I am at Sarky’s in Buenos Aires – hands down my favorite restaurant in town. It’s Armenian food. Go figure! Armenian food in Buenos Aires the home of Bife Chorizo, Empanadas and Milanesas.
I am at dinner with old friends and new – that is the beauty of Buenos Aires. If you are at the right place at the right time, chances are you will make a new friend – for life.
I met Aileen, who hails from Buenos Aires, two years ago in Cartagena and we kept in touch over the years. She is an avid traveler and asks the four others at dinner if we have been to Thailand and that she would like to visit. Laura, who I just met at a language meet up 3 days ago, says she has explored several areas in the east that are good for diving and I start describing the climbing paradise of Railay a 45 minute long-tail boat ride from Krabi. My face is full of emotion and I am sure I am sounding way too excited (climbing, cycling, yoga and travel bring out the kid in me!).
And with almost any conversation about Thailand … I almost broach The Topic. I pause. I think otherwise.
I choose not to talk about the events of December 26th, 2004. Usually a conversation about Thailand brings to the surface a myriad of emotions. But today I realize that I am processing my feelings and thoughts about that fateful day. I am a math guy. I like numbers. And fifteen is a nice number. It’s been fifteen years since I almost lost my life to the Tsunami that killed a quarter million people around the world.
Along with the events that took place that day, it is impossible for me not to realize how my life has evolved in the last 15 years. I am sure that those events put me on a trajectory that has led me to where I am today.
I say to my friends “Life is short … but it can be even shorter”. I almost lived it. I almost died. If there ever was an oxymoron…
I have written two articles about my experience surviving the Tsunami. They were published in the Daily Star Weekend Magazine and I’ll provide the links at the end.
I’ll provide some background here as to what it was like that fateful day in 2004.
Adam and I had met in Oregon. We were mountaineers and were on a climbing trip to the summit of Mount Hood. We got along really well and since then we went on a couple more climbing trips to the Sisters and Mount Jefferson in Oregon.
I invited Adam to come rock climbing with me in Thailand during the winter of December 2004. Adam was not a rock climber. Rock climbing and mountaineering can be very different. Rock climbing entails getting up stuff that’s vertical. There are mountaineering trips I’ve taken, where you climb a huge mountain and all you do is walk. Case in point, Mount Kilimanjaro.
Rock Climbing in Spain versus Mountaineering in the Alps, France
Railay was the perfect place for Adam to learn how to rock climb. The rock was limestone with plenty of holds and hiring a guide to show us the climbs and “belay” us was pretty cheap.
Our guide was named Ipp. Ipp had been a great guide for two days straight. Adam was having fun learning to tie knots and learning the proper climbing techniques. I was getting to lead some climbs, belayed by Ipp. After sweating it out on the wall, we would just take swims in the crystal blue Andaman sea and lay on the sandy white beaches drinking fresh coconut water. We were in paradise … but not for long.
I am leading this climb – setting up protection bit by bit
For day three of our trip, my first inclination was to go snorkeling. Our arms were pretty pumped and we were pretty tired. A rest day would be good we thought. But my love of climbing (climbers are some of the most stubborn people you’ll ever meet) told me otherwise. We decided to climb again on our third day.
Irresistible limestone cliffs to climb and views to be had
We decided we would take a boat out into the ocean and climb Ao Nang Tower a beautiful rock jutting out of the ocean in the middle of nowhere.
The decision not to snorkel that day was probably the single most important decision of that day, perhaps my life. The rest was consequential. Ipp had been drinking heavily the night before – it was Christmas night and in Thailand it’s an excuse to party. The morning of the 26th we meet Ipp and his eyes are bloodshot. He is in bad shape. I tell Ipp “There is no need to take a boat out to climb Ao Nang Tower, let’s just go around the corner and climb where we climbed yesterday”. This was the second pivotal decision that probably saved our lives. But again it was a consequence of a guy getting hammered the night before. Go figure.
