Up in the Air

There is no predicting, at this point, what I will find, or even what I’ll write. This whole trip came together so quickly that I’m still in a state of shock, sitting on a Singapore Airlines Mega-Top with a pink tablecloth under my iBook, iced cranberry juice on my right, and a selection of 60 on-demand films available to all passengers. The absurdity of this situation only adds to my confusion, and apprehensions of what is to come. Because the only sure thing is that, in another half-day (after a long layover in Singapore), I’ll leave this sterile zone of comfort and enter the heart of darkness: a once-familiar landscape of temples and palm trees, now ravaged by the December 26th tsunami.

It’s a combination nightmare and dream-come-true. More than anything, it’s an exercise in being careful what you wish for. Days after the earthquake in Sumatra, the most recklessly generous part of my soul offered a terrifying dare to the rest of me: would I continue to watch reports of the flooding and devastation on television, or get on a plane to Bangkok? I had no idea what I’d do once I arrived, but it seemed I could be of use somewhere. On the spur of the moment I called Third Eye Travel, which specializes in discount trips to Asia. Yes; I could be on a plane to Thailand on the 31st of December.

Then the doubts arrived. Visions of volunteer overkill in Thailand — and a breathless air of anxiety — joined forces with the fact that I had long-anticipated plans for New Year’s Eve. I was caught between the scared and the mundane. And so, instead of booking my ticket, I got on the phone and made calls to the two relief organizations where I had personal contacts: UNICEF in New York, and Mercy Corps in Washington, D.C. From that point it was a waiting game; one that might have no result.

 

Monks circling the Ruwanweli Siwa, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. photo © 1984 Jeff Greenwald

New Year’s weekend was spent in Sonoma County, at an isolated refuge without a telephone line or Internet connection. Cell phones worked only sporadically. Still, the few messages I received informed me that there might be a place for me; it was a matter of following the appropriate channels, and finding out if I my presence in Indonesia, India, or Sri Lanka would be more of an asset than a liability.

On the morning of Monday, January 3rd, the telephone rang in my Oakland flat. Matthew DeGalan, a Mercy Corps director at their head office in Portland, Oregon, was on the line. A communications officer in Sri Lanka had been called home for an emergency. I was invited to take over her post, and asked to get on a plane for Colombo as soon as humanly possible. My job would commence immediately on arrival, and would continue as long as I chose to stay — with a minimum commitment of 2-3 weeks.

Sri Lanka is a small country, off the southeastern tip of India. The population is 19.5 million. Thirty thousand of these people were killed by the tsunami. Though Indonesia suffered three times as many casualities, its population is seven times greater than Sri Lanka’s — so the small island nation, proportionally, is the land most severely punished. And the damage was widespread; today’s Herald Tribune reports that 70% of the Sri Lanka’s 830-mile coastline was ravaged by the waves.

My mandate, Matthew said, would be broad. I’d be expected to write stories, shoot digital video and photographs, and serve as a liaison with the international press. In addition, I’d be filing my own dispatches — for Ethical Traveler, ThingsAsian, and Salon.com.

It seemed an utterly daunting assignment. I’d bitten off not only more than I could chew, but more than any person could masticate effectively. Timidly, aware of Mercy Corps’ limited budget, I suggested that a partner might not be a bad idea; someone who could be with me in the field, sharing the burden of working in three distinct media. To my astonishment, DeGalan agreed.

The moment we were off the phone, I leafed through my address book Mission Impossible style, looking for the perfect person to add to the Mercy Corps dossier. There were a few good candidates, but the trick was to find someone with exactly the right mix of skills, strength, and self-sufficiency — not to mention the utter craziness to join me, with just a few day’s notice, on an open-ended journey to one of the most harrowing corners of the world.

There was only one person who fit every one of those qualifications — and my wildest hopes were realized when my lifelong friend Dwayne Newton told me, in a tone of voice I’ve come to recognize, “I’ll think about it.”

Newton, a colorful player in my 1995 book The Size of the World, is a San Francisco firefighter, EMT, and professional photojournalist who’s worked regularly for AP and the Wall Street Journal. It would take him a full day to work out the details, but with a helping hand from his colleagues at the SFFD — and the support of his big-hearted wife, Gia — he finally signed on. There was one tiny catch; he’d join me two days after my arrival in Colombo.

The rest of Monday and all of Tuesday (my flight boarded just before midnight on the 4th) were spent in a fury of preparation, the maelstrom of activity unrelenting for 34 hours. There were travel vaccines to renew and a dozen bills to pay in advance. I was told to pick up a video camera, an internationally compatible cell phone, and all the gear necessary to serve as the eyes and ears of Mercy Corps during their relief efforts in Sri Lanka. A half-dozen close friends kicked in their time and energy, helping me prepare my flat for a long absence, and put my personal affairs in order. I’m the sort of person who relishes activity, but there were a few hours when I thought I’d lose my mind: between the ceaseless plink of new emails, stream of faxed documents, continual tide of visitors and endless phone calls, I got a very brief taste of what life must be like for Britney Spears.

Our arrival in Singapore is imminent; I left San Francisco nearly 20 hours ago. The best thing about these enervating flights is that they’ve allowed me to catch up on the news. The International Herald Tribune is a terrific resource, and stories by Amy Waldman, David Rohde and Seth Mydans have been an inspiration as I prepare for my midnight arrival in Colombo.

There’s nothing but unknowns ahead. I pray that I can find an eloquent voice in the midst of so much chaos and suffering, and bring you a few stories you might not hear elsewhere. Almost all my work will be connected with Mercy Corps activities; but that may be a virtue. Mercy Corps, new to Sri Lanka, is joining with local NGOs and grass-roots agencies to support relief efforts in a variety of hard-hit locations. My work with them will be a fascinating education, on many levels.

And sitting here on this 747, with the clouds above Singapore growing beneath me, I’m granted a bit of self-understanding. The point of travel and writing, for me, has always been to visit places where I can be fascinated — and useful — at the same time.

Let’s hope the former never outweighs the latter.

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