There are some experiences in life that get tied to shockingly big events and that day in December nine years ago stands out starkly from the canvas of blurred background memories. Back then, my father was living and working in Indonesia, with intermittent visits to family in home country India. My mother and sister had together been to Indonesia before but it was my first time as we all traveled on vacation to Indonesia in December 2004.
Indonesia is a shining jewel when it comes to tropical natural beauty and it deserves pages upon pages praising its flora, fauna, climate, geography and people. But it is unfortunate when it comes to location and geological features because of the highest number and levels of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the world. It will be one of the first countries with land masses that are predicted to go under when sea levels rise due to global warming. But once anyone travels there, these statistics are quickly overshadowed by the wonder one feels at its natural beauty.
My father lived in the city Medan on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. A few hours drive from Medan lies 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 that fateful day of December 26 in cottages lining the shores of Lake Toba. We woke up to a nice morning and began to get ready. My sister was taking a shower while my father, mother and I spent time around on the patio in front of the cottage, looking out at the water, the mountains and the scenery beyond. Suddenly, we felt our own selves, the surroundings and the earth begin to sway as if we happened to be 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 such a strange sensation: everyone, collectively, had begun to feel dizzy in spite of feet being planted on solid ground. We clung to door frames and walls for support as what felt like a seismic wave passed through. After it was over, our neighbors, 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 an earthquake that had left no property or life damage in the area we were in but had penetrated our brains to shake our sense of balance. 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 bath.
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 Tami Nadu, South India told him via a phone call how the ocean had come in and claimed 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 epicenter of the earthquake. It bore the maximum brunt of the tsunami originating in the Indian Ocean that struck soon after, proving to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, affecting around fourteen countries. Back in India, phone calls from 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 Indonesia 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 among them was strolling about and happened to wander close to the entrance of the lounge without knowing what the place was. Probably looking for something to eat and drink, he seemed to be asking a staff member from the lounge about the place or something related to where he could get food and drink. The staff member may have clarified that the lounge was meant for exclusive people only. The aid worker went back to his group while the staff member hurried inside the lounge. I guessed that he might have had a word with his seniors because when he came out accompanied with a man who looked like a manager, they called out to the soldier who the staff member had met previously and they seemed to be offering the whole group the services of the lounge free of cost. Bowing and smiling, they welcomed and ushered in the uniformed soldiers trooping into the lounge. This gesture of kindness and gratitude from one group of humans in appreciation for the humanitarian work done by another warmed my heart and I locked away what I had witnessed as a reminder of the basic courtesy and goodness that people are capable of.
Years later, as the Internet advanced, I watched innumerable Youtube videos of the tsunami in morbid fascination. But I was also glad about the tsunami warning systems that fell in place as a consequence of the disaster of December 2004. Another time long after, in January 2011, I went on honeymoon to Phuket, Thailand, another place severely affected by the tsunami of 2004. In the cottage at the beach, I lay in bed at night listening to the sound of the waves outside the window and experiencing a moment of terror as I imagined monstrous waves advancing through the dark. Even now, after moving to California, USA, I pause at times to try to listen to 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.
The forces of nature are truly beyond our power and capable of striking any where and any time at their whim and fancy.