Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Return To Tsunamiland/Ten Degrees From Comfort Zone

Return To Tsunamiland/Ten Degrees From Comfort Zone

From snow boots to flip flops; fry bread, meat and potatoes, to rice and fish; from the sacred pipe and feathers, to buddhas and amulets; from the Lakota Nishnabotna to the Thai Chao Phraya; and from the pow wow drum to the bamboo flute. We're not in Kansas anymore, are we Toto?

Suddenly...well, not so suddenly...actually, after a 26 hr. round-about flight, everything is hot and steamy at 8.5 degrees off the equator. Tropical jungle, lizards, giant slugs, and tiger balm.

Still trying to master the Thai toilet, a porcelain affair with two footpads on either side, designed for deep knee-bend squatting. For a man with bad too-much-basketball knees who's accustomed to a cigarette, a magazine, and a prolonged...uh...engagement...during the course of evacuation, a Thai hole-in-the-floor can be an excruciating daily exercise.

Upon return to Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, where 78% of the deaths in Thailand occurred, the one thing most evident was the industry of the reconstruction effort in preparation for the one-year memorial to take place on December 26th. Nature had rebounded, and everything was green again, after being torn, scarred, and denuded.

Where nine months earlier it appeared that most of the work was being done by volunteers, now everywhere Thais were at work, building homes, pouring concrete, re-opening their shops for the Christmas high-tourist season, and rebuilding the destroyed resorts up and down 'The Strip', a 30 kilometer stretch of beautiful sandy beach peppered with fishing villages and tourist industry.

"It's a good thing so many countries came to help us," said the home owner in Khuk Kak village of the immediate post-tsunami volunteer aid. "We were still in shock."

The Tsunami Volunteer Center moved from its mountaintop base to a permanent storefront in Khao Lak at the southern end of the strip, abbreviating its nine-syllable name to 'The TVC', which is strange, saying 'the TVC', or the 'VC', eliciting negative associations for anyone who can remember fighting the VC in the Vietnam war.


Out at the boathouse at Cape Pakarang, boatbuilders were finishing their 42nd boat, with a target of 47 for the project. Among the friends there, was the interpreter, Kong, the former monk 'from the waist up', with whom I'd been teaching figures of speech.

After a long hug, he greeted me by saying, "It's a piece of cake. It's a walk in the park."

"I'm just along for the ride," I told him, which was impossible for him to repeat. 'Arong for the lide,' he kept saying before giving up. It's okay to laugh. They make fun of us, too.

Some sadness accompanied my return, to learn that Digger's guardian in my absence, Mr. Kon, had been murdered in a dispute with another Thai, shot in the head; and Mr. P. Korn, who died of a heart attack at age 37.

P. Korn worked at the VC as a driver, and we had become friends last spring after providing medical assistance following a traffic accident that left him trapped in his vehicle. Three days after my arrival, his family conducted a 100 Days memorial at their home in a small Thai village south of here, attended by friends, a dozen monks from the local wat (temple) who led the service, and another couple dozen foreigners from the volunteer corps, including Digger and me, who were invited by his wife, who informed us upon our arrival, 'P. Korn. He die.'

It was a short service in sweltering heat. They fed everyone under tent shades, and the old men sat around tables smoking cigarettes and chatting, while the women prepared the food, and the volunteers clustered in small groups. It seemed the family was thankful we were all there.

That wasn't the end of the immediate misfortune, for on Christmas Eve, Digger splashed his motorbike on the pavement of Khao Lak when a fifteen year-old German girl wearing aviator sunglasses behind a tinted visor, and an ipod plugged into her ears, failed to look both ways before pulling out directly in front of him on Khao Lak's major thoroughfare.

Digger caught her broadside and ended up with rasberries on his leg and hip, the bike suffering minor damage. Her father (who didn't witness the accident) insisted it was Digger's fault, saying 'he should have gone around her...he should have let her go across...he should have stayed in the bike lane...he should have slowed down...'

Of course he was defending his daughter, and I wondered what her version would be...'I was just sitting there, and when I tried to cross, he hit me.'

Despite the father's protestations, we noticed the next day, she was no longer in the saddle, but sitting behind her mother on another bike.


Merry Chrissmaaaaats! That's how they say it, and in the English/Thai dictionary, it's sort of spelled like that. Despite being a land of predominantly Buddhists, they celebrate Christmas here, with people running around in Santa hats and tiny lights strung up around the shops.

