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Adventures of the Green Man

The one thing that can save the city is decent toothpaste

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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I HAVE JOINED THE GREEN movement and am proud to say I am now a “Green Man”. This amazing transformation has little to do with my enduring interest in the Incredible Hulk – I mean how do you suddenly burst out 10ft tall, turn a bright bilious green, and still have your clothes on, squeeze into public phone booths, and get to keep your girlfriend? I got into a rage once and realised my shirt was rather tight. But that was because cheap cotton shirts tend to shrink.

My remarkable change has to do with airports. There I was at Hongkong Airport, heading to immigration, when a hand grabbed me and I felt something plunge, recklessly, into a formerly private bodily orifice. “Oh!” I said, in shock, appreciating for the first time how a woman must feel being accosted by a brute in a dark alley without having had time to put the right make-up on. What was this place anyway – an airport or a boarding school?

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My ear was ravished by a thermometer and I was powerless to resist. People watched and did nothing. It was quick, rude, and unfulfilling. I doubt I would have recognised the perpetrator in a line-up – he had on a mask. The official waved me on. Later in Bangkok I deplaned to find myself in the churning vortex of the Terrified-Doctors-At-The-Airport Convention. They were a friendly bunch and were eager to learn everything about me. "Do you have a …a…?" one gentleman asked, pointing to his throat. Of course I have a throat. I nodded my head vigorously. Eager not to waste a free consultation or appear to be dismissive, I went on to narrate to him a string of perplexing ailments – a lower back problem, a bent clavicle, insomnia, migraine, an ingrown toe-nail, recurring nightmares and problems with my inner child. "Okay, okay," he said, "welcome to Bangkok."

My ear was ravished by a thermometer and I was powerless to resist. It was rude, quick and quite unfulfilling.

But there was one more hurdle. My ear tingled. Nothing happened. Instead I was shown a white line on the floor. On one side was a potential 10-day quarantine with pretty nurses cooing "Khop khun kaa", and on the other, Thailand, with crazed whistle-blowing policemen, fearsome traffic, pollution and… I had to force myself to concentrate. Positioning my feet, I took a deep breath and, at the signal, shot out of the starting block. A thermal imaging camera whirred and my picture flashed on the TV screen. It was green. GREEN as the army’s underwear. And glowing. Suddenly it dawned on me why US immigration terms visitors "aliens".

Aliens are taking over our airports. Who says travel is uninteresting? I opened the International Herald Tribune at my Bangkok hotel to see a prominent ad inviting participants for the “8th World Aluminium Conference” in Montreal. What could be more trendy or riveting? I’m not sure what an aluminium conference is but I imagine it involves aluminium bricks arrayed in a circle attempting to communicate via e-mail, telepathy and MSN. This would probably be followed by a binge at a lap-dancing establishment. And yet another news item. A couple in China blessed with a bonnie baby boy decided to immortalise two historic events of our time by naming their child Saddam Deng Sars. How this boy is ever going to get into the USA in order, over time, to acquire a deeper appreciation of Freedom Fries (as French fries are now called at Congress) and a respectable nickname like Bob, beats me.

Suddenly it dawned on me why US immigration terms all visitors "aliens". Green men are taking over our airports...

He is not alone. Sars is a solid, hewn-from-oak Norwegian surname. People called Sars have for generations been building ships and arm-wrestling reindeer. Now they find themselves ostracised. Well, I can understand that. Reindeer can smell pretty awful. There is even a Sars Institute. Perhaps Saddam Sars will be accepted by a fine Oslo university after which he can return to his native land and stun his family with his newfound skills. I’ll bet they’ve never arm-wrestled a panda. The problem is, by then, there may be no airlines, as we know them, to transport Saddam. The International Labour Organisation told the BBC recently that SARS (not the Norwegians) will cost five million tourism jobs, several of these in the airline sector. Travel, they say, is being replaced by the Internet, and shopping by phoned-in home deliveries.

The only way to stop the rot is to get out and start travelling. Get bums in seats. At check-in ask for a segregated seat with space to swing a cat by the tail. Make sure your cat has a security sticker before boarding and tape the tail to prevent any mishap. Hotels are going that extra mile too. In Hongkong the JW Marriott had staff wear bright yellow smiley-face badges that declared they were "fever-free". Now you know. Get out and go green before it is too late.

More on HK and SARS at HKunmasked and Fearbusters. Also see HK Department of Health and the US Center for Disease Control.

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