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The Tsunami Volunteers
While many travelers fled the adventure hubs of Thailand after the December 26 disaster, a dedicated corps of divers and backpackers arrived to help. Here's their story. By Matthew Power


Photo: Khao Lak, Thailand
AFTER THE FLOOD: A decorative maiden, her hands folded in the traditional Thai greeting of wai, keeps a lonely vigil among the ruins of the Khao Lak, Thailand, on December 28, 2004.

JANUARY 2: KHAO LAK
Nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the high-tide line, a 70-foot (21-meter) Thai navy vessel is moored neatly at the edge of a tropical forest. Someone with a keen sense of the absurd has tossed a hawser around a palm tree, as if to keep the enormous ship from drifting off. To the left, and as far as I can see, hotels, bungalows, shops, cars, trucks, mud-caked motorcycles, and fishing boats have been crushed flat or lifted up, spun, and set down in a heap. But it is difficult to imagine the raging sea, tranquil and barely visible through a distant line of coconut palms, that left this mess in its wake.

One week after the waves of December 26, I've arrived in what remains standing of the southern Thai resort town of Khao Lak, 400 miles (644 kilometers) southwest of Bangkok in the Phangnga province on Thailand's Andaman coast. In the midday tropical heat, I walk through the remains of the Khao Lak Emerald Beach Resort & Spa. It is quiet except for the buzz of insects and the rustling of palms overhead. It smells of mildew, of broken sewer pipes, and of the decaying bodies still trapped under the wreckage. The few buildings left standing near the water are gutted and provide sad still life images: mattresses sucked into doorways by the retreating water; a ceiling fan, 12 feet (3.6 meters) up, its blades tied up like a pretzel; swimsuits and other beach clothes twisted around splintered two-by-fours. A record of the arbitrary power of the torrent is visible everywhere, an indecipherable puzzle of the tricks of hydrodynamics or blind luck that resulted in destruction or salvation.

In the space of two hours or less that morning, Khao Lak went from a tourist-flush population of approximately 5,000 to nearly a ghost town. In Thailand, more than 5,370 people perished in the disaster, an estimated 4,160 in the Phangnga province.

Picking through the foundation of one of the bungalows nearest the beach, I meet a bearded man in shorts and a tank top. Stu Breisch, 53, an ER doctor at Jordan Valley Hospital in Salt Lake City, had come to Khao Lak for the Christmas holidays with his fiancée, Sally Nelson, his son, Jai, 16, and his two daughters: Shonti, 18, and Kali, 15. In one of the million happenstances that separated the doomed from the saved during the tsunami, Breisch had woken up early on the morning of the 26th to go with his family out on a dive boat. Sally and Shonti joined him, but Jai and Kali chose to sleep instead. Woken by Kali's screams, Jai looked down and saw water coming in the front door. When he got up to check it out, a 20-foot (six-meter) wave swept into the room. He was torn away from his sister by a current, an experience he later described: "like being in a washing machine with bricks, pool balls, glass, and razor blades."

"He must be the luckiest kid in the world," says Breisch, sitting on the trunk of a felled coconut palm. "He was swept up there, through all those buildings, almost a full mile inland." He gestures toward the outer limits of the ruins, past the collapsed shells of dozens of concrete buildings and swimming pools filled with stagnant water. "Can you imagine anyone surviving being dragged through that?" Breisch spent three nightmarish days thinking Jai and Kali had been killed before Sally found Jai in a Bangkok hospital. He had been found on a road, with a separated shoulder and his knee gashed open to the joint. But Kali, the youngest, had vanished.

Breisch recalls how awful it was returning back to shore on the dive boat, the enormity of what had happened sinking in as they came across floating corpses that had been dragged off the coast by the receding water. Picking up a few survivors, they made their way to shore, trying not to get hysterical. By the time he reached the bungalows, there was no one around. He scoured the ruins for days in an agonizing, desperate search with no real leads. As we talk, he points out Kali's bathing suit top, wedged into a crack in a snapped column of reinforced concrete that once supported the bungalow. He followed a trail of clues, scraps of clothing, Kali's shoes, hundreds of yards inland from the bungalow. "I was alone for days just looking for her, and nobody was here, no rescue workers or anything," he says.

A few miles farther along the coast, I come upon a large tent set up by the roadside. The canvas outer wall is festooned with posters of the missing that flutter in the breeze. In Thailand, more than anywhere else, the disaster has been international in scope, and the faces on the posters reflect this: There are Germans, Irish, Swiss, Chileans, Israelis, Nigerians, Dutch, British, South Africans. Whole families of Swedes. Entire villages of Thais and migrant Burmese laborers were washed away, but there are very few posters for them. For locals, the search for the missing is just as frantic, but this is their home territory, and word of mouth works better than posters.

