If Pigs Could Fly: Traveling in a Time of Swine Flu

When I boarded a flight at Singapore I realized the swine flu was truly serious.

All US-bound passengers were handed a little gift bag. I thought it had the usual toothbrush, tiny toothpaste and airplane socks. Instead we got 1 disposable thermometer, 2 surgical masks and 3 wipes.

Everywhere we went it was the same story. Or at least the same question.

"Are you from America?" asked the immigration official. As I had flown across the Pacific from San Francisco to Kathmandu, I heard that question over and over again. Are you from America? Have you been to America or Mexico in the last seven days?

Usually Americans get to ask that question. Have you been to a malarial country? Have you been to a yellow fever zone? America was where you went to get away from strange diseases borne by parasites and mosquitoes. Sniffing dogs at the airport make sure we don't bring in some illegal alien kari-leaf or mango that might puncture our bubble. Swine flu has reversed the equation. As we deplaned for the transit lounge in Seoul, Americans filled out questionnaires about coughs and runny noses (with a hefty fine if you lied).

Asian countries had all mobilized quickly, having learned from their battles with SARS and avian flu. "Hong Kong has never taken down their thermal systems to monitor temperature," said Yuen Ying Chan, director of media studies at the University of Hong Kong. "But it's not just gadgets. People are just more prepared psychologically."

No one complained about inconvenience, even as the Chinese government quarantined hotel guests and workers. The Politburo called an emergency meeting and announced the discussion, an unprecedented step says Chan. "SARS taught them to respond faster," said Chan.

Even low-tech Nepal thinks it's ready for the swine flu. Face masks have always been popular because of the pollution in Kathmandu. Now they are even more popular. In Nepal's touristy Darbar Square, people roamed around wearing masks, occasionally pulling them aside for a smoke break.

"We have really beautiful masks with embroidery and in different colors," Nepalese TV journalist Saurav Dhakal told me. No one is sure whether a hand-knitted mask can really keep out the swine flu virus but it's really handy for your girlfriend to wear when she is riding pillion on your scooter through Kathmandu's dusty streets. It looks elegant, keeps out the dust "and is a good disguise," says Dhakal. "People can't tell who she is."

More than panic, it's theater abetted by 24/7 television images. From a phalanx of toilet cleaners scrubbing airport toilets with disinfectants to immigration officials suddenly looking like they had stepped out of a hospital emergency room, it's good drama.

Americans, on the other hand, aren't used to their new role in the script. "It's not like we flew in from Mexico," one said to another as we queued up to get thermometers stuck in our ears in Seoul's Inchon airport's transit lounge. But the sign made it clear -- Both Mexico and the United States were regarded as swine flu zones. Even as the United States tries to erect border fences to separate the two, the swine flu has been a reminder that we aren't that separate at all. In the rest of the world's eyes, we are one landmass. In a sense, in the eyes of the men and women in green hospital masks in airports around the world, we are all Mexicans now.

But maybe there's a silver lining, even to pandemics.

As you land in Seoul, New Delhi or Kathmandu, and the signs around you herald your arrival from the land of pandemic flu, you could also read it as saying, "Americans, Welcome to the Rest of the World -- your era of splendid isolation is over.

I thought that would never happen. At least not until pigs could fly.