TsunamiWhen the earthquake struck beneath the Indian Ocean on the other side of the world, my accomplice and I must have been in the air between Stanstead, London and Valladolid. In Indonesia it was the afternoon, in London the morning of that same day, December 26. We would know nothing about it until that night in our hotel, the Vieja Chimenea of Herreros (Soria, Spain), after battling a blizzard to get there. Toñi, co-proprietress of the rustic hotel, reported what she had just heard on the radio about thousands of deaths. News of the Asian catastrophe made our seven-hour adventure through blinding snow on slick and unfamiliar roads evaporate into insignificance.
Not all humans, though, have a sense of proportion between their own inconvenience and someone else’s calamity. According to El País, at least one European in Phuket was loudly complaining that he had “lost everything” – meaning his passport, his money and his luggage –even as he and his healthy wife stood among cadavers of the drowned.
In Thailand, we’ve learned, more tourists than natives died, though in most of the countries affected the proportions were reversed. “Tourist” doesn’t really tell us anything except that they were foreigners who did not have business reasons to be there. All we can say about all those Swedes and other Europeans and the fewer Asian and American tourists is that they were escaping whatever was their routine back home. Just like human beings everywhere since the first Homo sapiens peered out through the forest and wondered what was on the other side. Curiosity and lust for adventure are essential to being human, for those in the middle class, urban routines of the developed world as well as those outside it who are dying (sometimes literally) to get in – Moroccans and Malians who wash up on the shores of Spain, Mexicans who risk death in the desert to cross into the United States, and countless others who are usually not considered “tourists,” though they too are seeking to escape deadly routines. It is understandable, acceptable and even admirable that so many European tourists want to experience something of Southeast Asia. What not acceptable nor admirable, though it is understandable, is that in the context of such general suffering many of them remain concerned only about their own safety and comfort, and some of those who escaped serious loss are even back at the Thai beaches, bellies bared to the sun and still demanding to be pampered.