January 06, 2005

reality check

While we grapple with political and business nuance, over 150,000 people died and even more experienced life-changing horror and loss in the wake of the tsunami that hit Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka and so many other countries in the oceanic region. I've had CNN on in the background in my office keeping pace but it really hit home when I received an email from a friend.

I didn't write it but I just had to share it -- Stop for moment to realize the privilege we have of in a non life & death world ...

Date: December 29, 2004 11:47:06 AM GMT+08:00

I don't expect anyone to read this long email. So just read the beginning and know that we are OKAY! However, in the efforts to be healthy and therapeutic here is what happened in Thailand:

1. We're FINE. Patrick has a broken toe that he would like to milk for all its worth.
2. We both have rashes from the dirty water and they will someday go away or we'll NEVER be decent.
3. We're tired. We can't stop sleeping and watching movies. We hope to do this for another two weeks.

I am not ready to talk about the deaths, the people, and the things that the newspapers in Singapore think is okay to blast on the front page (they are really gruesome).

Anyway, on with our news: Patrick and I had a fabulous week in Thailand before the earthquake. Phuket is glorious: Sunny, fun, white sand, etc. The Thai people are the most generous, friendly, trusting, kind people we've ever met. Our three experiences in Thailand always leave us marveling at how so many people can be so warm.

The last day of the trip we woke up to a small earthquake. We sort of laughed at the sensation and decided it was our wake-up alarm and should go get some coffee. After relaxing at Starbucks we came back to the room and decided to catch one more hour of sun before catching our transfer to the airport.

In bikini and swim trunks we loaded the elevator with two other people. As the elevator went down to the first floor it shuddered to a stop midway, the lights went off, and then we heard noise.

It was ungodly screams, screeches, crashes, and roars. We had no idea what was going on. The elevator then dropped to the first floor and the lights came on to reveal that it was filling with water. The four of us looked at each other and realized we were going to die in this box. Miraculously, the doors flung open to reveal a waist high river of cars, trees, tables, lawn chairs, and people rushing at us through the lobby. We can't remember if we were pushed into it by the panicked folks behind us, or if we jumped in.

Regardless, Patrick shouted for me to swim to a child's jungle gym nearby. We swam (and marveled at the miracle that we made it perpendicular to the raging river), climbed atop it, and stared out at the devastation. Cars were piled up, waist high water ran everywhere, and we were terribly confused.

A couple of Thai guys floated by and we fished them out and pulled them up. In the best broken English we could manage they explained, BIG WAVE. We think we were up there about 10 minutes before we saw an Australian mother, whose clothes were ripped off her by the waves, clutching a baby and screaming for her lost five year old son. She was out of her mind with worry and after much persuasion, Patrick convinced her to climb aboard. As he pulled her and her baby up, I grabbed a Thai woman who was floating by. She was panicked and in her own confusion tried to pull me down into the water with her. I don't know how (well I do...thank you God!) but I grabbed her belt loop and flung her over the side. The four of us grabbed hold, looked out, and saw wave number two. It hit hard and came faster than I can describe, again full of cars, motorcycles, people, houses, and debris. We survived.

Patrick and I continued to pray--me screaming out my prayers at the sea and him calming the women with quiet prayers (I am sooooooo helpful in a crisis. :-)).The final wave was the biggest and the most terrifying. The walls of water they show in the movies are really not that big of an exaggeration except that they should be muddy and full of large objects. Anyway, the four of us were on the top of the platform of the jungle gym. I looked up and saw the wave, announced its arrival, and we clung on. In the amount of time it took for us to cling, the wave was already there and it was huge-much taller than our heads. At the exact moment it hit, a palm-tree frond roof from a tiki bar snapped up in front of us. As the wave hit, the water in front of our heads was deflected by the roof and we were not hit. It is miraculous. Water raged around us, but we remained on the shuddering structure. How trucks and houses could be made to fly by us and yet the little playground hung firm, I do not know. I am so grateful.

We realized it would not hold much longer and people on hotel balconies above us urged us to jump off and swim. Blue beach mats floated by and I leapt on. Patrick took the woman's baby (both women were truly out of their minds at this point). The other women and Patrick grabbed mats and we swam for the stairway (the folks on the balconies above shouted directions of where we should swim). The swimming was hard, as the water was rushing back to the ocean and we were against the current with debris piling around us. Patrick had to clear furniture off of him several times to protect the baby and get him to safety. We made it to the stairs, reunited the baby and mother with the dad (The other son was found alive and safe later! Yay!) and climbed up to our third floor room.

We were a sight. The guests came out of their rooms to stare open mouthed at muddy, leading us. We were obviously not the first to hit the hallway as the tiles were all red with other people's injuries. What ensued for the next 10 hours was a lot of panic. Every half hour someone would scream, Another wave! And then the whole hotel would scurry to higher ground. We were told that the next wave was taller than the hotel and we were going to die. I became quite famous for my refusal to leave the roof. Patrick may call me Top Johnson forever.

There never was another wave. That time we waited for the fictional wave was really hard. I'm ashamed at my fear. Patrick was in full-on survivor mode. He played with the little children and cheered them up, helped other people, and really kept his wits about him. I did not. Adding to everyone's fear was just the conditions of where we were (which was very plush compared to the poor Thai people's situations). Bathrooms became wherever someone was standing. I never realized those aspects of a crisis situation. It was just gross: Injuries and blood and waste.It was awful.

After nightfall we sat in the dark watching the looters and the ocean. Every siren brought more panic. Finally we got through to the airport and realized that we could make it out. I couldn't sit in that panic any longer. Patrick and I convinced a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the airport (astronomical amounts of Thai baht helped). What a THRILL to be in that tuk-tuk. Despite the fact that it was far more dangerous to be in that golf cart sized truck on the highway than in our hotel room, we were ecstatic to be out of the lowlands headed for a plane. We got the first tickets off the island. We had a 10-hour wait and watched CNN all night. Up to the last moment of boarding the plane people still cried, Wave! and panicked. The airport was a sight. People were injured, in nothing but underwear, grieving lost loved ones, and stumbling around muddy and shaken.

We are home, safe, clean, fed, and so grateful. We are also very very sad for the Thai, Indian, and Sri Lankan people. These are not people with bank accounts to rebuild futures. They live in shanties, make money day to day, and have lost shops, homes, and family members. They are so poor. There were no emergency systems in place and I am sick over what these next months (their tourist season, money-making months) will hold for them. A system of communication is non-existent. Some don't fully realize what happened or if it will happen again. They are also in countries with very divided governments and are easy prey for the varying rebel groups currently trying to gain power. We fear for their weakened futures.

So that's the story. I can't tell you enough what a hero Patrick was. He was calm at all times. Every moment he was patient with me, with the panicked people, and with the confusion. He was just a rock and saved many many lives including my own.This sounds grim, and it is, but it also was full of deeply touching and humorous moments. Each person in that has a story that is phenomenal. We met some of the neatest, neatest people. We traded shoes and supplies and found ways to laugh.

So now it's Wednesday here and we are NOT flying to Sri Lanka today as we originally planned before all of these events unfolded. I'm grateful for this time to sort out our heads a bit. God was just so merciful and miraculous. I can't quite make sense of all of it.Much love! I wish I could close this on some flippant note that doesn't make all of this sound so icky. As tourists we experienced a far less devastating scenario than the locals and yet atAll times they were so generous. We have learned a lot.

LOVE,Becky (Roof Top)


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