Facing Death In The Islands

It’s funny how you always assume there will be time to do things later. I’m not talking about big things like going back to school, changing careers, starting a family, etc…It’s the little things that you always assume you’ll have time for later. The mundane stuff that only takes a couple of minutes. Life is long, and you’ll always have a spare half hour to take care of the small chores…until you don’t.

I was going to be on Koh Phi Phi for 5-7 days. I figured I would have plenty of time to take pictures of the scenery…I didn’t.

I got off the ferry, paid the BS mandatory conservation fee in order to be allowed off the pier and onto the island. I then turned left and walked perhaps five minutes through the sand to reach the Phi Phi Cabana Resort. I was shown to my room, which I thought was very decent and I stowed my stuff in the closet.

I was still pretty tired from my night out in Bangkok, as well as the rigors of travel, and I wanted to lie down and take a nap. I got into bed, but for some reason, it didn’t feel right. I got up, tugged my flip flops on and decided I had better go find lunch.

I was wearing a red t-shirt with “Tokyo” written on it in black letters, navy blue and pink swim trunks from Vilebrequin and a pair of Rainbow flip flops. I had my (nearly fully charged) cell phone in my pocket, my money clip with credit cards and a moderate amount of Baht as well as my room key. As I was just headed out for lunch, I left my passport tucked away in the hotel safe.

I walked through the wasteland where the 2004 Indonesia Tsunami had barreled through and taken everything in it’s path, and then I continued along the waterfront. Finally I settled on an open air place along the shore that looked to specialize in seafood.

I ordered what sounded like the spiciest seafood curry on the menu. It turned out to be an entire fish (bone in) served in a curry with some rice. It was a lot more effort than I was looking to exert for lunch, but it was fairly good, if over priced.

In doing my research for Koh Phi Phi, I had highlighted the bars that looked like the most fun. After lunch, I started strolling around the back of the island, trying to mentally pinpoint these spots and work up a routing to follow later. I walked too far along one of the beaches and couldn’t seem to get back to the center of town, as the way was blocked by private resorts.

Finally I found a path that I thought would lead me back the way I wanted to go. I started along and noticed that there seemed to be be an abnormally high number of people concentrated around, especially given the time of day and the size of the island. I guess it didn’t occur to me, but everyone was walking in the opposite direction I was going.

An Australian walking with his girlfriend stopped me and said

“Hey man, didn’t you hear?”

I of course had no idea what he was talking about

“Hear what?”

“Really?”

“No, what…”

“There’s a fucking tsunami coming man, there was an earthquake in Indonesia, we need to get to high ground.”

This of course seemed like something out of a bad fucking dream to me. I had JUST arrived on the island not two hours before (thanks to my intrepid driver on Phuket who rushed me to the ferry in time) and now I was being told a massive earthquake had triggered a tsunami that was hurtling towards my island, ready to drown me.

There are times when you really can feel your stomach drop to the floor, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. I thanked the Australians, but thought it would be best if I get to my hotel and try to recover my passport, both in case we had to be evacuated from Thailand or if it was necessary to ID my body at some point. I still wasn’t sure exactly which way my hotel was, but I thought I was heading towards it.

I could feel the cold dread taking over my lower abdomen. I knew I was wasting precious time and walking towards the danger rather than away from it. I was nagged by constant self-doubt as to whether it was worth it for my passport, or whether I should turn and head the way everyone else was going. Strangely enough, some majorly screwed up part of me thought “if you don’t get your passport and the tsunami hits, you’re going to have to start filling it from scratch if you survive!” Strange thoughts pop into your head when you’re under stress. As I got closer to the hotel, my mind was filled of images of me getting to my room in a totally abandoned hotel just in time to get clobbered by the tsunami and drowned.

As I neared the main beach I heard air raid sirens go off at startling volume and a wave of humanity charged towards me running at full speed and screaming in panic. I had no information to work with, and given the sirens and the utter chaos of the fleeing mob, I thought the wave was nipping at their heels and I would soon be underwater and drowned.

“Come on man, we have to get to fucking high ground!”

