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On bringing home more than souvenirs: the scourge of bedbugs

Those of us with an itch to travel the world are increasingly at risk for an itch of a different kind: a bedbug bite. And if you’ve got one, chances are you’re going to end up with a lot more. Like boogers and bad habits, bedbugs easy to pick up but hard to get rid of. Which is why, when Whitney and I awoke one morning a couple weeks ago with several new, itchy bites scattered around our bodies, we went into panic mode.

If you’re like me, prior to the past couple years the only reference you ever heard to bedbugs was in a sleep-time rhyme. But recently that’s changed; countless stories in the media have bullhorned the fact that bedbugs are on the rise again. Why, you ask? Well, flashpackers, there are a number of factors contributing to their resurgence, but people like us are owed much of the blame.

Back in the heyday of indiscriminate DDT spraying, bedbugs (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…) were begging for mercy; in fact, they were nearly DDT’d into extinction. Unfortunately, due to its similarly deleterious effects on human development and cognition (and bald eagles and brown pelicans and peregrine falcons and so on…), DDT was summarily banned for domestic use by the U.S. government on the last day of 1972, and much of the developed world followed suit. Bird populations thankfully rebounded, but so did those dastardly bedbugs. The increasing ease of international travel seems to be one of the main culprits.

Bedbugs are expert hitchhikers; they travel the world on our dimes, comfortably stashed away inside our luggage until they get hungry and decide to stretch their legs. The ninjas of the insect world, they go completely unnoticed until it’s too late. By the time you’re aware of them, they’re everywhere and they’re peckish and they’re notoriously hard to kill.

The bites bedbugs leave behind are easy to confuse with mosquito bites, so many bedbug victims are tardy in suspecting an infestation. Although they’re not so tiny as to be invisible — about half a centimeter in length full grown, they resemble ticks with stubby legs — bedbugs tend to feed at night, so your best chance of spotting one is by flashlight. During the daytime, while they’re plotting nightly terror raids around your sleeping body, they occupy tough-to-examine nooks and crannies: the narrow crevasses in hardwood floors and furniture frames, the gaps between couch cushions, and the lips and folds of mattresses, box springs, carpeting, and wallpaper. So on and so forth.

Once identified, bedbugs can be astonishingly difficult to eradicate. Various websites we’ve consulted have recommended everything short of salting our floor with plutonium particles to kill them. Pesticide fumigations aren’t always effective; bedbugs have grown resistant to certain chemicals, so a treatment might merely scatter them to new areas, worsening the infestation. You can try to starve them, but adults can survive for up to two months without eating, so staying in a hotel for a few days or weeks will only try their patience.

So we’ve spent the past couple weeks committing acts of lunacy to get rid of them: boiling our clothes, storing our books in the freezer and then stuffing them into plastic bags to bake in the sun, shuttling daily back and forth to the dry cleaners with garbage bags full of garments and luggage, and spraying enough insecticide around the apartment to cause permanently bloodshot eyes and frqeuent and unintetnional misplelings.

The real lingering effects of a bedbug assault are clearly psychological as much as physical. If they’ve spread throughout a dwelling, a successful treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just the thought of that is enough to keep me awake at night. Since we discovered our bites, I’ve been jolted awake several times by the merest inkling that something is scurrying around on a part of my body, only to comb the area manically by cell-phone light and find nothing at all. As if I needed a new mental disorder, I’m becoming a paranoid insomniac.

On the spectrum of things you want to host in your home, bedbugs are definitely on the undesirable end, somewhere between a Kiss concert and a conflagration.

A few travel tips to avoid picking up pestilential passengers while you’re away:

Inspect hotel rooms before you settle in. Check mattress seams and carpet edges for signs of bedbug activity: the bugs themselves, of course, but also their dried blood-speck droppings or collections of tiny, sticky, white eggs.

Always carry a flashlight with you to examine your room at night if you suspect an infestation.

Try not to leave your luggage or clothes lying around on a hotel bed or floor. Hang up your clothes whenever possible and keep your luggage zipped shut and lifted off the floor, perhaps on a chair or desk.

And tell the hotel staff and fellow travelers about any bedbugs you discover.

