Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, June 4th

Reservoir Dogs and cats

"I have worked as an engineer for fifteen years, in Rwanda and Bosnia amongst other places, and in all my time, both military and civilian, I have never worked with a bunch of people who are so tough, indefatigable, and hard working." So spoke Chris, a former British Army engineer, who had come to Phi Phi for a day's snorkelling, and stayed.

Up by the reservoir, that I mentioned before - into which hundreds of bodies had been swept - an amazing achievement has been made. What would normally have been performed by heavy machinery has been done by hand, pickaxe, and shovel. The two non-operational reservoirs, after having been cleared of most debris and bodies, had filled with rainwater that had stagnated. Mosquitoes were breeding, and all sorts of nasty stuff was happening, including the danger of typhoid and cholera.

Chris had seen the situation, and had devised a plan to drain them. This involved knocking a hole between the two thick reservoir walls, and yet another one to drain the second reservoir into a stream via a culvert. And so the Reservoir Dogs were born - twenty to thirty hard-core workers who start at 8 every morning and smash rocks and dig in the blazing heat until late afternoon.

Two days ago, I set off to join them. When I said earlier that clearing the shop made me sweat more than I'd ever sweated before, I had no advance idea of what the reservoir would do to me. Unlike the drippy-hippy leadership qualities of other team leaders, Chris is a military man. He barks at people, and gives orders, and tells people to stop talking and get on with it, and it was really refreshing. A concrete road that ran alongside the reservoir had been buried to a depth of two metres with twisted steel girders, concrete bungalow floors, and tonnes and tonnes of compacted sand and mud. The task that day was to dig down to the level of the road and expose the concrete. A new bridge would then be constructed over the stream, and the culvert would run under it, linking the other half of the valley to the main part of the village - at the moment anyone who wants to cross the stream has to do so on a rickety wooden structure.

So we dug and sweated and we dug, and we came immediately up to a huge girder, and a reinforced concrete slab. Removing each took an hour, and then we dug again, the mud smelling of sweet death and rot, and we came up against four more girders and more cement, and the sides of wooden huts. Further hours were spent removing them, and we dug again, and removed wiring and sewage piping and palm trees, and then it was time for lunch at the canteen, of fish-ball curry and rice.

In the afternoon we went back to the task, and about ten minutes in I wimped out with heatstroke. Half an hour in the shade drinking water and fresh lime juice, and I was back to normal, and we carried on until three, when another team leader said we'd better stop or we'd die. We had cleared about ten metres of road. On my grimy, filthy, stinking way home I was stopped by one of the management, who asked me to do more work in the office the next day, so my career as a Reservoir Dog was over as soon as it had begun, but my God I admire those people. Tireless, selfless, and hard as nails, and the tightest and most supportive team I've ever come across.

On the subject of dogs, there aren't many here. Dogs and children are missing from the island - most surviving kids are at school in Krabi, although the family that run the bakery have a full complement of little scamps. One dog is owned by a girl here. Two of the first foreign returnee volunteers went to the worst-hit part of the island on January 1st to see what the situation was, and out of the wreckage came a stumpy beige little dog with a pleasant face, who followed them home and never left their side. They named him 'Vou'. When they left, he was transferred to a permanent resident from England, and he clings to her - one day she went off in a longtail to another beach, and he swam half the way there after her, forcing her to turn the boat around (it being a Muslim boat, dogs are not allowed on board), and he followed her back. Another time she went on a visa run, and Vou sat at the pier and howled for hours.

There's the first dog we met, when we were stuck on Long Beach, a squat grey little fellow - like an Alsatian cut off at the knee - who was referred to as Chicken. The next time we saw him at a different place on Long Beach, he was called Sausage. Next time we saw him was on the other side of the jungle and he was called Yoda. As far as Sausage-Chicken-Yoda is concerned, his territory is the entire island.

Then there's Taz. A black, rat-like dog with the face of Anubis. Taz is a big wimp - the other day a kitten jumped out at him and he ran a mile - but he loves being near people. Whenever there's a gathering of any size, there he is. One day we left our bungalow at 6.50 for the 7pm meeting, and outside the door there was Taz, who marched along in front of us the whole way, occasionally turning to check we were still there and hurry us up. Whether it's the fire show at Hippies, or a barbecue at Sunset Bar on the other side of the peninsula, you can guarantee Taz will be there.

And there are cats. Lots of them. In January a team of Aussie vets came to the island and spayed 278 of them, but there are still large numbers of them. Worryingly, if adorably, there are a few kittens starting to appear. The last thing the reconstruction work needs is hundreds of kitties around, since their numbers would necessarily explode in the absence of human intervention. Starting at the southern end of Ton Sai beach is this hilarious looking guy - a white cat with a black tonsured head, and a little black moustache. He is of course known as Hitler. In the next resort along is a similarly attired cat but with only half a moustache. Half a Hitler must of course be known as Mussolini.

Outside our bungalow we have a coterie of cats, whom we feed occasionally. The first one we met was this very timid, very forlorn looking cat with only one ear. The vets had amputated it due to a malignant tumour, and as a result she is bullied by the other ones. She is called Emily One-Ear, and though she's the ugliest thing I've ever seen, she's very cute. Her defender, and possibly brother, is a brutish looking tom called Scar Tissue, who has been in the wars, but is the most affectionate cat I've ever met. He and Emily have no teeth apart from their incisors, which are so long they look like tusks when they open their mouths.

Finally, we have a cat who has adopted us, and sleeps outside our bungalow every day. A beautiful white, with a striped tail, and the bluest eyes I've ever seen on a living creature, as well as the highest-pitched miaow. We initially called her Blue Eyes, but then one evening we came home and there she was, and M said "Blue Eyes is back", so now she's called Frankie.

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