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Kicking Back

Not much going on today I’m afraid what with it being our day off and all. I had a good, long, delicious lie-in and then made scrambled egg with tinned trout. I squeezed in one load of laundry but didn’t make it back over to put in the clothes from the ditch on Sunday so they’re still festering on the front porch. Then Neil took me on a date to the burger shop round the corner and now I’m reading a book of interviews about the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. All in all a pretty great day off I’d say.

The Kindness of Strangers

If – and I hope to goodness it never does – a disaster befalls my home town I wonder if my friends and neighbours would be as kind to each other as the residents of Ofunato. Tonight I went to the center where most of the volunteers on Project Tohoku live, along with 70 local evacuees, and found a team of hairdressers who’d come along to cut hair for free. A good number of shops are still closed or were lost altogether and many of the evacuees also lost their jobs so a little luxury like this goes a long way. We were invited too – although maybe that was just to tidy some of us up a bit!

Yesterday a friend of one of our local volunteers stopped by our base. She did not have time to volunteer with us in the regular way but was a masseuse and spent her evening kneading the sore muscles of everyone who asked. Someone down the street has put their washing machine in front of their house with a message that anyone can use it as many people are still without running water. Volunteers have been invited to use it as well as local residents.

It has been suggested that a different kind of community develops in a post-disaster situation, one that we could learn from long after the recovery period and even in places that haven’t been impacted. These examples, of sharing and giving and thoughtfulness, seem to agree.

Dirty Ditch

Now that's more like it!

Ding Ding, Round Two

The second round of volunteers is currently up in Yamada continuing the work we started earlier in the week and it seems they might be having problems with some of the locals. Toby was attacked by two huge crows and the shrine team were told that bear tracks had been found on the beach in front of their site! On the plus side, local volunteer Shigeru made breakfast for the team yesterday, cooking up a soup from wild vegetables he’d gathered from the woods behind the base.
While the satellite team busies themselves helping a shaman and his family recover after the tsunami, here in Sakari we are concentrating on a massive project that aims to impact the whole community. A huge team sets out every day, continuing to clear drainage ditches to prevent flooding. They are scooping debris out of canals at a rate of three blocks a day! Not an easy task today when volunteers will not only be shin-deep in water all day but soaked from above, as it appears from the forecast for this week that rainy season is here already.
These two very different projects show the huge scope of the value of volunteers in a disaster response environment. Not only can we work with individual members of the community to help them get back on their feet and into their homes and businesses, but we can also tackle municipal scale tasks that benefit everyone. It might be the Age of the Machine but people here are definitely proving that there’s still a place for some good old-fashioned grunt work.

Back to Basics?

When I described the plan for the satellite project I made sure that people knew what they were letting themselves in for. Life on project doesn’t hold many luxuries and going on satellite pretty much means giving up even those. There would be no bathroom to speak of, accommodation in tents, pot noodle for dinner and no electricity for ipods or laptops.

As I have seen time and again, volunteers can-do-spirit came to the fore as Norm and Craig took the time to rig up a tarped in solar shower and everyone did their share of collecting wood for the nightly campfire. When you have less you appreciate things more readily and thanks to generous donations of Ryo, Jenn and Andrew we ate bacon and eggs two days in a row, kindly rustled up by Norm.

Sometimes when volunteer numbers grow its difficult to build and maintain a close relationship with everyone. It can get stressful sharing your personal space with 60 people. It is hard to think of a kind gesture that can be appreciated by all on a volunteers’ budget. Satellite strips a lot of those stresses away and reminds you why you came. It enables you to treat your fellow volunteers and reward them for working so hard alongside you all the time. I may be a wee bit overdue for my mental health break I have come back refreshed and stress-free – although I am already missing having a tent to myself instead of sleeping 20 to a room!

Satellite Project Yamada: Round One

Out from behind my desk I’ve got more exercise in the last few days than in my 42 previous days in Japan.

Check out the view from the Yamada base

With a great team of seven other volunteers I’ve spent the past four days working in the field, tearing down drywall, shovelling landslides and chopping up trees with a hatchet. I worked in the Shaman’s house each morning helping Ryo’s team remove water damaged drywall and ferry possessions from an outbuilding to a storage room. The outbuilding was picked up by the tsunami and smashed in through the back wall of the house and will later be winched back into its original location.

At 10.45 each day I headed off up hill and down dale on a shopping run around Yamada. First stop was the supermarket to pick up fresh fruit and veggies to stop the volunteers getting scurvy in their isolation. Next to the town’s best noodle shop to pick up bento boxes for lunch and finally to the convenience store for stuffed rice balls to supplement the somewhat meagre pot noodle dinner. Then I was off again, puffing and sweating my way across town to deliver the food.

I spent the afternoons working with Brett and a small team at the shrine. We managed to clear the pathway and entrance to the shrine site and ran – yes, ran – wheelbarrows full of debris a hundred feet to the car park to be collected by the city later. The location is magical; a white sand beach, clear, clean water save for the few chunks of debris still bobbing in the waves, a fairytale island within swimming distance – although the weather and the water and still a little chilly for anyone to brave a trip across!

Perhaps most importantly for our continued work in the area was the impression we made on the groups of volunteers who came to the beach each day from the local volunteer center. Over a hundred people across the four days saw us working carefully and with respect, having been trusted with the work by a local elder. This can only help our standing in the community and hopefully lead to a good relationship with the volunteer center and plenty more work in Yamada in the coming weeks.

Oh No, Not Again!

It looks like Haiti just can’t catch a break with new president Martelly, and his wife, warning the population of the dangers looming with the upcoming hurricane season. The country is now on orange alert as heavy rains are expected to impact most areas this weekend. See more here.

Hectic Is My Middle Name

Shopping to do, orientations to give, projects to plan, emails to answer – and all of it needs to be done ten minutes ago. This is why I love being on project. This is when I work best. This is where I am useful.

Preparations for the satellite project are ramping up so I’ve been buying supplies, planning work schedules and coordinating the volunteers who are hoping to go. Tomorrow ten of us will pack our bags and head north, fingers crossed the portaloo shows up before we do! UPDATE: it didn’t. We spent 24+ hours crossing our legs and hurrying up the road to the local supermarket.