By the way, insect repellants are ineffective against them (naturally), so if there are hungry bedbugs where you stay, you’ll only end up itching and smelling funny.

Think you might have an infestation but aren’t sure? Here are a few things to look for:

Orion’s welts? — Creepily enough, bedbugs often leave a trail of three bites arrayed in a line, usually on your lower extremities. Why they do this isn’t clear, but I have a feeling it’s just to mess with your head.

Set a trap — If you think you might have bedbugs but haven’t actually caught sight of one, try setting one of those mouse-miring glue traps near your bed or around the furniture you suspect is harboring them. Then try not to step in it. Laying down a perimeter of double-sided carpet tape around your bed will work, too.

Man’s best friend/bedbugs’ worst enemy? — Some pest control companies employ dogs that are trained to sniff out bedbug infestations, but they’re quite expensive. Come to think of it, if they could train the airport security dogs to sniff for drugs and bedbugs, many a nasty episode might be avoided.

Once you’ve identified it, here are a few suggested courses of action for dealing with an infestation:

Heat — Bedbugs can nest and lay eggs inside your clothes and luggage. The eggs are the real danger, because in only a couple weeks, the number of active bedbugs crashing at your place can explode from a few to a few dozen. Ten to twenty minutes in a medium-high heat (160°F or 71°C) electric dryer or several hours in temperatures above 120°F (49°C) will eliminate them. A surefire way to get rid of the critters is to boil your clothes for several minutes, though if you own a lot of clothes, this is extremely labor intensive and you might, as I did, end up accidentally tie-dying half your wardrobe if you’re not careful.

Cold – Bedbugs cannot survive sustained exposure to subzero temperatures, but the exposure has to be continuous for several days.

Dry cleaning — The chemicals used in dry cleaning processes will kill the bedbugs and their eggs, but keep in mind that the pre-treated, contaminated items might ferry the infestation to the dry cleaning facility.

Pesticide treatment — A recent report on London’s resurgent bedbug population stated that they’re now resistant to most of the insecticides allowed in the UK. If you decide to hire a pest control company, make sure they’ve got plenty of experience dealing with bedbugs, because to kill a bedbug you’ve got to be able to think like a bedbug.

Suck ‘em up — A thorough vacuuming of mattresses, hardwood floors, carpets, and drapes can be effective, but remember to transfer the vacuum bag into another sealed waste bag and get it outside immediately.

Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) – A sprinkling of this chalky, pet-safe stuff around potential bedbug hiding places will dehydrate and kill the suckers.

The “Sweep the bed, Johnny!” technique — My personal favorite approach (because it’s the most vengeful) calls for you to wake just before dawn when bedbugs are most active, throw on the lights in your bedroom, sweep the scattering bedbugs into a dustpan, and immediately dump them into a pot of water to drown. Sometimes you’ve just got unleash your inner-Cobra-Kai on them.

Jedi mind tricks — Bedbugs are impervious to them, unless they’re applied in conjunction with any of the above treatments.

Good luck and safe travels! Thanks for reading…

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Phuket, Thailand

Ah, Phuket, I had such high hopes for thee. Hearing the word Phuket — at least since I learned it was a place name, pronounced “poo-ket”, and not an expression of frustration with a different pronunciation — has always brought to mind calm, teal waters, crispy sunbathers strewn across bone-colored beaches, and palm crowns shimmying in the salty breeze. And on these fronts Phuket did not disappoint. Unfortunately, on most other fronts it did.

There are three major qualifiers I should mention before I proceed. One, I am not a spread-a-towel-on-the-sand-and-sunbathe kind of guy — in fact, I’m nearly translucent — so I’m looking for more than the kind of experience that can be had in any given desert. Two, my trip to Phuket fell squarely during the low season, so surely I wasn’t catching it in peak form. And three, I spent just two and a half days there, and perhaps with a bit more time my esteem of the island would have improved. It’s telling, though, that after only two and a half days I was ready to kiss the carpet of the plane that carried me off.

