BootstrapSolar needs your support!

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was working on a solar power pack. I’ve since completed the prototype and tested it, so I’m almost ready for production. But in order to get there, I could use some help…

My solar power pack contains a 6000mAh LiPoly battery, big enough to recharge an iPhone four times over (or an iPad up to about 70%). It has two USB ports, of which one is configured to support Apple devices with output up to 1000mA (that’s equivalent to the iPhone’s AC adapter). The kit also comes with a 5W monocrystalline solar panel which can generate enough power to completely recharge an iPhone in two hours. Furthermore, the power packs can support up to 10W of solar panels for heavy users (or cloudy days). And it’s enclosed in a bamboo enclosure, which is a much more sustainable material than the plastics commonly used.

Basically, I built what I wanted for myself. It’s the kit I wish I had in Japan. It’s the kit I wish folks had in Japan in the days that followed the earthquake and tsunami when the power was out. I took this kit with me to Burning Man, and wished everybody had one.

Right now, I’m in the process of raising funds to pay for a small production run. The Kickstarter campaign that I started two days ago already has over $3000 in pledges, though I need $7500 for the campaign to finish successfully and to start production. If you’re interested in a kit, you can “reserve” one by pledging $90 or above, which is substantially less than what the final retail price will probably be (or how much you’d pay for a similar commercial product). Of course, even if you’re not interested in a kit for yourself, I’d appreciate any help getting the word out as well. Also, if this kit succeeds, it’ll give me the funds to work on other kits, so you’ll be supporting a larger project that aims to make solar technology available and accessible to more people. So, any support would be greatly appreciated, whether it’s a pledge on Kickstarter, or a simple “Like”.



I apologize for the long hiatus on this blog… There are a couple of reasons for the long silence. The first reason is that when I got from Japan back in mid-June, I felt like I should write a post wrapping up my experiences there, yet somehow I couldn’t quite find the words so I kept putting it off. So, I’m giving up (for now), and will simply point you at this talk I did at Google’s Tokyo office that does a decent job of summarizing my experiences. The second reason for the long silence is that I’ve been seeing someone else… I mean, I’ve been blogging elsewhere. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

When I got back to my property in June, I was obviously anxious to see what state my property and huts would be in after such a long absence. Out here in the country, anything can happen. Fortunately, nothing did happen, and I found my property more or less as I’d left it. Of course, it was warmer, as temperatures were still dipping below freezing when I left for Japan. From what I heard, Spring this year was wetter and longer than most years, and my property was particularly lush and green even in late June. Wild grasses seemed thicker and taller this year than in past years, and they covered up my normally rocky ground to give my clearings a more meadowy look.

I’m not doing a whole lot on/with my property this year. I pretty much have everything I need/want to live comfortably, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ve achieved my goal of establishing “minimalist comfort.” I did, however, plant a small garden again, though I missed planting season so I’m not sure how productive it will be. When I got back in June, I was surprised to see my strawberry plants sprouting out through the pine needles I’d covered them with for the winter. They’ve since continued to grow, so I planted a few more strawberry plants. They seem like the only plants that thrive on my property, through the cold winters and hot summers. Maybe I’ll just give up on growing other vegetables and have a strawberry patch…

One thing I may try to do this year, if I can afford it, is to set up a rain catchment system. I was skeptical about rain/snow harvesting before, but after spending a winter up here (including a month during which I lived off of snowmelt), I’ve been convinced that it’s worth doing. I’d like to start with a 300 gallon tank, which I could probably fill up with run-off from Hut 2.0’s roof, and would go a long ways towards keeping my strawberry patch watered next year.

Other than that, I’ve been focusing a lot of my attention and energy on my new project: Bootstrap Solar. In short, I’ve been developing an affordable yet powerful solar power pack for powering smart phones, iPads, and other small devices. The project was inspired by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan back in March, when I realized how crucial yet difficult it was to keep phones charged in a disaster (or, even in ordinary times if you spend a lot of time away from power sockets). I’m hoping to start selling them in kit form as early as next month, if I can raise enough funds. In any case, I’ll probably occasionally cross-post here as well, but follow for regular updates.

