I sat on the beach in a plastic chair in front of massage bungalow #9. Giovanni sat next to me. We were planning on getting oil massages in a few hours so the massage shack let us use their white plastic chairs shielded from the sun by trees on the beach. But for now we felt relaxed watching the aqua ocean and each small wave go back and forth.
Giovanni’s mom, Sandra, was lying on a beach mat in front of the sea with a multicolored umbrella keeping her shaded. The wind blew in our faces, but I wasn’t sure the breeze was the cause of my chair vibrating. Giovanni said he felt a small earthquake, but I continued to feel the vibration and small movements of my plastic chair. Giovanni’s mom turned and looked toward us and asked if we felt the earthquake. We confirmed and then looked at the girls sitting behind us who also felt the shake for a few minutes.
Sandra looked quite anxious as she had watched all the 2004 tsunami videos on YouTube before departing to Thailand, and quickly gathered her belongings on the beach. Giovanni went to inform the massage people that we would return the following day since we were worried about the earthquake. And then the news; there had just been an 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.
We decided to start walking back to our hotel to get our passports. As we started our brisk walk back, we noticed nearly all the locals were talking on cell phones. The ladies of one of the massage shacks confirmed the news about the earthquake, but insisted that we still get a massage. We continued walking and saw the fear on the faces of women of a different massage shack as they shooed off their oily half-dressed customers and started packing their shack by gathering the pillows, sheets, and skinny mattresses. Giovanni’s mom became frantic. She started to run and told people walking the opposite way towards the beach, “tsunami, tsunami.” The people looked confused and continued to walk disregarding the news. So we speed walked and jogged back to our hotel, which was located 20 m across the street from the beach. As we entered the hotel, the cleaning ladies stood nervously by their room filled with supplies. We ran by towards our room in the back of the hotel. And that’s when we heard the official alarm. It sounded like a quieter and more irregular version of a fire alarm, with one long beep twice a minute or so.
We each chose our most valuable items. For me, it was my purse in which I packed my netbook and cell phone. Giovanni had our passports and money belts as well as his laptop, cell phone, and charger for his laptop. I then ran to the fridge and grabbed the three glass bottles of water inside. Sandra grabbed her purse and a plastic bag filled with mosquito repellant, our stuffed monkey, toilet paper (which was useful), and some other random stuff. We then ran down to the stairs back to the street to find a tuk-tuk. I was prepared to start walking uphill, but Sandra was really panicked despite Giovanni’s efforts to calm her down and saw her life flashing before her eyes. She knew every minute counted.
There were no tuk-tuks at the side of the road next to our hotel where they were always parked. People beat us to them. Then I saw one empty tuk-tuk in the middle of the street between cars and motorcycles. We made eye contact with the driver and he courteously stopped in the middle of traffic so the three of us could hop on. When he asked us where we wanted to go, Giovanni and Sandra both replied in unison “up, up, up.” He smiled and understood the anxiety. We then started climbing the road with the 100 cc engine carrying the four of us. We continued for 5 minutes, watching both tourists and locals hurriedly walk up the road beside us. Then the lady that we would buy pancakes and smoothies passed us on her moped. Once I saw her pass, I took a deep breath. I was most worried about our friends Laura and Mike, who had just visited us from San Francisco and now they were on a ferry to Phuket to catch a flight from the Phuket airport. Are they going to be safe if a big wave hits and they’re on the water? I racked my mind gathering what I knew about tsunamis, which is next to nothing. Then I stopped this useless exercise.
I let the wind blow my hair back as we continued climbing the mountain with the tuk-tuk driver still asking us where we want to stop. Sandra asked about the tsunami in 2004 and how many kilometers the water had invaded into the city and the driver said 2-3 km. I then looked at his arm and all the hairs were standing straight up. He was obviously as nervous at the rest of us. At one point, Giovanni started asking about the cost of the ride, and then the three of us started laughing. Are we really going to negotiate with the driver at this moment? Sandra was willing to pay whatever she had at that moment.