Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, May 23rd

Something extraordinary is happening here


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The now-departed Doug, who chaired the evening meetings, used to say every night: "This is a community initiative, and you are part of that community. Nobody came to help the people of Phi Phi except you." I've hinted at it before in this travelogue, but now I'll say it specifically: something extraordinary is happening here. I am aware this sounds like typical Jim hyperbole, but it really isn't; I can't think of a single example I've ever heard of of so many tourists helping in a disaster area for so long. And it's not just me who thinks so. Press coverage grows each day - The Scotsman and The Financial Times have recently covered the movement as well as the political argy-bargy, and the Discovery Channel are on their way.

Of course it doesn't hurt that it's such a lovely place, and that when volunteers aren't working, it's such a laugh; if it were in a war-torn area of Africa or Afghansitan, rather than a tropical paradise, then I don't think there would be quite so many of us here... Despite this, the need for help exists, and it is being answered in quite an unprecedented manner, and I'm proud to be a participant, however small my rôle in it. Word is spreading around the backpacker circuit, and more volunteers arrive each day. My only worry is that it will turn into a 'scene' rather than a movement to respect the locals while helping them. It might already have that reputation, though every little helps, I suppose.

Of course there are some gobshites here too. Yesterday we met this woman who was with a film crew, offering hypnotherapy services to the locals. Firstly she is dealing with a culture that has its own coping and grieving mechanisms, secondly she doesn't speak their language, and thirdly and most ridiculously, she was only around for half a day. What possible benefit could there be from her services, other than her own self aggrandisement on camera? To make matters worse, when told the culture has its own coping methods, she said patronisingly "oh no, the Thais really don't", in front of a Thai guy who spoke fluent English. There have been bogus fundraisers too, who have had to be chased off the island, and I was talking to an Irish guy the other day who annoyed me when he said "Phi Phi had it easy". Easy? Certainly, compared to Banda Acheh and Sri Lanka, Phi Phi was not wiped from the face of the earth, but you call the deaths of more than 10% of the population and the destruction of half of the entire habitation and infrastructure easy? I really don't think so.

However, the majority of volunteers and others here are very nice. The other thing that I find interesting is that despite its occasional hippyish undertones, it's a free-market exercise: there's very little hand-out, compensation culture going on - people get a kick-start for their businesses, and are then encouraged to help themselves. It seems that a lot of this is deliberate: it discourages people from dwelling and brooding on what happened. There are very few cash hand-outs, either - the only ones that are given out are from a Copenhagen-based fund that grants micro-loans after a rigorous screening interview. Margaret Thatcher would be so proud.

Since Friday was our day at rest, we did just that, waking extremely late from our phantom tsunami watch. We ambled for breakfast, sauntered to the pool, and generally did nothing apart from read books and swim. Saturday we were back to work - I finished the website (please don't slag me for the yellow, it wasn't my decision) and in the afternoon worked in the memorial garden laying a drain, and got a cut in my hand that went septic for my troubles.

Sunday, however, I have dubbed the Longest Day of my Life. Up at nine as usual, M (who is now running the shop most of the time) and I went into the office for ten. I was looking around for something else to do in the open air, as I've been cooped up in the office for far too long. I didn't have to look far. After getting my hand treated at the new medical centre, and a tetanus shot just in case, I noticed a couple opening their shop over the road from the Hi Phi Phi one.

It was an interesting sight, since the couple were returning refugees. It was the first time the premises had been opened since December. The shop, a former used book store, is a simple one-roomed affair, with big steel shutters on the front, no windows, and no rear exit. Piled all over the floor to a height of about a metre was their entire stock, ruined, and all their shelves in disarray. Below that was other household debris, as they had lived at the back of the shop before the tsunami, and below that was about half a metre depth of sand. The shop is about five hundred metres from the sea.

The man was raking the sand and removing household rubbish, while the woman sat at a desk next to the shop, staring mournfully into the distance. I realised they had nobody helping them, so I introduced myself (in sign language), and went off down to the tool shed to check out a couple of shovels. On my way back I grabbed some empty sandbags by the cement mixer in the memorial garden, and headed back. The shovelling work was hotter than hell, because there was simply no air movement at all in the shop, and the temperature outside was 37, and I sweated more than I've ever sweated in my entire life, and that's saying something. But gradually I cleared a single path to the back of the shop, the owner holding sandbags open for me, and then returned to the front for more.

A passer-by looked in and saw that there was only a couple of us working, and asked if he could help. We gratefully accepted, and commandeered a trolley off someone walking past. We loaded the filled bags of sand onto the trolley, and then pushed it round the corner to the nearest garbage pile. There were about fifty bags, each weighing about twenty or thirty kilos, and we unloaded them in the blazing sun in the heat of the day, then went back for more.

As we were working, two girls passing with a bucket of paint, on their way back from another job, offered to paint the shop once it was cleared. We carried on shoveling and dumping, and on my third trip back from the dump, I found the owners sweeping the last of the sand out. Then the painting crew began, and me and the other guy joined them. It was a fairly simple job, just slapping white paint on the walls, but there was a persistent line visible at about a metre and a half from the ground, that's going to need about ten coats to cover. Other shops in the street have opted for a two-tone, dado effect, that I only realised at that point records the high-water mark in home decoration style.

And incredibly, though the devastated shop was only opened at 2 pm, by five it was cleared, swept, and repainted, ready for the owners to move in again. This is an example of the spontanaiety of the movement here. Just random passers-by mucking in took the shop from devastation to habitation in three hours.

The sadness is that they have no stock left. The woman had rescued all the water-damaged books, which were seriously destroyed, and at first wouldn't let me throw them away, which I found heartbreaking. She also wouldn't allow me to photograph the shop for a 'before and after' shot. Towards the end of the afternoon, she sadly pointed to the books and indicated that they were now refuse too. Though I intended to ask volunteers for donations of used books to kick-start her business again, I heard that they were so despondent they have gone back to their relatives in Ko Pha Ngan and might not come back until next month. I really hope they haven't given up hope, but the woman was the most visibly traumatised person I've met so far - language and respect prevent me from finding out what else she has lost, but I dread to think.

And so, scorched and aching, I helped M shut up shop, then walked back to the bungalow and jumped straight in the pool, where I tested a new snorkel and mask (rubbish), then showered and went for the 7 pm meeting. Then for dinner at Top Ten Burger, and thence to the pub quiz at 9, at which we had foolishly offered to assist. It was chaotic indeed, we were running around like blue-arsed flies for the entire time, and I really don't know what the organiser was thinking, because he initially said he didn't need help and we actually had to press our services on him. It turns out he'd never run one before and had no clue how complex an affair they are. As a consequence of this, it went on until 12.30, and the competitors were growing fractious and restive by the end. But still it raised 10,000 baht for the rebuilding efforts, so it's not all bad.

Then M went to bed and I retired to Sunset Bar on the other side of the isthmus, which I didn't leave until a silly time in the wee small hours. On waking the next day, the previous day felt like three days rolled into one, and I felt exhausted like I have never felt before.

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