Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Midnight Earthquake

Shuttle vans tore through the streets, evacuating hotel guests. An Italian family sprinted towards a waiting cab, the father literally throwing suitcases into the trunk before tossing his son onto the driver’s lap. Businesses shut, TV’s turned on. This time they were prepared for the worst on the west coast of Thailand.

Pisarn Saruk, working the overnight shift at the beachside Ao Nang Princeville Resort knocked on every occupied door when word came just before midnight. “I say ‘They have an earthshake in Indonesia.’ I tell the tourist, ‘We have a game plan for the tsunami again, don’t worry,’” Saruk said. “If tsunami comes we’ll run into the mountain.”

The game plan for most was to go up the hill that leads away from the shore. Few panicked but many walked briskly. A tourist, jogging for higher ground, paused to speak to Roj Om. “What do you know?” he asked.

“Smaller than last time. It’s better if you go a little into the mountain,” Om said.

But Om, 20, didn’t take his own advice. Like a few dozen Thais and foreigners he sat on the seawall looking out into the water.

“I don’t think it’s coming again,” Om said. “First time it’s coming nobody know. Now second time everybody know. I don’t believe that one, that the tsunami is coming again….I will stay here.”

While some evacuated far and hastily, most strolled up the hill and sat down a half a mile from the ocean, staring back down into the darkness towards the water. Police organized themselves a short way up the hill but allowed traffic in both directions.

It was the most action this beach community has seen in some time. Though Ao Nang suffered little damage compared to neighboring Ko Phi Phi, only a fraction of the usual number of high season tourists are in western Thailand now and most businesses were already closing on a slow Monday night when word spread of a possible tsunami.

By 2am the streets were emptying and tourists who had watched TV news coverage in the few open bars grabbed their bags and started walking back down the hill. Lars Karlsson, traveling with his family from Sweden, followed the wary group back to their beachside hotel. “We hear the news on CNN and from Sweden: No Tsunami. So we’ll go back to our bungalow now.”

You Can't Find City Hall

The story about Ko Phi Phi, Thailand needed the balance of a government voice and I, frankly, needed to get off the island for a couple debris-free days so I took the ferry over to Krabi. Jessica was with me and we met Monique and Alison at a guesthouse near Au Lang beach the day before my birthday. On my birthday the three Canadian girls and I took a longtail boat to Poda, a lovely, sandy, quiet island; then had dinner and Thai massages. The day after my birthday I went looking for the governor.

First I had to wake up and then I had to eat breakfast. This being the day after my birthday those activities took me to 1pm. Then there was the small matter of some virus coursing through Monique’s 18 year old body. Monique had basically never left her remote city of 40,000 before coming to Thailand and feeling sick. A succession of doctors had told her she had a virus and should go home so she needed to find a doctor who would tell her she could stay. This was proving challenging. We walked around town looking for a clinic but they were all closed from 9am to 5pm while the doctors were in Krabi. She decided to wait for the doctors to come to her rather than going to find them. I went to Krabi myself.

My daily budget in Thailand is 1000 baht and a taxi to Krabi costs 400 baht so I tried to find a see-la, those pick-up trucks with the two benches in back and something of a roof to hang on to. After a half hour of looking and waiting in the 2pm sun, a truck pulled up and said he was going to Krabi. The ride cost just 30 baht.

I had no idea where to get off in Krabi but the map made it look like City Hall was at the end of the road. At the see-la's last stop I decided to get out. The only other girl left in the truck tried to help decode the map and finally explained to a bike-taxi driver where I was going. Twenty baht seemed like a small price to pay to get to City Hall quickly, after all it was already 3pm and I had no arrangements to see the governor or anyone else at City Hall. I didn’t even know if anyone would be there on the Monday after Easter (though the 60% Muslim, 40% Buddist population here certainly helped my chances).

The motorbike sped away with me sitting behind the driver and my 160,000 baht worth of video equipment strapped to my back. Bike-taxi drivers are not required to pass any biology or physics classes to wield their death machines around the streets of Thailand and additionally demonstate no “common sense” knowledge concerning the fragile nature of human skin or any of Newton’s various suggestions. Five minutes on a Thai motorbike will inoculate you from a lifetime of potential fear in taxis anywhere else in the world.

