We (my husband and that i) arrived in Guangzhou, China last night at 8:35, some 24 hours after we had left Burlington, Vermont. We are here to officially open the office for the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an NGO I started 18 years ago to deal with environmental problems.
That is my third trip to China. I first lead a delegation sponsored by the America-China committee to review global warming. That was in 1991, when neither the Chinese or Americans were much thinking about the topic. My second visit was in 1996 as a delegate to the World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Our travel itinerary was from Burlington to Chicago, to Tokyo, to Guangzhou. The primary surprise was an announcement over the plane’s loudspeaker when we landed in Tokyo. “Please stay in your seats. A health inspection team might be coming through the plane to take your temperature. We are going to distribute facemasks, which you must wear. Lower the shades to keep the temperature down and fill out the health forms that you’ve got been given.” Until then, everything had gone according to plan. The flights were punctual, the service was good, and we were expecting to land on time. Then some six inspectors filled the aisles. They were covered head to toe in operating room, blue paper scrub suits, with masking tape in the back, complete with masks, boots, goggles, hats, and plastic gloves. It seemed like an invasion from outer space. There was no human communication, partly due to the masks, and partly due to the language barrier. Suddenly we were captive.
One person held what looked like an quaint square camera and pointed it all around. It was, little question, a thermometer. This is what H1N1 swine flue has done to international travel. The ominous possibility of contamination had filled the plane and the greater possibility of being quarantined.
They moved very slowly through the cabin. I was aware of their careful pace because we had a connection to make and we were worried whether we might make it.
Fortunately, we were sitting in row 44 because the following announcement was “all those sitting in rows 46 and higher please remain on the plane. Others may leave.”
It was then we saw a young woman in a yellow shirt being escorted out of the plane. All those near her had to stay. Suddenly, she was the pariah. I wondered what happened to her.
We made our connection, grateful for our health, and daunted by Japanese precautions against flu contagion. The world has turned normal again (almost) as we made the long walk to the gate, passing an array of high end airport stores, including Cartier’s, Ferragamo, Hermes and Tiffany. Once we arrived in China, we were inspected once again, only the method was much more casual. Uniformed airline officials came on board and held a small infra red light, which they pointed at our foreheads. Another kind of thermometer.
Passing through immigration was surprisingly easy. The airport was new, shiny, and huge. We were greeted by our staff person and arrived at the Garden Hotel, an elegant equivalent of a four-star hotel.