BY JABIZ RAISDANA
Jabiz Raisdana is a writer and former NYC public school teacher, living and teaching in Malaysia the time this story was written, and now living in Qatar. Check out his website: http://intrepidflame.blogspot.com/. On Sunday, December 26, 2004 he and his wife, staying on Koh Phi Phi Island in Thailand, rented a sail boat and headed out to sea. Then, everything went wrong. This is his story. An excerpt from “Five Minutes” was read by writer and friend Reed Dickson at the January 16, 2005 Sunday Salon.
We were evacuated the next morning at dawn. A week has passed since then. Our clothes have been replaced, the phone calls home made. I have been told repeatedly how lucky I am. I shake my head, smile and anticipate it.
“We were real lucky, missed it by five minutes.” I say as I wonder if the person I’m speaking to has any idea what I am talking about. Nothing makes sense. I wanted to tell it from beginning to end, but I am learning, that like all stories there is never a clear beginning nor satisfying conclusion. Like all stories there is an infinite number of places to begin, but all have eluded me up to now. I will begrudgingly start from this point, an arbitrary spot and hope the circle will fill itself out in the end.
After ten days on Koh Phi Phi Island nothing could have felt truer. The days were filled with blue skies, lucid water and carefree thoughts. The sun shone long and hot everyday and time passed as if once and for all released from the regiment of the clock.
My wife and I woke up every morning around 9:45 and went to bed at eleven. Each day was filled with three to four Thai pancakes with Nutella and two to three ears of grilled corn, covered with butter and salt. An afternoon nap, around three, after a shower was customary, as was a morning activity and reading before lunch. We had been scuba diving, cliff jumping, kayaking, and so on Sunday we had set up time for sailing!
We were supposed to have gone the day before, in the afternoon. We had made arrangements to rent the small two-person catamaran and were waiting patiently, reading on the beach, waiting for one to become available. As we made our way to the small shop on the beach to make the final preparations, the man told us the tide was going out and we had better come back the following day. I was disappointed and annoyed. I mumbled some things under my breath, to express my dissatisfaction.
Why did the guy say to come back in an hour, if he knew the tide was going out?”
What difference does it make? We’ll go first thing in the morning.” Mairin said.
“Yeah, but I wanted to go out now.”
“What are you five? Let it go. Let’s go take a nap.”
We walked off to our room to take a nap. My skin was warm from the sun, my stomach was full and the one beer I had drunk at lunch had made me comfortably drowsy. I cracked my neck, by moving it first to the right, then the left and enjoyed the feeling of the hot sad between my toes, as we walked to our room. So we couldn’t go sailing. Big deal. We would go tomorrow, first thing.
Looking back at that moment, that “tomorrow, first thing”, is when this story became difficult to tell.
The day began outside the door of our bungalow on Koh Phi Phi. It was nine fifteen and we were slowly closing and locking up our dreams and opening the door to Sunday December 26th. The tide was high in Ao Lo Dalam, the bay right outside our hotel. Ao Lo Dalam is a shallow bay that opens up into the Andaman Sea. The beach stretches about half a mile wide and is about one hundred yards from the sand to the lip of the bay. The bay itself is only about five feet at its deepest, making for postcard perfect blue water. On any given day it is filled with small Hobbie Wave sail boats, the kind we tried to rent the day before, Para sailors, water skiers, large water bicycles, people on blow up rafts and people simply sitting in groups talking, cooling off from the sun.
The water at the lip of the bay suddenly drops off and becomes much deeper and darker. There is a certain feline quality to the shade of aqua; a warm, seductive, inviting blue shimmers and reflects the two huge limestone cliffs that shoot up to the sky. Koh Phi Phi is shaped like a huge H. Ao Lo Dalam is the upper half of the H. The lower side is made up of Ao Ton Sai. While the water is calm and accessible in Ao Lo Dalam, the water off Ton Sai is all business. It is much deeper and thus friendlier to traffic. The harbor is built on this side of the island, and the water is littered with traditional Long boats, with their over extended propellers sitting out of the water, waiting for a group of tourist to pay the $20 fee to go on an island tour, snorkeling or cliff jumping trip.
Tan men, smoking cigarettes stand in packs propositioning their services while they carry on their own conversations in Thai.
In between these two bays is the lifeblood of Phi Phi Island. There is a series of winding alleyways, weaving through it. The entire strip is less than fifty yards wide. The hundreds of shops can be classified into a few categories. The first is the Internet café/travel agency. These shops offer a plethora of services; from simple computer access to downloading photos, trips to the Similan islands, back to Phuket, Krabi or Bangkok. Next is the bootleg DVD/CD store. Small shops specializing in regurgitating western culture back to the westerners at reduced prices. The latest Hollywood movies are available for less than the price of popcorn in the States.
