A little bit of Japan in New York, part 1

When the call came for help with photo recovery, a lot of different thoughts chased each other in my mind. 


“The family whose daughter was lost…”

“I hope it’s warmer than it was in Rikuzentakata!”


“back hurt”

“So glad I got to participate!”


These are just a glimpse (and only a few examples) of what memories and images I summoned. My lovely friend Becci had been contacted by a lady named Ann. Ann had read about the Photo Rescue Japan project, and was hoping that someone could come to upstate New York to show the residents there how to care for their flood-damaged photographs. Last fall, flood waters devastated the area. Recovery is ongoing, but in the meantime, precious memories locked away in pictures were slowly disintegrating. Would Becci or someone be able to help?


Becci put the call out and it was answered. After a lot of emails, facebook messages, and creative arrangement, it was settled. I was headed to New York for the weekend.


It was a flight with a layover in Washington DC, but the reward for an out-of-the-way stop was getting to see the Space Shuttle Discovery with its transport airplane! It was dark (so no photos without a flash came out well), and as anyone who’s tried to take photos with a flash camera from INSIDE a plane window might guess, none of my flash photos turned out. But it was a majestic sight, and one I hope to remember.


I arrived as the last of the party. Becci, Emiko, and Mara were scheduled to pick me up from Binghamton airport. My childish exuberance about seeing friends was instantly subdued as I deboarded the plane. One woman’s family greeted her with terrible news about a relative dying suddenly and quite literally minutes before. There were wails of anguish, tears, and questions. It seemed like everywhere I stood or stepped, I was intruding in their grief, so I tried to sidle away unobtrusively. As I was trying to be somewhere, anywhere else, I spotted another sad sight. 




It’s probably the little girl who lives stubbornly on inside of me, but I wanted to scoop that teddy up and take him with me. Such a sad and forlorn little guy! The airport was starting to have a really sad and tragic feel to it. As I sat and waited, the jarring emotions started to feel very familiar. When we worked on the photographs in Japan, emotions crashed upon us in a mad and bewildering rush with regularity. One picture would prompt laughter and giggles, while others would sober up the entire team. It was starting to feel like this was exactly where I was supposed to be, as strange as that may sound. It was just… fitting?


I didn’t have long to wait before my ride arrived. Becci hopped out of one of the largest trucks I’ve ever seen with a great big hug. Inside were Emiko and Mara, both of whom I’d not met before. Introductions were made, and we headed off to our temporary home. There, I was introduced to the loveliest people, Jennifer and Jack, and their secret alien dog, Andy. (Andy seems to stare up through the ceiling and whines at something no-one else can see. Mystifying, he is.) We said our good nights, and shuffled off to bed.


In the morning, we met Ann, who organised the weekend event. All day Saturday and Sunday, people could come to our workspace to learn how to care for their damaged photos. We had equipment set up much like we did in Rikuzentakata: tubs of cold water, exacto knives, scissors, gloves, paper towels*, and lots of clothespins and lines for drying.





We started off immediately, with people arriving even before we were entirely set up. Becci and Emiko got to work assessing damage and demonstrating cleaning techniques, while Mara and one of the local ladies, a named Pheobe, set up the scanning centre.



It wasn’t long before the images resembled our workspaces in Japan, just a little.





As the people arrived with their photos, their stories and their memories arrived with them. Sad, funny, happy, regretful, and more… It seemed like a revelation to me in Japan when I realised this, and it felt once again like a revelation in New York, to realise that we were sharing these peoples’ LIVES as we helped. 


More stories and photos to come!


*Funny story about this: Becci asked for help from us to compile a list of needed materials. We recounted what we used in Japan, and she forwarded the list to Ann. Becci’s grasp of American English, and Ann’s grasp of British vernacular, resulted in Becci’s “kitchen towels” being interpreted as something else altogether. What we actually NEEDED were paper towels, and what we wound up with were dish towels (or “tea towels”, as our Brit named them). We all had a laugh about that, and it was decided that Becci needs a proofreader to assist with any future listmaking.


One year later.

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.


Bunkhouses, part 2

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.

We were "treated" to an exhibition cockfight. No roosters were harmed during the building of our bunkhouse. (just clarifying!)

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.

We asked him what size the pizza was, and he told us it was a 36" pie. Wow!

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!

A look around base at Cagayan de Oro

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.

The first sight you see upon arrival

Here is one of the multiple sleeping areas. My bunk is the one on the upper right. Love it because the night breeze blows through the windows and feels amazing. This is communal living at its finest!

