Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Rest Is Jungle

The Rest Is Jungle

Despite our everyday use of of the footpath to our bungalow on the edge of the jungle, the vines continue to advance on the walkway and the bungalow itself, threatening to consume it if not assiduously maintained.

On the way up here from Phuket, we identified the trees we knew. 'There's rubber, and coconut, and pineapple, and magnolia. Bamboo.'

"What's that?" I asked our driver, pointing out at the mass of green and vines.

"Jungle," he said. "The rest is jungle."

Hot, steamy jungle, sucking up the water after a rain and immediately returning to oppresive heat. It seems to have settled down at night, cooling off to allow us sleep, and the creatures out there seemingly more quiet. Only the ghosts are roaming.

The Thai won't swim because they believe all those ghosts out there, in their confused desire for company, will pull them out to sea. They won't eat the shellfish, either, believing that they've been feeding upon the flesh of the dead.

So many posters still up of the missing. So many matter-of-fact stories of lost family members and uncounted Burmese. At times it seems as if we're all PTSD counselors. There's nothing to say, no advice to offer, not even a tear. Just to sit with them in their space. They say they can't sleep.

Two of seven, Voy said, astride his motorcycle, on his way to Phuket to identify the bodies, he said. Two of seven family members had been recovered. Michael, too. A Swiss man who lived here running a restaurant for fifteen years. His Thai wife wasn't the person they found, it turned out, he said, after a day trip to Phuket to examine photos, clothing, and dental records.

Housing projects going on up and down the road. The Germans are impressive, going at their 40 home project, with villagers now living in the completed homes in Thap Tuan. Under a tin roof boat shed in Bang Niang, a production line of six long tail fishing boats are being turned out by Thai carpenters.

Our boathouse project at Cape Pakarang continues with Muslim Burmese boat builders working alongside us, laughing and telling man jokes and what that bitter green leaf they chew will do for you. They tease Aeer, who has two wives who don't let him get any sleep at night, and were as concerned as Scott about the overnight theft of some of our tools from the wooden tool shed, sprung open at the lock with a pry bar, and replaced now with a large metal cabinet that a Thai welder modified on site, today causing a burn on Kon's foot after he stepped barefoot on a red hot scrap of reinforcement iron. Flip flops are bad enough on a construction site, but barefoot is really asking for it.

Four nights a week I continue with individualized tag team English lessons for a bright and enthusiastic nephew Op, along with the translator help of his uncle Pon and the encouragement of his parents, whose restaurant he helps run, sitting around an outdoor table with a coke and his relatives and other interested parties who come and sit, mostly quietly, but sometimes offering an explanation or clarification in Thai.

It's fun to hear him hesitantly work out useful, everyday phrases like, "" to which Digger suggested adding when I told him, "hab you got a probrem?"

"Tell him he'll always get a reaction from people," laughed Digger, who has a 14 student English class of his own up in Nam Kaem through the Mercy foundation that he co-teaches with Melanie from England.

Special emphasis on 'h', 'l', 'r', 's', and 'x' for nephew Op.

They can't say 'David' or 'Vic'. Digger is 'Davis', and I'm 'Wick'. We'll repeat our names, and they'll say it the same way. Davis. Wick.

Emphasis is always on the last syllable when speaking English. That's 'Mon-KEE', 'Lay-DEE,' 'Ti-GER', and 'soona-MEE'.

The word is the same in Engish, Japanese, or Thai. Same same meaning. Big Wave.

They're selling the Tsunami CD in the shops here now, taken from an amatuer's vantage point atop a scenic overlook of Khao Lak, and where his girlfriend screamed in vain at the unfortunate tourists walking in wonder out among the uncovered seabed as the wave rolled in, "RUN! RUN! NOW! QUICK!"

Some of the people said it was sick, but I bought a copy.

The sun is finally headed toward the horizon, casting reddish rays through the sliding glass doors of the low speed internet cafe. Going to head over to the beach to watch it drop into the sea.

- end

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Monday, April 25, 2005

Timid Taiwanese, Treacherous Timber & Thai Tattoos

Timid Taiwanese, Treacherous Timbers & Thai Tattoos

Arriving at the boat house project site around ten o'clock in two oversized, double-decker, scenic-liner, air-conditioned tour buses and wearing their blue and white school uniforms, seventy Taiwanese schoolgirls showed up for volunteer work, took photos, and hung out in small groups in the shade of coconut palms until their permanent departure shortly after lunch.

