I pondered for a while before deciding to sleep in this so-called ‘Shelter Hotel.’ I thought the owner of the building deceived customers by calling it a hotel. Judging from the setting, it would have been named ‘Durban Dungeon.’ The whole place reeked of cigarette, weeds and filth. When it occurred to me that I didn’t have a choice, I made up my mind to sleep the night over. After all, I’d paid already, and I’d only be here for a few hours; it would soon be morning. Moreover, I’d slept in a bunker bed many times in the past, especially when I was in high school; even if my weight was then a little more than half the current 100 kg. The guys around looked at me with curious eyes, surprised that a tall, clean-looking dude like me couldn’t go to bigger hotels scattered all over Durban. But, I couldn’t start explaining how I landed here. We all had our different stories to tell. I cast my fears aside and began to access the suitability of the bed.
The bunker bed allocated to me didn’t look strong, even if it was well laid. I grabbed the iron rod and shook it. It squeaked: “You are in KwaZulu-Natal.” I raised my brows, wondering if I won’t fall off the top bunk. As if reading my thoughts, the white guy occupying the lower bunk said: “It’s strong enough, fella. I’ve been here for three months now and people have been sleeping there.” He sounded like someone describing a five-star hotel room.
“Oh, okay,” I said, looking at him closely.
I was curious about his appearance and others in the bunks around. Their weather-beaten faces and overall shabby looks made them look like delinquents who’d served six years or more in prison.
“I hope these guys won’t steal my transport fare from my pocket while asleep,” I thought.
I quickly transferred my wallet from my back-pocket to the hip-pocket, pressing it deep down into my jeans trousers. Then I frowned as if I was just returning from the wilderness, hoping that my makeshift hardened face would scare them, should my tall and huge frame fail to achieve that goal.
“Excuse me, dude. Can I climb?” I said to the white guy.
“Sure,” he replied with a smile, even pointing to a slab through which I could climb to the upper mattress.
I threw the duvet provided earlier on the bed and then dropped my small bag under the pillow and stretched out my legs to climb over. Obviously, the bed-maker didn’t consider six footers like me when constructing it. While my head hit the iron rod at the top, my legs stretched beyond the rod at the base. Even the mattress that had looked well-laid sunk deeply under my weight and my back touched the metallic wire mesh underneath.
“Hmmm!” I hummed as the bed squealed continuously as if adjusting to my weight.
I shifted here and there trying to maintain the right sleeping pose, and it took me a while to achieve a convenient position. Eventually, I folded my legs and rested on my right shoulder. I would have opted to sleep without the duvet, considering its untidiness and fumigation-chemical stench. But the evening was cold and goosebumps had developed on my skin. I quickly grabbed the duvet and spread it over, only to realise that it covered only my chest and thighs, leaving my head and legs exposed.
Hardly had I settled on the bed when mosquitoes started buzzing around my head. I must say here that mosquitoes are the insects I disliked the most. Apart from their annoying buzzes, they usually leave me battling with Malaria when beaten too much. Now seeing them greeting me ‘Sawubona,’ I quickly slapped the few that perched on my arms and those singing around my ears. I killed about eight of them right away, not minding the reddish blood-stains on my palm. Staying healthy was a priority. Maybe the ones that escaped my slaps phoned their president and reported the cruel treatment I meted out to them; swarms of mosquitoes descended on me, flying around the mattress in large numbers. They buzzed around loudly and menacingly, almost sounding like house music in my ears. It occurred to me right then that I was in their territory and couldn’t kill them all. No amount of slapping would prevent them from coming around. Being so exhausted, their loud buzzes wouldn’t let me snooze. So I had to negotiate with the insects in order to achieve a peaceful evening rest. I pulled the duvet over my head, thereby exposing a good portion of my feet for them to feed on. Rashes on my feet were far more preferable than having blisters on my face. I conceded that it would be a tough evening. They must have enjoyed the taste of my blood because their stinging bites made me slap my feet every now and then, as I tried to control the frequency at which they stung me. Each time I slapped, my hand would be stained with blood. I smacked my feet, calf, thighs, arms and back until I no longer felt the pain of my own hand. When I got tired of beating myself, I let them be, knowing that I would visit a clinic the following day for Malaria treatment.
