Of Pandemics, Quarantine and Monica Bellucci

30 04 2009


Getting caught in a pandemic sounds pretty exciting…until it happens.


Our impressions of disasters often tend to be influenced by Hollywood and the idea of being caught in an outbreak of Tropical Galloping Gob Rot usually includes a nurse who looks like Monica Bellucci, a doctor like George Clooney…and a closing scene in First Class with champagne in one hand and Monica or George by our side. Reality is a little more sobering and I’m sure there aren’t many people in Mexico right now who are finding the experience particularly romantic.


Thankfully, I’ve never been caught in a pandemic and I hope I never am, but there was one occasion when it seemed that I might and I wasn’t really thinking of Monica or George at the time!


While in Africa some years ago, news filtered through of an outbreak of plague in India. Plague seems such a dark, ancient and deadly disease but according to the World Health Organisation, there are 1,000-3,000 new cases each year. Despite being treatable with antibiotics, a plague outbreak is still not a thought that warms the cockles of most hearts…especially when on the other side of the planet.


Although on a different continent, we felt strangely vulnerable. If the plague outbreak did become a pandemic as was being suggested, we were in the wilds of a country that could easily be ravaged and which had a poor medical infrastructure and inadequate antibiotics – and we were several days drive from the nearest airport. Admittedly we were leaping miles ahead of what little we knew of the situation, but it was difficult not to have such thoughts when passing through very poor towns inhabited by children with distended stomachs, permeated by the smell of baby vomit and open sewers and just a single flight away from India.


A local newspaper didn’t really help matters either. A small piece on the front page reported that suggestions had been made to restrict air travel from infected areas. If the plague crossed the Indian Ocean, would we even be allowed to travel home or would we at best be subjected to lengthy quarantine?  Another overland truck we passed had heard that the WHO and local authorities were acting quickly, but that the outbreak was not contained and there were concerns of it spreading beyond India. Tanzanian and Kenyan officials were reportedly screening people at the airports already. We had never felt so far from home or out of touch.


As the fragments of information slipped from the news, so the threat receded from our minds. By the time we arrived in Nairobi several weeks later, our worries seemed silly and overblown, but I will certainly never see anything romantic or exciting in pandemics, quarantine or government airlifts again…with or without Monica Bellucci!



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009


How To Get A Head In Africa

10 07 2008

Kicheche sunset

What`s that ticking?                                    (Kicheche, Masai Mara, Kenya)

Deceiving customs officials is a serious offence. Not only do you risk having the undeclared items seized, but you are likely to face a hefty fine and possibly even jail time. It is for this reason that I am scrupulously honest when entering any country…except for one occasion when I chose not to mention that I was carrying a small headless tick named Terry in a ziplock bag.


We had enjoyed a dream safari in Kenya’s magnificent Masai Mara Game Reserve. Camping in a small tree-sheltered clearing within the park boundary we were surrounded by rolling hills and endless plains. The evenings had been spent around the campfire listening to the roar of lions and the laugh of hyenas, while by day we had set off on unforgettable game drives.


There is a magic to sleeping under canvas that no amount of luxury can surpass. It is the magic of being part of your surroundings and close to nature. Although occasionally, nature may be just a little closer than you wish!


Stopping in London on our way home, I headed for the shower.


“There’s something in your armpit” my wife advised casually as I dried my hair. “It looks like fluff.”


I contorted my head, spinning around like a dog chasing its tail before moving to the mirror. My wife came forward to investigate.


“It’s an insect…a tick or something” she said, staring intently with evident distaste.


Everyone knows that ticks are high-maintenance creatures that must be lured with designer goods. Any attempt to physically evict one usually results in it burrowing deeper, setting up house and causing an infection. Everyone knows that…except for me that June morning. Instead, I withdrew my Swiss Army Knife from my bag and began diligently cleansing the longest sharpest blade with disinfectant.


“What are you doing?” my long-suffering wife asked incredulously, hands firmly on hips, standing in the bathroom doorway. “I hope you’re not thinking of digging that…that thing out, are you?” she asked.


“Of course not. If it was under my left-arm I would…but I can’t do it under my right so you’ll have to do it for me.” I answered matter-of-factly, while doing my best ER impersonation and continuing to prepare for minor surgery.


If looks could kill, my little passenger would have been the least of my worries.


“If you think I’m going to cut a tick from your armpit…” she roared.


Minutes later, Florence Nightingale hesitantly extended the tip of the blade towards my visitor…who promptly wiggled its bottom in her face.


“It’s moving!!” she shrieked, recoiling. It was at that point I admitted that perhaps a doctor was a better option and we headed to the nearest clinic.


Reclining on the examination table with my arm above my head, the doctor looked at my small companion with almost as much relish as my wife had earlier. She returned from her cabinet armed with disinfectant, cotton wool…and a gleaming scalpel.


Anyone who has ever inadvertently applied deodorant to a small cut knows how sensitive the armpit is. Having someone poke around that un-anaesthetised soft spot with a sharp knife in search of African wildlife is, well, memorable. Being a stoic male, I never ask for directions or exhibit pain, so with the scream internalised I instead turned crimson while my eyes filled with tears.


‘Oh dear.’ The doctor uttered in a less than inspiring manner.


“I got most of it”, she said, holding something in her tweezers “but missed the head. When you get home, it’s probably best if you go to the hospital and give them this” she advised, handing me the headless tick in a small plastic bag. “If you get a fever, best go immediately.”


With that, my wife and I, Terry the Tick in a bag and her head still in my armpit made our way to Heathrow. Once home, I headed to the tropical disease clinic.


“Mmmm” the doctor murmured as he examined our Kenyan pal through a magnifying glass. “Never seen one quite like this before. I’ll have to send it to the lab for examination and identification. Perhaps they’ll even name it after you.” he added with enthusiasm.


I must confess that the thought of Tickus Bloggus Adventurous was very exciting to me and I bounded home with a spring in my step and a lump under my arm. Alas, my jubilation was short-lived.


“I’m very embarrassed to tell you this,” the doctor telephoned a few days later “but I’m afraid I lost your tick. I was having another look at it, prodded it with my pen, and well, there must have been an electro-static charge or something because…well…it just sort of…evaporated. I think it ended up in my bagel.”


Although with Terry`s evaporation I had lost the opportunity for medical and scientific infamy, for once in my life I had at least got a head.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008