They all seemed terribly frightened of conversation or something else, and clearly didn't appear dressed for work at a construction site, with their tall white socks and all. Our project manager, Scott, had them scour the surrounding grounds, gathering coconuts, downed deadened palm fronds and tsunami trash into several large piles.

We supposed they wanted to say they took part in the relief effort. Like everyone else on this site, other projects, and the planet, they were here, and then they were gone.


We were wishing we'd been wearing hard hats and more than flip flops on the project when that 400 lb. 2x8 coconut catwalk plank that Gee, from France, and I were transfering between overhead trusses, balanced on two pieces of scrap 2x4s, came crashing down in spectacular fashion, splitting open my scalp and causing the crew to finally turn down the Simon and Garfunkle on the portable boom box and momentarily shut down the power tools.

I remember Gee saying, "It's too short," as we had both ends in the air, a fatal error in our estimation of the distance between the support beams.

"That's quite an eggshell," said Gita, the fourth-year pre-med student from California, inspecting the laceration and swelling above my right ear.

"Don't you mean, 'goose egg'? I asked.

Blood excites people. Sitting there in a blood-soaked T-shirt and looking at the awe in their expressions, I remembered my reaction to the first sight of real blood in Vietnam that gave rise to my sense of doing my job as a medic if I could get it stopped.

A few of my co-workers said I should probably have my head examined, but since I've heard that phrase before, I ignored it and returned to the rafters after lunch to continue another course of roof tiles.


I'm not the only one to have taken a hit. One of the girls fell from her bungalow balcony and broke her back. Another girl who they said 'was asking for it,' broke her collar bone in a motorbike accident. Three others were injured after a drunken spilling of the motorcycle they were riding had gone a mere ten yards.

A number of volunteers are walking around with gauze bandages on a variety of injuries, the most common being the 'Thai Tattoo' muffler burn sported on the inside calf of the right leg, including Digger, whose half-dollar-sized wound is almost closed and healed, a challenge in this spongy tropical heat that lends to open sores and infection.

Aside from the bike accidents, the injuries sustained on the job may be a direct result of a number of us, if not the majority, performing tasks we are unqualified to do. We sat listening to an intoxicated man from Australia complain bitterly that his highly skilled and over-qualified 12-man construction crew was spending their week digging holes the Thai could have dug.

Somewhere between the fifth and six re-telling of his story, I interrupted by telling him, "Yeah. I used to be a tightrope walker, and they've got me working on the ground!"

Then there was the 'face-plant', according to Tilo, of the sweet little thing from Sweden, following her motorbike accident that left a huge scab on her chin, two vertical scars down both sides of her jaw, and the emergency removal of several teeth, they said, that will no doubt appall her parents and permanently serve as record of her trip to Thailand.

"Team Sweden took a big hit," said Tilo, a laid-back site director from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Eileen's injuries were of a different nature. A 40 year-old woman from Scotland, she suffered three broken bones in her arm following her pouring a beer over my head at a barbeque dinner prepared by our Thai hosts who own the resort at which the volunteer center is headquartered, and attacking Andy with a beer bottle after he brought to her attention his observation that her act was 'a terribly rude thing to do', whereupon after falling in her pursuit of Andy, she overturned the table of our Thai hosts, and in her attempt to regain her feet, alledgedly overturned the brick barbeque grille before the police were called to remove her from the premises. Word was, she was deported from the country upon her release from the hospital in Phuket.

No one is exactly sure how she suffered three compound fractures of her arm, but many people surmised that it very well could have occurred at the hands of the Thai police, as several of us had previous knowledge of her belligerant and hostile nature.

With the beer-pouring effecting my immediate departure for the evening, I received the news first-hand, relatively from the horse's mouth, with it being related by Andy, a black man from England with a keen sense of propriety. I was repeatedly told by many people that she hated Americans in particular, pretty blond Canadians, and Aussies and Brits and the rest of the world in general.

Earlier that evening she had proudly told me that her father was a toolmaker, one of the best in Scotland, to which I had replied, "That doesn't mean you know how to use them. My father was a barber, but that doesn't mean I know how to cut hair."