After about five minutes the driver pulled up at something that didn’t look much like a City Hall. We got off and he went into the travel agency to talk to the woman there in Thai. I pulled out my map and pointed to City Hall and heads nodded and we got back on the bike. We swung around a few more corners and passed a few more cars by jumping into oncoming traffic and again stopped at something that looked little like a seat of government. A man came out of the double glass doors and I looked up at the sign above his head. “City Hotel.”

Amused, I pulled out my map and did some more pointing. I’d like to think that if someone brought me a map of Manhattan written entirely in Thai and pointed to City Hall I could at least get them to Bowling Green. So far we’d gone from Times Square to Madison Square Garden to the Dakota.

Back on the bike we cruised around familiar corners and up a hill back out of town. The bike pulled into a parking lot and stopped. This looked like City Hall. The driver insisted on 40 baht instead of the agreed upon 20 because of all the stopping and starting. Who was I to argue?

Fashion and travel aside: I’m packed for a year with five things that go on my torsoe and three that go on my legs (plus underwear and socks). These items must be appropriate for hiking glaciers, going to the beach, going to clubs, going to bed, going to ratty places where nice things make you a mark, and today, going to visit the govenor of Krabi provence, unannounced and uncredentialed to ask him if his government is “starving out” the people of Thailand to serve larger corporate interests.

So I get off the taxi and pull my one collared shirt out of my bag, throw it over my sweat-stained t-shirt, and walk into what I hope is City Hall. Inside, six guys in pressed slacks and loose, short-sleeved shirts are punching the clock at a table in the lobby. One of them approaches me. “I’m a writer from America doing a story about Krabi, is it possible to speak to the governor?”

The man and I go up some stairs and into a room with people surfing the web. At the end of the room, behind a desk, an older man in a red shirt seems to be in charge. My escort says something and he says something back and we head out of the room, down a hallway, and back down the stairs.

“They aren’t handling that anymore, we need to go to the department of helt.”

“Department of Help?”




I pull out my pad and hand him my pen. He writes, “H, e, a, l, t, h.”

“Health, they have all the data.”

“But I don’t need data, I’d just like to speak to the governor so he can explain what he’s doing for the people of Krabi.”

“The governor, he is here.”

“Can I speak to him? It will only be for five or ten minutes.”

We go back upstairs and through a swinging glass door. The hallway is filled with desks, the desks are filled with young workers in military outfits. They wear long sleeves. It’s 30 degrees cooler than it is outside. I sit on a couch and my escort speaks to a man at one of the desks and the man looks at me as they speak.

A young, tall Thai woman brings me a glass of water.

After a while the man from the governor's office comes over. “The governor is in a meeting.”

“That’s okay, I can wait.”

“Wait here then.”

After a little while the man from the governors office invites me into the next room, which is apparently adjent to the governor’s. “You are a writer from America? Can you write your name and who you work for.”

After a while the meeting ends and men in military dress leave the governor’s office. I get up and grab my bag. “Just one minute,” the man from the governor’s office says.

He looks into the tinted glass window. I pace around for a while then sit back down. “You know the governor studied at the University in Texas,” the man from his office says.

It’s a little after 4pm and I’m looking over a couple notes on my pad, worried mainly with how to pronounce the governor's name.

“Okay,” the man from the office says. “Go in.”

Monday, March 28, 2005

I'm Fine So Far

Just heard about possible tsunami due to 8.2 earthquake...nothing's happened so far, I'm well up from the beach and won't be adventure seeking (the lighting is too bad b/c its midnight). Oh wait, i think i found a flashlight, gotta run...

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Scene in Ko Phi Phi

After a week in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand walking though the tsunami-created rubble seems normal. You hardly even see the piles of demolished buildings, the scorched Earth stretches of total destruction, or the debris littered reservoir that they pulled 300 bodies from. You barley hear the pounding of nails, the sawing of wood, or the mixing of cement. You can’t taste the dust kicked up by the still-crumbling buildings or the speeding wheelbarrows.

But still, even after a week, you can smell it. The smell doesn’t come often anymore, not like in the first month when they were finding bones and hair and the streets were covered in garbage. But every now and then you get a whiff of three-month-old death and that’s something that probably never smells normal. On my one day of real manual work, helping demolish a damaged building, the smell got too strong to ignore and someone grabbed a bag and tossed the offending cat corpse into it. There aren’t human bodies here anymore, but cats don’t smell much better.

