Belgium

Two weeks, five countries

October 2016

I had ended my nine month “fast” from travel with a trip to Guadeloupe with my parents in March and still my wanderlust continued. I visited Montreal for a blues dance exchange, spent a quick weekend in DC with friends, flew to Portland OR for a tech writing conference, and partied (with my family) for a week in New Orleans for my cousin’s wedding. All in the span of 7 weeks. Yeah I still had the travel bug.

Then when I left my job in September 2016, I was fortunate enough to have a month off before starting a new job. So I packed in as much travel as possible in two weeks and jetted off to Europe.


A day in Iceland

It was 2:10am in Iceland when I gave up on trying to sleep. I was sitting on the floor of the Reykjavik airport next to a sign that said “SLEEPING/CAMPING AND COOKING IS FORBIDDEN IN THE BUILDING AND ON THE GROUNDS” in three languages. I shivered in my winter clothes as I sat on the cold tile floor. I had slept maybe three hours since Wednesday and now it was Friday. I hurt from exhaustion but I was stuck awake.

24 hours before . . .

I landed in Reykjavik well before sunrise after a short red-eye from Boston. Wide awake from lack of sleep, I rented a car and drove to the city to go for a swim. When I visited Iceland the first time (in 2014), I didn’t know that swimming was a big part of Icelandic culture. In hindsight it made sense, being an island with lots of geothermal heating. Too cold and dark? Go sit in a hot tub.

Conveniently the hot tubs were inexpensive and provided a free (required) shower so I parked at the swimming pool and washed the plane smells off. After soaking in the outdoor hot tub for an hour, watching the sunrise, I was ready to adventure. But first, breakfast and coffee with Sarah and Rachael, two Scottish Couchsurfers that I was sharing the rental car with who were visiting at the same time.

We drove south along the Ring Road, stopping at waterfalls and beautiful views, pausing for coffee, to visit a glacier and the black sand beach, and more coffee. The forecast threatened rain all day but luckily it barely sprinkled. Sarah and Rachael were excellent company and having them along made the drive much more enjoyable. Being Scottish they drive on the left side of the road so since Iceland drives on the right I was the designated driver.

After a long day of exploring we got dinner back in Reykjavik, said our goodbyes, and I headed to the airport to await my next flight. Thus concluded the 27-hour layover.

New experiences in the Netherlands

I first visited Amsterdam in 2010 while I was studying abroad in Israel. It was January, cold and snowy, hardly ideal touristing weather, but I loved it. Ever since that brief visit I knew I’d go back, in better weather of course. So when I had a few weeks off between jobs, I finally made good on my dream of returning to the City of Organized Canals. Plus the flights were cheap.

It wasn’t quite as dream-like as I’d hoped. I stayed in a religiously Christian hostel in the infamous Red Light District. It was the only reasonably-priced and centrally-located hostel when I was booking my stay. Sure the dorm rooms had 16 beds and the mattresses were thin but it was just for a couple nights. How bad could it be? I wasn’t in Amsterdam to hang out in the hostel or the Red Light District, with the women standing in windows while they waited for customers. I preferred to stroll along the canals and people watch, and visit the classic Dutch windmills that I hadn’t seen last time.

Wherever I went, I was on the lookout for the Dutch zipping by on bikes, often with a baby in front and two more children in back, or carting bags of groceries, or carrying a dog in a basket, or balancing two people, one sitting while the other pedaled. All while texting and smoking a cigarette, possibly taking a selfie too.

Little did I know that I picked up a surprise visitor while I stayed in Amsterdam . . .

Next stop: Ghent, Belgium

I continued to Belgium, a country I’d visited but this time I stayed in a new city. Like Amsterdam, Ghent had canals and old buildings, bicyclists madly peddling single-speeds, but fewer tourists. The first night I planned to spend a quiet evening reading, maybe do some writing. In the common room of the hostel I started chatting with a friendly Australian chap named Elliott. We finally we stopped talking to go to sleep after 4 hours of yammering away. I was exhausted but joyful from having an effortless conversation, discussing everything under the sun. I never know who I’m going to meet while traveling, could be a friendly acquaintance or my new best friend.

The next night Elliott and I were sitting in the common room again and another American joined us. She was younger, greener to traveling, and I did not feel that same connection with her, not even close. No magic there, just another young American on the road.

Crossing through Luxembourg

Since I was in the relative neighborhood, I decided to make a stop in tiny Luxembourg. What it lacks in size it makes up in wealth as the richest country in the EU. I Couchsurfed outside of Luxembourg City, the capital and central city, and enjoyed wandering the historic and opulent streets of the city.

More enjoyable and memorable was the countryside. While out on a jog, I entered a forest and suddenly the trees were tall, the rocks were covered in moss, and I came across a random path into the jungle. I continued down the path, amazed by how beautiful, serene, and quiet the forest was. The unexpected nature was invigorating.

Facing the facts in Frankfurt

While I was in Belgium I started to notice a few insect bites appearing along my arms. My reaction was bigger than mosquitos, and oddly I didn’t remember being bit. I Googled about the bites and nervously contacted the hostel in Amsterdam. Had they found any bed bugs?

A day later my fears were confirmed. I had been bitten by bed bugs. In all of my travels over the last six years, I had never ever gotten bed bugs. I had slept in so many beds in so many countries, and not a single bug. Now I spend one night in Amsterdam and suddenly I was diseased, embarrassed, and nervous that I was still infected. I am accustomed to taking care of myself on the road through illnesses, injuries, and emotional roller coasters. I was not prepared for infestation.

Thankfully I did not get any new bites and the existing ones started to fade. I only had clothes in my luggage and a few electronics. As long as I dealt with it before I got home it would all be fine, I hoped. In a way I was lucky that I wasn’t home with bed bugs. But I was still freaked out.

I arrived in Frankfurt to visit my friend Helí, whom I first met in New Zealand and she later came to visit me in Somerville. When I arrived on her doorstep she showed me to the washing machine where I threw in everything I owned, from sneakers to backpack and every inch of clothing. I wanted to be rid of the bugs, and I wasn’t taking the chance that they had crawled into my bag while I slept. I showered with the hottest water I could stand, knowing that it was unlikely there were any on me. Helí was much calmer than I was, she’d encountered and vanquished bed bugs before.

Once I was clean I could enjoy our visit, biking around the city and catching up with my pal. We started hatching a plan for our next trip together, this time to Cuba. No more bites appeared and I could breathe freely again.

Return to the Netherlands

En route to Amsterdam I stopped in Utrecht to visit an American friend that I’d met in China in 2015. I loved having disparate contacts to visit, meeting up broke up the monotony and isolation of solo travel. A familiar face and local tour guide made my travels much more vibrant. Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel on my own but I also love to travel with others.

I was pretty wary of returning to Amsterdam but I was flying out of there so I booked a different hostel and crossed my fingers. In the end I escaped without any more bed bugs. And as a precaution when I arrived back in Somerville I left my luggage outside in the 20 degree weather for a few days, just to be sure.

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