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In December 2004, people in fourteen countries witnessed the Earth tremble below them, and their lives changed by an angry ocean. Here is an account of that fateful day of earthquakes and the tsunami of 2004.
Some life or travel experiences happen to get tied to world-rattling events either directly or indirectly, and that day in December, ten years ago, stands out starkly from my canvas of blurred background memories. Back then, my father was living and working in Indonesia, with intermittent visits to family back in India. I got a chance to visit him there in December 2004, along with my mother and younger sister.
Indonesia is a shining jewel of tropical natural beauty. However, when it comes to location and geological features, a curse seems to lie like an invisible veil over the archipelago. It has the highest number and levels of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the world, and is predicted to be one of the first landmasses to go under when sea levels rise due to global warming. However, once a traveller enters this country, all these alarming statistics seem to get overshadowed by the wonder one feels at its flora, fauna, climate, geography, and people.
My father lived in the city Medan on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. A few hours drive away from Medan lay Toba, a massive lake and the site of a supervolcano that was the largest known explosive volcanic eruption on Earth in the last twenty-five million years.
We were spending the eventful day of December 26, 2004 (corrected), in one of the cottages lining the shores of that extensive water body. Waking up to a pleasant morning, we began to get ready so that we could go sightseeing. My sister was taking a shower, while my father, mother, and I lounged on the patio in front of the cottage, looking out at the water, the mountains, and the scenery beyond.
Suddenly, we felt ourselves and the surroundings begin to sway as if we were sitting in one of those huge boat-shaped rides in amusement parks that swing with increasing momentum from one side to the other. It was a strange sensation – with everyone collectively feeling dizzy in spite of our feet being planted on solid ground. We clung to door frames and walls for support as a massive seismic wave passed through.
It was a strange sensation – with everyone collectively feeling dizzy in spite of our feet being planted on solid ground.
After it was over, our neighbours, who had also been chilling in their patio, and who had sprung up to steady themselves, shouted out across to us asking in disbelief if we had experienced the strange phenomenon as well. By then, all of us had recognized that it had been a powerful earthquake that had surprisingly left no property or life damage in the area we were in, but had penetrated our brains to shake our sense of balance to the core. My sister, however, had not noticed anything out of the ordinary and joked that a person is not affected by external events when enclosed in the bathroom, enjoying a good wash!
There were no smart devices and expansive Internet connectivity back then, and it was only on the way back to the city that the seriousness of the event slowly dawned upon us. My father’s colleague, who had family in Tamil Nadu, South India, told him via a mobile phone call how the ocean had come in to claim the land and people along the coast.
Although I had read about tsunamis in general before, I could not wrap my head around what exactly had happened until we reached home, turned on the television and gasped at what had occurred. The city of Banda Aceh, on the same island of Sumatra that we were on, was the closest major city to the epicentre of the earthquake. It bore the maximum brunt of the tsunami originating in the Indian Ocean, proving to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, affecting around fourteen countries.
Back in India, phone calls from our concerned friends and relatives rang and rang to an empty, locked-up house since my grandmother who lived with us had also gone for a temporary stay with a relative while we were away.
A few days later, it was time for us to leave and as we waited at the airport we saw a steady stream of volunteers, soldiers, and aid workers flow through. I vividly remember an incident that occurred there. Close to where we were sitting inside the airport was a high-end private lounge meant for privileged members, probably with membership names like ‘gold’ and ‘platinum’. Also near us was a group of strong but tired-looking men in international military uniforms and rescue-jackets with their luggage and aid gear sprawled over chairs and on the floor of the airport. A soldier or an aid worker from their group was strolling about and happened to wander close to the entrance of the lounge.
Probably looking for something to eat and drink, he seemed to be asking a staff member about the place or something related to where he could get a meal. The staff member pointed to a signboard, which specified that only people with exclusive membership were permitted to enter the place. The aid worker then went back to his group while the employee disappeared inside the lounge.
When he came out, he was accompanied by a man who looked like a manager. They called out to the soldier who the staff member had met previously and from their actions, they seemed to be offering the whole group the services of the lounge. Bowing and smiling, they welcomed and ushered in all the uniformed soldiers. This gesture of kindness and gratitude from one group of humans in appreciation for the humanitarian work done by another warmed my heart. I locked away in my mind this shining example of the basic courtesy and goodness that people are capable of.
This gesture of kindness and gratitude from one group of humans in appreciation for the humanitarian work done by another warmed my heart.
Years later, as the Internet advanced, I watched innumerable YouTube videos of the tsunami in morbid fascination. In January 2011, my husband and I spent our honeymoon at Phuket, Thailand, another place severely affected by the tsunami of 2004. In our beach-side cottage, I lay in bed at night listening to the sound of the waves outside the window. For a moment, I let my imagination take control to experience the sheer terror of monstrous waves advancing through the dark and washing away everything in its way like a bunch of matchsticks.
Even now, living in California, USA, I am aware of the ticking time bomb underneath our feet as we sit on the San Andreas Fault that has been responsible for prior devastating earthquakes in the region. Sure enough, one night in August this year, my husband and I were awakened in the middle of the night by the severe rattling of the fragile closet doors in our bedroom and the heavy shaking of the bed caused by an earthquake that had occurred around a hundred miles from our home.
It is incidents like these that show how the vagaries of nature are truly beyond our power and are capable of striking any where and at any time according to their whim.
Pic credit: Image of waves breaking via Shutterstock.
Deepti Nalavade Mahule is a book lover. She maintains a blog called 'Dancing Fingers Singing
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