The Tsunami Volunteers
The global event happened on December 26, 2004—Boxing Day in some parts of the world. As you all know, on that day, the Indian Ocean earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.15, triggered the Tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in a large number of countries. In Thailand alone, about 8,200 people died, 8,500 were injured, and 7,000 were displaced. Many people were left unemployed and many children were left without one or both parents.
The personal event occurred on January 15, 2005. That was the day I first arrived in Thailand. As my site is in the far northeast of the country, about as far away from the ocean as one can get, I thought I would never be involved in the ongoing Tsunami relief effort.
But, over two years later, the two events finally met in what can only be described as perhaps the highlight of my entire Peace Corps service.
I think it was last May when we received the email from Peace Corps—one of many containing various pieces of information about resources available to us. This one mentioned a new grant being made available by USAID—the Tsunami Special Project Assistance grant. I read the email and transferred the information to the back of my mind, sure that I would never have a chance to take advantage of it, being so far away.
Then, in June, I was at an HIV Camp. I was quite fortunate in my site placement that in my province are three other guys with whom I’ve gotten along smashingly well and have also collaborated with on numerous occasions. These three are Chris, Josh, and Tom. Anyway, this particular Camp was at Chris’s site and the other three of us were there to help out, as per usual. During the Camp we marveled, as we had so many times before, how awesome Thai kids are. We’ve all had success working with the kids at our various sites and both us and the kids enjoy working with each other.
It was Chris who first came up with the idea, almost in passing. He wondered if we could use that grant to take a bunch of kids from our province down to the South of Thailand to do a community service project, helping out with the relief effort. In the process, they’d learn about volunteerism, leadership, and get a free trip to the beach. We all laughed at the impossibility of such a crazy scheme. But, it also stuck with us. It was so crazy, it just might work.
Next month, the four of us met up again—this time in our provincial capital—to discuss if such a harebrained plan actually had any validity in it. There were a lot of factors that had to go into play. A lot of “ifs.” Could the grant possibly pay the enormous expense of taking a large group of people to the other side of the country? Would Peace Corps give us more money since there were four PCVs involved? Would our villages and schools let us take the students? Would our counterparts be on board? Could we count on support from the local government? Was there an NGO down South that’d be willing and supportive to work with us? From the beginning, there were a number of things that could have gone wrong.
But, in the end, the answer to all those questions was Yes. And nothing went wrong.
It took a long time and a lot of work, but somehow it all came together. We got each of our respective villages—and the important people—on board. Made contact with an NGO. Had a lot of meetings. Wrote the grant and budget proposal. Submitted the proposal (at 8 pm on the day of the deadline). Got the proposal returned with “suggested changes.” Made the changes and resubmitted the proposal. Finally got the proposal approved! Found out the money would take much longer to arrive then Peace Corps had first indicated. Cancelled the originally scheduled date of October and changed it to January. Then, three months passed in which we all got busy with other things and each took long vacations. Finally, the end of December arrived and we scurried around for two weeks with last-minute plans.
In the end, the United States Government gave us over $3,000 (which comes out to quite a bit of Baht). We also got over $50 from each of our respective local governments. Additionally, the NGO we partnered with helped out with in-kind contributions totaling over $600. The money and contributions went towards supplies, enough food for 24 people for 6 days, transportation (the bus we ended up renting cost over $2,000 alone), paying the salaries for our counterparts who all have regular jobs, t-shirts for all 24, lodging, and various other expenses.
And, here’s what finally happened:
Us four PCVs. One adult counterpart from each of our sites. In my case, I brought Ja—the health educator I work with at the health center. She’s great for any trainings, good with kids, and one of the people I get along with the best. She was also the person we entrusted with the funds because she’s uncorrupt (unfortunately a rare trait out here). The other Thai adults were a teacher, a woman who’s in charge of Education for the local government who used to be a teacher, and a Councilmember. Two women and two men. From each of our sites we brought four kids—two guys and two girls—mostly between the ages of 14 and 15. Due to local politics, we ended up with two 18 year-olds, which was fine because they ended up being the leaders of the whole group. The kids were picked out by us and our local teachers—kids who were felt to be leaders amongst their peers. My kids were ones whom I’ve worked with on a variety of occasions: Prao, Mon, Nam, and Bees. 24 people in all.
The first day was spent in our provincial capital where we had rented a conference room in a hotel at the local university. That day we spent training the kids. We taught them about volunteerism and leadership. We explained to them about the tsunami and about what was expected of them during the trip. Then we taught them activities that they would run on their own once we got down South.
That first day was perhaps the toughest because the kids didn’t know each other yet. Also, we had to get all of the boring stuff out of the way at the beginning. Furthermore, for a lot of them, this was their first time away from home. Ever.
