Wednesday, January 11, 2006

January 11, 2006

Postcard from Thailand - just a personal journal - you may wish to skip this.


December 26, 2005 8:00 am Phuket, Thailand

I am lying on the couch in my rooms in Patong Beach on the island of Phuket in Thailand. This is my seventh year of traveling to Thailand, to what some ex-pats call the "Kingdom" a paradise some ten thousand miles from San Francisco and my home in Marin County. I fell in love with Thailand on my first visit, and have developed enormous affection and respect for the people and the place. While the beauty of the northern areas of Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai are captivating, I prefer the tropical paradise and beaches of the south.

I have stayed at the same small guest house owned by a Thai woman and her Swiss husband that I discovered some six years ago. I have gotten to know them now the nephew who handles maintenance, the sister who runs the maid service and their son - who has grown up before my eyes.

It is early morning on a day that will mark the single most tragic loss of life to mother nature in my lifetime. Laying on the couch watching television, thinking about a shower before I head down to the beach and breakfast as is my custom several days a week, I think I feel a very slight earthquake. It is not the wind. I am a native Californian I have been in earthquakes. I know how they feel. Yes, this is an earthquake but so slight that it must be far, far away. I give it no further thought.

I read some of the murder mystery novel that I have started. One of ten or more I have brought with me. Mindless fiction satisfying on a purely pedestrian level.. But hunger calls so I shower and throw on shorts and a tee and head out the door. The beach is three hundred meters or so away a four minute walk. The restaurant is named Sabbaiâ (which in Thai means happy) is really nothing more than tables and benches on the sand surrounded by a bamboo fond fence, with a small kitchen built on a cement slab. The ocean is but forty yards away and the early morning vista and quiet are the main attractions for me to have my bacon, eggs and coffee here and not elsewhere. It is obviously run by an extended family- and all the sons and daughters, their husbands and wives and children, and the aunts and uncles work here. I have gotten to know them over time not personally or to any real extent - I don't even know all of their names, and couldn't remember them if I did but I know them well enough as a patron over two to four week periods each of the last five years so that I recognize them and they me.

My rooms are on the second floor of the first building of the guest house at which I stay, and I lock my door and walk down the stairs and out to the little Soi (meaning both street and alleyway in Thai) and head towards the beach a circuitous route through a warren of right and left turns past this building,and that house, until it opens on a narrow ten yard stretch lined by beer bars on each side and to the main Beach Road. I get about two thirds of the way, with but one more turn remaining, and I see people running towards me the kind of unmistakable panic one can recognize in peoples eyes no matter where you are, what language you speak.

I hear someone yell "water" and though I don't comprehend as the throng nears me, I turn to run with them. Over my shoulder I see water pushing what appears to be a car and a bus unbelievably tossing them over like they are toys. My mind cannot process the data quickly enough I know nothing of tsunamis, I have no reference point. I am jostled by the crowd, pushed this way and that, and I lose my balance and stumble. I scurry to get up and am pushed again as fear grabs a hold of strangers who wish me no ill but for whom I am not a priority either. I get up again and run. By the time I am back to the front of my small guest house the water has dissipated “ blocked in part by the buildings that stand in its way. Another hundred yards and I am to the main road and the water that has chased us is now but ankle deep.

Nervous banter on faces with incredulous, but relieved looks, is in the air. We keep walking to the other side of the street not sure what just happened, or what will happen next. Within minutes sirens fill the air and emergency vehicles speed this way and that. Uniformed police are blowing whistles moving people away from the beach area and people desperate to understand what it all means talk and pass on rumors amid fact. A consensus arises that a tsunami hit. What is less agreed on is what it did and what will happen next. People move towards the main street that leads into the mountains.

What had happened the world is now fully aware. The single largest natural disaster of our times, claiming 300,000 lives, many of whom remain lost a year later.

Saturday, December 24, 2006:
I arrived back in Phuket yesterday 25 hours, three planes and 10,000 miles after leaving SFO at 12:10 am on Thursday morning. I am returning to Phuket for yet another "high" season as I have for the past seven years now back to the same guest house and the same area I have come to know very well. I am anxious to see how it has been rebuilt how different is will be or not from the pre-tsunami isle of just a year ago when the beach of Patong was a sister paradise of Maui or Mexico with palm trees blowing in the gentle breeze at water's end.

After settling in and a quick nap, then shower, I walk the back entrance down the same Beach Road that had been my escape route a year ago, this time to survey the rebuilding effort. I have thought a thousand times in the past months how lucky I was – that if I had left my rooms just five or ten minutes later I would have been on the beach and likely would not have made it when the power of the tsunami hit.