Phuket suffers from a mild case of Cruise Ship Syndrome, in that once you’re there, you’re forced to pay inflated prices for things simply because you have no alternative: food, lodging, transport, internet access, and so on. This is a common phenomenon on islands. Easter Island, for instance, is similarly expensive, except that it bears the excuse of being separated from its nearest neighbor by 2,000 kilometers of ocean, and just about everything consumable has to be shipped or flown in. The distance between mainland Thailand and Phuket, on the other hand, is all of 600 meters, and it’s spanned by a four-lane highway. Hmmm.

Then there’s the omnipresent prostitution. Clearly it wouldn’t be so prevalent if tourists didn’t avail themselves of it, but I rather prefer to be able to walk down the street without having to politely decline the catcalls — if not the groping hands — of batteries of sex workers. It’s tragic that, even with so much tourist money pumping into other sectors of the island’s economy, so many young women are funneled into the sex trade. Again, this was the middle of the low season, but the prostitutes seemed to outnumber the tourists. That’s a bad ratio for everyone.

I’d been forewarned about Patong, the rowdy heart of Phuket’s tourist scene that’s chock-full of western restaurants, bars, and nightclubs heralded by neon signs and pulsating speakers — it hosts three Starbucks franchises grouped so closely that, if you neglect to trim your nails for a few weeks, you can almost touch them all simultaneously — so I steered clear. I pre-booked a room in Karon, just a few kilometers and decibels south of Patong.

I generally like to explore new places by bicycle, but Phuket’s size and hilly terrain don’t lend themselves to cycling. And tuk-tuk drivers wanted outlandish amounts to ferry people around — 250 Baht just to make the short trip from Karon to Patong — so I opted for another mode of transportation: a rented motorbike. I think it’s the ideal way to get around Phuket. Renting one for the day costs just 200 Baht, plus whatever fuel you consume, and of course allows you to go wherever you please. The roads are sinuous, the views stunning.

Atop my little, burgundy Honda Dream, I weaved through the mobs in Patong and headed up the west coast, stopping at beach after beach to take in the scenery. Faded red flags were posted all along the backshore to warn visitors about the low season’s dangerously strong currents. The beaches are undoubtedly beautiful, but it was strange to see almost no one in the water.

I rode an arc through northern Phuket and came back down the east coast, stopping for a couple hours at the Bang Pae waterfall (not much to see) and the adjacent Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (200 Baht entrance fee), a non-profit rescue and breeding facility for the adorable and highly intelligent apes. Because gibbons can fetch a lot of money — tourists buy them as pets or pay to have pictures taken with them — poachers seek them in the wild, slaughtering gibbon mothers to capture their young and exploit them on the streets. The project rescues such gibbons and, if possible, rehabilitates and returns them to the protection of a wilderness sanctuary. A very worthy cause.

Next, I checked out the very well organized and informative Butterfly Garden and Insect World near Phuket town (300 Baht, a bit pricey, but worth it if you’re a nerd like me). I was the only visitor there, having arrived near the end of the day, and I got the distinct impression that the employees wanted to shut down a bit early. “There are more butterflies to see this way, sir,” one would urge, motioning me coyly into the next room. As I wandered dumbly into it, another unseen employee would slam and lock the door behind me. In this way, as if by peristalsis, I was cajoled through several exhibits and out the front door in under 30 minutes. These people were good.

The following day I decided to book an all-day, all-inclusive snorkeling trip to Ko Phi Phi, a picturesque island 40 kilometers east of Phuket, about which I’d read nothing but raves prior to the trip. According to Lonely Planet, “Ko Phi Phi is so beautiful it will evoke tears.” All the photos I’d seen of Phi Phi, and I’ll add to them the above two that I took, corroborate that statement. The picture you don’t see, however, is the one below at left, depicting what I was standing in when I took the other two. The island seems to have dived headfirst into tourism’s flush pockets, with a ravenous appetite for its economic benefits but little concern for its environmental consequences. Everywhere I walked on the island, I had to step around discarded building materials, old shoes and clothes, plastic bottles, and other detritus of development. Phi Phi, incidentally, is pronounced “pee-pee”, but it’s turning into number two.

