Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Through the Eyes of a Child

Fun Never Needs Translation

Saturday morning I awoke and had breakfast at my hotel before starting out again on my motor-bike and taking the long road north for two hours back to the base camp at Khao Lak. While polishing off the last of my scrambled eggs, I was taking humorous delight in watching an Austrian guest try to communicate his request to the Thai staff.

The Austrian was obviously not versed in Thai and was for the most part trying to communicate in what sounded like predominantly broken English. His version of English was totally lost however on the staff. The poor guy, knowing he was struggling to be understood, began to speak louder in what appeared to be an attempt to shout his way through the language barrier. When that didn’t work, he began to use hand motions and some weird form of pantomime. At that point the Thais appeared to stop trying to interpret what he was trying to say and simply seemed to sit back and enjoy the show.

This early morning interpretive skit by the Austrian is just one amusing example that any of us might attempt in order to be understood. We all have a natural yearning, and will take whatever means necessary, to communicate our wants, desires, feelings, and emotions. I sat back and wondered how our volunteer group would be able to communicate effectively with the young children of the refugee camp at Khao Lak that day. Would we be able to reach out and briefly touch the young ones who had witnessed first hand so much tragedy and terror? The language separation was just one small chasm to cross while the psychological trauma of the Tsunami might have closed these kids off from us even more.

I quickly found one of my teammates after arriving at base camp that morning. She was taking clothing items from a large pile and was ripping and cutting up the garments into long strips of fabric. She explained to me how the locals had received a ton of clothing donations which continued to pour in on an almost daily basis. Clothing was no longer the issue for the people as they now had an overabundance, but that did not seem to stem the flow from those who wanted to help and donate these items. Rather than throw the clothing away, the group found new uses for the items. We had learned that the children in the refugee camp did not have proper sleeping arrangements and many were sleeping on the floor of the temporary housing units that had been quickly erected. The long strips of clothing that both my teammate and I were now cutting was to be used as stuffing for make-shift mattresses that were being constructed, so that the young ones would have a softer and more comfortable night’s rest.

In the early afternoon the group piled into a mini-bus to visit the refugee camp. As we pulled off the main road and parked at the entrance to the camp, I was first amazed by the “tent city” that had taken root in one area of the camp. These tents appeared because of an overflow situation of not having enough temporary housing units available. The Thai military was working hard to construct these temporary housing units which would surely shrink the number of those who were holding up in tents.

The temporary housing units were no tropical bungalows however. They were erected quickly and with bare essential concerns to provide shelter and little more. I took a stroll through these new neighborhoods constructed of pieces of plywood and roof sheeting and was amazed to find people adapting to the situation. These units were hot, cramped, and dusty but people did not seem bitter. I passed one middle-aged Thai man that was occupying one of the units with his family and who upon seeing me said what surely was the only English word he knew, “Hello”. He then immediately outstretched his hand in greeting and placed a warm smile on his face. I couldn’t believe it. This man had lost his home and all his possessions and had reason to be saddened or even angry at his situation, but instead he was making due with his predicament and was welcoming me to his make-shift home.

Our work for the day took place in the children’s area, which was an oasis of fun for the kids amongst the tedium of the rest of the camp. Our volunteer team immediately broke into action and began setting up different stations around the area where the kids could partake in varying activities. Language was going to be a barrier to a certain extent, so our activities focused on universal forms of expression and communication.

We had one station set up for music. A universal communication medium, music provided an excellent venue for the kids to dance to the rhythms of a large drum we had brought to the camp. We played a fun game to the beat of the drum. Everyone would dance around in a large circle around the drum and when the drum beat stopped, everyone would have to freeze in whatever silly dance position they happened to be in at that second. The game brought lots of laughter and smiles.

In addition to the drum game, one of my teammates from Sweden had brought along a small ukulele (4-string guitar). I had sat down at the end of a make-shift stage and was helping one enthralled Thai youngster learn how to place his fingers on the frets in order to get the instrument to come to life. He was a quick study and was soon making his very one music. He was so delighted by his accomplishments and quickly dawned a smile that was immovable. He stayed close to me for the longest time. He was older than most of the other kids and seemed to enjoy the attention that was usually bestowed on the much smaller ones.

