Friday, February 25, 2005

Visit Hong Kong Thailand Indonesia Sri Lanka Maldives

I’m in South Korea at the moment. I’m here to promote my book “My Life”. The reception I received was amazing. I would like to thank the people of South Korea for the welcome they gave me.

Two days ago I was in Hong Kong. I would like to thank the people of Hong Kong too. Every time I visit Hong Kong I’m amazed at it’s beauty. My good friend Stanley Ho and his daughter Pansy invited me to take a helicopter ride above the city. I saw Macao and the Pearl River delta from the air too. What surprised me the most was the fact that the area I saw from the air was so green. I liked watching al the ships sailing around. Thousands of ships, like ants seemed to be on their way to some hidden destination. Fascinating sight. I really would like to come back someday and spend more time in Hong Kong. I had a great time there.

As you know former president George Bush and I visited several countries in Asia, which were devastated by the tsunami a few weeks ago. It was such a heartbreaking, but also enlightening trip. We met a lot of people, we saw a lot of things. I would like to tell you that your donations are well spent. I would also like to tell you how grateful these people are for the help Americans gave and continue to give them.

We spent our first day in southern Thailand. We visited a fishing village. They were busy clearing the debris of the destroyed houses and boats the tidal wave left in its track, but you could still see how hard this little village had been hit. It was not really the physical destruction, which was breathtaking, but the destruction of families. Half the village had died or disappeared. You could see freshly dug graves everywhere.

I felt sorry for these poor people. They told me the biggest problem they had after mourning their dead was trying to continue living their lives. Like most people, these people’s identity is defined in large part by their profession. They are fishermen. The problem for them was, they were unable to go out and fish. First of all they were afraid, which is understandable if you consider what the ocean did to them.

Secondly, nobody was interested in buying their fish, because people were afraid these fish had been feeding on human corpses floating in the ocean. This pretty much brought these people’s lives to a complete stop and it aggravated their distress. I heard this from the local inhabitants.

What I saw was the amazing thing we call human spirit. I’ve learned one thing talking to these people, they will go on with their lives. All they ask for is a little help from the outside world.

Later in the hotel, the owner of the hotel asked me to tell everybody that they should visit Thailand. He may be right, maybe the best way for these people to get back on their feet is tourists spending their money in the local economy and generating jobs for these people.

That night we slept at the hotel. We were using a government plane, a US government plane and we had to wait till the next day to visit our next destination in Indonesia.

I woke up at three in the morning that night. The former president Bush was banging on the door, saying “Bill are you awake?” No, George I was sound asleep. I got out of bed and opened the door. George told me he couldn’t sleep. My first instinct was to shut the door. I mean, he can’t sleep? What does he want me to do about that? George asked me to go to the bar with him and get a drink. He told me at home in Houston, he and Barbara never went to bed without drinking a glass of brandy.

I didn’t want to go to the bar. I wanted to go back to bed, but I thought why not?

I followed him downstairs to the bar. It was just an average hotel bar, with Thai pop music in the background and a few disco lights. We sat down and George ordered Chivas Regal. So did I. As soon as the waiter disappeared a young Thai lady, with long black hair and a lot of make up on came up to us. She got down on her knee in front of George and took his hand.

“Daddy” she said. George looked at me. “I think you got the wrong guy" he said. “Daddy”, she continued “Take me with you to America”. Bush said “I don’t think my wife will agree to that”. He tapped the ring on his finger. The girl got up and sat down on his lap, putting her head on his chest. She said “Adopt me, daddy”.

Oh my God, I had so much trouble trying not to laugh out loud. George replied “I don’t think Barbara will like that either. You know we’re kind of happy all our kids are grown up and left the house”. She pouted. That was when the waiter came back with the drinks. He started shouting at the girl. She shouted back. Everybody looked at us. The girl left. George looked at me and raised his hands. “What was that all about?”

I still have to laugh about that whole scene.

George might look like a grumpy old Republican, but he’s a very decent guy. During our visits, the locals would always hold up their kids to me, so I could take their kids in my arms. They always came to me. Never to George. Every time one of these parents or nurses held up one of these kids, George would take a step forward and take the child in his arms.

As you know I had heart by-pass surgery. The doctors opened up my chest and the only thing holding it together now are stitches. My chest needs a lot of time to heal completely. If I hold a kid in my arms and it kicks me in the chest, kids are unpredictable, it might cause internal bleeding.

This is the reason I didn’t want to hold any of the kids in my arms, but I also didn’t want to have to tell these parents I didn’t want to hold their kids. I never asked George to step in and take the kids. He never said anything about it to me. He just did it, because he sensed it would help me. It was very considerate of him.

Next day we went to Indonesia. To Aceh to be precisely. The first thing I noticed observing the damage the tidal wave had done and talking to the survivors was the lack of women. I asked a Christian nun from Boston, who had been in Indonesia for the past 62 years about this.

She told me, that the reason for this was simple, the rigidity of the religion of the locals. They are Muslims and do not like women to dress in anything immodest. So although they live near the Ocean, women never get to go to the beach, they never get to learn to swim. During the tidal wave men were able to swim and save themselves. Women and girls too, just drowned.

This was such an eye-opener. Things like this, you can’t know, unless you visit the region yourself. So in this respect the trip was very successful and I plan to mention this situation to the politicians and religious leaders I will meet in the future. Women and girls in these areas must learn to swim.

