Home sweet home

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My friend from way back in high school joined me for a couple of days at All Hands Tohoku. I showed her around and she settled into a spot next to my sleeping bag, and she said “… You’re a trooper. I couldn’t live like this for even a week!”

So that got me thinking about my current living situation, which I guess I have yet to blog about. 

Half of the team lives at a rehab facility up in the hills of Ofunato which we call the FS center. We occupy two general rooms – they have sleeping rooms, but those are for clients and guests. We stay in their meeting room space. I’m in the small room, which houses about 16 of us. We have our sleeping bags towards the walls, our suit cases and junk around our bags, and a big laundry hanger across the middle of the room with our laundry hanging to dry. I have a cushy set up with a corner spot (more wall space!), a mat inherited by Sara Bareilles’ crew when they were here in May, my yoga mat on top of that, and a sleeping bag on top of that. Yes, this is about as good as it gets!! I do love my space 🙂 We are co-ed and my neighbors are all boys. All of the bodily odors and noises you can imagine happen here, which I am frankly quite use to now.  I did invest in a bottle of fabreeze today, I’m quite excited about that!!

We have a common room (another smaller meeting room) where we have our breakfast foods (bread, peanut butter and jam, raisin bran or oatmeal), a microwave, a tiny fridge and more laundry hangers. People gather and mingle, and the poker chips my colleague Aurora donated are in heavy use here. Earlier in the project, this was also the room to get Internet connection. But last month a satellite Internet company came and installed high speed Internet to the building for free, so ever since, I rarely go to the common room.  Some people don’t even realize I live up at FS Center because I spend most of my time hunkered in my sleeping bag… By the end of the “work day” I lack energy to mingle… I usually get back around 8 or 9, take a bath, then play with my iPad or read until I fall asleep. Which is ridiculously early, since lights-out is at 10pm!

The bath and toilets are the reasons why I choose to live at FS Center and not at our base accommodations. We have one western toilet on our floor, and it is my life line. The other two are Japanese style, which requires squatting. I avoid these at all costs 😀 At base, we only have port-a-potties, across the street, with no lights. And they are Japanese style. I avoid these, period.  (I bike to the train station during the day to use their bathroom!) They have bucket showers at base, but we at the FS center get to use the communal bath (no, it’s not co-ed thankfully). Yes, it took a while to get use to the idea of bathing with my teammates (max 3 at a time). But nowadays, I’ve gotten use to it, and occasionally when I have the place to myself, I thoroughly enjoy stretching out in the big tub and relaxing.  Before 10pm, that is! (Baths also close at 10… Which is also the building curfew. My whole evening is planned around making sure I get in bed by 10pm!)

So that’s the gist of my living situation. We have a couple of soda vending machines down stairs, a book shelf full of old school manga that I’ve been reading, a park outside where we have bbqs sometimes. We have to walk down to the city area for any stores which is a pain, but  it’s good exercise, especially biking up the hill (which I did twice today. I will be sore tomorrow!) I consider this set up quite luxurious, since when I first came here I was told we may not hove showers… And especially considering the destruction down in the valley along the water front, this is NICE! But yeah… Living with a bunch of people isn’t all fun, especially since I spent the last decade living alone. I am a bit of a hermit, living in my corner space in my sleeping bag, shutting out the rest of the world and all it’s noises and smells 🙂 


Returning memories

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Today I got to accompany our resident “photo retouch expert” Becci on her weekly trip to the city of Yamada. She goes to three cities each week to offer her services, and her side-kick Tree (Katrina)is on break so I got to pinch-hit. What a trip it was.

Becci’s project is one of brilliance. (Yes, she is also British, hence the use of the word brilliance) She is a professional retoucher, which means she takes photos and does magic to them… The result is what we see in magazines, ads, and other publications. She’s retouched Hillary Clinton and The Queen! While she was here working on debris removal, she saw all the photos being rescued from the debris sites. They get washed and dried, but they all have permanent damage. Becci takes these photos and scans them, then sends them to her colleagues around the world to have them restored to original shape. She does some of them herself when time allows. Once the files are sent back, she prints them here and gives the photo to the owner. Most of these photos are of people’s weddings, babies, family portraits, graduations… The most important kinds. She allows for people to retain these important memories by giving them back their photos in original shape. For free.

