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Tsunami Survivor Story

By: Christine Lang, Vancouver, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
Our stroll down Main Street draws us to a souvenir shop cluttered with flip flops, fisherman pants, and incense sticks.  I am about to laugh out loud at a kitschy key chain with a portrait of the King of Thailand framed in gold plastic on it, when I remember Lonely Planet' s advice to never insult the Thai royal family. I place His Majesty down, imagining the headlines:  Kindergarten Teacher Imprisoned for Mocking Beloved Thai King.

Across the shop I notice a bin of pirated DVD' s.  There' s Bridget Jones Edge of Reason alongside, The Bourne Supremacy, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Even though I love a good bargain, I turn away and hunt for a small wooden Buddha statue, similar to the one I admired in Phuket.  But to no avail: damn, should have bought it while I had the chance. I shift my attention to the coconut shell change purses, and to the even more stunning Thai flag cuff links. Phi Phi Island is predominantly Muslim consequently my little Buddha is nowhere to be found.  I' ll be sure to buy one in Bangkok before flying home.

Between coconut wood salt and pepper shakers and bamboo flutes, there' s a pile of tie dyed hammocks, rolled into bundles for easy packing.  The red one would be perfect on my Kitsilano patio.  I figure I wont' buy it now since we' re going to be here a couple more days. Rubina and I flip through postcards on a spinning rack. I finally settle on some stamps and she buys bottled water.  We exit the shop and set out in the direction of the pier when we notice something bizarre.

An older Thai woman wearing a sun dress, her hair pulled back in a bun, races from the jewellery store into the street.  She' s screaming hysterically in Thai, and carries a plastic bucket, filled with water, which splashes over the sides onto the dusty brick walkway.

“That' s odd, ”I say looking at Rubina. 
Yeah, what' s wrong with her?”

The woman drops her bucket and flees across the road, running inland, away from the beach. We continue to stroll past the Siam Bank machine, a mere 15 steps from the pier where we stepped off the ferry four days ago. Cats leap across the street in front of us and we see clerks sprinting from the currency exchange service. Rubina and I stop in our tracks and look around wildly at each other and the growing chaos.  What' s going on?

Other shop keepers abandon their businesses.  As they dart past us, I realize they' re not only running from their shops, but they' re running from the shore too.  I glance to the beach. A row of buildings block my view.

What the hell is happening?  Is there a fire? Has a boat crashed into the pier?  What are these people running from?  I search for information, but there are no clear signs, only mad confusion. 

Heart wrenching screams filter the air.  Oh God, what' s happening?  I shudder at the terror on the faces of people speeding past, their mouths contorted around panicked cries in a language I do not comprehend. More and more people join the growing hoard. Thunderous footsteps career down the road. The air billows with dust clouds. My mouth is dry. My hands are clammy. Everything has sped up and slowed down all at once.

Survival instinct kicks in; adrenaline pounds through my veins. We' re going to be trampled to death if we don' t depart immediately. A burly Thai fisherman, his eyes wide with terror, shoulder checks me, spinning my body to the north.  I steady myself and look for Rubina.  She' s no longer beside me. Disoriented, I search for her face turning my head in every direction. I don' t see her.  Where' s she gone? Was she bowled away by the crowd?  

A German man wrenches my arm, screams, “Run !” But I can' t leave without Rubina. I wait for a break in the crowd.  It' s clear. I bolt toward the 7-Eleven narrowly dodging a bikini clad tourist.  A man in scuba gear sprints toward me. I yield.  My shoulders shrug to my ears as he whips past me trampling over my toes. Releasing my shoulders, I charge toward the 7-Eleven.  I arrive underneath the store sign breathless, heart thumping, scanning desperately for her face. I don' t see her anywhere!  Where are you Rubina?

A screaming crowd runs inland and another runs in the direction of the mountains. My vision narrows. I blank everything out focusing only on my search for Rubina. I see a small shack which sits at the foot of the dock.  I spot her as she hides behind it.  I dart toward her.  She doesn' t notice me. Her wide eyes gaze only to the beach.  Her skin is pale. I grasp her trembling arm. “Rubina, we need to run! Come on! We need to run! Now!”

She snaps out of her trance and we run side by side following the stampeding crowd heading inland.  I see Thais racing, mostly men, but there' s no instruction, no direction, no one telling us what to do or where to go. What we are running away from?  A child shrieks.  Where are we going? A man yells in Thai.  All I know is that we must flee. The crowd scatters as we race down a road that connects the two beaches.  We make a sharp right heading in the direction of the dive shop where we left Michael. We pass the Phi Phi Hotel, the only high rise on the island, and arrive at an abandoned intersection.   

A massive rumble freezes us to the spot.  It swarms the air, engulfs the island and invades my ears like a fleet of jet engines.  Is a plane about to crash?  I look up. Nothing but the sun in a crystal clear blue sky. The ground suddenly shakes. A bolt shivers up my spine. I tremble. Trapped in a Hollywood blockbuster movie.  There' s no escape.  My eyes zip to Rubina.

“What about Mike? What about Mike?” she screams, simultaneously crying, as she stumbles backward across the street. From the corner of my eye, a group of tourists rush into the Phi Phi Hotel. My eyes fixate back to Rubina. “What about Mike? What about Mike?” She steps farther and farther away.  My eyes, widen as I stare down the road in the direction of our hotel, at Lo Dolum Bay.  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  A dark monstrous wall of water, two-storey high, is barrelling right for us. Jesus! I gasp for air and somehow manage to scream for one last time.                 


