I’ve been to a few places and stayed in some very nice hotels, the kind where you get to your room in the evening to find a new pair of silky slippers, a folded copy of a liberal or at least moderately conservative newspaper, where one pleasantly indulges in the falsetto melody of a violin set to a Mozart sonata, specifically kindled by gentle fingers to greet your return – these highfalutin retreats were systematically paid for by other people, such as affectionate, excessively generous employers.
And I’ve also settled on a number of occasions for some scarier accommodations, typically on my own, and for budgetary reasons. The kind where you know there’s a higher than average chance that you might get murdered that night, where prudence would advise to stay fewer than once a year during a lifetime, lest it be statistically shortened.
This is not a story about the habitual, meager bugs one typically eats in their soup and cuddles with while traveling through warm-blooded countries or colder ones for that matter. It’s conventional wisdom (and utter bunk) that the most unadventurous of couch-warming Westerners eat on average 8 spiders per year during their sleep.
Rather, it’s a story about an infestation of Blattidae, a few nocturnal, rapacious bed bugs, and a rather lonely, but rat-sized, cockroach. Oh, and it’s a story about love, too.
We arrived in Baguio, summer capital of the Philippines, on one of the busiest, most bustling days of the year in the Filipino calendar. Maundy Thursday precedes Holy Week’s Good Friday – a national holiday here – and, logically enough, swarms of visitors, locals and shoppers scampered through the streets in search for some choice items to adorn their dining tables and embellish the weekend’s celebrations.
Coco and I scattered out of the jeepney station and through the unknown streets, immediately finding ourselves in Baguio’s City Market – always known to be the quietest of places, a haven of safety for backpacking mongrels.
We had neither looked at a map of the city, nor found (or sought to, for that matter) adequate lodging. A great and unstressful way to discover one of the country’s most popular, and populous towns, on its busiest weekend of the year.
We proceeded to a nearby street which seemed to boast some hotels. The first hotel, rather clean from the outside, also prominently displayed the message: “Sorry, we’re fully booked.”
We went next door, to the City of Roses. They had one room left. The price was steep though (in fact the most expensive ever since we’d left two months ago, about three times what we managed to pay in Tokyo for example), but Coco was willing to settle for it. I think the bustle of the streets had already rattled some of her nerves.
“Come on, I’m sure we can find something better nearby. If we don’t we’ll be right back.”
And better we did find. Better for storytelling purposes. (Otherwise the rest of the story might be: “And we slept at the hotel.”)
Across the street, the entrance of the HiLux Lodge beckoned transients with what could be mistaken upon first view as a decrepit façade but what I’d like to consider the humble threshold of a hidden palace, much as Jordan’s narrow-pathed troglodyte rocks of Petra make way to the temple of Al Kazneh.
A dangling billboard promised “Cheap rooms starting at 250 pesos,” and gave way to a green-lit staircase descending into the bowels of the Earth.
In the lobby were two women, a younger and older one, of more agreeable countenance than their surroundings. The older one informed us the hotel had some available rooms. O, the woes of those who don’t heed such signs!
“Would you like to see the room first?”
Yes we would.
As we walked to the room, a tropical cockroach hurried alongside the corridor, before taking a right turn on Corner Ave and a quick left on Crackin’ Wall St, presumably to meet with colony buddies for a bug beer. I omitted to tell Coco of the sight.
Room 7’s lavish décor nearly overwhelmed us – its peeling paint, tubed-showerhead, stairwell-green mattress – but seemed clean enough. It didn’t in reality; rather it didn’t seem that dirty.
And so we – Coco will forever maintain it was I, and I only – elected to stay at the HiLux. This is not its real name, but was the humorously chosen password of their WiFi – yes they had Wifi, but be not fooled by the deceit of technological wizardry!
Our first hour or so went rather smoothly: I wandered through Baguio’s market and streets, discovering them to be equally pleasant and lively, as Coco did some work at the HiLux.
The plumbing proved rather rustic though, as she informed me upon my return. A gravity-flushed toilet works thus: do your thing, fill a bucket, pour it in, and wait for the Earth to spin (a luxury which had nonetheless resulted in a 60% hike from the room’s base price).
I later discovered with more alarm that the window behind the bed was broken – plausibly by a thrown rock, or other odd object of density greater than a human skull (or equal to mine perhaps).
A look at the backstreet was none the more reassuring – a loafer street, loiterers and street kids, hungry and bored. This was a three-fold inconvenience, all of which could disrupt our sleep: at this festive time of year some form of minimal noise abatement was recommended; surely mosquitoes and other flying dwellers would follow the meaty scent of the opening at night; and last but not least, any small individual could climb the nearby ladder and into our room while we were away – or smash a rock onto our heads as we slept.
After some debate, I returned to the two soft ladies at the reception and asked whether we could be moved, mentioning only the first two reasons. The younger one asked whether those were the only causes for my discomfort. Uneased by her question, disinclined to give credence to any possession of valuables, I nodded.
There are no mosquitoes she assured us (with a cunning smile?).
Oh, but flying bugs were to be of no issue!
And so she showed me to Room 6. Room 6. Room 6. Upon inspecting it, I failed to notice an entire window was missing. We unknowingly left room 7.
“Let’s just hope that curtain keeps the bugs at bay,” I later told Coco, and packing our most valued belongings into a day pack, we left for dinner.