Two hundred eighty is the number of orphaned cats I heard today. One has taken residence on my porch. No one here is much worried about cats.

Two thousand is the number of people lost to the tsunami on Ko Phi Phi, though eight hundred are still classified, absurdly, as missing. In all of Thailand there are believed to have been 5,000 deaths, making Ko Phi Phi the second hardest area hit.

The wave came at 10:30am. The water had receded a bunch. “One mile,” is a popular estimate though neither the people making the estimate nor the people receiving it can really look out into the water and know what a mile is. It wasn’t all that different than a sudden low tide and most people were too busy getting breakfast or walking through the dense village to notice.

The village is wedged between two beaches and it was this geography that resulted in so many casualties; when the swelling water sent people sprinting away from the first beach they were running straight towards the second one, which was hit moments later by two much larger waves.

The first “wave” on the south-facing beach was more of a swell, like a giant, sudden tide shift it came rising up on shore. “It wasn’t even really that big,” John told me as he worked a cue ball back and forth in his left hand, trying to help the nerves repair. “But it was fucking strong.” John doesn’t remember the wave hitting his bungalow, but he knows it carried him 200 yards inland towards the reservoir because that’s where he woke up and pulled 20 people out of the water.

One shopkeeper I spoke to was taking a shower when the water came and got trapped in her bathroom. The water kept rising as she yelled back and forth to her husband on the opposite side of the door who refused to flee without her. The water kept rising and she stood on top of the toilet, then found a pipe sticking out the wall to get her a little higher. The water was up to her neck and she had run out of things to step on. “Then it stopped,” she said.

The people who outran the first wave were less lucky because on the bungalow-covered northwest-facing beach a 10 meter wave bore down with greater speed and power and destroyed just about everything. Then a 5-meter wave followed it up.

You think you understand the power of the wave when you walk into the village and see all the damaged buildings but you’re wrong. The damaged buildings are on the side of the swell, on the beach where the big waves hit there is nothing but dust and tree stumps.

If you remember 9/11 and all the stories of near misses, widowed mothers, and heroic rescues, this is quite similar. But in New York there were 3000 deaths in a city of 8 million. Here there were 2000 deaths in a village of 5000. So everyone here is affected. The other difference is that no one seems all that upset. Thais are moving on with their lives and even though the place is in ruins and 40% of the people here died three months ago there isn’t a pall over the place as you might expect.

The recovery situation here is difficult to write about because I’ve spent the last four days reporting on it for a story I hope to have published soon in the states. I’m just sick of that topic right now even though it’s the principle story here. So, briefly:

No relief agencies have helped on Ko Phi Phi and the government has forbid building at least until late May. Why? Well many here think it’s an effort to “starve out” the poor landowners here, compelling them to sell their beachfront real estate to make way for a mega-resort. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars donated around the world the only money the folks here have gotten is $50 per person and $500 per business.

In response, local residents are digging out themselves and trying to make Phi Phi a profitable tourist destination again. Some background of Phi Phi: It became a wildly popular vacation spot after the 1999 release of The Beach which starred Leo Dicaprio and was shot on Phi Phi. The movie portrayed a mystical island getaway for tromping backpackers which of course helped turn it into an over-developed retreat for the rich.

The well-heeled tourists are gone but a trickle of curious backpackers have returned. They’re the one’s cleaning up the island. So the mental picture here is: forklifts and dump trucks sitting idle in the dirt while a bunch of backpackers (who would otherwise be smoking pot, drinking Thai whiskey, or otherwise being a drain on their parents) manually do the work of proper relief workers. Sound strange/troubling/magical/temporary? It is.

I’m trying to tell that story, which has so far gone untold, and have devoted my time to trying to get the right information and turn it into a good story and, oh yeah there’s something else you have to do, find someone to buy it. I’ve contacted the NY Times, CNN, and MSNBC where I have decent contacts but if any of you media types can help me with an e-mail address or two I’ll be much obliged.

Not sure where I’m spending my Easter birthday, either here or Krabi I think.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Somewhere between paradise and the Peace Corps

yesterday. bangkok. sweaty, sticky, dirty, loud. bed bugs or something biting. alone. trying to remember why i commited to a year of this nonsense.

