I still shudder as I write this… It’s been over a month, but the wound is still raw. I experienced one of the worst traveler’s nightmares–bed bugs.

I stayed with a lovely couple in Hungary for just 2 nights, who also rented out their second floor rooms to visitors. They had just moved from Iran and were trying to make a better life in a new country.

I wanted to meet them because the woman, J, was a former doctor, a family physician no less, who also decided to quit. Oh how it felt like fate that I stumbled upon her profile on Couchsurfing! It wasn’t about saving money at all; Hungary was so cheap. I had been feeling lonely on the road by myself and figured I’d spend my last 2 days socializing and sharing their room with them.

It was a lovely time. We traded recipes and cooked our cultures’ signature dishes. We talked for hours about anything and everything; there was an instant connection, and level of trust. J and her husband H were so warm, outgoing, friendly, and fun. I really felt for them, and hoped they could achieve their dreams and goals. They were in a tight financial spot currently, relying solely on renting out their upper floor rooms for income.

I had gone hiking the day before I met them, and slipped and fell into shrubbery while climbing a steep slope. I noticed some itchy red welts popping up along my right arm and leg, which I figured must be poison ivy (it’s a delayed reaction after all, up to a week even).

Until J noticed my bites and remarked that they had them as well. Since last month. With a sinking feeling, we checked their mattress and found multiple rust-colored stains. I was staying on their fold-out couch, but given that reported length of time, the entire room was infested. I was surprised that none of the second floor guests reported any bites.

I did a lot of research on bed bugs that day. I threw out most of my belongings. I didn’t have time to heat-treat the few clothes I kept, so I shook them out, bagged them up and prayed nothing would get loose during my long flight home. I washed myself thoroughly. I felt so icky, and so violated.

And I knew none of this was anyone’s fault. I was just sad that it soured such an otherwise great experience and that I left on a negative, or at least an awkward, note.

H was not convinced that they were bed bug bites; he said they were likely mosquitoes, especially since none of the other guests upstairs had issues. He did not believe my medical diagnosis, though I had seen bed bug bites on my patients before. J had a medical background as well, but had not seen them before.

It was frustrating, but I didn’t push them to take action. They had shown me kindness and hospitality, and I did not want to throw away a relationship over a (very educated) guess. I did advise them to consider cleaners, bug bombs, and washing everything in hot water. I also urged them to least report this to their landlord, though it sounded like he lived abroad and unfortunately was rather nonchalant about all the matters they had previously reported to him.

I left hoping the best for them. I was torn about whether to report them to their AirBnB guests above or not, since it wasn’t a confirmed infestation and it wasn’t affecting them. I also would’ve felt guilty taking away this couple’s sole means of supporting themselves, especially given how tentative their visa situation was and how tight their finances were.

It was a really tough and exhausting situation, and even after a month of deliberation, I still don’t know what the right thing to do is. I reached out to J since then to ask about what happened, but have not heard any response.

I know it’s for the greater good to let others know, but this reminds me of those morality questions where they ask “if you had to make a split second train-track switching decision, would you save 100 people…or your mother?” (If any of you have thoughts about this situation, please leave me a comment below or message me!)

What made it worse was that my next scheduled destination after Hungary was my parents’ home in New York (where I was going to get ready for a wedding and to get my bridesmaid’s dress tailored).

My mom has always been a clean freak and very protective of her home, understandably so. I felt so horrible that I was coming back so filthy, with potential problems for my entire family in tow.

I took precautions; I threw out my suitcase and put my stuff in a giant trash bag, and I showered again right when I stepped inside. Thank God that bed bugs almost never travel on people or their clothing since we move around too much, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

I could have changed my flight, or gone somewhere else, but I was so exhausted and didn’t have the energy to come up with an alternative plan. I was also depleted from dealing with everything on my own (fixing the broken phone three times, lugging around a useless laptop, etc) and just wanted the comfort of being with people who knew me well and truly cared.

I loved how friendly everyone was abroad, but the kindness of strangers just can’t substitute for the deep love of close friends and family. In hard times, they really do bring a comfort that is irreplaceable. My recent experiences taught me to appreciate them even more, and to show my love to them more often, no matter how far apart we are.

I wish I could find some positive spin or takeaway from this. But sometimes, life just sucks. Sometimes it’s “the bad, the bad, and the ugly,” rather than “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” We need to let ourselves feel these negative emotions, rather than trying to mask them with hollow cheerfulness.

Both Asian and medical training cultures instill an attitude of “suck it up and push on,” so I’ve had a double whammy of suboptimal values to untangle and unlearn. My parents never wanted to hear about anything unless it was good news. We never talked about anything too deep, especially if it involved an emotion perceived as negative (even indecision or doubt). In medicine, even if a colleague commits suicide, you are expected to keep working as if nothing had happened. No chance is allowed for processing, grieving, questioning or reflecting.

But it’s so important to fully feel negative emotions, in order to truly heal and move past them, rather than suppressing or fleeing from them, even if it’s under the guise of a brave face or smile.

It took me so many years to learn that we are all human, so we WILL all experience a spectrum of emotions. There is no such thing as a “bad” emotion; we are all entitled to feel how we feel. We cannot control our emotions, but we can control our actions, and with practice, our thoughts too.

Adding guilt or shame to any emotion is counterproductive and does not encourage healthy coping mechanisms. We must remember that emotions are part of who we are, but they don’t control or define us. And they WILL pass, even if it takes some time.

Emotions are like clouds. They float and pass through, but the strong, beautiful, unwavering sky remains the same.

One response

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I travel and stay away from home a few months a year. Gratefully, I have not gotten bed bugs. But my sister got it during one trip. Bed bugs are a serious health and safety issue. An airbnb review of your stay would save other guests from the same suffering you endured. It may be a kind and responsible thing to do. The next victim could be me. Furthermore, airbnb should be informed of such health and safety issue. Hosts have legal obligations to keep their place free of mice, bed bugs, unsafe conditions. You should be entitled to a full refund and early departure from the vacation rental.

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Who am I?
Hi! I'm Dr. Toni, a carTOONIst. I empower, educate and advocate for women and minorities through my art and coaching, while traveling nomadically. I help others also follow our hearts and live true to themselves, no matter what others say!
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