The Darwin Doldrums: A Tale of Bed Bugs and Homelessness in the Top End
Every day I had spent in Darwin was a feverish nightmare. It was November, the build-up to the wet season, and the humidity was off-the-charts disgusting. I was raw and agitated; I was a shaken wasps’ nest. My entire body was covered in what was probably bed bug bites. The itching was biblical. I felt like a walking disease vector.
What was worse was that everything of value had been stolen from me: my iPod, Kindle, most of my decent-looking clothes, and one shoe. Also, I had run out of shampoo. But that hardly mattered. I did not know when I was going to get my next shower anyway.
I had only twenty dollars left, fourteen of which I needed for the shuttle to the airport. I had a flight to get to a job near Alice Springs on Tuesday; however, it was Thursday, and I had six dollars to my name and no place to stay. I could have slept on the beach – there’s a hobo’s romance to that – and I might have if not for the official looking signs posted everywhere that warned against it. I could never predict which Australian rules would or would not be enforced. Plus, every morning, the front page of the Northern Territory News screamed about some ghastly event from the day before — a crocodile attack or a drunk guy who’d slept naked in a stranger’s car. The last thing I needed was to be relieved of an appendage.
Instead, I sorted out a place to stay through the Couch Surfing network. Raj, an engineer and expat from the U.S., picked me up from the hostel in a red convertible. He was wearing a button down shirt and had his shiny black hair coiffed like he was at some glittering metropolis, rather than this crocodile infested backwater. I could see him eyeing my oozing sores and tattered clothes, but he was polite enough not to comment.
“I just have to make a couple of stops before we go home, if that’s okay with you?”
He drove to the hardware store and had me help him pick out a barbecue. As we were discussing the merits of various appliances with the pimple-faced employee, Raj put his hand on the small of my back. The other guy must have thought we were a happy nesting couple. I moved away and shot him what I hoped was a stern ‘knock it off’ look. After a protracted decision-making process, he settled on a suitable barbecue, and then continued into the grocery store to pick up stuff to cook on the barbecue. As the minutes inched by, it became more apparent that Raj had confused couch surfing with a mail-order bride service.
The rest of the afternoon passed strangely. He kept feigning intimacy, as though we had been dating for years, and continuously asked me a series of painfully awkward questions that sounded like they were ice breakers from the reject pile at Cosmopolitan magazine: What’s your favourite body part? Can you dance? Do you want to dance in the swimming pool?
At least he had beer.
By the miracle of excellent timing, I got a text message the next morning from a woman I had emailed about exchanging work for accommodation at her bed and breakfast. She agreed to send someone to come and pick me up straight away. Raj had left earlier, without saying goodbye — he was still in a snit over last night’s rejection — so I helped myself to coffee and waited for my next saviour to arrive.
The bed and breakfast was perfection. I had my own room – something I hadn’t had the pleasure of since I had left Canada over a year ago. The bed was made with white linens that smelled of lavender and sunshine, and the ensuite shower was sparkling clean: no rust or hair or traces of backpackers. There were no cockroaches in sight, and I didn’t have to share the TV. I spent the evening washing away the couch surfing cooties and eating instant noodles straight out of the kettle with take-away chopsticks I found in the cupboard. My bed bug bites started to subside.
Alice Springs was scorching, but arid; it almost felt cool compared to the swamp air of Darwin. My new bosses, a casually racist Swiss couple who would be fired for embezzling in just one month, picked me up from the airport and we drove for hours along a dirt track to the remote shop in which I was to work. The desert was the colour of desiccated blood and it stretched out endlessly in all directions; a great and terrifying emptiness.