I’m sitting at Uncle Yai’s Thai and Vietnamese joint and laundry service on the Patak Road near Kata beach. I’m surrounded by some local Thai’s and a group of Russian’s. We’re all sitting around, half paying attention the BBC news listening for something about the Tsunami and half making conversation amongst ourselves. Other than glancing at the news, people are eating, surfing the internet on their lap tops, on their cells phones and Uncle Yai’s family is serving food and talking to people. Everything in the area is closed except for the local food stalls, like Uncle Yai’s. My guesthouse is just around the corner and halfway up the hill. In the hotel next door locals are gathered sitting around the pool area where they are waiting out the warning period. The word we got was to stay in a high, safe place from 6:30pm on, but I still see people out on their motorbikes and in cars. The traffic isn’t bumper to bumper like it was at 4:30. In this area, tourists are still walking down the street and people are starting to wander out and look for something to eat. The air is thick and hot and there’s a tension around me as people glace to the news and glance back to their conversation. Ratdech, who does most of the cooking and the laundry at Uncle Yai’s (this is also where I dropped off my laundry today) is sitting across from me doing her bookkeeping in between cooking meals. She and I look at each other nervously when the wind picks up and lightly blows things off the tables.
I have to write about the episode I had earlier this afternoon as I learned Phuket was issuing a Tsunami high alert. I was in a small spa in the middle of a massage. The young Thai woman from the spa who picked me up from my hotel came into the room during the massage and tried to tell me there had been an earthquake earlier and in her broken English tried to ask if I wanted to go back to my hotel. Since I can’t even communicate in broken Thai, I was completely confused. First, I hadn’t felt the quake and second, I’m from San Francisco. The idea that the building didn’t even rattle and someone’s coming to tell me there has been an earthquake made no sense to me, really. I knew in that moment I was having a very real cultural communication failure but I couldn’t ask too many questions lying on a table butt naked covered in coconut oil with a Thai woman straddled on top of me. I think I tried to say something like, “Is it serious? Do we need to leave?” to which, I think she answered, “well, don’t know. So sorry, don’t know, so sorry.” And she left the room. I thought to myself, ” I come from the land of earthquakes, I know people who don’t live with them get scared.” My other thought was , “I am completely clueless about what this woman is trying to tell me.” Five minutes later she comes back, and says,” They say we need to close building… get you to your hotel. You don’t pay for massage. You come back tomorrow. OK?” At this point the woman on top of me is giggling nervously. Any relaxation is gone and I realize there’s something going on. I try to tell them, “yes, yes, we end massage, I go now, I go now…” and I we all agree to leave. By this point I am really confused and I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I’m also feeling more lightheaded than usual.
I head downstairs and ask if it would be ok to pick up take away across the road before I go to my hotel. “Is that ok? I haven’t eaten all day…” and she very politely says “yes”. I ask again, “what is going on? Where was the earthquake?” Then she’s able to give me a small amount of information about how there was a big earthquake in Indonesia just now and then an aftershock here. “That’s just what happened before last time; she manages to tell me, “Security is saying maybe another Tsunami…must get to a high place.” I hate to admit it, but in that moment my ignorance was palpable and as I looked outside everything was calm and people where going about their business. I was hungry and the idea of being in a disaster on an empty stomach started to panic me a little. “Are you sure it’s ok to get something to eat.” “Yes, Yes”, she said. I walked across the road to a small place called, “Southern Fried Chicken” there were a few people standing around a TV and I asked for a takeout menu. The news was on the TV, there was nothing about an earthquake and no one was talking about it. I ordered something quick to take out and went online to see what I could find out.
I saw nothing as I googled, “earthquake in Indonesia 2012” or even “Tsunami warning Thailand 2012”. Everything that came up was from January, nothing about today. As I was searching, my Thai friend was across the street yelling at me to get in the car. I was no longer confused. At that point I realized she was panicking. A man standing next to me started asking questions about the aftershock, he didn’t feel it. The next thing I know she’s in the car starting it up and I’m packing up my stuff and the people in the area start to panic too. She started to drive the car, I headed over to it and people started closing their shops and running around. Once I got in the car I could feel her panic and I felt so bad. I tried to ask her again, “how do you know this? What did you hear?” All she could communicate to me was that she felt the aftershock, that’s what happened last time in 2004 and she had to drive to Phuket Town to get her son. There would be much traffic now. Immediately, I understood and felt ignorant about being so slow to understand what she wasn’t able to say to me until this moment. She felt the same things in 2004 and she wanted to get to her son. The security in the area had advised to get to higher ground. It was about a 5 minute drive to my hotel, where I could easily pick up something to eat and ask around to find out what was going on. I realized in that moment the word Tsunami is just not a part of my vocabulary. Really. It’s one of those catastrophes that I watch on the news and has no emotional or mental impact on me. I’m ashamed to admit it but to me, “earthquake” means the building is shaking and you are hiding under something big or in the middle of the street. Otherwise, it ain’t really a quake. I certainly don’t think of those two things together, my life experience hasn’t engrained it in mind like it has for the lady at the spa that couldn’t communicate to me what she needed to do.
Once we hit the main road the traffic started to swell. It was moving quickly in the direction we were going but it was starting to slow bumper to bumper in the opposite direction, which was away from the beaches. I told her to just pull over on the side of the road across from my guesthouse and I’d walk, it was a short distance. She did, gratefully, and I got out of the car and headed back to the hotel up the hill, safe from any potential danger. The owners of my guesthouse weren’t back and their car was gone. I had to go around to the local shops asking questions and watching the news.
For the next 4 hours or so the people in my guesthouse gathered around the halls talking about the news. The shops in our area all closed and the manager of our guesthouse got stuck in the panic in Rawai and had to leave his car on the street and get a on someone’s motor bike to get to higher ground before he made it back to Kata Beach around 7:30pm. I heard there were a lot of people panicking from memories and experiences of 2004. We heard on the news the Phuket airport closed. I heard Rawai was crazy. I heard this from the safety of my table at Uncle Yai’s place watching the BBC news and checking online. I became very aware that the word “Tsunami” has no emotional impact on me, because I have no life experience to relate to. I kept thinking about the Thai woman who couldn’t communicate to me she needed to go get her son, and the panic she was feeling that there was going to be another Tsunami. An experience I can’t possibly relate to, thank god. By the time we all made it to bed, the scare was over.
This morning, I’m back at Uncle Nais having breakfast and I sat next to a young Swiss woman and her small son. She and I briefly talked of yesterday as she described to me how she was at the beach when they started to evacuate people, she didn’t go back to her beachfront hotel, instead she came to this area and got a hotel room for the night with her son. She said the situation at Kata beach was like you see on TV. They started to evacuate people from the beaches and people started to panic and the traffic jammed, people everywhere trying to get to higher ground and she had to ask people for a ride on a motorbike with her son. She had to figure out where to go just by asking locals what do and what was going on. Luckily, there was much advance warning so she realized that she had about an hour to an hour and a half to get to higher ground. The Thai system is similar to Indonesia…there is no system that works everywhere. Just a lot of chaos and somehow you manage to figure out what’s going on. I feel lucky that I was in a safe, low stress place and that I didn’t have anything to really worry about. I’m sitting at the same table, at the same place I was yesterday.