Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, May 12th

Plus ca change...

That night we again attended the Hi Phi Phi meeting, and again over a hundred people turned up. There have now been more than 2,000 volunteers who have worked for the organisation, from practically every nation under the sun. I would estimate that a small plurality is British, but there are (of course) Irish, French, Germans, Israelis, Canadians, Swedes, Norweigans, Danes, Singaporeans, Americans, and even people from Bahrain. Talking to the other volunteers I've discovered some remarkable sacrifices that have been made - though some are just passing through but want to lend a hand for a day or two, others are people who saw the tsunami on the news, quit their jobs, and headed out to help; still more are people who intended to stay for a few days, but have ended up staying for months; and a couple of people have full-time jobs, but have dedicated their entire annual leave to helping out.

The meeting was addressed by a Thai community liaison man, who confirmed that the organisation's efforts were deeply appreciated by the local people - which was good to hear, as the language barrier means that sometimes it's difficult to tell whether we're actually regarded as being helpful, and not a noisy bunch of farang do-gooders getting in the way of a traumatised population: there have unfortunately been a few isolated incidents of tension between the westerners and the Thais that could be attributed to the combination of too much Mekong Whisky and Red Bull (on both parts), post-traumatic stress on the part of the Thais, and drunken lack of respect on the part of the westeners, but for the most part the locals are appreciative that without the help of the tourists, they possibly wouldn't be here.

During the meeting, it was revealed that the Hi Phi Phi webmaster, who is based in Holland, has both a full-time job and a broken wrist. After the meeting I therefore mentioned that I might be able to assist with the website, and to my surprise my offer was jumped at - I had assumed that there would be so many web-type people offering their skills that I wouldn't be required. However, I was asked to meet the group's founder the next morning, and to bring the laptop. M, feeling that though she was useful on the boat, was not making efficient enough use of her time, signed up to clear a path to the new medical centre, which is the only facility on the island, and has been provided wholly by Hi Phi Phi.

Later that evening we retired to our bungalow's nearby restaurant bar ("Hippies", which seems to own half the businesses up this side of the bay, and appears to be doing incredibly successfully already), where we witnessed a fire-twirling show. If you haven't seen it, it's a popular Thai beach entertainment, where performers frienziedly and skilfully twirl burning paraffin-dipped cotton wads around themselves on the end of chains. I'd seen it before when we were on holiday in Koh Samet five years ago, but never anything as good as this. About ten performers, including a few westerners, did a pretty spectacular solo each to music, and then all of them stood in a line and twirled simultaneously for the finalé, which was breathtaking.

The next morning I turned up at the office, drenched from the day's almost non-stop downpour, and met one of the founders, who explained a lot of the background to Hi Phi Phi. The organisation started small, with just one English guy arriving a few days after the devastation and starting to clear up on his own with just a wheelbarrow, but has quickly built up into a major, if a trifle chaotic, entity. The funds are used to provide material, not financial, help for the local people who are slowly returning. They come to the charity with a request - "I need my shop walls fixed, electricity put back in, and stock to start up again" - and are provided with the assistance they need to restart their means of income. Money is also used to pay the full-time Thai workers, and to provide an on-site canteen in which volunteers and poverty-stricken locals can eat for free, or a nominal donation. A database has been drawn up of who lost what - possessions and people - which has also been provided to the local government.

The organisation has been featured widely in the international press - CNN has covered it, as well as the BBC, and we heard that it was even featured in the UK on the BBC's 6 o'clock national news yesterday. One girl I was talking to in the office had just an extraordinary experience - she was debating whether or not to use her return ticket from Bangkok (since she is one of the people who came for a while, but decided to stay much longer to help) to head back to the UK for a week or so to contact the press, in particular her local paper, the Yorkshire Post. As she was mulling this over, a woman getting off the ferry stopped her on the pier and asked if she could interview her. The woman was a reporter from the Yorkshire Post. She took this as a sign to remain.

The task for which I am required is to create a new section of the Hi Phi Phi website that explains that the island is now open for business. There are many rumours around Thailand, possibly encouraged by the government, that the place is now uninhabitable. In fact there are hundreds of hotel rooms and bungalows open for business, electricity, plumbing, drainage, satellite TV, an ATM, a 24-hour convenience store, internet access, and dozens of businesses back up running. The subsite will promote Phi Phi as a place to have a holiday, which, as I said, is perfectly feasible to do - and list exactly what is available to the visitor, adding new businesses as they open.

The upshot of all this, however, is that I spent the day sitting at a cushy desk with a computer, albeit in a non-air conditioned hut in the middle of wave-blasted wasteland, while poor M worked her hands to the bone with a rake, in the pouring rain all day. Oops. The sunburn and the cut feet give me a bit of an excuse, but not much. Anyway, I hope that once the initial time-consuming slog on the website has died down, I'll be able to underwater litter-pick for half a day, and work on the computer for the other half.

Looks like we might be here a little longer than we thought...

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