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