In my first half year on the road I’ve stayed at hostels in Canada, USA, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Australia. (I’ve also been through Uruguay and Paraguay but didn’t stay overnight.) I’ve encountered some creaky bunk beds, some mattresses that would have a ‘Sleep Number’ in the triple digits, and some pillows that were seemingly stuffed with twigs and horseshoes. But after six months and 10 days I have yet to experience every backpacker’s worst nightmare. That streak of good luck came to a shrieking end at 6:46 a.m. on Saturday #28.
I went to bed on Friday night with my alarm set for 7:00 a.m. My plan for Saturday #28 involved no less than a walk across New Zealand. Yes, it’s possible to walk 16 kilometers from Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour to Manukau Harbour in about six hours. The famed Coast-To-Coast Walk (or ‘tramp’ as Kiwis would say) takes you through largely urban neighbourhoods from the Pacific coast in the west to the Tasman Sea in the east. It was recently voted World’s Best City Walk by the backpacker lifestyle website BootsNAll.com. (Vancouver’s Sea Wall was #10 on that list and I did it in August.)
Normally I would sleep soundly until the iPhone tucked under my pillow starts vibrating. I have no trouble sleeping through the sound of people moving about a cramped eight-bed dorm. Or at least I thought that was the case until this morning when I was jolted awake by a blood-curdling scream.
I sat straight up in bed. Even without my glasses it was pretty clear who was doing the screaming. Six people were also sitting upright in their beds and the girl from Bed #8 was standing in front of the open window with her hands on her head. My first thought was that someone had fallen out the window. Within seconds there were three girls standing at the window, straining to see the gruesome carnage that surely lay below.
One of the other girls asked what had happened but by now The Screamer had been rendered speechless and she could only point back and forth between her bed and the window. I climbed down from my bunk and found a path through a half dozen backpacks and piles of shoes and clothes to get my own glimpse out the window. Please, Lord, let this be a dropped cellphone and not a body, I said to myself.
Thankfully there was no body. There was no phone either. In fact I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. There were a couple of garbage bags sitting neatly by the curb, an old pillow, and two recycling bins that probably belonged to the Thai restaurant next door.
I studied the scene for a few seconds while channeling my inner Sherlock Holmes. I deduced that the pillow on the sidewalk had almost certainly originated from Bed #8. It had a distinctive blue pillowcase just like the ones in the hostel, and Bed #8 was the only bed in the room that now lacked a pillow. “By George, I think you’ve got it, Holmes,” I said while patting myself on the back.
While I had been standing at the open window and affecting a cheesy British accent, one of the girls had actually done something responsible and reported the issue to the front desk staff. Within a few minutes there was knock at the door and a small but well organized parade was underway. In marched five people who headed straight for Bed #8.
First in line was a maintenance man wearing a blueish-green jumpsuit with an army-surplus flashlight at his side. He was followed by two clipboard-toting girls in their 20s who I assumed to be the Night Manager and possibly the front desk clerk. Bringing up the rear were two matrons from the housekeeping staff. At least I assumed they were from the housekeeping staff since they were wearing baby blue smocks with “Housekeeping” embroidered in red on their ample bosoms. Olga I and Olga II were almost certainly of Eastern European descent and quite possibly twins.
The group of five proceeded to flip, inspect and document each of the eight mattresses with such efficiency that it was clear this wasn’t their first day at the rodeo. After about two minutes the manager announced that Bed #8 had indeed been home to Cimex lectularius – the common bedbug.
Of the eight people in the dorm, only The Screamer exhibited any sign of a bite. And even then she only had one bite and it was on the side of her neck, just below her ear. Bedbugs tend to feed on arms, legs and backs, noted the maintenance man. Besides, the mark on her neck looked more like a hickey than a bite, I said under my breath. I won’t do that again. If it were possible to incinerate bedbugs with a stare we wouldn’t be in this predicament.
It’s now 5:30 p.m. and the last of my clothes are in ‘The Oven’ as Olga I called it. She insisted that before anything in the room be moved to another floor it must go through a three step process – wash and dry in the hostel’s industrial-strength laundry followed by a liberal spraying with Raid. I argued that my clothes had been kept in sealed Ziploc bags but Olga I didn’t care. I wasn’t brave enough to argue so I spent the better part of the day sorting, spraying, and playing online Scrabble from a bench in the laundry room.
I can’t really blame the hostel for this. It could happen anywhere you have dozens if not hundreds of people coming and going each day, all carrying backpacks that have been god-knows-where. In fact Nomads Hostel in Auckland is one of the better large hostels I have experienced. It’s clean, well maintained, has lots of bathrooms and showers, hot water for days, a good vibe, and best of all, it has a great bar serving craft beer and pizza from a wood-fired oven.
And that’s exactly where you’ll find me as I write. I’ve just ordered my second mug of ‘8 Wired Lager’ and I’m going in for a second slice of something the bartender says is the “must have” item on the menu: Roast Lamb and Mint Jelly Pizza. I wasn’t sold at first but it’s actually pretty good. When in New Zealand…
The Coast-To-Coast walk will have to wait until I’m back in Auckland and have a free day on Saturday #30. I could do it tomorrow but something tells me this won’t be the last beer of the night and walking across an entire country with a 4-pint hangover might not be as enjoyable as it sounds.