Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Dave Lowe sent me his journal entry from December 26. Dave was in the Maldives when the Tsunami hit (see his story below). He is not off to Thailand to be a part of the commemoration of the Tsunami.

Here is Dave's journal entry, with reflections and unexpected meetings...

Checking in for my Air Asia flight to Phuket, I noticed a group of men standing around in shabby grey matching suits with identical red pins on their lapels. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a smiling portrait of Kim Il Sung, and the wearers were none other than the North Korean national football team, off to play a round of friendlies. As they stood there, blinking in the bright lights of Bangkok International Airport, looking at the corn-rowed, tattooed and tanned tourists with cell phones pressed to their ears, fiddling with IPODs and fondling their partner's exposed flesh in a most un-Stalinist way, the North Koreans pretended not to be impressed, or stunned, by the internet cafes and NIKON ads and HENNESSY XO commercials blasting out of Duty Free. They had to: 3 minders were watching them like hawks.

When the flight was delayed, I took a seat next to two of the players, who only grunted when I asked them if they were Korean. A few minutes of silence followed, and then the new flight time was displayed as an hour after the scheduled departure time, I mimed the new time by pointing at my watch and dragging my finger to the 6. The three minders went for a cigarette break, and the two players chatted in shaky English; turns out all the knew was a hearty HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! and we chuckled at the passing circus of backpacker freaks, swishing past in pirate pants and trailing BO.

When the flight was finally called, I found myself sitting next to the two players again, and safely sitting behind the minders (who were unable to be reseated to watch the team from behind) the two players shyly said hello, and announced their team positions "Goalie," said one; "Striker," said the other. I handed them my business card. They studied the address, grunted, and put them in the pocket behind Kim Il Sung.

When the cabin crew came through selling drinks, Goalie and Striker had only a wad of Won, (sadly, no clever fake 100 dollar bills, rumoured to be produced en masse in North Korea) so I bought them each a Coke and they slurped it down in an instant. When I pulled my passport out, they snatched it out of my hands, and curiously looked at all the stamps inside. Tokyo. Frankfurt . Singapore. When they saw my birthplace as NYC, they gasped: had an American really just bought them a Coke?

There was a moment of muttering, but then they shyly handed me their passports, and I flipped through them; both Striker and Goalie were 19 years old, and looked like they were almost 35 (their faces were lined with wrinkles) Then, as we settled in for the flight, I asked Goalie if he had any North Korean money for me to look at. He pulled out his wallet again, and handed me a 100 Won bill. When I handed it back, he refused it, and I refused his gesture, before he grunted and forced me to take it. I held it in my hand for a minute, but Goalie got more and more nervous, and eventually took the bill from my hand and put it in my jacket pocket.

Now it was Strikers turn to be nervous. But not for himself; he was clearly berating his friend Goalie for his lack of respect for his country's leader, handing over a bill to an American. Ten minutes went by, the argument got more heated, and suddenly Striker leaned over, took the bill out of my pocket, unfolded it, and pointed to the picture of Kim Il Sung.
"He is our father. I'm sorry."

Striker then folded the bill up and pushed it back inot Goalie's pocket. Satisfied, he folded his arms across his chest and then I was his best friend: he asked me what ranking Man United had; Real Madrid, and who David Beckham was married to. This went on and on as our plane touched down at Phuket and taxiied to the terminal.

The 3 minders had gotten off first, and the three of us walked to the baggage claim, laughing like old friends, until we reached the ground floor. Then, the smiles faded, and the two men fell silent in face of their minders, who eyed me like a hawk. Ten uncomfortable minutes passed, as the bags popped out, and as I pushed my cart out of the terminal, I saw a wicked grin flicker across the faces of Striker and Goalie, who had their back turned defiantly to their team. "Happy New Year," they whispered.

