Blessed to be a witness

Saturday, 30th July

Leaving Phi Phi

Little did I suspect, at our first volunteer meeting chaired by the charismatic Dougie, feeling somewhat overawed by the whole scene, that three months later I'd be chairing the same meeting, but so it happened. Since I'd been doing the tour, the coordinator Trudy knew I could speak in public, so I was commandeered. Armed with megaphone, I stood up in front of the hundred-or-so people who had turned up (I don't know how the numbers suddenly swelled from the twenty-odd on our first night back), and attempted to fire them up for the small amount of voluntary work left. I think I acquitted myself OK - there was laughter and applause, but I felt it was somewhat chaotic. The next night I did much better, I think. Then I stopped as soon as I'd begun. The BBC were filming on the third night, so it was probably a good thing: Sandra, the volunteer nurse, did much better than I would have, especially with the cameras and lights in her face.

The amount of tourists on Phi Phi now is staggering, and it's now difficult to find accommodation - and this is low season. The government finally turned up and picked up the stinking mountain of crap on the beach that had been dragged out of the bay (maybe thirty tons of rubble, including a grand piano) since before we arrived in May. The first private building project is going up, and even though it is on a swamp, it's good to see.

Although I didn't get a dive in, we did do something we'd always meant to do - walk up to 'Viewpoint', a hill 186 metres above Tonsai, with a staggering view of the isthmus. It was from here that one couple took these dramatic photographs of the tsunami coming in and wiping out the village, killing more than 2,000 people in five minutes.

One misgiving I have is that, as one of the other long-termers said, we might have "rebuilt a monster", with the 'wrong' kind of tourist arriving. I hope that the redevelopment of the island is done sensitively, but I suspect it won't be. And the tsunami scare also made me wonder if we were doing the right thing, rebuilding a town that is so vulnerable. I suspect if one happened again, there would be zero casualties - at least not to those who want to live; some survivors have been known to stand on the water's edge whenever a warning sounds - especially if they sort out the warning system, which at the moment is useless. They tested the sirens again, two nights after they were used in earnest, and in a survey I took at the meeting, a mere 6% of people heard them. Another concern - and this applies to the whole at-risk tsunami zone - is whether it's a good idea to be resettling people in such a vulnerable area. The tsunami scare of Sunday showed that everyone would be able to get to high ground in time, but I worry if anything should happen in the wee small hours.

Leaving Phi Phi was a lot easier this time. We spent the last few days doing a small amount of work in the office, eating the food we'd missed, and visiting the people we'd missed. A gang of the last remaining long-termers waved us off at the pier, and we waved back, dry-eyed this time, knowing not only that we'd be back, but that Phi Phi was going to be OK. I likened it to having been at the hospital bed of a friend who is desperately ill, only to revisit later and find they're well on the road to recovery.

We got the boat to Phuket city, stayed overnight, inadvertantly having booked ourselves into the fanciest hotel in the city, which would have been nice if we'd have been there long enough to enjoy it, but we instead got up stupidly early the next day and got to the airport in time for a connecting flight to Singapore. I realised to my amusement that this flight, with Tiger Air, was now the ninth unscheduled flight of our journey: hooray for low-cost airlines. At Singapore we stayed within the confines of Changi airport for ten hours. Being stuck in an airport isn't a great prospect, but Changi is different. We used the free internet, I watched a free movie in the little cinema; M went for a sleep in a 'nap room', and before we knew it it was boarding time. The flight, on Singapore Airlines, was rather less spectacularly luxurious as I'd been led to believe, and we slept only fitfully. It left just after midnight, and arrived in Brisbane at about 9 local time.

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