The Jungle Above My Head
March 12, 2012 § 6 Comments
Lately, I’ve been plagued by a problem with which many people living in Hong Kong seem to be familiar: mold. A few weeks ago, I noticed a shadowy growth lurking in the corners of my headboard. Around the same time, the ceiling in my room seemed to be changing before my very eyes. I was experiencing a mold invasion, and this is the exhaustive (but not yet completed!) saga.
My life consists of only brief experiences with mold. Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, a relatively dry place, the only place I ever experienced it was on fruit — usually grapes — that had been left too long in the refrigerator and could be easily disposed of by simply tossing into the trash. Fuzzy gray grape mold was unsavory, but I never really had to confront it.
During my sophomore year of college, I stayed in an old apartment building with a weird shower that looked like a teleportation device. It didn’t drain very well, and after a few months, a layer of black mold had started to form on the floor of the shower, which I initially disregarded because I simply didn’t know what it was. It got to the point where a mushroom/flower/something had blossomed out of a nearby crevice, and my roommates and I thought it was just an errant screw until one of them finally got around to spraying everything with bleach. (Yes, that whole tale is disgusting and I just got hives from thinking about it.)
The point is, I’m living with mold. I won’t post any photos because obviously, it’s gross. Just imagine a growing constellation of spores nine feet above my bed, like the result of a fungal big bang.
It was first brought to my attention when I noticed some persistent dust-like debris on the top shelf of my headboard — I would wipe it away only to see the stuff reappear the next day. Then, from my desk, I happened to glimpse an ominous dark green patch in the corner, and subsequently deduced that it had spread all across the underside of the headboard.
After my initial panic, during which I relocated or threw out everything that had been rained on by the mold, I was indignant. How come my landlords/roommates didn’t warn me about the possibility of such a disturbing occurrence in such close proximity to my things?! When I confronted them about it (well, it wasn’t really a confrontation as much as it was a plaintive “Do you have anything that kills mold..??”), their reaction was surprisingly lukewarm. Bobby didn’t even know what mold was (LOL).
Tracy told me that it was most likely due to the mix of high humidity and my habit of hanging my clothes to dry in my room. Of course, the painful laundry adventure would come back to bite me on the ass. (What did I ever do to deserve such a fate?) She said that she had found it weird that I hung my laundry on the windows to dry all the time, and I, equally surprised, replied that I thought it was the normal thing to do. After all, it was the maid who had shown me how! Anyhow, they both appeared rather blithe about the situation and urged me to take my laundry to the cleaner’s instead, which I have been doing dutifully ever since. It really is much easier to have someone else wash, dry, iron and fold my things. I shouldn’t have waited this long…as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and boy do I regret being too ignorant to implement some prevention.
Still, I was left with the problem of mold, which was happily conquering the ceiling day by day. Seized with something similar to righteous anger, I went out and bought some dish towels, mixed bleach and water in a small plastic container and vigorously scrubbed the headboard. Both Tracy and the maid discouraged such usage of bleach (“It’ll strip the plastic of its color”) and handed me some furniture polish instead, but I shook my head at their n00b ways. Mold would most certainly just laugh in the face of their polish & disinfectant! I was prepared to quarantine my room with bleach if necessary, though I wasn’t quite sure how to reach the main problem of the ceiling, which is too high for me to reach even when standing on the bed.
Internet searches turned up two viable solutions: vinegar and tea tree oil. (Apparently mold is militant enough to feed on even bleach, which is simply frightening!) Out of the two, tea tree oil seemed to be more effective, so I set about locating some. Also, spraying vinegar on the ceiling just seems really weird. Fortunately, I was already familiar with the stuff, which smells like very strong mint (in a not-very-refreshing way), because I’ve been using it on my face — it’s known for its disinfecting powers, hence the connection to mold-killing. It was good to know that in all this, my face was protected from mold the whole time.
Unfortunately, tea tree oil is much more expensive than vinegar. I found a nearby health products shop and bought a 0.5 oz bottle for $100HK (~$13US). I also got a little spray bottle so I could mix and disperse my ingredients (1 tsp of tea tree oil + 1 cup of water).
The tiny bottle was perfect for reaching the underside of the headboard, but the spraying power was woefully inadequate to reach the ceiling. Still, I tried, jumping around on my bed with my umbrella open so as not to inhale the 90% of liquid that wasn’t actually reaching its target. (Any neighbors who have a view into my window probably think I’m a lunatic.) After a few days, my headboard seemed to clear up significantly, but the mold on the ceiling was progressing to the other side of the room.