I heard someone scream as they whipped past. Flip-flops were not the ideal choice of footwear to outrun a wall of water. I turned and began running with the crowd. A fork in the road appeared. Some people were continuing up the road and off to the left, while others were climbing a nearby hill. I knew nothing of the island’s geography and had no idea where the people who chose to branch off to the left were going.

The hill to my right, didn’t seem extremely tall, but it was better than nothing. I didn’t know how much time we had. For the first portion of the climb, we were picking our way up a construction site. Girders, building material and the like. It was slow going because the hill was steep. There were branches, soil and loose gravel threatening to topple us all backwards and we were jittery with adrenaline and fear. At every pause there were girls crying, hugging each other and moaning about how they didn’t want to die.

You never really know how you will react to being put in a situation like this. Everyone wants to believe that they will face death with bravery and they won’t be the guy on the Titanic throwing women and children aside to make a place for himself on the lifeboat. I secretly had doubts about my character. I worried that self preservation might take over and I would be unsympathetic to others. If nothing else (aside from a cool story), facing my own mortality at least reassured me that I am not that person. I was proud of the way I acquitted myself on that day, and as we struggled up the mountain, I stopped at various points to pull girls and weaker people along and make sure they got to the top, rather than selfishly scrambling on alone.

When we got to the very top of the hill, I had my doubts about its height. I am no expert on tsunamis, but it seemed that a large amount of water arriving with great height and then being driven forward would be able to surge upwards and over the incline.

I took my phone out and called my parents. I told them that there had been an earthquake in Indonesia (I would later find out it was an 8.6) and that a tsunami was predicted to hit us sometime in the next few hours. I told them I was sorry for putting myself in this position and that I loved them. I honestly thought it was the last time we’d ever speak.

It’s strange how quickly the human mind can come to terms with things. If you’d told me eight hours earlier that I was going to die, I would have denied it and fought against it, but sitting on top of that hill, it just seemed inevitable. In a few hours, a wall of water would wash over the island. I would drown, and that was it. There was nothing to be done about it, and there was no reason to be angry or to be sad. It was just what was going to happen.

The last song I had listened to on the ferry from Phuket that afternoon had been Black Diamond Bay by Bob Dylan. It’s a story song in which a volcano erupts on a vacation island, causing it to sink and dooming all those in the hotel. It seemed very apropos and it nearly made me chuckle.

A small Thai man who worked on the island started telling us that the hill we were on was in fact NOT tall enough, and that we had to get to “the lookout” in order to be safe. At this point it was after 5pm (I think around 5:15pm) and he told us that 1. The tsunami was going to hit at 6pm and that 2. We needed to be at the lookout before then. I asked him how long it would take to get there and if we had time, but he kept saying “Don’ worry, follow me. We need to go.” I figured a local would know best. A large contingent of us set off back down the hill, climbing through the partially finished ruins of what I can only assume was supposed to be a hotel.

I smashed my foot up pretty good jumping from one unfinished floor of the building to a ledge back on the hill, but we all made it down and set off hiking to the lookout. I didn’t realize it when we set out, but it must have been 2km straight up from the base of the first hill, to the top of the lookout.

We walked with urgency. Sometimes I would make small talk with others hiking up, trying to keep our spirits up. At this point, even though it had only been 30 or 45 minutes, we were so far removed from the initial terror, that the only immediate concern was the strain of climbing up this second mountain in flip-flops. There were three stopping points on the way up to the lookout. A lot of people tried to quit at the second point, figuring it was high enough that they would still be safe (other idiots later walked back down to the lower second point because they “wanted to watch the tsunami hit.” Great move, go to lower ground so you can see the tsunami hit morons). I recognized some of the people sitting on the side of the path, as I had been chatting with them earlier. I told them we were almost to the top and it would be stupid to quit now. We shared some water and got moving again.

All the way at the top by the lookout, there is a tsunami relief village that was built in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. We still had almost no real information, but this was as high as we could get on Koh Phi Phi, and if they built a tsunami evacuation village there, we figured it couldn’t get much safer.