Sister Anastasia also told me that since there was now a huge lack of women, dowries could cost hundreds of dollars. Apart from that, religious leaders told me they now had a problem with homosexuality. Especially in the cities, where gangs of men living together in one housing barracks roam the streets at night using bamboo sticks to fight with other gangs of men living in other housing barracks over male prostitutes, since there aren’t any female prostitutes left. Some died, the rest took advantage of the lack of women and got married.

Later in the day we visited a 90 year old man, who had lost his wife after seventy five years of marriage. We found him sitting in front of his wife’s grave, crying. His children told me that he couldn’t accept his wife’s death and that after they found her body, he locked himself up in their room with her body, so the children couldn’t bury her. After a week they broke down the door and a doctor gave him a shot to calm him down. They buried their mother.

Next morning the oldest son woke up early and went outside. The old man had dug up his wife’s grave with his bare hands, enlarged the grave, got in it and was putting earth over himself and her. The son tried to get him out of there, but the old man resisted, telling him, he wanted to be with his wife and that they should let him go as he continued to bury himself and his wife’s body. With the help of his siblings they managed to get the old men out of there.

By the time we met him his son told me they were still guarding him round the clock. We shook his hands, George and me. I offered my condolences. He began crying again. I put my arms around him. So did George. The old man was telling us what a good wife his wife had been. I didn’t understand the language, but I could feel what he was talking about. I understood.

His son told me that the wife had been a local baron’s daughter and that her dad had been against the marriage. Risking death, they had eloped and lived alone on an island in front of the coastline for many years. Apparently someone saw smoke on the island one day and warned the baron. Soon he found out, who was living there, he got his men together and they went to the island to kill the both of them. As he was approaching the house on the island, he saw a little boy and heard a woman’s voice call the kid. It was his daughter’s voice. The baron, who had come to kill his renegade daughter and son in law, just totally melted. He lowered his machete, got down on his knees next to the kid, put one arm around him and opened his other arm to his daughter. That’s how that feud ended.

I tried to console the old man.

Then George began crying uncontrollably. The old man looked at George, then at me. I asked George, what was wrong, he told me he was thinking about his own daughter. He lost a daughter when she was an infant. Someone translated this to the old man. And just to show you how good people are, the old man though heart broken himself, he found room in his heart to grieve for another person’s loss.

He began consoling George.

And the three of us hugged and cried for quite a while as the old man was telling George not to give up, that they were lucky, since they were old they would be with their lost loved ones soon enough. He said to George, it’s important not to forget the living. Remember, when you meet your daughter again, the first thing she will ask you is, did you take good care of my mother and brothers and sisters and how are my nephews and nieces. My wife, I’m sure of this, she will ask me whether I took good care of our children and grandchildren and of her sunflowers. We have to go on.

With this I could feel new energy flowing into the both of them. I had my arms around them, so I could feel it.

By then we were told we had to leave. We left, but we left knowing the old man would be all right. I will never forget him.

Our visit to Sri Lanka was emotional too. They asked us to participate in a sacrificial ceremony, honoring their gods. They had this altar and in front of it is a stone. What we had to do was, throw a coconut on the stone and break it. The gods then could eat the copra and drink the juice.

I had trouble breaking the coconut, because of my surgery, but also because of the fact that the coconut wasn’t ripe yet.

When I was told we had to participate in a sacrificial ceremony I was afraid it would involve animals. I remember when I was in Morocco a few years ago and His Majesty the King of Morocco, Hassan II asked me to participate in a ceremony. I’m one of those people, who respects other people’s cultures and religions. Who am I to tell others that what they do or believe is wrong and that what I do and believe is right?

I trusted the King. He was educated in Europe, so when he asked me to hold the head of a goat, I did. The goat had a beautiful white skin and on it were all kinds of orange signs, made with henna.

As I said I was holding the goat’s head and talking to the goat. All of a sudden, the King took a knife from his robe and cut the goat’s throat. So there I was holding the goat’s head as blood gushed out of its throat, coloring all of us red.

I respect other people’s culture, but that wasn’t an experience I like to repeat. So I’m glad the people in Sri Lanka are Buddhists and therefore vegetarians.

Oh by the way. The king later sent me the skin of the goat. It was prepared, starched and all. I used it as a rug in the living room. Chelsea used to sit on it when she watched television.

On the last day we visited the Maldives. A small group of islands in the Indian Ocean. The first thing I heard from the president was that America should join the Kyoto Treaty against global warming.

None of the Maldives islands' surface is higher than ten feet. So what happened was, the tidal wave, didn’t build up. The wave just went over the islands, like there were no islands. Destroying everything, except for the people.

This is the reason they asked me about the Kyoto treaty. Because of the global warming, the poles melt, the water level in the ocean rises and soon, the Maldives will be under the water level.

Thank God there weren’t many casualties in the Maldives. Later that day we visited the son of the late Shah of Iran’s private island in the Maldives and from there we flew to Hong Kong. George went back home and I had to fulfill my book tour dates in Asia.

There is one more thing I would like to say about my tour of the tsunami hit regions. These people are good people. They deserve your donation. Just like the old man, who was grieving about his wife’s death, but still managed to find it in himself to grief for a total stranger’s loss of his daughter fifty years ago, there are hundreds of thousands of people like him, who need your help. I’m convinced, if it had been us, needing help, they would have extended their hand of friendship.

This trip has left me emotionally drained, but also strangely elated, electrified and energized. Now I know the people I’m helping. Before they were anonymous faces. Now I know the stories, the human beings behind the tragedy. I will work even harder to help these good people in Asia. They are good people.