Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thailand Beckons

Before departing on this trip, I'd mentioned a contact of mine who was traveling along a similar path. Working in Sydney for several months, he then went on to travel most of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and now Thailand. He sends weekly emails (he's on Week 20) and I thought I'd share his latest from Thailand, found below. Mary will undoubtedly laugh, as I've been wavering so much with different ideas and so many places in mind to travel -- I'm sure I'm driving her nuts. But this latest email; I dunno, the desire to experience this place just hits me harder, this evening.

Location: Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Standing on the beach of Koh Phi Phi in the gulf of Thailand, it
almost seems unimaginable that Mother Nature would attempt to destroy
something so beautiful. Almost three months after the tsunami hit,
there we were walking through streets with lined with rubble and
destroyed buildings, and we were ready to help out.

In what may be one of the better things I have witnessed in my life,
volunteers numbering close to one hundred wake up on this island every
day and, instead of drinking buckets of booze and lying on the beach
all day, they pick up gloves and shovels and do their part to help.
The volunteers are a diverse group. There are backpackers from around
the world who decided to stop and help out, whether it be for an hour
or a day or a two weeks. There are locals, people who were on the
island when the giant wave ripped through, and have lost close to
everything, from stores to merchandise to their homes. There are
people who have quit their jobs or taken a semester off from school
and have been volunteering for upwards of ten weeks, spending their
time and money at no personal benefit to themselves. And the one
thing they all have in common is the incredible good heartedness to
want to come out and simply help.

Phi Phi is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been
to. Even through the debris that has not been cleared away, you can
still see the natural beauty all over. The water is a beautiful
turquoise, there are palm trees everywhere, and you are surrounded by
mountains rising straight out of the sea. Let it be known that, even
though the rebuilding effort is only still in its initial phases, the
island is open and ready for business. There has never been a better
time to be there, and with the island operating at maybe 10% capacity,
it is even better.

We planned on staying on Phi Phi for two, maybe three days. Then it
was five. Then it was ten. We ended up cancelling the Hong Kong and
Taiwan portion of our trip and maybe it an even two weeks of
volunteering. A high majority of the volunteers who have been there
for a while found themselves in the same situation, changing plane
flights, leaving off other parts of their trip, or simply saying they
had nothing pressing to get back to at home.

Help International (HI), Phi Phi is the organization that has been on
Phi Phi since almost the beginning. They coordinate the efforts of
fifty to one hundred volunteers each day, getting people involved with
debris clearing, painting, demolition, carpentry, and just about
anything else you can think of. The efforts are absolutely
incredible, and its really just great working with people from all
over the world. Hands On Thailand is another volunteer organization
which recently joined forces with HI Phi Phi, and they hope to bring
in a management that can help make everything run smoothly. I
personally saw the end result Hands On's efforts in Bang Tao, a town
which was leveled on Phuket, and on March 26 they had plans for the
grand reopening of the town, just three months after the tsunami.

Unfortunately, there always has to be a downside to a situation like
this. Remember all that money that was donated in good faith by the
countries of the world? Not a single penny has been seen on the
island. I have this straight from the heads of the volunteer
organizations here. Not one penny of the billions pledged. All the
money that has been used here has come from the people. The tourism
each day is just enough to keep the bungalows and villas open. The
majority of the money brought in each day comes from the volunteers
themselves, spending their money on accommodations, food, drinks, and
fundraisers. Absolutely brilliant groups of Christians representing
churches from all over the US have brought in thousands of donated
dollars with the sole intention of helping to purchase the supplies
and materials necessary to clean and rebuild the island.

So, where is all the money donated? I really cannot say for sure. I
know there has been money used by the Thai government in more
populated tourist areas like Patong on Phuket island. But on Phi Phi,
instead of the government working to bring back the 700 or so
residents of the island who survived the tsunami and are now living on
the mainland in camps until they get home, the government sees only
business opportunity and is trying to take over the island through new
five star resorts. They want to buy out all the big landowners, which
would force all the poor people to give up their homes. I have spoken
with representatives of the volunteer organizations who have spoken
with the locals, and the majority of them have already refused offers
of ten times the value of their property, simply saying they are
island people and want to return to their home. They are willing to
get arrested and face harsh times from the ever-increasing support in
the government against their return. The government, only seeing
dollar signs in the huge income the resorts would create on the
island, continue to stall negotiations and recovery efforts in the
hopes of taking away these people's hope and breaking them down.

And it is a horrible shame too. The Thai people I spent time with
over the past two weeks were some of the nicest people I have met, and
even after all their turmoil, they put a smile on their face, open
their restaurant or stand each day, and just try to make a living
while only the volunteers who have shown up to do something help them
each day. The worst part will come if the negotiations and efforts to
get the locals back on to the island fail, and all the rebuilding and
efforts from the volunteers goes to nothing when the government comes
in clears out everything that is in their way.

For more information on volunteering, making donations, or simply to
see what is going on with the groups helping on Phi Phi as well as in
other parts of Thailand, you can visit the sites:
http://www.handsonthailand.org/ and
http://www.hiphiphi.com/

-Smitty

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Pulling the Hair Out, Rolling the Sleeves Up

I've been patient -- with these curiously irritating bed bug bites, with my extra, unwanted shifts at work, and with Blogger and its inability to post my pictures -- but I'm at rope's end, here.

If I itch, these thirty or forty bites will never leave and I'll get an infection. If I worked less, I may not get the kickback trip I'm hoping for. If I could contact Blogger without it costing me a bundle, just to figure out what the problem is, I would. But none of these are suitable options.

My alternatives?

Calomine showers, a good heart-to-heart, and Yahoo! for photo hosting (here they are, as promised, though the quality leaves something to be desired.). Fortunately, Chris put his pictures up from their visit, found here.

I'm going to cool off.