Bangkok. “This is an interesting time to go to Southeast Asia,” one of our neighbors said, her voice dripping with irony as she saw my husband and me getting into a taxi, bound for the airport. The networks were buzzing with reports about a new coronavirus that, at last report, has claimed more than 200 lives and sickened nearly 10,000 others, most of them in China. This well-meaning bystander implied that we were asking for trouble.
Plans for our six-week trip had been in the works for nearly a year. We would start in Bangkok, exit via Singapore and in between visit various locations in Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Wuhan, where the virus emerged in early December, was not on our agenda. Neither was anywhere else in mainland China.
By the time of our January 26 departure, efforts were already afoot to contain the virus. So from our perspective there didn’t seem to be any imminent danger. Nor would staying home necessarily guarantee good health. This winter there have been at least 8,200 flu deaths in the United States, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.
During the five days since we left home, the global panic has intensified. First, the CDC issued a warning to avoid all nonessential travel to China. Next, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Then the U.S. State Department issued its own warning: Do not travel to China. The New York Times now offers live updates on its website. The headlines make me edgy, but not alarmed.
We’re certainly not cavalier about infectious diseases. Ten years ago, my husband contracted pneumonia – we suspect on a flight home from Tibet. It led to a profound, and life-altering, hearing loss. That time there was no epidemic to blame. It didn’t cause us to stop traveling or to live in an antiseptic bubble.
Having narrowly averted disaster more than once during our travels, we don’t scare easily. Our family was in Phuket four days before the 2004 tsunami struck, and had moved on to Hoi An, Vietnam by that fateful day. Fifteen years later, we still count our blessings.
On our latest trip, to Southeast Asia, we had a choice about whether to put ourselves in what many people seem to think is harm’s way. We didn’t for a moment consider canceling, but others clearly had.
The first leg of our Cathay Pacific flight, from New York to Hong Kong, was mostly empty. On a plane that holds almost 300, fewer than 100 seats were occupied. In economy class, anyone who wanted to could spend the next 16 hours stretched out across four seats. Having redeemed frequent-flyer points for business class tickets, we traveled in a mostly empty cabin.
The low load, as it’s called, was a record for one flight attendant, who said this was his regular route. Chinese New Year began on January 25, and travel into Hong Kong tends to be light during the first two days, he said, since people want to reach their destination before the holiday starts. This year the unrest in Hong Kong was another factor keeping people away. Concern about the coronavirus seemed to have made things even worse.
He wore a paper face mask throughout the flight, like many of the passengers and some of the other flight attendants. One of his colleagues, who had chosen not to, told me that she was waiting to see how much worse things became. She was especially concerned about her potential exposure while greeting 300 passengers during boarding – the number she gave assumed a full flight.
As is our habit, we brought disinfectant wipes to clean our seats and tray tables before we sat down. Still, when I got up to stretch during the flight and another passenger sneezed in my direction, I felt my back arch. And though I tried mightily to follow the advice to keep hands away from face, the mere thought of it seemed to make everything from the neck up start to itch.
On the ground in Hong Kong, as we sprinted to catch our connecting flight to Bangkok, airport personnel wearing face masks stopped us and asked us to remove our hats. Apparently they had interfered with the machines that had been mounted overhead to register our body temperature as we went by. We hadn’t even noticed them.
Here in Bangkok, we took one ride on mass transit before deciding to get around by taxi instead. Many people in this city wear face masks as a shield against the intense air pollution. But looking at the masked faces all around me in a crowded car of the city’s elevated subway, known as the BTS or Skytrain, pushed the limits of my risk tolerance. Otherwise we have done nothing to alter our activities.
Merchants and others who cater to tourists are worried about the effects of newly announced restrictions on travel from mainland China. Some are already hurting as travelers from elsewhere changed their plans.
Angsana Andersson, who has taught cooking classes in her home for the past 16 years, said that a visitor from Hong Kong who had studied with her on past trips canceled a recent appointment. “She told me that she didn’t want to make me feel uncomfortable,” Andersson said as we began our own lesson with her yesterday.
Khun Reed, owner of Cotton House, a custom clothing shop that I have patronized for 15 years, had a client who was supposed to stay in Bangkok through next month and decided to return home early. “’If I’m going to die, I would rather die in Hawaii,’” he told Reed, who related the story when I stopped by to order some new threads. As far as she knows, he hasn’t experienced any symptoms.
This is not our first time staying the course while others have panicked. We had been visiting Paris in November 2015 when terrorists attacked. Relying on Facebook’s new Safety Check feature, we let friends know that we were okay. Still, we fielded a flurry of e-mails asking whether we planned to evacuate.
Our answer was an emphatic “No.” Remaining in Paris was the best way we knew to show support to the French people, though, for the first couple of days after the massacre, we could not do most of the things that tourists generally do in Paris. The experience was eerily reminiscent of 9/11, when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, about five miles from our home.
Under ideal circumstances home is a refuge. But it can’t shelter us from acts of God, terrorists or infectious disease. So while I take the headlines seriously, they don’t send me crawling under the bed. I would much rather soar over oceans and see how people live on the other side of the world.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.