Monday, February 14, 2005

News from Erin in Thailand

Hope she doesn't mind, but I thought her email was fascinating so I decided to broadcast it to the world.

Greetings from Thailand,

Birthplace of Red Bull, where break dancing is still all the rage, and the belt buckles are bigger than Texas...or maybe it's just that the people are smaller.

I spent my first week here in a dusty bus stop of a town, not even an intersection to lay claim to--unless you count the river, close enough to the Andaman Sea to be a brackish tidal cesspool, but not near enough to catch even the faintest of breezes. It is this auspicious location, chosen purportedly for its perch halfway down the tsunami-afflicted west coast of thailand, that is the makeshift home to a few of the remaining volunteer relief organizations, and more specifically the one at which i attempted to volunteer for a week.

The search for the missing, still numbering just over a thousand in thailand, was called off last week, followed with all due haste by the departure of the press for juicier juice. Quick to vanish on their heels were some of the better known international aid organizations (cou-redcross-gh), leaving a massive gap between the government's noteworthy efforts and those of dozens of small, independent aid groups. It is a transitional period, with the need for emergency relief--food and water--drawing to a close, and more long term projects just getting underway, but holy crap what a mess! No one's talking to anyone else, everyone has a seperate agenda, plenty of funding, and no idea how to make it all come together.

I met up with my friend Ellen and two of her friends in Bangkok, and we headed down together for a week of work. She had been in touch with someone there, they were expecting us, but still had no idea how to make us useful. It was supremely frustrating: most days consisted of sitting around their office like rock star groupies waiting to jump at the chance to unload somebody's truck or run for takeout. The all-volunteer staff alternated between friendly and holier-than-thou, and the best we were able to manage was riding along to do a few drop-offs at the encampments and a few days of beach clean-up on our own initiative.

The camps are as depressing as could be expected; some in plywood barracks with hingeing window flaps as the only ventilation, others still in tent villages crammed tighter than a state park on the fourth of july. The people, though, were very friendly and seemed in good spirits--they've even organized a book for volunteers to sign, assuring us that when they have homes again we all will be welcome guests. I think the challenge is going to be convincing them it is safe to return to their villages. Some of these evacuees are from places that weren't even hit.

The testament to the tsunami's power came when we did beach clean up near a former village of 50 houses. These were concrete and rebar, real buildings! and just smashed, bent, and washed away. A lot of cleanup had been done, which kept it all from getting too emotional for me I think, but it was still a pretty shocking sight.

So all in all, week one has been frustrating. Wish I could have done more, but as one of the volunteers so bitchily pointed out, at least my "tourist dollars" were flowing in. So I'm back in bangkok watching my hair curl in the humidity, and for a real uplifting experience....I'm off to Cambodia in the morning! War-torn past aside, i am pretty excited and eager to begin my travels. Until next time!


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