Monthly Archives: March 2012
Today marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan. In the span of minutes, destruction on a catastrophic scale changed the lives of millions of people. In the aftermath, the world responded to the trauma, sending workers and volunteers on an unprecedented scale. The statistics were staggering. At a 9.0 magnitude, it was the largest earthquake to strike Japan in known history, and one of the 5 worst ever recorded. The resulting tsunami reached heights of over 40 metres, or 133 feet, and in some areas travelled up to six miles inland. Nearly 16,000 were confirmed dead, with over 3000 still missing. The World Bank estimated the economic cost to be $235 million, the most costly natural disaster on record.
A year later, and life in Japan still goes on. Photographs and video show the tremendous achievements in terms of cleanup and rebuilding that have begun, and that still carry on. They reveal the efficiency and the determination on the part of the Japanese people to remain strong, and to keep fighting. What these photographs do not reveal is that the struggle is still very much a part of life in Japan. Families have lost loved ones. Entire communities have seen their industry destroyed. The clash of cultures is thrown into sharp relief: old and traditional fighting to keep the status quo alive, while the young and progressive wish to move forward and look to the future. The Japanese government has no long-term plans or initiatives in place to provide a recovery structure, and the people are left to move ahead in uncertainty. There is still much work to be done. Japan is on the road to recovery, but the journey will last for years to come.
I travelled to Japan in May and again in August of 2011 in order to participate in cleanup and recovery work with All Hands Volunteers, an organisation dedicated to disaster relief all over the world. The trip itself was long and arduous, and when I finally arrived in Ofunato, a fishing town with a population of about 41,000, my mind struggled to take in the scenes. The destruction was beyond comprehension. Over the weeks I spent working in Ofunato, and neighbouring city Rikuzentakata, I witnessed many inspiring moments as well as moments of despair and heartbreak. As volunteers, we lived in the town with the residents and interacted with them daily, worked with them side by side. We shared their joys and sorrows, and became like family.
Reflecting on my two visits to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, I find that my love and affection for the people and the community is undiminished. If I had the chance to go back today, I wouldn’t hesitate. I was so moved by the experience, and so humbled to share in the recovery efforts, that I hope my heart and soul are profoundly changed for all time. I find that words are such insufficient vessels to convey all that I want to say. I find myself turning memories over and over in my mind, savouring them as deeply as I can. From the hauntingly beautiful lantern ceremony, to the tears shed over recovered photographs of loved ones, I hope to keep all these scenes fresh in my heart for all time.
Japan: I visited your shores to help you in your time of need. I lost my heart to you, and I don’t regret it one bit. Your spirit and your beauty should inspire us all. In your darkest hours, you stood strong and emerged with great dignity. Thank you for allowing me to participate in your journey.
I’ve stuck with bunkhouse building this trip. Tomorrow is my last working day on project, and while I’ve had the opportunity to join other work sites, I want to stay to see this one through. The bunkhouse we’ve been working on has turned into a labour of love on a lot of levels. The team has built more than just a building; we’ve also been building relationships. The group we’ve been working with is IOM, which stands for International Organization for Migration. They are a multi-faceted, intergovernmental group which primarily assists with migrations. They also do work helping displaced people and refugees, as is the case here in the Philippines. They are building bunkhouses in the Cagayan de Oro area to facilitate the typhoon victims who are now homeless. The structures are temporary, and not intended to last more than a year. The gritty reality is that most of the families who move in will probably live there far beyond the year’s time.
During our breaks, we have spoken at length to the supervisor for IOM. He told us that his organization has built similar structures all over the world. They are quick to build (except ours, which is still incomplete after more than a week), relatively cheap, and each one houses five families. He was quite proud to say that his team has been working so hard that they were able to build 45 in just over a month. That’s impressive! His team helped us pour the concrete slabs for the two halves of our building. It’s been a LOT of work.