We had another station that was set up for art. Tables were set up to make fun creatures out of Play-Dough, while others were set up for water colors and drawing. The kids were very creative and contrary to popular assumptions, they were not drawing pictures of huge tidal waves with houses floating away in the water, but instead were drawing pictures that you would expect from youngsters. Rainbows, birds, smiling suns, trees, and ball games dominated the artwork on that day.

The final station we assembled that day was for sports. As with most countries throughout the world, football (soccer) is a passion of both young and old and in Thailand it is no different. So it was no surprise that we had plenty of turnouts for our football match. A dusty and dry scrap of land made for our pitch and we quickly set up some netting for our goals. Volley Ball was another game that was gaining good participation. Even in the early afternoon with all the tropical heat, the kids and the volunteers sweated it out and both groups loved every minute of it.

In another area of the camp children were designing screen print art that they were selling to tourists to help raise money for their families. This was not something that was initiated by our group, but was an excellent idea and something the kids seemed to enjoy doing. Their art was quite good too. I kept wondering if somehow we could get the kids’ work up on EBay to expose it to the masses, then they would surely start to develop a re-occurring revenue stream. The marketing mind sometimes never rests!

The Austrian guest at the beginning of this entry demonstrated that we as people will go to no end to communicate with one another. In spite of language deficiencies, our team was able to successfully communicate with the kids that day. Using fun as the universal platform it was much easier than any of us would have anticipated. Music, art, and athletics need no translation, and neither do smiles of joy.

As I climbed on my motor-bike that evening and prepared for the long ride back from camp to Patong, I felt good about what I had seen. Yes there was sadness in seeing the make-shift living conditions that people were being forced to endure, but more importantly there was an overriding sense of optimism that brought back faith of the human will to survive and build again. This optimism was not isolated to the kids in the camp either. As I traveled down the coast of Phuket the rebuilding was well underway and the spirit that helped fire this rebuilding was echoed, although sometimes in amusing English, to communicate the fact that Phuket is back.

Lots of people have been asking how they can help the people of Phuket and the other areas of Thailand. My answer, and those voiced by many locals, is to go and visit. Tourists are the backbone of the local economy and it will take tourists coming back to Phuket and the surrounding areas to re-ignite the incomes of so many. Even though one of the largest and most devastating natural disasters of anyone’s lifetime occurred on its shores, the people are working hard to welcome you back to their little slice of paradise. There are so many examples as to why this area of the world has been called “The Pearl of the Andaman Sea”. Take a look for yourself and come to your own decision when you visit.

I left for Singapore knowing that my time in Phuket was well-spent. In an effort to give some hope back to others who have been so kind to me on my visits over the years, I instead was again the beneficiary of the eternal optimism, can-do spirit, and warmth and hospitality of the Thai people. The victims of the Tsunami have suffered so much and we will never forget them; and we honor them with our will to endure and to thrive under any and all circumstances. May the only waves that kiss the shores of our friends be the ones that deliver colorful sea shells rather than those that have brought terror and destruction.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Finding a Home for Help

Fractured View of Paradise

Walking the streets of Patong Beach on my first full day in Phuket, I was approached by a pair of Hassidic Jews with long beards and wearing smiles. “Excuse me, are you Jewish”, one of them asked? My new eye glasses I was wearing must have given me a new look. After explaining that I was not, they asked me where I was from. Turns out they were both from New York and were here in Phuket raising money for a Jewish foundation for tsunami relief.

I told the two of my plight of finding it extremely difficult to find any organizations that could use physical volunteers and how I had come to Phuket for just that reason. I asked if their organization had any room for someone like me who wanted to help. Unfortunately they said that they were here just to raise money, but that yesterday they had taken a drive up north of Phuket and come across just such an organization that was looking for physical volunteers. They gave me the approximate location of their base camp and their website url:

Friday morning I got up early, had breakfast, and rented a motor-bike which would be my trusty steed as I headed north to meet the folks at Tsunami Volunteer. I ducked inside an Internet café to check their website and confirm their location. They were located off of Phuket Island in the Thai province of Phang Nga. They were held up at the Khao Lak National Park. I really had no idea how far that was from Patong, but decided to make a go of it, given that there was definitely an organization that needed help.

