By EMMA CORNFORD
CLARENCE Valley drama teacher Santiago 'Santi' Acera on March 28 this year watched as people gathered in a Maldives mosque after a tsunami warning was issued.
For him it was five hours of waiting to see what would happen. For the people around him it was pure despair of perhaps having to deal with what they had gone through just three months before.
Mr Acera was one of a group of 16 Australian teachers who volunteered to travel to the Maldives, a collection of atolls lying south-west of India, and lend their services to schools on the islands.
After six months he has arrived home and spoke to The Daily Examiner about the experience of teaching in a country so ravaged by the tsunami disaster.
"It was good, challenging, exciting, difficult," Mr Acera said.
"There is a level of trauma in the children. One eight- or nine-year-old couldn't make eye contact with me because he had been holding his little bother's hand when the water came, who was two or three years old, and his brother was washed away. Then, a few days later, he saw his dead brother's body wash up.
"Other children would not go on the east side of the island (and) were scared of the tides and sounds of the ocean but it's different for each individual."
Mr Acera spent two months teaching English to Year 6 students on a small island, where around half of the children were refugees from other islands.
"There was no water, lots of mosquitos, the heat and virtually no food; for two months I ate rice and chapati," he said. "I was living in a tent. One night there was a storm and everything got soaked, so they felt bad and found us a room."
"But it was full of rats and had no windows."
It was not the first time Mr Acera had taught in the developing world ? he spent time in Africa during a war teaching children drama.
In a way he was prepared for the conditions but said it was still hard.
"I wanted to finish my contract of six months but some of the teachers did not last even two months. It was difficult over there."
After two months at the outer island Mr Acera then spent another three months at a school in the capital, Male, where he staged a concert with the students.
"It was hard and for the last days I was wishing I could come home," he said.
"But I want to thank everyone in the Clarence community for all their comments and well wishes. I would call my wife and she would give me messages from people across the shire so I want to thank them."