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.


At 3:15 PM, Blogger Ferg said...

You're the best, Fos!

At 1:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent Job!!! This is what I would call the real 'aid'. You have responded with such generosity by going down independently. Like that moral fiber of yours!


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