Good thing I had lathered up with sun screen before heading out on the road. It was a classic Thai sunny day with beautiful blue sky and a few white puffy clouds. The roads were well maintained yet the ride was still dusty and long. As I headed north along the coast, I could see pockets of devastation, but more importantly I could see people working to re-build. Many beachside restaurants and bungalows were coming back to life in a race to be ready for the high-season tourists that would hopefully someday return.

My ride ended up taking two hours to complete and I covered over 120 KM (72 Miles for the Americans). I couldn’t feel my rear-end when I turned off the engine and stood up for the first time. I had easily spotted the Tsunami Volunteer sign at the entrance to the park. There were people building and painting furniture as I approached. I asked one of the guys if they needed some more help and he welcomed me and took me to a registration center. Computers were everywhere as many of the volunteers apparently had IT backgrounds and had rigged up a local area network. There was even a wireless hotspot, but my laptop was back in Patong. Besides, I wasn’t there to cruise the Internet.

I was given a name tag and a room for the night (free of charge) after being registered. Soon after, a young Canadian girl with a megaphone yelled out that if anyone was interested in planning the upcoming Children’s Day, to join her downstairs. I figured this was a good project to start with, so I joined in. There were people of all nationalities and age groups. Most were young and of the back-packer persuasion, but many were on vacation and wanted to do something to help. Many Thais were part of the ensemble as well and most served as translators and key organizers or facilitators.

Our small group’s mission for the early afternoon was to plan the next day’s children’s event at the nearby refugee camp for displaced villagers who had lost their homes in the Tsunami. Many of these kids had lost family members and some were completely orphaned. The goal of our events was to take their minds off of their recent traumatic memories and just have some good old fashioned fun.

After we had put our children’s day plans together and created some materials, we had the opportunity to visit a local hospital in the late afternoon where numerous people were being taken care of for injuries they had sustained in the tsunami. The drive from the base camp to the hospital was one that I will never forget. We drove through the village of Khao Lak, but it might as well have been called the moon because the landscape did not look of this earth.

The ground was scoured of plants, trees, and structures. Power polls and electric wires fell like dominos. The massive swell of water had destroyed a thriving Thai village whose inhabitants helped to staff some of the numerous resorts that lined the magnificent beach along the Andaman Sea. Of the remaining structures, many had severe damage to their roofs, which gave you an idea of just how high the water had reached.

Credit must be given to the quick action of the Thai military and their army corps of engineers. I traveled on numerous roads in the area that were constructed of brand new asphalt and had been re-painted. There was not a main artery road visible that had been left in decay. Tons of heavy equipment inclusive of bulldozers, backhoes, cement mixers, and heavy trucks were visible as the army was clearing away debris and piling it to be hauled away. An output of all this debris cause by the tsunami was a new market for recycled metal. I saw numerous locations were local Thais were gathering up the metal and bundling it for hopes of recycling it and cashing in on its value. Not a bad motivation to help get the area cleaned up fast and a perfect example of why Thailand was noted by the United Nations as having the most entrepreneurs per capita of any country in the world.

We finally arrived at the hospital and were ushered into a ward of patients by the attending nurse. Many in our group were not prepared for what they saw. The ward was filled with 13 patients with a ranging array of injuries. Many had broken or mangled bones, one lady had a skin graft, and one man was suffering from an amputation. Visible pins, screws, and splints were seen on one strong man. The patients were unsure why we were there and were not quite sure what to make of all these strange Farang (foreigners). I noticed that many in our volunteer group had looks of despair, sorrow, and pity on their faces after first gazing upon the patients. I pulled one girl aside and told her to quickly put a smile on her face because our group was acting as a mirror right now to what these people are feeling and we must come in and lighten the mood with our presence, not make it worse. As we started to interact with the patients, the tenseness in the air lifted. Smiles began to emerge on the faces of the patients and of our group. Our Thai participants were translating the extent of each patient’s injuries and circumstances and we took notes on immediate needs that each of them had while in the hospital.

