Thank You India: A Sitting Duck In The Way Of A Tsunami

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Havelock

Walking along the beach a few weeks ago, I watched one of my dogs chase a crab along the shore.  Laughing to myself as she was oh so close to catching it until it popped down a hole.  The sight triggered a long forgotten memory from my travels 10 years ago.  Boxing Day on the Andaman Islands and my experiences of an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

In 2004 I quit my job, sold my house, my belongings and set off with a pocketful of money, my key a one way ticket to Kathmandu with no firm plans only to travel and wander at will with my partner at the time. FREEDOM!!!!!

My travels took me to Nepal for two months and then onto India.  Plans were loose but the Andaman Islands called for Christmas.  The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a remote chain of islands, belonging to India but closer to Thailand.  A little bit of back to basics paradise in the middle of nowhere.  And boy was I ready for it.

Andaman Islands

We arrived in the capital Port Blair from Kolkata (Calcutta) and hopped by boat to Havelock, a small island five hours away. The Emerald Gecko, a simple hut and a stunning beach would be our home for the next three weeks.  It was bliss.

We hired a motorbike to get around throughout Nepal and India and despite there being only two roads on the island, we picked up a Honda Hero to visit the secluded beaches.  No 7 was our favourite (pictured below) and the second best beach in Asia. Sunset watching followed by a bike ride through the fading light, crisscrossing the snakes in our path. Adventure!  Well fed and looked after by the manager/chef, we soon settled into a lazy routine.  No internet and sporadic phone services at the local shop. It was far removed from the crazy hectic world we live in.

Yet as Christmas approached I began to feel agitated and stressed. Travelling with your partner can be testing at times but my patience level was zero and then I realised that my period was late.  It was a real oh “shucks” with an f moment.  I’d gladly given up everything for this year of freedom and a baby was definitely not in the plan, not at all.

Christmas Day came and I felt very disjointed.  I couldn’t sit still.  The agitation was building inside of me and I stomped off to bed early. Annoyed with myself having absolutely no idea what was bothering me.

The next morning, I woke up with a start.  The hut violently shaking from side to side.  “Someone’s playing bloody games!!” I shouted.  (I was a fiery little devil in my twenties. I have mellowed with age). My nerves already flayed, I jumped up and out onto the little veranda ready to give them a piece of my mind.  I jumped down to the ground ready to hit the war path yet the shaking didn’t stop.

The earth shook from side to side knocking me down to the ground in a daze.  I looked up to see other guests trying to keep their balance like surfers riding a wave.  In the background, I could hear the island’s inhabitants, Bengalese settlers making the Indian call which would become a familiar sound over the coming days just before every aftershock (and there were many).  It’s fair to say that my world had gone a little crazy. I was smack bang in the middle of a massive earthquake.

The ground finally settled and everyone calmed down.  I clearly remember someone saying “ooh doesn’t a tsunami happen after an earthquake” yet we sat there like sitting ducks, our only concern what we would have for breakfast.

As I sipped on my morning chai trying to decide between dippy eggs or a fruit salad, I watched crab after crab scuttle up the palm tree in front of me.  I laugh when I get to this point in the tale.  Was I alerted that perhaps crabs don’t normally go up trees and therefore something might be wrong?  No.  I thought it a little odd and with that thought I decided to have breakfast later, go back into my flimsy little shack and hit the sack for a couple more hours sleep. Naked.

As I settled my grumpy little head and started to doze, I heard my name being called calmly at first, then rather persistently.  With a bugger off on my lips I finally heard a panicked and quite fearful “Sam we need to leave now”.

I jumped out of bed trying to find the dress I discarded but I couldn’t see it.  I shouted the immortal words “I can’t find anything to wear!!!”.  I grabbed the bed sheet and wrapped it around me and jumped out of the hut as a surge of water hit the camp. We legged it as fast as we could, against a background of the Indian call as the locals warned others in the area of the approaching wave.

It’s at this point that I’m tempted to tell a tall story but we were very lucky that day.  The beach was protected by small mangrove islands out at sea and the water was shallow for a good half mile out.  A tsunami needs a continuous stream of water to keep its momentum and what hit the camp was a water surge rather than a wave.  Nevertheless, we really didn’t know whether another wave was coming in so our fear was genuine.