Those insects prepared a three-course meal from my blood, and I felt like I’d lost 5kg already. They sucked enough to last them for two weeks or so, but what could I do? After the slapping sessions, I began to fidget, shaking my legs continuously, so they won’t have a landing opportunity. But would I shake for the whole night? Whenever I stopped fidgeting, they balanced on my skin and continued from where they left off; even biting so hard as if to remind me not to tamper with their meals.
I grumbled and mumbled, wobbled and fumbled, almost mimicking the buzzing insects, but the merciless creatures only increased their bite force. It occurred to me then that the night would be a tough one. I rescinded to fate and rested my head on the pillow, trying to take my mind off the sucking creatures. Maybe my big size gave them the notion that I had a lot of blood to offer. And perhaps they’d not seen the volume of blood in a long time. I recalled that the white guy on the lower bunk looked so skinny; the mosquitoes must have been sucking his bones.
About fifteen minutes after closing my eyes, trying to catch some sleep, a sharp pain in my chin jolted me up from the pillow. It hurt so badly that it felt like someone inserted an office pin in my jaw. I quickly rubbed the spot with a finger, only to discover that a pimple had developed.
“This couldn’t have been a mosquito,” I thought. “Mosquitoes operated in the air, not from the pillow cover.”
I searched around to locate what could have given me such an extra-large pimple in so short a time. Before long, my fear was confirmed: a blood-soaked bedbug stood by the edge of the pillow, posing for a selfie. As soon as it got exposed, it tried to hide under the pillow. With what the mosquitoes did to me, I didn’t even attempt to kill the bug, so that the smell would not attract others to attack me en masse. I simply picked it up respectfully and dropped it on the floor below, so it would crawl away harmless.
But unknown to me, that itself was an offence. Bedbugs didn’t communicate using phones like mosquitoes, they operated on Bluetooth. The one I dropped on the floor sent signals to its peers, hinting them that dinner had been served. That first bite in my jaw proved to be a warning. An army of bugs marched out of their hiding places on the mattress and made my body an occupied territory. It turned out that it wasn’t just the pillow that was infested; the whole bed was bug-ridden. The crawling insects operated from every angle of the mattress and sucked me so badly one would think I was laced with food seasonings. I never read anywhere that insects did division of labour. These ones operated in batches and sucked me at regular intervals as if they had a time-keeper among them. Sometimes they gave me respite and I would assume that they’d had their fill. But soon after, a new batch of bugs would attack me from a different part of my body.
Unlike the mosquitoes that I had an agreement with to suck my feet only, these bugs didn’t discriminate which part of my body they operated on. The wicked creatures attacked my face, neck, arms, shoulders, belly, thighs and back. I wriggled and twisted in pain, extended my hand around my body, trying to scratch the bitten spots. Where my hand couldn’t reach the centre of my back, I stifled my body in a bid to relieve the pain, but all in vain. I then realised that the mosquitoes that attacked me earlier were very religious. These bugs had no human sympathy or regard for rules or laws. They bit so hard, making me imagine if I’d been their target for months. They must have sucked four litres of blood off my body. For mosquitoes, at least, one could slap them and they would die. Bugs were of a higher class. Smacking the mattress didn’t stop them from extending their pipes, sucking the blood after which they would strut away arrogantly. The more I searched around to locate them, the less of them I saw. They operated so fast and efficiently that before I felt the pain, the offender would have safely buried itself under a crevice. When the punishment became unbearable, I took a peek at the wall clock: 9: 52 p.m. I wished a minute had three seconds, and an hour had five minutes. The clock moved too slowly that 5 a.m. seemed like eternity. No one in the room felt my pain. The white guy below had dozed off and those still awake only looked at me like an alien. Even the attendant who collected Fifty rand from me was not in sight. Realising that I actually paid money to come and suffer, I endured the pain in silence, hoping that rescue would come from somewhere by a miracle. Expectedly, I felt itches and irritations all over my body. My face, arms and legs had bumps and rashes all over. Blisters and freckles had developed, and a wave of sickening feelings took me over. I began to pity myself.
I looked around for succour but none came my way. Then silently, words of prayer crept into my mouth that sleep should take me away. The fatigue I felt earlier in the evening had taken a flight because of the repeated slaps on my arms and legs which kept me alert. At 10 p.m., lights went out in the hall, giving me hope that that the insects would finally go to sleep. Or at least they wouldn’t be free to operate like before. How wrong I was. It was then I realised that insects run shifts. Those that specialised in darkness took the centre stage, relieving duties from the bugs that bit me earlier. Different species of insects found their way on my mattress and the darkness in the room didn’t give me the chance to see them. I only felt them as they crawled on me. The creatures that emerged from nowhere must have been impressed with my big size. Some buzzed and danced around; others walked and crawled on six or eight legs; a few glided and slithered on their stomachs like millipedes, but they all found my body palatable and enjoyable. I was sucked, pummelled, harassed, abused and maltreated till daybreak. They sucked blood and other fluids from my body, filled their bellies, and even took home takeaways for their families.
