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March 20, 2005

By the seat of my Thai pants

Well, the big plans for the elephant excursion for my Day Off fell through last night when I found a note from Fern in my room saying her family wanted to go up early, and they were sorry they missed me. Guess I'll work on that story another time.

Plan B: Take the bus back down toward Phuket Town, to see the Wat Phra Thong, a Buddha who is half-buried in the ground (those who try to dig him up experience bad luck) and the Heroines Memorial, commemorating a town full of women who dressed up as men so that the approaching army were intimidated to find so many men to fight, and retreated, thereby saving everyone.

Only, I'd just missed the 7am bus by 5 minutes. So after a leeeeeiiisurelly breakfast, I was sure to be ready for the 9:20 when it came by — particularly since I wasn't more than 80% sure it was going where I wanted to be anyway.

At this moment, who do I run into but The Money Man and The Bodyguard, photographing the rubble in front of my hotel. The Bodyguard is in much better shape since the last time I saw him, with bandages on only one appendage instead of three, and in much better humor since being allowed to shower after his Welcome to Thailand Motorbike Wreck.

I showed them around a bit and told them all about the Volunteer Center, which was what had brought them up this way in the first place. They are touring southern Thailand, evaluating projects that may need a piece of a large hunk of donor dollars they have collected from friends. The Money Man, a frequent visitor to Thailand, had just happened to hop on his motorbike to head up the hill out of town for some sightseeing or something. While he was driving, he heard a lot of yelling and screaming. When he stopped finally to see what was going on, he saw the horror beneath him, which in some fluke of fate he had unwittingly escaped. He is compelled to give back in the dramatic way he knows how, and he is the kind of person who does things Big.

Plan C: I sensed that my Phuket bus was barelling down the road as we were at the beach, and since it wasn't a sure thing anyway, I asked to tag along to learn about others in need and see parts of the north I might not have another chance to see. They were happy to fit me in the car, with their driver for the day, Nosh. (By the way, if you keyword search 'maps' in the box to the right, you can call up the map links I posted earlier.)

The rest of the story is important, highlighting Baan Nam Kem and Kura Buri, so please click continue below to read it. Please.

***Our first stop was in Baan Nam Kem, the worst-hit town in the tsunami. They lost 60% of their residents in the waves. Let me spell that out a bit, while you digest it. The small town of a bit over 5,000 people, poor, many fisherman, have counted 3400 dead or missing friends from their village alone. Sixty percent.

The devastaion there is vast, making hard-hit Khao Lak and its slow construction look a lot better off than it did even when I was cleaning the beach on Friday. Cars that rolled around in the waves lay battered in fields. Small pieces, pieces, bits of stuff everywhere. Buildings cracked, sagging, blown out. The people patient, stoic.

"This looks like Disneyland compared to what it was," Moira told us. She was showing us around to spread awareness about her project, and with any luck, The Money Man might be able to help her fisherman friends.

Through various contacts The Money Man had discovered the Tsunami Fishermen Relief Fund, directed by Graeme Killen and Pon Ketkliang. They recently were joined by our host, Moira Hieges, a former English teacher (for medical sciences) in China, among other amazing things.

The TFRF is a relatively small project, which aims to build and rebuild boats for the fishermen of Baan Nam Kem, to get them back to work quickly, so they can support their families. The twist is that these fishermen all are under governmental radar, because they do not have the title to the boat they lost in the waves. The government may be able to grant up to $650 for those who can prove they had a boat. No title, no benefits.

Moira, Pon and Graeme hope to build 20-40 boats with the townspeople, which will be handpicked for benefits. This is a different spin than projects of other groups, some of which attempt to help communities equally. TFRF has fixed seven boats so far, which are back on the water, supporting more than seven families. They had some help from the Volunteer Center building their boat shed (Photos here).

TFRF is working closely with the Fisheries Dept. (in fact the office is nearby), who are happy with the project especially since the government does not have resources to help everyone. The 10m boats cost about $3200 to build from scratch (including tools, which can be reused), not including the motor. It takes four guys three weeks to build each one.

The price of boat building has gone up in Thailand, in a typical supply/demand way — the cost of lumber has more than doubled recently, and one has to be mindful to get "legal" wood. Lumber from Cambodia, Burma, or the local hills is illegal. Lumber from Laos, which may come from badly deforested areas, may be unethical, but still is legal. TFRF currently drives 120km north to Ranong to get their wood at a lumberyard. So the current cost of building the boats may be higher than what you have seen on websites for various projects.

All of the building is done by hand outdoors, with simple tools, and with special care. An electric saw may be one of the more specialized tools used. The group would like to have a toolshed built to store the tools through the rainy season, and are hoping that the Volunteer Center may be able to help — volunteers from here already built a small open-air boathouse with electricity for some of the construction.

If you have an interest in helping Thai fisherman directly, this is a project that does help Thai people to help themselves. I can assure you that the overhead for the group is low to non-existant. Moira's living space is basically the size of a 1.5-car garage with a rollup door. Her furniture is a foam mat on the floor with a mosquito net, a grungy plastic patio table with a few grungy plastic chairs, and a bookshelf made with bricks and filled with old books. She has a laptop that I assume is her own.
But they still have at least 30 boats to go.

(I also highly recommend the Pakarang Boatyard Project, which is even more community-based, but more on that later.)

The Money Man and The Bodyguard were anxious to get to their next appointment, ganged up in a row LA-style, by cell phone. We paused to photograph the large fishing boat beached at an intersection a kilometre from the beach, then headed north again. It is difficult to imagine the force of nature that sent the craft so far inland.

The further we drove, the more local and less touristy the areas became.

In Kura Buri, we met with a small team also working on some local projects in towns that were completely thrashed. Called North Andaman Tsunami Relief (a 501(c)3), this group particularly would like to support the people of Laem Naew, and seven other relatively undisturbed Thai villages. Click here for photos. While some groups specialize in initial emergency aid, and others are prepared to help in the long term, NATR is addressing all three phases, with a special understanding of mid-term needs. A lot of people have worked through the initial shock of the tragedy, but are not yet prepared to focus on their long-term goals. Some may be preparing to move back home from temporary housing — where they will be faced with immediate needs again as they re-build.

NATRis working with eight villages in the area, to "Provide emergency, mid- and long-range assistance to ensure that tsunami victims have access to food education, healthcare and can rebuild and/or diversify their livelihoods."

The group's organizer, who prefers not to be recognized, has lived in Thailand for a few years, and is familiar with the customs of the culture and his neighborhood. It's another great grass roots effort.

During a lovely lunch at the nicest restaurant in Kura Buri, The Money Man discovered he had mislaid his cell phone, and rushed to find it. It never did turn up, and he was too upset to eat lunch, allow anyone to speak to him, or enjoy most of the ride home as a result. He thinks someone nicked it between the car and the office, we didn't cover much more ground than that since he remembered having it last.

The Dynamic Duo, powered by Nosh, were so nice to drop me off at the front door of the Volunteer Center. It was a sad day, seeing all of the work that needs to be done, all of the laborious steps it will take to get people back to their regular lives. I am inspired by the generosity of each of these people helping, doing what little they can to effect great and important change. Each one can't save the world. But if every affected town had a Fisherman's Relief Project, a Volunteer Center, a Tsunami Relief group like the ones I met today, they all could heal with so much extra love and support.

Posted by sedda at March 20, 2005 04:12 PM