Learning Under the Full Moon

This is what I was doing when the tsunami hit

This is what I was doing when the tsunami hit

On December 26th, 2004, I was braving my way through back-roads in suspension-free pickups and trekking through rank, knee-deep mud with my sister Astara and friend Andy to reach Pangan Island in the Gulf of Thailand.  Having just spent seven months in Hatyai (often call the “mini-Bangkok” for its pollution, chaos and other similarities to its big brother in the north) teaching English to highly spirited schoolchildren, this was a much-needed and much-anticipated break. We were on our way to Thailand ‘s biggest annual Full Moon party, and I was already having a great time.

As the day was just beginning throughout the East, as we innocently embarked on our jarring, “multi-sport” travels, the first “Great Earthquake” (that is, any quake over 9.0 in magnitude) in more than 40 years shook the earth and lasted approximately 10 full minutes. Most earthquakes last only seconds. The reverberations continue today. Of course, this was the “Indian Ocean Earthquake” that set off the havoc-wreaking tsunami. Boxing Day Tsunami. The greatest non-man-made devastation in our lifetime.

I remember the moment we got the news. It was around noon and I was employing a Spiderman-grip and praying for a gravitational miracle to keep my body in the back of a particularly jaunty truck-bed. Like most of the other 15,000 people making their way to the festival, I was blissfully unaware of what had occurred, just 300 kilometers away, only 90 minutes earlier. And then, another hitchhiker asked, “Did you hear about the tsunami?”

“No. What tsunami?” I asked, still trying to avoid flying into the jungle.

“This morning it happened. I just heard about it. Yeah, I guess it was pretty big. It hit Thailand – hundreds of people may be dead.”

For the next 24 hours, little else was known or said about the tsunami. We had arrived, free of jungle body-toss episodes, and began our preparations for the Full Moon festival. It wasn’t until the next day – when we saw television reports – that the reality of what had occurred sunk in. We began to get a sense of the magnitude, and it was immediately clear that this was beyond anything seen or experienced before. It seemed like the world had changed in some very substantial way, but we didn’t quite know how – not yet. We certainly did not know how true that was.

It was not lost on me that because throngs of Andaman sea-vacationers leave their resorts and beaches to attend the world-famous Pangan Island party, the full moon may have actually saved many lives- including our own. It was our consoling thought for the moment.

Deciding to Go

So nature saved lives, by bringing them to Pangan, but of course, it was nature’s indiscriminate ruthlessness that caused the devastation to begin with. And in

a strange way, the randomness is exactly what made this so personal for me. With one simple twist of fate, this could have happened to anyone- me, my friends, my family. I think it was in that moment – with that understanding washing over me with such overwhelming clarity, knowing it was all so nearby, and knowing – most of all – that I COULD – the decision to go and help was made for me.

Yan Yao Temple Experience

Yan Yao Temple Crew

A college mate, Peter Balvanz (on holiday from his current residence in northern India ), Andy and I decided to go together. Our journey began with a few days of mental preparation in Khao Sok National Park – we talked, meditated, connected to nature and fended off leeches and bird-sized mosquitoes.

Our destination was the Yan Yao Temple , located in Takua Pa , Phang Nga, the town that had become the First Response regional center. We arrived on January 10th, and it was painfully and immediately clear that our attempts at “mental preparation” were in vain. We stepped into this traditional Southern Thai town on a breeze-less day with the sun in full Andaman strength, confronted by odors that were nearly tangible and awe-inspiring “ordered chaos,” comprised of disaster teams from Thailand , America , Sweden , Denmark , France and Germany – among others – in addition to a massive Thai military presence and countless international media.

We found our way to the temple, with only one agenda: to help. After registering, although we still did not know what our assignments would be, we were swiftly “prepared” with the following attire: several layers of plastic suits (to prevent bacterial infections), a gas mask, long rubber gloves and boots, and packing tape covering every possible seam.