I thought it was strange that a country rich with culture, beautiful clothing, and music would profit more from selling the very things the tourist had escaped from. Britney Spears sang from every stall as we walk around looking for something beautiful. The irony, however, did not end with the DVD stalls; the next type of store is what I called the backpacker uniform store. There are countless stores specializing in selling North Face backpacks and cargo shorts, a variety of beer t-shirts and colorful swim trunks and thin flowing linen clothing. Next-door, the tattoo shop. Whether you prefer traditional bamboo or modern gun, a myriad of stalls sit waiting for tan skin to be inked up with tribal patterns.
Then, there are also shops selling the most delicate and beautiful Buddha statues. These items sit patiently on store shelves, eyes closed. I could almost hear them whispering their wisdoms, “We can learn about others by studying ourselves” and “The ultimate dimension of reality has nothing to do with concepts.” A small kitten runs across the alley dodging bicycle wheels, bare feet and a rolling suitcase. There is the smell of incense. A candle burns inside, and outside the morning sun.
Outside too are women selling grilled corn and Thai pancakes, smoothies and sandwiches. Next is the massage shop. Specializing in oil massage, foot massage, pedicure, facial, aromatherapy, full body, and back massage. Each one is filled with six to eight beds all side by side. Woman and androgynous men sit outside echoing the taxi boatmen.
People walk by. Some stop. The women continue to talk amongst themselves. There is also the dive shop, the ATM, the restaurant, the small liquor store and yes the 7-11. The alleys are made of cobblestone and there are no cars anywhere on the island. There is confusion; it is crowded and touristy, but somehow very comfortable and calm. People are polite and move slowly in the sun.
Outside the door of our bungalow the day had begun on Koh Phi Phi. It was nine fifteen and we were slowly closing and locking up our dreams and opening the door to Sunday December 26th. Who thinks that every minute of their lives is precious? Who thinks that a five-minute span could determine their future? What person contemplates each moment as it passes, thinking that if they spend a few more minutes in the shower, they could end up dead?
After we were dressed, we stepped outside and headed toward breakfast, Mairin stopping to pet E.T. the cat she had taken to feeding and naming. She now spent every night on our porch waiting for Mairin’s leftovers. She had recently given birth and her nipples hung low. She looked tired and pleased to be free of her kittens. Breakfast was the same as every other day: cheese croissant, two waffles covered in chocolate, three mini pancakes in syrup, three pieces of pineapple, three pieces of watermelon, and tea.
“Do you want to read on the beach for a while or go get the boat first thing?” Sounding more like one of a million meaningless, arbitrary choices we make in a day or in a lifetime, this was not a life or death question then.
“Let’s get the boat.” I said. It was 10:00am.
I had never sailed before. As per usual I took my, “how hard can it be,” approach to life and listened carefully as the man explained the working of the rudder and the sail. We had rented a small two-person catamaran. The man showed me how to switch sides in accordance with the wind, how to lock the rope to keep the sail locked, and asked to be taken back to the shore. We dropped him off and headed out of the bay toward the sea. We moved slowly. I was having trouble catching a breeze and the boat sat idly in the shallow water. About half way out of the bay, the water started to ripple like a shallow river. I noticed that the water was both receding and coming in simultaneously.
I thought the strange occurrence had to do with the full moon. I was worried that I would have to get out and push the boat into deeper water. Releasing the rope and moving the sail to try and catch the wind, I was a bit nervous about the energy in the water.
The water continued to recede and we sat. Waiting. Suddenly the boat began to move quickly out toward the darker, deeper water. In a matter of seconds we were out of the bay on the lip of the bay, where the water was no longer light.
“Now we’re cookin” I said. The wind was blowing and we were shooting through the water. I felt connected to the world. The front of the boat bounced on the small waves and it felt great to be alive. I had no idea what was going on behind me.
“Look behind you, at the bay,” Mairin said.
I turned around to see the entire bay was empty of water. All the rocks were exposed and the bigger sail boats were sitting lop sided on the sand. I couldn’t see any people. The entire world was silent except for the sound of the tight sail, flapping like a drum. A large bird was flying overhead. The entire world was paralyzed and full of peace.
She is sitting in the pool at the Princess Hotel. It overlooks the bay. The lip of the pool allows her to look out into the water. She sips her drink. She is drinking a Sex on the Beach the pineapple garnish riper than she had expected and it leaves a sweet taste in her mouth. It is her second cocktail. She feels guilty because it is only ten. Hair of the dog she says, I am on holiday she says. She watches a small sail boat head out into the bay. The water is swirling and full of energy. The man who rented the boat is shouting for the couple to come back. They cannot hear him. They are still. Now they are moving. They escape. The bay is empty.