This is the common space where people can chill out, use laptops, read, eat, and sit in front of the fan for a while.

If you're covered in mud, cement, or general yuckiness, you go to the right to clean off before entering. If you're relatively clean, you can enter directly through the kitchen. We don't actually use the front door (pictured here) very often. To the right are showers, huge buckets with water for rinsing, and changing stalls.

Here is the courtyard where the jeepneys pick us up for work, we assemble for meetings, and we hold our meals. The space to the far left is shared with others, and they play karaoke LONG into the night, VERY loudly.

Here is the dining area. We hold our nightly meetings and our meals here.

The balcony on the second floor is lovely, and a favourite place for the volunteers to relax in the evenings.

The view from the balcony shows the adjoining courtyard. Cheap and easy security is had by mortaring broken glass bottles to the top of the walls, thereby discouraging would-be thieves from climbing over the walls.

Here is where we like to relax. Mika and Ben demonstrate how. The hammock is awesome for just laying back and napping!

Video of the drive between base and work site.

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!)

The Philippines needs your help!

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!

Work site photos – The bunkhouse site

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.

This is the sign for our bunkhouse work site

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. 🙂

This is the inside of one section of a bunkhouse

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.

This is the unit from the outside. Each unit has one door and one window on each side of it.

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.

Some of the children who live near where we are working!

I tried to take some photos of the housing where they live, but only one really turned out well.

This is a house near where we are working. It's not a good representative of the ones we pass, but it shows you the sort of temporary feel that most of them have.

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.

This is a shot of the bunkhouse we're working on, with some of my team members and some local workers.

I’m off to lunch, with the crowing of the roosters and laughter of fellow volunteers as my background soundtrack. 🙂

What I’ve learnt so far, after one day in the country

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.

The neighbourhood kids who invited us to play volleyball with them

-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.

my home for the next week!

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.

Another new journey?

Hello to those who have followed this endeavour of mine! I want to take the time to appreciate you for stopping in to see what I’ve been up to and what adventures I’ve pursued. Thank you for making this blog – which I began with a lot of hesitation and uncertainty – something of a success. I appreciate each of you, each of your comments, and each of your suggestions. Thank you for the encouragement and the interest!

I wanted to share with you, perhaps very prematurely, the news that I am hoping to set off on another journey. The volunteer organisation I joined in Japan is beginning work in the Philippines in a few weeks. I’ve submitted my application and am waiting to hear back from them. There is no certainty that my application will be among those accepted, and I have no funds right now that I can use to get there. Fundraising this time will be necessary; without it I won’t be able to go. Fundraising intimidates me. I feel awkward and uncomfortable asking people to donate money for something they won’t be able to experience for themselves. That is an obstacle I’m staring at on the horizon with some trepidation.

Also, the Philippines are not like Japan. Japan’s social and political structure are far more stable. The Philippines will be challenging in many new ways. I’ve been reading some background and history on the country, the area, and the disasters they’ve recently experienced. I’m thinking that I’ll post another blog here in the near future detailing some of what I’ve learnt. Even if I am unable to join up in the relief efforts this time, it’s never a bad thing to know what people around the world are experiencing. I can help shine a little light on this small corner of the world, and I think it’s time and effort well spent.

Stay tuned. I’m pulling out the backpack.

Reflections on a life-changing journey

It’s been six months since Japan was devastated by earthquake and tsunami. I count myself privileged to have been involved in part of the recovery efforts based in the cities of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata. To say my two trips there were life-changing is to understate the powerful effect this journey had on my life.

Japan will be recovering for years to come. Nothing I can tell you, show you, explain to you can truly communicate the devastation. And yet, to say that its recovery will be so long is to do a disservice to the heart and spirit of the Japanese people, and those compassionate souls helping them. I was in awe of the way people worked selflessly, tirelessly, happily, and with unimaginable determination. To have seen the communities and volunteers working side by side, and to have seen the shocking amount of work they accomplished is to have been inspired… and humbled.

There are others out there who are working hard to share their experience, and the plight of Japan as well. I want to share one such effort with you. This video was made during the six months All Hands Volunteers has worked in Ofunato, and it is wonderful. Each of the people interviewed, I had the honour of working with. I can’t say enough beautiful things about them. I managed to make a brief appearance in the video, about 0:55. It’s my lovely black overalls and military boots (and an unfortunate view of my backside) that you see working alongside Yukiko-san, digging and sweeping. It’s absurd, but my heart sang that I got to be included (albeit barely) in this video that was able to bring me to tears yet again.

Watch it, and be moved. ❤