So on Wednesdays, she goes to Yamada which is about 1.5 hours away on a beautiful coast with amazing blue water. The damage here is extensive and clean up is not as evident yet. (Yes, I wanted to jump out of the car and start hauling shit!!!) They have a few temporary housing sites, and on Wed they open a “photo cafe”. The locals, mostly elderlies, come and look through stacks of photos that were found and cleaned to see if they can identify their own, or their friends’ photos. I’ve known about the details of this project for a while, but today, I witnessed it for the first time. The very first grandma I sat next to found a few photos of her and her classmates… She then burst into tears and bowed repeatedly, thanking us profusely. Her tears of joy still broke my heart. She said she doesn’t know if any of her classmates survived, but Becci is going to fix them up and print for her.
Becci also had some retouched copies to return to another old lady. And boy, was she ready to get them back! She had prepared buns with walnuts and brown sugar, marinated veggies, and cucumbers with miso dip for us at her house!! One by one she proudly fed us her cooking and was so happy to see Becci’s smile. (She was clearly disappointed that Tree was not there today… I’m not a good replacement for a pretty British girl fluent in Japanese!) She held us captive for a while, insisting we finish the food. Her photos were of her father, of her late husband that she lost when she was only 34, and of her brother in law who got washed away in the Tsunami.

If you follow me on FB, you may have seen some articles I posted – Becci’s work is getting attention from all over the place. Rumor has it, NPR is coming next week! It’s amazing stuff and I’m honored to know her.

High fives

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My first project back was in Rikuzentakada, working in the rice fields, which i worked on once before. We hauled debris out of the fields last time (the project was called Field of Dreams) but this time the seven of us went digging for the drainage ditches that were buried far under the debris and mud. It was a super muddy job, made even worse by the two rain pours. I couldn’t have been muddier if I were getting a mud pack! Repeatedly unsticking my boots from the quicksand-like mud has left me with very sore legs now.

In the fields, we were actually surrounded by a team of 100 Japanese men from Japan Agriculture something-or-another, volunteering from across the country.  For most of the day, there was not much interaction. We worked on our section of the drainage (which we never actually found under the mud) and they spread out and worked on other parts. They took their breaks by their bus, we ate our lunch on the side of the field.  Then, in between the two rain pours, a few Japanese guys working near us found a big piece of debris in their mud. They were groaning and putting their weight in it, trying to pull it out, so our team lead Vinnie went over to lend a hand. It took them more digging and several more pulls to dig out that big piece of iron netting-looking thing, but when it came out, I heard the guys go “wow he’s strong!!” and laugh appreciatively. Then they asked Vinnie to join them for tea-time 🙂

I have seen this scene play out many times during my time in Ofunato. An individual or group of Japanese people would be around us, but not until we have joined together to pick up a big piece of crap or tear down a whole freakin’ wall would we actually come together as a team beyond the language barrier. And it happens, usually because the Japanese guys start cracking up at how strong (they use the word “powerful”) the All Hands members are. “Sugoi!” they would say. Over and over.

I enjoy watching these moments. I know that a lot of these Japanese folks are slightly intimidated by the foreign “force” that shows up, because of the perceived language barrier. It definitely exists, but it can be overcome because we are working, physically, on the same cause. Seeing Vinnie and one of the guys high-five in the mud was the highlight of my day.


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Car, plane, plane, bus, train, bus. 36 hours total. I’m on the second plane of this long trip, with only 3 hours until landing. I always tell people I love the 14 hour flight. It’s my chance to sit down with a book (nook!) and snacks, see a movie if I want, and sleep. Perhaps because of the chaotic last few weeks, I have pretty much slept the first 11 hours so far.

