NOTIONS: At the dawn of 2005, we’re all in the same boat

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My family and I spent Christmas week on a boat, in the ocean, with hundreds of people from Indonesia. And because they were comforting us, not vice versa, it seemed all wrong.

The day after Christmas, Pam, Austin, Zach and I awoke at 3 a.m. We showered, dressed and lugged our suitcases downstairs.

At 4 a.m., the limousine pulled up in our snowy driveway. The chauffeur loaded our luggage into the Cadillac’s trunk, helped us aboard and drove through icy rain to the airport.

After waiting in line, we got our boarding passes, checked our bags and headed to McDonald’s for breakfast.

On a food-court TV, we saw stories about an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The reporter said hundreds of people might have died.

But we had more important things to worry about.

Like the repeated delays in our 6 a.m. flight. And not getting to Washington. And missing our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale. And our ship’s 5 p.m. departure.

As 6 a.m. turned into noon, all that came to pass.

The apologetic gate attendants tried to route us every which way, but with so many overbooked holiday flights, they couldn’t get us to our ship all week, let alone that day.

With Pam fighting cancer, we weren’t sure how many vacations we have left. So we did what good television-viewing Americans do: We used a lifeline and phoned a friend.

The friend phoned some other friends with access to a private jet. And those friends happened to be flying to Naples, Fla. that afternoon. And they said we could fly along and drop them off in Naples; then their pilots would fly us to Key West, where our ship would dock the next day.

So, as thousands in Southern Asia and Eastern Africa struggled to rescue loved ones from earthquakes and tsunamis, my loved ones and I soared at 33,000 feet, chatting with the benefactors who’d rescued our vacation.

At Key West, as CNN reported worsening tsunami news, our shuttle driver bemoaned the weather. With the wind, it felt like 50 degrees. And, well, he didn’t own anything but T-shirts. Having banked on warm weather ourselves, we concurred.

Next morning, we took a cab to the docks, climbed aboard a tender and arrived-just 16 hours late-on the MS Oosterdam, one of the newest cruise ships in the Holland America Line. We checked in at the front desk, where the staff waxed empathetic over our tale of woe. Then we rode the elevator to our stateroom.

In the rack outside the door, we found the “Times Digest,” a news summary from The New York Times. The front-page headline said “At Least 12,000 die in tsunamis in Southern Asia.”

But being hungry, we tossed the paper aside as our steward, Danang, helped us get situated. Then we explored the Oosterdam’s 11 decks and headed to lunch.

From the eight buffet stations, Pam and I chose Asian cuisine and tropical fruit salad. The boys picked pizza and burgers.

That afternoon, Austin and Zach played the first of many basketball games on the ship’s sports deck, while Pam and I napped and read books.

That evening, our dining room steward, Sugih, and his assistant, Wahyu, served us a fine four-course meal. When we asked where they were from, they both said Indonesia. In fact, they said, most of the ship’s 800 crew members were Indonesian.

We asked if anyone had lost family members in the tsunami. They said that wasn’t yet clear.

And for the rest of the cruise, we paid more attention to those “Times Digests,” and to the people who-despite their concern for family, friends and homeland-were serving us graciously.

Tuesday morning, “Times Digest” reported 25,000 deaths. Watching CNN International as I worked out in the ship’s fitness center, I saw that the human toll had climbed even higher overnight.

Wednesday, when we returned from touring the ruins of the Mayan city of Tulum, tsunami deaths had topped 57,000.

Late that evening, in the ship’s Broadway-style theater, staff members presented an “Indonesian Crew Show.” Knowing little of the world’s fourth-most-populous country, I went to watch.

The show opened with a video called “The Beauty of Indonesia.” It was, indeed. That was followed by a “Welcome Saman Dance” from Aceh, the province nearest the earthquake’s epicenter. Next came a dining steward singing “Happy Song.”

“Even though we have a very tough job,” said the emcee, not specifying whether that meant in Indonesia or on a 12-month sailing stint, “we’re still happy.”

Two nights later, these crew members once more set aside their personal anxiety over a homeland death toll that topped 120,000. Instead, they decorated their ship with balloons and baubles, danced among us with flutes of champagne, and wished us a wonderful 2005.

And if the Indonesians aboard the Oosterdam can, after all that, sing “Happy Song” and shout “Happy New Year,” then so can we.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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