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December 30, 2004

Tsunami disaster befalls Indian Ocean countries

In 1994, my brother Jim and I, along with three friends, sailed around Phangnga Bay, to the east of the island of Phuket in Thailand.

Thus began eight days of the most intense pleasure one could have, perhaps outside of falling in love.

As I wrote in AmateurAn Amateur's Guide to the Planet:

All the superlatives about the splendid waters of Phangnga Bay proved to be fully deserved. The bay lay still as glass, the sky and water a soft blue-gold, the limestone peaks rosy. Our first afternoon at Ko Roi marked the beginning of eight days of delirious swimming and snorkeling. We swam for hours, from the boat to mysterious shores, under stalactites and lime arches. Swallows darted from their nests in the cliffs as we floated by. We followed channels into the collapsed centers of Ko Roi and other islands, where natural chimneys offered peepholes to the sky. We floated and backstroked Olympian stretches from boat to islet to shore and back, distances requiring a dinghy in the Virgin Islands or the Chesapeake or Greece. Here we preferred to swim because the water was so tranquil and warm.

We swam as though our DNA had forgotten the eons since we evolved from saltwater into amino acids and finally life on land. Maybe a week before we labeled ourselves Homo washingtonianis, rats in a race. But now we lived in bathing suits and bare feet, sleek otters in the water and, later as we sailed, clambering monkeys on the foredeck fiddling in a forest of sails and lines.

Phuket map
Map from page 137, An Amateur's Guide to the Planet:
Perfect seas: Thailand and ultimate sailing

When I first heard of the tsunami disaster, I became worried most about expat Kiwi restaurateur Gary we met on Racha Yai.

His heavenly open-air establishment faced the open Andaman Sea, only a tiny rise on inland paths from the beach shown on the cover of An Amateur's Guide to the Planet.

Gary and the local Thai fishermen were even closer to the sea than Phi Phi Don, which anyone who's been watching CNN this week knows was hammered.

Next, I thought of the kids we met at a Muslim fishing village on Ko Yao Yai (see map above). I called my brother Jim and we promised to exchange updates.

That was on Sunday.

On Monday my husband Lamont called from work. "There's footage on CNN ..." he said. I rushed to the TV, phone in hand.

And I got almost too choked up to speak. The visuals hit me hard, because finally I began to comprehend what had happened.

The flimsy walkways and houses on stilts at the Muslim fishing village had bounced wildly with every step of us heavy farangs.

Now on CNN, I saw the tonnage of punishing seawater that had rushed up Phangnga Bay, and I matched the image of a killer wave to my memory of an idyllic but fragile landscape. I gasped and couldn't continue. I barely said to Lamont, "Huhhhh ... We visited a Muslim fishing village there ... on stilts ... it was all so flimsy ..."

We met some children there too. Nick, one of our companions, gave them Thai baht to buy shoes. We later debated the point of whether to give poor people cash ... I felt it created beggars and was to be avoided. Maybe Nick had a better sense of the ephemeral measurement of our time on Earth.

What chance could these villagers have had?

I looked at the cover of An Amateur's Guide, at the picture of the Thai longtailed boats on the beach at Racha Yai, near Gary's restaurant, and the tiny figures tending the boats. Let's see, a 5-foot wave would destroy them, 10 feet would wreck their homes too.

Back in 1994, before we began sailing, we had landed at a decent hotel and immediately learned that we were missing the storm of the century back on the U.S. East Coast (March 1994). Hotel workers had seen this on CNN.

A decade later, Jim and I agreed that if, at a minute before 8 a.m. on the day after Christmas, CNN had broadcast a warning of the earthquake and tsunami, it would have gotten the word immediately to Southeast and South Asian hotels. The word would have taken longer to filter to all the backpackers in the $5 a night, rattan, no-electricity beach huts around Thailand, and the fisherfolk along the coast of Sri Lanka .. but some would have been saved.

I am not knocking CNN. I am just saying, you can have some elaborate Indian Ocean tsunami warning system involving governments and cumbersome bureaucracy ... Or, you can just have the existing Pacific Tsunami Warning System -- which detected the Sumatra earthquake, see here -- pick up the phone to CNN and get out an urgent bulletin via shoreside hotels, cafes and bars to move everyone to the hills.

For anyone still missing friends, there are at least three essential message boards:

Anyone who watched the 9-11 coverage, where families came on cable news shows looking for missing relatives (mainly fathers), will recall that a notable proportion came from Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading firm. The realization that Cantor had been hammered was at first impressionistic, and later confirmed.

