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So Near, So Far: Myanmar During the Tsunami:

Judy Swartz VP, Advertising, the Mirror On the morning of December 26, 2004, I was in a hotel bungalow in an unspoiled and rather isolated part of the world — Inle Lake, Myanmar – when I felt the room sway.  As a California native, I assumed it was an earthquake. My traveling companion, Nancy, disagreed. The hotel was quite rustic and consisted of a gathering of bungalows on stilts in the middle of the lake. Plank walkways connected the bungalows to one another and to the dining room and main portion of the hotel.  About an hour later, Nancy and I were having breakfast on a broad wood-plank patio overlooking the blue lake, when the swaying started again. The motion was more intense, there was a big jolt, the hotel staff starting running towards their bungalows, and I knew that the shaking wasn’t normal and was, in fact, an earthquake.   In such moments, they say, strange things run through your mind. I remember thinking that taking malaria pills wasn’t such a silly idea after all – in case the stilts collapsed and I ended up in the water. Based on my L.A. experience with the Northridge quake and others, I guessed it was a 4 or a 5. That night we noticed that local people were crammed into a little room watching satellite television. As it was a rather bare bones hotel, the guest rooms were not equipped with TVs or radios. In fact,  the only thing we had in our rooms was mosquito netting. Nancy said they were probably watching their favorite TV show. The next morning, when I asked our guide about the earthquake, how big it was, how much damage was done, how many injuries there were, he said it was very small, was centered in the middle of the Indian Ocean and had done virtually no damage.  Upon arriving in Yangoon, the nation’s largest city,  two days later, I received an urgent email to call home. So it was that I didn’t learn of the devastating tsunami which occurred only 168 miles from where I was until I phoned home, 10,000 miles away.  Prior to 1995, when the military overthrew the monarchy and removed as many signs of British rule as they could, Myanmar was Burma. Inle Lake is very near the center of the country and was only recently opened to western tourists, as there was considerable enmity between the various ethnic tribes and the nation’s military rulers.  The countryside is lush. Small farms dot the roadside.  People live in thatched huts on stilts with woven walls, electricity, running water and, often, satellite dishes. But while the people of Myanmar are free to travel throughout their country, it is a dictatorship.  Television, radio, e-mail, and other forms of  communication are  tightly controlled, and people are careful of what they say in public and who might be listening. At every hotel I stayed in, I was told that it wasn’t possible to access my email account, but the hotel could send out-going email for a hefty fee. When I got back to L.A., I learned that not one of the emails I had sent via various hotels had been received.  I can only assume that they were confiscated by the government. The next day, I told my guide that I had learned, via long distance to America, of the lives lost and devastation caused by the tsunami. As I already knew about the tsunami, he felt free to tell me that 40 people had been killed on the beaches of Myanmar, but the information was being downplayed by the government so as not to “upset” the tourists. We thought about leaving Yangoon early, but as our tickets routed us through Bangkok we thought we’d be safer staying where we were, rather than braving the post-tsunami turmoil in Thailand, where we  imagined people sleeping on the floor of the Bangkok airport, waiting to get a flight home.  But, when we arrived in Bangkok on the evening of December 29th,  we found the airport relatively  calm, and there were empty seats on our flight.  While waiting for our flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, we met representatives from the Vietnamese ministry and the U.S. State Department who were on their way to Phuket to see what their countries could do to help.  This was my fifth visit to Thailand and it was the first I was escorted from one plane to the other by an airline representative. Upon my arrival at LAX, the customs officer looked at my passport and said, “Oh, you were in Thailand, We’re very happy you’re home.” He didn’t even look at the five bags I brought back with me.As my friend said, this was more of an adventure than a vacation, and we were both very happy to be back home.  I think I’ll stay put for awhile.

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