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