Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recap Intermission: Tono Day 5, 6

We'll now have a break from the Ichinoseki recollection, and have something about what's going on in Tono.

I came up to Tono (in Iwate Prefecture too) almost a week ago, and three days after I had returned to Tokyo from the Ichinoseki trip (just enough time to wash all my underwear). It was hard to leave at first, because unlike Ichinoseki, I had to come up by myself, and I had to leave stuff in Tokyo that I did not really want to leave. But I reached the base fairly uneventfully (though the trains here don't run quite as... often.. as the trains in Tokyo).

I've had to do the dinner cooking and stuff, and so far, it's not been too bad. Fortunately, the first few days, I only had to prep food for about 12 people, though right now, I have to get enough food for close to 30.

And last night (Day 5), was when I started to get a little stressed. Now generally, I don't get too affected by work stress. I tend to just sleep it off. But last night, I decided to make spaghetti, and I foolishly did it without looking at a recipe. I decided to try it with a small batch first, and at around dinner time, it was still kinda bleah (I thought. The others thought it was fine). It didn't help that everyone was coming back late, so Plan B, which involved going out to buy instant sauce, was not gonna be easy to coordinate. After all, everyone was tired and asking them to drive to run errands would have been hard.

But I got encouraged by two people. One of the guys from the American team, Jon, offered to drive me out to the supermarket when I mentioned the need for a driver, even at the expense of a trip to the sento for him, and after a full day of work. While on the way there, I got some more encouragement in the form of a virtual bottle of energy drink from Marie in Tokyo. Stress was still there of course, but it was a lot easier to bear after that.

The following day, base management decided to bring everyone out to eat dinner, which meant I did not have to stay back and think of what to prep for food. So I was able to go out with one of the teams to do some work.

I ended up being part of a group that went back to Rikuzen-Takata. The job that day was to go to pick up rubbish in a spot where the tsunami had kinda gone through. II really couldn't understand much of the briefing, but when people started doing work, it was pretty easy to just take a look and follow.

We were picking up pieces of rubbish from the sandy area.

At first, it seemed a simple enough task. I mean, it was just picking up rubbish right? But as I was picking up some trash, and noticed that there was even more trash that had been buried in the soil, I started to wonder, how meaningful was our work? After all, prior to this in Ichinoseki, we had worked in a way where there were clear results happening, whether it was cutting weeds or talking to people. But as I picked up one piece of garbage, I saw 3 more pieces. And it just did not seem to be getting any less. It was not being done in an organized manner ("just go and pick up rubbish around here" *waves hands in a vague circle*), which meant that groups coming in the next day could, and probably would be working in the same spot, which would not be altogether pointless considering the amount of rubbish still there.

But even as I was thinking that, I knew that I was picking up one piece of rubbish, and that that piece of rubbish would be gone from the site, and even though it was just a bit, it was still that little bit that was gone from the area as they try to make the place livable again. And I guess what I was doing that day was just a 'drop in the ocean' so to speak, but eventually, all the rubbish will be cleared, and the little bit I did to help would have played a part in making that place habitable again.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ichinoseki Part 2

On the 2nd day, we went to the place of a lady called Onodera in Kesennuma. She lived in a three-storey house, and the third floor was actually untouched, but the tsunami and reached up to about a foot on the second floor, and had swept away everything in the first floor. This was also when we started to notice a smell. On the first day at the garden, there was no odour, and it smelt pretty much like what one would imagine a garden would smell like. But at the area around Onodera-san's house, there was a bit of a smell. Soon however, we barely noticed that, because we had to wear breathing masks, and it took too much effort to just breathe through it.

The HQ team was assigned to work on the second floor, and our work involved mostly sweeping up the dust and mud that had gotten settled on the floor. It sounds pretty simple, except for three facts:
  1. There were kind of wooden support beams about two centimetres above the floor. Fortunately, the beams were spaced far apart enough to squeeze the dustpan in, but it was hard to clean the area directly under the beams.
  2. The dust was the very fine kind, and there was construction work going on outside.
  3. Some of the mud was caked. Hard. I'll get to that part in a bit.
So what happened was that after one round of sweeping (which was a lot harder than it sounds), we would look back on the swept places, and realize that there was still a lot of dust on the floor. And we would sweep again, and find out again that there was still dust on the floor. And we would be unable to reach the dust under the beams. And we had to breathe through breath masks for safety, which got pretty unbearable after about 5 minutes.

It did get very bearable at about 10:30 though, because that was when Onodera-san made an appearance, carrying a massive amount of drinks and snacks with her for us. Like Sato-san the day before, she was very grateful to us for coming, and her lack of a furnished living room did not detract one bit from her hospitality. We all very happily took a break from our work to get a bit of rest, and to talk with her.

Both Mrs. Onodera and her husband were ok after the tsunami, but their house was damaged, and she now stayed up in Aomori prefecture at an evacuation centre, but came down to Kesennuma 3-4 times a week to check on her house and clean it up. She felt fortunate because her house was salvageable, while most of the other houses nearby were totally wrecked.

We continued cleaning up the place, and by lunch time, one of the rooms on the top floor looked reasonably clear of dust. The kitchen though, was a completely different matter. Although Laura had been working hard scrubbing the floor and sweeping up dust, there was still a lot of work to be done. We did break for lunch though, and that's when we saw the scourge that is flies. Lots and lots of flies. You couldn't hold your sandwich still for a moment, for flies would start landing on them almost immediately. They were everywhere, they got in your food, they got in the car, and worse still, they refused to get out. And flies are notoriously difficult to kill.

After having to contend with flies, we got back to cleaning, and continued sweeping and scrubbing away at the dirt on the floor, till it was time for us to leave. Victor, leader of the CCC team, gave a small tract about Christianity to Onodera-san, and she mentioned that she had gone to a Catholic kindergarten, and actually still remembered some of the hymns and prayers from that time.

