Paradise Interrupted

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Jan 6, 2005 | Destinations: Myanmar / Brunei / Bandar Seri Begawan

December 31th, 2004 - Winter has come to Hong Kong, and I'm looking out over the Pearl River Delta and trying to imagine what it must have been like last Sunday morning, just a bit further south and over the Isthmus that connects Malaysia and Thailand. By all accounts from those who were on beaches from Indonesia to India that morning, the weather was fine. Perfect beach weather.

What came next has already been written about in so many ways, from straight-up AP news writing style to overly-metaphoric prose. I wasn't there, so to try to add to this body of disaster writing would be out of place. But as a Things Asian writer, I don't feel like I can carry on with this week's assignments (a humorous Bill Bryson-esque story about a recent adventure far from the Tsunami zone) as if this catastrophe wasn't unfolding as I write. As I hit alt+tab to switch between an open word document and CNN.COM every hour, the death toll just keeps on rising. I find it hard to take seriously writing a lighthearted article about a snorkeling trip to a hot spring paradise.

Paradise. I've read this word a lot over the past few days, usually followed by words like wiped out, destroyed or the less dramatic (but more literary) lost. Paradise. Strife, famine & disaster aside, most of the places crushed by sea Sunday morning fit well the bill, certainly from a travel writer's perspective. But to play devil's advocate, if you've seen one stretch of confectionary sugar sands, sky blue water, and perfectly curved shoreline, haven't you seen them all? So really, what makes paradise? In my opinion, its the people who call the place home.

Indonesia. Malaysia. Thailand. Sri Lanka. India. If you're a regular Things Asian reader, chances are good that you've spent some time in one or more of these countries. Think back, and remember the people who made the place paradise for you. The guy who walked in from the ocean with a basket of crabs, offering to serve them to you freshly grilled, with beer, for $3. The family who rented you a hut on the beach and made you sing karaoke with them. The barefoot kid who showed you an amazing diving cliff after you bought some trinket off him.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Right now, those living in those areas most severely affected by the earthquake and tsunami are in a desperate state; so grim are things in some areas the identification of bodies (let alone a ceremonial disposal) is a luxury that the living cannot afford to spend time on. Every upward tick of the body count at represents tens of thousands of bodies that need to be burned or buried en-masse to avoid putting the survivors at greater risk of disease and further misery. Food and fresh water are scarce in some areas and completely absent in others. Almost everywhere the logistics of distributing aid to the millions affected stretch the limits of every major relief organization.

So what can those of us who are safe and warm do to help?

First off, we've got to pony up the cash. Organizations involved with the rescue, relief & rebuilding efforts include Unicef, Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Habitat for Humanity... the list goes on, and can be found below. Nearly all of these organizations have set up mechanisms for online donation, so give as if lives depended on it. They do.

Second, if you have more time than money to spare, contact any of these organizations through their websites and ask what you can do to help. If you have the needed skills chances are good that one of these groups will put you to work, though you'll likely have to pay your own way. Check with the individual organizations to learn more (websites below).

Finally, in the long term, travelers have got to return. The media is fickle; in a few weeks the most egregious damage will have been cleared, the western tourists who saw it all will have been quoted at length, and the celebrities who held on for dear life along with everyone else will be busily optioning their story rights in Hollywood. But out of sight is not out of mind, and in communities from Indonesia to India, with the dead buried and burned, the job of rebuilding shattered lives will have only just begun. For many in the region, tourism is a major (if not the major) source of income, and if people there are to have any hope of regaining what's been lost materially, travelers have got to return as soon as possible.

Palm trees grow back, waters recede, and in time the seas will come to again represent sustenance and diversion and not destruction and death. But fellow travelers, unless we do everything we can to help aid the people whose lives have been shattered by this disaster, then paradise is gone forever.

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Donations can be made to the following organizations online.

Action Against Hunger
American Red Cross
American Jewish World Service
BAPS Care International
Direct Relief International
Habitat for Humanity International
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Islamic Relief Worldwide
Karuna Trust
Network for Good
Oxfam International (US page)
Save the Children
UNICEF (US page)
World Food Programme (UN)

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