Maybe it was that comment, or maybe the whiskey that set her off. I heard that they make a pretty good whiskey in Scotland, but that doesn't mean they know how to hold it.


Now Survivors Die

The cement truck was a reminder of the rules of the road. You can swing out into an occupied oncoming lane, as long as you signal your intentions, not like the car that clipped the cyclist out in front of the road that leads to our bungalow. The next day, you would never have known a fatality had occured there.

The family held a week-long wake, feeding family, friends, and everyone who came by under tables and chairs set under a number of tents. I didn't know him, but they made me sit and eat.

- end

Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Sometimes Dream

A Sometimes Dream

Sometimes we experience a dream that leaves our heart content and spirit at peace, a smile across our lips.

Then we awaken to the real 3-D world.

- end

Saturday, April 23, 2005

How Much For Two?

How Much For Two?

"How much is this?"

"Three hundred fifty baht."


"Three hundred fifty baht."

"What if I buy two?"

"Seven hundred baht."


"Seven hundred baht."


"Seven hundred baht."


"You say me." (offers a calculator)

"Five hundred baht."

(laughs) "Ohhhh. Ho ho ho. Cannot! No can do. Six hundred baht."


"Six hundred baht."


"Okay. I sell you five hundred fifty baht."

- end

Friday, April 15, 2005

Time Is My Medicine

Time Is My Medicine

We live in on the other side of the mountain. Every day, we ride up to the Tsunami Relief Volunteer Center, situated in the Khao Lak Lamru Nature Preserve, then back down the other side of the mountain into Khao Lak town and its strip of resorts, tourist-oriented shops, bars, ret-ta-rahns, and this internet cafe.

Beyond here, we all go to our respective project sites, the furthest being a good half-hour, forty minute ride away. Those who aren't driving motorbikes are hitchhiking, an easy task from the Center or anywhere up an down the stretch of disaster. People are neither afraid to pick up strangers or take a ride. You'll see dozens of 'Falang' in the back of small trucks, going to and from their projects. Everyone here is helpful in getting you where you need to go. Two minutes at the roadside is a long wait.

There are five or six ATMs along the Khao Lak strip, but north or south of here, you won't see a bank for miles, not since Phuket to the south, or Ranong, Myanmar, to the north 150 k. Here in Khao Lak, all the Thai speak easy English, but just south where we live, no one speaks a lick of English. After being here a while, I soon understood how over a thousand Swedes could die in Khao Lak the day after Christmas.

One of them was posting a notice yesterday of his still-missing son, a little boy of about three or four. The posters are all around town. Missing children, husbands, and wives. You'll see foreign survivors wandering around, having gone home, then returned, looking for the bodies of their loved ones.

"I was hoping for a miracle," said one. "Hoping I'd see him come walking through the door."

A lady and her son from Germany were here for the 100 Day Celebration, telling us that her missing husband loved Thailand, and would appreciate the memorial they made for him at a nearby temple. She said she last saw him as they walked along the beach when the wave came, and would not go near the water again, but later, she and her son were at the water, placing a flower in a coconut at the water's edge, along with the hundreds of other offerings to the sea and the dead.

The new girl from Germany said she came here with her friend who lost both her parents, then decided to stay on here for a couple of more weeks to join the volunteer effort.

At his dinner table last week where he hosted of number of us on the boathouse crew, Mr. 'K' told us of how he searched for days for his son, finally found him among the dead at the temple, along with three other family members, gave a DNA sample, then fed all the people at the temple, as he was then feeding us...giant platters of fish brought from the kitchen by his wife and daughter. Rice, Singha beers all night, and another huge platter of fresh fruit. Somewhere along the way, during the course of conversation, he told us with the utmost sincerity he thanked us for coming.

Yesterday at the boathouse project, a well-dressed Thai lady from Bangkok was there asking about where she could go and what she could do to help. She was astonished to learn that we were working for free.

"You people came from all over the world to help us?" she asked. "You're working for free?"

"Yes," replied Miriam, from Belgium.

The woman began crying, and took Miriam's hand in both of hers, thanking her profusely, over and over in Thai and English.