Today. Plane to Phuket. Sit next to English girl and ride taxibus together. Need to go to Ko Phi Phi I decide, Phuket doesn't feel quite right. Boat to Ko Phi Phi with another english girl and her Scandinavian(?) friend. Sunny bliss of a boat ride on the outdoor deck. Find Ko Phi Phi still destroyed. No ATM's (used to be 20), three bars (used to be 50), 10 boats a day (used to be 100). Three types of buildings: brand-new, paint drying re-builds; pancaked ruins; untouched inland places. Everywhere you look: drilling, painting, hammering, sweeping, lugging, sweating. Every night at 7pm at one of the three bars they hold a meeting and list the jobs that need doing the next day and you pick your job. Its somewhere between paradise and the Peace Corps. Amazing, amazing place right here, right now. So much community, so much unity between travelers and locals. I thought it might be morbid to come here, like tourists clicking at the hole in downtown Manhattan, but it's nothing like that. I knew i had to come here somehow, and three hours after the boat docked at the devestation i can't imagine leaving anytime soon. Meeting at the bar now. The trip makes sense again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Seoul etc

For some reason travel days are the most eventful. When it takes 40 hours to go door to door there’s plenty of time for events. Left Sabrina’s place at 11am for 3:30pm flight, realizing en route that the 3 was an 8 and I had five extra hours in Sydney before departure.

Sabrina aside: All is well with her. The entry I wrote about her blowing me off was during this little weird window when I felt bad about the situation and choose to write about it. (Interestingly, if I hadn’t written about it I’d surely forget I ever felt that way; it shows me how important keeping this record is to preserving the experience). Anyway, the “blow off” was more an effort to keep distance and avoid a third hard goodbye. We failed, the goodbye was hard, and now I/we move on.

So I fly from Sydney on a red eye to Seoul. This routing to Bangkok is like stopping in LA on your way from New York to Chicago except the distances are much longer. The western hemisphere equivalent (in terms of latitude and longitude) is flying from Uruguay to Mexico City via Washington D.C.

I arrived in Seoul at 5am with a 12 hour layover. You can’t get to know a place in a morning but you can’t get to know it in a week either so in I went. I withdrew 70,000 Won from an ATM (about $70), not sure how much I’d need. I nearly misread the confusing ATM and withdrew $700 of Korean currency.

The shuttle bus from the airport ($7) took an hour and a half on empty pre-dawn roads to reach the city center. Starving for breakfast I surveyed the area around city hall and found…a Dunkin Dounuts! A bagel with cream cheese and a hazelnut coffee cost $4. They have Coolatas on the menu for goodness sake.

Speaking of cool, its was downright chilly. Thick hats and Burberry scarves were the norm and I busted out my four warmest layers. It was almost like being home, being back in the northern hemisphere at the latitude of Washington, D.C. and feeling my fingers stiffen from the cold. Between 80 degree Sydney and 90 degree Bangkok it was an okay change.

Still, spending hours in the cold got tiresome. I visited a temple across from city hall and made a few circuits around the impressive market, ultimately cobbling together a lunch of roasted corn ($1), two fried dough things ($1), and an Asian pear ($3) so gigantic it took me two sittings to finish.

Waited 45 minutes for a bus back to the airport to show up but after a few nervous ‘How-much-will-a-90-minute-taxi-cost?’ moments it was smooth sailing. After killing another hour-plus it was on to Bangkok.

I never talk to my seatmates on planes because I don’t want to have to talk to them for, in this case, six hours. But the girl next to me was one of the few westerns on the plane and I thought she sounded American. Turns out she was Israeli. Nivi grew up in Jerusalem and we had a really long, interesting conversation about Israel/Palestine and Judaism. I told her how I’ve dated a ton of Jewish girls who all want to marry other Jews. She said, surprisingly, that that isn’t important in Israel and she would have happily married a Christian. Apparently the national bond of being Israeli greatly diminishes the need to close ranks that many of my Jewish friends (or at least their parents) feel.

Nivi said she stopped following the news because she’d given up on peace at home. She, interestingly, was sympathetic to the Palestinian position, “From their perspective we came in a took their land so of course they’re angry, I’d be angry too.” Also, she partially blamed Palestinian violence on their widespread poverty. Most interestingly to me, she explained part of the problem (for Israelis) with allowing a Palestinian state: If they have a sovereign government they can allow all kinds weapons into the country, creating more danger for Israel since any compromise solution is sure to leave a lot of people unhappy anyway.

