One thing I'm discovering about travel, is that it's possible to take a piece of everywhere you go with you. On arriving home, settling back into your 'normal' life, you can find that the people you met, the places you saw and stayed, have a permanent impact on who you are, and who you will be. More than just memories, it's the knowledge that for a time, some place thousands of miles away was home for a time, and you left that place having learnt something about yourself, having learnt something about this world we live in, and knowing that the path you take through this life is just a little bit different than it would have been had you never been there.
Koh Phi-Phi is one of those places for me. Last night, it was one of many places in South East Asia hit by a powerful tsunami, created by an earthquake which struck off the coast of Indonesia - measuring 9 on the Richter scale, it sent massive waves surging in all directions, straight towards costal towns and cities in a part of the world where the sea is the regions lifeblood, whether that be for the fishermen harvesting, or the tourism operators banking on the sun and beaches this region is famous for. The most powerful earthquake to hit the earth in 40 years struck without warning, taking seismologists by surprise, and launching devastating tsunami which hit the various coasts of the region with absolutely no warning. Lacking the sophisticated early warning systems which provide some measure of protection in the Pacific, the first most people knew of the devastation coming their was water rushing towards them - far too fast to outrun, far too powerful to resist. At this stage, up to 23,000 people are feared to have lost their lives. That figure is sure to rise.
I was on Phi-Phi in October, and I'm having trouble imagining what it must look like right now. What I do know, without relying on the news reports which confirm my thoughts, is that it would have been devastated. More than that, the place would have been smashed. Let me try to describe the main island to you. Imagine a dumbbell - two large ends, linked by a narrow bar. That's something like Phi-Phi - large sections of island, quite mountainous, linked by a narrow strip of land which is very low lying. On each side of this thin part of the island, there is a bay - water on each side, and the land between these bays wouldn't be more than a couple of metres above sea level. This is where the main tourism part of the island is concentrated. Shops and hotels, resorts dotted with bungalows, dive shops, restaurants and bars crowd this part of the island, and more were being constructed all the time. The ocean on either side of the island was dead flat - the only waves being created by the longtail boats transporting people from place to place. One side was a busy harbour - boats would constantly leave and arrive, ferrying tourists on and off the island, along with the supplies needed to keep them comfortable. On the other side, at low tide you could walk a good hundred metres into the bay it was so shallow.
I think the work idyllic was created to describe this island. If you want to see a before and after picture, go to my homenode. The top picture I took when I was there. The bottom one I found on a news site today. When I took my photo back in October, I didn't realise that it was going to be the perfect image for a before and after picture.
I woke up this morning, turned on the news, and a sense of numbness set in that hasn't really lifted all day. It kinda took me by surprise - I mean, this is a place that I visited for a short time, one of many, yet every time the news turned to reports out of Thailand, it was like my heart would stop. Pictures came in of the destruction on Phi-Phi, and I found tears in my eyes. Reports were told of bungalows washed out into the sea, and I knew just how easily that could have happened, as well as how helpless the occupants would have been. Death tolls rose, and I remembered the Thai women desperately trying to get customers into one of the many massage shops, the shop keepers trying to make a living selling the same clothes as the store next door, the people who's entire livelihood depended on the stall they had selling jewellery, corn on the cob, or pirate DVD's. I remembered the makeshift shacks, nestled on the shore, just a little bit away from a resort on the beach - a couple of hundred metres away from air conditioned bungalows, made of tin sheeting and packing crates, with chickens scratching around in the dirt and sand, and washing hanging over railings. The pictures I saw weren't the Phi-Phi I took away with me. I don't know whether that place will ever exist again. Reconstruction will take place, but if I were to go back again, it would surely be a very different island.
When I travelled, for my first five weeks, through India and Nepal, I was with a very special friend, and her sister. Her sister is studying nursing, and is currently doing a nursing exchange in Thailand, based north of Bangkok. It turns out that she was on Phi-Phi last night. She's ok...at least physically...I can't image what she's been through, what she's seen. Her sister told me that they're hoping that she made it off the island tonight - they haven't heard anything apart from that she's safe and well. I've got my fingers crossed, because one thing I know for sure is that there would be very few places to sleep on the island tonight. Most of them wouldn't be there any more.
This disaster has hit many poor countries, completely unprepared to respond to something on this scale. The Red Cross is calling for donations - to donate, visit your country's Red Cross website:
Australia - www.redcross.org.au
United Kingdom - www.redcross.org.uk
USA - www.redcross.org