The tour guide (left) and a friend (right) talking while eating dried squid
There’s a funny thing about natural disasters. You always hear about or see the devastation on the local news and you know that something tragic happened. That hundreds of people died. That countless people lost everything they owned. And yet, there’s still a disconnect. A décalage as the French would say, meaning ‘a gap, discrepancy, to feel out of step with.’ That’s exactly how I felt when I heard one Thai man’s story.
Like any seemingly normal day, he was giving a snorkeling tour to 10 Swedes and they were in a longtail boat somewhat close to shore. Far off in the distance, two longtails crashed into each other. Waves were getting bigger. Dolphins appeared unusually close to shore, and ignoring the oohing and ahhing from tourists, he knew something was terribly wrong in the ocean. Having been a tour guide for more than 10 years, he tried to appear calm, to seem in control, and to think quickly. But, inside he was scared witless and had no idea what to do. If he freaked out, his clients would be even more freaked out. As a tour guide, his clients depended upon him to make the best possible decisions and to protect them from harm to the best of his abilities. When you don’t know what the heck you’re dealing with, that’s nearly impossible. So he told his clients they needed to swim to shore quickly but they feared at the idea of being in the water and wanted to stay in the longtail to get to shore. Okay, now is not the time to argue with scared clients, he thought. They stayed in the boat until it got capsized by a wave, forcing everyone to swim to shore instead. Despite the destruction the waves had caused, it did help push them to shore faster. Finally on shore, he turned to his clients to make sure all had made it and were okay. Everyone was, except for a 64 year old woman who had too much water in her lungs. They tried CPR, tried to get the water out, tried to get emergency help but getting an ambulance was unfeasible. She never made it. They stayed with other locals and tourists on high ground, eating only rice for 3 days until it was a little safer. He’d never lost a client before and even though no one in the world could prevent a natural disaster from happening, it was still a life lost. As I was sitting there listening to him telling his story, I couldn’t help but imagine what the burden of a lost life would mean. I hope I never have to know.
I’m embarrassed and sad to say that I vaguely remember the tsunami happening in Southeast Asia. The geographic distance from where I was in Oregon to the Pacific Islands seemed thousands of miles away and even less relatable to me. I saw the terrible impact it made on the news, heard it on the radio, read about it in the paper but it never really hit me. Until that day sitting in the car on the way back from Phang Nga Bay, hearing this tour guide’s story and all the while feeling as if I was there with him. It was his story and it was so raw and so real. That day, the waves caught up with me.