World Communications Day

I lost count of the number of attempts I made to write you another letter since the one I sent out on New Year Day. My last attempt was last Mother’s Day, which was nearly a month ago. Have I lost interest in this mode of communication, have I dried up, have I been too busy, have I been away too often, or have I simply been disinterested?

I have often been asked by friends and acquaintances what I have been busy with. I was asked to recount the things I did on a typical day, week or month, as if keeping busy were the single most important priority in one’s life.

As a matter of fact, I have actually been rather busy with a lot of activities, but I cannot say that I have achieved a lot in the time in between, unless one counts as achievements activities or endeavours such as putting some weight in the middle, acquiring strained muscles, indulging in bouts of eating, drinking and merry-making and having over-sized hangovers afterwards, and other self-inflicted injuries.

There were good moments: some had reminded me that even a weak human body could do great things as long as the mind was working, some had taken me to places from which I would not wish to return, some had connected me to new friends and old acquaintances, some had piqued my interest in areas that I had overlooked all the time, and between them, they had helped me last a long time and made days and weeks shorter.

I had made four short trips so far this year. I was in Kobe and Tagayama for six days, enjoying the cold and fresh air and sampling reputedly the best beef; went to Kula Lumpur for three days for a meeting and a few meals with friends; visited Bali for the first time in my life for six days under the pretext of attending their District Conference, thereby experiencing Nyepi and Galungan or Bali New Year – Balinese run a 210-day year so that they can have two Galungan in one Gregorian calendar – and spending one night in Ubud as any tourist from Europe or America would; and revisited Phuket for three days, including spending almost one full day on the devastated Phi Phi Island (PP).

I had joined a group to visit Phuket for a meeting with a view to reporting back to friends and well wishers overseas who were concerned whether their donations had been well spent and who wanted to know how best they could help. We stayed at a hotel on Patong about 100 yards from the beach front. It was very clear that the damage along the front had been cleared for about half of the way and there were plenty of hoardings where the damaged site had been cleared. Our hotel was in fairly good shape, but another hotel just in front was under considerable restoration and still remained virtually a building site. Prices were very low and the shops and bars definitely lacked customers.

PP is accessible by sea from Phuket. It is an hour by fast speedboat from the main city of Phuket Town. The harbour from which we left showed no signs of any damage, probably because it was facing east and away from the tsunami.

I could see clearly the devastation and visualized the accompanying human sufferings on landing, almost immediately. The once beautiful resort frequented by backpackers and divers is now wasteland. It stood on a sand-bar between two rocky islands and was hit by two waves. The first was the smaller one and most people and buildings survived. People then went back to their buildings to salvage their belongings when the second and bigger one struck, from the opposite direction, which was the cause of most of the damage and fatalities. The iron sheeting that comprised most of the roofs proved to be a terrible sword in the rushing waters. I was told at the time of the visit which was some 5 months after the tsunami, that they were still finding the occasional body in the debris. The destruction was complete and obvious, and the sight was depressing, to put it mildly.

Life on PP is difficult. Water has to be barged in, and power supply (locally generated using oil) increasingly expensive. There is one ATM machine operating and the edifice of the once best hotel near the beach remains standing to receive the occasional visitors. I saw volunteer divers working very hard to clear the seabed near the beach and we heard they were still coming up evidence of death and destruction. Some residents have returned and started up roadside shops to sell souvenirs and daily necessities, while others tried hard to re-open their businesses, mainly tourists or diving related. Business is only some 10 to 20 percent of what it was.

Meanwhile, the Thai Government has declared PP unsafe and has closed the island, such that officially, nobody lives on PP. It appears that while the Government could have some long term plans for PP’s reconstruction, it has yet to come up with anything concrete or specific and hence has been unable to announce any plans as such. Such inaction has not helped to rehabilitate PP or put life back to the island. Speculation is rife and there has been considerable buying and selling of the various pitches along the street for businesses. There is little evidence of aid money to assist the former inhabitants. The Thai Government was supposed to give Baht 20,000 (250 Pounds) to each survivor, but it appears that nobody on PP has received any such money. There is also no evidence of any aid from outside Thailand.

