Farewell to Paradise, just in the knick of time

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    SPARTA-Evelyn Welsh, who spends her summers in Sparta and her winters in Florida travels often, but knew this next trip would be a trip of a lifetime. Little did she know her destination would soon become a page in history. Years earlier, Welsh, a widow with two grown children, was scheduled to host her third exchange student, a 17-year-old high school student from Thailand, named Worrarat Cherdchamadol. The student, known simply as June, arrived on Welsh's door step prepared to complete her senior year while Welsh served as her American guardian. Unlike the previous students from Germany and Spain that Welsh had hosted, June spoke little to no English. "It was difficult at first, neither one of us was prepared for the language problem," Welsh said, recalling her first encounter with June. "There were many times when we had no idea what the other one was trying to say." The two somehow communicated and began teaching each other about their cultures and customs. "I was fascinated about what she would tell me about life in Thailand and she was amazed at the things she was learning about living in the United States," Welsh recalled. "June even attended my church services every Sunday which really was a learning experience for her, since she was raised Buddhist." Following her American high school graduation, June announced that she wanted to stay in the United States and attend college. Typically, exchange students return to their countries following the conclusion of their program. Since the unlikely pair had become compatible roommates, taking turns cooking, and sharing the household chores, Welsh agreed to continue their arrangement. "By this time we were also emotionally connected, we were a part of each other's family, and immersed in each other's lives on a daily basis. We had great respect and admiration for each other's family. And the families felt the same about us,'' said Welsh. The two continued their living arrangement. Welsh assisted June through the mounds of red tape it took to permit her to remain in the country. She taught June how to drive, and helped her buy her first car. She served as surrogate mother, teacher and friend. "Don't ask me why this situation worked for the two of us, even my kids called us the ‘odd couple,' but somehow it just did work," Welsh said. June attended the local community college. Most evenings, they'd sit together to do school work. Welsh would assist the Tai student by translating and helping her with comprehension, reading and writing. "When the grades would arrive in the mail, I'd say to June, ‘so, how did we do this semester?', it was that much of a team effort," Welsh recalled. In her junior year June transferred to a four year college outside of Orlando. Welsh, who helped June with the move into her own apartment, knew she was ready for it, and also knew whole heartedly that she and June would always remain close. "She had grown up and became independent. I knew this was a good move for her, she was ready," said Welsh. This is why when Welsh received the latest of many invitations to visit Thailand and finally meet June's family, she knew she may not get the opportunity again. So, together Welsh and June planned a fun filled, sunny vacation in the beautiful vacation spot of Phuket, Thailand, scheduled during the Christmas break from college. They arrived in Thailand on Dec. 12 and Welsh recalls being so impressed by the beautiful Andaman sea and the outstanding luxury resorts. From their five star hotel they could see boats anchored offshore awaiting eager passengers to be taken to parasailing barges and other excursions or to the beaches on various islands for sunning and lunch, the Tai way. "We scheduled our boat trips for certain days and destinations, and boarded those boats at 9:30 on those particular mornings," she remembered. On other days, thanks to June's family arranging it, they were able to tour the area and sightsee with their own private guide. Meeting June's family and the countless other holiday tourists from all over the world was the highlight of her trip. "Everyone was so nice and so generous. I felt like a queen visiting there. I met so many lovely people, and most of them had a lot of questions about the U.S.," stated Welsh. On Dec. 24 the two women said their goodbyes, as Welsh headed back home to the states, leaving June to visit two weeks longer with her family. After a 24 hour plane trip, a weary Welsh arrived home on the following day and woke up on Dec. 26 to the devastating news of the tsuami. "My heart stopped just seeing those terrible images of the beautiful place I had just left the day before. All I could think about was June and her family," she said. Since Welsh had no way of contacting June she waited and watched the tragedy unfold across the TV screen. "As I watched the flooding waters and the debris, cars, and furniture floating by I wondered about my hotel and all the people I met. I wondered if being in our room on the second floor might have helped. Soon I learned that the water had risen past the second floor. But it wouldn't have mattered because we, like everyone else was already out of our rooms by 9:30 a.m." Welsh said. "I can't imagine sitting in that restaurant and seeing the water rushing in so violently or being out in one of the boats." According to news reports, Welsh's hotel and everything around it was destroyed by the Tsuami. "It was so painful to watch this and not know if the people I had met and spent time with were victims of this horror," she said. From the moment she arrived home her phone rang continuously with friends and family concerned about her safety, but none was the voice she longed to hear. Three days after the tragedy, Welsh's cell phone rang one morning before six. As she searched and fumbled for the phone she finally heard the voice she had waited to hear … "Miss Evelyn, are you there? It's me, June! I'm okay, I‘m okay."