 She disappears. I charge in the direction of the Ph Phi Hotel as shallow water streams in from the pier side. It swarms the hotel entrance and swirls around me; seizing my ankles. I fight to lift my legs in the now knee high water but it' s strong as cement.  I' m bolted down. Trapped. Everything around me is flooding in the rising water and the massive wave appears closer and closer.  The sound of it is deafening as it looms down the road toward me.  THIS IS IT!       

Mary Mother of God help me!” My final call for help surfaces from the depth of my soul, saved for this moment.

I remember a classroom, lined with rows of little girls sitting at petit desks wearing white starchy blouses and navy blue pleated tunics. My penny loafers side by side with my hands folded ‘to minimize fidgeting.' I look up at an old but kind face, framed by a habit. Sister Leonita is one of the few nuns left at the school who continues to wear one.

“Girls, listen up. If you are ever caught in a moment of desperation say, ‘Mary Mother of God help me,' and your  prayers will be answered.  Over in the convent, this morning, I came across a remarkable story in the newspaper. Not far from here, there was a devastating fire. A  young woman was trapped in a burning building, surrounded by mad hot flames. Do you know what she did?”

I put up my hand. “She prayed Sister.”
Yes dear, she prayed.” She rewards me with a coconut candy wrapped in cellophane. “And girls, what did she say?” 
The entire class chants in, “Mary Mother of God help me.”
That' s right. Now, girls, remember to ask for God' s help when you need it. Pray for me, pray for your parents, and pray for strength. Who would like a candy?”
Me, me, me sister!”

 I brace myself for the inevitable. Eyes clench. Teeth clench. Fists clench. 
NO! NO! NO!” 

 Water blasts into me, swallows me whole, drags me away.  I' m completely submerged.  I don' t know up. I don' t know down.  It  pummels me into the unknown, pulling my limbs in every direction. I' m struck from behind. I' m struck from above. My arms flail.  My legs flail.  I' m a rag doll in a washing machine being tossed with the contents of an entire island.

Suddenly the water pressure lessens, but I' m slammed onto the side of a building. Oxygen bubbles rush past me underwater as I hear the screech of metal twisting, the crack of wood breaking, and the crash of buildings collapsing into the water. I open my burning eyes. My face is near the surface. I struggle to push my mouth to the air above, but I can' t move my arms, can' t move my legs.  Something is on my left.  Something is on my right.  I' m pinned between crushing debris.  I feel it tearing at my skin.  My body caves in, as if I' m wedged between elevator doors. Aching for air, I wiggle my arms, wiggle my shoulders, wiggle my legs. The debris ompresses further, capturing me in a jail. The water is now still.  I squirm one last time. One last effort.   

Air. I need air. I don' t want to die. I can' t believe this. I don' t want to die.  My body goes limp.  A burn ricochets through my nose.  A prickle radiates throughout my entire body like needles attacking from the inside.  Death hovers as my mind races; I refuse to accept my fate.

How can this be it for me?  I don' t want to die. I don' t want to die here.  Not now. There' s so much more I want to do.  There' s so much more I want to experience. Get married.  Have a family.  I' m really drowning.  How can this be?  This can' t possibly be happening to me.  God, I need air. I need air.

I close my eyes, and see my mother' s face. My mom who' s always been there for me. It brings me comfort. I see Kris as the first time I saw him: smiling brown eyes, toothy grin, dimpled cheeks. I remember our hike up Grouse Mountain.  Him checking over his shoulder, giving me his hand, pulling me along. We pass a child sitting on a step panting from exhaustion.  Kris offered him water. I embrace his image with a full heart. No air, I feel at peace…letting go…

Without warning, a second rush of water, more explosive than the first, blasts into my death trap. My arms, my legs, they' re free! Relief is flushed out by the relentless rush gushing over me. The surge storms my body.  I' m being tossed again, in some evil, never ending playground ride. 

Random objects shoot through the water like arrows.  My cheek is hit. My chest is hit.  My forehead is hit. I feel no pain. The sensation of the of the wave overrides all. I try to draw my flailing hands to my face. Impossible. My arms are yanked from my control, seized by the water.

 The current torpedoes me along. I keep my legs streamlined, my arms tight across my chest forcing my face to light. Above, water mixes with air creating spray.  I strain my jaw upward and gulp it.  Something whacks my nose.  I manage to cover my face with my hands slamming my eyes shut. The water is warm. I' m buoyant and pretend to be somewhere else…on a water slide.  I pray the ride is over soon, and surrender as it pushes me along.  I slip into unconsciousness. Darkness. Silence.

I wake, underwater, drowning again. My limbs are free. I look above into darkness.  I' m down deep.  The weight of the water crushes me.  Debris boxes me in.  I turn left…black.  I turn right…a faint circle of light. Instinct guides me to swim! Swim!  Swim for your life!  Adrenaline fuels me and I sever a path through the filthy, now motionless, water.  Swim! Swim! Swim!  I kick and I kick and I keep kicking charging through the wet darkness. Something hits my face. Something hits my arm. My only focus is the halo in the distance. Life.

Circle nears.  My head throbs, my heart thumps fighting with me. My muscles blaze in pain. I need to breathe now.  Now! Keep kicking, Christine.  Focus on the light. Get to it.  The halo shines brighter.  The circle grows larger. Last chance. Fight. Arms reach. Hands reach. Fingers reach. Legs thrash. Need to breath. The light. The light. The light…

 Swoosh! My head breaks the surface. I suck in air like a vacuum on high. Oxygen fills my lungs like cold milk pouring into a glass.  My shoulders follow. Finally, finally, I can breathe.  I tread water up to my neck and scream:



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