The volunteers made the most of being away from home for the holiday by holding two parties and big feeds in the afternoon and evening, with Santa and his helper elf, all dressed up and arriving at the party on an elephant.

Khao Lak was buzzing with thousands of people arriving either for their Christmas holiday, or for the next day's big event, the one-year tsunami memorial. Traffic up and down the strip was horrendous and dangerous, with the tweet of cops' whistles incessant throughout the day.

Concerts and performances were held up and down the strip, from Khao Lak to Bang Niang, where the police boat, which had been swept inland two miles, taking with it countless lives, now sat as a permanent memorial and testimony to the suffering of that dreadful holiday-turned-disaster.

Hundreds of Thai students had come in from Bangkok to plant 10,000 trees in one day that was previously estimated at a month's work. The shops were full, and the resorts and restaurants were packed. People were coming in from all over the country and the world, with surviving families of the dead flown in by the Thai government.

The Prime Minister and Princess Ubonrat, who lost her son to the wave, were also coming in, along with embassy staffs and other dignitaries zooming around with siren police escorts, so security was intense, with more helicopters in the air at one time than I'd seen since Vietnam.

Driving along the strip on a motorbike, the energy and intensity of the day with the helicopters whopping overhead, was a pure adrenaline rush, something like the buzzing, flesh-prickling moments outside the stadium preceding a Minnesota Vikings playoff game, or a hot combat zone.

We met survivors. John, from Austrailia, who lost his younger sister; another young man who was in bed with his girlfriend when 'the wall exploded', and he never saw her again, waking up in the hospital, asking, 'what happened?

We met Sara, from Sweden, on the beach. She had lost her mother, her husband, and her baby in the tsunami. She said she had been on CNN and Larry King, and that the Americans 'were fantastic', helping her in trying to find her son, who someone said was seen in the top of a coconut tree.

She has been back several times, still trying to find him, she said, and still loves the Thai and the country. I asked if it was painful for her to return to the scene of trauma, but she said, "No. I'm not afraid of ghosts, and everything I love is here. But I don't enjoy the sea as I once did."

Her face looked narrow and drawn, and she didn't smile once during our conversation, but as we departed, I looked back and saw her enter the water for a swim.


The One-Year Memorial was Thailand's big event of the year, taking the entire year in preparation. It began in steamy heat in front of the police boat with an inter-denominational Buddhist/Muslim/Christian prayer service for the 'releasing of the souls', attended by perhaps five thousand or more people.

Then it rained cats and dogs in the afternoon, with everyone seeking shelter. A cleansing, it seemed.

As darkness fell in the evening, the rain had stopped, and thousands of people gathered at the beach at Bang Niang where row upon row of plastic seats had been placed among the coconut palms, and a half-dozen huge green LCD screens displayed closed-circuit video for the audience too far from the stage.

Along with the VIPs and dignitaries seated up front were scores of survivors from foreign countries who had lost loved ones in the tsunami. It had even touched the royal family. Despite the huge mass of people, the atmosphere was incredibly quiet and composed.

Hundreds of student volunteers distributed free green tea and boxes of tuna sandwiches, orange juice and sweet breads donated by Thai Airlines. Everyone was funneled through security entry checkpoints where we were scanned by Thai and Swedish security police, just like prior to boarding an aircraft or entering a courtroom.

The media were everywhere with satellite dishes, cables and antennae sprouted from their huge production vans. Thai navy patrol boats cordoned off the sea in a huge arc, and tsunami paintings were on display, as well as a commemorative wall of photos of the young prince, surrounded by flowers, flowers, flowers, everywhere.

Each person was given a commemorative candle in a plastic flower holder to light after the Prime Minister's and Princess' brief and to-the-point addresses to the crowd. Taking their cue as the Princess lit the ceremonial torch, the lights went down, the navy boats lit their searchlights, and the entire assembly lit their candles as five thousand five-foot lanterns were lit and sent aloft from the beach by a battalion of Thai army men in three 100-yard rows, assisted by groups of students.

Representing the lost souls and the releasing of their spirits, the ceremony was spectacular and deeply emotional, as the lanterns floated upward and south toward Khao Lak, as awe-inspiring as any Fourth of July I've ever seen.

Digger said, "You'll never see another sight like this in your life."

- end