Tuesday, 25 January 2005

The Amazing Race 6, Episode 9 (travel advice and lessons from the tsunami in the Indian Ocean)

Lalibela (Ethiopia) - Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) - Colombo (Sri Lanka) - Galle (Sri Lanka) - Kandy (Sri Lanka) - Dambulla (Sri Lanka) - Sigiriya (Sri Lanka)

This weeks’s episode of The Amazing Race was dedicated to those affected by the tsunami, especially in Sri Lanka where the reality-TV show was filmed “a few weeks” (a few months, to be more precise), before the 26 December 2004 tsunami caused by an earthquake under the Indian Ocean off the northwest coast of Sumatra.

Questions were raised, inevitably, about whether CBS-TV should have gone through with the broadcast, or should have cancelled, postponed, or changed it. Similar questions were undoubtedly raised in the first season of “The Amazing Race” about how to deal with the broadcast of the finish of the race in New York City, which had been filmed (including shots of the World Trade Center towers) just a few weeks before the destruction of the towers on 11 September 2001.

In both cases, CBS proceeded with the broadcasts, essentially without alteration, just as most travellers are proceeding with their itineraries, even to countries affected by the tsunami, largely without alteration.

Despite the seriousness of the damage in some places, the effects of the tsunami were much more localized than might be apparent from many news reports. Even areas close to the coast were unaffected if they were more than a few meters or feet above sea level, so that only in the lowest-lying, flattest places did the waves come any significant distance in from the shore. Coastal resorts and facilities on very slightly higher ground were undamaged in even the worst hit areas.

Even along the coastline of world regions where there was damage, most areas were unaffected. In particular, the worst damage was on Sumatra, the westernmost island of Indonesia. But the destructive force of the tsunami was blocked by the Malay Peninsula, and the narrowness of the Straits of Malacca to the northeast and the Sunda Strait to the southeast of Sumatra, from reaching any of the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, or any other parts of Southeast Asia further to the east.

Singapore, Jakarta, and the main tourist destinations of Indonesia (Java, Bali, Lombok, Borneo, Sulawesi, and other islands to the east) were all completely untouched. And it’s life, business, and tourism as usual on the eastern shore of the Malay Peninsula, and the islands off the east coast, in Thailand and Malaysia, including resorts like Ko Samui.

If you are looking for alternative and uncrowded tropical Southeast Asian seashore with superlative beaches, scuba diving, and surfing, consider the entirely undamaged coasts of the Philippines (especially the Visayan islands, reachable via Cebu without even needing to go through the capital, Manila) or Vietnam (also a superlative cultural, culinary, scenic, and historical destination). As I’ve mentioned in an earlier posting, the tsunami was undetectable (except perhaps with sophisticated instruments) even in the calmest and shallowest water, or right on the coast in the places of greatest vulnerability, where I was in the Visayas.

Some parts of South and Southeast Asia are actually seeing more tourists than before: Some travellers who had planned to go to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia are going to the east coast instead, while some who had planned to go to coastal Tamil Nadu or southern Kerala in India, or to Sri Lanka, are going to Goa (further north on India’s western coast, which wasn’t reached by the tsunami) instead. Most of India, including not just inland areas, of course, but also coastal cities in the north such as Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta), was beyond reach of the tsunami.

The bottom line is that the world is surprisingly big and resilient. Even the worst natural disasters can’t damage more than a small part of it. No matter what bad things happen in one place, there are always more than enough other interesting and enjoyable places, often not very far away, to keep travellers busy for a lifetime of travel.

Rebuilding is proceeding as fast as possible in those areas that were hit by the tsunami, and facilities on slightly higher ground remain open. Many of these coastal communities depend on tourists and their spending. The sooner visitors return, the sooner they will be able to rebuild the rest of their lives and economies. (There’s likely to be much less capital available, and rebuilding is likely to proceed much more slowly, in areas without a previously established tourism industry and proven potential to generate revenues from tourism to pay back investment in reconstruction of tourist facilities and infrastructure.)

If you already have tickets, there’s no need to make a hasty decision on whether to modify your plans: If the place you are planning to visit hasn’t recovered sufficiently by the time you get there for an enjoyable visit, it’s likely to be easy enough to get to other nearby places by local transportation or short local flights — the other side of Thailand or Peninsular Malaysia, for example — that were on higher ground, or shielded from the tsunami.

That’s likely to be less costly, and leave you more flexibility, than rushing to make costly changes now to the routing of your tickets that may end up being unnecessary as the recovery and rebuilding proceeds.

