18 September, 2016

Bedbugs and Broomsticks

I am not a linear thinker, so this is not a chronological blog. This is about my battle to obliterate bedbugs from one albergue on the camino de Santiago de Compostela.

I arrived the day before my two week stint was to begin, in order to be oriented by the two current hospitaleras.  This albergue is owned by the town and staffed year-round by volunteers. They were lovely Spanish women who had become great friends during their two weeks in July.  They made crafts, hung out in the cafes and enjoyed the interaction with pilgrims.  They showed me where the mops were, how to run the washing machine using only cold water, and how to register the pilgrims.  When my colleague from Valencia arrived, we all went out to dinner and had a fun evening. We newcomers lodged in the albergue with our guests and the departing hostesses went to the volunteers' quarters in a small space across the courtyard.
Benches up to give the floor a good cleaning every day

The first days were wonderful! Hot and sunny, with a steady stream of guests from all over Europe and Australia. I got to know the townspeople, tended to many blisters and sprains of the pilgrims, and worked from six in the morning until we locked the doors at 10 PM.  However when stripping the sheets from the bunkbeds the next morning, there skittered across a top bunk a chinche. We had learned about them in hospitalero training, and although I kept an eagle eye out for them on my pilgrimages and indeed all of my travels, I had never encountered any.  I had already been flipping the mattresses and washing them down daily, they were covered with plastic. Now I was on the hunt. No panic, just irritation.  I assumed they had come in with the prior night's guest. However when I pulled the bunk away from the wall, I discovered a well-established colony that had been in residence for some time.  I called my partner upstairs to see.
Bedbug poop and eggs

Blood of an unfortunate pilgrim on the bed

Live bugs and poop on the bed post

The masses of bedbug poop, shed shells, eggs and living creatures were shocking. And disgusting.  This was beyond what I thought we could deal with with the can of fly spray that we had.  We had no car to travel to a town with an actual store, we only had a small tienda.  It was a weekend. I asked her to call the area coordinator with whom she was in contact from her one other assignment, and she left him a message.  With a couple of hours before opening for the day, we focused on stripping all of the beds and taking out all of the heavy fleece blankets.  They could not be washed in the tiny washer and didn't smell great.  We soon discovered that one load of laundry washed in hot water took 3 hours.
Next to the bed

Bed post

Bed frame

Finally we received a call back from the coordinator.  Do nothing, tell no one. This is normal and happens every year. My partner related this to me and said, "he's in charge, we do what he says."  Monday morning we went to the town hall and told them we needed something to clean out the bugs.  Again we were told this is normal, they would have some bug spray brought to us.  Nothing happened.  On Wednesday I had really had enough and felt horrible about putting pilgrims in the hostel.  I had expressed my distress to the USA trainer who agreed it was a difficult position, but we served at the pleasure of the town.  I scooped up a plastic bag of living and dead bedbugs and brought them over to town hall, at the same time emailing the Spanish coordinators pictures and video of scattering chinches.  After throwing the bag on the floor and stomping on the bugs, spurting blood, we were told to close the affected room for the night and that an exterminator would come. He did, two days later. We were told albergues in the next towns were calling back and complaining of bedbugs arriving at their hostels.



Antonio pasted the beds with a noxious poison, and told us to close the building for the day.  We did, and I biked over to the neighboring town's albergue for a much-needed break.

The next day I found nests in another room.

As directed, those two rooms were closed while we waited for Antonio to return. In the meanwhile, I bagged all of the blankets in 21 black plastic bags and put them in the hot sun to kill the bugs and eggs.  I put fresh shellac on the woodwork and dining tables after scrubbing them well. The black bags finally were taken away to be laundered, after sitting in the yard for a week. All 30 sheets and 30 pillow cases had been washed and hung in the sun to dry.
Some of the bags of blankets on a hot tin roof

My partner went off to Paris for vacation and a replacement arrived.  Antonio came back with yet another noxious chemical and painted it on the beds.  The slats were screwed down in places and the men refused to allow me to unscrew them even though we could see that the bugs had squeezed under.  He insisted that the whole thing could not have happened as I have described. The albergue was closed again for two days. The American who came two weeks later to host reported that they were "bed bug free to the end." Amen to that.
Sunset on the meseta
Cleaning and poisoning bugs





I guess my mission was to rid the place of infestation, making no friends in the town hall but garnering respect and thanks from the townfolk.  Bedbugs can be and are everywhere, these same pilgrims often left us to go to nice hotels for a respite.  They are not known to transmit disease from human to human. I did everything I could to make sure the host quarters did not become a casualty, and I was very careful about my own backpack. But it still makes me feel creepy to remember these critters! Everything else about my time volunteering was exhilarating and fulfilling.

Town folk

Town folk

Town folk