On a bus… I don’t exactly remember the time, however the circumstances gleamed with a clarity that denied my attempts at sleep. It was Saturday, the first day I would be volunteering in the city of Ishinomaki with over 100 other volunteers. I couldn’t sleep. The only thing my mind allowed for was a silent, expectant anxiety. Drifting between the pages of Sherlock Holmes and my attempts at that ever-elusive sleep, the sun rose.
Doing something, no matter the job, exponentially grows in the hearts and minds of all involved.
Arriving at a University parking lot, in the early morning, was quite unexpected. The grounds, littered with volunteer tents, sprang with an energy you only see in movies. Each of the vast fields that usually felt only the feet of athletes, were covered with volunteers. We got out of the bus and went to be sorted.
Working with the organization Peace Boat, volunteering possibly meant a variety of jobs. Some people delivered food, others managed an Elementary school/evacuation centre, and still more cooked food for those in need. None of these described my job though. As they sorted us into our smaller groups of five to six people, I glanced at the paperwork I had received on the bus. My team as well as the other two international teams would be clearing debris and shoveling sludge alongside eight Japanese teams.
As we silently wondered at the toxicity of ’sludge’, the administrative structure of the operation was explained in detail. Basically, each team has a leader. The leader’s supervisor, called the ‘leader leader’ provided explanatory support. On top of this was another level of assistant directors. Fascinatingly, this structure provided a conduit to spread information efficiently. I would come to learn it’s fluidity as the week went on. Although the structure existed for the spread of information, it dissolved in the act of clearing sludge. Leaders, leader leaders, and directors worked side by side with the volunteers of lesser responsibilities.
Peace Boat pushed hard to internationalize the relief effort in Ishinomaki. You could see this in the international teams assembled that day. Each team had a leader appointed by Peace Boat. These three leaders had responsibilities far beyond those expected of other group leaders, for they also provided translation and cultural support for everyone in their multi-national teams.
We boarded the bus again and began the short journey to Kasuka Fashion, our home for the next 7 days. Now, up to this point, the bus windows revealed what seemed to be a normal fishing city with only remnants of dust suspended in the air as if waiting for the inevitable aftershocks. Sitting down, I remember wondering what the devastated area would actually look like.
This thought was quickly interrupted by the Orange Jumpsuited enigmatic actor, Shige-san, as he jumped in the bus to give us a quick orientation of what we would soon be doing. Standing in the aisle, he relayed his tale up to this point. Having traveled by motorbike, he planned to spend 3 days offering help in Ishinomaki. As that 3 days turned into weeks, his drive inversly grew in comparison to the cleanliness of his orange jumpsuit. Yes, he had only one jumpsuit and this was his 4th week.
We crossed a river.
Although small, this river split Ishinomaki’s fate in half. On one side, cracked earth seemed to be one of the few signs of travesty. On the other side, neighborhoods were littered with overturned cars, broken glass, and buried memories. Although not nearly the heaviest devastation, we rolled into Kasuka Fashion. Weeks earlier, this small factory had been de-sludged by Peace Boat. And it was about to be our home for the next 7 days.
We exited the bus, for the last time, and although dazed with obvious lack of sleep, we crossed the threshold of our new home.
The line. I clearly remember the brown line on every wall. I quickly learned this line (at roughly 1 and a half meters in our little home) used to be the tsunami surface. Effectively, we were under water. I remember thinking this as we were quickly explained the layout. The men slept on the mats laid out to the left and women had a plastic sheet-walled area next to this. To the right, the kitchen and dining area, consisted of a sink and ample room for discussion, card games, and of course, Yoga.
We quickly dropped our bags in the assigned sleeping areas. Dressing with fervor, we donned the hopefully bacteria resistance concoction of gear purchased in Tokyo the week earlier. For me, this meant two pairs of socks, pants, t-shirt, rain pants, rain coat, face mask, and work boats. Later I received rubber gloves, glove liners (from a team mate!), metal shoe insoles, goggles, a helmet, and a blue bib. Similarly dressed, my teammates gathered. Together, The three Americans, Indonesian-Australian, French, Japanese mix of international-ness looked strikingly like a group of giggling snowboarders.
Soon we would be receiving our first day’s instructions. Today, my team would be working with the other international teams to clear out a local business in thearea. Through the day we would find, among the terribly repulsive sludge, remnants of lives similar to our own. Our instructions would be to shovel sludge and dirt into white bags and small debris in brown bags (for clearance). We would also need to carry larger debris to the street. Later city workers would come to take away the bags and debris. We would clear over 150 white bags worth that day while entwining our vastly quirky personalities into friendships that usually required years of development. We would laugh at the volatile combination of six wildly different personalities with such fervor, local residents smiled with agreement. We would gently clean a set of photo negatives from a junior high school graduation while wondering at the fate of those forever captured in each little square box.
But first, we lined up outside Kasuka Fashion, duct-taped our boots to our tucked in pants, and waited.