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Tsunami spurs haunting familiarity
By Ravi Shankar (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-01-03 22:42

Pristine beaches. Crystal-clear water. Swaying palms. Friendly people. Island paradise.

That's what the brochures boasted about Koh Phi Phi. And when I saw it for myself -- much before Leonardo Di Caprio catapulted it to fame with the film The Beach -- it was pure picture postcard.

Getting there was part of the allure. We took a ferry from Phuket and disembarked at the island's main pier. From there, a long boat with an outboard motor took us to the other side of the island - there was no road.

There was no landing dock, either. As the vessel approached the beach, we jumped off and waded in knee-deep water to reach the resort as cheerful porters whisked our luggage away.

From the reception area -- decked with orchids and sweet Thai smiles -- we walked to our cottage on stilts. About 50 metres separated each, and you felt the island belonged to you.

A decade ago, I spent a glorious two days on a dream holiday etched forever in my memory.

Last week, the memories returned, this time to haunt me in a never-ending nightmare. Phi Phi, like its bigger island sister Phuket -- a place I have visited several times -- bore the brunt of the deadly tsunami in Thailand and television pictures showing utter devastation.

As the horrendous tragedy unfolded on television and in newspapers, the scale of the horror mounting by the hour and the death toll soaring, it was-- in a sense -- like a macabre death dance being staged especially for me.

During the 15 years I have worked and lived in the Asia-Pacific region - in Singapore, Papua New Guinea and now Hong Kong - I have been on holiday to almost all the places seared by the disaster.

Batu Feringgi beach in Malacca, Malaysia; Patong beach in Phuket; the Hikkaduwa beaches near Galle in Southern Sri Lanka; the azure-blue waters of Zanzibar off Tanzania; and, of course, the familiar east coast of my home country, India. All wonderful places which have touched me. Now, touched by the deadly hand of nature.

As television images showed the carnage in achingly-familiar places, I was transported to another disaster at another time at home.

I was a college freshman in 1977 when a severe cyclone hit my district and 10,000 people were swept away in the coastal areas under the onslaught of 3-metre-high tidal waves -- tsunami is an eerie word gaining currency only in the last week in India.

As members of the national volunteer corps, I and my classmates teamed up with the Communist Party Youth League in college and headed to the stricken area to help. Naively, we assumed we would be distributing food packages and blankets to grateful villagers. But a grisly task awaited us:digging out bodies buried in the mud and arranging for their cremation.

It was beyond me. And I salute all those who are today stoically toiling away at this grim endeavour.

Ravi Shankar is a copy editor with China Daily's Hong Kong edition and is visiting Beijing.

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