Dinner brought no substantial comfort; it had been difficult to find a fully satisfying meal in the mountain provinces.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we got back to the room and we’d been robbed of everything?”
“I don’t see what’s funny about that,” barked Coco.
“Okay, I don’t either, I’m just saying…” Some things are better left unsaid.
We returned to the hotel, apprehension mounting. We’d agreed to go straight to bed, or quickly anyhow, to avoid luring insects with any superfluous use of light.
I flicked the switch, and the next hours would offer no respite; how long it in fact was I know not, for time twists and warps at the worst, and best, of our moments.
The giant cockroach was waiting for us, parked on the separating wall of the toilet room, in a dignified, stately repose, confident as it were of its unbound safety within the demure confines of its kingdom.
And what a roach it was, of the grandest of its species, its spiny legs a thumb’s length, deadly as a crab’s. Its antennas respired rhythmically, probing far ahead for food and threat, whilst its amber, golden and feces-brown shell gleamed menacingly under the neon light.
Of this rock-hard shell, worthy of the armored trucks of Baghdad, much can be praised, but what’s more to add: Nature’s most enduring craft of living robustness has protected the Blattodea since the beginning of Time – born in an era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth freely, they will certainly outlive other living creatures, far past any Man-made apocalypse.
In fact, were I prone to be seduced by the lifestyle of a walled-in home, I’m pretty sure I’d invest in a Cockra-Fence.
He showed no sign of worry, his antennas merely twitched at our sight, and with no sign of undue hurriedness, soon scattered out of sight towards the gravity-flushed toilet.
Meanwhile, Coco’s heart went faint.
“It’s okay, I promise, he’s the one scared of us… he won’t be back.”
A moth soon entered the room, its translucent wings nearing the bulb. A mild inconvenience.
“I can hear him.”
It wasn’t in fact, of such magnitude was this cockroach, that the uneven plastic wallpaper on the floor creased under its weight. Soon enough, we saw it crawl on the open floor, and out of the room, towards the reception.
“See, he’s gone now.”
Yet we both kept our ears open for the eerie sounds of his presence. Minutes later, Coco screeched as he appeared on the wall again, inches from the pillow-heads.
I lunged towards it. He shrugged his shell indifferently as he clamored out of sight again, at a frighteningly fast pace.
Coco’s fortitude was increasingly challenged. And my own may I add, but to show her this would be the final blow of our defeat. This would only come later.
We’d also noticed a few tiny, black, beetle-like bugs scurrying across the mattress. I swiped them away tiredly, and we uneasily drifted to the bed, setting the hotel’s vomit-green towels upon the mattress as a flimsy precaution.
I switched the light off, Coco twitching nervously at the sounds of the creases on the plastic floor. It’ll be over soon, may we just find some sleep.
“This place is disgusting, there are bugs everywhere,” whispered Coco.
“It’s okay, we’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
I held her in my arms, reassuringly, in a failed attempt to slow her pacing imagination. Yet I too disdained setting my head on the pillowcase, and opted for my elbow, however uncomfortable.
“I can feel them,” mumbled Coco, verging on hysteria.
“You’re just imagining things.”
Woman, is it your period or what? (No, if you wonder, I don’t talk like that for realz.)
And is it my imagination, too, prickling at my neck, and wrists, and hands?
Time goes by, sluggishly. Several times we swat in the darkness at the six to eight legged ghosts of our imagination.
Coco is sobbing and I’m the world’s worst lover.
Hold her tight. How miserable.
As I drift, rather steal, into two minutes of sleep, Coco suddenly jerks up.
“I tell you, there are bugs everywhere, this place is filthy,” she musters calmly, holding her tears in.
She’s the world’s bravest feminine woman, if entomophobia were constrained to females.
“Fine, I’ll turn on the light, just so you see there’s nothing there.” I grumbled and made for the switch.
No sooner had I turned the light that Coco lurched out of bed, and we both gasped in horror. Dozens of the black things scurried on the towels, pillow-cases, mattress. In our clothes, on our skin, in our underwear.
King Roach calmly presided over the scene, a few inches from where our heads were, as to affirm his complete dominion, slowly crawling on the desk amidst my camera bag and some other belongings.
Fuck. Fuck me. What have I done?
“Let’s get out of here.”
We patiently shook all of our clothes in the lobby.
It was there that I discovered that horrible creature, a bedbug, latched onto my backpack. Fortunately, this was, as far as I know, our only encounter with this devilish kind, which otherwise would have turned a single tragic night into a lengthier, and more painful, ordeal.
Come to think of it, and however ironic, the cockroach and its nerve-wracking presence, by preventing us from finding immediate sleep, may have saved us from such fate.
In the lobby, a man in his forties dozed uncomfortably on top of his knapsack. Had he gone through similar mishaps?
Fortunately, the room hotel across the street was still available, though I was swiftly greeted by a pervasive odor of mildew. I inspected the white sheets thoroughly. In no time, we had forever left the HiLux and its insectoid inhabitants.
Only one or two tiny roaches fled across the smoky carpet as we entered our new abode. We took a long, hot shower, till we could no longer smell the ambient mildew. Ah, the disparaging comfort of the City of Roses!
I ain’t about to lose Coco over some Blattodea bed bugs, or an (albeit endearing) cockroach.
The islands will treat us well. We’ll treat ourselves well. Yes Coco, we’re going to find some rest now, I promise.
You know what? I need it too.