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March 15, 2005

Seeing the devastation for the first time

Tik and Shanti came to get us from the airport in Phuket in a minivan rented by two American Tsunami Angels, who purchased her plane ticket for her trip here (Shilpa + I have paid our own way.) We picked them up at a seaside resort suitable for James Bonds’ vacation. They are a great Mutt-and-Jeff duo, one wiry and small, and the other tall and burly. Because Mutt wishes to remain anonymous, I’ll call them The Money Man and The Bodyguard. See, the Money Man, has collected donations from his friends to help out, just as Shilpa, Shanti and I have. Only, in his line of work, his friends have been able to donate more than just a daily latte toward the cause. He is giving an undisclosed sum to individuals and small businesses that has several more zeroes in it than the amounts we have been able to bring over. The Money Man is interested in learning more about the troubles of local business people to issue individual grants so they can rebuild their lives.

The Bodyguard is a friend of Money Man’s, and together they are evaluating the tough situations. We call him The Bodyguard because he seems to be the Money Man’s emotional protector, making sure the donations go to good causes. A few days ago, however, The Bodyguard took a major wreck on a rented motorscooter, and is sporting a serious case of road rash on three out of four appendages. So now the Money Man is bodyguarding the Bodyguard, who visits a local clinic daily to have the dressings changed. On the upside, through the mishap, the Dynamic Duo realized the clinic needed a new UltraSound machine particularly for its women’s health division, and are arranging purchase of one for the community.

The funny part is, that Motorbike Road Rash is so common in Phuket, that strangers address The Bodyguard as though his injury is his name. Each person he meets laughs and points at the white gauze around his legs and arms, calling “Motorbike!” (Hundreds of people are injured on motorbikes in Phuket every year. We’re not going to be renting one this trip.)

The Dynamic Duo had rented the minivan to give us a tour of the areas ravaged by the tsunami, and meet some local people. Many areas are still destroyed, looking dried out and littered with debris. The communities have done a lot of rebuilding, and the fixes come together quickly. Shanti has watched a few buildings progress just since Saturday.

To read more about Tuesday’s adventures, please click continue below.

We worked our way down the coast through the resort towns. In Kamala (pronounced KAHM-uh-laaa), the waves reached two stories tall. We drove past dry vacant lots that used to be the bustling town center. Not knowing what was there before, it’s hard to imagine entire blocks being washed away in a couple of hours.

We passed the Kamala school, now an open landscape. In the distance you can see a large, three-story school building. Two more in front of it were taken out by the wave, and now all that’s left is a dirt field with a few awnings to shade the hot sun.

Almost next door to the school is the monastery. Of the six monks in residence, three survived the wave. Only one of their four walls is fully in tact. Yet, in the open air, the monks are at peace, in spite of the monsoon season approaching within two months. I felt a feeling of hope there, in the midst of such a desperate situation within their community. Their temple was strong, even though it was badly damaged.

Shilpa, particularly, had a difficult time at the monastery. It’s difficult to explain how emotional it was, standing within these walls bound by faith, and looking at a bulletin board filled with pictures of the neighborhood, flooded and ravaged by an act no one could control. Bodies floating in the water. Local businesses washed out. People cut up by millions of shards of glass in the water.

And today, a hot, sunny sky, bulldozers in the background, and incense burning for Buddha as it has every day for thousands of years. It’s very difficult to wrap your brain around.

While we were there we met a 14-year Kamala resident named John Clarke, who is working with a partner to rebuild the temple complex. It’s a 16m baht project ($420,000), and will include separate housing for the monks. The surprising part is that Tik, who is very well-connected to her community, wasn’t aware it was going on. With a lot of the projects, there are many groups participating, but there isn’t always a common thread to link them so they can work in concert.

We passed through Patong, which also lost its school. A very touristy resort town (think Cancun), 200 people were lost in the grocery store alone. It’s an underground grocery, close to the sea. It filled with water, and there wasn’t enough time for everyone inside to get through the two entrances to safety.

Moving on to Kata Beach, where Tik and Neil run Tik’s Place (we are staying in her rooms), we stopped in front of the Club Med, whose grounds clearly were worked over by the 1-story-tall sea. But only on one corner. If you continue along the road, you can see the evergreen landscaped lawns you would expect at a resort.

Across the way, Tik introduced us to Aai (pronounced Aay, like the letter A). He runs a beachside rental business renting snorkels, fins and surfboards. Knowing that his leg is damaged and he doesn’t walk well, friends rushed to get him into a car, and he wasn’t injured in the tsunami. At Kata Beach, some locals could see the wave coming, and ran ran ran to tell people to get to safety. Luckily the flooding was shallow here, maybe 3 feet deep. Between the warnings and the luck of the low waves, the damage in Kata is not great compared to Kamala up the road.

Today Aai is up and running thanks to Tik’s efforts. She had a sturdy plastic sign made to advertise his business (“Beach Rentals - My Joy Your Pleasure”)and she arranged to get him donated gear he could rent out. She found him four free gently used surfboards, but there’s a catch – they don’t have fins. All of you surfer types can understand that this is problematic, especially from a rental business perspective. And he doesn’t have money to buy new ones. Shanti will work to have some donated from the outdoors companies she sources for her articles.

In the meantime, the Money Man and The Bodyguard decided they really wanted to help Aai out. They talked with Tik, and decided to grant him a donation to purchase some more surfboards and rental gear. Which they did, on the spot. Tik will check in with Aai periodically to make sure the money is being spent as promised.

When we came back from lunch, Tik and her assistant Aai (this is a common name in Thailand, I guess) had the contents of our five large donation suitcases spread out across the reception area. Together we made kits for 49 Kamala Kids, each of whom lost a parent in the tsunami. Each kit contained a brand new t-shirt; a pair of shoes donated from Nike, Etnies, or a Silverlake mom named Tnah, some art supplies donated by Fairfax High students + teacher (and knitter) Susan Barth or myself, and a cute snuggly Beanie Baby donated by Susan or two other local donors, and supported by your donations for their travel here. We’ll be giving out the kits tomorrow.

The rest of the beanies will be distributed through the Kamala School. I’ve also put together two Kits for the principal of Kamala School. The head of the upper and lower schools each will receive a Thailand Flag donated by AAA Flag and Banner, a box of 250 pens donated by a Fairfax High teacher, stickers donated by Fairfax High students, and some drawings by 9th Street Elementary School first graders, student to student.

We took a walk to the beach to decompress. Tomorrow will be a big day. The water was cool, and the sand fine. It’s hard to picture that just two months ago the sea came alive and changed this town forever.

Posted by sedda at March 15, 2005 09:49 PM