On December 26, 2004 I was in Bangkok, Thailand volunteering with a Thai humanitarian foundation called Carpe Diem. We were touring through The Royal Grand Palace with young children from Roi Et, a province in the Northern Mountains of Thailand. Carpe Diem was co-founded by my dear friends Shannon Kalayanamitr and Christian Sano, Bangkok philanthropists. We felt the tremors and within moments our cell phones were going off, it was then that we heard about the tsunami hitting the coast of the Andaman Sea which was about 512 miles south from Bangkok.
When I returned to my condo that night and turned on the news I saw the devastation. The previous plan was to pack and head to Chiang Mai on a plane for an extended holiday with my friends, but at that moment I felt I was needed elsewhere, needed in the South of Thailand where tsunami struck.
I called Shannon and said; “We need to go to Phuket, and now.” She agreed and then called her uncle who was the Mayor at the time. We were flown down immediately and stayed in their family’s hotel.
Before we left, my father, a Thai native said to me; “Why are you doing this? Are you crazy? You could be hurt?” something you would expect from a loving father. I replied “How could I not.” And he held me like I was a child, clinging to me with an overbearing hug. We then drove to the airport and said our tearful goodbyes. Although I was 30 years old at the time, the fear that surged through me was something unfamiliar. However, there was something far more powerful that ran through me that felt very real, the need to be of service, and a strength that drove me forward with heart.
A Path With Courage, A Path With Heart.
A Path With Courage, A Path With Heart.
The scenes that greeted us on arrival were complete chaos, far worse than we could ever have imagined it. Bicycles wrapped into pretzels, taxis on top of hotels, and bodies lying everywhere wrapped in linens and black plastic, an image that still haunts me. Our hotel was nearly empty and only a few people had stayed behind, the rest looking for loved ones amongst the devastation. The next morning, I joined the Thai Red Cross Search & Rescue team. A few of us decided to head up to the main hospital in Phuket to help where they had us making coffins. I wanted to do more, to be of service where it was needed the most and so I requested to be reassigned. My request was granted and so my friend Christian and I were taken to the Army Base in Takua Pa, Ban Nam Kem.
That was the longest drive of my life about two hours… scenes from that moment are forever etched into my mind, into my soul. It was then that I could truly see what loss was, and of course gratitude filled me for what I had, although single at the time, I was grateful. Only later did I start suffering from survivor’s guilt, a nasty condition that consumed me for years. We drove through total devastation, I was witness to mother earths sacred power, and the homes, lives and the land which had been transformed, and continued transforming before me. I stood still, very still without breath, awaiting the next moment, the next bend in the road, and more importantly, what awaits us.
Surrounded by the smell of death, bodies lined the roads ready for pick up. The fear and shock from the volunteers soon became masked by duty. I remember the comfort of the cold metal, from the framing of the truck, I leaned into it as a child leaned into their mother… perhaps needing to scream, or fight the internal whirlwind moving through my body. I felt bile burning the back of my throat, a feeling I became quite familiar with, my legs were weak yet tight with anticipation. We all rode in silence, the scenes before our eyes too grim and too painful even for words. We soon arrived at Wat Yan Yao, a large and beautiful temple in Takua Pa a lovely coastal town that lined the Andaman coast. I see the monks walking in their saffron robes, with surgical masks and rubber boots. We have arrived.
SPOILT BEAUTY, AND SOMETHING MORE
The Wat; Thai word for temple had been converted to a temporary morgue. From a distance, just before we pulled up I could see large shipping containers, later to find out they were refrigerated units for the deceased, and at that point at full capacity. Truckloads of bodies were showing up and the military and Search & Rescue teams were lining the bodies up with such tenderness, and such compassion. We all treated the bodies the same way, as if it were our father, our mother, our child, our beloved. To be witness to this experience was humbling and transforming.
My heart continued to grow as well as my spirit. A change was happening within me, something profound and larger than I ever imagined I could be.
I had the honor of working with Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand Thailand’s leading forensic scientist. She was later given the title of Khun Ying by the King of Thailand, it means compassionate one, for the personal sacrifices she made during that period. She leads the forensics team at Wat Yan Yao and it was there that I received my crash course in DNA/forensic screening and processing. Families of the missing lined the temples looking for their loved ones, and giving us DNA samples. We had boards out front with pictures of the deceased, rows and rows of haunting images that seemed to stretch for miles. During the day I worked at the temples processing the bodies and counseling the families, foreign and local. In the early mornings/evenings I would join the teams carrying out body recovery.
