White beaches. Emerald bays. Tranquility on a gentle breeze and the soft lap of water at your toes. The brilliant backdrop of a setting sun. Troubles reduce to inconsequence when Mother Earth bows kindly down, harnessing all of creation’s beauty, and places gently at your feet such romance. It is betrayal of the highest order to feel less than awed.
Phi Phi Island welcomed guests back for the first time last Tuesday since it was tragically robbed of its patrons a month ago. The tropical paradise, two hours off the coast of Phuket by boat, is alloted but a kindly dot on the map of Thailand to acknowledge its presence. But since the filming of Leonardo di Caprio’s “The Beach” on location, an atmosphere of mass tourism emerged. Thousands of foreigners descend on her shores each day, even in the off-season, ranking Koh Phi Phi one of the most popular vacation destinations in Asia. Ten meter waves, one after another, hundreds of miles per second, left only structural skeletons behind. I’d never seen devastation like this.
In the midst of taking in the destruction was an irreverent bit of wonder at things I’m not normally exposed to. Elephants, enlisted to clear heavy debris, were dispersed across the destroyed landscape. You may have seen a photo on the internet or news, of a navy frigate, catapulted over a kilometer inland and into a building, leaving a wake of skid marks through houses and streets. In one of the camps set up by the Mirror Foundation-Bangkok I got an unpleasant surprise. While seeking out the person in charge a juvenile simian plunked down, wrapped its legs around my neck, and proceeded to examine my scalp. A Thai boy walked by. “Uh–” I started, jabbing at the air in the monkey’s direction. He smiled, waved back, and continued on. (A stupid idiot who I have the misfortune of sharing a genetic makeup with once taught a pet monkey to light matches when I was in the northern boonies of Luzon, Philippines. Naturally it decided one day that setting me on fire was its goal in life. These creatures are an unpredictable bundle of mischief, vicious and vengeful when slighted, and I do not like them. NEVER cross a monkey.)
In Phang Nga, the hardest hit province, north of Phuket, English was hard to come by, and the best stunted Thai I could muster kept getting me dropped off miles before my destinations. So I spent a lot of time hitchhiking from one camp to the next, knowing only “zunami” in Thai, and pointing at a map. It was an atmosphere of mutual assistance throughout the affected areas. We were all in the same boat and everyone pitched in whatever small help they could contribute.
Everything was destroyed, with small pockets of areas just meters wide that were left physically unaffected. No one will eat anything from the sea. Thousands of people are still missing, and the count does not factor illegal migrants who’ve come through from Burma or other border countries to make a living off the tourism this area attracted. Species of sharks never before seen in the Andaman Sea have been found in record numbers. It is the creepiest I have ever felt in my life, especially at night, despite the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in a long time. Many private recovery teams were sent here by relatives of foreigners, clinging to the smallest thread of hope, unsanctioned by the UN and national governments. When army trucks came down the road these teams and their dogs took to discretion. I hooked up with other foreigners come through to help and we rented a jeep. Between the five of us we could communicate in 14 languages and surprisingly every single one came in handy through the days we were together, at the camps, forensic facilities, the embassies, the Phuket town hall which coordinated all efforts.
There was a particular team of two Dutch women that accosted us in the most bizarre encounter. We still to this day have no clue what to make of it. They were dressed in fatigues and sweating in the mid-day heat. When one of them approached the vehicle we asked if there was anything we can do to help. One of the girls, Ester, said they were here for recovery work. I’d heard at UNICEF earlier in the week that, under pressure from both foreign governments and Thai families, the recovery effort had been revived. By her dress, the behavior and actions of her partner and their dog, nothing seemed amiss. The partner called or whistled special commands and off went the dog in a strategic fashion, first around the small body of water next to the road, then into the water. There was a purpose to its actions, not at all random. Not long after it dove into the water the dog came up and began barking, swimming circles around one spot, not leaving it. Ester and her partner didn’t even glance at each other, and it barked more insistently. The other girl tossed a tennis ball, and suddenly the dog was at play. Game over. I have never seen a recovery operation. I didn’t know what this meant. Did the dog signal finding someone?
When Ester looked back at us she suddenly made no sense whatsoever. She needed people to help unearth the remains once she found them. Can we help? Suddenly it wasn’t a normal conversation anymore, though no one said anything. We asked for her partner’s name, the name of their hotel, their telephone number, if they were with an organization. She repeated, several times, all of this information, but we couldn’t understand a thing she was saying anymore. There were five of us in the vehicle, and all the woman said previously communicated clearly without a problem, but now we could not decipher her response to these questions. Her eyes were wild, she was agitated, almost desperate, and she kept repeating her request. It was like someone who is in shock. She kept asking for help and of course we assured her we would assist in any way we could. But this is a forensic procedure, there is a specific methodology involved, it is to be treated like a crime scene. At this point in time following the disaster it was no longer a crisis period. Experts were now on the ground and available–they needed to be enlisted, and certainly none of us had the slightest training in either the location or recovery aspect. She, given what evidence we saw of her team’s expertise, should recognize this. It was a marked change in her professional demeanor.
She wrote an overseas cellular number on a piece of paper for us. We barely drove half a kilometer to the army station we passed on the main thruway when we decided to turn around and hash the logistics of what the women needed so perhaps we can pick up supplies. This was a long side road down to the shore. There was nothing here, it was completely level without place to hide, no trees buildings or elevations, and they had no vehicle. Visibility to see a vehicle or person, even a dog, was very good for a long distance. But they were gone. Perhaps they moved on to a new location, so we drove further down, and in concentric circles around where we last saw them. Nothing. The stench of decay that was so strong when we earlier stopped was gone. The phone number they gave us didn’t work.
Later in the evening we came back to that location. An army truck was there, digging up remains from the water where the dog was. One of our group spoke Thai and he asked the men if they had seen a pair of Dutch women and a dog. They asked why we were asking, surprised. They’ve been trying to locate these women for many weeks but could not. They said that people kept “sighting” these women and the dog, who kept barking out locations of remains. But that was all our Thai speaker could get out of them and they said no more.
There is a perfectly logical explanation to all this I am sure. The five of us had a long week, and we think there was error in the translations or nuances of language that we didn’t pick up, from Ester, from the army men. Nevertheless, all week, we’ve felt and heard stories of profound restlessness. This event affected us the most. Buddhist monks were omnipresent, performing ceremonies throughout the shore towns, because a disgruntled spirit is believed to be a dangerous spirit, and the sight of them lent a transcendent melancholy to the air.
Resilience of the human spirit is nothing short of remarkable isn’t it. It is all terrible, and placed in such situation people must and will endure. A friend’s contact with miles about to expire flew me to Phuket, 860km south of Bangkok on the Andaman Sea. When I arrived here I felt an overwhelming homesickness, to be with or talk to the people I loved and missed, to hug them. Instead I was cut off from everything, and all the joy and rightness in life sapped right off. And this was before I even saw anything. It was a productive but awful trip. A friend in Banda Aceh has had nonstop involvement in his country’s efforts since day one. If I needed a break in my measly exposure of one week I cannot imagine the ghosts haunting his waking moments. Prayers and thoughts to you my friend.