At this point, I started observing my surroundings a bit more carefully and found that my duffle bag, which just lies in a corner by the only outlet in my room, had started sprouting some questionable spots. I sprayed down all my luggage and set about buying a new duffle bag (no luck yet), which I suppose was long overdue because mine was bought for $5 from Payless back when I was still in high school. It has traveled with me to college, China, the Philippines and Korea — certainly deserving of a dignified retirement by this point!
Then I noticed the mold had found its way to the zipper lining of my makeup bag, which was a bit more alarming. I promptly transferred its contents to a ziplock bag (eat that!) and threw the makeup bag out, which was a rather sad parting because I’ve also had that turquoise fake-gator-skin thing since high school (I suspect that more than a few of my friends know which one I’m talking about; it was a free gift from some cosmetics company and thus was given to me by my mother), and it has accompanied me to many conferences and retreats. See how the mold is ruining my memories???
The final straw was when eventually discovered fuzz growing on my laptop bag, which I had just bought during my senior year of college. “WHYYYY??!?” I raged as I wiped furiously with a cotton pad soaked in tea tree oil. “WHAT about my laptop/duffle/makeup bag is so delicious to you damn mold?!?”
I was reaching my limit with the fungal squatter. I believe it was affecting my sleep and breathing — I developed a slight cough and continuously woke up exhausted even after 8 hours of sleep, no doubt due to all the spores floating around in the air. I have weak lungs! Going to China gave me pneumonia once! It was ruining what was an otherwise peaceful and complaint-less stay in this wonderful but terribly humid city! (Ha, just kidding, I would always find something to complain about. #firstworldproblems) It had to go.
Being the moist place that it is, Hong Kong offers a few anti-humidity products that I’ve never seen or have bothered to seek out in the States. There are these little plastic containers that you’re supposed to put in your drawers or closets to keep your clothes and things from becoming damp. I have no idea how they work, but I bought a pack of three.
One afternoon, I spent a full hour desperately trying to find a more permanent solution to my problem. Clearly, what I needed was a dehumidifier, but regular-sized ones cost hundreds of dollars and take up a lot of space, and the only miniature ones I could find were sold wholesale by companies from mainland China. (It didn’t help that I was sorely restricted by my general Chinese illiteracy.) Groupon HK offered a pair of strange dehumidifier eggs, but in the time I spent hemming and hawing over the decision to purchase them, they sold out. I guess I’m not the only one in Hong Kong desperate for some relief from moisture.
Finally, I found a Groupon-like site that just happened to be selling a mini dehumidifier for around $35US. Perfect. I snatched it up right away and counted the days until I could go pick it up (I forewent the extra $5US it would’ve cost to ship). The journey to this sketchy middle-of-nowhere location was an adventure that took an hour both ways (had to take an unusually long lunch break that day), but I was so happy to have an active tool in my assault on mold.
A side note about dehumidifiers: I’ve never really known that much about them or their purpose despite having always had one in the basement. I remember last year, my frugal friend AM told me that to save on his water bill, sometimes he drank the water from his dehumidifier tank (presumably after boiling it, but my memory is rather vague). It was a pretty unsavory image back then, but now that I am more intimate with the function of dehumidifiers, I shudder greatly at the thought of ingesting all the potential mold spores and whatnot that dehumidifiers suck up. Ew!!!!!!
With my new appliance whirring away confidently, I set about attacking the ceiling mold more aggressively. Clearly what I needed was a more powerful spray bottle, because the tiny one I was using no longer even functioned well enough to spray eye-level objects. In Hong Kong, I’m hard-pressed to find a store as comprehensive as Wal-Mart, which means I have to constantly wander around in search of more specialized shops; the ubiquitous Japan Home Centre didn’t offer anything bigger than the bottle I already owned, so I bought the cheapest liquid spray I could find (in this case, some kind of “laundry pre-wash”), emptied it and filled it with tea tree oil and water.
The new bottle worked very well — a bit too well, perhaps, as I inadvertently drenched my ceiling the first time because I was too busy cowering under my umbrella instead of watching where I was spraying. I’m not sure how well it actually managed to kill off the mold, though, because I vacillate between trying to ignore the ceiling and not seeing any discernible difference in the mold progression. Still, I bought a second (and bigger) bottle of tea tree oil in preparation for the continuing battle. At the very least, I hope to keep the mold at bay long enough so that my landlord doesn’t try to deduct it from my deposit. (I’ve already spent almost $100US dealing with this problem!)
In the meantime, I’ve learned many lessons, the most important of which is that mold is evil and will grow on anything, so it’s better to live in the desert with scorpions. The end.