The simple act of holding someone’s hand and smiling is something that needs no translation. I tried to communicate in my pathetic Thai to one lady that she had a Jai dee (good heart) and that she would get better soon. She squeezed my hand and smiled, so I think she understood. One patient was a favorite with the group because she could not stop smiling. She was only 22 years old and was originally from Burma and had moved to Thailand with her husband to find work. Even at this young age she was already a mother of three children and was fortunate that all of them were safe. She had a severely fractured right wrist that had been set with pins and screws, but you’d never know of her discomfort from the beaming smile that emanated across her face.

After talking with each patient we gathered into the hallway outside the ward and compared our notes. We each contributed some money so that each patient could have 500 Baht, but we were not done yet. We gathered into our mini-bus and headed to the local market to buy some more items so that we could compile care packages. Believe it or not, the most common request from the ladies was for bras and panties. Amazingly, the hospital did not provide these items and their own had been washed away in the tsunami waters. A group of the girls set in motion to help with these needs. We bought the men some terry cloth hand towels. These were perfect to soak in cold water and place over their faces and bodies to keep them cool, as the patients’ ward was an open-air structure with only fans to combat the stifling heat.

After returning to the hospital from the market, I was designated as the representative foreigner to go with the Thai group members back into the ward to distribute the care packages. The patient’s eyes were amazed to see us again and their smiles instantly returned to their faces with all the vigor that they had expressed earlier that afternoon. As we distributed the packages they thanked us and gave the Thai Wai, which is the closed handed greeting that looks similar to a praying motion. I returned their wai and held my hands high and close to my head, which denotes extreme respect. The respect was real as I was amazed by their fortitude and perseverance.

On the ride back to camp, we passed by a solemn reminder of the deadly impact of this disaster. We passed the local Wat (temple) for the village of Khao Lak. A steady stream of smoke was rising above the temple and we learned that the smoke has yet to stop since the wave hit on the 26th. The smoke is from the cremation of those that were lost in the tsunami. Even more heart-wrenching than the smoke was that in the parking area of the Wat, 15 semi trailers were stationed nearby. These trailers were refrigeration units and were being used to keep the remaining bodies cold as they awaited cremation. The sure scale of this sight was overwhelming as you start doing the math in your head of how many poor souls were lost.

We arrived back at camp and enjoyed dinner that night. Afterwards, we had a meeting to review the day and to set course for what we hoped to accomplish the next. After dinner, I headed up to my bungalow that I had been assigned. When I opened the door, I saw that five mattresses were on the floor and appeared to already be occupied. I went inside the bathroom to take a shower, but the camp had run out of water. Not knowing that I was going to have a place to stay when I set out that morning, I had not packed any clothes. The only items I had were the ones on my back. Since the group had obviously over-allocated people to rooms and since I had a room waiting for me back in Patong, I decided to head out on my motor-bike back from where I had come. The only problem was that it was 9:30PM and well after dark.

With the motivating factor of a clean shower and comfy bed spurring my on, I headed out on my journey. It was probably one of the most dangerous things I could have ever done. Driving in the daytime is scary in Thailand, but after dark is madness. I kept running the haunting statistic through my head that Thailand has the highest rate of traffic fatalities of any country, mostly because most accidents involve large trucks and smaller motor-bikes. There were no lights to illuminate the road in most areas and I was left with the headlight on my motor-bike that must have had all the power of a single candle. I kept a steady pace of about 70KPH (45MPH) and tried not to chew on the many bugs that were peppering my face as I streaked along. When I finally crossed over the bridge back onto the Island of Phuket, I breathed easier as the roads were wider and better illuminated. When I finally made it to my room in Patong, I sighed a hefty relief. I removed my helmet, glasses, and headed inside for my reward, which was a warm shower. I was dusty, dirty, tired, yet alive.