Today we had to pour concrete – the hard way. The equipment available is a simple cement mixer. This means that we have to pour in bags of cement, gravel, sand, and buckets of water in correct proportions, at the correct time. Our ratio was 5 bags of gravel: 3 bags of sand: 2 bags of cement: ?? buckets of water (they eyeballed this one). Doesn’t sound too tough, but the difficulty was that we only had a small number of bags. In order to pour the concrete successfully, we had to keep the mixer running. So we had something of an assembly line that ran from the road, down through the build site to our building, which lies in the very center. The other difficulty was that each bag weighed about a hundred pounds. We took turns shoveling gravel and sand into the bags, while others raked gravel and sand into piles we could dig from. Yet others of us would wheel the barrows through the site with bags loaded to the workers running the cement mixer. As quickly as they could empty buckets and bags, we would speed back to fill them again. I heartily recommend the work to anyone wanting to build up their back and arm muscles.
Complicating the work today was our equipment. We use a circular saw and a reciprocating saw. Each of these has to run on rechargeable battery packs, because there is no electricity on the build site. Each of our batteries (and we brought three) was dead within an hour. Our philosophy quickly became “if it cuts, it’ll do”. We used everything from handsaws to leatherman blades to utility knives to cut plywood, beams, boards, and more. I’d like to say it was an enjoyable experience, but when you’ve spent fifteen minutes cutting plywood with a leatherman only to find out you cut it just slightly too small and must start over again… well, it’s a good thing everyone has such awesome attitudes!
Our new friend supervisor thought we would REALLY enjoy watching a cockfight, so about halfway through our morning, he
insisted upon invited us to join him as he let his roosters fight. He didn’t make them fight to the death, just gave us a sort of demonstration. It was awkward, because we all know what happens to the loser in the cockfight, and we didn’t want a rooster to die just so we could watch. Thankfully, he only wanted to explain to us how you train the roosters… I think. I’m not a fan, but you have to remind yourself that not everyone shares your worldview or your opinions, especially when working on a humanitarian project in a foreign country. Sometimes that makes situations particularly uncomfortable. Judging is really useless, and it doesn’t serve to bring people any closer together. So, we watched politely, made some awkward jokes, and went back to work.
Late in the afternoon, our friend surprised us with a treat. In Japan, it was common for people to bring us food, treats, and lots of water as a way of thanking us. They took great care of the volunteers, and some made it their personal task to mother us. Here in the Philippines, it’s a very different story. The people here are much poorer, and they have nothing to give. We have a few local residents who bring snacks to our base and sell them. It helps feed their families and we try to buy as much as we can. But, in general, the people here can’t afford to do things like that. In fact, the ones who live really close to the build site scavenge from what we leave behind. One old woman comes by every few hours with a bag and collects wood scraps for fires. Others come looking for plywood scraps to patch over holes in the walls of their little houses. So it was quite a surprise when the IOM supervisor came around the corner with an enormous box… and told us to take a break from working. In the box? The largest pizza I’ve ever seen.
The supervisor invited all the workers, in addition to all the volunteers, to enjoy the pizza. He produced liter bottles of coca-cola (sugar cane coke, not the stuff we drink in the States), and insisted we were not allowed to return to work until the pizza was gone. Everyone happily complied.
Tonight, as I sit on my bunk in the stifling air, listening to a fantastically off-key rendition of the Chili Peppers’ “Californication” being sung next door over the karaoke loudspeakers, I can reflect on a strange, fun, frustrating, accomplished, uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying day. This work leads us to such strange places, and such amazing memories!
Since I did this with Project Tohoku, I thought it only fitting I show you around my home for the current week. Here are the sights from our base here in Cagayan de Oro.
Just thought you might enjoy seeing what we enjoy along our drive! (WARNING: the audio is really loud at times, and my phone makes a very loud chime near the end – use discretion with the volume!)
Marc Young, the director of Project Cagayan de Oro, announced today that All Hands is contracting with Habitat for Humanity here in the Philippines to build 216 new permanent houses for displaced residents! This is awesome news, as it expands the scope of what All Hands can do as a vessel for disaster relief. All Hands provides its own building materials and tools, and pays for local skilled workers to help with the work. This funding enables in so many ways! But as far as budget goes, there is still about $500 per house that needs to be raised. I am including a link for anyone interested in donating to this work.
