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Touched by the tsunami they missed

Times Staff Writer

Bay AREA travel writer Marybeth Bond is feeling a strange mixture of horror and relief these days. She’s sleeping a lot, baking cookies and calling people who sent her Christmas cards. And she’s also asking herself, “Why?”

Bond, her husband, Gary Sheppard, and daughters JulieClaire, 16, and Annalyse, 13, were in Thailand when the tsunami struck Dec. 26, killing more than 5,000 people there, both residents of the southwestern coastal areas and tourists drawn to the beaches of Phuket Island.

They went for a relaxing holiday in a country Marybeth loves. But because she got a late start planning the vacation, she couldn’t find rooms in the Krabi resort area or on the nearby islet of Phi Phi, so she ended up booking accommodations on Ko Samui, which is just east of the narrow peninsula that separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. It was not her first choice, but Marybeth thinks that turn of events may have saved them.

Krabi and Phi Phi were both hard hit by the tsunami; Ko Samui, protected by the mainland, was largely untouched.

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Across the Indian Ocean, the death toll from the tsunami has topped 157,000.

I know intrepid, footloose Marybeth well and called her two weeks after she returned. The first question I asked was obvious but inescapable.

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Question: How are you?

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Answer: I was at a dinner party last night and found it really exhausting. People want to hear your story -- in about a minute.

The thing that keeps coming back is the suddenness and extensiveness of the disaster. The casualty figures for Phuket alone keep mounting. At first, JulieClaire said about as many people died in the area as there are kids in her high school. Then it was about as many people in our whole town.

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Q: How are the girls?

A: You know, kids have this sense of invincibility. JulieClaire wrote a story about the experience for her high school newspaper that said, “My family has a knack for taking really weird vacations.”

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Q: Why did you go to Phuket?

A: We wanted to get far away for Christmas. If we stayed close to home, the girls would be on the phone all the time with their friends.

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And we love exotic places, especially Thailand. My first trip there was in 1983. I was traveling alone -- pre-marriage, pre-kids. When I recently saw the pictures of all those missing backpackers in the Phuket airport, I thought they were incarnations of a younger me.

In 2000, I took JulieClaire trekking in Chiang Mai. Afterward we went to Phuket to kayak in the Andaman Sea.

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Q: How did you plan this trip?

A: When I started making the arrangements in October, I never imagined I wouldn’t be able to get any of the places I wanted. But all the resorts were full, even the Holiday Inn in Phuket. I finally found rooms at a hotel on Phi Phi Island, but it was incredibly expensive and two blocks back from the beach. So I ended up making a booking at the White House on Ko Samui, figuring we’d stay there a few nights and then try to get back to Phuket.

We flew Southwest from Oakland to L.A., then Malaysia Air to Taiwan, where we changed planes for a four-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. After that, it was an hour and a half flight to the airport in Phuket, where we had to layover before going on to Ko Samui. We were supposed to stay at the Beach House from Dec. 23 to 27.

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Q: How did you find out the tsunami had hit?

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A: When it happened we felt absolutely nothing even though we were just a 30-minute flight away from Phuket. We watched TV nonstop, seeing the same BBC segment rerun countless times.

I tried to change our Malaysia Air tickets to come home sooner, but when I called the airline I got a recording that said the line had been blocked.

So we decided to stay put, though we had to move out of the White House on Dec. 27.

Fortunately, we found a villa nearby that had two superior rooms for way more than we wanted to pay. It soon started to fill up with tourists fleeing Phuket. They sat around the pool with black and blue marks and bandages.

But it wasn’t until we flew back to Phuket on our way home that we really got smacked in the face by the disaster -- beaches torn up, trees down, debris everywhere, no sign of people. My girls saw all the pictures of missing persons at the airport. With all the layovers and connections, it ultimately took us 53 hours to get back.

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Q: What was that like?

A: We found bags of groceries at the door and something like 40 messages on the answering machine. We all stayed home, nesting. I didn’t unpack for days.

Friends want to know whether to go to Thailand now. Wait a few months, I say. But the country needs tourist dollars, and we need to keep traveling. Anyway, I’m not deterred.

I put this in the same category as all natural disasters. You try to avoid danger, but you can’t.

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Q: You can say that even though it was such a close call for your family?

A: While we were away, there was a suicide at my daughter’s high school. Do I think it was scarier for the girls to have been in Thailand during the tsunami?

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What to do if disaster strikes

Marybeth Bond, author of “A Woman’s World: True Stories of Life on the Road” and “Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road,” has posted guidelines for what travelers should do in times of disaster on her Internet site, www.gutsytraveler.com.

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Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at www.latimes.com/susanspano.


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