A life-changing trip from a life-stealing catastrophe

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami 18 years ago this week led to one of the most life-changing experiences of my life.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck in the Indian Ocean creating a tsunami that killed 227,898 people in 14 countries. The epicenter was just off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a remote area without much connection to the outside world. At the time, I worked as director of communications for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a faith-based non-profit headquartered in Atlanta with about 200 field personnel all over the world, working alongside the most neglected people groups in some of the most difficult and hard-to-reach locations.

Indonesia was among the countries in which CBF field personnel lived and served, and though there weren’t any in Banda Aceh, CBF was well positioned to respond on the island of Sumatra in a number of locations that were not in the news and not receiving help.

Mount Seulawah Agam looms in the background with a sunset overlooking a rice field with a person walking in the foreground.
Mount Seulawah Agam was the backdrop of my trip to Sumatra in 2005.

I had been on staff for a couple of years by that point but had not traveled outside North America for work. The Asia Team lobbied CBF leadership for me to come to their summer team meeting in Thailand and visit the relief work in Aceh. The idea was thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. Carla and I were expecting our second child in late April, and I had never been to Asia. The language and cultural barriers intimidated me, and I thought the trip could be too difficult to attempt.

Anita and Jack Snell who were the associate coordinators for mission teams in Asia at the time, convinced me otherwise. They assured me the trip could be structured so that I would spend time with Asia Team members in Chiang Mai, Thailand, first. That would help me get acclimated before traveling to Sumatra and the tsunami-affected area. They promised I would have CBF field personnel with me at all times, helping me navigate the language barrier and travel logistics. I would only be unaccompanied on the flights from the U.S. and back. I accepted the challenge, and as I went through the regimen of inoculations and medications to visit a disaster area in the tropics, I began to gain confidence that I could do it.

Harris arrived a couple of days late, on May 2, the eve of our eighth wedding anniversary. We adjusted to having a second child in the house, and Carla’s parents were a big help during the transition, particularly with Barron, who was then 4. Carla was less than thrilled about me being overseas for 10 days, but she knew how important the trip was to me, to the field personnel who needed their story told and to CBF, which had received millions in relief donations and needed to show supporters how their funds were being spent. These were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and not everyone had an international calling plan. Contact would be infrequent. That would prove to be one of the most difficult challenges of the trip.

I took a small carry-on suitcase with three changes of clothes and a backpack for my camera and toiletries. I had to check a box of curriculum for a field personnel family’s homeschooling, but otherwise I traveled light. My itinerary was a little convoluted: I flew U.S. Airways from Atlanta to Chicago and Chicago to Tokyo and Tokyo to Bangkok where I arrived late the next night.

I was supposed to spend the night in the transiting hotel in the Bangkok airport, but I missed the posted signs, and, after going through customs with my checked box, I ended up exiting the airport at the international terminal. Rather than take a taxi to a local hotel for a few hours of sleep, I decided to trek over to the domestic terminal and tough it out before catching the Thai Air flight to Chiang Mai. I navigated a confusing labyrinth of sidewalks and hallways, following the signs to the domestic terminal. After about 15 minutes, I emerged into a plain, empty terminal with orange, molded, hard plastic seats bolted onto metal frames as the only places to sit. I found a payphone and used the calling card I had been issued to call Carla and assure I had arrived safely and was alright, though I was not convinced of the latter at that exact moment. I then picked a seat and tried my best to get a couple hours of sleep in an unforgiving chair.

The Thai Air ticket counter opened about 6 a.m. and I was first in line to change to the first flight of the day, scheduled for 7 a.m. I checked my box of books, and to my great surprise and relief, the agent looked me up and down and said I needed an emergency row seat. I didn’t have to ask nor was I charged an extra fee. The flight was only half full and lasted about an hour. The flight attendants barely had enough time to serve breakfast and reclaim the service items before we landed.