HQ-Ichinoseki Team 3, CCC Team B, and Mrs. Onodera (Orange shirt, centre)

Oh, and that day, a reporter from the Nikkei Shimbun, Kishida-san followed us around to get materiel for an article she was writing about foreign volunteers serving in Japan. If you're interested, the link to the article about CRASH by her is here.

The following day, we went back to the Kesennuma Volunteer Centre to get our job assignments. And once again, Nobu-san (the translator for the CCC team) suggested we pray that we would get an assignment that would allow us to stick together as a big group. The day before, we had asked God that we would get a job that would let us go as a big group of 15 people, and we were blessed to meet Onodera-san. On this day, we prayed, and once again, God gave us a job that required 15 people, at the very same location, Onodera-san's house.

Kesennuma Volunteer Centre

It was a great blessing of course; not only were we able to stay as a group, we would also be able to meet Onodera-san again, and we also knew what tools would work better for us. So this time, instead of taking huge shovels and wheelbarrows, we searched for small brushes and screwdrivers to help clean the nooks and crannies, and to help chip away mud.

Onodera-san was quite happy to see us again, as she was used to us, and we knew what we had to do, so we got back to work again. We also had two other volunteers with us, Nakagawa-san from Shiga prefecture, and Okubo-san from Tokyo. Both of them had come up on their own to do some volunteer work, and were joining us for the day.

We had to start sweeping and dusting up all over because the dust had returned, and had pretty much covered up all the area already. Laura and myself continued working in the kitchen chipping away at the caked mud with screwdrivers and crowbars, while Roberta swept outside and Marie cleaned up some cupboards outside. We pretty much remained engrossed in our work, though we did stop for a break at about 1030, and took a longer rest at lunch.

After lunch, I went back up to the kitchen to resume my chipping work. I had been using a screwdriver to scratch away at some mud that had been stuck on the linoleum on the kitchen floor, and had been doing so for more than an hour. That's when Marie came in with a wet cloth, and pretty much cleared more mud away in 5 minutes than I had chipped away in 1-and-a-half hours.

Yup. I felt like one.

But thanks to Marie's bright idea, we did manage to clean up the kitchen, so much so that Onodera-san said it looked "pika-pika" (bright and sparkly, has nothing to do with Pikachu) by the time we were done and had to leave. As she had not requested help from the volunteer centre the next day (our last work day), we agreed to stay in touch even after we had gone back to Tokyo, and she invited us to come and visit when her place was spruced up again and ready to receive guests.

When we got back to the base, we heard a bit more good news, because Woody, the base manager, had cleared his Japanese license test on the first try.

So that's it for the second and third work day. We had an earthquake somewhere one night then, and it wasn't too bad for the base building, but it does rattle a lot, which kinda makes it sound worse than it actually is. I'll continue on in the next post about our last day of work and our off days.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Ichinoseki Part 1

Just over a week ago, I was traveling up to Ichinoseki base with 6 other members of the HQ staff. The main purpose of this was to be for HQ people to be able to see what the bases were doing, and to help out there for a bit.

Oh, and about two weeks before, I was appointed the group leader. How about that.

So on the 26th of July, 7 of us set out from HQ; Laura, P-chan, Keith and Cece, Ramona, Marie, and myself. I had kinda studied the route beforehand, but it was good that Laura knew the area well, and could get to the Gaikan without any help. We got up to Ichinoseki pretty easy, and took a long but scenic route around the city and out to the base.

We did have to stop a couple of times along the way though, because our GPS went slightly wonky on us, and once, it was because there was a huge crack on the road up to the camp. Some of us got out a couple of times to check about and stuff, and because of all the forest around us and the mist, I half expected a dinosaur to jump us like in Jurassic Park.

Come on, wouldn't you expect to see dinosaurs here too?

We got to the camp at about three, and met the staff members and CCC team when they got back in from volunteer work. We got to go to a nearby sento that night, as the heaters in the camp's bath were off.

The next day we went to Rikuzen-Takata to do work. It was raining pretty heavily when we were getting the assignment at the volunteer centre, and we definitely saw lightning. And driving over to the place, we kinda got a bit lost. But by the time we reached the worksite, the rain had stopped completely, and the sun was out. Victor, the leader of the CCC team, told us much later that he and the others had been praying for the rain to stop.

The day's work was to help to pull weeds and clear up a garden. It was a rather large garden, and it was sprawled across a hillside, so some parts of it were on pretty steep gradients. It was kinda the first time I had to do gardening work, but after a while, I got used to the work. At about 2 in the afternoon, the owner, and 80+year old lady named Sato came to visit us. She was a tough old lady, walking over the hill behind the garden, and carrying a whole bunch of energy drinks and snacks for us.

We found out that she lost her daughter-in-law during the tsunami, and that she was now living in a evacuation centre. She was really grateful to us for coming out to help her, especially since so many of us came from overseas, and this, as well as her hospitality to us, would be a recurring theme during our time there.

At about that time, it started to rain pretty heavily, and Victor was saying that God did answer prayers because He gave us just enough time for us to do our work. One of the CCC vans sent Sato-san back to her place (she had actually wanted to walk back in the rain without an umbrella, but we managed to convince her to take a lift from us), and then we headed back home.

Ok, I realize that to write about the whole trip in one post is gonna be too long, so I'm gonna break it up into several posts, which I will try to do as soon as possible. I guess I should have done it during the trip itself, but everytime I got through the day and cleared out the supply requests, I was too sleepy to think straight, hence the recap now, when I'm already on my next assignment in Tono base. So, hopefully, I don't forget too much of the trip.