Sunday, November 16, 2003

The Travel Doctor

“If I’d known we were going to need shots, maybe I would have wanted to go somewhere else,” my wife Jody declared when I called her from the Travel Doctor.

The Travel Doctor is the specialist in our kuppa (the Israeli version of an HMO) who advises would-be backpackers on the do’s and don’ts of exotic locations. And Jody and I were planning on exactly such a far-out trip: to India.

It was going to be our first extended vacation away from the kids since we got married. Nearly two weeks on our own. Jody’s Dad would be coming to stay in Israel while we were having our minds blown in Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur.

Jody and I originally planned on going to China. I had flown enough for work to earn two free tickets on El Al to as far as they go. That meant Bangkok, Hong Kong or Beijing, and since I’d been to the first two, the latter got the nod. That was supposed to be in May, 2003.

You all remember what happened then? SARS was raging throughout Asia and we thought maybe we’d be better off someplace else. We’d always been fascinated by India, so…

Visiting the Travel Doctor is already one step into another world. While outside on the street the usual mix of Jerusalem types parade by the Travel Doctor’s downtown Jerusalem office, inside you feel out of place if you’re not freshly discharged from the army and wearing tie-dye.

Indeed, everyone in the waiting room was young, pierced, and tattooed with long and scraggly hair. Most were wearing belly shirts.

Especially the men.

“I feel like a saba, a grandfather,” I said to the Travel Doctor when he called me into his office.

“Don’t,” he replied. “Just before you I had a couple here who’d make you feel like a little kid. No, it used to be that travel to India, South America, Thailand and the like was only for the young. Now, everyone’s going.”

Still, the greatest concentration of Israelis taking off for India and the Far East are the young – an estimated 30,000 a year – either blowing off steam after three grueling years in the army, or getting out a few yah-yahs before.

It’s become a rite of passage and it is not limited to any one demographic group – even the knitted kippa crowd of the yeshivas does its time on the psychedelic beaches of Goa and Koh Samui.

“This must be the greatest job in the world,” I said. “Everyone is so happy. They’re all about to embark on some great adventure.”

He nodded then began to explain what I was going to need. 3 shots – Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Diphtheria.

“You can get them today. Just pay the cashier and we’ll do it on the spot.”

Wait a minute now. I hadn’t prepared myself for a shot today, let alone three. I usually need a bit of time to psyche myself up, especially when pain is involved. But the Travel Doctor is only open twice a week and I already found a parking spot.

“How much?” I asked.

He added up the total – the equivalent of around $100.

That hurt. Probably more than the shots I was about to receive. I called up Jody for a quick consult.

“Seize the day,” she said.

“It’s not your arm that’s about to get whacked,” I replied. Then I thought, I could have a little fun with this. Kvetching more than necessary. Feigning off my responsibilities for a few days while I, ahem, “recovered.”

While he prepared the injections, the Travel Doctor called in a few of the long-haired belly-shirted tie-dyers to explain to all of us together what we needed to do in case of malaria and how to tell the difference between regular diarrhea and dysentery.

I called Jody again.

She said, “Are you sure we want to do this?” But it was too late, the needle awaited me.

I was very brave, I would later tell five-year-old Aviv. I barely cried at all. The implied message: your father is not a wimp.

Actually, I kept myself distracted by making conversation.

“Travel medicine is actually quite big in North America and Europe,” the Travel Doctor explained. “But I’m almost the only one in all of Israel specializing in it. I give lectures all over the country, in all the main hospitals.”

“There’s that much to say about shots?” I respond.

“No, no…it’s not just about the shots. You have to know about all the kinds of diseases that people might come back with and how to treat them. Things that aren’t normally seen in this part of the world.”

“Do people go to medical school these days and say ‘I want to be a Travel Doctor?’”

“More and more. When someone comes back from a post-Army tiyul and if they were planning on going to medical school anyway, they just might.”

“Do you get to travel?”

“Of course.”

“And the health fund pays?”

“Of course not.”

As I got back to my car, arm throbbing, the police were surrounding the street where the Travel Doctor was located. Someone had reported a suspicious object. And I thought: it will be good to get out Israel for a little while. To someplace safe.

I mean, it’s not like anything ever happens in Bombay...

And if anyone asks me where we’re going, I’ll just explain “our itinerary is all in my arm.”

With Jody and I off to India, "This Normal Life" will be taking a two-week break. Look for the next story the first week of December.

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