Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, June 27th

Blessed to be a witness

The name of the other Asian island village that I love, Yung Shue Wan on Lamma in Hong Kong, means Banyan Tree Bay. Only recently I found out that Ao Ton Sai means Banyan Tree Bay too. Which is a coincidence.

Our last day was spent in typically surreal Phi Phi style: the national Japanese broadcaster, NHK, had been on the island for a week making a documentary, and they were doing a live satellite broadcast, so a few of us were asked to come down to the beach to pretend to be clearing up.

Initially NHK wanted us to get a load of debris from the huge rubbish pile by the pier, and put it on the beach, then pick it up again and put it back on the pile. Clare, one of the long-term farang residents pointed out that this hardly shows that the beaches are in fact already clean, so we instead raked the clean sand.

Four or five of the Thai Hi Phi Phi workers had been told to turn up, but nearly fifty turned up instead, even the cooks from the kitchen, all wanting to be on the TV, and all of us wearing the same Hi Phi Phi t-shirts, looking like some kind of cult. As they beamed us out to Japan, we raked away, filling wheelbarrows with the tiny amount of debris still retrievable in the sand. The broadcast lasted all of two minutes, then it was over. "Leuk leuk leuk!" the Thai guys shouted: "Finished finished finished!" and we left the beach to great hilarity.

Then we were tying up loose ends in the office, and in the evening we went to our last volunteer meeting. We were given a nice farewell by Trudy, the girl chairing it, and I was persuaded to give a short speech - genuinely no false humility when I said I really felt we didn't deserve praise over and above the people who slogged away in the background.

But then to our mortification, the incomparable Mr Lee, who is the Thai/farang liaison man, gave a speech that made my toes curl in embarrassment. After calling M "an angel", he then made a heart-rending talk about our non-existent "sacrifice", and then got us a standing ovation. I was cringing. I suspect he'd had one too many bottles of Singha before the meeting, as afterwards he grabbed us and wept on our shoulders, calling me "brother".

We spent our last night having dinner at Oasis, the restaurant we visited on our first day, then to Sunflower Bar, which is run by a man who lost his wife, two daughters, and thirty-two members of his extended family. He now lives in a tent. With the help of volunteers, he has rebuilt his bar entirely with materials from the sea: broken longtails and other debris. He chose these materials deliberately as an act of defiance. The bar used to be called Sunset, but he renamed it Sunflower as it was one of his daughters' favourite flower.

I never thought it would be so hard to leave, but the next morning on the ferry as we pulled away from Phi Phi, we were inconsolable. I stared at the horizon with tears flowing down my face, as our friends, both Thai and volunteer, and Phi Phi, the beautiful broken butterfly, disappeared slowly over the horizon.

So back to Bangkok after a ghastly day's travel, feeling bereft and disconsolate. The only positive note was that, when we stepped out of the taxi from the airport in Banglamphu, we immediately heard someone say "...and I've just been volunteering with these two on Phi Phi": someone M had recruited from the ferry just happened to be walking down the road.

The amateur reconstruction of the island is something I never would have believed could happen. If it had been me turning up to see the absolute devastation, I would have turned tail and assumed it was someone else's problem. Yet it happened: more than 7,000 tonnes of debris have been cleared by hand; jobs have been created; hope has been given; opportunities made; lives healed. In the words of Mr Lee, whose 3 million baht guesthouse was damaged almost beyond repair, and who is living off the 300 baht (€6) a day that Hi Phi Phi pays him, when he met Hi Phi Phi, it "stopped me from wanting to die".

On Phi Phi I experienced something truly significant; possibly the most profound thing that's ever happened to me. We are truly blessed to have witnessed it, and to have participated. And we'll be back. Much sooner than we had planned.

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.