We had rented the house for the whole week, but it was in the countryside, in the center of the island. “Too quiet,” my wife said. “Boring.” It was a half-hour’s drive from almost anything but jungle and more vacation homes. So I paid three days’ rent as compensation to the landlord, a French expatriate who was still bitterly unhappy with our decision, and drove around until we found a nice hotel on the beach.
It turned out to be the Sea Pearl, on the south end of Patong Beach. For $40 a day, we took two adjacent rooms on the third floor, overlooking the swimming pool, an amenity I never understood, since it was scarcely any closer, and no warmer, than the warm placid Andaman Sea, only separated from the hotel by the width of the two-lane road and the strip of sand.
My family spent a happy week lying on the beach and playing in the breakers. One day we went kayaking, another snorkeling. My wife went for massages every day, and every day the massages got better and better as the masseuses realized that my wife was willing to tip 100% on top of the negligible cost for a good rub-down. We rode tuk-tuks everywhere — not the three-wheel samlor as in Bangkok; on Phuket a tuk-tuk is a hefty open-air bus the size of a camper van.
Next door to the hotel was a two-level mini-mall. Upstairs, there were boutiques, selling swimming clothes, sunglasses, beach wear. Downstairs, below ground level, there was a grocery store and, of all things, an ice-cream shop.
Asians do not favor the sweet desserts Americans do, but this place, like every business on Patong Beach, was aimed at Westerners. The owners had patterned the shop after a Swensen’s, right down to a large photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge behind the counter. It was run by two nearly identical Thai girls, barely older than my older daughter. The girls spoke no English except charming mutilations of the names of the flavors: “banira”, “sawbelly”, “chocrut”.
I ate there almost every day we were in Thailand. I liked the pleasant twins, I liked the arctic air-conditioning, I even liked their somewhat crystallized ice cream. One day, I tried, with gestures and a map scribbled with a borrowed pen and paper, to explain where I lived, just a mile from the great Bridge of the photograph. I was met with the smiles and nods that polite Thais use to conceal lack of understanding. I ordered two scoops of rocky-road, for the half-malicious pleasure of hearing the girls try to repeat it.
The world we live on feels solid. We can be chest-deep in the pounding surf, our feet barely holding the shifting sand at the bottom, and still somehow believe we stand securely on solid rock.
But it is an illusion. Everywhere we live, everywhere we go, we are clinging to fragile slabs of gravel and dirt, floating on a ball of molten iron. The slabs crash into each other, rear up, sink. We are as badly off as ants clinging to bits of debris in a flood. Worse: at least the ants know they aren’t on land.
A year and a half later, I was in my “den”, the converted storage room in the sub-basement of my house. It was the day after Christmas and I was checking the news before I went off to work. Bad news: at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, two slabs had collided. The violence of the collision had made a splash, a surge of salty water that ran up the beaches of two continents.
Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Somalia. The headlines said, “6000 believed dead” but I knew it would be worse: a wound that broad cuts much, much deeper. Safe in my basement, I shook with fear.
And it was worse. Villages in Aceh and resorts in Khao Lak and fishing boats as far away as Madagascar were just wiped away with a trace. It was the worst natural disaster to ever hit Sweden, 550 Swedes went off to celebrate Christmas in warm South-east Asia and never returned to their snowy home. It was the worst railroad disaster in history: the ironically named Samudra Devi, “Queen of the Oceans”, the daily train from Galle to Maradana, in Sri Lanka, was lost like the Titanic, 1700 souls. The oceans reached out and took her.
All told, a quarter-million people lost their lives.
When I was a little kid, I learned in school about tsunamis. What impressed me most was deceptive approach of the tidal wave: first the water goes out, the beach becomes miles wide and the coastal bottom is exposed, and then the water comes back, of course, with a vengeance. I imagined myself lured into playing in the mud and coral reefs and vowed never to be tricked like that. Tsunamis are rare in the Colorado Rockies where I was living, and 30 years later, when I could have been helpful, I was still too far away.
On Mai Khao Beach, a 10 year-old British girl named Tilly Smith, who had the same concern about tsunamis I had, managed to convince her parents that the receding waters were a warning, and they got their beach evacuated, saving hundreds of lives.
But she was just one little girl, and on Patong Beach where I stayed, 30 miles north, as elsewhere, there was no one who understood their one warning. People went and played on the newly enlarged beach.
I read later that at Patong, the wave picked up a tuk-tuk and crashed it through the front doors of the flooding mini-mall. It stayed wedged in there for six weeks before a crew could winch it out and recover the drowned bodies from the ice-cream shop downstairs.