My First Epidemic

I have to say the N1H1 flu virus became a little alarming when the Fort Worth Independent School District shut down all 144 campuses and the City of Fort Worth canceled Mayfest. I thought these measures were a mild overreaction, but you can never be too sure. It reminded me of my first brush with an epidemic.

It was the sweltering summer of 2003. My friend Dan and I were exploring parts of Southeast Asia. The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic was winding down, but, in the last few months, a new strain had apparently emerged, characterized by fever, diarrhea, respiratory duress and a high fatality rate. Several folks in remote Cambodian villages had succumbed to the affliction, perishing in fits of coughing, choking and delirium. Locals were sacrificing pigs and chickens and standing up straw effigies near their hut doors to ward off menacing spirits. Dan and I were teasing the edges of a still unstable plague zone and we didn’t even know it.

In Thailand, SARS was never mentioned. We never even saw anyone in surgical masks. We didn’t realize it was still lingering in the region until we attempted to enter Cambodia. At the Poi Pet border crossing station, we flashed our passports and began the travel visa application process. We were the only visitors in the facility.

When we paid for our visas and exited the station, we were accosted by three machine gun-wielding representatives of the Cambodian military. In broken English, the shortest one explained that, due to the SARS outbreak, we would be required to submit to a supervised SARS quarantine. If we coughed or sneezed or exhibited any symptoms of pneumonic complication, we would be held pending further medical examination or turned away outright. Dan looked at me and shrugged.

The SARS quarantine staging area was simply twenty grimy, plastic lawn chairs tucked under a tarp at the rear of the station. We dropped our backpacks and grabbed chairs. The two silent machine gun-wielding soldiers monitored the process.

For the duration of the quarantine, Dan and I tried to remain solemn. A couple of times Dan began to betray the hint of a smile, but he wisely kept it under wraps. It’s exceedingly dangerous to scoff at, laugh about or appear amused by the crude customs or processes you encounter in the Third World. Especially when your immediate point of contact has an AK-47.

On the other side of the Cambodian border lay Typhoid, Hepatitis, Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria, AIDS, organ harvesters, human traffickers and the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims who lay slaughtered in the Killing Fields. It seemed ironic to me that the Cambodians could be worried about Dan and I bringing anything dangerous into their country. But we Yanks had secretly brought the Vietnam War there in late 60s and early 70s, and our bombing raids had probably killed as many Cambodians as the Khmer Rouge. We were lucky they even gave us travel visas.

When our twenty minutes were up and we had neither coughed nor sneezed or even cleared our throats, the shortest soldier returned and smiled. “Welcome to Cambodia,” he said. We loaded up our packs and crossed the border.

There was a 500-yard buffer zone between the border and the taxi station where an army of poor Cambodians had already begun to fight over who would transport us. Ahead and off to our right we saw a little girl in school uniform walking with a backpack over her shoulders. She was the only other person in the buffer zone.

She stopped suddenly and dropped her backpack. She unzipped the main compartment, removed a book, and then raised it over her head clutching one side with both hands. Then, swiftly, surely, she drove it toward the earth in a guillotine motion. When we edged closer to see what she was doing, she replaced the book in her backpack and picked up her victim with one hand. It was a 6-inch black scorpion. She placed it in her backpack and went on.

As Dan and I neared the taxi mob, the cacophony of broken English sales pitches became an unsettling din and the image of the girl holding up the scorpion gave me mild pause. The scorpion was a strange omen. Not the image I wanted to contemplate before I entered a nation still filled with millions of undetonated land mines, thousands of which would be lining both sides of the muddy red highway we would be taking to Siem Reap. One out of every 200 Cambodians was an amputee.

I still wanted to see the mysterious ruins of Angkor Wat, but there was a little less steam in my stride. Six-inch scorpions and six million land mines. SARS was the least of our worries.

“You know her and her parents will have that for dinner,” Dan said.

“Yeah,” I replied. And then the taxi throng was upon us.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest works include Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..