New Zealand surfer escapes tsunami

Surfers are constantly on the hunt for the “big one” – that epic wave they’ll be able to tell their grand kids about. But for New Zealand surfer Chris Nel, that epic wave turned into a nightmare. Nel was out surfing with five friends in the Samoan Islands last week when a catastrophic 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck, sending a towering tsunami of water rumbling his way.

Before they even realized it, the ocean around them was rushing back out to sea, sucking Chris and his friends along with it. Chris describes the scary feeling of doom as he was pulled towards the giant mass of water, powerless to do anything but ride out the waves. For the next 45 minutes, Nel and his friends struggled to stay afloat in the pounding tsunami surge, worried they would be smashed into the beach or jungle. Finally, the friends caught a lucky break, scrambling to safety back on land in between surges. However, the surf camp where he was staying was completely destroyed. Chris returned to New Zealand wearing nothing but a pair of jeans found in the jungle.

For all the tragedy that came from last week’s earthquakes and tsunamis, it’s heartening to hear of some good news. Despite the increasing availability of tsunami warning systems in the Pacific Ocean, it’s not likely Nel or his friends would have even had time to get out of the water, even if they learned of the wave in advance. Like any outdoor sport, surfing is not without its occasional risk – sometimes you just happen to get lucky.

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Eydhafushi, Maldives

Late on a Sunday afternoon, hardly a day of rest in this part of the world, the small island of Eydhafushi is quiet. The men, most of who go to sea each day to fish or work at one of six nearby tourist resorts, are absent. School is out for a week’s holiday so kids of various ages scamper up and down the short, dusty streets. The women of the island of 3,000 are mostly in doorways or small backyards or sitting in laid-back sling chairs made of strong twine strung from metal frames lining the streets.

Like all Maldivian towns this is laid out in squares. From the start of any street you can stare down it and see blue ocean at the other end. A four-hundred-foot tall, red and white striped telephone tower adorned with a variety of satellite dishes shouts modernity has arrived; the head scarves worn by all women over thirty suggests a powerful connection to centuries-old tradition hangs on. As I walk the streets, obviously an outsider, I stop to chat people up and the responses are friendly, smiling. Everyone I meet – man, woman, child – gives me good, hard handshake as a hello. Though poor, this is not an impoverished place.

Despite the booming tourist business that exists on islands all around, most of these people have little contact with outsiders. Tourists in the Maldives are confined largely by geography to the resort islands. Water surrounds and there aren’t shuttles or ferries or water taxis to take people easily from island to island. During the recently ended thirty-year dictatorship, locals were strongly discouraged from mingling with visitors, concerned that negative influences from the west might rub off. Tourists drink alcohol, run around mostly naked and come to party, after all. By comparison, the local populace does not imbibe and is called to prayer several times a day (though there is reportedly a sizable heroin habit among many of the Maldive’s young people).
Concrete-block-and-cement walls lining the streets are painted in bright orange and purple and faded blue; older walls are made from pieces of coral, a construction now forbidden due to efforts to preserve the fragile reefs. Many of the walls bear stenciled black-and-red “Vote for Saleem” signs, which rather than feel defacing are actually a reminder of a positive thing that’s come to the Maldives in the last few years: Democracy.

I visit with a woman dressed in purple from head to toe; she is bundling reeds for roofs, explaining she is the breadwinner since her husband is sick. Fifty-two, she came here thirty years ago from a nearby, smaller island. In that time, she says, everything has gotten better. The economy. Politics. The way of life, including fifty channels of satellite television. And yes, she worries about rising sea levels, but primarily for her kids. “The seas are climbing … but what can I do?” is the plaint I hear from most here.

On the far side of the island a Woman’s Collective has turned out for a late-afternoon communal sweeping of a corner of the island. Bent at the waist, wearing headscarves and long dresses, they whisk brooms over the sand/dirt ground along the edge of the sea. Paid a small salary by the local government, the clean up is a good thing. But a bad side of island life here is evident just behind where they sweep: Piles of plastic garbage bags, which apparently did not make the once-a-month barge that carries garbage away to a nationwide rubbish-island near Male.

A new port reinforced by thick cement walls has been dredged in the last year, long enough to accommodate thirty to forty fishing boats. It was needed post-tsunami, which turned the local fishing fleet into matchsticks in December 2004. “You ask where the tsunami hit,” responds a 70-year-old man in green polo shirt, faded madras skirt and red Nike flip-flops. “Everywhere. That wave came from every direction at once.” He lucked out when the wave hit, since he was twenty feet up a coconut tree knocking off cocos.