I took a cab out to the resort compound. The drive up the mountain from the airport to the resort was a mix of simple huts, beautiful, tree-covered mountains, clear skies, and incessant beeping by the driver to clear dogs out of the roadway. For the first time since I had left the U.S. 24 hours earlier, I felt like I was in another world.

When I arrived at the hotel, the Asia Team meeting was already underway, and I walked in a few minutes before my turn on the agenda. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I said something to the effect of “I’m from the main office, and I’m here to help.”

That was not a completely welcomed message. Field personnel were passionate about their work, but administrators from headquarters were not always helpful to them. Nestled into the forested hills of northeastern Thailand, the conference center was a beautiful setting with amazing flowers and decorative landscaping. The buildings were wood and had all the markings of Thai architecture with the unmistakably Asian curves and flourishes. Clearly a tourist destination, the facilities were equipped with western toilets. My experience with a much anticipated “squatty potty” would have to wait until I reached Indonesia.

On my second night, a group of CBF field personnel and their families were going to the night market in Chiang Mai and asked me to tag along. They showed me all the diverse finds at an Asian night market, including an array of fried insects to enjoy. I did not partake in the delicacies, but with their help I was able to negotiate prices and make a few purchases. I wasn’t accustomed to and didn’t like haggling.

It was late when we got back to the resort, and insect and frog song filled the night. Just a few feet from the door to my room, a large, dark brown, spotted rock caught my eye. It was about four inches long and appeared to be moving. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a horned beetle. It was beautiful and I’m sure harmless, but I admired it from a safe distance as it slowly crawled along the walkway.

The days in Chiang Mai passed quickly, and I acclimated to the time difference and the humidity, which reminded me of living in Florida. When the team meeting ended, a group of us traveled a couple hours’ drive from Chiang Mai to Fang where CBF field personnel Ellen and Rick Burnette operated the Upland Holistic Development Project. The UHDP helped people sustain themselves from agro-forestry, growing food on small garden plots, raising pigs and even farming catfish in water tanks. The area where the Palaung and Kachin people, hilltribes displaced from Myanmar, were given to settle by the government was mountainous and tree-covered, a difficult place to grow sustainable crops. I saw the impact of the Burnette’s work firsthand and met the local people who were training to run the facility and sharing their knowledge of crops and agricultural techniques that worked well in the region. I spent the night in the UHDP’s Resource Center visitor accommodations, which were spartan but clean and comfortable, only slightly disconcerted by the sounds of insects hitting the screen on my door. I had nightmares of the beetle from Chiang Mai attacking.

The next day I covered my neck, wrists and ankles with 100 percent DEET insect repellent, probably ensuring I will one day develop cancer, and went with the team to a Palaung village out in the jungle. I had tea in a gracious and welcoming family’s home as Rick translated how they had fled their native Myanmar and were now making do without legal status in Thailand. After a few hours in the village, we trekked back to Fang to pile back into the small van for the drive back to Chiang Mai. I suddenly became very aware of the time and worried that I would miss my flight to Bangkok.

A few hours later, we arrived at the hotel where the rest of our party was staying in the heart of Chiang Mai. With the help of the field personnel, I flagged down a motorcycle taxi called a tuk-tuk and sped off to the airport. No amusement park ride could compare to that adventure. I clung to the rail with one hand and my suitcase with the other. It was close, but I did make it to the airport in time to make the flight, though my boots were covered in jungle mud, and I reeked of jungle sweat and DEET.

After we touched down and I emerged from the familiar domestic terminal, I cabbed from the airport to the Bangkok Christian Guest House where I was to meet Anita Snell, my guide for the next leg of my journey. The Asian Baptist Graduate Seminary board was meeting, and after a quick shower, I had the opportunity to do interviews and take photos. Though I was exhausted and ready for sleep, several of the board members insisted we go to the night market, so I could see the real Bangkok.

