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.


At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am so proud of you!!

If a great number of people become like you, World must be so peacefull.

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I suggest a new caption for that 1st photo:
"Don't call me the Asian Jacko!"

Just kidding - great work as always.


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