(This post was adapted from a letter I sent to a friend…)
Over all, I’m doing great. I’m really glad I came here, and I’m having an incredible time. Although it feels weird to say I’m having fun, I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise. It’s generally a very intense experience. It’s challenging, stimulating, interesting, exhausting, stinky, heart breaking, heart warming, fulfilling, stressful, and rewarding all at the same time.
We’re housed in a mostly unused commerce building that has a couple of big rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a co-ed bathroom with two squat toilets. There’s no hot water (or showers) in the building, but it’s otherwise quite comfortable. There are about a dozen of us sleeping in sleeping bags in one of the bigger rooms that has tatami mats. A group of ladies from the neighborhood have volunteered to cook us dinner, and they do an amazing job every night. We also get bento boxes delivered to our work sites for lunch, so we’re eating well, and eating a lot.
I’ve been doing a wide variety of things, which is really cool. I’ve done some physical labor like clearing debris and shoveling silt. But I’ve also had a chance to visit evacuation centers to talk to evacuees, go on assessments of devastated areas to see what we could do, and negotiate with officials for a potential clean-up project at a high school. It’s the kind of work I’ve never done before, but it makes it that much more interesting and challenging. If nothing else, I feel like I’ve been able use my language skills and cultural knowledge to good use. I’ve also spent some time talking to a local carpenter to learn about how to dry out water-logged homes, and my cabin-building experiences have certainly been useful in those conversations. Tomorrow, I’m leading a team to do a couple of jobs, and we’ll be accompanied by a local carpenter, which I’m quite looking forward to.
The destruction here is simply beyond words. The parts that weren’t hit too badly have mostly been cleaned up, but the worst hit areas are still full of rubble. We drive through those areas on our way to various work sites every morning, and see extraordinary things. Big fishing vessels lying between homes a mile away from the ocean. Trucks on top of buildings. Houses overturned like toys. And entire city blocks (or cities) crushed into piles of rubble. To some degree, the devastation is so immense that it is somehow incomprehensible. But it still hits you at odd moments. I almost cried, for some reason, when I saw a wounded cat laying in front of a collapsed house. In my mind, the pile of rubble behind the cat was once its home, and the cat’s owners had been killed. With nowhere to go, the cat continues to sleep outside what was once its home, clinging to what little familiarity and comfort it finds there. This narrative may have all been a fabrication in my mind, but somehow it put the destruction in a more human (or feline) scale; a scale which I could comprehend and therefore be emotionally affected by. I also felt heartbroken when I wrote my mom an email, and told her about my trip to the evacuation centers. We were going around asking evacuees one by one whether they had anything we could help with. Many of their homes had been washed away, right off their foundations, and had nothing for us to do. At the time, we felt disappointed by the lack of work in those cases, but afterwards, it finally hit me that those were the people who needed help the most, and we couldn’t do anything for them.