Inspirational IshinomakiPosted: August 9, 2011
This was originally posted on Alicia Sheridan Kidd’s blog here: Bite Cream and Bandages
I arrived in Japan three months after the tsunami, and knowing that Peace Boat was still sending volunteers to help in Ishinomaki, I signed up hoping that I could be of some use for a week. Having spent some time searching for information on the current situation in the north and finding nothing in the international press, I developed the naive notion that there was little left for the volunteers to do in this city which was one of the worst affected by the disaster. To say I was shocked when I arrived in Ishinomaki would be an understatement. Our bus drove past boats in the middle of roads, stacks of hundreds of crumpled cars and miles of rubble that used to be people’s homes. When we pulled up to the empty clothes factory that we were going to be calling home for the following week, I was still trying to absorb the amount of devastation which was far beyond what I had envisaged.
The clothing factory was completely bare of furniture, but it had been divided into sections with an area for cooking and an area for sleeping. The sleeping area was essentially just a large floor space covered in tatami mats with a huge tarpaulin separating the male and female sections. Although to begin with, sharing a sleeping space with 150 other volunteers wasn’t too appealing, after a hard day of physical labour I was able to sleep like a champion every night despite some of the world’s loudest snorers snoozing just a few metres away.
Pulling on a Peace Boat bib, I was introduced to the other eight people in my international team. I struggled intensley to remember everyone’s name on that first day, but spending a week with these eight incredible people, getting sweaty, muddy and emotional certainly forged some firm friendships. We soon got to know each other very well considering we’d wake up less that half a metre away from each other every morning, share cutlery and be able to smell each other’s feet at the end of every day.
Each morning as we arrived on site we were directed which way to run if the tsunami alarm sounded and after revelling in breakfasts of pancakes and porridge at 6 o’clock every morning, these instuctions never failed to bring me back to reality. Every time the people of this broken city go anywhere they have to keep a mental note of where the high ground is. I found this particularly haunting, considering all I have to think about when I leave home is whether I have time to get a coffee before the bus arrives.
My team’s first task was clearing 15 tonnes of mud from one small garden. We picked up the shovels and got stuck in, stopping every hour to sit down, remove our sweaty helmets and have a drink of water. To begin with this was just a job that needed completing, but finding family photographs and children’s toys buried deep in the mud kept making me stop in my tracks as I remembered that just a few months ago one of those photos would have been stood on someone’s dresser and the doll with pink lipstick would have been sat at the end of a little girl’s bed.
After clearing the garden, our team along with two other groups was set the challenge of clearing a printing factory. The owner hadn’t been inside since the tsunami, as he understandably found the task of emptying his ruined business too daunting to begin. He expected that it would take us up to three weeks to finish the work, and three days later he was surprised and elated to discover that all that was left in the factory were the printing machines and a car that the tsunami had washed in. Being covered head to toe in horrific smelling mud was made absolutely worth it upon seeing the happiness on that man’s face, and we all trundled back to the clothes factory exhausted, but pleased in the knowledge that our efforts had allowed this man to take the next step towards restarting his business.
The next day involved us clearing mud from sewers. Although this sounds like a repulsive job, we soon worked out a system where two people would lift the concrete slab, one would fill a bucket with the stinky goo that was blocking the water flow and another would empty the bucket. Being able to work so well as a team meant that we ended up clearing twice the amount of sewers that we were expected to and still finished early (and very smelly).
For our last couple of days in Ishinomaki we emptied an elderly couple’s home of furniture, mud and all of their ruined possessions. When one of us would come across some small trinket that could be rescued, it was very humbling to return it to the couple and watch as they reminisced about how that item fitted into their lives. Yet despite the obvious trauma and huge sense of loss that this couple were experiencing, they were still able to laugh with us as some of us fell through floor boards and others ended up face down in the mud.
Each evening after our work was done we would head back to the clothes factory to power hose ourselves and the tools we had used for the day. The expressions on each of our faces as cold jets of water were pumping towards us never failed to generate a few giggles, and although we only got to have a proper wash once, a power hose shower is certainly an experience in itself. After removing our steaming boots and drying off, we would all filter into the kitchen area for dinner. Despite only having a camp stove, we always ate great meals as we took up the challenge to keep each other awake long enough to finish our food.
I was surprised at how much our small group was able to accomplish in just one week. The tsunami may have been forgotten about by the international press, but there is still so much to do and I would encourage anyone who has even a spare weekend to offer up their time. It’s hard work and you will get smelly, but it is completely worth it to know that you are contributing towards allowing people to get on with their lives that have been on hold for so long.