The Cantor Fitzgerald of this disaster, in terms of Thailand, appears to be a new, affordable resort called Khao Lak (on the coast north of Phuket, across from the Similan islands, a dive mecca), as the plaintive postings on the message boards attest.

Four thousand tourists and hotel staff appear to be missing, according to an article appearing on Dec. 31, 2004, in the Bangkok Post.

Next worst hit is Phi Phi Don, where we anchored a decade ago. We remember how choppy the harbor at Phi Phi is ... the anchorage is at the end of two long, sweeping arms of land, and rather than protecting, it seems to amplify waves that rush up the small inlet.

Some boos and bouquets



A conclusion

More than 2,400 foreign travelers were lost in the tsunami, Thailand reported.

This week has been the moment of lost innocence for the Lonely Planet generations, traveling happily since the 1960s in carefree South and Southeast Asia.

There is a rough lesson here for the solo traveler. Some of those in search of paradise on Earth have been treated cruelly by Fate, dying anonymously far from home -- thus making real a fear that must be supressed by all those who dare to roam before embarking on any journey.

December 4, 2004

Tom Wolfe and I Am Charlotte Simmons

I Am Charlotte SimmonsI Am Charlotte Simmons: A Novel.

It may be an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that I live for books by Tom Wolfe.

After a wait of six years since A Man in FullA Man in Full, I was the first person to check out Charlotte Simmons at the Baltimore County Library I usually patronize (Rosedale). One gets used to waiting for works by the master (11 years between BonfireThe Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel and A Man in Full, eight years between Tom Wolfe: The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities).

I Am Charlotte Simmons depicts in full glory the waste of time a four-year university is for the jocks, the frat boys and sorority sisters and anyone deeply into the party and drinking and hook-up scene (I deal with the phenomenon of hooking up in my forthcoming book, Romance on the Road).

Wolfe describes the level of cynicism that permits These Young People Today to have not one, but three levels of Sarcasm: Sarc 1, Sarc 2 and Sarc 3.

Charlotte Simmons had been out less than one month, and already it has stirred a spirited debate over the behavior on college campuses. To whit, on National Review Online's The Corner, John Derbyshire writes:

College Life

Reader responses to my Charlotte Simmons review are all over the lot, from "Wolfe doesn't tell the half of it" to "nothing like that going on at MY college."

Seems to me there is wide variation between colleges, even between high-Ivies.
But why go to college at all, to credential-up for some job that will be outsourced to Bangladesh the year after you graduate?

"Mr. Derbyshire---Things are as bad as Wolfe portrays them. Following an excellent education in a private Jesuit high school in [major city] I attended and graduated from [major university]. Neither of my children will ever go near such a place. My wife (a very bright and completely decent Englishwoman) did not attend university. My neighbors (in a nice suburb of [major city]) who have the largest houses are a plumber and a builder who have managed to start and run successful enterprises without the benefit of a college education.

"College is an expensive hiatus during which young men and women experience depravity, drunkenness and depression out of sight of their parents -- who benefit from not seeing the suicides, abortions, rapes and baseness."

One can speculate how far this will lead, but I think it safe to speculate that a fair number of parents will begin to look more carefully at paying $20,000 a year for debauchery and brain-washing, both inside and outside the classroom. One even wonders if Tom Wolfe on his own will create a devaluation of the entire idea of a college education, given the sideshow campus life has apparently become. Thomas Sowell calls for greater care in evaluating who goes to college and where:

Some young people are not yet ready for coed living arrangements and the pressures and dangers that can lead to. Some are at risk on a campus with widespread drug usage. Some students can get very lonely when they just don't fit in.

Sometimes there is no one to turn to and sometimes the adults they turn to on campus have nothing but psychobabble to offer.

Late adolescence and early adulthood are among the most dangerous times in people's lives, when one foolish decision can destroy everything for which parents and children have invested time and efforts and hopes for years.

In my Web surfing this morning, seeking to find out if Tom Wolfe would do a book signing in Baltimore (drat, the answer is no, and his visits to Washington have come and gone), I came across the author's Web site. Guess what -- the best 100-word essay entered in a contest thereon gets to meet the great one!

Guess I will be polishing my entry between now and the closing date. I have loved everything since 1965's TangerineThe Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and hope to think of something decent to enter in the contest.

Jeannette Belliveau

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