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February 13, 2006

Tsunami Volunteer projects tour

Tsunami Volunteer Center has made a lot of changes since I left last April. The center was embroiled in the depths of change then, transitioning from tsunami relief and immediate needs into community growth and development for the long term. Many of the volunteers who had been there for months were burned out. Some took leaves. There were changes in managment, office location, policies.

It was a bumpy road for a bit as TVC redefined itself. The group seems stronger and much more organized now. The group moved to an office in "downtown" Khao Lak, and out of the beautiful Khao Lak Nature Resort, which had been so generous for so long in loaning their space without charge. TVC now offers an orientation tour (!) for new volunteers, a more comprehensive welcome pack with info about the community, and the nametags now have photos, which are stored in a database.

I checked out the tour today (they only offer it on Mondays), and a lot of the projects have grown and changed.

A lot of homes have been rebuilt along the main road, Highway 4. Many of them are on stilts. Most are cement.

There are now blue metal signs posted occasionally at corners noting Tsunami Evacuation Route with arrows. I'm sure this makes the government feel better, but I don't think the locals weren't sure where to go when the wave happened. They just didn't know the wave was coming. In Thep Tawaan and in Nam Khem, the landscape afforded residents with powerful walls of water barreling in from both sides of a peninsula. Sign or no sign, there was no where for these people to go.

Tilo put the scale of the wave into perspective: 10-15 meters high (30-45 feet), sometimes moving at 60-80mph, and with the force 1/5 the intensity of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A comprehensive warning system is going to go a lot farther to prevent future trauma than direction signs in a small community where people have lived for generations.

—Dive cleanup is halted for the moment. This is a bit unfortunate, as things keep washing up onto the beach, and one diving volunteer estimates that within 2-3 months, this could be a significant problem on the Khao Lak beaches. Occasionally personal items still wash up, and the TVC does everything in its power to return the item to the family, as it can be a powerful memory of the person who was lost. To do the cleanup, divers use knives to dig under the sand, and pull up whatever they hit. Which is a lot. And most of it is heavy.

As an aside, a mother who had lost her daughter in the wave came to Thailand to close the circle, and grieve. She picked up her daughter's things the police had recovered from her hotel room, which apparently was undamaged. The mother developed the last roll of film, and found photos her daughter had taken of a sweet, limping dog in Khao Lak. Something about the dog made her stop and make his photo; he meant something to her.

The mother showed the photos to Scott, the boatyard manager. When he saw the photo of the dog, he quickly turned, and called: Lucky! The gentle dog her daughter had noticed was well-known in town, and is now the boatyard mascot. Her mother burst into tears at the connection, at the spirit of life as she grasped for anything meaningful about her daughter's vacation that had gone so wrong.

Stories like these pop up throughout the day, they are intermingled with the work, the travel, the knots of languages that are hard to follow.

But back to the tour.

—Thep Tawaan, the housing project where I helped paint houses, was in the middle of its second group of buildings when I left, and now is building kitchens for a third set of buildings that were built by another group. These buildings met the immediate need for shelter, but are a bit small for long-term family use, so the thought was an add-on kitchen will give more space. Andy (a different Andy), who runs the project, insists that it would be a good week for me to learn brick laying. I told him I'd get back to him on that.

Tilo, who managed Thep Tawaan II, is still around, managing things in the office. Also Lisa, who used to run the Thaikea project, is back again for a long-term fundraising stint. I think by the end of tonight I'll have run into more than 10 familiar faces, which is a lot more than I expected. As Lisa remarked, "This is a four-star volunteering experience." As in, it's no wonder people stick around, what's not to like?

—In Ban Nam Khem, where Moira ran a boatbuilding project last year with a small NGO, the community has constructed a Tsunami Memorial Park.

—The craft shop selling survivor-made crafts such as batiks, t-shirts, woven items and baskets, has moved several blocks away, but remains essentially the same.

—Thaikea furniture building has used up all of the extra coffin wood and now builds furniture out of plywood (which costs the same as at home) and out of scraps from the boatyard. However, the project now requires that the homeowner assist in or build his or her own furniture, rather than receiving it as a gift. The effort helps the survivor feel accomplishment in working to start anew in his or her life. Also the furniture is no longer painted, as the expense became too great, so the homeowner is left to choose painting or varnish at his or her own expense.

—There is an Environmental Restoration project that was just getting off the ground when I left, it has planted hundreds of trees to replace lost palms and vegitation.

There's more, of course, but it's too much to list. I should be clear that TVC's mission is Thai-sponsored and Thai-inclusive, and strives not to be a "Santa" operation. The idea is to help Thai people rebuild on terms they understand and will support after volunteers have gone home.

(Abrupt subject change) We're in our third day of afternoon heavy rains. The season is looking early this year! I saw the dark clouds in the sky and made it to the internet cafe before the rain started today. If this keeps up, I'm not sure I'm going to be so lucky every day!

Posted by sedda at February 13, 2006 04:37 PM