It was Boxing Day and life seemed perfect.
My parents and 2 younger sisters were enjoying a well-deserved holiday in one of our favorite countries on earth, Thailand. We had been there for a week already, enjoying the delicious food, exploring the night markets and local temples with local tuk-tuk rides, and had just been sailing till Phi Phi Islands the previous day. I had reconnected with my passion for scuba-diving and was relaxing before embracing my last year of Business School.
My sisters and I joined our parents for an early breakfast around 7h30 on Boxing Day, and enjoyed the lavish buffet by the pool. We exchanged gifts and thoughtful cards and wished each other a Merry Christmas.
The sky was blue and cloudless. I was a bit tired following our expedition to Phi Phi the previous day, and therefore decided to cancel the scuba-dive outing that I had booked. Serendipity …
My parents decided to stay by the pool to relax and pass a few phone calls to France to wish the family a merry Christmas, whilst my sisters and I headed to the beach.
Our resort was on a hill, with a restaurant overlooking the long beach that was adjacent to the facilities. There was a lovely wooden stair leading from the heights of the hill to the beach, making its way through palm and banana trees.
On that particular day, when my sisters and I arrived on the beach, around 9am, it was already rather crowded, and all the sunbeds were taken, with the exception of those just by the stairs. We usually didn’t like these as they were slightly more in the shadow and also in the way of the hotel guests passing by as they were going up and down the stairs.
But we had no choice and hence we settled there. One of my sisters started reading her economics book (she was preparing for her Baccalaureate later that year) whilst the other called her boyfriend (now husband).
After I put sunscreen on, I looked up towards the sea and noticed the water had been receding. The jet skis and little hotel boats were on the wet sand, and the sea seemed at an extreme low tide, which I had never seen in Phuket. Fishing boats were grounded. The beach was now extending as far as the eye could see.
At first, I thought nothing of it. The ocean was just further away than usual.
We grew up on an island in France, and I am a huge ocean lover and sea sports fan, but like so many holidaymakers on that particular day of 2004, I had no idea that this was the warning sign of an impending tsunami. I don’t even think I had ever heard the word tsunami. I thought the sea had withdrawn because there was a full moon and it was a tidal phenomenon…
Untroubled, my sisters and I continued with our sunbathing activities.
But suddenly, we saw a German guest who was just coming down the stairs and observing this retreating sea becoming alarmed and telling us to go back up immediately. He and his wife had arrived in the hotel on the same date as we had, and we were always greeting each other at breakfast time.
We didn’t understand why he seemed so concerned, and it seemed that everyone on the beach, after a moment of puzzling observation at the low level of the sea, had returned to their doings, including children playing on the expanded wet sand area. Holidaymakers all around us were back strolling the beach, inquisitive but unconcerned.
I now know that this is a satanic trick that tsunamis play. The first flood is sucked away, only to return bigger, stronger and deadlier than before.
And then it hit. The sea returning towards us suddenly. First, I thought it was just making its way back to normal. Again, I had no idea about anything else being possible, particularly in what was a paradise on earth. However, this paradise shortly transformed before our eyes into a roaring, raging, living hell.
Quickly, a foamy wave climbed all the way up till the rim of sand that was all dry. You never saw water on that stretch of sand. The sea never came this far in. This is what alerted me. “Oh, my god, the sea is coming to us”. My heart jumped and raced, I suddenly knew this was not normal anymore.
In the blink of an eye the monstrous mass of water started to go beyond its usual limit with unimaginable force, heading towards us with a frightening vigour.
I shouted “Run, let’s go now” to my sisters and pushed them by the hands towards the stairs, forbidding one of them to pack her books and camera … I reached the stairs with my younger sister, and looked back.
