Travel Tips

Avoiding Bed Bugs and Travel Critters

Ask any long term traveller, compulsive backpacker and chronic city-breaker, when the travel bug gets you, you can’t stop. But there is one thing that can put a damper on your addiction. Small, seemingly insignificant, they can turn your stay into a night of itching at best to a week or two in hospital with hallucinations at worst. Here’s a little run down of the bugs to avoid, or put up with when you’re on the road.

Midges: You don’t need to go to the jungles of the Amazon basin to encounter voracious insects. Just head for the Highlands of Scotland and you’ll get plenty of hassle there. Highland midges are notorious UK summer pests. But you won’t only find them in Scotland, any place that has acidic soils will do. That means Scandinavia, particularly in the North (in Norway, they go under the code name knott), or in Russia or Northern China.

If you haven’t ever encountered midges, consider yourself lucky. I have seen the coolest, most self-controlled people loose their mind because of these little beasts. When they come at you, they just don’t buzz around like a mosquito. It’s a cloud of them that will attack. They are tiny and will get in any space they can to get to your skin. Their bite is not proportionate to their size! According to some estimates, midges cost the tourist industry 373 million USD each  year in lost revenue! Any way to avoid it? Well not if you want to go rambling through the Highlands. Although some experts say that the first midge to bite you will release a pheromone advertising how tasty you are. So just avoid that first bite! Also, they don’t like direct sunlight! And as natural repellents go, you can use Citronella, Lavender, Eucalyptus, Neem or Bog Myrtle, which you can find in essential oil form.

Ticks: If midges are a nuisance because of the pain, ticks are very discreet but can have a very real detrimental effect on your health. Ticks are tiny woodland bloodsucking bugs found all around the world, but especially in warm and humid countries. How does an eight-legged wingless bloodsucker get to you? They chill out on the end of twigs and branches waiting for you to brush past. That’s when they hitch a ride and they will crawl towards those nice and warm parts of your body to eat in peace: armpits, groin, ears.

These little guys are potential carriers of a long list of diseases. You probably know about Lyme disease, which can have serious implications for your health. I’m not going to go through all the symptoms here as there is loads of information on the Internet. But the thing is, you need to try and keep them off you. There are different techniques that don’t require you to stay locked in the house! You can keep them from crawling up your legs by tucking your trousers into your socks (I know, not exactly very fashionable), but you can also use Rose Geranium essential oil, mixed with Sweet Almond oil and use this as a repellent. Just cover those areas of exposed skin and those sensitive areas ticks are fond of. When you get home from walks in the woods, check yourself for ticks, with a partner for greater efficacy (and fun?). If you find any, you can remove them with pointed tweezers, just grab them as close as possible to the skin and pull gently without twisting or squeezing too hard. Disinfect the bite, with tea tree oil, for example.

Mosquitoes: Well, we all know about mosquitoes. Actually, some of the worst mosquitoes I have encountered were in Lapland, in Norway. They were huge, bit through clothes and were absolutely relentless. The Laps I met there told me I should just get naked and sit there for a while, and my body would get used to their saliva, which they inject to stop coagulation and actually causes the allergic reaction that makes you twitch and itch for days. I didn’t try that.

If running around naked and teasing the mozzies is an option in Scandinavia, it’s not really possible to do so in the tropics. Although you might be baring quite a bit of skin due to the heat. Mosquitoes in the tropics carry quite a few bacterial diseases, the most infamous of which is malaria. But mosquito-borne diseases also include Dengue Fever, Yellow fever, West Nile Virus, Elephantiasis,…

How to keep the mosquitoes away. Well, there’s not much you can do. Sleep under a mosquito net, wear long sleeves. There are many kinds of repellents, some of them might actually be as bad for you as they are for the mosquitoes (such as repellents containing DEET). I prefer to use natural repellents such as essential oils of Citronella, Lavender, Eucalyptus, Neem or Rosemary, or a fragrant mix of some of them. Experiment with the smells!

Malaria is a problem in many places in the world, and the WHO estimates 660,000 people die of malaria every year. A recent study showed that the parasite also affects the mosquito’s sense of smell, making it three times more likely to bite a human than an uninfected mosquito! The parasite is becoming more and more resistant to drugs, particularly in Cambodia. I have discovered a very effective prophylactic, that can also be used to cure if you get malaria. When I was in Papua, Indonesia for over a year, I used a plant called Artemisia annua. It came as a powder, I mixed it with honey (it is horribly bitter) and had a teaspoonful of the stuff every morning. Kept the doctor away! You can find more information about Artemisia annua here.

Bed Bugs: Bed bugs are making a comeback all around the world. They had disappeared due to the extensive use of pesticides, and particularly DDT. By the time DDT was banned in the 70s and 80s, they had already become resistant to most pesticides, and were itching to get back into worldwide action. And so here they are. These critters are not confined to the developing world, but have been reported in New York, Boston five-star hotels as well as across Europe and Australia. Despite their planetary success, bedbugs are not actually dangerous (except for the few who are highly sensitive), but they are a real pain in the a**!

Bedbugs like to hide in bed frames, mattresses, cracks and crevices or behind electric wires. Just do a quick inspection before you lay down on the bed, exhausted from your day of travelling. They look a bit like ticks, small reddish-brown.

What many travellers don’t realise is that they are sometimes actually carrying their bedbugs around with them! Although they can’t fly, they will happily hitch a ride in your clothes or luggage. They won’t travel on you as they don’t like human heat.

Some tricks to avoid bringing bedbugs home from your travels: keep your luggage above ground, or in a place removed from the sleeping area, such as in the bathroom of your hotel room. Don’t put your backpack or suitcase on the bed to prevent them from crawling aboard. As they like warmth, they might also be attracted to your laptop, so don’t use your laptop in bed (it’s bad for you anyway!). If you get bitten, wash your clothes immediately in very hot water, put them in a dryer or have them dry cleaned. Leave your suitcase out in the sun for a few days or in the cold for a couple of weeks.

Spiders and Scorpions: When you are travelling in tropical countries, keep an eye out for spiders and scorpions. Although you would expect them if you are trekking through the jungle, they can also enter homes and hotels, particularly those in a more rural setting. I have myself had a few close encounters with these eight-legged creatures, and luckily had more of a fright and a hip-hop/French Cancan session than any real harm. Once was as I was hitch-hiking through Thailand, a fruit farmer (lamyai – dragon’s eye: yummy!) let me stay in the rooms used by his seasonal pickers.

I was about to get into bed when I saw movement right next to my bare feet. Looked down and there was a golden scorpion trundling along towards my toes. I jumped away and he and I had a little game of running around, me trying to chase him out of the door, and he desperately trying to run under the bed. I got him out unharmed in the end, sweeping him out with a towl.

Anyone who has been to tropical countries will have noticed the amazing webs spiders weave on electric wires and bridges. That’s fine, they don’t bother me. But getting woken up by a scream (my girlfriend) as a huge Papuan spider is crawling along the inside of the mosquito net (if it’s not keeping out palm-sized spiders, what about mozzies?), that’s another story. Too close for comfort, but nowhere to go as trying to get out would have made it fall right on us. We did get it out (rather I got it out) with the help of a few kitchen utensils, but the spider could leap about a yard at a time and was absolutely not cooperative.