Nearly half the staff of Maprao Resort - where I am staying now and was last year - fled from the island after the tsunami. The ones who stayed do not look out to sea just ten meters ahead and revisit the horrors of the past.
Alex and Gem from the U.K. were also guests at Maprao last year and they came back both as a profound 'thank you' to the staff that selflessly saved, kept watch for follow-on waves and looters, and fed them for days as well as "to banish any demons."
With resort owners Guy and Marie-Pia on a 9 a.m. ferry to Phuket, Tan was in charge December 26, 2004.
He noted that what had started as a postcard-perfect day was shifting. The sea in front of the restaurant was churning and getting darker in hue. He saw the water recede - he indicates a rock in the bay as we talk - and quickly surmised that what goes out must come back.
Tan yelled for the guests to get off the beach. A staff member's child, Nai, was mesmerized by the hopping fish exposed in the wide expanse of white sand and was about to rush out to grab one when Tan herded everyone to high ground.
Not a single person staying at Maprao that day had a scratch. (Although there was a close call: Australian Lach had arose when he heard the commotion below; he and his girlfriend, the bar manager, lived in a hut above the bar which is set apart, but that's a story for another day.)
The pattern I see emerging between the people that are thriving today and those that got caught up in depression, suicide, attempted murder, domestic violence and other conflict isn't random.
When the rubber met the road, they applied their philosophy of life to the situation without a second thought. In the context of Tan's life (I got the abbreviated version of his life story) what he did before, during, and after the tsunami was natural.
As a boy he climbed coconuts, worked on fishing boats from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., and toiled in rubber plantations to help his family with income. The tsunami wasn't his first challenge.
"What will be, will be," says Tan when we first begin chatting. "You must keep your mind strong. If you cannot control yourself, you cannot help others."
Walking into town the day after tsunami for food for his guests, he was forced to walk over bodies. Living on the compact island for twenty-one years, he had many friends that lost their lives among the 2005 casualties (2005, or 2007, is the number I hear many locals quote).
In the aftermath, he became a monk for two months. It was something he'd always wanted to do and now, "it was the right time". He joined the temple monks in touring and praying in devastated areas such as Phi Phi and Khao Lak following the disaster.
As we sit at the bamboo table, Tan says, "If you do good, you have good." He takes the back of his palm - the one that was injured in a near-fatal truck accident ten years ago - and strikes it against the edge of the table so it rebounds. "If you do bad, you get bad." With that karmic gesture I can see how he conceived that a bay that quickly recedes must come back with a vengeance.
When he first saw the planes slamming into the twin towers on television he believed he was watching an action movie. Later, "I learn it was true." He doesn't understand how anyone can believe that killing others will lead them to paradise. "Paradise is inside," he pats his chest, "in the heart." And patting his crown, "And hell is in the mind."
An ebony-winged butterfly flutters past. He says that if he is tired or upset he cannot see its beauty, and another time the same butterfly brings him joy. So what is the difference? His mind.
He acknowleges that this is all: "Easy to speak, hard to make." But he's pretty clever. For instance, since one can't think clearly while embroiled in anger, he's asked his seven-year-old daughter to call him on it when she spots that he's strayed from calm-headedness.
His employer Guy says Tan is like a son to him. "In eighteen years, you see someone under a lot of situations where they are tested. Tan has never had a cross word with me. When we disagree we discuss it. When we need to leave Maprao, I never worry."
p.s. This post doesn't even begin to do justice to our conversation... When I get back home I'll write a longer piece that weaves in Tan's life. The photo is of Tan with his daughter.