She said two other interesting things. New York was the only place she’s visited where she didn’t feel the need to hide her nationality. She noticed when she was there how pro-Israel the newspapers in New York are, in her judgment, compared to European reporting. (This may surprise some in New York who hold an opposite view.) Finally, she was less adamant about the moral certitude of Israel than people I know at home. “People who are far away want to say, we are right and we can’t give in to them. But when you are there you’re willing to compromise for some quiet.”

She continued on home, clearly jealous of my journey. She’s 10 weeks pregnant and worried aloud that she’ll never take another trip.

She can take heart in Malcolm, the 72-year old Brit I met on the bus from the airport and shared dinner with. The internet place is locking up so that story will wait. More on Thailand soon.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

You Can Never Go Home Again...

...And apparently you can’t go back to Sydney either. Even if you return to the same place, even if you find the same people, they aren’t the same people anymore.

Back in Australia for two days now. Sabrina offered companionship and accommodation during my layover, but 40 hours before arrival she e-mailed to tell me she’d met someone else. She didn’t (or couldn’t) rescind the offer to put me up, but it’s a bit awkward sharing the shelter of her double bed.

Usually when someone blows you off you can call up a friend, grab a beer and get over it. But the only person I know here is the one blowing me off and thanks to the antibiotics I can’t drink anyway. But I can whine about it here, and so I did.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Goodbye New Zealand, hello Thailand

Leaving Christchurch in 12 hours for two-day layover in Sydney before the Asia leg. My time in New Zealand was eventful, memorable, not quite what I imagined. After four days of IV antibiotics I’ve been moved to oral drugs and the thumb is healing up while some pain lingers in my arm. Pictures below will illustrate the “dead, peeling skin” state of the shrinking thumb. (Grossest video to date: The nurse popping open the thumb and a tablespoon of puss gushing out).

Was sad to see Jason move up to Aukland to find work but have spent some fun nights (even though the drugs prevent me from drinking) with Tricia my roommate and Simon, Jason’s friend.

Big hostels like the one I’m in now are really just like college dorms except the rooms are co-ed. I’m currently in my best dorm room of the trip thus far; it’s me and five girls. Five very above-average girls. Two of them share a bed, but this is a family blog so I’ll leave it at that.

Hey, look, the thumb looks kind of better.

Been meaning to mention something for a while and following the last paragraph may be the best time to do it:

If you meet me out on my trip you should be prepared (and excited) to join my new lifestyle. I can’t afford $50/night on a room. I can’t afford eating out at restaurants. Unless you want to pay for both of us or do these things alone, you should be ready to cook stir-fry in the kitchen and share a bedroom with five strangers. I suggest this not just to save money but because it’s the only way to get on the good-time train I’ve been describing for the last couple months. That said, get your asses out here…two of them are sharing a bed for god’s sake.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Tethered to Christchurch

Back in Christchurch after 10 great days exploring. We’ve seen teal rivers and white mountains, driven the car down long dirt roads and seen sheep driven across the highway. We’ve waited 15 minutes to pass through a one-lane tunnel.

Highlights include cruising through the Milford Sound fiord, hiking up the Franz Joseph Glacier, tramping around Mt. Cook, and driving through the endlessly beautiful scenery.

Now the bad news. I started getting pain in my left arm and thought I had pulled a ligament or something (I can’t really raise it or extend it straight). Since it was the same arm as my still badly infected left thumb I thought I should get it checked out so Jason and I found an emergency room here in Christchurch and had it looked at. Turns out its not a ligament but a gland that is aggravated by the migrating infection.

The doctor offered me two choices: be admitted into the hospital or come back daily for IV antibiotics. I choose the latter and now have an IV line hanging here from my right forearm. The good news is I’m not actively sick so the infection probably hasn’t spread into my blood, which is a potentially lethal result of such a spreading infection. I will be tethered to Christchurch for the next week but at least I’m getting this taken care of before I get the bird flu in Asia.

Now some pictures...

We walked down this path and found this amazing blue river. The color is caused by glacial dust bleaching the water.

To prove I'm in New Zealand here are some sheep.

We eat the same damn lunch every damn day.

Mt. Cook is the tallest point in New Zealand.

The Franz Joseph Glacier moves over a meter per day making it the fastest moving glacier in the world that's commercially guided.

And by popular demand, my gross thumb.

...please don't worry, I really am fine.