Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami: Comments from Singapore

Here are some comments from Hasan Jafri, a journalist colleague from my days as a youth magazine editor in Pakistan. Hasan now works in Singapore for a major news agency. Yesterday, he wrote:

Lisa and I just gave some money to the Red Cross while I have also signed up with a local NGO called Mercy Relief to go to Sri Lanka if needed. This is a major crisis, but luckily we didn't feel a thing here in singapore. In fact, I got to know about it when a friend from London called to check if I was ok - I laughed at him, telling him he caught me on the tennis court!

Only when I got back to the apartment and checked the wires did I realize how bad it was.

And today he adds:

I live on an island the size of a pea in a pod yet didn't feel a thing when the earthquake struck. It was less than a thousand kilometers away from Singapore and we are all safe yet hundreds of thousands are dead or devastated far far beyond. Are we lucky here or what?

Singapore is often seen as a country full of people who think of themselves first then others, yet there is a long queue outside the Red Cross office every day. Maybe its the festive holiday season or that companies dished out good bonuses, whatever it is money is pouring in. Maybe, just maybe, it is the strength of the human spirit - irrespective of cast, creed, color or faith - that is now at play. Whatever it is, it is heartening.

At my condo where many upper and middle class Singaporeans and expats live the community hall is full of things - clothes, medicine, food - that people here are planning to send via Buddhist charity.

The YMCA already has two dozen volunteers lined up, others have signed up with other NGOs and charity groups. I have not seen such hope in the face of adversity as I see now in Asia - not even the Bali terrorist attack on October 12, 2002 touched us the same way. Only 911 did the same.

While everyone I know is safe, I feel the pain because I am so familiar with some of the places: Thailand is like a second home to me, Lisa and I go there often. Phuket is where I drank myself silly with two dear friends from Pakistan who were there for me in a time of personal crisis in 1999. We were also honored guests at the Kuta beach annual 'lady boys' pagent that year. It was plastic tits galore, but it was important to them. I still have a photo of us in a frame I bought there.

A year ago we were in Phuket again - this time for a friends wedding. We were in a merry mood. A few if us smoked a bit too much and under a full moon decided to take a swim in the emerald green Andaman sea - in our birthday outfits. The three of us - an American, a Saki and a Brit - soon realized we were not alone when a bunch of dogs began barking at us! We scrambled to find out clothes and then under the influence of the water and the smoke made our way back to the Banyan tree resort in what seemed like an eternally long and heady walk.

Langkawi is where Lisa and I went on a lovely romantic holiday that bonded us together. Penang, also in Malaysia, is where we went after working for three days nonstop when terrorist fell the Twin Towers and we needed peace and solitude.

Sri Lanka, a country that I have fallen in love with, is where Lisa and I went for our honeymoon. Our next trip there would have been to a lovely resort in Gale - a small town that no longer exists. Maybe I should checkout the web site again - just to remember how stunning the Indian ocean was before it turned into hell.

While I have not been to Aceh in Indonesia I know it well because of an insurgency that has shown the brutality of the Indonesian army and the resilience of its very conservative Muslim inhabitants who for five decades have fought for independence from Jakarta. Now, ironically, all are removing corpses side by side. The earthquake and the water didn't discriminate between a patriot and a rebel - it destroyed both with impunity.

Also in Sri Lanka one sees the horrors of war - landmines laid during the brutal civil war are now dislodged by the raging waters making rescue and recovery difficult. I first began to hate landmines when I saw innocent children maimed by them in Afghanistan - now I hate them even more. Three countries that I have ties with - Pakistan, America and Singapore - oppose banning the use of landmines. I wonder when and at what cost we will learn!

If there is one common image that remains with me of all the places we have been to that are now devastated, it is the smiles on the faces of the people there. The massage ladies and the ladyboys in Phuket, the driver in Colombo who kept smiling when I was furious he was late to pick us up and when the aircon broke down. The smiles. May they return soon.

And here I was enjoying my well-earned holiday and looking forward to moving to our own home next month. My worries - whether I should buy the Audi or the Alfa Romeo, whether I should take a year off from work and head back to graduate school, whether I should go watch Australia kick our ass in cricket in Perth or Sydney - all seem so trivial.

An earthquake and a wall of water in the middle of my tennis game brought me back to earth. Providence again reminded me how blessed and lucky I am!


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