It was a far cry from Tracy, and just as I was beginning to embrace my circumstances, the swine flu (H1N1) hit. Immediately, I flashed back to all those images of China when SARS hit earlier this decade, and I prepared myself for some sort of chaos.
The one thing I knew after all those months was that sanitation and health was not a top priority in Mexico. It wasn’t that people didn’t care about their health, but precautions were thrown to the wind. With that said, I wanted to think that a health crisis would jolt the community, but to my shock, there was no sense of emergency for anyone, except me.
It was another day in the humid, 100-degree classroom when I was told they were shutting down our school because of the contagion that apparently started in Mexico City, more than 1,000 miles away from our small town.
Immediately, I felt vulnerable to my circumstances. With rumors flying about detaining people in Mexico, I could get stranded. For my own sanity, I called U.S. immigration to reassure myself that I was not being dramatic, but as soon as the supervisor on the other end said, “I would go home if I was you,” I was on the other line booking my flight home.
Within hours, I was on my way out of Mexico. The airport was eerily quiet but packed with people. I was nervous, because I had a lingering cough from a cold I had the week before. I knew it wasn’t “the swine,” because I was recovering and had no other symptoms, but again I thought the paranoia would get me detained. I expected a health check or at least a few questions at the airport, but nobody said a word. Even security didn’t question my health. I moved through the gates and was on my way home to California.
After I got home, it didn’t take long for the inevitable question, “Are you sure you don’t have the flu?” For whatever strange reason, I took on this issue as my new identity. I began every conversation by telling people that I came home to get away from “the swine.” I didn’t realize my statement was actually linking me closer to the flu. I really wanted people to know that I was not sick, but I was branded, because I had just come from Mexico with the sniffles.
Overreaction to rumors and not facts seems to be an understatement with this latest bug. The truth is that in the United States, 36,000 people die of flu-like symptoms every year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we don’t blink an eye at that. The irony was that I had better odds of a plane crash on my way home than of getting the swine flu.
As I reflect back on my experience, I realize how ridiculous it has been. My kids will return to school on Monday, and I’ll get back a week later. I need to let my students know that I didn’t abandon them.
• Lori Souza grew up in Tracy and graduated from Tracy High School in 1994. She rides her Harley with Bikers Against Child Abuse, has a masters in business administration and teaches in Mexico.