It was a good day, a long day, a rewarding day. I was happy to have finally found a group of others who thought and felt the need to participate as I did. That night I rested and geared up to make the journey again the very next morning.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Email From Phuket

Hi Mom,

Late last week, I learned that Friday, Jan 21st is a public holiday in Singapore. I decided this week, that I wanted to go to Phuket and see if there was anything I could do to help. Many people around the world have donated money and that is great, but Phuket is located in my region of the world and is only 1:20 from Singapore by plane. I spent over two hours on the phone on Tuesday trying to contact aid agencies to see how I can help. It was a very frustrating process. They all want you to donate money, but when it comes to donating your physical labor and presence, they don't know how to handle you. I called the Singapore Red Cross thinking they could refer me to their counterparts in Thailand. The lady told me that Thailand doesn't need anymore help, which I find hard to believe. I sent out numerous emails to heads of agencies and social groups, like the Rotary Chapter president of Phuket. All my emails went unanswered.

I went ahead and booked a flight for today (Thurs) and came anyway. Figured I could get here and see how best to help. I will go back Monday morning to Singapore.

So far I can't believe the progress that has been made in just shy of a month here. All the streets are re-opened in the large resort community where I am staying called Patong Beach. On my stroll along the beach front, many hotels and shop fronts have been severly damaged, but reconstruction is in full swing. A large percentage of places are even advertising that they are up and running and open for business. The scale of the clean-up along the beach road must have been daunting, as I can still see massive piles of debris and locals are cleaning up and sifting through the damage trying to salvage what they can.

The number of foreign tourists is way down as you would imagine. I was approached by two young Thai girls today who were part of a hotel promotion plan to have the tourists that are here, go back to their home countries and tell everyone that Phuket is open and wants their business. It is an interesting word-of-mouth campaign and quite original. The locals here can't have the tourists stay away for too long, as the bulk of the local economy depends on it.

Tomorrow I am going to rent a motor-bike and travel around the island. I have a list of the local beaches and towns here in Phuket that have been affected. Maybe I can help somehow.

I will call you and Dad tonight my time and tell you more. Hope you are doing well and I will talk to you soon.



Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Vacation You Didn't Want to End

Snowy Scene at the Farm Makes for a Real Winter Post Card

I've been back in Singapore just exactly one week since returning from my vacation back home to Oregon over the Christmas and New Years holidays. It was so great being back home to see family, friends, and co-workers after being away for almost 7 months. I was really worried that the winter weather was going to be a hard thing to re-adjust to, but I fell quickly back into the Northwest lifestyle and really enjoyed wearing coats, gloves, long-sleeve pullovers, and real cold weather clothing. I also loved being able to drive my car again. Funny how you never miss those things that you take for granted until you are deprived of them.

I spent several days of my holiday vacation at my parents' farm in Central Oregon. It made for a wonderful post card setting thanks to fresh snow that fell almost daily. I love snow anytime, but obviously this snow was special after spending more than half the year living less than 75 miles from the equator.

I enjoyed seeing my friends Jonathan, Nicole, Tim, and Jodi as we got together and had some warm soup and conversation. Little Ethan has gotten so much bigger and new arrival Alex is the center of attention. Was also able to hang out with Keiko and Marina. Keiko was able to hook me up with some more Dry Fit clothing from the employee store at Nike, which is perfect for the tropical climate of Singapore. Marina and I caught a couple of flicks and watched the season premier of Alias, which reaffirmed that I have missed out on absolutely nothing in almost 7 months without watching TV. My friends Rose and Kevin were the first that I called when I returned home. Thanks to Kevin for taking a day off so that we could go watch a movie together (er... scene investigation). Rose looked amazing as she has been training for her first walking marathon since I left for Singapore. She, Kevin, her mom, and the kids were going to fly to Orlando Florida for the big event. No matter what the final time, we are all very proud of you Rose and what you have been accomplishing! The two of them were also instrumental in re-acquainting my palette with American Food... Original Hotcake House and Red Robin for monstrous omelets and mile high mud pie respectively. Carmen and I had a fun holiday spending time together and her parents Mike and Vicky were especially nice to allow me to stay in their home and feed me on occasion as well. Last but not least my best friend Jared and his wonderful parents, who have always been my second mom and dad, were nice enough to put me up for several nights while I stayed in the Portland area. Never thought the "Global Vagabond" title of my blog would be so appropriate even when I was back home, but all my friends made me feel so very welcome. To all my Oregon friends... it was great to see you all again. I missed you all very much. Thanks for making my trip back a very special one.