For most of us Americans, when we look back on growing up, our memories are filled with summer camps, day camps, scout camps, field trips, band trips, theatre trips, church trips, family road trips. It’s an essential part of our growing up. It has a huge influence on our whole life-experience. Getting away from the parents! Sleeping in a strange cabin or tent! Staying up all night! The endless fun one can have on a bus! Gluing macaroni to paper plates! However, this is something that is almost completely lacking from the Thai growing-up experience. Especially if you’re from the poor, rice-farming Northeast where such luxuries are unaffordable. Plus, Thailand’s a big country. Think Texas with worse roads. It takes a long time to get from one end to the other, especially when you get to the long narrow peninsula that is the South. Most Isanites never see the ocean, unless they become migrant-workers.
Putting 16 young teenagers on a bus was a shocking experience for a lot of them. Some of them got roadsick. One threw up on the bus. That first day was pretty hard as they got homesick, they missed their moms, they missed homecooking (especially since Southern food is much less spicier than Isan food). But, the trip got gradually easier. I was reminded of the old camp song: “Hello mudda, hello fadda….” You know, where the kid complains, but things get better until by the end they don’t want to go home. I don’t remember getting homesick when I was a kid, but I could understand.
We got on the bus that first night and there was the initial excitement on the part of everyone. We had gotten a sweet bus too and I think everyone was happy about that. We were travelling in style and comfort. Only right for $2,000! There was even a lower level with a little table where we Americans stayed up most of the night playing Spades. The bus pulled out and we couldn’t believe it. It was actually happening and there was no turning back! Most of the kids slept that first night, despite the complaints. We were pretty stressed out and nervous—we still didn’t know exactly what was going to happen down South—so we didn’t get much sleep.
The distance was about 900 miles (1,449 kilometers). This is roughly the same distance as San Francisco to Denver, LA to Seattle, Minneapolis to Dallas, or New York to St. Louis. If you’ve done any of those routes—you know it can seem like forever. Rice paddies aren’t too much different from corn fields in the end.
The total ride took 22.5 hours—which is a long time, even with a lot of stops. We did stop a lot too. Bathroom breaks, food breaks. We ended up with only one driver! Not sure why—we were supposed to have two—just another thing to stress us out. The guy proved to be a champ though—still don’t know how he did it.
The first morning, we stopped at a tourist site a little over halfway. We visited Phra Nakhon Khiri—a forested hill in Phetburi province on top of which are several wats and the remains of a palace built by King Rama IV (title character from the historically false The King and I). It was a nice visit with good views—although the hill was covered with mean monkeys who stole our kids’ snacks and tried to get into one girl’s bag.
The kids started to get into good spirits that morning, once they realized that they were away from home and that they were having fun. Every bus in Thailand, no matter the size or cost, comes equipped with TV screens. Our bus had three and two microphones. In no time at all, the mics were discovered and the karaoke began. The bus had a good supply of karaoke vcds. Thais love their karaoke and this kept the kids entertained for most of the trip.
Finally, that night, after a LONG ride, we arrived in Phang-Nga province. Phang-Nga is a beautiful province, located on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula facing the Indian Ocean. It’s the mainland province which has a bridge to the well-known island of Phuket. It was one of the hardest hit during the tsunami. About 6,000 of the deaths or missing-person cases occurred in this province alone. In some areas, the wave came as much as 4 km inland. Although I have visited Phuket twice, and passed through Phang-Nga province, this was really my first visit to an area that was heavily hit by the Tsunami. Things have come a long way in two years. Businesses are back and this year saw a huge boom in tourism—the industry of the area. Still, everything looked new—a constant reminder of all that had to be rebuilt.
The first night we stayed at some bungalows near the beach in the town of Takuapa. The bungalows had been hit themselves by the Tsunami. They were quite nice and we got a good deal from the kind woman who ran them—she gave us a discount since we had a group of students. Everyone was pretty exhausted and grumpy after the long ride—but the luxury of the bungalows made up for it: air-conditioning and hot-water!
That night we first met up with the NGO that we were partnering with. The NGO is the 4Kali.org Foundation, which was created after the Tsunami. Their mission is “to serve the people living and working in Khao Lak and nearby Phang Nga Province, Thailand, whose lives were impacted by the Tsunami.” They were created in honor of Kali Glynn Breisch, who lost her life in the Tsunami. One of their many projects—which include small-business development and construction—is the Support-A-Child Program, which was “established to provide support to children who have been affected by the Tsunami.” This was the particular program that we were partnering with. The children they work with were affected in a variety of ways. A number of them were orphaned by the Tsunami, including children and teenagers who lost only one parent. Also, there were a number of children and teenagers who were indirectly affected by the Tsunami but are feeling the affects due to various reasons, such as the unemployment of parents. Furthermore, there are children who were orphaned before the Tsunami whose previous support has been cut off or shifted to help the children orphaned by the Tsunami. The children we’d be working with on this project fell into all of these categories. The employees and volunteers at the NGO were English and Thai. They get most of their funding from private donations, which have petered off lately.