But unlike in Banda Ache where the tsunamis wake was measured in miles, in Phuket the waves traveled less than a thousand yards inland. It was only the beach road hotels, corrugated tin mini shops and the two main streets leading from the main thoroughfare - Rat-U-Thit road Soi Bangla and Sawaddirak Road - where property the debris of smashed, overturned busses, cars and motorbikes gave such dramatic emphasis to the loss of life that the tsunami wrecked on this community. And eerily, the mound of debris from the beach and the twisted vehicles on both Soi Bangla and Sawaddirak Road stopped half way up the street between the Beach Road and Rat-U-Thit as though a powerful dragon that simply ran out of breath mid way on its charge.

Last year they had begun to bulldoze the beach road debris even before I left some five days after the tsunami and the cleanup had made noticeable progress on my last foray to the beach. Now a year later, virtually everything is re-built much of it the same as before the tragedy same businesses, same locations, often the same look to the building. Tourists who have never been to Patong before would be hard pressed to realize that such a devastating act of mother nature had even occurred. Yet as I talk with local merchants, what is obvious to anyone who has spent time here is that tourism is down maybe by as much as fifty percent. The farrang (Thai slang for foreigners) just haven't yet returned in numbers anywhere near the past. There are normally three seasons in Thailand the "High Season" from mid-November through April when the weather is not so oppressively hot, but rather a pleasant range of the mid to high 80s in the day, and 70s at night, the "Hot Season" when the temperature tops 100 and the humidity drives one into the air conditioned edens of the countless 7-11 convenience stores that dot the landscape of the country, and the "Monsoon Season" that runs from August or September into November and causes mild to severe flooding depending on the year and location (particularly long this year I am told). Christmas and New Year weeks are traditionally the peak of the high season here, and account for a healthy percentage of the tourism trades annual take and tourism is Phukets lifeblood. Americans count for only six percent or so of the tourists, with most coming from China, Australia, Japan, Germany and Scandinavia roughly in that order.

Somehow it seems to take at least two years for any area to recover from the precipitous drop in tourism that inevitably follows a calamity from mother nature. No matter that 95% of the entire island of Phuket, including over half of the beaches, saw absolutely no impact from the tsunami, or that those areas that did suffer are now rebuilt as though nothing had happened; no matter too that the chances of another tsunami are doubtless far less than having lightening strike your head repeatedly over a week period people stay away. I guess they just have it in their minds that the recovery will not be complete, that they will be stranded without conveniences, that the jeopardy of another awful event looms likely  and so they just aren't yet ready to throw their money away on a vacation in what they perceive as a disaster zone. Not good for the Thai people.

As I walk down the Beach Road on the ocean side, the thing that strikes me most is that the beach the sand is now several feet higher than it was last year. Where before, in places, you walked down seven or eight stair steps to get to the sand, today there are only three steps down, and in places, none at all. Last year along the stretch of the Beach Road where there are shops only on the opposite side of the street leaving a view to the water from the road, there were steps down every hundred yards or so, with cement / brick columns framing each set of steps. On the tops of each of these columns were embedded in the cement iron sculpted dolphins, turtles and other animals, with man made patinas of aged copper green. The force of the tsunami had cracked several columns, and in places had simply knocked off these embedded sculptures as though the were made of balsa wood. Two men with sledge hammers might have spent a hour or two trying to accomplish a similar result.

It is hard to watch the video footage of the waves as they first hit Patong in the amateur shot films and appreciate the real power of the tsunami. If you imagine a crescent shaped beach a mile long, and that each cubic yard of ocean water weighs something like 1200+ pounds, and that the tsunami was two to four stories high, containing millions and millions of cubic yards of water, all traveling at over 500 miles an hour when it broke and it is easier to understand that very little could withstand its awesome power certainly not little children and older retirees unfamiliar and inexperienced in the ways of tidal waves and drawn out of curiosity to the retreating water that left fish and shells uncharacteristically exposed that is the way of the tsunami; too late for those who would have the least chance of running fast enough on sand to escape. If the tsunami had hit at noon instead of at 9:30 am, there would have been 10,000 dead in Patong instead of the thousand or so on this part of the island that didn't make it.

The next morning I make a pilgrimage to the one beach location that has haunted my thoughts all year. For many seasons now, on half the mornings of my time in Patong, I would wind my way through that backdoor warren of turns and make my way to the beach to have my breakfast at one of three or four small restaurants on the sand some fifty yards from the water. These restaurants were little more than tables on the sand, surrounded by a few trees and a makeshift palm frond enclosure. The only real structure to the one I frequented was a cement slab that housed the enclosed in kitchen area where food was prepared.

