I was sitting in LAX about a month ago when a fellow traveler asked me, “Are you scared to be flying, with Ebola?”
I am scared of a lot of things I try not to think about very often. They include classics like death, cancer, being permanently priced out of New York real estate and anti-Semitism, as well as a rotating cast of current fears: aging, the deteriorating Israeli-American relationship, slipping on winter ice.
I have never been scared of flying. Given how mobile I am, such a fear would be counter-productive (though I know more than a few travel professionals who get nervous aloft). I relish the bustle of airports, am willing to go just about anywhere, and live for that moment of takeoff, when the world recedes underneath me.
But especially this year — when fear envelops us like morning fog — I understand why many travelers are on edge. Ebola is just one more anxiety on a growing list that includes terrorism, hijackers, jets that vanish into thin air and jets that get accidentally shot down by dimwit militants on the ground who were trying to shoot down someone else entirely, but missed.
Jews have a special relationship with fear. (And, I’d add, with travel; we are nothing if not a migratory people.) Millennia of persecution have ensured that Jews have a high alertness for things amiss. By now, worry is probably part of our DNA. And yet we have a special ability to put fear aside and move forward, as war-besieged Israelis have done for most of a century — or as any Israel-bound flyer does when scanning the U.S. government’s travel warning site, which has cautioned about visiting the country for as long as I can recall.
Like most Americans, I was a more-nervous-than-usual flyer after the Sept. 11 hijackings. I was determined to keep flying, though, so I adopted a conscious ritual to defuse anxiety. I’d survey the crowd at the gate and make a point of striking up a conversation with everyone and anyone, especially men traveling alone, which I know is not politically correct. But it helped. Invariably my fellow passengers — likely just as nervous as I — would brighten at the prospect of conversation (especially the single men). Small talk and shared itineraries went a long way.
I am always aware that public transport is a great way to pick up germs; Ebola is only the latest (and the most serious) bug potentially lurking on check-in screens, airplane trays and seat belts. What makes airports exciting — they are, in effect, crossroads of the entire globe — also makes them accessories to international contagion.
A thoughtful defense protects against both the terribly unlikely and the all-too-familiar, like seasonal flu. It starts with getting proper rest the week before a flight — a rule I routinely break, staying up late to pack and double-check work e-mails. It also means eating well and maybe taking vitamin C. People with strong immune systems are more resistant to anything flying around.
In transit, I make a point of not touching my hands to my eyes, nose or mouth, which can be difficult but is the single most effective thing you can do to stay healthy. I also carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer everywhere and apply it frequently and liberally, rubbing it onto the seat-belt buckle and the tray latch as well as my own hands. (I am less successful at keeping my hands clean with baby Zelda, who touches anything and everything, but she definitely wins on the napping front.)
Staying healthy while flying also means preventing falls — an issue that garners fewer headlines than Ebola or hijackers, but that is far more common. It’s alarming how frequently I watch people take spills while racing through terminals, slipping on just-mopped bathroom floors, or tripping down stairs while wielding ungainly baggage.
After I landed on my rear tripping on a pen while running to catch the train to JFK a few years back, I now make a point to scan the ground in front of me, instead of looking up all the time. I hold onto railings whenever possible (that’s what the hand sanitizer is for) and pay special attention to my balance after I wake up, groggy, from a nap in the sky. That advice goes double if you take Ambien, Xanax or Dewar’s as an in-flight sedative.
Blood clots are also more common than Ebola. On a long flight, flex your feet and bounce your knees every hour or so to keep the blood flowing.
Theft and traffic accidents are the most likely troubles you’ll encounter abroad — far more likely than terrorism, plane crashes and illness combined. When I get on an airplane, I’m calm and happy. But when I stroll those charming alleys in Barcelona or Mexico City, I’m constantly wary, clutching my handbag close. I hold my breath and pray when I’m in a taxi anywhere southeast of Switzerland.
And once back on the plane home, I relax and enjoy the ride.