It may appears that it is life as usual in the main Phuket resort of Patong, but there is no doubt that it will take a while to regain its past glory. I would say it now operates at 25% of its previous business volume, but there is plenty of evidence that the Thai Government, the local government and businesses have tried very hard to bring back tourists and to assume a business-as-usual poise.

PP has suffered horribly, but even though European casualties were high, it is rather small in the big picture compared with Phuket in general and hence is still suffering from attention deficit from the Government and investors.

The single most important message to the outside world, well wishers and donors is this. Encourage visitors to continue to go to Phuket and PP so as to generate sufficient life and businesses, which would in turn motivate former residents and business operators to return and invest in putting in the necessary infrastructure and help to rebuild the island. The earlier the Thai Government can announce plans and pay promised compensation, the less uncertainty there will be in an area that has suffered cruelly.

Before you think that I am a stringer for some travel agency, let me move on to some other aspects of my life.

I picked up golf again, first at a driving range in a club in Causeway Bay and later joined friends, including some Rotarians, to play in real golf courses. I think I can learn to like the game, even though many friends have emphatically warned that golf is the most stupid, unsociable and time wasting device ever invented by man.

I caught up with a few long lost friends, including one I first met in grades in the Fifties. We lost contact after we went to different secondary schools and different faculties of the same University. Then he went abroad and we had heard nothing of each other. Then, over a dinner with another couple coming back from Sydney in the summer of 2003 when Rosita and I were preparing for our trip to North America and a river cruise in Europe, which turned out to be our last major trip together, the couple from Sydney mentioned his name in passing. It was like a silver bell ringing in the ear. I quickly found out that he was indeed my long lost friend who has since settled in Seattle as a top notch professor in some esoteric branch of medicine. Through emails, we made contacts, but sadly because of his punishing schedules, we could not meet even though Rosita and I were as close as we could be, in Los Angeles. Fortuitously, we met his sister and her husband in LA. His sister was in the same grades with us, over 45 years ago.

Then there was silence, even though his sister had suggested over the lunch in LA that we could get together over something else, related to our children.

As I was planning my impending trip to Chicago, which by the way will start tomorrow, I sent my friend an email in April, first, sharing with him Rosita’s passing away and secondly asking whether we could meet in United States and where and when. I received almost an instant reply to say that he was in Hong Kong and very near to Baguio Villa. My friend had been invited by the University to do some high level work with the Medical Faculty and he was staying with his wife in the University’s quarters at Sha Wan Drive, which is five minutes drive from where I live.

So we met, first in his quarters, and later over a dinner involving more other classmates of that vintage. To say that the re-unions were emotional would be a gross understatement. I am very happy, extremely happy, that my long lost friend is as kind and childlike as he was when we last met. He is sincere, kind, knowledgeable but humble with no false pretence, and I cried when he related to me how he talked to his patients and learnt so much from them in the process. We left each other with the promise that we would not wait another 45 years for the next meeting.

I picked up other friends, including one who was a senior colleague and with whom I had lunch almost every day for over three to four years and with whom I played badminton every Tuesday night and had dinner afterwards, but whom I had not met for some 20 years. When he called me recently, he told me he had retired for ten years. He told me a group of friends, most of whom I know, met regularly and invited me to the next one in June. I told him I would be travelling, but promised to do the next one if I could. Talking of badminton, I was invited to the game again recently by another group of people in retirement. I hurt my muscles twice. I should learn to listen more intelligently to the body.

There are more, but I have probably lost you or your attention with my babbling. I would do it in my next letter. But before I go, perhaps the most important development since my last letter is this. Having done some traveling, by myself and with friends, mostly couples, having read some books and having listened to friends and professionals, I have found that prayers are the single most powerful aid of all. Prayers have given me renewed strength and new meanings in life. Prayers have help me to become less critical of others, more forgiving, more loving and less hating. One must pray as often as one can, one must learn to pray, one must pray unceasingly, one must pray for enlightenment from the Holy Spirit (in the case of my religion) and one must accept that the human being is powerless where matters affecting life and death are concerned.

Today, the Catholics celebrate World Communications Day. I hope you have had a good weekend and a good evening ahead.

Talk to you later from North America.

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