Wave of Destiny
Rajiv carried a banana with him at all times, so one morning, as he walked towards his fishing boat, I asked him why. He explained that if he ever ran into Hanuman, the revered Hindu monkey-god, he wanted to be able to feed him. Hanuman, a deity renown for his courage and selfless service, was a favorite of many locals like Rajiv in this tiny fishing village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar and the prospect of improving his karma which would lead to a reincarnation higher than that of a poor fisherman motivated Rajivís fruity duty.
"Do you really think you will find the monkey-god out there at sea?"
"Adam," he explained, "one never knows where the Gods may be hiding."
Nan was famous for her som tam, which is a papaya salad that compliments any Thai meal. Following the practice of my Thai friends, I quickly became a devoted customer. I loved to watch her whip up my salad, shredding the green papaya into a big wooden bowl and adding chopped onion, tomatoes, peanuts, dried shrimp, fish sauce, sugar and my favorite part, diced red chilies. Her eternal smile is the norm in Phuket, an island where happiness seems to reign supreme, whether due to the localsí Buddhist beliefs or the natural beauty that surrounds them. She always giggled when I ordered it extra spicy and as I ate it and beads of sweat would form on my brow, she would laugh out loud at the crazy farang that just loved the spice. I found myself returning to Nanís little stand on the beach, just as drawn to her sweet smile as for her irresistible som tam.
Ben Abels is an American from Chicago. I do not know him (as he is a friend of a friend) but if he was anything like myself, he had been planning on making his New Yearís Eve truly epic. Perhaps in Southeast Asia for a well-deserved month-long holiday, he and his friend had decided to go to Ko Phi Phi, the famous Thai isle known for its steep cliffs, turquoise waters and lively backpacker scene. Ben undoubtedly enjoyed the festivities of a tropical Christmas, perhaps dining on cheap lobster in a beach-side restaurant, followed by a visit to the one of the beach discos. The idea of spending the coming days SCUBA diving, eating fresh seafood and basking in a tropical paradise in the presence of cool young travelers from the whole world would be the perfect formula for an unforgettable New Years.
Tami is a member of the Mentawi tribe, which is a nomadic indigenous tribe that lives on an island off the western coast of Sumatra. When I was living with him and his family in the middle of the Indonesian jungle, he introduced me to his brother, Iwan. Unlike Tami, who relied on the fruit, vegetables, meat and materials of the jungle to support his family, Iwan was planning to move to the "New Village," a conscious effort by the Indonesian government to settle these nomadic "backwards natives" into a settled existence. The lure of schools, "jobs" and a medical post enticed many families to give up the treasured traditions of their ancestors in order to live in a house with electricity, becoming a part of "modern society." Tami was outraged at his brotherís decision, mainly because it meant giving up the animist religious beliefs of their ancestors in order to convert to Islam. Despite Tamiís admonitions, Iwan was steadfast in his decision.
"The government can provide opportunities the jungle cannot," he would say.
"Yes," Tami used to warn, "but there is a reason we have lived like this for centuries. One day you will seeÖ"
On the morning of the 26th, Rajiv, Nan, Ben and Iwan were attacked. This was no terrorist strike and no act of war, just a massive wave of destiny. Suddenly, their fate was entwined, as a colossal tsunami engulfed them, though they were thousands of miles apart. I do not know the exact fate of any of them, though I do know that Ben is missing and feared dead. But perhaps they are all counting their blessings and thanking their respective gods for miraculously saving them from this calamity that has been described as a "catastrophe of Biblical proportions." But to me, this phrase belittles the grand scale of this disaster. After all, a geological event such as this, if it has any overarching significance, proves that in the big picture, our religion is just a subplot, an unnecessary detail. Whatever our spiritual beliefs, nationality or social standing, we are all Earthlings first and foremost. Though we take pride in our ability to control nature around us and explain its mysteries, the inescapable truth is that we will always be defenseless in the face of natureís power. Though many refer to Ďnatureís wrath,í even this term evokes images of retribution and punishment from above. As disasters such as these strike down countless members of humanity, it becomes obvious we all share a common vulnerability, a common ignorance and a common bond: we are inhabitants of the earth and will always be vulnerable to the geological, bacterial and chemical forces that rule the planet. It is hard to comprehend the loss of thirty thousand people without attaching some overall significance. In times such as these, many turn to their respective religions to seek explanation or consolation.
But as this tragedy has proven, there are forces that transcend creed and spiritual belief. The essential truth does not lie above us in the skies, but below us, on the very ground we walk on. This is reality. None of us have a prescribed "time to go." Life is a huge game of chance and we are just making up rules in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. There is no moral to this story, no evil force to avenge and no way to rationalize what is beyond our power. All we can do is live every day to the fullest, fully aware that for whatever reason, it may be our last. For Rajiv, for Nan, for Ben and for Iwan, I will keep their spirit alive, waltzing through my everyday existence with the happiness they aspired to embody. I urge all of you to do the same - itís the least we can do.