The news showed footage of waves, coconut trees felled and ruined beaches. As I followed the news, I became more and more uneasy. I knew the death toll was going to be high, really high. That evening, news about Banda Acheh have not even filtered through to the main channels. It was Boxing day, and I knew I would definitely have some friends or colleagues in these places.
My friend and his parents were at Sri Lanka!
One of my friends brought his elderly parents on a holiday for the first time to Sri Lanka. That guy worked his ass off, and had accumulated enough air miles to put his parents on business class. We were talking about how proud his parents would be-flying business class for the first time in their life! I remember him telling me about going to the beach!
I started to message friends, and I received many messages from others. I supposed we were all "taking head counts". We were all busy trying to find the friend who was in Sri Lanka, and really worried for him as he was supposed to be at the beach! Our only consolation was this was probably the smartest guy we knew, he read like crazy, and you can't find a topic that he does not know much about! He would have definitely identified those early signs of a tsunami! Yes, he would! This was a physics champion and he definitely would have sensed and calculated that the waves did not look right, and fleed!!! We did not sleep well-needless to say.
By the next morning, I know almost everyone who could have been there was not there, and safely at home. The friend in Sri Lanka managed to get the word out that he is safe. They went to the beach, and left the day before. Somehow, they had changed their mind about staying a few days there , and decided to leave earlier to the hills and visit the scared hills. They had reach higher grounds when the waves hit, and quite far away from the ensuing chaos.
I went back to the office and check out my Thai and Indonesian colleagues. Lovely people, who I hoped were alright. Everyone was alright, some of our offices had missing people, but they were doing all they could to trace them.But I was still feeling uneasy, really uneasy, and totally restless.............
Then the next day... I could not remember whether I smsed her or she smsed me! JA was my best-est friend through my secondary school. We went everywhere together, and people always referred to us as twins.
JA was in Phuket!!!
JA was trapped in Phuket!!!
All communication means were cut off and it took her days to be able to hang on to the last bits of battery left in her friend's cellphone. They had walked miles in search of telecommunications signal!
JA had the most narrow escape. It was as if some special power, which JA, a Christian think was God, was there to put them away from harm.
On the spur of moment, JA and friends changed their holiday destination from Penang to Phuket, as her friend had a friend who worked in a church there. So, they went to Phuket, and stayed with the local pastor's family.
They were supposed to be out snorkeling the day the waves hit. That morning, the Pastor's young daughter was being "uncooperative", and threw a bit of tantrum. As a result, they were delayed, and went to their snorkeling boat about 30 minutes late-the last people to board. If not because their friends knew the boat people, and out of respect to the pastor, the boat would have definitely left. When they went up the boat, they received quite a lot of glares from other tourists. 30+ minutes out of your 3 hour- snorkeling trip was a lot of time!!!
Shall I say the little girl's tantrum saved them? Or shall I say the boatmen's respect of friendship (which is typical Thai thing ) saved them? Had they not insisted to wait for their friends, despite the complains of their customers...
JA's boat was still in the deep waters; she was on the deck, looking at towards the beach and shallow water. She was admiring the breathtaking beauty of the bay, and anxious to join the other snorkelers who were already in the water. (she was unhappy with the little gal's tantrum too!)
They were the last boat to arrive, and was terribly late. So, they had to wait for the smaller boats to take them to the bay when they saw the waves came. They felt the waves lifting their boat, saw it rushing to the shores and grew bigger and bigger...... and according to her, saw the unbelievable thing.
Everything was smashed. The green outline of the beach and islands were wiped off. Green landscape became brown, or just disappeared.The snorkelers in the water?? Some of them just disappeared! After fishing some survivors out of the water, their boat went back to the mainland, and was greeted with a picture of total devastation.
JA is a doctor, and probably the kindest, toughest gal I know. She could deal with all the unthinkable things in the slums of India... but she was totally helpless in Phuket.
She was messaging me, begging for medical supplies! Alas, tried as hard as I could, I could not send her anything. Everything had to go to the Red Cross. According to JA, foreign help did not arrive, despite everyone donating like crazy!!! The locals had to depend on themselves. Whatever they had, came from the nearby poor villages. After a few days, JA, not able to do anything there, came home. Her parents were worried sick. After a week of pulling together a jeepful worth of supplies, she went to Banda Acheh, and began another humanitarian nightmare. Banda Acheh was worse hit.
Those were the days I slept with my cellphone next to me, and never had my cellphone away from me. At anytime, she might need help, or just someone to talk to; like the time her jeep broke down in a dangerous area. I also had to warn her of the latest news about the Islamic insurgents there, and nagged her to remove her cross! (which she already did, at the urge of the locals) These people are known to rob and kill the very people who tried to send help, just to get their hands on the medical supplies. Selfish bastards who tried to stock up their own medical supplies at a time of great crises. My fibromyalgia was already with me then, but I managed to find enough energy for all these.
Yes, the tsunami was that near me. It is something which I will never forget. If JA's boat went off 1/2 hour earlier.. I would have lost a friend. The world would have lost an extremely petite (40 kgs!) feisty gal who did whatever she could for those who needed help.
JA is only one of the many individuals who did this selfless thing. All the hue and cries from big charities for donations did not seem to result in much help to the locals. 2 years later... BAnda Acheh is still a picture of devastation.
So, where did my (and your) donations went to? If there is a "moral of the story" here, it would be I will never give my donations to those big charities again in times of major crises. I will look for individuals like JA. Small as their group might be, but their little jeep had reached a few villages, and treated many victims who had fled the Tsunami. These are the places where every tablet of antibiotic and every paracetamol tablet counted.