The next morning, the kids got to walk along the beach. For many of them, this was the first time they’d ever seen the ocean—which was awesome. I also got a chance to eat some Masaman Curry—the South having a wide variety of Muslim food, something one can’t get in Isan.
Then, that afternoon, we headed down to the campsite where we’d be doing our project. This was Thai Muang National Park—a beautiful, well kept park right on the beach. It was amazingly well-run—akin to a National Park in the States. I know that’s a cynical statement, but you can’t take anything for granted over here. They run activities for groups of kids all the time and had a great staff of rangers. We were able to mix our activities with theirs’. At that beach, we all got a chance to play in the Indian Ocean. The weather was absolutely perfect—a little warm but not hot—the waves breaking but not high and dangerous—the beach beautiful. I’ve always loved the ocean and miss living close to one (and yet I’m moving to Lao—a landlocked country!!). I’ve also always been a huge fan of playing in the ocean. But, something about this particular time, with a group of energetic kids who’d never been in the sea before—something about seeing it all through new eyes all over again—I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in the sea. There was seashell collecting, sand-castle building, burying people in the sand, Frisbeeing, tossing the ol’ pigskin around. Even a beautiful sunset over the water (after years in California, I’ve never been able to get used to a coast that faces east—maybe because I’m never up early enough to watch the sunrise). All in all, a great day.
That night we had a feast—a feast! We all ate so much. There were tons of options—but what I remember is the squid. Giant pieces of squid—barbecued, fried, sautéed—they kept bringing out more and more. I’ve never eaten so much squid in my life. The kids liked it too—although it was a bit new for them. One of the boys from my site ran around catching these giant bugs that were flying around—the next night he fried them up with some delicious spices. It was quite a good snack, but we had to laugh: you can take the kids out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the kids. Here we were, offering them exotic seafood, and they’d rather eat bugs. Ha!
We had a meeting that night before lights out—reminding them of the next day when the Tsunami orphans would arrive—going over our expectations of them and so forth. Then, it was time to go to sleep. The kids were all camping out in tents—we were in a multi-roomed cabin with our counterparts. Then, it started raining and a couple of the tents got wet. Then the power went out and, with it, all the outdoor lights and the kids got scared. Soon enough, every last one of them was piling into our cabin. We made room for them. Us PCVs still ended up with a room to ourselves. Thai kids are ridiculously well-behaved. The next morning they were complaining that we kept them up with our late-night talking and laughing!
True enough, we didn’t have a single problem with any of our kids. Would that ever happen in America? Sure, there was stuff we didn’t know about—some minor flirting, some tired eyes the final morning after a late night full of who-knows-what—but nothing major. They were all really good kids. Strange culture. Maybe America encourages our kids to be rebels. We even entrusted these kids with their own money to buy food, so we didn’t have to be responsible for it. I was expecting the worst—thinking of my own youth—but there was nothing to be worried about.
The next day we all spent the morning getting ready—and then the Tsunami kids arrived. Up until this moment, I don’t think any of us had an idea what was going to happen. But our students surpassed all expectations. From that moment on, we all stepped back and our kids stepped up to the plate and took charge of the show. As soon as the younger kids started arriving, our students took them by the hand and immediately befriended them. The whole plan was to run a Camp for the Tsunami-children that would be both educational and fun and would be run entirely by our students—in the process they would learn how to be volunteers and leaders as well as mentors to the younger orphans. They were awesome—I’m extremely proud of them.
We managed to pack a lot into the short time we had—which was good because all the kids had tons of energy. Lots of sports and games and songs, and—of course—more fun in the ocean. One student who came from my school is rather shy and hadn’t been speaking much. He started to open up once the sports began and I think he really enjoyed that. And what a football-throwing arm on this guy! The water—if I thought the previous day had been fun, this day was even better as we played for hours with the children. We also went on a long hike in the nearby national park to the top of a waterfall.
That night, the park rangers took us for a moonlit walk on the beach. There was a possibility that we’d get to see sea turtles laying their eggs! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any but the walk was nice and we got to see huge turtles the next day that are being raised and protected in captivity.
Also, that night, we had the pleasure of participating in a serene ceremony honoring the lives of those lost in the Tsunami. The NGO had brought these giant plastic lanterns. Not quite sure how to describe them except as miniature hot-air balloons—without the basket. There were about 25 of them in all. We lit them, then waited for the heat to fill the lantern (same principal as the balloons), then they rise into the air on their own accord. We released them all at relatively the same time—they caught a draught of wind—25 beautiful orbs, orange against the night sky—soaring off over the Indian Ocean….
That night it, luckily, didn’t rain and our students piled into the tents with the Southern children. We retired and passed out, utterly exhausted.
