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Day Off, Well, Lie In At Least

As most of you know, I am a champion sleeper. My love of sleeping has led me to develop the skill to the highest level. I can sleep anywhere, any time. I even fell asleep while pacing to try to keep myself awake waiting for the bus in Tokyo six days into my seven-day mammoth journey across the world to Project Tohoku. This week our day off was moved to Wednesday to accommodate Ambassador Roos’ visit – which we swimmingly, by the way – and seven straight days of work meant I was seriously looking forward to a few extra hours in my nest, I mean bed.

Only a few of us have already moved into the new base, on account of it not quite being finished, so it’s very peaceful. I woke up late and rolled out of bed after 10 so a successful lie-in in my opinion, especially in a communal living environment. I got up because the portable toilets we’ll be using until we can fit something more permanent inside the new base turned up. A comedy of errors ensued. The buses we use to transport volunteers were in the way of where the toilets needed to go and we could only find the keys for one, being not quite in order after the move.

Then, keys in hand and debating who was going to attempt to move the bus all three bus drivers turned up to have lunch together at the Chinese restaurant across the street. One of them leapt to the rescue. Finally the crane couldn’t unload them into position due to overhead power lines in the way so they were put on the pavement and poor Masa and Neil had to help the guy carry the 80kg units into the right places!

Our lovely kitchen ladies also stopped by this afternoon to prepare the kitchen space for its first meal tomorrow so this evening Yukiko and I did a quick run to the hardware store to pick up the supplies they requested including, most importantly, fly spray. I’ll give you the full story in the next post, complete with pictures but for now just know that Ofunato is swarming with big black flies. Hopefully All Hands can come to the rescue.


Moving and Shmoozing

Sorry I’ve missed a few days this week but we are in the middle of moving house, a process judged the second most stressful thing you can do and we’re trying to move an office, logistics base and living accommodation. Luckily we’re only moving across the street. Yesterday morning we cleared out our stuff from the old base and shipped it across the road. Unfortunately due to the fact that there’s reconstruction work going on all over this area the local hardware store is often sold out of the items we need to complete the build out quickly. We’re waiting on tatami matting, a concrete roughening machine to make the downstairs floor paintable and furniture.

Hopefully, Thursday is the day for all three to come in and then its finishing touches and frantic shopping for the last little bits. Just to add to the stress of trying to juggle all the different aspects that go into building an All Hands base the US Ambassador to Japan stopped by today to volunteer. Complete with men-in-black, camera crews and work boots he stopped by to shake ands and say hello and then headed straight down to the work site to get dirty. Added to the mayor stopping by a team earlier in the week its been a pretty red carpet few days when I’m struggling to find any kind of carpet whatsoever!

Scraping By

Work continues at our soon-to-be base across the street with volunteers scraping off the old, mouldy lino and today I got to help them. I am now missing approximately one-third of the skin from my hands as they’ve gone soft since Haiti and blistered up the in first ten minutes. They also cramped quickly into claws, I couldn’t straighten my fingers or pinch them together with any strength. At the end of the day I couldn’t even pull the duct tape off that I’d stuck around my palms and thumbs to prevent further skin loss. Don’t think for a second that those are complaints, I’m more than happy to trade a bit of flesh for some good, hard field work. And boy did everybody work.

At first it was infuriating. We spent 20 minutes cleaning a few square inches each. Then we got some solvent, masked up and got down to it. Then we found out we could ditch the masks as water worked just as well so we started sloshing it around and carving up huge chunks. Much more satisfying. And, because the lovely Nick is helping me out with Base Managing I just have to get emails done before and after the work day and I can go out again tomorrow. I might have to sneak away in the afternoon but I promise you won’t mind when you see what I come back with!

Did the Earth Move For You?

We were all rudely awoken this morning by a long and violent aftershock, measured initially at 7.1 but later downgraded to a 6.8. It was big enough to have us all standing up and looking bewildered and wondering whether to put more clothes on. Usually I just open one eye, check no one else is panicking too much and then go back to sleep. Today I learned a valuable lesson; when living in an earthquake zone take the time to sew up the hole in the seat of your pajamas as and when it happens because you might have to jump out of bed in them in front of all your mates.

Little tremors become mundane but the building you’re in bouncing around underneath you is something you don’t really get used to. Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world and building codes are strict so most people do not interrupt their daily routine unless the quake is unusually powerful. This morning though, something happened which put everyone on edge. The tsunami warning sirens sounded.

The message that came over the loud speaker warned people on the seashore to move inland and predicted a half meter rise in the water level. The block where Sakari base stands was flooded by the tsunami but little destruction was caused. Building materials were damaged but the buildings themselves remained sound and intact so we stood on the balcony and waited. About ten minutes later the warning was cancelled and we started to put our schedules back together. All work on the waterfront was called off and teams consolidated in order to put everyone at ease and ensure the safety of everyone working with us.

