Phuket

A trip that took fifteen years to happen, and the fear that it revived.

I think I was eight years old. Actually, I’m pretty sure I was eight years old, because the year was 2004, and it was winter vacation. I must’ve been eight.

At this point in my life, I was fortunate enough to have been well acquainted with travel. My parents had driven my brother and I around parts of the States, and flown us to India and Thailand a few times. While I sometimes threw up on planes, I was not scared of them. I knew that some had televisions screens and games and some did not. I knew that some would give me snacks I liked and some would not. A plane was, now that I remember it, the first place I encountered a triangularly cut ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Some would call it one of the delicacies of the 13,000 feet high community. These people are probably under the age of ten.

This particular winter, we were making a stop in New Delhi before flying to Thailand. This would be our second trip to Thailand as a family, and our first time visiting the famous beaches of Phuket.

When my dad first mentioned Phuket, I found it so hard to remember the name. I think at one point I just started calling it “Beach Bangkok” or “Thailand Beach”. My friends were, of course, still dazzled by my unspecific description, and because they could never relay the information back to their parents, I never had to worry about unexpected visitors on our trip. Not that it was a concern, but it was cool to go somewhere others hadn’t been before.

Going to India as a child was always linked to a wedding or a holiday. There were things happening, people we had to meet, and food we had to carefully navigate to avoid food poisoning. This latter point was especially important for me, since I’ve never had a strong stomach, and had a habit of eating whatever seemed remotely appetizing in my immediate surroundings. The day that I remember from that winter, however, was at home in my grandparents’ apartment.

They had just moved into that apartment, and because my dad had been on a business trip to India earlier in the year, I had only seen pictures of it from his visit. It was a fun new space to tread around, with a centrally situated seating area, complete with a large television to gather around. My grandfather was with the U.N., so the living room was decked with trinkets from around the world and books that he’d collected over the years. It was cluttered with memories and decorated with velvety, warm furniture and mismatched rugs. Every piece had a story which both challenged and complemented its neighbors. The room, and the whole apartment, carried with it the eclectic chaos and calming warmth that only grandparents can curate. It was a safe place, and it felt like home, even if I hadn’t really been there before.

That evening, we were sitting in the family area surrounded by space heaters. The nippy Delhi winter made Decembers an interesting time to visit, especially in apartments designed to keep the heat out. Nevertheless, we made up for it by bundling up, wearing chappals to protect our feet from the cold tile floors, and plugging in space heaters, lots and lots of space heaters.

It was Christmas time, a good time to leave the television running because of the mostly positive programming that runs on. My grandfather had a certain love for the news, however, and so it was the news that lulled in the background of card games and chai. It was the news that flashed red and blue banners, indicating that something was terribly wrong. That was the first time I remember recognizing and remembering the word “Phuket”.

I still carry the images that flashed on that screen in my mind today. Huge waves towering over buildings, crashing, taking down trees. There was one repeated image where a man, who looked no larger than a small bird, was instantly swallowed by the Indian Ocean. Water rushed through the streets, gushing in and out of windows, destroying everything in its path.

My parents stood up and approached the screen, as if it would assure them the images were fake if they came closer. They immediately turned back and around and started making phone calls.

My dad told me later that the hotel we were going to stay at while in Phuket had called, claiming that our room was still ready for us. He to this day doesn’t believe that to be true. Our destination was quickly changed to Bangkok, cutting two flights and a resort stay out of our itinerary. From what I remember it was a good trip.

When we returned to Portland a few weeks later, it was clear that the media was not done talking about the tsunami. Its sheer size and reach was astounding, the damage and death toll horrifying. At my age, the news coverage — ironically — didn’t really hold much water, but something that aired shortly after did.

I watched the Discovery Channel a lot with my dad, and still do. It’s informative, pretty, and intriguing — the perfect viewing package. What aired that evening was a little different than the usual antelope-stalking felines.

Someone, who I’m still upset with to this day, crafted a computer-generated simulation of what it would look like if a 100-foot super tsunami were to hit Portland, Oregon. They showed water knocking over buildings, Mount Hood’s ski slopes washed clean of infrastructure, and screaming citizens running out of a local Target. Why? Well, there were some scientists conjecturing potential future tsunamis, or something. To be honest, I didn’t really process much else. All I saw was that some giant wave was about to destroy my entire home. I slowly stood up and walked to my room.

