I went to work as usual on that fateful Tuesday in September 2001, after having seen the the unreality of airliners flown into the Twin Towers on TV.
One of my colleagues came by after lunch, and said he was going home. He was from the East Coast, and had been surfing the net all morning trying to find out all the news about the overwhelming, horrific events.
Five minutes after he left, I recall wishing I had told him to go see a movie; it would be the last chance to escape from it all. Because after that day, nothing in the world would be the same again.
I can’t help comparing September 11, 2001 to Boxing Day 2004. They are both dramatic beyond Hollywood’s imagination, but unfathomably tragic. One incurred a few thousand deaths in the most important city in the richest country on earth, the deliberate act of callous men. The other will have killed hundreds of thousands of people: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, throughout several thousand of the most beautiful and impoverished coastal miles of the world, but in insurance parlance, it was an Act of God.
After September 11, I didn’t watch the news on TV, nor did I do much online news surfing. (I skimmed unavoidable articles in the daily San Jose Murky.) But now I’ve become a news junkie, constantly surfing the blogs and news outlets on what’s going on. I read them all insatiably, like a rubber-necker. It’s depressing, but I can’t stop.
I had to look up a map of Thailand’s relatively short stretch of west coast on the Andaman, sandwiched between Myanmar and peninsular Malaysia, because I didn’t even know what other provinces or towns were there. There’s a Ranong, as opposed to Rayong (on the Gulf). There’s Satun, which sounds like ‘satoh’, which the name of a very smelly but delicious bean, a southern delicacy.
I also pulled out a map of Phuket, trying to make geographical sense of exactly where these places where: Phang Nga, Khao Lak, Koh Phi Phi, that got hit, as opposed to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Songkhla and other places unaffected on the Gulf side.
Phuket is closer to the Nicobar Islands (under Indian domain) than it is to Bangkok.
I feel so helpless that there’s nothing I can do, but watch the aftermath unfold. The death toll statistic creeping upwards. (After a while, the degree of accuracy seems academic and meaningless.) The miracle stories of survival and reunion of family members after hope is no longer an option. The massive logistical efforts to aid the victims. Some areas getting more relief than they need, while others are overlooked (something I’ve seen happen during the Oakland Hills fire.) The institutional finger-pointing and posturing, even as lives are at stake.
The nam jai of Thai people has filled me with pride for my adopted country, as they’ve helped out, khon la mai khon la meu, to the man. And the compassion of private citizens all over the world, as they flood the internet coffers of aid agencies with more money than ministries of diplomats can proffer with white gloves.
Two years ago, my mom and Joe and I spent New Year’s at a Phuket beach hotel full of cheerfully tanned Scandinavians. Six weeks before that, Joe and I had been dipped our toes in the waves on the beach of Kanyakumari with countless other Indian pilgrims in a ritual rinse at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. (We came home from Hong Kong a blink before SARS.) When disaster and destruction strikes at places you’re traveled to, there’s a poignant connection when you can associate the sights, sounds, people and streets with the place mentioned in the news.
You hope Sergey who helped us buy airplane tickets and fed us his mom’s dumplings was nowhere near the bombs that went off in Tashkent last March. You wonder if the taxi-driver who took us to the Phuket airport was waiting for a fare at Patong on Boxing Day, or perhaps driving past the Heroines Monument safely inland. (But Buenos Aires nightclub infernos and Florida hurricanes are just the inches of newsprint next to an ad for cellular phone services.)
This disaster has affected even nations that are nowhere near the Ring of Fire. Thousands of Northern European vacationing tourists who sought refuge from a dark and icy winter at home encountered a deadly tidal wave in the tropics. To a certain extent, their presence and losses, although a minority, has attracted more of the world’s media attention. But don’t neglect the hundred thousands more people who call the Andaman/Indian Ocean coast their home, folks who’ve never had need for a passport or a bottle of SPF 15. While they’re not quoted by name in the press because air-dropped journalists can’t interview them directly in Tamil or southern Thai dialect, their complete loss of home, livelihood, family and friends in one sweep, is so much more tragic. Quell your urge to donate immediately, do some research and wait to donate three or six months hence to help these people rebuild their lives, or the infrastructure.
Tourism development came relatively recently to Southern Thailand, only in the past 10-15 years. Because in spite of all the natural beauty, there was a heavy presence of communist insurgents, up to the 1980’s. During my childhood in Bangkok, my tutor would invite me to go visit the South with her when she went home, but the terrorists’ bombings made that impractical. The communist problem is no more, but sadly there have been bombings and massacres again recently in the South, this time stemming from conflicts between the disenfranchised Muslims, and the government (which is predominantly Buddhist). Which is probably tied back to September 11.
Up until Christmas, all Aceh meant to me was some place in the Indonesian archipelago where rebels were fighting the government, trying to become their own little country. I thought it was pronounced “assez”, like French for “Sit down.” I had no idea which of those islands it was on. I assumed it was some small island closer to the Philippines or Australia. Now I’m painfully aware it’s on Sumatra, and it’s pronounced “Ah-Cheh”, like a Chinese person might holler at Mr. Motorcycle Diaries. Disasters also provide geography lessons.
Indonesia and the Philippines are part of the same Ring of Fire that California is perched on. In Thailand, seismic activity has historically been focused on the North; earthquakes struck Chiang Mai in the 16th and 17th century AD. No one in Thailand would have ever imagined an undersea earthquake triggering a tsunami that would reach them. Much less to know that the water rolling hundred of yards out to sea is a warning to run uphill and inland for survival before it surges back to swallow everything, spitting out only selective objects of its mercy back to life and safety.