"Kob Kun Ka, Kob Kun Ka," she said. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

So, I guess we're getting paid after all. Shortly after our arrival in the country, in the lobby of the hotel in Bangkok, one of the women working there asked why we were there. She too, took my hand in both of hers and thanked us for coming to help the Thai people, tears welling in her eyes.

"Digger," I said. "I just got paid. Now we've got to go do the work."

Last night, where there was a going-away party for one of the fellows working in the wood shop, a Swede spoke of how just being here and listening to their stories was helpful.

Kong, joyfully working alongside us at the fisherman's boathouse project, whenever he sees me, will recite the phrase I've taught him.

"Whass hah-pen-ning, Man?"

Then he'll answer his own question. "Noht mush."

Each morning, he is the first person on site, playing his bamboo flute in solitude in a haunting serenade to the sea. Kong calls me 'Doc-tah'. I asked him why, but somehow his response was lost in the translation, or lack thereof.

"Can you heal a broken heart?" he asked.

"Yeah," I told him, laughing. "Doc-tah of love."

He laughed, and then grew momentarily serious. "Time," he said. "Time is my medicine."

- end

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Godzilla At The Door

Godzilla At The Door

I heard him coming, far off in the jungle, his throaty expulsions resonating through the night like a ten-pound rubber mallet on a tin shed roof; 'Bam Bam. Bam Bam Bam. '

'Bam Bam. Bam Bam Bam.'

As the sound drew closer, his voice became more distinct among all the other pitches and rhythyms of the night jungle until all became silent and his alone was the only sound. Bam Bam. Bam Bam Bam.

The stories I'd heard of giant lizards only heightened my wonder of how such a sound could be produced in such volume and such rapid succession, and also, slight concern of the creature's size as the sound grew still closer. It sounded like he was just on the other ssside of the pppond. BAM BAM. BAM BAM BAM!

I thought maybe he had emerged from the jungle to get a drink, until I heard him coming around the pond, drawing nearer to our bungalow. Between his vocalizations, I could hear his crashing through the jungle brush, and the crush of branches under his footsteps. I deeply regretted standing out on the porch the other night, loudly imitating his call. 'Bam Bam.' Pause. 'Bam Bam Bam.'

"That's pretty good," Digger had said at the time. "Sounds almost just like him."

Now, here it was, up on our deck, and I wondered if those kind were meat eaters, or if he merely wanted the Pringles. I was afraid to sneak a peek out the window, much less to unlatch the door for a token offering. We could smell him.

"Give it something!" said Digger. "Give it something! He knows we're in here."

- end

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The People Are Afraid

Our bungalow sits north of the small village of Lam Kaen on the edge of the jungle with a small pond on one side, and on the other, a small pond. There, the frogs and insects party intermittantly throughout the night, offering little rest.

A lizard about the size of a volkswagon hammers away with his song, or whatever you'd call it...'Bam Bam...Bam Bam Bam...Bam Bam Bam,' and I imagine his bulging throat making that sound, as I sit sleepless on the edge of the bed, chain-smoking cigarettes, eyes on the doorknob, awaiting his crashing through the door to devour us in a real-life scenario of a horrific Japanese Godzilla nightmare.

He must be huge. Kirrin, from Scotland, said he saw him while on his motorbike...about the size of your bed, not counting the tail, he said.

One of his relatives lay flattened as road kill, taking up most of one lane, and I wondered what must have happened to the car.

Flip-flop sandals, and no helmet at 90 kph on a motorbike. They say Thailand has the most traffic fatalities of any country in the world, and it's no wonder. The people will shoot out from behind whomever they're following in the oncoming lane, flashing their lights to let you know if you don't take to the shoulder, you'll end up in their grille.

It's maddening and terrifying the first few times, then you become accustomed to seeing someone whip out around slower traffic, right at you. Once, I saw a sign that said 'Keep Left'. No shit. That's not just for cyclists. That's for everybody on wheels.

Swinging out around a slow-moving log truck on a bridge, I passed him just as a pickup truck swung out around a cyclist. Four of us sharing two lanes. I thought our mirrors might hit, but we both stayed 'on a line', and I must say the experience was exhilarating, although it left a residual tension in my neck and shoulders that yoga nor Thai massage couldn't dissolve. The people are so polite to flash their lights in warning. How kind.

