Day three. Standing in the basin under the removed floor of a three year old home, the watery mix of chemicals, seawater, and other less than savory material felt cold around my boots. At about 5 cm, it barely enveloped my feet, but the sensation was the same as the edge of a cool lake. The difference being the nauseating smell, worries of toxicity, and the fact this pool lay in the middle of a family’s home.
“We all love the ocean. The sounds of waves, we find quite soothing. The salty air, we find full of adventure. The cool touch, we find a reminder of home. Only in it’s ability to wash us away do we find it’s lesson. Destroying without mercy, it reveals the power of compassion.”
The team, including myself did not pause on this comparison though. Locked in discussion of the house’s
relative danger, we stopped working in order to wait for our coordinator’s assessment of the job of emptying the three month old pond. Up to this point, our team had witnessed the remains of a neighborhood and the courage of an elderly family. This situation, a virtual sewage tank inside an inhabited home, added another layer of complexity.
The first day, after groggily leaving our nightly home, we cleaned a local business. As lacking of human presence as it may have been, the property was littered with artifacts from the surrounding neighborhood. A car with the key on the passenger seat, sat near the entrance. next to this, negatives of a Junior High School graduation. We cleaned, and bagged debris. We cleaned more, and bagged more debris. The labour was easy, yet exhausting. That night I ate my soba with a vengeance.
OH YES… I forgot to mention. In my bag, I had only soba, calorie mate (bar-type food), coffee, and almonds. Other members from my team, as well as a few from other teams were similarly under-prepared. We were saved, so often, by the kindness of people with much more forethought as they laughed and offered us some of the most delicious food I’ve had in months. After a night of introductions, we were all immediate friends. Little did I know, my new friends (especially the men) were competitive in their snoring capacity. For anyone who wishes to volunteer in Ishinomaki through Peace Boat, bring earplugs to sleep at night.
I repeat, “Bring Earplugs” Consider yourself warned.
Waking on the morning of the second day, I did my usual oddly stiff yoga routine, followed everyone outside for calisthenics (ラジオ体操FTW！), and went off, in the rain, to our second assignment of the week. Within 1 kilometer of where we started walking, we entered the home of an elderly couple. It’s policy to rest while it rained, so we waited. The husband offered a story of the first few days after the disaster. He and his wife were stuck on the second floor of their home for over four days as the waited for help. They were not alone either. Two other people had swam in. Four people waited for rescue which first came in the form of the last two rice balls of a group of American military men. Between four people, this was their only food. The next day, however, they were taken into an evacuation center.
At the time, I was fascinated by the story. It sounded amazing to have been able to weather such odds. It wasn’t until after we had finished for the day, after we had worked for 8 hours shoveling sludge from their garden, and after we bagged our last bag of the day, that I notice something. The husband, who had been working with us for the entire day, continued to work and clean after we finished and began to leave.
This was not someone who was simply thrown into a devastating situation, this was someone who understood more. I couldn’t put it into words until a teammate explained it as understand the cycle of nature. I hope, if ever I meet such adversity, I have the same strength to continue on as I had witnessed not only in that man, but in every citizen of Ishinomaki I had the chance to meet.
But standing in that virtual sewage tank, I wanted nothing more than to confirm I had no holes in my boots.
Happily, I did not.