The “all-day” snorkeling trip was similarly deceptive, breaking down like this: two hours of shuttling back and forth to the Phuket harbor in a minivan, seven hours of transit and waiting around on two different boats, one hour exploring Phi Phi on foot, a thirty-minute lunch, and ten minutes of snorkeling. The snorkeling was amazing, if criminally brief, but I was put in a sour mood when the tour operator doled out our masks and snorkels but tried to extort another 100 Baht out of us for the use of flippers.

My flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at eight a.m., which meant that I’d have to leave for the airport around six. No minibus shuttles operate that early, and the cheapest taxi I could find would cost 700 Baht — more than twice the amount I’d paid to go the same distance in Bangkok — which seemed a fitting, wallet-cleansing way to end my stay in Phuket.

I don’t know to what extent prices have inflated since the devastating tsunami struck in December 2004 — and I am more than happy to subsidize the rebuilding effort by paying a premium for food, lodging, etc. — but I can’t help feeling that, given plenty of other gorgeous, affordable, and less trafficked beach destinations sprinkled through Thailand and Malaysia, Phuket’s just not worth it.

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On the road to physical fitness

I am a firm believer in the notion that travel is good for the soul. Unfortunately, it isn’t always good for the body. You’ve got disrupted sleep patterns, you dine out nearly every meal, and you’re seated for long periods during transit. And depending on your destination, it can be very difficult to find a way to exercise when you get there. Case in point: Hanoi, Vietnam — where Whitney and I have been living between trips for the past few months — is a city of inexpensive but delicious food, prevalent motorbike transportation, stifling summer heat and humidity, and $15-a-day gyms. That’s basically the recipe for an inertia cocktail. Circumstances like these require a person to find creative ways to tone up while traveling. So let’s explore a few, shall we?

Shoulders — Certain movements become mindless mechanics to seasoned travelers, and it’s easy to forget that these movements, as part of a dedicated travel-fitness regimen, are gateway exercises to a more chiseled figure. Take stowing your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin, for example. This simple action, which you’ve no doubt performed in countless boarding rituals, is your key to deltoid deliverance. Perform repetitions until fatigue sets in, or until the person exhaling audibly in the aisle behind you moves to punch you in the kidney.

Back – Marathon travels by plane, train, and automobile can provide more than just a pain in the neck. Throw the weight-equivalent of a labradoodle across your shoulders, and your back will surely join in with some barking of its own. If you’re like me, a summer trip to a tropical locale is the perfect occasion to stretch and strengthen your lower back with some forward hip bends. There’s nothing quite like the constant threat of malaria, dengue fever, or encephalitis to motivate you to keep slapping away the mosquitoes that refuse to quit your lower extremities.

Arms — I’ve found that in nearly any major city, the optimal time to work out your arms is during rush hour on the subway. Awkwardly sardined amid a mass of strangers, you’ll find that your tenuous handhold is the only thing keeping your body from succumbing to gravity or the throng’s crush as the train stops and starts. Switching arms every few minutes will help to stave off fatigue, improve your muscle symmetry, and give you an excuse to throw an elbow or two to clear out some space around you.

Legs – Long before there were stairmasters, humans ascended actual stairs. And when they mastered them, they really went places, by Jove! In fact you can still find them around today, rendered moot by youthful escalators and elevators, and lying silently in wait behind emergency exit doors, hoping for a power outage or wastebasket fire to set off the alarms. They now have a certain ‘ghost town’ feel, blanketed in eerie silence and skittering dust bunnies, but I assure you, they still work. When was the last time you heard an Incan fat joke? Exactly.

Abs – Although trotting along on horseback or churning up road on the back of a motorbike a seems like a pretty sedentary activity, merely trying not to spill off the back turns out to be a pretty good abdominal workout. Give yourself extra credit for staying upright with the added resistance of a backpack strapped on. Don’t forget: That next-morning agony you’re bound to wake up to is something to be savored, not lamented! That’s the secret to getting back on the horse.

Cardio – Travel affords no dearth of heart-quickening situations. A panicked sprint through an airport terminal to make a departing connection; a speed-and-weave cab ride through the avenidas of Buenos Aires; finding yourself lost on an unfamiliar mountain trail near sundown; liaising with drab olive military police to discuss a plastic baggy you swear you’ve never seen before. Many experts recommend that you get 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least three times a week. But I think it’s best to deprioritize this one until you get back home.

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