I had trouble sleeping for weeks. Almost every night I either dreamt about running away from a tsunami or that the wall of my room would be broken through by the evil mega-wave I saw on television that night. I was terrified. That marked the beginning of a life-long apprehension towards beaches. To this day I keep an eye out for receding water.

While these events sparked a fear of tsunami’s in my mind, they also created an ominous perception of Phuket. While I knew close to nothing about the province, something always felt a little off, and it’s taken me til now to get over it.

Before I go on, I have to clarify: No, I didn’t base this perception off of a single event. In fact, there have been three to four separate instances where my parents have tried to book another family trip to Phuket, and guess what? Every. Time. Something. Happens. We always end up canceling. Every time. Sometimes there’s a health emergency in the family, sometimes there’s an event we can’t miss. I don’t know what it was, but Phuket just didn’t want us to come, and I was totally fine with that.

This is why my parents laughed when they saw that my Fulbright placement was a five hour drive from Phuket. The irony was too delicious to ignore. I was about to jump into the belly of the beast that I had been avoiding for so long — or at least get on its dinner plate.

Until this past weekend, the closest I’d gotten to Phuket was Krabi. My family and I drove down for New Years this past December and had a lovely time. We were two hours away from Phuket. Fine by me.

While at home in April, I got an interesting email from the Fulbright Thailand Office:

“Dear Nakhon Si Thammarat ETAs,

I hope you are enjoying your travel na ka.

During June 20–21, Fulbright Thailand will co-host with the Secondary Educational Service Area 14 in Phuket…Since three of you are not far from Phuket, so we would like to invite you to be our speakers for the above mentioned sessions.”

At this point, the prospect of going to Phuket seemed like more of a bad joke than anything else. I was more or less over the fear of beaches after many beach trips, but hadn’t had to deal with the Phuket side of the equation at all. There’d been no real reason for me to go, until now. Of course I wanted to speak at the workshop, and of course I wanted to spend a few days with my friends. And, well, about Phuket. Yay?

A van came and picked us up on the morning of the 19th of June, and we began a relaxed drive from the east to the west coast of the Southern Thailand. The drive was beautiful, lined with lush foliage, towering hills and mountains, and quaint small towns. When we arrived, we were nudged into our rooms and swept up in the hubbub of the conference. We had sessions to coordinate, details to go over, and suggestions to make. It wasn’t until dinner that we finally caught a glimpse of the ominous coastline, but we were far above it, peering down from a restaurant built on what I would call a mountain, or at least a very large hill.

The conference swept by. I had the most incredible time interacting with the bright students that had attended. They were older than the students I usually teach, and their English level was far above what I had anticipated. It was encouraging — we drove back to Nakhon Si Thammarat feeling like we’d done something impactful.

Two weeks later, my parents flew into Thailand. I woke up at around five in the morning and caught a songteaw to the Nakhon Si Thammarat bus terminal. It’s always weird getting up at that time in the morning, when the sun isn’t in the sky, and you only know it’s not evening because the streets are empty and the birds have started warming up their vocal cords.

I had been sick for a few days at that point, and my period was coming to an end. The weather forecast said it was going to be raining for the next few days around the South. It took all of my energy to convince myself that these weren’t more signs from the universe.

I was going to Phuket this time because my father’s company was holding an offsite retreat for its senior leadership team. My mom and brother were coming too, and we decided to make a long weekend out of it. Flying over made no sense for me, since flights from Nakhon Si Thammarat “International” Airport only really go back and forth from Bangkok. So, I bussed.

When I got to station, my printed out bus ticket was met with countless confused expressions and incoherent exchanged murmurs. I was eventually taken over to the other side of the road, where three couples and an old man were waiting outside a barber shop. There were bags of fruit on the path as well.

“This is where the bus comes?” I asked in broken Thai.

The man who took me there nodded. I pulled out my phone and pinned the location for future reference.

The bus finally arrived, and we left promptly at 6:40 am, just as my ticket had predicted. Our first stop? The van station I had arrived at not too long before. I audibly sighed, popped in my headphones and closed my eyes to sleep. On the drive I checked in with my parents and host teachers, assuring them I was fine. We stopped a few times, driving through patches of heavy rainfall. The bus ride is supposed to be five hours long, but it stops, a lot. Five hours stretched to seven.