An hour later, I stumbled out of my taxi at Poseidon Bungalows, a Swedish run resort to the south of Khao Lak. As I tried to fall asleep, it was impossible: it was the first time in a year I had slept near the sea (the last time had been on a gasoline and sewage soaked beach in the Maldives, listening to people lose their minds) Eventually I got up and went down to the beach to find an elderly Swedish couple already there, unable to sleep either. It wasnt jetlag; the year before they had narrowly survived the tsunami as their bungalow at that very spot had collapsed all around them. They had been washed out the window and clung to trees as the waves swept in, flattening the mangroves, and had eventually, after 4 days in hospital, returned to their little town in central Sweden, where they had to break a window to get in their house; they had lost everything, even their housekeys.

"We had to hitchhike home when we got to Stockholm , imagine that, at our age," the wife chuckled.

We sat and talked most of the night, happy to see the sun rise behind us in the steamy jungle.
'We know that jungle well," remarked the man. "we lived there for 2 days."

After breakfast, I hopped on a moped and sped off north to Bang Sak, one of the most affected beach areas in Thailand. Even a year after the waves, dark green creepers that have grown over much of the debris can hardly cover up the damage; a short walk on the beach reveals a swimming pool, full of large, western sized shoes; a single wall with a dive map painted on it for islands off the coast; and room markers pointing in odd directions, to bungalows that no longer exist.

Even the beach still reveals objects: I found a shampoo bottle from the Chong Fah resort, one of the largest there before the 26th of December, now only a memory marked on maps; even the concrete foundations are gone.

Even further down the coast are remains of whole Thai villages, now just row upon row of white military style houses, with shiny tin roofs and OXFAM and UNICEF posters hanging from trees. The beach front at Bag Sak has been rebuilt, and the local gangs of teenagers race down them on their souped up Suzukis, although it will take years for the palm trees to regrow; the waves even ripped them down, leveled the beach and flattened the reef offshore.

Everyone here has a story to tell the day the sea disappeared.

'I clung to that pole, over there," points a street vendor selling Coke in plastic bags. "I couldn't find my daughter, but lucky, she survived."

A hotel clerk at the Le Meridien remembers how the waters smashed into her hotel, and she was trapped upstairs, as children she had wished Merry Christmas too had disappeared.
Another woman working in a handicraft remembered how she ran to the hills as the waves demolished her shop. She jumped into a lake without thinking and survived. Her friends who hesitated died.

"Lucky," she says as she hears I had survived too, touching my arm gently. "Lucky."
Another bellman at the Similana Hotel slaps me on the back, "you got hit by Christmas tree too?" he asks incredulously, as he recounted the morning when the lobby's fir tree was lifted up and both of us were hit by it.

Perhaps the saddest stories are the ones no one will ever know. The remains of the Sofitel Magic Lagoon resort, once one of the top resorts on the coast, is still there, even after over 200 guests died in their rooms, and 400 bodies were pulled off the beach. Just one security guard is on duty there, watching for journalists eager to jump the fence, take pictures, or dig for clues to get information about the tragedy that is now being fought out in the courts. Only the coconut trees there are the witnesses to the horrors of that day. Most bear scars from the waves, and others have since died from salt poisoning.

Further away, I see a wealthy Thai man with binoculars looking out to sea. He is looking for a person to buy his land; he doesnt want a joint venture, he just wants out. He points with a stick to a point 2 meters up the nearest coconut tree, the height of the water that day. "If you know someone who buy, I give good commission."

But the longer you stay along the Andaman coast, the more you start to realize something: almost everyone in tourist shops and bars have the same tsunami survival story, told in the same detail, and with the same outcome. You mention this to your hotel manager and they shake their heads, "Yes, many people use it to sell handicrafts, motorbike rentals, drugs...."
Despite this, there are more Mental Health agencies than photo agencies, more FOR SALE signs than hotels here, and more touts than tourists. Khao Lak was dealt a particularly harsh blow, and its the locals who werent able to fly home after the disaster. They were the ones who found bodies in back gardens, fishing boats rammed through temples, and cars piled up like firewood. Most hotels have only 30% occupancy, at a time when it should be 100%.