My guide was Graham Walker, associate dean of Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology, with whom I had worked before joining the staff at CBF. I didn’t know him well, but I knew he grew up in Asia as a missionary kid. He knew the area and could speak the language. At first, the night market seemed to be the same as in Chiang Mai. The area was more developed and modern, but the booths with fried grasshoppers and other insects was the same. We turned a corner and Graham pointed down the street. Through the dim lighting, I could make out young girls, no older than 14 or 15, all sitting on what looked like stoops outside of apartment buildings. We were approached by a man who tried to direct us to a particular building, but Graham, usually outgoing and friendly, became cold and direct. He informed the man we were not interested in what he was selling. I took me a minute to realize what was going on, but when the man said in English “Girl, boy or girl boy?” I felt sick as I began to understand what I was seeing. While I know human trafficking takes place in my home city of Atlanta, seeing it up close and out in the open gave me a new compassion for how miserable the lives of those poor children must be. Graham told me that many of them were from the rural parts of Asia, either sold or kidnapped into this life. We were only on the street a couple of minutes, but the experience was burned into my memory.

The next morning, I left for Singapore, which stood in stark contrast to Thailand. Thoroughly modern and pristine, Singapore had patrols of armed soldiers in the airport. Mindful of the story from the 1990s of the American teenager who had committed some minor crime and had been beaten with a cane for his punishment, I was sure to be as respectful as possible, following all instructions as I passed through customs. That night, Anita took me to a very western-style shopping and restaurant area where we ate Mexican food, Singapore-style, and we went to visit a friend of hers in a nearby apartment building. Everywhere we went was clean and landscaped to perfection. With the exception of the ever-present military, it seemed like utopia.

The next day I connected with the Uzzles, a family who had been leading the relief effort in Aceh. Former field personnel who were living in Kentucky at the time of the tsunami, they were called back into service to help channel the emergency aid and help the people there get back on their feet. They were friendly and gracious, and even their children welcomed me into their family with open arms. They had all the qualities necessary to succeed in that environment: openness, kindness, the ability to speak the language, and patience to explain everything I didn’t understand. We flew from Singapore to Medan and changed planes in Medan before heading to Banda Aceh.

The airport in Banda had not received outside flights for years before the relief workers began pouring in after the tsunami. The area was embroiled in a simmering civil conflict with a group of armed rebels seeking to withdraw from the Indonesia government’s authority. There were armed guards at periodic checkpoints around Aceh, but otherwise, there were no signs of conflict. The military presence wasn’t nearly as noticeable as in Singapore.

We were greeted warmly at the airport by a local man who served as the team’s driver. The Uzzles had clearly developed a close relationship with him, and they laughed together as they embraced. Before heading out to the town of Sigli, about a two and a half hours east of Banda where CBF’s work in Aceh was based, they took me to the hardest hit areas of Banda, including a sprawling coastal area where all but a few buildings were flattened to the ground. It took my breath away just how awful the moment the wave hit must have been. They explained that most of the debris had been cleaned up, but the government had not yet allowed rebuilding to begin. The survivors were displaced, trying to pick up the pieces of their lives without loved ones, and in many cases, without the possibility of earning a living.

On the drive up and around Mount Seulawah Agam, we stopped to shoo monkeys off the road, the first time I was able to see monkeys up close during my trip. The winding road was often not much more than a path of crumbling asphalt, but our driver expertly navigated the twisting paths dodging ox carts, bicycles and wildlife.

The Uzzles were staying in a comfortable rented home in Sigli, and Scott spent the evening on the front porch catching up with the locals. They laughed, and he paused to translate the jokes for me. It was genuinely warm companionship in any language. As I settled in for the night, the call to prayer at one of the nearby mosques started up over a public address system. It was Friday, and because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, there were mosques within walking distance of everyone in the town.