Deeply tanned, his shaved head boasting a thin veneer of graying stubble, he tells me he still fishes when there’s a bit of wind, necessary because his boat has only a sail, no motor. A jack of all island trades, he’s fished, collected coconuts, worked construction and, not so long ago, was paralyzed over half his body due to some unexplained (to him) malady. Today he shows off his good health with the strongest handshake yet.

New Tsunami Early Warning System in Place

Since the catastrophic tsunami of 2004, there have been calls to bolster the deficient tsunami detection system in the eastern Indian Ocean. Nations have installed buoys that can detect tsunamis and offer early warning. But Indonesia, which received the brunt of the wave, is taking it a step further. With the help of a German geo-science company, they have begun to install sensors on the sea floor itself. These sensors will relay seismic data to buoys at the surface, which will, in turn, send them to Indonesia’s Tsunami Center via satellite. The system will give warning of a possible tsunami within minutes of an undersea quake. However, experts say that to be completely effective, the system requires more buoys, more undersea sensors and more electronic tide sensors.

Thailand has put buoys out into the ocean to act as an early warning system. In order to reassure tourists on the island of Phuket, they have also built Tsunami watch towers, which do little else than make tourists feel more comfortable.

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern: Phuket, Thailand

When I found out that Phuket, Thailand was the setting for the kick off episode of the new season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel, I flashed to images of tourist filled beaches where jet skiing and para-sailing are high on the list of things to do.

Not if you’re Andrew Zimmern who’ll eat anything with great gusto, and who has a penchant for heading off to places not highly traveled by throngs of the beach crowd.

“Bugs, bugs and more bugs.” “Squid, the new seafood jerky.” “Cashew nuts.” “Secret sauce.” “Unbelievably disgusting. I love this stuff,” and “Thailand is hard to pass up,” were within the string of descriptors in the show’s beginning, and Zimmern delivered.

Although Zimmern gave a nod to Phuket’s tourism–1,000,000 or so people come here every year infusing needed moola into the island’s economy, he headed off the beach junket into Phuket City for some market style eats.

As Zimmern explained, Phuket is the pearl of the Andaman Sea where Phuket City is a vibrant town, “devoted to a range of spiritual groups,” where “life is embraced at all levels.”

First stop: The fair at Wat Chalong during the Chinese New Year celebration.

First eat: fried grasshoppers with chilies and salt. “You can eat a bowl of these for the big game on Sunday,” says Zimmern.

At the market, Ko Liang, a tour guide headed Zimmern towards a bowl of noodle soup with ingredients like pork liver, intestines and stomach. “That tastes really clean. All tripe soup should be this good,” Zimmern said and explained how Thai cooking is a variation flavors that combines bitter, sweet, sour and hot.

“There’s nothing like a bowl of hot spicy soup on a 100 degree day. We have thin noodles, fat noodles, little bits of liver and heart. Wow, this is good. This is light,” he added.

My favorite part of Zimmern’s episodes is watching the background around him and his interactions with people since those details transport me back to my own travels. Watching women wash whatever they’re going to cook in a plastic strainer looks familiar. I’m reminded of plastic strainers in stacks for sale at a market and can hear the swishing sounds of water.

Other fair eats were salted fish, dried squid pressed into flat strips similar to jerky and a dessert made from rice flour, rice, coconut milk, melted brown sugar and flaked coconut that sounded yummy. I like the chewiness of those rice ball things, though. Zimmern pronounced all of these ready to eat snacks, “Fantastic.”

Because “you won’t find the best restaurant in touristy area of Phuket, ” says Zimmern, he headed to a small town near Bang Sak, where a mom and pop style thatched roof shack-like place serves up a menu of 100 dishes. Food choices range ran from sting ray to wasps to mackerel and other seafood like shrimp. One hit was the spicy stuffed mackerel which I would have devoured myself.

Not such a big hit was the yellow wasp larvae snack food. “Never ate it before. Oooh, those are mealy–soft–spongy, not a lot of flavor–texture of play dough. Not my favorite in the world,” said Zimmern as he sampled it.

The sting ray, though, was a hit. “Chewier than I thought. Drier than I thought. Got a kick like a mule. Meat is firm. That sauce is killer though,” he said lip-smacking it down.

One interesting part of this segment was the harvesting of sea cicadas. Zimmern happened on a few fishermen catching these small crab-like critters in nets. He stayed through the process of cooking them. One option is to fry them in garlic or in a tempura like batter. Zimmern called them the “popcorn shrimp of the Phuket beach scene.”

