of our honeymoon…but that’s another story..or blog post)
  • catch a flight from Buffalo to Orlando
  • catch a flight from Orlando to Bogota

So you can imagine my relief when I saw this on my airplane seat monitor: We’re finally here!

Bogota, Colombia

We’ve arrived!

We arrived at our hostel to find a charming little courtyard, replete with colourful hammocks, palm trees, and a fridge stocked full of cold beer.

Our colourful hostel (Bogota, Colombia)

Our colourful hostel in Bogota

Unfortunately, our actual room was rather bleak and depressing-looking, so I tried my hand at making myself comfortable in the hammock. Hammocks – I have never been able to figure them out. People always look so comfortable lounging in hammocks. So anytime there’s a hammock, I climb in and try to find a comfortable spot. I’ve never been successful in my attempts to comfortably lounge in a hammock…this time was no different (as you can tell from my awkward pose..and awkward smile).

Jenn vs Hammock

Jenn vs. hammock

After our brief, little struggle, the hammock and I called a truce and I trudged back up to our bleak little room. Oh hammock, we will meet again another day.

T minus 5

Packing up our lives and moving out for the next 6 months

What our condo looked like 5 days before we left the country.

Five more days to go until we take our one-way flight out of Canada. This will prove to be one of the most grueling “pre-vacation” times of our lives. You know what I mean by “pre-vacation”. The two most stressful periods of time when it comes to taking time off work is right before the vacation and right when you return.

Pre-vacation stress: Packing for your trip, making sure your “Out of Office” is turned on for your work email, closing or transitioning all your work projects, finding someone to water your plants…

Post-vacation stress: Realizing you forgot to take out the garbage before you left and trying to air the rotten garbage smell out of your house, catching up on the 12,634,752 emails that were sent to you in the one week you were off work, getting up to speed on all the gossip work that happened while you were gone….

Travel clothes

What I’ll be wearing for the next 6 months

NOW, multiply that by a million and that’s how stressful the 5 days were leading up to our travel start date. We had to-do lists by day (practically by the hour when it came closer to T-2 days)

To-do lists before we leave

Our colour-coded To-Do list (by day)

“Pre-6 months travel stress”:

  • finalizing the rental agreement with our subletter that we found just 1 week before we left
  • packing up our condo
  • finding long-term storage
  • booking movers
  • finding someone to rent our parking spot 12 hours before we left
  • Dropping off our 7-month puppy at our buddy’s place (who graciously agreed to care for him for 6 months)
  • packing clothes for our 6 months of travel that will cover everything from Mt. Everest climbing to Amazonian rainforest trekking
  • Unpacking and repacking for our 6 months of travel after I realize I can’t fit 1/3 of what I had planned to bring
  • cleaning the condo and getting it tenant-ready
  • making a last minute (i.e. 5 hours before we leave) trip to SAIL to pick up hiking shoes after Jason accidentally packed it into long-term storage. AND the long-term storage facility is now closed for the evening.

By the time we were done and ready to begin our 20-hour journey to Bogota, Colombia we looked like we had already been traveling for 12 hours. I was too tired to even pretend to be happy for the camera.

Don't know when we'll be back again

Finally ready to go!

Although, I have to admit – all this “pre-vacation” stress is going to make the time off from work feel all the more satisfying.