Our chef came from a family of fishermen.  Shell shocked, he sat and counted the tide come in and out a ridiculous 69 times that day. 69 times as the ocean rocked back and forth with each surge less powerful than the one before.

Over the coming days, we did what humans do best in times of crisis.  We all bonded in our group through our experiences.   We went from friendly strangers politely making chit chat to oooh let’s be best mates!  With no television and only the BBC World News on the radio, we were in our own little bubble, not really understanding the magnitude of what had happened around the world.  We drank, feasted, merry and grateful to be alive, our ignorance and experiences a pass over the outpouring of grief that was taking place across the world.

The quake had knocked out all telephone services and we had no way of contacting our families to let them know we were safe.  We didn’t really worry because there was nothing we could do and we didn’t know the extent of catastrophe.  Until we listened to the BBC World News Service two days later when the broadcaster calmly announced that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were completely submerged under water and it was very unlikely that there were any survivors.  Oooh. Sucker punch.  After a brief moment of wondering “Am I dead” and perhaps this was heaven (it could have been), it hit home that people would really think we were dead and that was not a good thing at all.

We shot out on the bike to try and find a phone that was working and had the amazing grace to come across an Israeli diplomat at the battered dock.  Sent to check on the large group of Israeli travellers on the island.  In return for a lift on the back of the bike, he very kindly agreed that we could come back that evening to make the quick calls home by satellite phone to let our families know that we were indeed alive, very well and not to worry.

We left the island ten days later, the long boat trip back to Port Blair, one last night on the pop with our new found friends and then a plane back to Chennai (Madras).  Low and behold back on the mainland my monthly friend soon made her appearance.  Sam was without child.

Longer calls home to our parents and the news that we had been splashed all over the local newspapers with a picture of us trekking (myself in shocking purple pants) and a headline “SAFE!!!!!”.  My stepdad was interviewed on BBC News Live and told the world that I was probably staying on to lead the rescue effort; I was that type of woman. Hmm. The realisation hit that it was a whole lot bigger than we had imagined despite our protestations that we really were safe and it was no big deal.

And now to lesson learnt behind the story.  After a spot of research, there are many stories where a woman’s time of the month is delayed because of stress.  A woman is emotionally vulnerable and dare I say it can be a little volatile in her emotions at that time of the month.  The body intuitively delays the cycle in times of stress and I believe my wild and instinctual side unconsciously did the job for me before the quake.  I was on a desert bloody island with zero stress.  Looking back the tension and stress in my body was akin to the stress and tension in the ground which was released when the earthquake struck.  It’s a lesson in remembering that a woman’s natural rhythm with Mother Earth is present without the woman consciously knowing.

On the other hand, it was also a lesson in how far removed we humans are in terms of our instinctual nature.  Life doesn’t come with a guide book yet the crabs needed no telling.  They knew that danger was approaching and followed their instincts as they scuttled up the trees which must have been a very difficult feat for the wee creatures.  We humans?  We sat there like sitting ducks and had a very lucky escape because of the location of the camp.  A quick spot of research on the net today tells a different story to my experience, that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were hit by a 10 foot wave and many people died.

It’s a tale that I will no doubt share again and again on this date over the coming years.  One of the many different life experiences that have shown to me my true wild self  and connection to nature.  Whilst it’s highly unlikely (although I do live a very random life, you really never know) that I will be that close to the epicenter of an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami, it’s a lesson to trust my instinctual nature when it starts to scream there is something wrong as it did in the lead up to Boxing Day.  It really does raise the question are we humans really as smart as we think with our reliance on the mind and logic at the expense of instinct and intuition.

I’ve spent the day trotting down memory lane, looking over my travelling pictures from over the years for the images that feature in this post.  By the time I returned from my year away, the 2004 Tsunami was old news and I haven’t watched any of the programs that featured so I will spending this Boxing Day evening having a mooch on YouTube.  For the first time witness the carnage that followed this devastating event.

And whilst I can only tell my story in my words as it happened, funny bits and all, it must not be forgotten or detract from the fact that many died on this day 10 years ago.  Many needless deaths and big lessons learnt by the global community in protecting and warning against future tsunamis.  My lesson?  Heed my instincts and intuition at all costs. Be grateful for every moment of life.  And I still really struggle to spell the word tsunami.  I was one of the lucky ones in 2004.  So many others weren’t.

(c) Samantha Wilson 2016.  All Rights Reserved.