Homeless people still telling horror stories of how they became refugees after losing their homes and businesses.

At the work site of his new home, where he is setting 36 four by four ft. holes full of concrete for the foundation in anticipation of 'the next tsunami', Mr. 'K', who lived on the beach at Cape Pakarang and lost his son, father-in-law, sister-in-law, tailor shop, and home, said to me what I'd heard others say; 'The people are afraid. The people are afraid of the sea."

It would be stupid, even after this passed time, to ask why, wouldn't it?

Today, as we put away the tools at the end of the day, I ask Kong, 'Why you no swim?

"I am afraid," he said. "I am afraid of the wa-tah."


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

One Shoe Everywhere

One Shoe Everywhere

Correctons: That's 'Nam Kaem'. The village. I think I've finally gotten it right. And, 'resilience'.

This place, the Volunteer Center, is like a ghost town following the 100 Days celebration. Many people have returned home, but the projects continue, with new people arriving each day. But our numbers are down.

At this point, Digger and I have become long-timers, almost, some people now speaking who'd ignored me in the weeks before.

The 100 Days Memorial Celebration took place, with the governor of Phang Gna province, singers, dancers, a couple hundred monks, and thousands of people gathering under and around the large tent covered area in front of the beached police boat that serves both as a landmark and a memorial to the Tsunami and the hundreds of people it killed when it was swept through the village of Bang Niang to the edge of the jungle, about one kilometer inland.

Thousands of balloons were released, the people were all fed for free, the monks chanted, the Christians read a prayer, and the Muslims also offered prayers in a blistering 100 degree tropical

Booths and vendors were all around, from the road to the beach, with arts and crafts from the villagers for sale. Music at night on a big stage on the beach, lit by hundreds of torches planted in the sand.

Managed to meet Surin Seangsoung, the artist from Pruteow refugee camp whose pictures I had purchased earlier, and who lost his wife in the wave. As I was digging through my pockets to offer him a donation, he produced two more paintings that he gave to me, insisting I sit down and have a drink of beer there with him on his mat where he was working in pen, magic marker, and water colors.

Unable to speak English, he told me the story of the wave, pointing at his pictures, showing me where he and his wife first began running, where he grabbed her around the waist, and where they were separated.

On his picture, he has the inscription, "I love my wife and miss her forever."

He looked at me and with an index finger, traced a tear from his eye, down his cheek. Among all the Thai who seem unaffected on the surface, Surin is noticably saddened by his loss.


I'd gone down to the beach for the 'Sea Gypsy' releasing of the spirits ceremony as part of the 100 Day memorial. Roi Loy, or something like that. Hundreds of Thai and foreigners 'Falang', took coconuts with flowers down to the water's edge, where the tide swept them out to sea.

Much to my surprise, I got enlisted as one of a dozen swimmers to take three small boats, 'Spirit', 'Hope', and 'Renewal', brightly decorated with tinsel and such, mounted on bamboo rafts and filled with prayers and money offerings, a half-mile out to sea.

Three old grandmas sang a ceremonial song through about 164 verses under a blazing sun while we all stood there, a magnificent photo op for the many cameras and Thai news. Did you see me? I was on 'Renewal's' crew.


Went up to Cape Pakarang, up near where we're building the boat house, to check it out. Seems like nothing is happening up there, with only the bodies removed. No projects, no clean up, no volunteer help.

Total devastation at the 'Blue Village' resort. The first two rows of bungalow swept off their foundations. Bombshell skeletons of all else standing. Everything inside is strewn across the ground and into the surrounding jungle. The pall of death hangs over the area, and what the Thai say about the ghosts of the dead seems to come alive in the quiet broken only by the pounding of the surf.

Everywhere, one shoe. A sandal, a flip-flop, a child's shoe. More damage everywhere. Astounding force just here at the cape, sticking out prominently on the maps. A fisherman's village where they go for squid. A leather German or Swiss sandal on the beach, a pink high heel of a Thai waitress alongside the road, a tennis shoe, the kind worn by a German tourist, in the rubble of the bungalows. An Italian sandal.

Up the road, a complete altar blown off its concrete foundation, but right beside it, a Bhudda still remarkably standing atop a fragile pillar, apparently untouched, blissfully unresistant to the water.