Only in the more severely damaged areas — few of which were major tourist destinations — is tourism likely to be inappropriate or unenjoyable . For those interested in travelling to these hardest-hit places, or in contributing to relief and reconstruction in other ways than through continued spending as tourists, my friends at the Ethical Traveler project have an excellent section of their Web site on ways to help and contribute and the complex issues of volunteering in disaster areas, as well as dispatches and photos from Sri Lanka by Ethical Traveler founder and executive director Jeff Greenwald, working temporarily as communications officer with a relief organization in many of the same places where “The Amazing Race” was filmed.

On the larger questions of ethics in tourism, I was quoted at some length in an article on Travelers Who Strive To Do No Harm published in the Christian Science Monitor just a few days before the tsunami. There’s more on related questions in my essay on Ecotourism and the Ecology of Independent Travel and the resources listed under “The Ecology of Travel and Tourism” in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World . For further reading, I especially recommend the UK-based international activist organization Tourism Concern , which has specific advice for travel in the wake of the tsunami as well as information on other ethical issues for tourists and travellers.

But what could we have done if we had been in one of the places the tsunami hit? What can we do, before and during our own trips, to prepare for the possibility of events like this?

There’s been a lot of talk about the possibility of a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, similar to the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific Ocean coordinated by the International Tsunami Information Center and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Oahu, Hawai’i (worth a visit if you’re in Honolulu).

If mobile phone operators were able to send text messages to subscribers, after the fact, asking them to donate to tsunami relief charities, why couldn’t they send a message to all subscribers in the area to warn them of the approaching tsunami, especially in places where it didn’t arrive until hours after it had struck coastal areas closer to the earthquake that caused it? And why weren’t calls made by people in those places, or observers who detected the tsunami further afield, to the global news media, so that CNN and the BBC could have spread the warning to their viewers and listeners throughout the danger zone, and they could have warned those around them?

But the fact is that an approaching tsunami provides its own distinctive warning signs, which were seen and noticed — but not recognized, even by water safety professionals — by most people along the affected coasts, in time for most of them to have escaped if they had the most elementary knowledge of how to recognize those warning signs, and what to do if they saw them. The lack of recognition of the warnings, and the resultant failure to evacuate low-lying areas, even where that would have been possible, was primarily due to a lack of public safety education about tsunami hazards.

If you learn and remember just one thing about tsunamis, it should be this:

If you feel an earthquake while along the coast, or if you see the ocean recede far from shore, or the sea level drop, further or lower and more rapidly than the lowest low tide — over a period of 5 minutes to an hour, rather than several hours like a normal tide — flee to high ground if possible, or inland if there is no high ground nearby, and warn other people nearby.

Most tsunamis are caused by undersea earthquakes. Any earthquake felt along the seashore could have caused, and could be a warning of, a rapidly approaching tsunami.

A tsunami travels across the ocean at up to 800 km/hour (500 miles/hour) as a series of very long (up to several hundred kilometers or miles), very low waves no more than a couple of meters high in deep water (10 feet or often much less), increasing to as much as 10 meters (35 feet) in shallower water as they approach shore, with a period of 10 minutes to 2 hours.

Often the first trough of the series of tsunami waves precedes the first crest. So the water lowers and surges out before the first big surge upward and inland. When the ocean suddenly recedes, the natural human instinct is to rush forward to look at the strange phenomenon and the unusually low “tide” and often never-before-exposed seabed.

That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. When the water rushes out further than ever before, it will soon come back, much higher than ever before. Heed the water’s own warning, and head for high ground immediately. A tsunami rarely reaches more than 10 meters (35 feet) above sea level. But every little bit of height helps. If there is no high ground, head inland as far as possible.

Don’t think the danger is over, or go back to the shore, when the first surge of water recedes. A tsunami is a series of several long waves which may surge in and out, back and forth, up and down, for several hours. The highest and most destructive surge may be the first, the second, or the sixth in the set. A former colleague, who was working at a dive resort on a small low island in the Maldives where every structure was washed away, says the tsunami waves there had a period of about 20 minutes, with the most destructive wave being the third.

The relatively few people around the Indian Ocean who recognized the warning signs of the approaching tsunami were able to save themselves and those they warned. In perhaps the most dramatic and widely publicized incident, a 10-year-old tourist from the UK, who had recently learned about tsunamis in school in England, warned her parents, who in turn warned 100 other people on the beach they were on in Thailand — all of whom fled the beach before the tsunami came in, and all of whom escaped death or serious injury.

Tsunamis are quite rare, although unpredictable. There may not be another one as destructive as this one, anywhere in the world, in the rest of our lifetime.