High above the Andaman Sea, Climbing in Paradise
It’s about 10:00 am. I am leading a fantastic climb, having the time of my life. I am working on the last moves to the top, about 5 feet from the anchor. All of a sudden I hear yelling and screaming. It all happened so fast. Hanging on a bolt, I looked down and saw people running. Ipp said “Big wave coming!”. Instinctively I yelled “Lower me, lower me NOW!”. Ipp lowered me and immediately violated a cardinal rule of guiding. He took his belay device off and ran – deserting his clients, Adam and me. I was dumbfounded. I had a 200 ft rope attached to me – I was not going anywhere. I worked on the knot and untied it in about 10 seconds (the longest 10 seconds of my life). In retrospect I could have just taken my harness off, but obviously I am shell-shocked. Adam seems a bit lost. He is taking pictures. I yell “Put that camera away dude. We gotta run!”. The waves were right there, right behind us. I did not look back. Probably a good thing. Every second counted.
The calm before the storm
We ran up into the hills following the locals. We were pulling on branches and vines to get up as high and as fast as we could. Chaos at its finest. No one had the complete picture. Cell phone networks were sporadic. We heard about some earthquake in Indonesia. I was thinking “That’s far!”. We heard there might be aftershocks. We stayed up high for about 4 hours. Perched on the hill side, just waiting. At some point we decided to go down.
We came face to face with dead bodies right away. We helped retrieve the body of a lady who had been snorkeling with her husband. She was slammed into the rock and killed. Her husband survived and took her body into a cave higher up when the waves receded. He then took refuge higher up before the next wave would come.
I was extremely distraught and I had one thing on my mind – my mother and extended family in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is in a low lying delta area easily susceptible to flooding. Ironically my mother was following the news, balling her eyes out because she knew exactly where I was – by the beach in Thailand, rock climbing. Our home in Dhaka was full of our relatives, and the discussion would be about who was to retrieve me from Thailand. They were hoping for the best, but imagining the worst.
I was able to pay someone to use their cell phone to call Bangladesh in the evening and reach my mother. Hearing her voice was such a relief. She could not stop crying. She too was so relieved. I gave her extremely minimal information – I was very safe and quite ok and that I would see her in Dhaka in a couple of days. Nothing to worry about. She did not press me for more information. I think she was catapulted into a kind of relief that she had never ever felt in her life. To my mother, her children were everything
That day close to 250,000 people had died. There were close to 170,000 casualties in Banda Aceh, Indonesia alone. I had witnessed death and destruction beyond words. The effects would be lasting. I arrived in Dhaka to the sweetest reunion ever. But I was unable to watch the news – my mind veering away from anything to do with the Tsunami. I was traumatized. My climbing suffered tremendously – I wasn’t able to climb for months and when I started again, I didn’t have the confidence to lead.
Safe and sound in Dhaka, with my mom
It took a long time for me to return to normalcy, but I eventually did. But as I look back at the events of that day, I understand now the more lasting effect they had on me. I had just quit my Silicon Valley engineering job in November 2004. I had even gotten a promotion and was a Senior Product Engineer at Xilinx, Inc. a Fortune 100 company. But I knew in my heart of hearts I wanted to be a community college Math teacher. That was a lofty goal, and to attain it, I would have to give it my all. So I quit my job at Xilinx and started teaching part-time at Bay Area colleges. I was a so-called “Freeway Flyer”, driving 3 to 4 hours a day to teach at several colleges spread all over the Bay Area, with the ultimate goal of getting that sought-after full-time tenure-track faculty position in one place. There were dozens of part-timers spread across the Bay Area who had been Freeway Flyers for decades. I had taken a giant leap of faith and this would be a challenge.
So in November I had quit a job that most engineers would die for (this is pre-Google and pre-Facebook glory days) to seek a job as a community college Math professor. And a month later, in December, I survived the deadliest natural disaster in this century, just by a few seconds.
How did this affect me? I am certain that this experience had shaped me forever. I realized that I had to stay on the path that I had chosen. I worked hard, my teaching resume grew and I kept accumulating experience.
I never looked back.
