So I’ve been traveling for about four months now, right after the swine flu scare started in fact, and throughout my travels I have been to four continents, nine countries, nine airports, eight land borders/ terminals. Yes it’s been fun! But as I was traveling I was paying attention to how each airline, airport, government dealt with this scare. After going through these places and seeing how people are reacting its interesting to see how people have quickly forgotten how long the flu has been on earth and plaguing people and how it is contracted in exactly the same way since it reared its ugly head and how the precautions are exactly the same as that of the regular flu. Only difference is the poor pigs have got a bad rep now!

So without naming names or governments here are some the effective ways this virus has been tracked around the world.

The flight attendant announces on the plane that there are heat sensing cameras and medical staff awaiting us to screen us for Swine Flu. “This is for your safety and benefit” she says. So when we get off the plane and are bused to the terminal there is a bottleneck since only two or three of us can pass at a time. There are three persons in white lab coats, hair in those green shower-caps and of course masks on their faces all watching us and watching the monitor ready to pounce if someone goes by with a red aura instead of green. What happens after, I have no idea!

On another airplane we are handed health cards. These cards asked for our personal information, whether we were experiencing any symptoms and if we had been to any of these high risk countries (and it said to consult the list provided)- no list was provided! Upon arrival there was a very bored man waiting for us to collect our cards, and there was an unmanned heat sensing camera trained on us. Once again I passed without being flagged despite having been in high risk countries (I didn’t see the list but somehow I knew I had been in one high risk country at least).

In some countries they scan you as are waiting in line for immigration in others right after. In some countries they give you a card with your temperature on it, which without you can’t pass immigration, but because of the masses of people the system quickly became defunct.  One government requires you to fill out a form on the plane and has the flight attendants collect it for you.

In all land border crossings no one asked or scanned or bothered with the exception of one. They had a Ministry Of Health official come on to the bus (we were a captive audience with nowhere to go until our passports were returned to us). This official gave a five minute public awareness announcement about what the flu is, how it is contracted, how to protect yourself, and what you should do should symptoms arise. It was good solid advice given in under 10 minutes (great for ADD persons) and then a small handout was distributed with the same information and some contact information. The graphics of course included the mandatory pig with a big X over it. One country only cared about its nationals asking them to fill out a small paper – since I am not of that nationality they really didn’t care if I was healthy or not.

Finally there were the countries that upon arrival had a big massive sign about Swine Flu and assumed we were responsible for our own health. Other just didn’t give a damn!
What was amusing to me were the masses of people with masks covering their faces in airports and airplanes, scared of contracting the flu from other passengers. I even know a few people who have stopped any “unnecessary” physical contact with other people including hugs! What I want to say is that this is just another strain of flu, a disease people have been dying from before it was known to humanity. The best things we can do is pay attention to our mom’s age old advice: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and throw away your used tissues. Eat healthy, live healthy and now since pigs have flown we can all wait for hell to freeze over its only a matter of time with all this global warming!

A random thought occurred to me as I sat next to a window on the plane from Copenhagen to Istanbul. Does anyone clean planes? I’m not talking about the plane’s interior but rather the exterior of the plane’s, its windows, its wings, its nose, the body… the outside. I’ve never seen anyone take a bucket and a sponge to a plane, have you? I’ve never seen a planewash either. Do such things exist?

On the flip side of that I have never seen a dirty plane. No dusty, streaky, splotched planes at the airports I’ve been too. All of them have shined and glistened in the sunlight.

Could there be a secret plane cleaning industry we don’t know about, or is it just that high speeds at high altitudes in all weather conditions are self cleaning or super clean?

Last week I started and ended the week at the airport, but alas I went nowhere. I was however treated to the best of government runarounds and boy were they great trips. 

My first destination was customs. I had a shipment come in and I had to go get it. We started downstairs and then went upstairs back down a different set of stairs to another location, up stairs again to two different offices and finally back downstairs to collect the shipment and exit from another door. Are you dizzy yet?

The funny thing is even with all the running around we did, I am still unable to define the process or describe it. One reason for that is the help of a wonderful friend and his college whom we met randomly in the customs holding area. After running into him, he took our papers and there we were no longer headless chickens looking for the next step but rather harmless sheep following where we were led. Quite laughable in retrospect. In the end what would have taken three hours was an hour and a half ordeal. What would have been painful became effortless and successful with minimum damage.

Little did I know that later that week I would be back for yet another trip down government lane. This time it was at the ministry of interior and putting the stairs aside, it took me four hours, six signatures, three memos and fax to get nowhere.  I did get a case number and armed with that I headed to the airport for my mission which was to get the approval from the ministry to let someone who had been detained overnight into the country. Upon arrival at the airport it took me 30 minutes to find someone to talk to me, over the phone, because you know God forbid you actually see someone and interact with them face to face. After the phone runaround it was evident that the mission was not going to succeed and our dear friend was to be deported on the next plane out back to where he came from!

In both instances I was struck by how unclear, unstreamlined and unfriendly the process is, and this is after all the “improvements” undertaken by the government to help us with the processes. Please don’t get me wrong, there is an improvement, what I did in one day would have taken a week a few years ago, and there is a system, it is not an arbitrary process. However, I was never able to understand what the whole process was, where I was supposed to go when and what the end result is (other than what I desired that is). The next step was always provided at the end of the current one, no one gives you the full picture. Communication with the public and information dissemination is at best dismal. The other observation I had was what a man’s world it is. At customs my friend and I were the only women in the whole area. At the ministry any women I saw were either there to get paperwork done or were stuck in back offices away from the public and behind the scenes. 

I can honestly say it was not the best way to start or end a week. The days in between were only slightly better. I am happy that that week is over and a new one is starting. Hopefully I wont have to deal with any bureaucracy then.  

Today we started our journey to Sri Lanka. And with any modern odyssey the start was spent mostly in airports. Airports are funny places. You get bored, engrossed, entertained, anxious… etc all in one place. For me it offers entertainment in the form of people watching.

An airport terminal is the ideal place for a people watcher like myself. People are coming and going, some are lost, some are in a hurry, some are bored, others are avid duty free shoppers, there are the hungry, the tired, the business oriented, the leisure travellers and it is so much fun watching them come and go. I love to try and guess their story or their nationality.

 I also love to watch how people dress. The airport terminal is definitely the place to check out the latest in fashion dos and don’ts from every culture and every region. Like the European man in yellow jeans, or the American team with big straw hats and team t-shirts or the Asian women in their ethic clothing. Such a kaleidoscope of color and fashion. So much fun.

 But even with all this stimuli I still manage to get bored. so I chat with my friend, read, do some writing, use the free Internet service 🙂 and wait endless hours for my plane. And so from Doha airport, I sit awaiting my adventure to begin. This time tomorrow I will be in Colombo!