We have continued to experience aftershocks all day, but smaller and shorter than this morning’s. To all the mums reading: we’re all fine and work will get back to normal tomorrow barring further incidents. Stay tuned for more updates …

Change of Plans

After having a team scrubbing dirty lino for the last two days in a frantic effort to get our new base up and running as soon as possible, someone forgot to tell me that the whole lot would have to come up because of mould trapped underneath. Just got word from the building owner that we can paint the floor All Hands blue though, which sounds great. Cheaper than new lino, easier to do, quicker and cooler temperature-wise which is going to be important because it’s really hotting up here. Sorry to all those who cleaned; you did a fantastic job and guess what? Now you can start on the concrete underneath!

Tomorrow I’m off to Yamada again to try to nail down another satellite project, this time working solely through the Volunteer Center there. Hopefully I’ll be able to say something a little more positive and productive.

Just Like the Good Old Days

I have felt better. After a really great night at karaoke for Becci’s birthday I headed to bed a little the worse for wear at 2am. I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of karaoke what with there being zero chance of me singing and the fact that I would have to pay Y1000 per hour for the pleasure. I am rather tight with my money and am also notoriously bad at drinking and didn’t think I could drink Y1000’s worth of beer, even in the first hour and definitely not during subsequent hours. Turns out I was wrong. And now I’m paying for it a little!

Then, to add the icing to the cake I set my alarm for 6.45 and got up this morning as my fellow karaoke-ers slumbered on in order to greet two new arrivals off the overnight bus. I can only say that the isotonic drink I found on the free shelf was a life saver and was probably solely responsible for everything productive I managed to do today, including but not limited to finding Kim when she got lost, finishing off “A Cure for Death By Lightning” (a wonderful book that I highly recommend) and bossing people around for not doing their dishes.

Thankfully I have intermittently napped for most of the rest of today, rising only to greet two later arrivals and to cook bacon and eggs (provided by Eric this week, thanks Eric) and later spaghetti and meatballs (using leftover pork mince from Kim and blue cheese from Terri, thanks Kim and Terri). And of course, finding time in this busy schedule to accomplish all the tasks above too. Possibly my most Haiti-esque day so far on Project Tohoku; working on my day off and slowly trying to recover from the night before!


It’s time to start thinking about leaving Japan, perhaps. Not because I want to, but because I might have to. I’ve been here 66 days today and my visa expires in just over three weeks. Immigration policy is a complicated beast, often at the same time highly bureaucratic and yet subject to the whims of whoever happens to be sitting behind the desk that day. On the advice of our nearest office I have written a letter detailing why I would like to remain in the country and how I will support myself seeing as how I’m not allowed to earn any money.

As a UK passport holder I am eligible for a six month visa any way so I shall just put on my best, most English-looking face, start speaking like the Queen and hope it lets me sail right through. I have strolled oh-so-nonchalently through customs all over the world, sweating on the inside because of my lack of onward ticket or lack of available funds or lack of address, and been waved on due to my beaming smile and my wonderful passport. Neil on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. US passport holders do not have the option of a six month visa so the immigration official might be a little harder to convince of the necessity of an extension. I’ll prepare myself for a well placed tear or two just to help oil the wheels.

These letters are now translated into Japanese and are clutched in my hot little hand. Now to get all the way to Morioka …

A Canal Runs Through It

I can confirm that a completely clean and cleared canal system now runs through a whole district of Ofunato-cho. As tsunami waters subsided they drained into city waste water systems, clogging them with the remnants of everything that was destroyed or swept away. Day after day, fearless volunteers have braved the murky water to haul out buckets of mud, roofing tiles, microwaves, chunks of metal, and anything else the churning water left behind.

Undeterred by wet feet, live rats, dead rats, lashing rain and back-breaking work, teams of volunteers have worked almost every day for a month, logging 305 days of work on the project. This means that if one person had done what they did it would have taken them ten months. The city council is so happy with the job we’ve done they’ve given permission for volunteers to just keep on going until they reach the ocean! Once again the hands of volunteers have done what machinery cannot: squirreled away debris, piece by piece, without damaging surfaces underneath. In this case, the concrete blocks that make up the canals would have been severely damaged if heavy equipment had been used, and where private driveways cross above the water, as happens every few yards, the overpasses would have had to be completely removed and replaced later.

Machines are designed with specific jobs and circumstances in mind and in the extraordinary situations created by natural disasters they just don’t fit. Volunteers are infinitely adaptable as you can see by the variety of programs going on here; from park rehab to fish sorting to photograph restoration to food distribution. And they can be deployed just about anywhere; from Haiti to the USA to Indonesia to Japan. One more reason why, properly coordinated, volunteers can be an asset in disaster response programs.

“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle.” R.W. Emerson – Not saying our volunteers are uncivilized but they certainly haven’t lost the use of their feet!

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