Sabbai was a little restaurant with a million dollar view of a pristine and beautiful Patong Bay and it was owned, as I said, by an extended family that I had come to know if not by name then by sight  if not intimately then well due to the passage of time.

I was delighted and almost giddy to arrive at Sabbai's back entrance and to almost immediately spy one of the young men who was a waiter and whom I recognized from the family. He recognized me too and there was a genuine moment of shared something. I asked about his younger brother and he assured me he was at their family home elsewhere in Thailand and was indeed ok as well. But without asking I knew that not all of the family had made it out that some must have been caught in the deadly undertow of one year ago. I could tell it wasn't something he wanted to talk about and I did not press him.

While Thailand is often referred to as the land of smiles because the Thai people surrender their smiles so easily and effortlessly, and while my friend with no name at this restaurant smiled again I could tell it wasn't the same, nor would it be again for him. He was young and had lost something that he had not yet replaced and wouldn't for awhile.

I shed a silent tear for him as he was, in that moment, for me the embodiment of the whole of the suffering of last year I grieved for him for the loss of his loved ones, and for the loss of his innocence as well, for he was no longer a boy, but a man reluctantly I suspect, at the hand that the fates had decreed.

Monday December 26, 2006 One Year Later

I get up early this morning. I want to go to the planned morning event to commemorate the one year anniversary of the tsunami. I have no idea what is planned, but I want to be there. It is to take place in the small park at the north end of the beach where the Beach Road again has open space on the ocean side of the street.

When I arrive a little before 9:00 am, a sizable crowd has already gathered. There are plastic chairs provided for guests, and reserved seating under canopies to shield the VIPs from the hot sun. The Prime Minister arrives a few minutes later in shirtsleeves to pay his respects to the families of the victims. I sit down on the last step of a large circular fountain immediately behind the plastic chairs. A podium stands in front of a makeshift monument announcing the one year anniversary of the tsunami. A woman soon sits next to me in the one remaining space on the step I share with a score of other people. We talk. She is Swedish, was not here at the tsunami last year, but has lived in the south of Thailand for the past dozen years. She and her brother and mother have driven up to Phuket. Her name is Tina. Blond, mid-thirties I guess she looks the part of the tsunami victims surviving family. I tell her what it was like to have been here last year and we share an abiding respect for the Thai people.

There is no shortage of television cameras set up to cover the event, and roving reporters are working the crowd looking for likely interview subjects. A woman reporter with the Sky Channel logo on her microphone stops and asks Tina if she was a tsunami survivor. Tina tells her no, but tells her that I was and nods in my direction. The reporter asks me if she can ask me a question on camera and I say "sure". She asks if I was in the tsunami last year and what has brought me back. I tell her that I am here because I have come every year for the last seven, and that I have come to this remembrance this morning out of respect for the Thai and foreign people who have lost loved ones and out of affection and admiration for the Thai people who were so caring and generous to their visitors last year. I tell her that this is an amazing country and that the Thai people who suffered the greatest loss were extraordinary in their generosity to their guests during that tragedy, in their ceaseless efforts to comfort and help the victims and that all of us who were here a year ago are grateful to be alive and share a bond that will last us our lifetimes. Like my generation knowing exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated, those in the affected areas on the rim of the Indian Ocean when the tsunami hit will likewise never forget that moment. She thanks me and moves on.

The Prime Minister is apparently gone. In his place, the Minister of Tourism and Sports (an odd combination) delivers the official remarks and hits just the right tone of sympathy, respect and hope for the future. The ceremony ends with guests invited to place flowers previously distributed to those present at the base of a marker denoting the day and time of the worlds worst natural disaster in recorded history. I get in line and fight the surge of people making their way to pay their respects. The television camera crews surround the site and make it that much more difficult to navigate to the monument which sparks the ire of a woman in the crowd, who mounts the stage and, using the microphone, decries the insensitivity of the press from her perspective in an emotional harangue. She is met with a smattering of applause from the crowd many of whom agree with her assessment. I understand her need to lash out somewhere her pain is just too much for her to cope with.

I think about last year again as I leave the area and make my way along the beach and then I think about the victims of hurricane Katrina. For a fleeting moment the question enters my mind why tsunamis aren't given names as hurricanes are but I guess they are too few and infrequent and thank god for that. A tear or two stay in my eyes as I pass the Sabbai restaurant and and continue down the beach the water calm and tranquil so very different than the angry and ranging powerful sea of a dozen months ago. Life goes on as it always does, and my guess is that more people were born on planet earth during the week after the tsunami than died as a result of its wrath. I am again so very glad to be alive and I say my silent thanks to god, buddah and the powers that be.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit!