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Life in a War Zone Is Feeble Preparation for Hazards Lurking Here

September 26, 1988|ED GRIFFIN-NOLAN | Ed Griffin-Nolan is a writer who has been working with Witness for Peace in Central America.

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Four years ago, when I packed my bags and headed for the tropics, I had ample warning about what I was getting myself in to.

The local health department had a list of medications and inoculations one must be subjected to before visiting Central America. Gamma globulin shots for hepatitis, chloroquine pills for malaria, DPT for lockjaw and who-knows-what. You get your shots and you take your chances.

The State Department had travel advisories for places one shouldn't visit, and consular officials would present them with serious faces on your first visit to the embassy. (Although in Central America, the places that most look like they're expecting a war are the embassies themselves.)

The experts, doctors and lay people alike, coming back to Managua from remote high-rainfall areas of Nicaragua, had detailed advice on local exotica like mountain leprosy. How to avoid it. How to spot the symptoms.

That's life in the tropics, life in a war zone.

There is no instruction manual for living in New York. No official warnings. No immunizations. I had read a Newsweek article about AIDS, which is already a topic of conversation in Nicaragua, and thought I was up on the latest. Little did I know.

Suddenly, after I'd enjoyed a day at the beach with my sister and her two babies, the tide of medical waste attacked the Eastern Seaboard. Syringes and catheters and all manner of untouchable castoffs were washing up in quantities even the tourism offices couldn't ignore. Signs went up announcing the closing of the Sandy Hooks and the Coney Islands. The nightly weather reports began to carry a new indicator--the fecal coliform level.

Betrayed by the ocean, I sought refuge in the Adirondack lakes in upstate New York. Given the spread of acid rain, it seemed like now or never.

Just before dinner one night I read a wildlife magazine explaining that to avoid mineral poisoning, I shouldn't eat more than one ounce of fish per month from any of the lakes in a 600-mile radius. I started to wonder: If whatever was in the water could be deadly in just one ounce of fish, what could it do to 160 pounds of me splashing around in it? I looked to the sky for guidance, but the ozone-depleted heavens offered no solution. I retreated to my room and turned on the air conditioner. Then I remembered something about a strain of bacteria that hides in air-conditioner filters. I fled frantically back into the heavy summer night thick with mosquitoes and hay fever.

Back in the broiling city, my mind chased escape possibilities but caught none. This was war, and I was in it. Oh, to be back on those winding roads in the middle of machine-gun fire in Jinotega! Where the good guys and the bad guys wear uniforms and almost everything that can kill you is either visible to the naked eye or has the decency to fire a tracer bullet. I'll take real war over this any day.

In my desperate flight through the Adirondack woods, I had given a ride to a tiny bacteria-laden deer tick that, while sipping on my blood, sent me into a deep sleep. When I awoke, a doctor was taking more of my blood and giving me tetracycline for this season's fashionable malady, Lyme disease. Tetracycline helps to kill the spirochetes that want to attack my central nervous system, and as a side effect it keeps me out of the sun (unless I want to turn orange), therefore reducing the chances that I will step on an infected syringe.

So for the moment I am housebound. The pounding of the surf on the shore about a mile away sounds suspiciously like mortar fire. Automobile alarms touched off by child-vandals down the block conjure memories of air-raid sirens. But I've been there. They can't drive me that easily down into radon-filled basements, or lure me out into the glare of ultra-violet rays threatening to cut me down in one brief non-polarized foray.

I'm sure the United Nations will do something about this. Meanwhile once I've gotten infected with everything, I can go back to the beach without fear. And dream of a safe life in a tropical war zone.

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