Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, May 16th

"Without, can not do"

Before and after: fish street in Tonsai, the side least affected, after volunteer efforts.

Today is the day of the government's announcement, which will possibly determine the future of the efforts here, and the lives of the survivors. Such a lot has happened that I can't believe it's only four days since I last updated the travelogue.

I don't think I've been on the verge of tears so often in my life as I have here. There is such sadness and such hope, and seeing the stoical suffering of the people, and the overwhelming kindness of strangers, is extraordinarily moving. Hi Phi Phi has a video, not released to the media, of the entire disaster unfolding, taken by one of the dive shop residents from his roof, that the organisation shows to new visitors. Set to the haunting song Blessed to be a Witness by Ben Harper, it is so intense that many people who view it are traumatised for hours afterwards. When we viewed it, one of the girls watching it had to be led out in a faint. One particular shot really hit me - a long line of palm trees in the distance being felled one by one, like a scene of approaching menace from a 1950s B-movie.

There is a book, sponsored by the insurance group ING in conjunction with Hi Phi Phi, in which children in the refugee camps have written essays about, and drawn pictures of, their experiences. The Children of Phi Phi is impossible to read without breaking down. A Thai woman behind the reception desk of a hotel asked to see my copy, so I lent it to her for ten minutes, and when I returned she was inconsolable. She pointed to a picture of one of the little girls, who looked a lot like her, and sobbed "maybe me". I presume it was her cousin or daughter. Yet through all the tears, there are moments of hilarity: one child, after a night sleeping rough on the hillside, wrote "when we came back down there was a shop open so I bought some sweets in case I couldn't come back". Another kid thought that "maybe Godzilla had come to the island", echoing my thoughts about B-movies. If anyone would like a copy of this beautiful book, email me and I'll do what I can to send you a copy.

This building was not demolished because it was holding up the power lines.

I joined the management team in the office, which also doubles as sleeping quarters for some of the returned refugees working for Hi Phi Phi, and set about installing Photoshop on my laptop (no success), and getting on the network (ditto). Eventually I commandeered a desktop PC, and set about playing with some ideas. In the afternoon I was myself commandeered to clear a beach on the far side of the town - one of the coves we had crossed in our jungle adventure. Four of us hopped on board a brand-new longtail, a Hi Phi Phi-bought replacement for the one the boatman had lost, and cruised off to the isolated beach. There we met a middle-aged Dutch couple who were picking litter up. Below the trees away from the beach was a big pile of rolled up corrugated iron sheets, which we loaded into the longtail until it was completely full, and rather top-heavy. As we left the beach, the Dutch couple waved at us, and said "thank you. Thank you," over and over again. We then cruised back to the main rubbish pile, and unloaded - our efforts enhanced, as so often happens here, by passers-by stepping in to help. It was during this time that I managed to stand on something in my bare feet, and get a nice puncture wound in the sole of my foot, so now I'm really hobbling.

The next day I put together a template, and posted it for approval from the current webmaster. In the afternoon I moved the computers into the new office, an apartment above a shop in a relatively undamaged building. The shop below is the official Hi Phi Phi shop that just opened today, which sells the book, T-shirts, crafts made in the refugee camps, and various other stuff, on behalf of the organisation.

That evening, M and I ate in a restaurant called "The Monsoon's Dream". We were surprised to be served by westerners. I asked one of them if they were a volunteer, and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant had, one day a few weeks ago, just grabbed three people at the pier and asked if they would help set her up on her feet again. They had worked very hard to rebuild the building, which thankfully was not structurally damaged, and it is now a very elegant café-bar. M said she wouldn't mind helping out too, so met the owner, a lady called Mai, and offered her services.

Nearly everybody you meet here is volunteering in some capacity. And most people are so young - and good looking. I estimate that the ratio of hot-to-not here is about 3:1. Indeed an English girl working with me said she'd like to get some of the lithe, bikini-wearing caramel-coloured beautiful girls, tie them down and force-feed them pies and chips.

As people were congratulating Mai on reopening, she said something very simple that to me summed up the entire idea behind this venture. "With help, can do. Without, can not do."

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