We were led past the decontamination station, where exiting workers were sprayed down with disinfectant, and entered the transfer and processing station ? deep inside the sacred temple grounds. We were assigned to the post with the greatest need: and began to unload, sort and tag tsunami victims’ bodies for identification purposes, while others obtained DNA and dental samples. It was a seemingly never-ending flow of bodies: which after 14 days in the tropical sun and water, were bloated, disfigured and unrecognizable.

“These are not suffering people,” I repeated to myself, like a mantra, “these are shells, just bodies,” finding a way to quell the emotions which too, came in overpowering waves – particularly strong when faced with child- or infant-sized bodies. And all around me, as we were physically and emotionally engaged beyond anything we could have imagined just days before, I witnessed acts of beauty and kindness. I am forever grateful to the tender young man who wiped my face down with a cool damp cloth, poured cold water into my mouth so I could work more comfortably. As I write these words ten months later, I am again overwhelmed with emotion.

After three, grueling days, Peter, Andy and I decided to venture 10 km down the road to the Baan Muang temporary camp for displaced people.

Despite our nearness the past 72-hours, for the first time, I saw the sea that unleashed this terrible nightmare. Still, looking at the water — crystal clear and peaceful — did nothing to make it conceivable.

Tsunami Volunteer Center Experience

I first heard about the Tsunami Volunteer Center Tsunami Volunteer Center? when it was almost nothing more than a centralizing organization for independent volunteers – from other workers at Yan Yao. We’d heard there was a community of volunteers staying at the Khao Lak Nature Resort, where survivors and volunteers could stay for free. Our destination now clear, we began to hitch, and when our second ride picked us up and said, ” Sawadee Khap “(hello), with a deep, sincere smile, we knew it would be a nice ride. We didn’t know until moments later that he was, in fact, Khun Somporn Sinthop (P’ Kaew), the generous owner of the Nature Resort, now legendary for his acts of bravery and kindness.

When I arrived, it became clear that TVC provided a sense of community around the tragedy that I’d been needing, and I discovered many like-minded friends. The energy was electric as the Center was being forged out of the wave’s destruction. Hundreds of passionate international volunteers, combined with the experienced Thai leadership of Khun Sombat Boonngamanong (P’ Nuling) and his team of 23 from the TVC’s umbrella organization, the Mirror Art Group. The result: a powerful drive to provide support to survivors in the region.

At 37, P’ Nuling, Director of the Mirror Art Group Mirror Art Group (www.mirrorartgroup.org), is already a leader in community activism, community development, and minority and child rights in Bangkok and Northern Thailand . His inspiration provided an unimaginably powerful guiding force for me and many others.

P’ Nuling had come to the area on December 30, with the intention of staying for a week. Today, with the participation of more than 3,500 volunteers from over 45 countries, the Center has been involved in the rebuilding and restoration of a dozen villages, worked with over 1,000 area schoolchildren, assisted in the formation of many small businesses, and partnered with dozens of non-profits and NGOs in the region to provide hope for countless area people. Moving well past P’ Nuling’s originally intended departure date, the TVC has since committed to remaining in Phang Nga throughout the restoration process – as many years as it takes.

The nature of the work has changed as dramatically as the vista. In those early days, there were many immediate needs: displacement housing for tens of thousands, food and water distribution, children needing a stabilizing presence’ in their schools, searches for missing survivors, and more.

My first assignment was a month of “teaching” in Khuk Kak Elementary School . Although the building was not in the path of the wave, many of its students and faculty were. My short-term goal was not English-language vocabulary building, but to create a safe place for the young survivors (ages 12-14) to have fun, and to let them know it was OK to be sad at the same time. Looking back, I was right where I needed to be – with the children ? preparing for the future. I love those kids.

In February, I was doing fundraising and getting more involved in internal operations and project development. We were still in the “reactive” phase as an organization at this point, for the most part by necessity, and looking back over the past 10 months, I can say our maturation overall has been very organic, intuitive and needs-based.

