31 December 2004

we are alive and well

Hello all!

I'm sorry for not writing sooner! Between the dial-up connection and hotmail's overloaded servers, it took 20 minutes to load the login page. Thank you to everyone who e-mailed in the last couple of days, it's a truly wonderful feeling to load your inbox and see every other message has the subject: ARE YOU OKAY!??!?! I probably won't have a chance to read your messages until I get back to the states on the 4th of January, but thanks to everyone in advance.

The tsunami happened the day we were scheduled to fly out here. We got the news at around 6:45am from my mom. At that time, we only knew that Phuket (the destination for the second half of our trip) had been affected. We had no idea what the extent of the damage would be.

The first half of our trip was a tour of Bangkok. Our guide, Suree, was amazing. In addition to her near encyclopedic knowledge of Thai history, she was able to put a lot of things about the tragedy into perspective.

You have likely read there are around 2,000 confirmed dead in Phuket. Nearly half of these were Swedes. What of the Thai people? In a country like Thailand where nearly two-thirds of the people live in poverty, it is very difficult to take an accurate census. For example, the official population of Bangkok is between 5.5 and 12 million, no one really knows. So, the world news tally of 2,000 dead -and half of them from one western nation- cannot possibly account for Thai losses. Suree also informed us that Phuket accounts for nearly 40% of Thailand's GDP. In addition to being a top international tourist destination, many residents of Phuket made a living through fishing and other agricultural and aquacultural industries.

Interestingly, we were encouraged to continue with our plans to visit Phuket despite the tragedy. We were told our hotel was open and relatively undamaged, but we coudn't imagine drinking cocktails on the beach and having massages when all hands were clearly needed for recovery efforts and there were -literally- bodies washing up on the shore one beach away.

Outside the many temples we visited, massive relief efforts were underway. As Westerners, it was most appropriate for us to donate money (which we did). The Thai people donated anything and everything they could. It was truly inspiring to see people who, by Western standards, have nothing, giving so generously. We later learned that one of the things most deperately needed in the first few days after the wave was western blood. All white tourists were urged to donate at the Red Cross because Asians have a different blood type that whites and not enough white blood was available to treat injured westerners.

So, after 5 days in Bangkok, we are now in the Jomtien Beach area of Pattaya, Thailand and the contrast is dramatic. The sex trade here is far and away the #1 industry and, I have to say, I find the drunken revelry here very unsettling. Pattaya was the only beach area available as Thailand is already packed this time of year with Europeans, Chinese and Russians. We are going down to the beach later to try and relax under some palm trees, but, to be completely honest I would rather be back in the sober reality of Bangkok. Still, tomorrow we have some diving scheduled and I hope that will at last give me a positive impression of this place.

Speaking of diving, we saw some footage of divers who were underwater when the tsunami hit. When I first saw the footage, I thought the images were topside and that I was looking at a tornado. The image was very grey as if it was twlight and debris swirled around the screen. Then the camera cut to the divers clinging to rocks on the bottom while the current rushed past them.

As it turned out, the tsunami hit Thailand only 30 minutes after the quake. Local time was 10am and there was really no way for people to know what was about to happen. People we spoke with describe the tide receeding from the shore nearly 100 meters (300 feet) just before two waves 5-10 meters high came rushing to the shore.

Well, this e-mail is getting kind of long so I should wrap it up. It's been a very interesting trip so far and we've had some enjoyable experiences that I will write about in a later e-mail. I do want to leave you with one last bit of info from our guide.

Tourism is Thailand's #1 industry overall. At the end of 2004, Thailand was only just recovering from the effects of 9/11, SARS, and the bird flu. It is an amazing and beautiful country and the people couldn't be nicer. Suree politely expressed concern that the western media's reporting would keep people from coming to Thailand as it had so many times before. Often, it seems, the west hears of a problem in one region of a particular country and writes off the region as a whole.

It would really be a shame for the kind and generous people of Thailand to suffer lingering economic strife due to negative publicity, so if anyone asks about Thailand, please tell them I would highly recommend Thailand as a destination. Eventually I will write/ send pictures of some of the amazing things we've seen.

Take care and thanks again,