"Maybe next year people will forget," says a taxi driver with a sigh. "Or maybe the year after."
The next morning, the mood is somber on the ferry as it pulls into Phi Phi island harbour. Its Christmas day, and oldtimers who know the island well, gasp: you can see right through the island now, all the way to the other side; years of development had been obliterated in seconds as not one but two waves smashed together on the narrow isthmus; killing almost 1,000 people. Even though a year has passed, most of the island is still in ruins.

The 26th of December dawns clear and beautiful, and an uncharacteristic quiet spreads across the narrow lanes and alleys where pirated DVDs and trinkets are usually sold; many shops are closed to remember.

The memorial ceremony takes place at the foot of a large Banyan tree, where the 20 foot waves crashed ashore. Three thousand people gather, all wearing white, clutching flowers and bouquets of white roses. Suddenly a helicopter appears, and the Deputy Prime Minister hops out to give a speech, hold a minute of silence, and pray with a row of saffron robed monks, before he hops back onto his helicopter and flies back to Krabi.

The service is over, and afterwards, family and friends slowly wander down to the beach to wade into the lapping waves, where they offer private prayers to the sea, before tossing in fragrant orchids. Most weep openly, and some collapse on the sand, in tears.

Suddenly, the sea starts to withdraw, rapidly, leaving the turquoise lagoon almost empty of water. Survivors of that terrible day turn white, and look at each other in panic.
"Don't worry, ladies and gentlemen," announces a man through a loudspeaker. "It is the normal low tide, nothing to be afraid."

An hour later, when the water has returned, three long tail boats arrive, and offload 500 coconut saplings. A human chain forms, and then, the new plants are passed, one by one, down the line where they will be replanted in the most devastated part of the island.

The afternoon passes slowly; families continue to stand in the sea, tossing in flowers and prayers, while tourists a few meters away go about their holidays, sunbathing, chatting away, and drinking beer.

A restaurant manager recounts how he clung to a palm tree as his restaurant and staff were drowned. "I still keep my suitcase packed each day, just in case I have to leave," he says.
"I didn't notice anything," sniffs a woman from Europe when a traveller asks her if she thinks the island felt sad.

A small group of international volunteers gather at Sunflower bar, rebuilt on the exact spot where it was before Boxing Day 2004, using driftwood and smashed boats as construction materials. Many had been there since December and had helped the local Thais rebuild their houses. Here, a girl works behind the bar on the same day her sister died behind it, serving her customers; another woman waits tables despite the loss of her granddaughter; and another guy works the DJ booth, having lost his brother in a bungalow a few dozen meters away. All around them is the buzz of chainsaws and pounding of hammers, as workers frantically build back the islands lost accommodation.

When the sun sets, and the here-to-party crowd at Ao Ton Sai hits the usual nightspots like Apache, pounding to the rythym of Twisted Sister and Nirvana, and the shirtless Thai touts are back to ogling the bikinied German girls ambling past, and the usual Hollywood movies are blasting out of restaurants, in English and Thai, there is one last remembrance ceremony.
Under a moonless sky, on the beach again, 1,000 rice paper lanterns are lit and released into the night. As relatives hold the lanterns in the air, waiting for the hot air to kick in and carry away the lanterns, tears roll down their cheeks: they are looking up into the sky, at hundreds of golden lanterns, floating higher and higher, creating a beautiful, three dimensional constellation, ever shifting as the winds shunt them back and forth. For over an hour, people wade out into the sea again, in the cold, dark waters, watching every last one, until the lanterns float so high that they merge with the stars and finally disappear.

Then, everyone at the distant bars began to toast each other, shouting, "HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!" over and over, in six languages. And as I sat there with other survivors, we looked at each other and knew we were lucky to just be sitting there with our new friends, sharing a laugh. And then I remembered the bright eager faces of those North Korean football players, swimming in that foreign sea awash in internet cafes, cell phones, IPODS and credit cards, eager to make new friends and share some laughs, too, despite their country that was as alien to most of us as the moon. "happy New Year!" they had cried out at me in the plane. Happy New Year indeed.
Everyone, hope you have a great 2006!!!!


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