It was New Years Eve and the mood was sombre in Helgas Folly, a crazy hotel plastered with dream-sequence murals overlooking Kandy in Sri Lankas central hill country. A hefty Dutch social worker recalled it being breakfast time in his guest house when the sea crashed in through the window five days earlier. He hugged a palm tree and his life for the next two hours. Its as though Ive just been given another chance for some reason, as though I didnt deserve the first one. Two Irish girls were close to tears because a friend down south had still given no sign of life. A Midlands man and his wife had escaped simply through having glanced out of their hotel window at the right moment. Its roulette, isnt it? Click! Click! Click! Where will it stop? As truths sank in, we drank to 2005 in silence.
Sri Lankas woman president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, saw the humbling disaster as the cue for government and the rebel Tamil Tigers to seek reconciliation. The opposite happened. The Tigers shamed Colombo by handling the emergency in their area with swift efficiency and then accused the soldiery of hijacking relief supplies.
My nephew in England and friends in Rome knew I was off to the beaches. I thought they might be anxious. A telephone exchange with the British High Commission in Colombo followed: Im in Kandy and want to report Im alive. Are you in need of assistance? Thanks, but no. Well, thats all right then isnt it? But dont you want my name? Were very busy. The phone went dead.
With the coastline destroyed the holiday switched to Thailand, but the themes remained constant. In a Bangkok pub, an elderly British resident, Geoffrey, said the tsunami that had caught the south of the country had done wonders for the fortunes of the Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, because of his almost magic management of the crisis. Geoffrey dubbed him the Berlusconi of Thailand and true, the similarities were startling. Like his Italian counterpart, he was fabulously rich; he too was a businessman and media tycoon turned politician; he too had taken controversial measures. Thai leader-writers picked up Geoffreys thread a lot later.
By then, your writer was on the small island of Koh Samed in the Gulf of Thailand. It was all coves, inlets, rainforest and silence, its beauty still little-bruised. It had neither road nor jetty and you got there by jumping into the breakers from a dicey ship-to-shore landing craft.
Even in Koh Samed, the tsunami nagged away, if only because the island was the very image of vulnerable resorts that death had maimed elsewhere. The bamboo guesthouses sheltered beneath the palm trees along the beach and you woke up in the morning with the sea sloshing around under your floorboards. In the evening, dinner, courtesy of low tide, was in impromptu restaurants on the sand. The merest fraction of a tsunami would have mistaken us for a matchstick.
Everyone had their horror stories, the most hair-raising related by a Yorkshireman with Polish parents from a mining town hit by unemployment near Sheffield. A friend from there was dozing on a beach at southern Phuket when the wave came racing up to him. It lifted him into the sky and carried him forward really fast. He saw the wall of a bloody great tourist hotel looming up and thought hed had it. Know what happened? The wave blasted the hotel to smithereens and he went sailing right over it. How do I know? Saw him in Bangkok the other day. He was all bruises of course, but otherwise as right as rain.
Though I was not even Italian, it was on this island that the Italian foreign ministry somehow located me, urgently enquiring if I was still among the quick. There was appreciation in the reply.
If disfigurement through tourism was in its infancy on Koh Samed, it had already spread alarmingly in the bigger, mountainous island of Oh Chang further south, already turning into another Phuket, a once unspoilt paradise, transformed into concrete. The island already had a car-ferry and a coast-road, and though some quiet little bays had dodged the cranes, the main resort, White Sands, featured Spanish-like brick farmsteads bang on the beach, bacon-and-eggs, and the English tabloid The Daily Mirror. The same package tourists who had flocked to Spain in the 1980s had now picked Thailand as a better bargain, though in one respect they differed: they were all men with Thai girls in tow.
They had culled their friends from Pattaya near Bangkok, a fun town with its vocation summed up in the name of one of its hundreds of dives: Business Bar Friendly Girls. But the reason your reporter went there was to check on rumours that Pattaya no longer enjoyed its other reputation as world centre for foreign gay paedophiles on the hunt for small boys. Miraculously, the rumours were right and the sickening sight only five years ago of paunch-parading old men blatantly dragging seven-year olds through the streets was no more. It was, wary sources recognised, the fruit of a crackdown ordered by premier Thaksin, as part of a general clean-up drive, though secret pockets still persisted, covered by police connivance in a lucrative racket.
Back in Rome: a once-frantic nephew revealed my name had figured for days on a British foreign office missing list, reference no 6249.
In early February BBC online then reported an overwhelming election victory for Thaksin, all set to lead Thailands first-ever democratic, single-party government towards, for his fans, a new chapter in Thai democracy or, for his detractors, a parliamentary dictatorship.
Lost and found.
Derek Wilson, a British journalist who has been living in Rome since the 1980s and writing for Wanted in Rome for over a decade, went off on holiday to Sri Lanka just before Christmas. His friends thought that he was heading for the southern beaches, as he had done on a previous vacation. So when the tsunami disaster hit the Indian Ocean region on 26 December they were naturally worried that he had been caught in the disaster. Some contacted the British foreign office in London, some the British embassy in Rome, some the Italian foreign office.
On 28 December he phoned a friend in Rome to report that he was safe and had been in the mountains around Kandy in central Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. Wanted in Rome picked up contact with him a few days later via email and he started to send in reports about his travels through Sri Lanka and Thailand that we then published on our website for the next three weeks.
Towards the end of January we received a telephone call from the missing persons unit of the Italian foreign office asking whether the Derek Wilson whose articles were appearing on our website was the same Derek Wilson, British journalist, who was on its missing persons list? We replied that we were certain this was the case, but gave the ministry his email address so that it could make the final confirmation itself. Soon after, Wilson was officially taken off the list of missing.
We are very glad to have Derek back, writing for the paper edition of Wanted in Rome once more.