Here is a link to information about Typhoon Sendong/Washi:
If you have questions or would like to know more, please ask! I would love to raise enough to help cover the cost for one family’s house!
Yesterday afternoon and today, I’ve been working at a site where we are building temporary housing. It’s a joint project between many different groups, including All Hands. These are not meant to be permanent housing areas, just place where people who have lost their homes can stay for a while.
The building materials are not of high quality; we’ve found it a challenge to find beams and boards that are anywhere in the vicinity of straight. It’s not easy to put together something strong and safe with warped wood. The particular building my group is working on today is the only structure on the site where the floor is two different levels. Rather than even out the (very) rolling ground, it was decided to make a sort of bi-level building. The two levels are only one step’s difference, but it’s been a headache to work around. It’s been said a few times on site that this house is being made with LOTS of love, and a few loving mistakes.
The units are SMALL. They are a little smaller than a small bedroom. Entire families will claim a single unit. It’s very tiny, but people here make the most of the tiny space.
The area where we are working is near a bunch of little ramshackle houses. There are hundreds of children running around, and they love to say hi to us when we pass by. Some of them are absolutely adorable.
I tried to take some photos of the housing where they live, but only one really turned out well.
It’s very hot today, but there’s a nice breeze blowing. Everyone is really appreciative of the wind, because otherwise, the sun just BEATS down on you. Hydration is a MUST. We drink water constantly. Dehydration is a real danger, and something they are constantly trying to prevent.
I’m off to lunch, with the crowing of the roosters and laughter of fellow volunteers as my background soundtrack.
I took last night to get some supply shopping done (needed), and was more tired than I thought I would be, so I waited til this morning to get started on the blogging. More is on the way, maybe even some this afternoon, but since I’m off to a late start, I thought I’d give you a small quickie.
Here is a sampling of what I’ve encountered… or at least, these are some of the “fun” discoveries that are going to make this adventure one to remember:
-There are SO MANY roosters here. Thank goodness we don’t use them to wake with the dawn… because the dawn would be here every three seconds. Not exaggerating. It’s a constant cacophony. And at the site I worked briefly yesterday (where I am going again today), there were roosters tethered every five feet or so. We even got to see some mild and haha-isn’t-it-funny? cockfighting. Nothing epic, just some locals sort of tossing their roosters at one another.
-No toilet paper in the toilets!! We have ONE flushing toilet on base and another one that is a manual (bucket) flusher. But no toilet paper in the toilets.
-Kids here love foreigners. I got invited to an impromptu volleyball game with another volunteer and some neighbourhood kids. Very fun! Also, in the city, kids follow you around and ask unabashedly for money. They’re not above telling you any sob story to get it, either. One kid threatened me with a curse, then pushed his little “sad” face up against the taxi window as we pulled away from the curb.
-Driving: something I would be terrified to do here. Wow. With bicycles, motorcycles, jeepneys, cars, vans, trucks, people, and all manner of things vehicular, sharing the road is an adventure not for the faint of heart.
-Electricity is not grounded here. My stuff keeps shocking me. Ow.
-Bucket showers again, but only cold water. It’s amazing how great cold water can feel when you’re desperate to just feel clean, and it’s hot as hell outside. But yeah, washing the hair is not an easy task. Glad I brought bandannas and lots of hair ties!!
-Local cab drivers really think Americans are fools when it comes to what things cost. And they will take full advantage. We found out that the taxi ride from the airport should cost about 200 pisos. My taxi driver tried to charge 400. Wynne’s charged her 350.
The people here, both locals and volunteers, are friendly, and so far it’s been fun, despite being very tired when I arrived. I am putting together three additional posts: one that’s a tour of base, one that is about the Philippines and the project here, and one about what we did last night.
I can already tell this trip is going to fly by, and I’m going to feel like it’s over all too quickly.