Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, May 2nd

Tsunami tourism

At Phuket airport we booked the minibus service to the town of Patong, and after a long and exceptionally humid wait, and an hour's drive, made it to the guesthouse that we'd booked online. And what a guesthouse. Possibly because it's off season, and that the guesthouse is outside the town's main drag, and possibly because of the post-tsunami lack of tourism, but for the price of a hostel room in China we ended up in something of a suite in a place with a swimming pool. Large, airy and clean, our room, in the Asian way, suffered only from a broken lock, non-functioning air conditioning, a temporary power cut, and a dodgy leaking kettle. But most of these were fixed before we slept.

We had arrived late in the evening, and decided to take a stroll nearby rather than check out the town. On the nearby street we espied a pool table, and so we went for a couple of games. There we met Ying, a waitress, who was an expert pool player ("I have five sophies in my room". It took me a while to work out that she meant trophies), and challenged us to play, and whipped our arses every game. Ying was from the southern town of Trang, and has been living in Patong for a year or so. She hates the town centre, around the central road leading from the beach - "Bang La road - very bad". She wouldn't expand on why, but we could guess.

Eventually the subject of the tsunami came up, and she told us that on the morning of December 26th, she had been at work near the beach when it hit. She saw it coming, and ran for her life away from the beach, and fell, and has scars on her legs from it, but she got far enough away, and survived. Two of her friends were not so lucky, and nor was her pet cat. And then smiled, and said "I have tsunami DVD!" She went to the back of the bar, and put on a DVD of collage of amateur footage taken all round Thailand's west coast on that day. It seems that now, down in the town, all the dodgy DVD shops have added to their stock of copied DVDs and CDs "Tsunami DVD" for sale, and the bar had bought one.

"Here!" said Ying excitedly at one point. "Look, this is Patong! Look, you can see the lady!" And there on the video, a woman clinging desperately to a wall is swept away past the camera. It felt horrendously voyeuristic to watch this, and the locals' desire to exploit what had happened spoke of economic desperation, and seems exploitative to our western sensibilities. And yet Ying, who had nearly died, had been injured, had lost two friends and her pet to a disaster that was so recent, seemed somehow proud of the event. Perhaps it's human nature, or perhaps it's the nature of the Buddhist society, that theoretically accepts that suffering is humanity's lot, that means people can interpret such a ghastly event as a little bit of celebrity. I am certain that in the west, a similar disaster, we would be mawkish and hypersentimental for years afterwards, as in the cases of 9/11 and the various terrorist bombings in the UK.

As is the way in many Asian Buddhist countries, most people's religion is a mixture of Buddhism, an import, and the indigenous religion, which is usually animist in nature. Most Thai businesses and households have 'spirit houses' in the yard or garden, in which they believe ghosts of their ancestors live. These are little Thai-architecture doll's houses on a stand, at which incense is lit and food offerings made daily. To many Thai people, therefore, ghosts are very real indeed. On the radio I heard a documentary about the psychological effect of the tsunami on the survivors. One story recounted sent chills up my spine. A few weeks ago, a taxi driver was on the beach road, and was flagged down by four westerners in beach attire. He asked where they wanted to go, and they said "up the nearest hill". He drove up the nearest hill, and when he turned to them, they had disappeared. Another survivor had to give up his job as a night watchman because every night in the empty building he could hear a western woman screaming for herong child. Other survivors smell the stench of rotting flesh from time to time, particularly when shopping and testing the ripeness of fruit, and some people have developed anorexia because of this. The psychologist explained these as post-traumatic stress-induced hallucinations, but to someone who believes strongly in a spirit world there is only one conclusion to be drawn.

After a comfortable sleep, the next day we headed down to Patong town. All along the beach road, at every building facing the water, were green corrugated hoardings, with the noises of building work coming from each one. Some euphemistically proclaimed "renovation work in progress". There's little visible damage, just reconstruction work, though on one hotel we could see water damage on the ceiling of a second-storey balcony. In terms of this town at least, they only need skilled construction workers; the problems must lie in areas that are non-touristic. It seems that the government, or the corporations that own the buildings, are going full-force into restoring the commercial centre of the town to prop up the economic core of the area. There is no request for help anywhere, something we are keen to get involved in. I theorise that this is deliberate, in order not to admit the problem, to keep the tourists' confidence up. Strangely, even though it's indulgent, just by being here and spending money, we are assisting in a small way.

On lamp posts there are temporary direction signs proclaiming "Tsunami evacuation route", and new towers of sirens stand at each end of the beach. This might be seen as a horse/stable door interface situation, but given the current instability of the Sumatran fault line, I suspect it is a prudent measure. I also suspect that in years to come, purely pragmatically, the tsunami, and museums and memorials to it, will be promoted as an attraction.

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