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Relief Trip

“Help is on the way.” Ursula, a second grader at Arbor School (in Portland, OR) sent a lovely drawing of a tree by a river with these words. Today I’m taking this drawing and many others to the Panama region.

We spent yesterday shopping for supplies: antibiotics, anti-diarrhea and diabetes medicines, dehydration packets, candy, crayons and drawing paper for the children, etc. We also hired a van and driver for the long journey and this was not easy. The first couple drivers we talked with said they would not take us to Panama because they were afraid. I’m not sure specifically what they are afraid of–another tsunami, what they might see there, Tamil Tigers, unknown road conditions, etc. At last we are successful in finding a “reliable” van. Reliable means that it has balled tires, 185,000 kilometers, the oil light is always on and there is a screechy sound coming from the engine that sounds like a tired fan belt.

We are up at 4 a.m. and on the road for an unknown number of hours. We have a team of seven volunteers including Jeewa who is a wildlife officer stationed in Yala National Park. Yala is on the east coast next to Panama. Jeewa has worked at the park for 10 years and seems to know everyone from here to there. His ranger station was destroyed on the December 26th. He has arranged for us to stay at another wildlife station just a couple miles inland from Panama.

During the eight hour trip, we encounter a number of obstacles on the road–mud & rock slides, elephants, monkeys, cattle, omnipresent packs of stray dogs, pot holes (one is so large that we find an elephant hiding in it…just kidding), and perhaps the greatest challenge for me personally (since I’m in the front seat) is oncoming trucks and buses. We travel through lush cloud forests, high elevation lakes, and several armed security check points. The very long journey gives us all time to prepare ourselves emotionally for what we will be seeing and feeling today.


As we approach the end of the road, the bridge that would normally take us across Arugam Bay to Panama is half gone. The scene is like some kind of war time movie with several US military helicopters buzzing over our heads. We now have to walk to the military boat escorts crossing the bay. Jeewa knows all the fellows in uniform who have machine guns (and the occasional bottle of Sri Lankan whiskey) at their sides and he has arranged our crossing with the military commander stationed here. There are relief workers from all over the world milling about with supplies. We squint and cover our faces as a military helicopter lands almost on top of us. We board a raft operated by the Canadian military. A soldier asks me if I speak English. He has been here for two weeks and obviously hungry for some western conversation. He tells me that he has given boat escorts to people from all over the world but I’m the first from Oregon. He says things are getting better every day but the enormity of the work is overwhelming and all you can do is just keep showing up every day to do your small part. If this is the Canadian military view, I’m feeling like a grain of sand in this beached natural disaster.

We reach the Panama side of the bay and pile into a military trailer pulled by a tractor headed for the local school. I catch the first signs of the devastation. It is one thing to see the images on TV and read the stories in the paper but we have crossed through the two dimensional media world view to feel the event through the hearts of survivors. And hearts are wide open here, both the open hearts of compassion from volunteers and the broken hearts of survivors. I’ve never been to a bombed out war zone but that’s the description coming to mind. There is also a feeling of unbelievable mysteriousness. It would be easy to understand if this devastation had been caused by bombing, but it is incomprehensible to imagine how the ocean could have come up some 25 feet and three kilometers inland.

We don’t know what we will find at the school or if we can even find what is left of the school or its staff.

More in my next update.

Carsten Henningsen