By the time I got to Phuket, I had eaten lunch, peed twice, and gotten three-fourths of the way through my book. Now that I remember, it was the same book I had started when driving to Phuket with my fellow ETAs a few week prior. One of them had gifted it to me for my birthday. It was Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life?

From the bus station it was another 30 minutes to get to the side of the island where my family was. I was in a loose sweater and wide-legged paper bag pants. My hair was in a tight but messy bun, and my eyes were red and goopy from all the naps I’d taken. It was hot. My parents called and texted me nearly continuously on that drive to the resort, right up until I walked up to the counter and handed in my passport to check-in.

Those four days were nothing short of magical.

Having come before, I was able to offer up the suggestion of trying Phuket’s famous pepper cookies when we were touring around the city as a group. I loved taking people into a 7-eleven and knowing what I wanted, and what they probably wanted as well. When we ate Thai food as a group, I gave helpful input, and ordered for us in Thai. I felt like I was welcoming people to my home, even though I was on the other side of the country.

Our room was fantastic, filled with little candied and chocolate covered fruits, hot rain showers and shampoo made from cilantro. We went for massages, swam in the ocean, went scuba-diving, parasailing, and sea-walking. All throughout, I dazzled our hosts with my Thai, and was met with many wide smiles. They seemed refreshed to meet a tourist who was trying.

Khun Kruu, sanuk mai?” (Teacher, did you have fun?) Our parasailing instructor asked me when I landed. He grinned when I nodded with an enthusiastic yes.

My mission on this trip was to get as much time with my family as possible, and eat as much as I could. I would say I did a pretty good job.

My brother and I took up our tradition of trying every single dessert at every buffet we sat down for. It was totally worth it. I played Yu-Gi-Oh with him for the first time, a universe I hadn’t revisited since I was nine years old, and actually won my first game. It was the blue-eyes white dragon triple threat. You know how it is.

My mom and I spent tons of time catching up on what was going on with her at work, and what I was thinking about over the past few months. During my time in Thailand, she’s been the one I talk to the most. She calls me almost every day while she’s driving back home from work.

My mom, brother, and I also took a cooking class together. We got picked up in the morning, went to a market, and then drove over to a small house on the other side of the island. Pi Bui, who led the class, walked us through green curry, Pad Thai, fried bananas, and mango and sticky rice. Watching my mom take notes and identify ingredients was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. We ate almost all of our food. I swear I couldn’t breathe by the time we had to waddle into the car to go back home.

Ingredients for our recipes

On the last night, my dad and I got matching tattoos. We’d been talking about it for a while, and finally settled for some 2 centimeter tall sequoias against a delicate ring. We got them on our right legs, just above the ankle, around the lower calf. It was his first and my second one. They were done in black ink. I designed them on powerpoint.

On our last night there, I got my food fixes in. We ate sushi just before heading out to get the tattoos, and trekked far off the beaten path to get to a taco restaurant right before it closed. When we arrived, the kitchen was closed, but my mom did that thing where she talked to the waiter like she was reconnecting with someone who’d been expecting us and before we knew it, we all had tacos. There was some sort of open mic night happening. A cricket match from the world cup was playing on the TV to our right, so that’s where my parents’ eyes were, and to the left, old friends were belting out tone-deaf renditions of their favorite songs with the house band. The somber lighting around the bar made me feel like we had stumbled into a secret reunion. Before I could settle in to call the moment perfect, the lead singer of the band announced that it was the manager’s birthday. We all sang to her. My heart felt full. We ended the night by taking an empty songteaw to a grocery store so my mom could pick up some ingredients for future Thai cooking projects. We got home at around 2 a.m.

Tacos and sushi

When I came back to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I was exhausted but content. Of course, my mom had brought in countless goodies from India and the States for me to enjoy, so my first task involved sorting through my new snacks and unpacking my clothes. I finally had the roll-on deodorant that I’d needed two months ago and the khakhara I didn’t know I needed. For the first time in a while, I felt refreshed.

It was wonderful leaving Phuket knowing that a certain weight had been lifted. I was glad to know that since 2004, resorts and locals had really stepped up their tsunami preparedness. Feeling silly about being so afraid before, I Googled some of these developments, and even looked back at some of the reporting that I had seen almost fifteen years ago.

