Blessed to be a witness

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Sunday, July 24th

A horrible evening

Our first full day on Phi Phi involved not much volunteering - I fixed a printer in the office and updated the website a little - but it did involve cooking a massive traditional Sunday roast dinner for twelve long-term volunteers and some adventurous Thais.

On request from Emma, one of the English girls on the island, we'd gone to Tesco (yes, Tesco) in Phuket and grabbed some vegetables, gravy mix, and breadcrumbs for stuffing, that we carted over on the ferry. She, meanwhile, had ordered three chickens and a sack of potatoes from a local restaurant. Emma and I then shared the restaurant kitchen with the Thai cooking staff (my first time in a proper kitchen, pretending I was Gordon Ramsay), and spent most of the afternoon preparing the vegetables, and roasting the chickens, after having decapitated them, they having been provided with heads, a la mode Asienne.

We attended the meeting, then went to our venue, a bar above the restaurant, where I got into the unbearably hot kitchen and made cheese sauce and gravy while Emma boiled all the veg. At this point my phone rang. It was my sister, calling to tell me my grandfather had had a massive stroke. Feeling helpless and completely unable to do anything, I threw myself into cooking, trying not to think about it. We ate, and though I say it myself, the food was sensational, especially the conditions we were working under.

Just as the meal finished, my brother called to tell me my grandfather had died. I was in shock, and I wandered around, stunned, not knowing what to do, pretending to be OK, since people were at that moment coming up to me and thanking me for the meal.

And then we heard those terrible words again: "tsunami coming". I ran to an internet café as I had done before, but this time the charming sweet-faced lady didn't smile and say "don't worry" - she was grabbing a torch and a blanket. "Internet is free tonight", said the manager, "but you must leave now. Get to higher ground". Sure enough there was a report of a 7.3 earthquake off the Nicobar Islands, and the government had issued an official warning.

Thailand is in a direct, unprotected line from these islands, and any shearing seismic event there would be devastating - possibly moreso than the Acheh earthquake. The sirens were going off (though they were too quiet for me to hear them). We went upstairs to the bar again - 60 people were saved by being there on December 26th - but then the bar owner told us to leave and go to even higher ground.

We ran down the street to Reggae Bar, which is a three-storey building on the side of the hill known as Reggae Mountain, with an accessible window that opens onto the hillside. Unfortunately the toilets were on the ground floor and I really needed to go. As I was peeing, there was an almighty crash and the sound of screaming. "Oh shit," I thought. "Here we go." Being a bloke, however, I had to finish what I'd started. As I left the toilet, seeing no advancing water, I breathed a sigh of relief as I went up to the top floor. The crash had been someone climbing onto a table and falling off.

We stood there for about two hours, trembling slightly, peering into the dark streets looking for the arrival of the dark water. People clustered around nervously, and further up the hill we could see the torches of dozens of Thai families huddled in the jungle. Many tourists were in a state of near hysteria, some having only arrived that day, and we tried to calm them. Thankfully beer was available, though not cigarettes. A fatalistic bar nearby, on the ground level, had stayed open, and I looked down on several Thai people playing pool. An indication of the strength of our nicotine addiction is that, when I tentatively suggested that I descend to the bar to buy ciggies, M didn't wail and tell me not to be stupid, risking my life, but said "get two packs just in case". So I did.

The TV was on with Thai newsflashes every ten minutes, interspersed with "Thai Idol" or some form of ghastly karaoke competition. Our friend Neng translated for us. The minister for meteorology appeared live, saying that this time there might be a smaller wave, or one travelling slower, so everyone should remain on high ground. The news showed scenes of chaos in Phuket, with hundreds of cars cramming the street as people left the coast. And then, just before 1.30, Neng started jumping up and down, cheering and clapping, and the all-clear was given.

Sadly, my relief was soured immediately by the realisation of the loss of a truly wonderful man. We went back to our bungalow and I finally had the chance to grieve for my grandfather.

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