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What If...We Had Been on the Beach on Phuket?
They were vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami struck, and God was there with them. The question remains, Where was God for those who died?

What if?

Those two words have gone through our minds hundreds of times as we think about our experience on the Thai island of Phuket where our family spent our Christmas vacation. We were untouched by the tsunami that devastated the coastline of the island.

I cannot believe that God had anything to do with such horror …

The Mangosteen resort where we stayed was high on a hill and a number of kilometres from the ocean. We were protected by three islands directly in front of our site which took the brunt of the waves. We were urged to remain in our hotel where staff continued to serve us politely and calmly. We had all the amenities, plenty of food, drinking water and perfect weather.

It was a surreal experience to watch the BBC coverage and realize that all around us such horror and devastation were occurring. As we read the newspaper stories, and as some of the tsunami survivors began to trickle into our resort looking for places to stay, we started to comprehend the scope of the tragedy. It was then the "what ifs" began in our minds.

What if we had gone to the Sofitel Hotel in Khao Lak? We almost did. A new travel agent suggested the resort to us—it was right on the beach and had lots of sports activities the kids would enjoy. Dave planned to go book the resort at lunch one day, but some unexpected tasks at the school interfered. Later that day, our regular travel agent e-mailed details of a package at the Mangosteen Hotel. Although it was a little pricier and not right on the ocean, Dave chose it out of allegiance to our old travel agent.

The Sofitel Hotel was completely destroyed by the tsunami. More than 500 bodies have been found inside so far. What if we had gone there instead? What if our children hadn't slept in? We talked of heading down to the beach at 10 a.m. the morning of the tsunami, but opted for the 11 o'clock shuttle to the ocean when our kids slept in. The tsunami hit Phuket at 10:30.

We had visited the beach the day before the tidal wave and were able to see the devastation just before we left on the 29th. A woman staying at our hotel had been on that beach with her children when the tsunami hit. They survived the first wave by wrapping their arms around trees, the second because friendly Thai people whisked them away on their motorcycles, and the third because intuition told the woman to get off the motorcycles and push her children up a hill just before the final wave hit, washing the motorcycles out to sea.

What if we had gone to Thailand a day earlier? We had planned a snorkelling trip to Phi Phi Island our second full day in Phuket. We opted for a December 25th departure, instead of a December 24th, because our pastor asked if our family would sing at the Christmas Eve service in our church in Hong Kong. Had we left earlier, we would have been snorkelling the morning of the tsunami. There are only two buildings left standing on Phi Phi Island now and several boats carrying swimmers and divers to the island have not been located. We could easily have been on one of those boats.

Our experience in Thailand has reminded us of how fragile our lives really are. As we sat in the Phuket airport waiting to fly home, I looked at the masses of people around me. Some were crying, some were in wheelchairs, countless numbers were bandaged or covered with bruises and cuts, others had crutches and casts. Many were without luggage, passports or money.

The man who operated our shuttle service from the airport in Hong Kong greeted us warmly. He put his arm around Dave and said, "I see God has protected you."

I've thought about that statement so much. I know many of our family and friends in Hong Kong and Manitoba were praying for our safety. Of course, we are so very grateful and have thanked God countless times that we were safe. But what about all those people who died on Phuket?

I have no doubt that many of them also had friends and family praying for them. I'm sure that many of them called to God in their time of peril pleading for rescue, but they perished. I cannot believe that God had anything to do with such horror or that God deliberately chose to protect our family rather than another.

One of our grade seven students from our school in Hong Kong was holidaying in Phuket with her family and is still listed as missing. Yvette was staying at the Sofitel Hotel. Other students and a staff member vacationing on Phuket have been reported as safe. Why were some of us saved and others not? I don't think there is an answer to that.

Our pastor and his wife here in Hong Kong called immediately upon our return. They said that perhaps God had saved us because He had something important left for us to do in this world. I'm not sure I can accept that either. Didn't all those people who died, especially the children, have countless gifts ot contribute to the world?

… we all feel a renewed responsibility to make our lives count for something …

I do think, however, that having so narrowly escaped death we all feel a renewed responsibility to make our lives count for something, to do important things for God in this extra time we have on earth.

I do not believe that the tsunami was an act of God. I do think, however, that as people care for those who have been so hurt by this act of nature, acts of God will be taking place.

At Tao Fong Shan (Mountain of the Christ Wind), our church here in Hong Kong, we always end our fellowship meals after the service by singing Ube Caritas: "Wherever compassion and love are found that is where God is." Our prayer is that the devastated countries of south-east Asia will feel God's presence as they experience the love and compassion of people from around the world who are reaching out to help them.

MaryLou Driedger, her husband Dave and sons Joel (25) and David Paul (19), are based in Steinback, Manitoba. MaryLou and Dave have been teaching at the International Christian School in Hong Kong for two years. Their sons, and Joel's girlfriend Karen Leis of Steinbach, Saskatoon joined them for Christmas.

Originally published in the Canadian Mennonite, January 24, 2005.




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