And what a month it was…! I am a social person, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as social as I was the last two weeks since I started telling friends about my departure. As I sit and reflect on it all – and finally being able to do so without sobbing, now that Japan is a few hours away and reality is settling in, I feel blessed and inspired by what I experienced.

Many whom I connected with over the last month have told me that I was inspiring. What I know is that it’s me who got inspired. The two big surprise parties, the lunches, dinners, lunches and more dinners every day, coffees, “meetings”, emails, phone calls, facebook posts, texts… Old friends and new, even friends who’s names I never knew (like my salsa friends who I see every weekend… names are not necessary to feel a connection!) sent me off with kind and encouraging words. So many people took the time to think of me. Little ol’ me.

Sure, it’s a fairly big move. But it’s not anything unheard of. My friend DJ who I met in Ofunato is now in Guatemala doing a Habitat build, and then she’s off to Georgia (the country) to do 6 more months of service with Keva. A couple dozens of people, most who have no prior ties to Japan, were there in Ofunato when I got there the first time and will still be there when I return. They never stopped hauling the debris. How about those repeat volunteers going from country to country each year to help? And I know there must be people on this flight who are going to Japan or beyond on some crazy adventure. All I’m doing is going home.

It’s all about timing. I’m not too tied down to one place (being single pays off sometimes 🙂 ) It happened to be a transition time at work. I had been saving up over the years, unsure what for, but because my financial advisor told me to 🙂 I happened to find myself in a place in life where I can do this. That’s not so much inspiration as it is good timing. And then I experience this outpour of love from friends close and afar. How humbling!

Many friends offered to help with my move. Others asked how they can help. My friend Aurora hijacked a list of goodies to bring to the long term volunteers in Ofunato and put together a care package that I can’t wait to give to the team! I just launched a fundraising site after several friends advised me to create a way for them to be a part of this cause. Ridiculous amounts are pouring in already 😮 And the messages… Verbally or written, they are all so thoughtful!!! I know I surround myself with good people, but this kind of massive thoughtfulness is a reason to believe the world, despite all of it’s problems, will always be a beautiful place. Because of all the good will. Good people. Such good people.

So I don’t take lightly all the hugs and messages that I received in the last month. I stow them in my heart and will take them out to ponder over them from time to time, even way after this trip is over. I want to make my friends proud, to prove to them that their support is worth it, to return their kindness in some form of action.

The debris in Ofunato has no idea what’s coming after them…!! I’m only a bus, train and bus trip away.

I still have 10 days!!

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I have ten more days before I leave. Clearly this feels like a lot of time for me, but not for others, as friends have begun to say good bye already. In the meantime my house is still a mess and yet I am not feeling a sense of urgency. 10 days is far away!

To sum up the past month, I went on a volunteer trip to Northern Japan with an awesome team from All Hands Volunteers. Worked on disaster recovery for 2 weeks. Got inspired by some incredible people, got fired up by the seemingly endless amount of work to be done. Decided to resign from Capital One (after 12 amazing years!), sell my condo and return to continue volunteering. Just. Like. That.

I have fun plans after that too. Whenever the project ends (which I predict to be when winter comes… They get harsh cold winters up there!) I will migrate down to Tokyo to spend time with my sister’s family. She’s having another baby so I’m sure she can use a hand, and for the first time I can spend more than a couple days a YEAR with my niece and nephew. How about a few weeks?? Who will get tired of it first!? Then, by December I should be back to the States, picking up my babies (dogs) and heading out west to see what awaits me in the city of Angels. But I don’t have all the details figured out yet…

Because I learned over the last month that things can change drastically on you, including what I thought I knew best… Myself! I think I surprised myself the most by this burning desire to be back in Japan. It has been 18 years since I left, and no trip back has ever made me want to stay in Japan. Of course, this is a very different situation. I found a city in need, a group of people I like (quirky people unite!)and good hard work. I get to use my bilingual skillz too!

So… It turns out my roots are Japanese after all, and I am going to go back to my peeps to do what I can.

In 10 days.