In one of the main buildings, a relief of an untouched Bhudda on a wall smiles on the surrounding complete ruin.

A quiet walk down the beach. There is no film left for the camera, and I am happy to stop shooting photographs. Another one sandal, another one flip-flop, another one hiker's boot. Who would want this story, these photos? A quiet walk down the beach, looking for what?...maybe a piece of coral in the perfect shape of a heart.

- end

Friday, April 01, 2005

100 Days

Khao Lak -

Hi Folks,

Hope you're all well. Switched jobs, from 1st day carpenter, making tables for schools and refugee camps out of particle board coffin wood that was donated from the monasteries, then English teacher for a group of kids up north 40 k. at the village of Takuapa. Surrendering that job to younger volunteers, I joined a construction crew at the 'boat yard' on Pakarang Cape, building a Thai style cathedral that will accommodate six boats and serve to rebuild the local fleet.

Digger went from the boat yard crew to a youth summer camp that he is still involved with, talking about staying on for six months in one capactiy or another.

There are about 20 bungalows here at the center, and a view of the ocean from atop the hill here where the view is magnificent. It's been raining every evening at least once. Light rain, the jungle takes a big gulp, then everything returns to steamy hot.

Found out that instead of sneaking into the five star resort near here to swim, we can waltz through the lobby like we own the place, given permission to all volunteers by the manager for use of the gym and pools (6, with waterfalls and interconnecting canals).

Tomorrow begins the three-day '100 Days' celebration with dignitaries, a parade, a big prayer ceremony (for releasing of the spirits, ending grieving, and continuing on with life), and all kinds of events going on, with people from all over the country coming down. Tours through all the project sites and whatnot; arts and crafts; a big deal. So, we get to attend and not have to work. People all over treat us really good, sort of like they did the medics in Vietnam. A lot of care, love, and joy floating around.

You don't hear angry talk anywhere. People don't raise their voices, and everyone is formally polite in their greeting of one another. Some of the meanest, serious-looking dudes, when given a smile and a nod, will bust out in a big-ass smile, as do all the Thai in general.

Those volunteers who are headed home are all saying they hate to leave, with many planning to go just after the 100 Days celebration. Many have said they're going home to make some more money, then return. Some have said they'll make presentations and try to raise project funding.

Yesterday, a minister from somewhere appeared on our site and wrote out a check for 4,000 pounds, they said. That might explain the new power tools today, as we put on the first four courses of tile roofing on the boat house.

Our project crew, headed by an engineer in his 30s from S. Carolina, includes an injury-prone Pole, an absolutely mad but talented Aussie, a Brit, a lady from Alaska, a Finnish couple, another Aussie, and Voy, Kong, and Kon. And Nid ('Need'), a travel agent lady from Phuket who seems to facilitate all our needs and serve as translater. I'm not really sure what she does, popping in and out.

The heat is unbearable, and by midday we're all filthy and soaked with perspiration. You'd think with the sea right there, 20 yards away, that we'd swim every day, but we don't. I'm about the only one. Not really a swim so much as a dunk and cool down.

Somebody's got bucks and pops for lunch every day out on the main artery road at a traditional Thai restaurant. This area (Khao Lak) appeared to be upscale before the Wave, kind of like Sea Island, GA or Aspen, with really nice resorts for Germans and Swedes, and lower rent places for backpackers and Americans...not that Americans can't stay in the nice places...

Further up the way are the fishing villages and smaller remote places that are less touristy. There are refugee camps all up and down the coast with volunteer programs operating in them, and large encampments of Thai National Army here and there.

Many of the vols were already touring around Asia, but many others, such as the Finnish couple, had been coming here for years and had friends here, and came specifically for the relief effort.

I haven't been into any of the orphanages yet, but I've met a couple of little kids who lost their parents. There's a phrase used around here by the Thai, and they sort of use it jokingly. It sounds kind of strange and funny rolling off an Asian tongue.

"Oh, my God!"

Up at the wiped-out village of Nam Kem (It's 'Kem', and not 'Khaem'), one of the fishermen yelled out to Marilyn, who was there to paint 'Impalas', 'Poudre High School' (the funders) on one the long-tail fishing boats, "Oh, MY COD!"