Turning money into relief

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, record funds were generously donated to disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF . Now, of course, when I speak to reporters, government officials, foreign embassy representatives and donors, their foremost question is: “Where did all the money go?” And then, “Why has it taken so long to reach construction and development?” I believe it is always vital to remember the historical context; however recent, and even more importantly, to recognize that money without manpower can never translate to relief.

For political reasons, many countries — including Thailand — rejected large-scale foreign aid, leaving disaster relief organizations with billions of dollars to spend and very few qualified people on the ground to manage its distribution. Naturally, funding is crucial, but it is only one part of the extremely complicated rebuilding process. To convert to meaningful relief, people on the ground must be connected to the needs of the local population. And when a disaster on the unprecedented scale of the tsunami struck, it defied not only our imaginations, it defied any potential preparedness planning — including adequately trained, on-the-ground decision makers.

The result in Phang Nga , for example, was that the vacuum was filled by dozens of ad-hoc, volunteer-staffed NGOs of varying degrees of ability and connectedness to the local environment. Some, like TVC , understood the importance of involving the survivors in the rebuilding and have experienced solid success as a result. Others, who worked in isolation, have taken their good intentions and moved on with little satisfaction.

Lessons Learned

Here’s how I define successful projects: they are built around community empowerment; they help people develop skills to support themselves. They respond to the self-defined needs of the community and do not import agendas from outside. They serve a community rather than an individual whenever possible. Too often I have seen misguided aid create jealousy and greed and break a community apart, in the end causing more harm than good.

Ten months later, like most NGOs in the area, we have transitioned into community development work (small business development, child outreach, vocational training, etc.) and focused less on disaster relief. Although many are still without permanent housing, most people have moved into newly built homes. What these people need now are job skills because the booming tourism industry was nearly completely destroyed and many lifelong fishermen never want to return to the sea. New income generation schemes are being developed in villages such as handicrafts, furniture making, and small scale eco-tourism and home-stays.

Returning to Normal?

It is impossible for those of us who work here every day not to be plagued by certain questions. Will life ever return to normal? What is normal? Maybe there is no such thing. Maybe there is just life ? each and every individual has their own ? they must accept it and live it the best they can. Even natural disasters like the tsunami are a part of it and remind us of our inextricable connectedness to the Earth ? the vulnerable and temporary existence we have where nothing is guaranteed to anyone. Having said that, I believe we are beginning to see signs of renewal. No guarantees, but there is certainly hope — we definitely have hope, as the signs of renewal remind us every day.

Some communities are stronger than ever before. Just last night, I went to a funeral in Laem Pom Village for the cousin of P’ Daeng, Village Chief. In Laem Pom, nearly half of the 180 residents were killed when the 10 meter tall wave came barreling through this peaceful beachside community. My friend P’ Daeng lost 8 family members in the tsunami including her sister and 8 year-old daughter. I have been working closely with her since early May when we began sending volunteers to assist the village in rebuilding their homes. Construction went on during the monsoons and P’ Daeng and the other villagers lived through it in tents and ate in a communal kitchen.

Her cousin’s body was finally identified after nearly ten months and his immediate family was eager to be able to send him to the next world properly. (I should note that funerals in Thailand are different than the solemn affairs I am used to in the U.S. They are filled with food, jovial conversation and laughter late into the night, with more rejoicing than mourning.) Early in the evening, Buddhist monks from the nearby temple were invited to lead the community in chants and meditation. Being in the community after sunset, without the commotion of construction, I was finally able get a sense of what this place can be again. There was a feeling of peace and calm as friends and family gathered to honor the life of a departed loved one. The crickets and frogs were singing a raucous symphony under stars framed by palm trees, with waves from the calm October sea lapping on the nearby shore.

This community is looking forward with hope. The help they received from hundreds of volunteers and generous donors has empowered them with the knowledge that they are not alone in their struggle. For me, seeing Laem Pom, and communities like it, get back on their feet, is all the reward I need for my work here. In fact, I know there is no going back for me. I will continue on this path of giving, wherever it leads me, because I can see nothing more worthy to dedicate my life to.

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