I learned to navigate the intricacies of Asian toilets, which was essentially a hole in the ground with a small platform built around it. You have to squat over the hole and then use water from a pot or small reservoir called a bak to clean yourself and flush away the waste. There’s definitely a trick to it, and Americans are notoriously bad at both aim and clean up. Not every home had running water to a bak. Many families in the area went to large baks at their mosque to draw water for daily use. When we began checking on the redevelopment projects that day, they took me to a mosque where the bak served a large number of families in the community. It was the first project they undertook in Sigli, and CBF personnel built trust and reliability in the community by completing it. I was impressed with how they worked with the locals, observed their customs, spoke their language and work alongside them, not for or instead of them.

We went to the CBF office in Sigli, and Scott showed me a large dry erase board with a chart listing active projects and completed projects. There were more than 13 significant projects that had been completed on CBF’s list.

For three days I met people who fought through tears and struggled through a translator to tell me their stories. Our driver lost his wife and children in the tsunami. For reasons he couldn’t explain or understand, he survived. Everyone in Sigli lost family, and most lost their homes.

They took me out to several small villages outside of town where pumps had been installed to provide clean water not contaminated by the tsunami. Small children came to me and touched my arms and looked at each other and laughed. Scott told me I was only the second white person they had ever seen.

“They want to know if the color comes off,” he said.

We went to one village that had recently been built. There were long row houses built on stilts, about five feet off the ground. Painted bright yellow, they were the Indonesian equivalent of the FEMA trailers given to hurricane victims in the U.S. This particular village was a leper colony that been relocated from the coastline about a mile into the interior. I talked with a man who missing most of his left arm and right foot. He smiled and told me, through Scott’s interpretation, to “Thank America for me, for sending food, water and supplies.”

I nearly broke down in that moment. Despite all he had been through in the tsunami and its aftermath and suffering from a debilitating illness, he expressed gratitude. It was a profound lesson that I try to remember when I face challenges in my relatively luxurious circumstances.

The island of Sumatra is beautiful, defying description. It is unlike any place I had ever been. Volcanic mountains jut up suddenly in the middle of palm tree-lined fields of rice, and golden sand beaches receive the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The people were kind and gracious, and the food was among my favorite from limited international travel. Their coffee was strong and sweet, and I brought some home to share with Carla and enhance the telling of the details of my trip. There were plenty of noodle and rice dishes, some on the spicy side. I had sugar cane juice, fresh squeezed from a roadside stand with a wooden foot-operated mashing device. I ate plenty, avoided non-bottled water, and managed to go the whole trip without getting a stomach ailment.

When it was time for me to return, the journey home was long, not broken up with days in between as it had been on the front end. It started with the 2-and-a-half-hour drive back to Banda where I caught a flight to Medan. At the airport in Medan a man helped me with my bag, before I could refuse, so I tipped him nearly all my remaining Indonesia currency, the equivalent of about a quarter, U.S. He was clearly disappointed. From Medan I went back to Singapore with only about an hour before my flight to Bangkok. This time, I overnighted in the transiting hotel I had missed on my entry to Thailand and boarded an early morning flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. From Tokyo I re-entered the U.S. in Chicago where I went through customs and faced a several-hours delay on my flight back to Atlanta. Having a lengthy delay on the last leg of two days of travel is tough. I just wanted to be home.

I finally made it back to Atlanta in the early evening, and Carla, Barron and baby Harris greeted me at the top of the escalators in the North Terminal. Harris had visibly grown during my 10-day excursion, and Barron seemed shy and a little afraid of me. Maybe it was the two-week beard I was sporting, or maybe he had just missed me and didn’t know how to express it. We hugged and cried a little, and I tried to hit the high points of what the trip had been like. It was impossible to sum up.

I’ve not made any other trips in my life like the one to Southeast Asia, and I doubt I ever will again. The 18 intervening years has softened some of the sharper edges of my experience. My memories may not include what were key details at the time. I do remember my impressions, though, and what real beauty, hospitality and recovery look like.


One thought on “A life-changing trip from a life-stealing catastrophe

  1. This article brought many tears. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I went to China in 2006. That was life changing but not like yours. I did meet Anita who was on the trip also.

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