The next morning, everyone rose at dawn to go do some bird-watching. Us PCVs decided we’d be much more effective in the coming day if we got some much needed sleep. They apparently didn’t see any birds anyway.
That day was full of activities. These were the activities we had taught our students, which they ran and led themselves for the Southern children. They were all fun games which taught basic lifeskills about teamwork, HIV/AIDS, alcohol/drug abuse, and others. The children had a good time and, once again, our kids did an awesome job. Even some of the shyer ones stepped up to the plate. True leaders, indeed.
Soon, it was time to say goodbye. In the end, perhaps the time was too short—but I think everyone would have felt that no matter how long it had been. We ended the Camp with a white-string ceremony. This is an Isan ceremony that’s used on almost all occasions. Simply, everyone ties white string on each other’s wrists and says nice things about each other. Everyone in Isan is constantly walking around with white string on their wrists, myself included. It was a fitting cultural exchange. Afterwards came tons and tons of photos. We waited around while most of the Southern children got picked up. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but it was heartwarming to see the bonds that had been formed in so short a time. Our kids had become fast-friends with the Southerners and there was much exchanging of cell phone numbers and long goodbyes. After living through so much loss and destruction at such a young age, the spirits of these kids was truly inspiring.
Then came our last day on the beach. First, we went and visited the sea turtles I mentioned earlier. This was a stop that was enjoyed by all, especially yours truly. I’ve always liked turtles and they had a large number of all different sizes. The sea turtles grow to huge sizes! We even got to pick some up which was awesome. They had a large amount of other sea life as well.
Then we visited a Tsunami Museum and the office of the NGO where we learned a little bit more about them and their work. In the Tsunami there were a number of migrant workers from Isan who also lost their lives, so the NGO is currently trying to track down orphans in Isan. We got a list of their current efforts for possible future collaboration. They also graciously let us use their showers before we all piled back onto the bus for the long ride home.
Before boarding, we ran down for one last look at the beach. The beach near the office was a bit touristy and the kids were amazed at all the falangs. Some of them got a picture with some falangs that were playing volleyball. The falangs were good sports, although terribly amused.
Then, it was back on the bus!
There was a different atmosphere on the bus-ride home. Everyone was in high spirits. There was a general feeling of a job well done, of satisfaction, mixed in with the bittersweet of having to go home. Everyone was talking about the beach, the Southern children, the turtles. This good feeling turned into lots and lots and lots of karaoke and dancing! The ride home was pretty raucous and we joined in as much as possible. There was also exhaustion and I think everyone slept more on the way back. The ride home took longer—24 hours this time due to longer stops—but it felt much shorter.
On the way back we stopped at Prasat Phimai in Khorat Province. This is one of the few Angkor sites in Thailand. The Angkor Empire, you’ll remember, was based in Cambodia roughly around 900 to 1500. While centered around the present-day city of Siem Reap in Cambodia where most of the famous “Angkor Temples” are located, the empire spread quite far into parts of present-day Thailand, Lao, and Vietnam. Southern Isan is scattered with a number of large Angkor temples (thought not as big as those in Cambodia). Prasat Phimai, where we stopped, is the second largest in Thailand. It was built in the 11th century, about a hundred years before Angkor Wat, and the style is very similar. It’s almost like a miniature Angkor Wat.
If you’ll recall my blog from December 2005, I was quite enthralled by the ancient beauty of Angkor. I love being in those old, huge temples that expand in every direction. Thus, we felt this would be a perfect place to hold a little ceremony for our students. We gave a little speech about how we were immensely proud of them and then passed out certificates which we had made special for the occasion. We then let everyone wander through the ruins for a long while and some of us checked out the museum that had a number of artifacts from Isan history.
That night, sometime after sunset, the bus finally pulled in to our provincial capital. Everyone said goodbye to the new friends they had made as we got picked up and went our separate directions. Chris and I, living near each other, got a ride together with our groups for part of the way. We decided to stop and have dinner together—the twelve of us.
That dinner was awesome as Chris and I watched our kids talk on and on about the trip, looking at photographs, even calling the children in the South. It was a far-cry from the kids who had complained at the beginning that they wanted to go home.
Then the kids turned to us and asked us when we were going back! They wanted to go back as soon as possible and meet up with the same children. They suggested that we go during their month break so they could spend longer down there.
And what could we do? We have two months left. I guess that’s the nature of Peace Corps—it takes a long time to get things going, then you do something awesome, and then it’s over.
The night wore on and we slowly saw everyone dropped off at their homes. I was the last one dropped off. I walked into my house and immediately passed out on my bed and slept well into the next day. When I woke up I thought about the entire trip and those kids wanting to go back. Peace Corps has never been easy—but this trip and, especially, that last conversation over dinner with those kids made it all—everything—worth it.
Peace and love,