I fell into a group with a Canadian couple and two British girls I had met on the way up the mountain. As the strain of the climb was replaced with the uncertainty and finality of our camp, the girls started to break down again. I assured them we would be safe on top of the mountain and gave them my cell phone so that they could call their parents.

The worst part about being on top of the mountain was the lack of credible information, and the surplus of faulty information. All we knew for sure was that a large earthquake had hit Indonesia and had generated a tsunami. Thai people with radios kept telling us the tsunami would come “soon,” but they lacked any information about when, if it had hit anywhere else, how tall the wave would be and for that matter exactly how high up we were on the mountain. They just “For sure we safe here.” Very reassuring.

The best part was how people banded together. There was a small bodega on the top of the mountain. They didn’t jack their prices up, and they stayed open to sell drinks, cigarettes and mosquito spray. Local people opened their kitchens and fed the marooned evacuees rice and fish. In a situation where people could have been awful to each other, they chose to be there for each other, and they did it just out of kindness.

Cnn.com and my family at home had no concrete news for us. Some Italians told us that their friends at home had heard that Indonesia had taken over 100,000 casualties and that the wave was going to make landfall as far away as India, South Africa and Australia. This turned out to be massively inaccurate, as no one was killed in Indonesia, but this sort of runaway gossip polluted our thoughts. Finally in one of my regular chats with the Thai guys bearing radios, he told me “if tsunami no come by eight o’clock, then we ok.”

We watched the clock, we talked about boring mundane things back home, sports, friends, family. 8pm came and went, I asked the Thai guy is we were set. “Now we have to wait until nine. We wait until police say ok.” I pumped friends in Jakarta and elsewhere for information, but couldn’t get anything concrete. 9pm came and went. I again talked to the Thai radioman. “Need to stay here until the police say ok to come down.” We continued to wait and discuss how drunk we were going to get if the tsunami didn’t hit us. Finally, a bit after 9:30pm (I believe), the all clear was sounded and a cheer went up from the assembled masses. We’d tempted fate, but we’d dodged the bullet.

The earthquake that hit Indonesia had been of such a type, that it created a side to side wave, as opposed to the up and down type that create the massively destructive kind of tsunamis, like the one that demolished the region in 2004.

We all made plans to meet at a bar in the center of town and started to walk down the mountain in the pitch black. I felt light as a feather. I was drenched in sweat and still wearing the clothes i’d had on when I went to lunch, but I didn’t care. We were alive.

By the time I got down the mountain again, the bars were open in town. The restaurants were crowded and the streets were buzzing. It was as if nothing had happened. The capacity to forget is astounding and the whole upbeat scene seemed surreal when juxtaposed against the mood of an hour before. I walked into the bar, ordered a tall draft beer and drank it immediately. I ordered a second and then a third. My new friends from the mountain top hadn’t arrived yet, but I didn’t care. I turned to the old German couple sitting next to me and asked for a cigarette. They gave me the entire pack. Everyone was in a generous mood.

Finally my two British friends arrived. They had gone back home to shower, change into dresses and put on makeup. I couldn’t believe it. I bought a round of whisky shots for the entire bar (probably 10-12 people) and we raised our glasses to not dying on that day. I left the bar that night without exchanging phone numbers, emails or even last names with my new friends. It didn’t occur to me until the next morning that I would never see those people again. We had shared such an intimate experience together in those hours on top of the mountain, but maybe that’s all it was supposed to be.

When we had been on the mountain top, we vowed to get fall down drunk should we survive. Fall down drunk is something people often say, but rarely mean. I got fall down drunk that night, and I won’t even think of apologizing for it.

I know that this was the case, because the next morning, I woke up on top of the covers in my hotel, still wearing the navy blue and pink Vilebrequin swim trunks and the red t-shirt with “Tokyo” written on it in black. My clothes were soaking wet and covered with sand. I can only assume on my way back to the hotel I fell over on a beach somewhere. It didn’t matter. My head didn’t even hurt. The sun was shining. There was no tsunami. It was a good day to be alive.

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