If you’ve ever wondered how cashew nuts are harvested and prepared, this episode was one to watch. Phuket has the Methee Cashew Nut Factory. Here’s Zimmern’s camera team filmed the whole arduous process of cashew production–time consuming. In the store, Zimmern tasted a few of the varieties. Turns out, there’s a lot more you can do with cashews then just put them in a jar by themselves or mix them up with other nuts.

There’s even a flavor that uses the same spices as Tum Yum soup. The best cashew seller is the one coated with sesame seeds, sugar and salt. From the Web site it looks like you can order them and have them shipped.

Although you can get the cashews where you are, in general, Zimmern said that you’ll have to head to Thailand for the juice made from the cashew apple. Because the fruit bruises easily, and the juice is highly perishable the tendency is not to export these products. The juice is also fermented into wine, he says. According to him, the juice tastes similar to apple juice mixed with ginger ale–a little sour and sweet.

Because the tsunami devastated much of Phuket, Zimmern talked about it as well a couple times throughout the episode and detailed what has happened since then. In many places, it’s hard to tell there was ever a tsunami, but in other locations, the effects still remain. One interesting result is the people who have moved into the beach area from other regions of the island in order to help the recovery process. Their food is different. To illustrate how different, Zimmern went on a red weaver ant hunt, followed by a lizard hunt.

Hunting red weaver ants involves covering oneself in talcum powder. The powder acts as a repellent against these mean, mean insects, explained Zimmern as he smacked and swatted the ants off him. One place the ant larvae was found was in an abandoned resort hotel.

They were then cooked in a stir fry with fresh green onion, chilies, lime juice. Zimmern said they tasted a like little pudding jelly beans. A whistle technique is used to coax lizards. One way to cook them is into a coconut milk curry.

Pointing out that fishing is one of the island’s largest economy, Zimmern headed to Phang-Nga Bay, made up mostly of Muslim immigrants. Here there were shots of “beautiful, beautiful shrimp” and pulling crabs from nets–a process that can take hours.

At what Zimmern called, (I think) Mrs. Ma’s Kitchen, a simple traditional, non-touristy beach eatery–basically an open air thatched roof hut with a few private tables in their own huts, Zimmern relished the crab stomach curry and waxed poetic about all the various curries to be found. “I like food with big flavors,” he said.

One interesting item Mrs. Ma prepared for him was a sea welt (?) that looked like a huge snail. It can be sliced and eaten plain or also cooked into a curry.

An aspect of Phuket Zimmern mentioned more than once was people’s tendency there to smile big. I’ve also found that true of other places in Thailand I’ve been. I appreciated this episode because from all I’ve heard about Phuket, it’s a tourist hot spot. Good to know that simple authenticity is a-plenty.

One last thing, Zimmern also paid tribute to the Tsunami Recovery Center in Bang Sak. When he went ant hunting an American volunteer with the recovery went along with him.

Regardless of how much the island seems like it’s recovered, there is still work to be done and people who are struggling. The photo is from the Tsunami Volunteer Center’s Web site for anyone who is interested in the latest recovery news. I’m not sure if this is the place to which Zimmern was referring, but it’s the one I found.

(* photos of Zimmern and food from Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern web site)

Next week, Zimmern heads to Sicily for another new episode.

Two Years Post Tsunami

This morning when I watched the news it was called to my attention that today marks the two-year anniversary of one the biggest natural disasters to occur in Southeast Asia. Footage of massive waves, bulldozing tiny tropical beach resorts in Thailand and water carrying the remnants of homes, vehicles, and those trying desperately to escape; glowed on my television screen. I cut the news off and retreated to my room. I wasn’t in much of a mood to see the sorrow mounted in the eyes of an orphan whose parents had been washed away in the ocean. I just couldn’t bear it so early.

Now as I sit hanging out on the web I see several stories remembering those who lost a great deal and how much progress still needs to be made. The International Herald Tribune has an excellent photo gallery displaying images of smiles from young girls like the two above whirling around in a playground (a donation by a relief agency), people playing volleyball on Thailand’s Patong beach, and then sad images as well. Most of Thailand’s beaches have been able to rebuild quickly, but other areas in Sri Lanka & Indonesia have been left to slowly pick up the pieces due to misuse of money (millions) and government corruption.

A drill system is being practiced across to Southeast Asia for future disasters and to commemorate the 9.3 earthquake two years back.