Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 2009, 12:00am

On a recent trip to Yunnan province to visit the majestic Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, I had the opportunity to stay with some locals I had met on an earlier trip. It was a beautiful place, dreamlike and lost in time. It was also a humbling trip; I felt quite ashamed of how little I know of China's geography compared with that of Australia, where I was brought up. It was surprising how beautiful my own country is and how pristine much of it is. After the trip, I immediately went to a bookshop and stocked up on books about China and maps of the nation so I could plan further adventures on the mainland.

The trip was perfect except for the bedbugs. I was there for a week, and I had insomnia for the first few days because of an infestation where I was staying. During my first night in Yunnan I was woken by a painful welt that developed on my ankle. I ignored it, thinking it was just a mosquito bite, closed the mosquito net more securely around the bed and went back to sleep. After a short time I was woken again by more welts on my shins. The bites were getting really itchy, and I found it odd that I couldn't hear the buzzing of the mosquitoes. This pattern recurred several more times during the night.

At one point I got up to find a light. Electricity in the area was unreliable, especially at night, so my hosts had laid out an oil lamp and matches on the table. After lighting the lamp, I went back to the bed to search for my predator. I sat for a while trying to focus on anything flying or crawling, but to no avail.

I eventually deduced that whatever had bitten me was small, there was probably more than one, I couldn't hear any mosquitoes and the netting around the bed was sound. I also remembered that when I arrived in the morning I had a short nap and had not been bitten. So the assailant had to be nocturnal and afraid of light. I figured that sitting there with the oil lamp was probably futile. Like cockroaches, my nemesis probably hid the moment I lit the lamp.

Then I lifted my pillow quickly and saw a bug scurrying out of sight. It was fast and the size of a sesame seed. It looked like a mite of some sort, and I recalled the rhyme, 'Sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs bite'. Now that I knew what I was dealing with, I lifted the mattress and saw what I feared - a hundred or so bugs living under the mattress surrounded by piles of bug droppings.

There wasn't much more I could do that night, so I slept on the chair with my face on the table. The next day at breakfast I told my hosts about the problem and they were very embarrassed. Their facial expressions told me they had been struggling with the problem for some time. Their little girl showed me her bites, which had the classic appearance of three welts about a centimetre apart in a straight line. These new welts were superimposed on older welts.

I asked whether they had tried an insecticide, and they said they had been using one for quite some time, but lately it had seemed to lose its effectiveness and they hadn't had a good night's sleep since.

I was not looking forward to sleeping at a table all week. I had a very sore neck from sleeping like that for just one night. I had to find a solution for myself and the family. I studied the ingredients in the insecticide they had bought from a general store - not an easy task, since there was lots of guesswork because it was all in Chinese. It was obvious that the bedbugs had developed a resistance to this type of insecticide and I had to find another. I asked whether they used insecticides on their vegetable fields. They did, and fortunately it was not the same type they used on the bugs. I figured that if it was safe to spray on vegetables, it couldn't do much harm in the house.

However, I was worried that the bedbugs would again develop resistance after repeated applications of the new insecticide. So I developed a plan. We moved all the furniture and clothes out into the snow and sprayed them with the insecticide and left them there in the freezing cold for a few days. I was certain the cold would ensure that all the bedbugs were eradicated. We filled in all the holes in the house to make sure there were not any crevices where the bugs could hide, and then drenched the whole house with insecticide.

We stayed at another family's house while the debugging was in progress - and they had bedbugs too. I told the family the bedbugs were spreading through the village, probably via items or clothes people shared or entered other houses with. I said an indefinite quarantine was probably a good idea until everyone had eradicated the bugs from their homes.

After three days we cleaned all the furniture and clothes and returned to the house. The morning after that night of peaceful sleep, I was greeted with what was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. The happiness of the whole family was so genuine that it made me cry.