Thursday, April 10, 2003

The American

Date: Wednesday, April 09, 2003 11:25 AM

When Jeri and I were in Thailand for 3 weeks, we had a weekend off from our classes. We decided that we would go to Cambodia for the weekend. It was fantastic. We visited Ankor Wat, that ancient Buddhist Temple. We visited the Jungle Temple, and then we decided to take the 4-hour trip from Siem Reap to Battambang. We got up early in the morning and had a taxi take us to the boat landing for this cruise. Jungle Cruise, the brochure had called it. There were 35 of us on the cruise ship. It was about 6 feet wide and maybe 40 feet long. It was described as Air-conditioned and non-smoking. It turned out to be non-air-conditioned and smoking.

The 35 were tourists, and the 4-hour trip took 11. That was because the propeller had fallen off and took some searching for. Plus, the "captain" explained, it was the dry season, and it takes longer when there is less water. I must admit that does make sense if one is talking of a boat trip, doesn't it?

But I want to tell you about the French family. There were 3 of them. They had a very well behaved son. He spent these 11 hours on the boat, this 3-year old boy. He didn't fuss, and he couldn't run around. He just slept or talked to his parents. They told me that they lived in Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a city of 6 million or so (it depends on who is asked), right across the border from Hong Kong in China. This French couple teaches English and French in Shenzhen.
When the boat trip finally ended, they vanished into dry relief, just happy to be off the boat and on terra firma again. But I have thought about them this week. I thought about them when they said on the news that Shenzhen is also suffering from SARS.What does one do to protect oneself from these germs? I honestly do not know. I see some people with masks, and others without. I see those who do not understand the function of the mask. Rather, they see only some kind of magic. They were Europeans. He had just gotten off the tram, and she stood at the entrance to the apartment building waiting for him. She kissed him on the mask. Right where his mouth would be underneath the mask. I thought of the mask. It is a filter. All of the invisible germs that he has hoped would not enter his lungs are stopped on the outside of the mask. And I watched as she kissed the spot.

There is so little information given. They say that so many have been admitted each day. Then they say how many have died. Then they say how many more they think will be admitted and how many more will die. But they never tell us on the news what those who were admitted or died did wrong. They never tell if they wore masks or seat belts or stayed home or rode the subways. They tell us nothing, and 7.5 million Hong Kong residents face another day just guessing what to do, and who to do it with.

It is pretty frightening. I am thankful for my great big nose. It is kind of an anchor to hang the mask on. I drape the mask over the nose and put the elastic behind the ears, and out I go. But then I see so many different kinds of faces in Hong Kong. There are the children who wear little masks. Little masks that look too little, and so useless. There are the people who wear their masks just over their mouths as if the virus is something that they might be tempted to eat, and so they have covered their lips and teeth so as to deny themselves the lethal taste. There are others who walk down the street with the mask hanging from one ear, beside their neck. And others who do not have the nose that I have. Their faces are quite broad and flat, and I am reminded of a dinner napkin lying casually on a dinner plate. I don't know what good such masks will do. Women sell designer masks from pushcarts that they roam the streets with. I saw one such mask today that had snoopy on the top of his doghouse. I didn't like it. He lay on his back, and looked too lifeless for my mood. Persons, who a month ago knew nothing of surgical masks, are today experts and sell a great variety of these bits of defense against an unknown enemy. They tell of all the benefits of each style that they display.

And so as I have thought of the Frenchman and his wife and child, I heard tonight that an American who lived in Shenzhen, the Chinese city just over the border from Hong Kong, died of SARS today. He had been trying to get into Hong Kong for treatment. He was 51 years old. His 6-year old son now has SARS.

Pray for us in Hong Kong. The city under siege by an invisible enemy. Pray for these people in Hong Kong who live in sky scraper apartment buildings and who ride elevators with strangers and who must touch elevator buttons and have no idea who else has touched them or coughed on them, and can't figure out how to touch those same buttons safely. Pray for us as we ride busses and taxies, subways and trams, all the while realizing that we ride where thousands of persons who we no neither them nor their conditions ride every day. Pray for those who have inhaled or touched or whatever they do with the virus so that they became infected. Pray for them as they lie down in the 24-bed wards of government hospitals and pretend that they are in Isolation, yet with 23 other infected persons. And pray for the Doctors and nurses who treat this contagious nightmare. Pray that they will not pay with their lives for their mercy.

And so, I know what happened to the American. I heard it on the news. I wonder about the French family, I wonder about their good little boy.


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