Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, May 20th

Miss Universe, mass panic


This banyan tree has been made into a shrine for the Buddhists of the island

I was going to write about the routine we have kind of settled into over the past week, but each day there's at least one odd thing that happens to make the word 'routine' inaccurate - and yesterday there was an entire herd of them.

Generally I awake at 9, shower, dress, and walk from the air conditioning into the blasting heat outside our green-roofed bungalow, which is one of many clustered round a small swimming pool in the middle of what used to be a tree-dotted lawn. The space is now sand, the topsoil having been stripped off, and indeed some of the bungalows further from the beach - the ones that didn't have to be completely rebuilt - have a high-water mark just visible on the wallpaper, about a metre and a half from the floor. I then tramp about a kilometre from our bungalow into the village for breakfast somewhere - perhaps at Phi Phi Bakery, The Monsoon's Dream, or JJ's Pub, all of which provide similar western fare - then get to the office by 10.

I have somehow been deemed trustworthy enough to be a keyholder for the office, so first I open the steel shutter of the shop, turn on the electricity, start up the computers and turn the fans on, because by this time I'm totally drenched with sweat. At 10.30 the tsunami walking tour of new arrivals arrives to watch the video of the disaster on the TV and DVD player that have just been installed.

After they've left, I leave the shop to other volunteers, and ascend the spiral staircase to the first floor office, where I work on the website, which is by now 99% finished. I also do other vital odd jobs for computer illiterates. If I remember, because the heat tends to quell the appetite, I break for lunch around 2 or 3. There's a woman on the corner of the street who makes Thai pancakes full of tuna and chilli sauce for 40 baht (€80c), which are rather nice. In the afternoon I do more of the same, then shut the shutters at 6. Thence back to the bungalow for another shower, and then back into town for the 7pm meeting at Carlito's Bar.


Beachside meeting

M meanwhile tends to do a variety of outdoor volunteering in the morning - clearing rubbish, helping to dig the memorial garden - then spends the afternoon by the pool, and waitresses at night. If she's not waitressing, we go for a bite to eat, then a couple of drinks. And invariably (at least for the past six days) we end up at Hippies Bar and catch the fire twirling show, which finishes at midnight.

Yesterday I asked M to help out in the shop, because I didn't know if anyone else would turn up. As we were walking down the main street, we noticed a load of photographers - there seem to be more each day; I had lunch with a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. As we walked past them, we were chased into JJ's Pub by a girl who said she was from Reuters, and could she interview us?

She then told us that she was actually here to cover a gaggle of Miss Universe contestants who were shortly to arrive on the island, as the competition is taking place in Bangkok. In a dreadful example of irony, the government - which never made its promised announcement about the future of the island - had sent them to Phi Phi "to promote tourism". Yet the only reason tourism could exist is because a bunch of amateurs cleared the place up to make it habitable; which effort was largely ignored, or even vaguely opposed, by the self-same government.

The reporter explained that though she was covering the contestants, she was amazed at the changes since she'd last been here, and in a spare few minutes before they turned up, she'd like to cover the story. We agreed, and I then expected her to take a few notes. But no. She was from Reuters TV, and so I ended up giving a TV interview for which I was ill prepared, in the street in front of a load of volunteers who were doing building work. I thought I had been quite articulate at the end of the interview, and then the cameraman said the microphone hadn't been turned on, so I had to do it all over again, and ended up sounding like a bumbling fool. She also sprung a political question on me on camera, which I refused to answer, also on camera. I really hope they don't use it. Bloody journalists.

So we kept an eye out for the Miss Universes (M said she'd better not stand beside them as she wouldn't want them to feel inadequate), but it was getting towards 10, so we had to go to the shop, and missed them. Apparently they arrived in the town and were then driven by speedboat round the island to the Holiday Inn, which is detached from the rest of the island, and isn't in need of any help.

After the evening meeting, we met up with an Irish couple we'd become quite friendly with, for goodbye dinner and drinks, as it was their last night, and since Friday is our weekly day off (to respect the local Muslim community) we didn't have to be up early. We had some food and then went on a crawl of the only three bars on the island that we hadn't yet visited. On our way, someone stopped us in the street and said urgently:

"A tsunami has just hit Phuket, and it's coming this way - a load of Thai people have run up the mountain." I now can honestly say that I know what is meant by the words "my heart froze". It really felt like that.

About an hour beforehand, crowds of screaming people had shut up their shops, grabbed their valuables, and run through the streets to get to high ground. We had missed all the fun and games, as we were having dinner and none of the locals in the restaurant seemed to have heard the rumour, but the other volunteer waitress in Monsoon's Dream - it was M's night off - was told to "come now! Get up the mountain!" by Mai, so she ran with them. She told us there were hundreds of people up there, and more surging up every few minutes. After about an hour, when nothing had happened, she came back down again and checked the facts, but most of the local people refused to come down, and spent the night up there.

I went straight into the nearest internet café and checked the news. A complete stranger came in after me and said nervously "er... can I read over your shoulder?" I looked around, and everyone else there was also typing 'earthquake' into Google. There had indeed been another big earthquake on the Sumatran fault. However, it had happened at 8.55 in the morning, didn't do any damage, and it was way further south than the Boxing Day one, so any resultant tsunami would have been blocked by Sumatra.

It turns out to have been an unfortunate coincidence: the authorities chose to test the Phuket tsumami early warning siren roughly twelve hours after there had been a big Sumatran earthquake. People who had heard of an earthquake at "8.55", and a siren around what they thought was the same time, put two and two together and Chinese whispers abounded. Phuket residents who didn't know it was a drill had called to warn their friends and relatives in Phi Phi, the rumour spread, and they just ran. A rather insensitive thing for the authorities to do, especially considering how traumatised the population are at the moment. And if ever there was an argument for using the 24-hour clock, then this was it.


The bay where the phantom tsunami didn't arrive

The phantom wave was meant to be arriving at 2am, and a few volunteers, talking about the panic, admitted that even though they knew it was a false alarm, they might not sleep well until after 2 - and I was among them. So what better for us to do in the face of a rumoured impending tsunami than go to a makeshift bar on the beach that was worst hit during the disaster? We sat and chatted, but most people were keeping half an eye on the moonlit waters to make sure they weren't being sucked out of the bay. Someone got a guitar, so we played and sang songs until about three, and everyone relaxed. We were then dangerously in the mood for more fun, so we ended up at Hippies Bar again, which it turns out is open 24 hours a day, and we sat by the beach drinking beer, and watched the dawn come up over the jungle-clad hills, which was stunning, before retiring to bed at 6. That's 6 AM, mind.

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.