I was in India during the tsunami. I was eating dinner with a friend in a restaurant that sat at the top of the beach and we started hearing waves, the Arabian Sea, which was a surprise because it was low tide. People were shouting and I ran to the front of the restaurant to see Indian men knee-deep in water, grabbing chairs and tables as they drifted away. I thought, “How desperate they must be to think about chairs and tables when this is happening!”
The people in town were spooked because they’d never seen the ocean act like this. It had been reliable as the moon until this point, then suddenly it hits the front of the restaurants during low tide. People fled. I ran to my hut to grab my valuable then went inland. Palolem is a one-road town from which one other road takes people away from the beach and back to the rest of India. That one road was packed with traffic and we walked past rickshaws and cars, past policemen who were uselessly directing traffic. I asked one policeman if he knew what had happened and he did: There was a big wave at 8:30pm or so, but the biggest was yet to come at Midnight. Of course he knew nothing, but the police wanted to appear to be in control, so they made up a story and stuck to it.
We went to the closest building that looked safe: a 3-storey hotel made of concrete. The owner was sending people to the roof. There were about 8 Westerners up there, one of whom had a cell phone, so I texted Azure that I had evacuated the beach and was now safe on top of a hotel. I didn’t know the tsunami was a big deal at that point (I didn’t even know it was a tsunami), but I assumed that it could potentially be. There was a pair of old hippy ladies on the roof, the kind of people who had come to India in the 70s and never left. One had worked for Mother Theresa, she had a puppy with her. We slept restlessly under the stars that night, and at some point I was prodded awake and led downstairs. The owner let us sleep on his floor – about 6 of us and a puppy – but it was more comfortable than the roof.
The next morning I went back to the beach and saw that the damage wasn’t too bad – there were a couple restaurants that had been hit hard, but the restaurants on Palolem weren’t much more than a collection of chairs & tables in front of a kitchen. Other than that the beach just looked dirty. The soft sand above high-tide wasn’t so pretty anymore. Since the initial wave, the sea retreated, then pushed back high onto the beach, then retreated, over and over again as if it were sloshing back and forth between India and Arabia.
Over the next few days the restaurants with TVs were packed, CNN or BBC giving us the details: 13,000 dead… 30,000 dead… 50,000 dead… 80,000 dead… and with each number was the feeling of wanting to wrap small around your aching heart but having to face a swell of souls so towering and powerful you couldn’t see the whole thing in one glance. Who can understand 100,000? And when I’d had enough of the TV I would walk out of the restaurant toward my hut and, for god’s sake, be approached by men on the beach wanting to sell me something: Jewelry, scooters, a room at their huts, a nice fish dinner. There were 100,000 freshly dead people, many of whom were their countrymen, and they took no break from trying to profit. At the time I was so angry, I glared intensely at these men through my red eyes and tears on my cheeks, hoping they would feel it, hoping they’d take a break and mourn. Still I don’t understand why they were selling immediately after such a tragedy. Maybe it’s only in our culture (or my mind) that profit & sincerity are mutually exclusive.
Later, I heard this story: On the day before the tsunami – Christmas Day – an old widow finally came out of her house after many weeks of mourning her husband’s death. She was dressed in black and she walked down the beach with a couple people on either side of her. She looked at the Western tourists, sunbathing in revealing clothes. She looked at the Indian men trying to sell sell sell to the Westerners. She looked at the restaurants and groups of huts that crowded the beach and hogged electricity, that blocked access by Indian families who had lived there for generations, that represented the materialism and greed spread wide down the beach. She angrily pointed to the sea and said, “That water is going to come and wipe all of this away.”
There were other signs, too. Christmas night was an awful night: a full moon with dogs that were going nuts, dog fights breaking out up and down the beach. The local men were lighting off fireworks that were way too close to other people, and I got uncontrollably drunk on just two glasses of whiskey. I knew something wasn’t right, and I told my friends that I was going to bed early. I threw up all night. Not that I could have seen it coming, of course, but in retrospect, the craziest, scariest night in all my time there was by far the night before the earthquake.
I was on the beach in India on a night when tens of thousands of people died on the beach in India. I never wondered or cared why I survived, I consider it luck. But I stepped back to look at my life and made sure that I was living the way I wanted with the person I loved.