Do you know what it’s like to feel unsafe when you lay down to sleep? It is an isolating and lonely feeling. It is a very helpless feeling.
About six months into my service in Guinea as a Peace Corps Volunteer, this is exactly how I felt. I’ve mentioned my hut previously. The walls were made of mud; the roof was straw. There was no seal between the roof and wall, which left about 6 inches of space, allowing for light to enter…and other things. Mice and lizards lived abundantly in my roof and made noises throughout the day as they burrowed. At night they would haunt my dwelling, gnawing at food wrappers, clothing and book pages. Every morning I was greeted the remnants of their night’s play- feces.
But I remained safe from the night-stalking, creepy crawlies- the spiders, mice, lizards, malaria causing mosquitos, centipedes and snakes because I had a mosquito net! My nightly ritual was to tuck the net securely under my mattress and breathe a sigh of relief; I was safe in bed.
Until they arrived. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know why. But in an instant I lost the safety and security of my bed. And with it went my peace of mind. You may think I’m being dramatic but I can only tell you how I felt and after they came, I didn’t feel safe anywhere, at any point during the day. My safe haven was ripped away suddenly.
I woke up one morning and had a couple of bites on my arm, one right after another in a line. At first there were about four. The next morning I had four more on my leg. Bites were nothing new to me. My ankles were always covered in mosquito bites. These were different though. They swelled up big and fat, a puffy red. They itched like crazy! As the day wore on they would get puffier, redder and itchier. Several days went by until a village woman grabbed my arm, pointed at my bites and said, “Dabi!” What in the world is dabi? It’s a Malinké word, one of the tribal languages used in my village but I knew it didn’t mean mosquito. I asked an educated woman who worked at the health center what dabi translated to. She said, punaise. Oh yeah, that helps. Not. It’s not exactly a word I would have learned in French class. My French/English dictionary was no help either. So I pulled out the full French dictionary, read the definition in French and surmised that the woman thought I was suffering from BED BUGS. I glanced through my copy of Lonely Planet’s “Stay Healthy in Africa” and sure enough, I had a bed bug infestation.
According to the CDC, only 30% of the population has any physical reaction when they are bitten by a bed bug. Of those 30%, most only get a small, red dot that may itch a little. Only a very small percentage suffers an allergic reaction from a bed bug bite including swelling, redness, blistering and severe itchiness, to name a few. Lucky me, I was one of the few.
Five years later, I sit in my nice apartment surrounded by all the luxuries of modern civilization and I am experiencing much the same feelings as I did all those years ago. I live on the bottom floor. The humidity in my apartment is off the charts despite everything we do to combat it. It’s not helped by the air conditioning unit that busted last year in the apartment above ours, soaking the hallway and my room, not to mention the leak last week that turned out to be a broken water heater in the unit above.
The result of high humidity and occasionally standing water- mold. And guess who’s highly allergic to mold? Several months ago it got so bad that I developed bronchitis and spent 10 days on antibiotics and steroids. And while the cough subsided, the chest congestion never went away. And now, as I rummage through my belongings, beginning to pack I start to sneeze. Over and over again I sneeze. I’ve used every tissue I own and moved on to paper towels. I found mold on my purses in the chest at the foot of my bed. There’s mildew in the tub even though I clean it weekly. My wooden chair had mold on the leg. My suitcase was covered in the white, fuzzy stuff. Ahh!
So I sit in my room, breathing in mold spores feeling that old feeling of helplessness. Every time I unlock the door to my apartment and step in, my nose scrunches as I’m assaulted with the musty, dank smell of mold. We’ve put in maintenance requests; they’ve done all they’re going to do. Twenty-two more days of this.
As the time for my departure from Atlanta draws closer, I will begin to dwell more and more on what and whom I will miss. This I will not miss. And that makes it one, tiny bit easier to say goodbye.