The worst thing a hypochondriac can do on vacation is read a true account of an epidemic while traveling in a part of the world known for epidemics.
I love to read and vacation is a great way for me to get my reading in. On this trip, I read a book called The Hot Zone written by Richard Preston. It’s a true account of the origins of the Ebola virus.
This book is fascinating. Not only is the writing superb but the story hooks you, pun intended (the structure of Ebola looks like a hook), from the first paragraph.
It’s a thriller and what makes it even more frightening is that it is not fiction. Even though I am not in Africa, when I read that one scientist went “virus hunting” (based on the description of how passionate this scientist was about this activity, it must compare to “sale hunting” or “wine hunting” for me) in Southeast Asia, I was on full alert. As I read about accounts of farmers, missionaries, doctors and visitors being infected with filoviruses (viral hemorrhagic fevers, such as Marburg or Ebola, where victims bleed out as their insides liquify), I reflected on my own health in relation to my current location.
The first symptoms of a filovirus include a headache, fever, and/or backache. I developed a headache. The headache didn’t go away. Now I felt hot. Maybe I was developing a fever, a tell-tale sign of Marburg. Or Ebola. All the surgical-mask-wearing people in the streets (there are a lot here) increased my suspicion that some virus is lurking around the corner waiting to compromise the immune system of an unsuspecting white girl in harem pants.
I became obsessed with continuously wiping down my iPhone, iPad, purse, and wallet with disinfectant wipes. I washed my hands for no apparent reason other than to keep that imaginary lurking virus at bay. Because, you know, a bar of soap has been proven to scare Ebola away.
I started opening doors butt-first if I saw a “push” sign. If it said “pull”, I waited for Michael to be chivalrous. He has Asian blood flowing through his body so I figure if one of us can handle a local virus, it’s him. Me, I can barely handle breathing in an environment outside the U.S. without developing a cold or stomach flu at first breath.
When we explored Bayon Temple inside the Angkor Archeological Park, our guide showed us every nook and cranny. We were standing by a dark room which, he explained, used to house a well and if we went inside and shone our iPhone flashlights down into it, we would see the water below. I was standing next to a Chinese tourist who held a flashlight (so prepared). As our guide beckoned for us to have a look, I waited for the lady to go first. No way in hell am I climbing into a dark orifice, who knows what’s lurking there. Sure enough, as the lady went it and shone her flashlight down into the hole, she disturbed a bat which flew up and into her face, scaring her half to death. Moral of the story: it’s good to be prepared, but don’t be too prepared or you’ll be that shmuck who get smacked in the face by a bat. Which may or may not be a host for Ebola.
When anyone coughed or sneezed around me, I scrutinized them for signs of infection. I tried to hold my breath. I wished I was one of those old men with protruding nose hairs. The ones you can’t help but stare at as you spy coarse, errant tendrils slithering out of a nostril. Where I was embarrassed for these men before, now I realized how handy this natural defense mechanism is in trapping virus particles before they enter the nasal passage.
When I got a piece of lettuce stuck in between my teeth, I left it there it. To hell with looking good, there’s no way I’m picking that out with my finger. As if Ebola was just hanging out on my hand, in all its shepherd-hook glory. But then again, you never know. Better be safe.