They're Baaack!

Big creepy spiders are crawling into my life again.

By Steve Burgess 13 Feb 2007 |

Steve Burgess is filing weekly reports home from his travels in Asia.

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I'm not alone in my arachnophobia.

Hello from Georgetown, Malaysia. I'm having a swell time. A couple of nights ago I woke up screaming, and yesterday I spent some quality time stuffing toilet paper into the windows of my hotel room. But don't mind me. You'll love it here.

As I was saying a couple of reports ago, journeys are personal. Your objective experience of, say, a Disneyland vacation will be mixed with your own private feelings about amusement parks, or badly dressed Americans, or perhaps a paralyzing phobia of giant rats.

Maybe you see where I'm going with this. Spiders again. Regular Tyee readers have previously been entertained by my quivering, whimpering fear of huge arachnids. (Thanks, regular Tyee readers!) It was in a cheap Sulawesi hotel room one year ago that I confronted a spider big as a poodle. The creature entered the room through a large hole in the wall that housed an exhaust fan. The event reverberates in my psyche even now.

So this week I am in Georgetown, on the western Malaysian island of Penang. It's a food lover's paradise with hawker's stalls clustered in lively bunches all over town, offering Malay, Indian and Chinese favourites. As on my first visit three years ago, I checked into Georgetown's stately old Cathay Hotel. A local institution, the Cathay is an aging colonial relic straight out of Somerset Maugham, with swooping ceiling fans and high wooden double room doors fronted by saloon-style gates. It was featured in the '80s movie Beyond Rangoon (or so I'm told, having never been able to track that one down to check). The Cathay is the kind of place -- if this is even a category – where you come in late at night and the old man at the counter is writing numbers on his hand. "Wake-up call," he explains. "I write down time and room number so I don't forget."

You don't get that at Hyatt. And all for only $25 Canadian per night, paid in cash each morning.

Hotel spider lairs

I look forward to renewing acquaintances with the old place. But things do not begin on a promising note. I'm shown to a room near the back of the hotel. Somewhere along the corridor, we cross the fine line between atmospheric and seedy. Number 74 turns out to be a dingy room with a tile floor, cigarette butt in the corner, no charming ceiling fan, no bathroom mirror, leaky pipes, steady drip from the toilet tank, the shower merely a hose and spray nozzle beside the toilet, and -- my blood freezes -- a long slat in the bathroom wall, open to the outside, beckoning a welcome to the multi-limbed creatures of the night. A dodgy equatorial hotel room with a big hole in the wall -- this is what shell-shocked war veterans call a "trigger." My ordinary Malaysian sweat is now mixing with a colder variety.

"Spiders?" replies the elderly bell captain. "No, don't worry. We don't have spiders."

There are two in the corners of the bathroom ceiling right now. Small and unthreatening, but still -- they have friends. And a spacious driveway.

No fresh air, thanks

Nervous people are often said to sleep with one eye open. That proverbial eye is the subconscious, and it is a devilishly imaginative organ. I know from past experience that no amount of rational thought will appease the subconscious eye if it is troubled. As soon as I fall asleep it will snap open. It will drift across the bedroom and through the bathroom door. It will lock onto the slat, that yawning, nagging hole in the security perimeter. It will see spiders. Huge Sulawesi spiders, moving through the gap and down the wall with scythe-like legs...

I scream. I'm awake now, bolt upright in bed. Did I do that out loud? Did anyone hear me? If I stay in this room, no one's going to get any sleep around here.

Next day I ask for a switch. Jackpot -- my new digs in number 24 are just as I remember last time: spacious and airy with wood floors, air-con and ceiling fan combining the best of old and new, even a bathroom mirror -- and best of all, that crucial room is a solid, closed cubicle. I'm back in love with the old place.

Eventually, I find the giant spider. It's in a shop down the road, under glass -- a jungle giant of the sort that is often framed and sold as a curiosity for the den. Local, I ask the shop owner? No, no," he laughs. "East coast. Here, only small ones."

Well, that's a relief. But nonetheless, there's a task to be done. One of my room windows won't shut tight. I unravel wads of toilet paper and begin stuffing. It's not that I'm genuinely worried anymore. It's just to placate the Eye. I need some sleep.

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