After the 2004 tsunami, I remember developing a sort of fearful fascination with natural disasters. To this day I love scary movies and spooky stories, but natural disasters hit me a different way. By the age of nine I had proudly declared that they were the thing I was most afraid of in the world, but also couldn’t seem to tear myself away from the spectacular footage that aired on the Discovery Channel so often. I think it was the sublime nature of them that captivated me — how we had no control over them, how nature was less predictable that I had known. Sublime was a word I learned the full meaning of during a Gothic Fiction class in college. I wrote about the tsunami in that class.

I also find it an amazing coincidence that the movie Twister came about about a month before I was born. My parents watched it when my mom was pregnant with me. I watched it a little after the 2004 tsunami. It fuelled both the fear and the fascination. I was terrified of tornadoes, even while living in a place where they pretty much never happened. In 2006, just before our move to India, trailers for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth started popping up everywhere. I remember thinking it was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever seen. To this day I’ve never seen the movie. I don’t know if I ever will.

The natural disaster internet rabbit-hole that consumed my pre-teen years made its comeback that evening. I clicked around and saw some huge tornadoes, comforted by the fact that I was so far away from them, but horrified by their sheer power. Soon I was on a Wikipedia page for the movie Twister, checking to see if it was based on a true story. I then put something funny on Netflix and tried to go to bed.

The present-day internet has a funny way of picking up on your search habits. It can track where you go, but obviously has no way of really knowing what you want to revisit, and what you would rather leave behind. When I pulled up Facebook the next morning, my heart thumped as I saw what an algorithm had offered me for my easy morning reading, not unlike a cat offers a dead bird to its owner after going on a hunt at dusk.

It was a Pulitzer-Prize winning article written by Kathryn Shultz. It had been published in the New Yorker in 2015. It was called “The Really Big One”.

Don’t get me wrong, the piece is absolutely brilliant, but it is one of the most terrifying things I’d ever read. I’m not going to attempt to sum it up, because I can’t do it justice; you’ll have to to read it yourself. For the purpose of this post, however, I’ll say this. In essence, it was about an overdue earthquake. That and, you guessed it, a gigantic tsunami.

It felt like a sick joke, and whether the article had genuinely started generating buzz again after four years, or the internet found its way into my fear is unclear. My heart started thumping. I looked at my Fitbit and saw that my heart rate had hit 94. After a few hours, a sort of quiet washed over my mind. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen. I needed to calm down.

While the unexpected and unknown are terrifying, at least I know that I cannot control them. All those quotes about humans being a small blip in the earth’s history come to mind, and while they make me feel small, they assure me that these fears have been considered in the past, and it is not worth my time to perpetually ponder the what-ifs of mother nature.

That being said, I don’t think it would be responsible for me to end this piece saying that all my fears have been erased. I have not been able to write them off as uncontrollable, because a lot of the larger-than-life natural disasters are, in fact, happening around the world, and a lot of them are our fault.

Sure, it’s not tornadoes and tsunamis. We can’t avoid the rate at which tectonic plates collide, or the way hot air pushes its way around cold air on flat plains. No. I’m talking about the other greatest hits. Forest fires. Landslides. Draught. I’m thinking of floods, tropical storms, melting icebergs. Acidifying oceans, suffocating pollution, and disappearing animals.

I want to say that I’m not afraid because the tourism industry of Phuket has found measures to evacuate the beaches if a tsunami is detected. I want to say that I feel safe because tornado warnings and shelters are abundant in places where tornadoes occur. I want to say that my heart rate didn’t spike back up to 94 when I saw articles about the U.N.’s report on the climate crisis, and when activists like Greta Thunberg have said things like, “you did not act in time”.

I want to say that the memes on the internet about climate change scoffing at my prospect for a family and future make me laugh, but they don’t. I want to say that I know the government wants to take steps to change the way we live our lives, and that they know enough is enough, but I don’t. I want to say that articles about how we’re depleting our resources faster than the earth can regenerate them don’t scare me more than a horror movie, but I cannot.

I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that reading that Po Bronson book will be obsolete within the next few decades. I’m afraid that my aspirations for sushi and tacos will turn into aspirations for clean drinking water. I’m afraid that going to the beach with my future family will no longer be a possibility by the time I’m ready to go.

I’m truly afraid.

I feel like more of us need to be.

This blog, medium.com/@aatal, is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of Apeksha Atal and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations

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Apeksha Atal

Apeksha Atal

Trying to make sense of the world, one word at a time

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