January 6, 2005
Boom! Water Shot Through the Beach
I was on the island of Koh Lanta on Dec. 26. Koh Lanta is just east of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi Island and part of the province of Krabi, Thailand.
The island is made up of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. I had visited this small island earlier in the year, and was blown away both by the kindness of all the inhabitants, as well as its natural beauty.
On the morning of the 26th, I was in the pool at 7 a.m., doing yoga at 8 and breakfasting at 9. By 9:30 a.m. I was on my motorcycle and decided to stop and check e-mails.
I noticed a bunch of people -- locals -- starting to run to the beach. I figured someone got hit by a car (if you saw the way folks drove, you would know that's not too irregular) until someone yelled something about a wave.
Now, I am thinking to myself, "What's the big deal? I mean, haven't they ever seen a bloody wave before?" and continued typing away.
But more folks kept running to the beach, so I finally got up to go look at some stupid wave, but all of a sudden, everyone started running toward me, and boom. water shot up, through the beach (about 50 yards), kind of like a water cannon into the street.
It honestly did not seem like that big a deal -- although certainly a bizarre occurrence. And at that stage it wasn't. (It was the first of three waves.)
I decided to get back on my bike and head to the other side of the island, which meant I had to go over a mountain. As I crested, I saw the other side of the Andaman Sea. A white line was slowly cutting its way diagonally across the entire ocean. It was mesmerizing.
Meanwhile, all the locals were heading up the mountain -- a mile journey from the coast -- as I was naively headed down. When I got to the bottom, a boatload of Swedish tourists were being dropped off, because of the peculiar tides and currents.
They were all somewhat put out by the inconvenience, and yet in the background, the natives were all hightailing it out of town, putting old people and their wheelchairs in little pickups and clearing out. Meanwhile, all the non-natives looked at the irregularly cloudy sky and shrugged their shoulders.
Still, I figured something was just too strange, so I decided to cut my ride short and head back to my side of the island. When I returned to where I had been less than an hour before, the restaurant next to where I was standing was destroyed. And most peculiarly, very few people were around.
As I rode down to where I was staying, each place along the beach was ripped apart. I stopped to see the man who rented me the motorcycle, and he was in tears.
I cautiously came to the entrance of my hotel, pushing through the saloon like doors to what was previously some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen, now looking as though a bomb had gone off.
The pool I had been swimming in had a 30-foot boat perched just beyond it and was full of rocks, mud and sand. The 10-by-20-foot yoga platform used at an 8 a.m. class on was shattered.
The place I had sat and ate my breakfast: half was in a hole, while the other half had the tables with food still on the plates, glasses half full of orange juice; it was obvious people had recently run for their lives. The entire hotel was in shambles -- and empty.
I heard everyone was up the hill, so I immediately ran and bought 24 pints of water and all the sweets I could squeeze into my backpack from a nearby store that was about to close. I figured all the kids were going to go crazy sitting up there without food. By the time I made it to the top, I saw that everyone was there, scared, but surrounded by an incredibly hard-working staff, which had already begun hauling food up.
Down the hill in the kitchen area, the staff fearlessly walked in their sandals through broken glass and other debris, completely focused on helping their panicky guests. The two owners were also there working tirelessly, filling up small pickup trucks with cooking equipment to transport up this huge hill.
We worked for hours and hours. Many of the employees had gashes and bruises, and yet, they were so unbelievably hard working. I never heard a complaint. I never saw a moment of selfishness.
We had to constantly be looking at the horizon, because another tsunami was supposedly on its way -- and bigger than the last one. So each time we would go down and quickly fill up supplies, we feared another wave could quite possibly come bombing back in and sweep us away. It is the strangest sensation, and it completely changes your relationship with the beautiful coastline -- suddenly it became my nemesis.
Come nighttime, everyone had been fed and was sleeping on the mountain top. My job was to haul blankets endlessly to everyone up there. One segment of the hill was so steep that it required me to have around 30 pounds of blankets on one arm and pull myself by rope with the other. It was easy, because there was a full moon, and because I kept thinking how incredibly lucky I was to be able to be alive to even chip in, so the energy I had was limitless.
When this job was over, I was on watch again. At about 3 a.m., blanket distribution began anew, because the winds started up again, and all the guests were getting very cold with only one blanket. Windiness causes more anxiety, because it is a sign that things may be brewing again. Shortly after, I heard the "call to prayer" for the Muslims. It was 5 a.m.
With everyone asleep, I walked down the beach to see what are now familiar images on the news. The deaths here, comparatively, were minimal. The damage: tantamount.
People I had come to know were devastated, in shock. Their businesses, homes, livelihoods were shattered. This was the high season, too. And as to the workers from the hotel, I never did see or hear them show any signs of their personal needs, even though they, too, had nothing left at this point.
Amazingly, the owners had arranged to evacuate us off the island. We were trucked, then boated, then trucked, then ferried and then trucked to safety. I felt strange leaving. When you see all the non-natives packed up, relieved, driving away from all the inhabitants ... well, you do the math.
So as you can tell, I totally lucked out. I was in Phuket the week before, and you are familiar with that catastrophe. Days before that, I had been on Ko Phi Phi -- an island that was destroyed. And just hours before I was in the pool, where I would have not heard or seen people running (most were still asleep) and would have immediately been killed by either the sand and water or a huge boat running me over.
It's strange. We all have friends or acquaintances who have died in tragic events. We continuously say things to ourselves like, "If he only waited five minutes...."
For me, it's the opposite. The resonating feeling I have is not as euphoric, as one may expect. For some reason, I have a great deal of guilt. I am also terribly curious. I keep trying to figure out how I was so profoundly fortunate.
This spring, Paul Alan Smith plans to return to the island to distribute money to the people in need there.
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