The faces of the missing remind me of the posters that papered subway walls, fences, and construction site scaffolding in my neighborhood in New York City after September 11, and they call out with some of the same futile gestures of desperate hope: emergency e-mail contacts, lists of distinguishing marks, notices of rewards of one million baht (U.S. $26,000) for any information. One poster is from a Czech family who hired "psychotronic specialists" to sketch out a crude picture of the cave where the missing person, pinned under a rock and badly injured, awaits rescue. Online, dozens of similar galleries of the missing have cropped up. Sites such as Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree or British-owned Dive Aid have served as virtual meeting points for the far-flung traveling community, with a few happy reunions, but many more unanswered pleas. These sites have also become recruitment centers for volunteers.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, many tourists fled, and more than 40 percent of airline reservations to Southern Thailand were canceled. But some travelers, such as dive masters, army medics, and vacationing doctors, with the most rudimentary first-responder skills, improvised triage clinics as intense as those on any battlefield. And while many foreigners streamed to the airports, a small but significant number of people from the adventure travel community—backpackers and wanderers, rock climbers and surfers (the gypsy underclass of global tourism)—have come to the region to work hand in hand with the great outpouring of Thai officials and volunteers. No one wants to look too hard for a silver lining, but it's heartening to see.

JANUARY 2: Wat Yan Yao
Outside the tent, a pickup truck pulls to a stop, and three heavy white body bags are lowered down by a group of Thai boys wearing rubber gloves. The bodies have just been uncovered from the ruins of a hotel down by the beach. They unzip each bag. The smell is overwhelming, a rotten sweetness that clings to the throat. Seven days on and putrefaction is advanced: the skin blackened, the hair nearly gone, the abdomens blown up like a pregnancy. Looking in the first bag, the boys get excited, chattering in Thai. One calls for water, and they pour it on the shoulder of a girl lying there and wipe off the mud and writhing maggots. A tattoo appears, perfectly preserved: a rose blooming, its thorny vine wrapped around a dagger. It's difficult, in this moment, to be one of the only people possessing any clue to her identity and not know whom to tell. I wonder if she ever thought that her tattoo might one day help her family to know her fate.

Read more about the tsunami aftermath and the massive efforts of the disaster relief volunteers in the April 2005 issue of Adventure.

Help Rebuild
Relief efforts are still underway. Here's how you can get involved. By Jeff Gangemi

Since larger aid organizations, including Oxfam America and the American Red Cross, don't send volunteers abroad without extensive disaster relief training (often more than two years), those eager to contribute immediately to the rebuilding efforts in Southeast Asia should contact smaller agencies (see below). Anyone who wants to help but isn't able to volunteer should keep in mind that tourist dollars can be just as beneficial as man-hours. "Supporting the local economy through travel is perhaps the best way to empower people to get back on their feet," says Debbie Jacobs, owner of Vermont-based Explorations in Travel. Before traveling to the region (tourist visas take anywhere from three days to two weeks to process, depending on your destination), get on-the-ground updates from www.tsunamihelp.blogspot.com and consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site (www.cdc.gov) for a thorough list of required and suggested inoculations. Allow four to six weeks for full immunization.

Global Crossroad (www.globalcrossroad.com) connects volunteer teams with local relief efforts in Sri Lanka for two-week stints reconstructing schools and sanitation centers. According to program manager Dana Oliver, the only requirements are that volunteers be physically fit and "emotionally prepared to walk into a disaster area."

Phuket Project (www.phuketproject.org) was founded by Mach Arom, a Thai American whose family still lives in Phuket. As media coverage dwindles, Arom hopes to continue the flow of aid and volunteers for as long as help is needed. Projects include rebuilding the Kamala Child Development Center, a preschool that was due to open the day the tsunami struck.

Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) maintains a Web site listing Southeast Asian tour operators that funnel tourist dollars back into regional economies. By staying in locally owned accommodations, hiring a native guide, and dining at local restaurants, travelers can make sure their money is invested directly into the areas that need it most.

Photograph by Nick Nostitz



Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, April 2005

The Adventures of Your Life
Rediscovering Libya: Writer Kira Salak explores the country's wonders
The Tsunami Volunteers: Writer Matthew Power finds a sliver of redemption in the disaster's wake. Plus, how you can lend a hand
Weird Science: Edward Norton talks about hermaphrodite frogs and a new NG TV series on PBS
Pelton's World: Fresh from the Green Zone, Pelton takes a cruise
100th Birthday: Explorer Col. Norman Vaughan's big plans


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April 2005



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