Where Was Social Media When I Needed It?
Where Was Social Media When I Needed It?
At some point during the first few days I received a text from Christian, he had started working at a Wat a few miles away. It read “Sister, Second Wave is Coming, Find Shelter.” I knew we were only moments away from the ocean, I could smell it. I told the forensic teams as their phones were going off, and looked at my newly made friends, then a sudden calm came over me. We knew we couldn’t run, the roads were jammed with cars and the ocean was a stone throw away, so we all went back to work, meeting with families, calming the panic and hydrating the staff and volunteers. It was then that we needed the power and reach of Social Media; it was then that we needed help, not just from the coming wave that never came, but for funds, for awareness, for volunteer support, and the digital storytelling. We were blessed to have backpackers and travelers from all over the world volunteer. I met people from distant places and cultures that made a lasting difference in a stranger’s life, eye to eye, soul to soul without language, a true service unveiled.
YARIV, ONE OF MY HEROES. VOLUNTEER EXTRAORDINAIRE
I worked in tsunami affected areas for 8 months living between Bangkok and Khao Lak. In that time, we as a community raised local & global funds, created a foundation called Tsunami Fishermen’s Fund, and rebuilt homes, business and lives. When I lived in Khao Lak, I met the most amazing man named Yariv, a volunteer and resident of Thailand from Israel. He was in the Israeli army. He and I worked for the Thai Red Cross and continued to do body recovery, construction, and community development for Ban Nam Kem & Khao Lak areas. This man never stopped, he offered himself personally to restore Ko Kho Kao Island, Meuang Mai, where they suffered heavy loss. By the time he stopped they had homes made out of concrete, water and refrigeration.
The men and women that I met are the unsung heroes. At no point did I ever see ego or power struggles. When we could let our hair down, those that had hair (ha ha Yariv). We would eat amazing food, meet and share with local families and think of innovative ways to build and raise funds. If we had such things as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or funding platforms like KickStarter or Indiegogo, our lives would have been a lot easier. But then again, why would we want that? sometimes easier blocks our true growth..However, due to my experiences in the tsunami aftermath, when I returned to the United States, Seattle to be exact, I went back to school studying digital marketing, international business and web & game programming. I also became a midwife.
Its eleven years later and I’m still devoted to social cause marketing for foundations and businesses locally and globally. With clients ranging from The Office of Tibet to local mompreneurs, focused on mindful business strategies and eLearning platforms.
A Diary of a Tsunami Volunteer
A Diary of a Tsunami Volunteer
In April of 2005, I was featured in the late Matthew Powers Article “A Diary of a Tsunami Volunteer,” National Geographic Adventure. Matthew became a dear friend, and volunteer the day I met him in Takua Pa, Thailand. Within his story, he shares the witnessing and experiences of the volunteers who came in when the waves went out, an unshakable memory, but one enriched with true friends and local heroes.
Matthew Power sadly passed away last March 10, 2014 in Uganda while reporting on an explorer walking the Nile. Matthew was a man with a selfless heart, who brought us amazing stories from all over the world. He was not only loved by myself, but by all in Thailand whom he shared time with.
These particular life experiences blessed and shaped my life, as well as gave me the focus I needed for my future. Sometimes when I close my eyes I am taken back to that time, and the sounds and smells seem to come alive. However, that experienced strengthened my faith in the human spirit, as well as my own. Amidst all the suffering and death, there was a rebirth, a rebirth and purpose for me as well as for others. The Thais are a resilient people, perhaps its the Buddhist understanding of impermanence, or the way the support community and family. Although i’m Buddhist, I met people from every faith, and we all walked the path of compassion. There were tears yes, and sadness, but there was also laughter, smiles and open arms. I also learned that the heart and mind transform with love. I felt and continue to feel blessed to be of service as a global volunteer, midwife and educator.
The life of service still remains the driving force behind my actions and lifestyle, but now I do it alongside my beloved Matteo, and our two young son’s Soren-Jai and Ayden-Skye. Living between SE Asia, Africa and North America working with communities and foundations, empowered by the sweet spot of our souls.
The Thailand tsunami put me on a sacred path, or perhaps awakened it. To be of service is to give for the sake of giving, not for the self alone. So now my husband and I work towards receiving for the sake of sharing, so that we can live the digital nomad lifestyle, create mindful passive income streams and serve countries around the world, I as a midwife and mediapreneur, and my husband in community development, all with our ninjas on our back.
So that is my story,
What experiences in your life created the path you walk, or have given you the strength to rise?
Matthew Power, National Geographic