“Hey people!!!” I swore and cursed and grumbled and murmured. But those around me only snored in response and the insects didn’t care; they continued to have a field day. I then recalled that insects shown on National Geographic on television were not computer graphics. Insect bites did hurt terribly; I was a living proof. I thought only humans ordered food after looking at the menu in a restaurant. Insects also placed orders for the part of the human body they wanted to feed on. In case you don’t know, I can tell you here that insects have areas of speciality. Some are fond of sucking the back of the legs; a few prefer the softness of the earlobes; others targeted the back of my neck down to the loins.
As if that wasn’t enough trouble, some found their way into my clothes and bit all the sensitive parts of my body, not even minding the very secluded area around my scrotum. When they got to that point, I stood still, hoping that they will repent and make a U-turn. Luckily, they left that area unattacked. I guessed the bushes around the area discouraged them. For once I saw the advantage of not shaving regularly. The insects relocated to a less congested part of my body and continued their sinister plan to annihilate me. The degree of pain inflicted depended on the area of interest of a particular insect. I wondered how something so small could bring about so much discomfort. At one time, it occurred to me to explain to them that my salary at work was only eight-thousand rand. And that I wasn’t one of those who cornered the tenders and ran away with the money. It was love for my woman that brought me to Durban. They must, therefore, reconsider their stance and have pity on me. When the attack reached a crescendo, I got upset, even if I didn’t know who to direct my anger at – the manager of the building; or the city mayor; the Premier of the province or even the president of the country.
How could they keep such insects in Durban where human beings lived and tourists visited? It was callous and heartless of them to do such. I felt like charging someone to court for dereliction of duty, carelessness or insensitivity to the lives of law-abiding citizens. At long last, feebleness and fatigue took over and all parts of my body got weakened. Sleep eventually located me and I dozed off, unmindful of the pains all over my body.
However, hardly did I sleep for more than twenty minutes at a stretch, before an insect would bite me again. Nevertheless, I was grateful that they considered me worthy of rest for a bit. Half sleep was better than none at all. It continued in that fashion ‘til daybreak.
The alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I grabbed my bag and jumped off the bed before anyone got up from their beds. I had to escape the place right away. While walking away, I kept looking behind just in case the insects decided to follow me. But the exit door was still locked when I got to the entrance of the hall. I stood there with sealed lips and arms folded across my shoulders, waiting patiently for the porter to open up. I just couldn’t wait to leave the place. If this was the warm welcome advertised about Durban, I didn’t want to be a part of it. With mouth wide open, I watched as some of the customers carried buckets to the bathroom for a shower in preparation for work.
“So people actually live here!” I shook my head unbelievingly.
Soon, the manager who collected Fifty rand from me the previous day appeared. “Did you enjoy our stay?” he asked with a smile that made him look like a demon. I nodded slowly; unsure which other response would be appropriate.
“Will you take your bath?”
“No, thanks. Thank you for being so nice and thoughtful.” I couldn’t imagine how horrible the bathroom would be.
There was no use complaining about my night-time torture since I asked for it by coming there in the first place. I hurriedly left the place before dawn.
“What a night of disaster and pain!” I said aloud as I walked to the pharmacy at the Sea Point, which was yet to open for the day. On reading the writings on the door: “Open at 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM”
“Whooooah! So I had to wait for three hours before someone would attend to me?” Well, what could I do? I stayed put in what would be the longest three hours of my life. But then, standing erect in a public road was better than where I was coming from. Uppermost in my mind was to prevent all kinds of ailments that would likely attack me later. As the early morning cool sea breeze blew over me, it brought relief from the pains of the night of horror I went through in Durban. The noise from the taxis that moved around sounded like Mosquito buzzes, and the broad Durban roads looked like they were bug infested. Even the sky-scrappers looked ugly and I could think straight as I rued my first trip to Durban. I’d only come here to please my woman. How much pain do men go through for their women? How much sacrifice do we make to keep our relationships going? I would remember when the time comes, but for now, blisters and bumps beclouded my thoughts.