Camille was surrounded by white froth and the current swirling around her as she was trying to reach the stairs, holding herself to a sunbed that had floated till the first steps. Panicking. The water had risen within seconds. My breath stopped, I was paralyzed, trying to make sense of what was happening. It had taken just a few seconds for the water to reach her thigh heights, and it was rising fast. The higher it got, the more chance it had of carrying her away. I screamed feeling powerless, but before I had even time to react, the same German gentleman who had seen us and had tried to alert us, jumped down the stairs at the speed of light and managed to catch my sister and pull her to the stairs before running up with her and ourselves.
We couldn’t comprehend what was going on. We had no time. We knew this. We didn’t know what we were fleeing from, but we couldn’t stop. Once we reached the hill that the stairs were leading to, we paused.
We gasped for breath, and looked back to the beach. For the first time, we had a chance to look around properly. Everywhere was submerged. We were in shock, speechless. The sparkling blue sky had turned cloudy. The usual song of the birds in the trees had turned totally silent.
The foam had turned into waves, leaping over the point where the beach ended and making their way inland. Rushing past the palm trees with determination and making their way towards the streets behind. Engulfing everything on their way. Charging, churning, furious. Menacing at a pace which seemed like hundred miles an hour… Waves not receding or dissolving. Brown and grey. Grey. Brown. White froth.
The blue lagoon which looked like paradise only half an hour ago suddenly was a grey dirty whirlwind of water, with floating sunbeds, umbrellas and pieces of woods appearing. There was no beach anymore. Only water, mud and debris. In an instant, this peaceful heaven had become noise and panic. The angry sea had become a torrent, weeping trees, branches, sun beds away … Smashed apart as if they were made of match sticks.
The sea had replaced the land. All around us was chaos. Buildings behind the beach were collapsing under the weight of the sea, roofs were ripped off and crumbled to pieces. It was a soup of floating wreckage, which soon also contained some of these famous “tuk-tuks” vehicles, which we had been using during our stay.
I couldn’t see a soul whereas the beach was packed a short while ago.
My younger sister mumbled – “But where are all the people who were on the beach?”… Both her and Camille were standing there trembling. A look of terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape.
We didn’t speak. We kept quiet, no words uttered, trying to make sense of what was unfolding in front of us. I couldn’t compute what was happening. The German gentleman who had helped Camille told us to continue towards the hotel up the hill and find our parents, and he then left making his way to find his wife.
We were incredibly lucky to find our parents straight away by the pool area, which was totally protected from what had just happened. When we saw them, we started to run and jump in their arms crying. I have never felt so emotionally overwhelmed. To find the dearest persons to you, alive in the midst of all the death was incredible. The gratitude for this German gentleman who saved one of my sisters is eternal.
The sea was wiping out the world we knew. The landscape had changed completely. Our picturesque tropical resort had become the scene of a horror movie.
My eternal life lesson
To this day, I have no idea where our strength and promptness to run out of the beach came from. Why us? Why did we manage to escape alive, and to find our parents straight away? Why had I decided that day to cancel my diving and stay with my family? Why was it that day that the beach was so packed that we had to settle by the stairs and not one of these comfy sun beds further down the beach?
I have no idea … But I learnt that Mother Nature is the one thing that is the most powerful and can flip our world around in a second with no warning. I learnt that we must enjoy every single second out of the 86,400 seconds we all have daily.
There was so much pain that day, so many lives lost, so much suffering … And I understand I was given a second chance.
This was the very start of my determination to leverage this experience to make a difference in people’s lives.
To empower others to live a more intentional and regrets-free life.
To not let the fear of the unknown prevent one from truly feeling and enjoying this life, in and out of work.
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately. […] You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!”Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life
From this day onwards more than ever before, I developed an acute awareness that everything is impermanent, that everything and everyone is precious. The “normal” life we take for granted is fragile, and thus not really normal. Even in the most breath-taking places, when one feels in heaven and safe, everything can actually happen, in the blink of an eye.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, when asked about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan: “An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. […] This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.”
Living even more fully … This is the promise I made to myself, after that unforgettable Boxing Day. To constantly endeavor to drink in every moment of life, and empower others to do the same.