But some of the problems travellers had after the tsunami — having lost their tickets and passports, or not being able to find their friends — can and do also result from more common travel mishaps. Here’s what you can do to minimize the delay and inconvenience if something like this ever happens to you:

  1. Make several copies of all your documents (passport, visas, airline tickets, travellers check receipts, credit and debit cards, lists of addresses and phone numbers and e-mail addresses, etc. — everything in your wallet or money belt), in case they are lost or stolen. Having photocopies or faxes of your missing documents — not just document numbers — makes it hugely quicker and easier to get them replaced. You could be robbed of all your possessions (rare), lose them all when you have to flee a fire, road accident, tsunami, or other disaster (rarer), lose all your documents, or forget them and not realize it until you are far away (surprisingly common). Keep a set of copies in your luggage, separate from the originals. If you are travelling with a companion, exchange copies of each other’s documents. Leave a set with someone back home whom you can contact and who can fax them to you in an emergency.

  2. Always have a plan for how you will reconnect with your travelling companion(s) if you are unexpectedly separated. Most of the time, you assume that you’ll meet back at your hotel. But some of the locales where it’s easiest to get split up — in a crowd at a bus or train station, for example — are places you are likely to be when you are en route from one place to another. It’s especially easy to lose track of your companion(s) if you’ve gotten accustomed to using your mobile phones to find each other at home, but don’t have them while travelling. What if you don’t have your next hotel reserved? Or what if, in an emergency, you have to flee your hotel? Agree in advance on where your next rendezvous will be. E-mail will often work, though it may take time for you both to make your way to cybercafes, but in an emergency it may not be available. As a backup, and in case of more serious disruptions of your plans, agree on a person you will contact back home to let them know if you are OK and pass on a message as to where you are.

  3. If you are a citizen of the USA, register your travel plans with the USA Department of State at https://travelregistration.state.gov It’s inconvenient, often impractical, and sometimes inadvisable to visit a consulate or embassy of the USA in person to let them know where you are, but that’s no longer necessary: you can register your entire intended route and schedule through any number of countries in advance, and specify to which of your family, friends, or specific other people this information can be divulged. The State Department will e-mail you advisories (sometimes politically biased and propagandistic, but sometimes useful) if they issue or change a travel warning for any of the countries you plan to visit, and will know you are in the country in case of an emergency, natural disaster, or evacuation of USA citizens.

  4. Bring some type of water purification or treatment equipment. After the tsunami, the most critical survival need was drinkable fresh water. More and more travellers are relying on buying bottled water, but even if you aren’t in a disaster area, sooner or later you’ll find yourself somewhere bottled water isn’t available. If you don’t have some way to purify or treat contaminated water, you’ll drink whatever water is available, and you’ll get sick. Or you’ll drink no water at all, and soon get dangerously dehydrated. Boiling water is an effective way to render almost any water drinkable, but that isn’t always practical when you are travelling. If you do plan on boiling your drinking water, make sure you have suitable water bottles. Nalgene bottles will hold boiling water without leakage or damage, but the type of plastic used for most bottles in which water is sold will shrink, crumple, and leak if filled with boiling water. At a minimum, bring some water purification tablets (foul tasting and not recommended for long-term use) for emergencies. Or, to free yourself from reliance on bottled water, bring a water purifier of some sort. There are some interesting new alternatives: on my latest trip, I used a mixed oxidant water purifier from the REI; consumer cooperative. It’s expensive, a bit complicated, and requires care and time management to use properly, but it’s a fraction of the size and weight of a combination filter and purifier like the ones I’ve used in the past, seems sturdy and reliable (it was originally designed for military field use), yet can easily treat even large containers of water.

Above all, though, don’t worry too much about what could go wrong. The reason to prepare is so that once you’ve done so, you don’t need to worry. Relax and enjoy your trip!

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 25 January 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

You have made a very rare(for you) geography mistake in this article. Goa is on the western coast on India, not the eastern. It is about 800 miles south of Bombay.

Posted by: Arthur Perkins, 2 February 2005, 08:11 ( 8:11 AM)

Goa is on the west (not east) coast of India, and Sumatra is the westernmost (not easternmost) major island of Indonesia. I've travelled in both India and Indonesia, and have pretty good mental maps of both: I plead bad typing (I usually use voice recognition) rather than bad geographic knowledge. Those two typos in the original article have been corrected in the version above. The tsunami did cause some damage in Kerala, on the southernmost part of the west coast of India, as it moved north after rounding the southern tip of India, but the damage didn't reach as far north on that (west) coast as Goa.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 2 February 2005, 10:32 (10:32 AM)
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