To my surprise and joy I had an interview at San Jose City College in March 2005! The dean there at the time Leandra Martin was the most supportive person in this journey for me. She truly cared and wanted me to succeed. With butterflies in my stomach I went in, delivered and was selected for the final interview with the President Chui Tsang. Alas, I could not convince him I was here for the long haul. He was stunned that I had left an engineering career and was certain I would return – he asked me as much. “Will you return to engineering when the economy improves?”. Huh? I teach because it’s my passion.
How do I convince Dr. Tsang that I never looked back, just as I didn’t look back at the waves that were coming that fateful day. I intend to stay the course.
I did not get the job.
Twas back to honing my driving skills in Bay Area traffic. And a gig at Mission San Jose High School. Yes high school, you heard me right. That is enough material for a post by itself 🙂 Suffice it to say that it was the hardest teaching I have ever done and that it prepared me for almost anything.
But all this driving, dealing with teenagers – it all paid off. I got two more interviews in 2006, the following year. One was at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. A letter arrived in the mail a few days later. I was not selected as a finalist. The timing was awful. I had an interview down in Los Angeles County at Antelope Valley College. Wow. I had just gotten rejected, not even a finalist interview. Now I would have to summon the best of me, drive 350 miles to Lancaster and repeat the process all over again.
But I never looked back, just as I didn’t at the waves that were coming that fateful day. I stayed the course.
I got the the job.
My nine years at Antelope Valley College provided me with invaluable gifts. I got to know Southern California, hone my teaching skills with some severely under-prepared students. The canyons of the Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley thrust me into the world of cycling.
With Jeff Mullins with whom I have shared thousands of miles on the saddle. Yes we are the Fire-Breathing Ducks
Upper right: Bear Divide Santa Clarita
Lower Right: Speeding down Mulholland Road
Southern California was also where I did my Yoga Teacher Training at YogaWorks in Santa Clarita. I had the most amazing teacher Ashley Rideux and had the most amazing classmates – love you and miss you all!
But best of all, I met the Overdorf family, my family in California. Cathy Overdorf and I started working together at AVC in 2006. We couldn’t have been from more different backgrounds. I was an ex-engineer in his mid-30s and Cathy was my mom’s age. I was teaching Math and Cathy was teaching Child and Family Education. Rick, Cathy’s husband, was a retired Physics teacher and was running an Adult Literacy Program in Lake Los Angeles, an economically depressed area. I owe so much to Cathy and her family. Being alone with no relatives around can be very tough, but there was never a moment when I felt that way in the Antelope Valley. I had a key to their home and I had a room which eventually became Nabeel’s room, for those nights that I wanted to stay over. Through thick and thin Cathy and Rick stood by my side. When they brought Phillie in as a pup I was thrilled. I never had a pet growing up, but now I felt as though I did. I love that dog.
Cathy passed 3 years ago. Cancer. I took it hard. But her memory lives on in all the countless acts of kindness.
Mom and Cathy, September 2014 (May you both rest in peace)
Roberto and Diane, Antelope Valley College
With Pavinee, Antelope Valley College
Farewell Antelope Valley College – My last graduation ceremony June, 2015
In 2015 I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where it had all begun to a little college on a hill, Ohlone College, one of the first colleges I ever taught as a Freeway Flyer.
Teaching Math at Ohlone College, circa 2005
In 2019 I received my Tenure Medal at Ohlone with much fanfare. Such are the customs at Ohlone College – a culture of excellence and pride for the job we do and utmost care for our students.
Clockwise: with Faye, Jeff, Lisa, Brenda, Bob, Drew and Michael
As I look back at those fifteen years after having survived the Tsunami of 2004, I realize even more that life is a journey and that to make this journey meaningful it takes resolve, it takes courage, it takes reflection. It’s easy to stay in the rut, day in, day out. Take a pause, imagine what it would be like if it were all to end pre-maturely. Live your life as such. Seize the moment, make changes when needed and …. never look back. The waves of regret will do no good nor change anything.
Buenos Aires, August 5th, 2019
Here are a couple of articles:
“Chased by the Tsunami”, the Star Weekend Magazine, January 14th, 2005
“Paradise Restored”. the Star Weekend Magazine, January 12th, 2007