Sunday, December 26, 2010

Remembering the randomness of life.

For much of the British world today is Boxing Day, an odd holiday, the origins of which seem lost in obscurity. Having lived in three Commonwealth countries it was one of the quirky holidays I got used to. It is also the anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami that struck six years ago today, killing almost one quarter of a million people.

In light of that tragic anniversary I am reprinting my piece on the the tsunami and the randomness of life, that I had previously published.

It was five years ago, and it had been a stressful week. I decided that I wanted to get away and that I would take a friend on a Christmas vacation, just to have some time away from life as it had been. I looked at the various vacation packages available and realized that being only a few days before Christmas I was setting myself up for an expensive trip.

I figure to hell with it. So I started plotting and planning. My first choice was Thailand. I had never been and wanted to go. And I started scouring for a resort in Phuket that still had a vacancy. I had two or three travel agents working on it as well. I pursued every possible option. It wasn't the price that was the problem—it was the lack of space. It seemed that every resort was full for the Christmas season.

I must have checked a dozen resorts in Phuket myself. Not a one could accommodate us at any price. I certainly wasn't going to sleep on the beach, and without a vacancy at the resorts I finally gave up the pursuit and looked for alternatives.

The Pacific islands were a possibility, but once again waiting until a few days before Christmas was not conducive to finding vacancies. I gave up on Fiji and a few other islands. Australia's Gold Coast had some appeal so I tried that, once again no vacancies could be found, or if they could be they were not at a place where I wished to stay. In a few cases I could find a vacancy but the flights were full. The gods were not smiling on me I thought.

I then decided to look at Sydney. I wasn't that keen on Sydney as a city. It just doesn't have much appeal for me. But I found a hotel and I could get a flight. So we packed our bags and headed to Sydney for a few days. All I could think was that I'd rather be in Phuket.

The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel seemed too long. The hotel was downtown and we checked in. I thought the lobby a bit small and started to wonder. We went up to the room and went straight back down to the lobby. It just wasn't acceptable to me. It wasn't dirty but it was incredibly small. The problem was that I had paid the travel agent for the hotel and the flight. This made things difficult and it was now Christmas Day—not a good time to call their office to discuss the matter.

The hotel manager was helpful. He suggested that the hotel chain had a much larger, much nicer hotel a short distance away overlooking Darling Harbor. And they could take the payment we made for the one hotel and apply it to the other as well. Clearly it would cost more, but that was fine. We took the monorail to the new hotel and checked in.

The room was more than spacious and the view was perfect. We were near the very top of the hotel and looked down on the harbor. Across the water was the skyline of Sydney, a site to behold at night. We were hungry and headed down to the waterfront to take our pick of bustling restaurants that were full of Christmas sightseers like ourselves.

We booked a cruise on the harbor for the next morning, had a lovely dinner, and took a walk around the harbor area before retiring. More than once I lamented our bad luck in regards to Phuket.

We watched that Christmas recede into history from the large window of our room before getting to bed early. We had an early cruise on the harbor to catch. The cruise began without any problems. The boat took us around Darling Harbor and then headed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, past the Opera House, and into the larger harbor. That was when I realized we had a slight problem.

Every December 26th, Boxing Day, is the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race and the harbor will filled with 100+ yachts for the start of the race. Accompanying the yachts were hundreds of other boats of all sizes. The harbor was experiencing a traffic jam as it filled up with boat loads of anxious people wanting to watch the start of the one of the most famous yacht races in the world. Our one-hour tour lasted about three hours. We just ended up floating there watching the yachts pass by and head toward the open sea.

Afterward we took a water taxi to the Sydney Zoo to spend the afternoon. Sunburned and exhausted we headed back to our suite, grabbing some dinner along the way.

When staying in a hotel I tend to check the news, so I flipped on the television and tuned into CNN and then sat back on the bed, exhausted and ready to sleep. What I saw shocked me.

The screen was filled with the most horrific images of the Boxing Day Tsunami that had struck that morning. Then the images of Phuket came on the screen; the resorts along the pristine coastline had been wiped out. An earthquake had hit the ocean floor off Indonesia that morning. It was about a 9.2 magnitude, the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. And it lasted a long time.

The big quake that hit San Francisco was something I experienced first hand. But it was relatively short, though deadly. But the Boxing Day earthquake lasted almost a full ten minutes. It was so powerful that it caused the entire planet to vibrate slightly. In places the earth's plates shifted as much as 20 meters as a result. The force of the quake is said to have been 1502 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Ground movement was recorded as far away as Oklahoma. The news showed film of the massive waves swallowing Phuket. That day almost a quarter of a million people died because of the quake.

Of course, I was horribly aware that Phuket was where I would have been had I been able to arrange a reservation at one of the resorts. It is something I often remember.

I wondered about my reservation. I didn't get one. I looked hard, but somebody else got it. I wondered who they were. I wondered what happened to them. How narrowly did I miss getting a reservation? Where would we have been that morning had I succeeded in finding an opening? What would have happened to us?

To this day the tsunami illustrates for me the randomness of life. Leave your driveway two minutes later and you could be killed in a horrific mult-car accident on the highway. On September 11, people missed flights they intended to take, and lived because of it. Others managed to get on at the very last minute and died because of it. Small choices in life, when mixed into the randomness of so much that happens, can mean life or death. And there is no way of knowing in advance.

This is just how it is in life. Two people meet entirely by accident, they fall in love, they have a family. Generations later their descendants are living full lives as a result of that chance meeting.

The German military once decided to spy on a radical group of nationalists. They sent a nobody to gather evidence on the nature of the group. He was impressed by what he saw and so Adolph Hitler joined the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany. He rose to lead it, to take control of the country as a result, and to help plunge the world in a war that killed millions. How different things might be if the German military had decided to send someone else that day.

For the most part we never know what tragedy we missed. We are not aware of how the change in some small detail could dramatically alter our life and the lives of so many around us. It is truly astounding. I can understand why people want it all to make sense, it just doesn’t. I can understand why they invent explanations for things so random.

Phuket that morning.