“Ah, civilization,” Rich said as we stumbled into our Romanian hotel just short of midnight. We’d been staying in a rural village that had scarcely changed in 500 years, and it was comforting to be in a modern, well-appointed hotel. A sleepy young woman handed us keys, and when we got to the room, we were so tired, we almost neglected to do a bed-bug check.
As you may have heard, the bed bug apocalypse has begun. These hideous parasites have become an unstoppable, worldwide menace since the ban on DDT. A cross between a deadbeat roommate and a vampire, the bed bug lolls around all day in sloth and squalor, burrowing deep into sheets, mattresses, and bed frames. At night it creeps out to feed on human blood, leaving behind red welts like mosquito bites, often in neat rows of three. It can survive 300 days without a meal, but when it does eat, it gorges itself until it swells to alarming proportions. This makes it irresistibly attractive to the nearest male bed bug, which will urgently insist on mating, even if the swollen bug doesn’t happen to be female. We can only imagine the kind of psychological and social problems that causes in the colony.
Since Rich and I are not keen to share our bed with a hoard of sex-crazed bloodsuckers, we did a bed-bug check in every one of the 36 places we slept during our three-month train trip through Central and Eastern Europe. On this occasion, in our Romanian hotel, we peeled back the sheets – nothing – and peered into the mattress seams ... wait, what was that? Bed bugs are brown, the length of a grain of rice, and leave behind light brown egg casings. And that’s what we were looking at now: a single brown egg casing.
We were out of the room in ten seconds, dragging our bags down to the front desk and demanding another room. The bewildered desk clerk kept saying, “Insects? What...?” Clearly she was unaware that the world is at Defcon Orange in the fight against bed bugs. She accompanied us to another room, watched us tear apart the bed without finding anything, and went away shaking her head. These crazy Americans...
A few weeks later in the Bulgarian mountains, we came down to breakfast one morning to discover one of the fellow guests had three red welts in a line on his cheek. “Bed bugs?” I asked, aghast. “I think so,” he said, and was on the next bus out of town – quite possibly to spread his unwanted bedmates to other unsuspecting hosts.
The real danger of bed bugs isn’t the bites – which are annoying but generally harmless – it’s having bed bugs hitchhike home with you in your suitcase or computer. Friends who have suffered infestations tell long, grisly tales involving noxious chemicals and sleeping for weeks on plastic-wrapped mattresses to make sure their unwelcome guests were gone – only to discover they weren’t, and the whole process had to start over.
Nowadays, Rich and I perform a vigorous bed-bug check whenever we're away from home. But frankly, that’s about as far as we’re willing to go. One article advised us never to put suitcases on a bed, a carpeted area, or for that matter, on any other part of the floor. That’s fine if you’re in a suite with luggage racks and desks galore, but what were we supposed to do in the bare-bones places we stayed in? Sit up all night holding our suitcases over our heads?
We’ve been back in Seville for two months, and so far we haven’t discovered any trace of bed bugs in our luggage, our electronic devices, or around the apartment. Of course, they may just be hiding out, biding their time, hoping to lull us into a false sense of security... I wouldn’t put it past them.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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