He is water skiing. The boat slows down; he leans back and falls into the water. The driver looks to the sea, frowns and turns the boat to pick up the skier. The man in the water notices that the water is draining out of the bay. It is moving quickly. He is terrified for a second. It passes; he is back in the boat. People are running toward land, they leave their rafts behind.
They are sleeping. He is getting a massage. She is spreading honey on a pancake. He is emailing his buddies, because he got laid last night. They are waiting for her to get out of the shower. He is preparing his lobster traps. She is peeling potatoes. He is examining a moray eel, 18 meters deep. They are walking to the look out point. She is complaining about how it is so hot so early. She is washing a pair of underwear in the sink. They are getting off the ferry. He is sleeping on the beach. She is writing in her diary. They are watching a movie at the bakery. He is trying to score some weed. She is getting tattooed, wondering if it safe. She is getting her hair braided. They are arguing. He is taking a photograph. They are having sex. The bay is empty. Then the bay is full of water. It is overflowing. The ocean swallows the land and everything on it.
We didn’t feel a thing. It must have gone right under us. One second the bay was a sand trap, and the next the sailboats were being tossed about like corks in water. The water was the color of chocolate milk and the waves were smashing against the shore. At one point we couldn’t see the beach, for the waves. I steered the boat further toward the sea. The waves looked powerful. How could it be that we were sitting so calmly in the water, when the peaceful bay we had just been in, was now so chaotic?
There were ten to fifteen boats of varying sizes waiting, watching on the lip of the bay. I used the time and the wind to cruise back and forth. The debris from the island floated past us and a large bird continued to fly overhead. The Aragon, a large Sailboat, sent a Zodiac to see what was going on. Tsunami, they said a lot of people dead, things were fucked up. We couldn’t hear any screams; couldn’t see anyone running. There was no panic, just the two of us on a boat in the bay the sun shining and the bird overhead.
Hours passed. The water had too much energy to make it back to shore. It swirled, receded and surged like a flame. Gone was the tranquil water. Gone was the peace. We moved from side to side on the boat, allowing the sail to make use of the wind, we used the sail for shade; our water was almost gone. I thought about my tan. We took photographs. We didn’t know. How could we?
I decided to make it back to the shore. Mairin said to wait, but I have never done well with patience and I wanted to see what was going on. Kayaks floated by, along with coolers, and trees. We were about twenty feet from where we had rented the boat and the beach and everything on it was gone. Floating back to the beach, the air was silent. It was as if time had stopped and we were floating in a void. There were no people, anywhere. Suddenly the water started to recede. Mairin looked terrified and started crying.
“Go back, go back.” She screamed.
Oh my god, what had I done? Why couldn’t have I just waited? My impatience was going to kill us both. The boat was still; there was no wind. I moved the sail back and forth. What had the guy said about trying to catch the wind? Was the water shallow enough to just jump out and swim? No way! What if another wave came?
“It’s okay baby, just relax. We will head back out of the bay as soon as we get a breeze.” I was terrified. Where was the wind?
“There is another wave coming, we have to get out of here.” She looked so vulnerable, like a child. Her eyes were filled with tears.
“This is a sail boat, I can’t just make it move. Just relax. We will be fine.” I was terrified. Where was the wind?
The water moved in circles, rippling. The air was still. Where was the fuckin wind? There! We were a bullet, shot toward the sea again. We were safe. She had stopped crying and I was hoping she wouldn’t see me shaking. Out on the lip of the bay it was quiet; the sun was hot. After seeing what had happened I realized it was worse than I had thought. We waited.
“We have to get to the shore, we can’t sit out here all day.” I adjusted the sail and we moved quickly toward the shore again; this time to the right where I noticed the water was moving toward land. Mairin was tense, nervous and quiet. Neither of us said a word. The beach was empty. Time had apparently stopped.
We finally made it on land, but suddenly I felt safer in the water. To our left some local houses had been completely destroyed. We made out way to the hotels and the center of the island. There are a few three or four story hotels on Phi Phi. They were a bit more luxurious than the bungalow style place where we were staying. I noticed that boats had been pushed up and smashed against the second story of the Cabana Hotel. All the glass in the sliding glass doors and windows had been shattered. The pool was empty and filled with debris. Broken glass littered the ground. I was barefoot. Where were the people?
“What are you doing down there? Hurry! Get up here.” I looked up to see about a hundred people sitting on the roof of the hotel. As we ran through the lobby, I started to realize the magnitude of what had happened. The lobby itself had been completely destroyed. Broken mirrors covered in blood, reflected the muddy walls. All up the stair well bloody footprints marked the way to the wounded. It looked as if a bomb had gone off. I thought of the people of Fallujah. Then I felt nothing, no fear, grief, anger, nothing. I moved up gingerly avoiding the glass and blood. What if another wave were to come?