Anyway, that’s it for today. I’ll try to post again… hopefully sooner next time.

What I’ve been up to

It’s astonishing how quickly time has gone by. I originally started drafting this post a month ago, though it feels like just the other day. Time just takes on a different property here; the first 3 days felt like a week, yet the last 3 weeks feel like a blur… Next thing I know, I’ve got 2 weeks left in my tour of duty.

A week or so after I got here, I started leading teams on “gutting” projects. I wrote fairly extensively on the topic over on the official All Hands blog, if you’re interested. Basically, we’re helping speed up the recovery process by doing relatively simple work that, under ordinary circumstances, would be done by carpenters, who are currently simply overwhelmed and stretched too thinly. It’s fairly delicate work, especially in individual homes that were built by master carpenters, but it’s nothing most people can’t learn to do with a bit of guidance. It’s also quite gratifying to see a “gutted” home that’s been stripped of damaged materials, and cleaned down to its skeletal structure. When the job’s well done, gutted homes look less like tsunami-damaged homes, and more like homes that are simply under construction.

At a personal level, it’s also been very rewarding to work closely with carpenters, and to be able to see these homes up close. The work we’re doing gives us a great deal of insight into how the homes are built. Having worked on at least a dozen homes by now, I’ve come across a variety of building materials and construction methods, and am even starting to get some idea into what works and what doesn’t. As we remove wall panels (usually gypsum boards or a native cement wall that’s applied), we can see the posts, studs and braces that are normally hidden away. I’ve seen a few different floor systems, some of which have faired well, and some of which have collapsed. I’ve also become intimately familiar with the few different methods used in traditional ceilings, and have had the chance to study the beams and joinery hidden above them. It’s been quite inspiring to say the least, and though what little I’ve learned of Japanese building methods barely scratches the surface of all there is to know, I’m looking forward to going back to my property to reinforce my cabin, and build another structure or two employing methods I’ve seen here.

About 10 days ago, I got sent off on a “satellite” project in another community called Yamada, located about an hour and a half’s drive from our main base in Ofunato. Yamada is a much smaller town, but was hit hard by the tsunami and fires that raged on for 24 hours after the waves struck. Over half the homes in the town were damaged or destroyed, and the main part of town has been washed away or burnt out, leaving behind a ghost town. Curretly, our project there consists of two job sites: one is a beach-side shrine, and the other is the shaman’s home. The latter site also serves as our base, where we’re camping out in tents. Other than spring water that comes out of a faucet, there’s no infrastructure there, but fortunately I’m quite used to being in such environments. The other volunteers rotate in and out on 4 day shifts, but as the team leader, I spent two full rotations there, and will be going back up with a 3rd rotation.

Between leading gutting teams in Ofunato and leading the satellite project, I’ve been taking on leadership roles for most of the time here, which is somewhat ironic seeing how I was living a life of solitude until I came to Japan. Leading teams isn’t anything new to me since I’ve somehow found myself in such roles on numerous occasions ever since I was a kid, but it still doesn’t feel natural to me either. I’m not particularly assertive, or dominant, or decisive, or intimidating, or strong, or hard working, or skilled, or possess any of the other traits one may associate with the alpha dog. So I’m genuinely baffled whenever I’m asked to lead, but it keeps happening, which probably means I’ve got whatever is being demanded. Here, though, leading teams has been easy because everybody works hard, and many of the volunteers are far more skilled than I am. In reality, I don’t feel like I’m actually “leading” as much as I’m coordinating. All I do is understand the job, know the team, decide how to apply the team to the tasks, then let them go at it and do whatever I can to support and assist them. On one day during the satellite project when I had 8 people working in the house in 3 sub-teams, everything was humming along at around 3pm, so I decided that the best way to make myself useful was to cook the crew dinner (while occasionally answering questions from the kitchen) so that hot chow would be ready the minute they finished for the day. A lot got done that day, and everybody seemed reasonably happy even though I’d worked them an hour longer than usual. I guess what I lack for in innate leadership qualities, I make up for with what I’ve learned from bosses and managers I’ve had in the past. In short, I try not to replicate behavior I didn’t like about my ex-bosses, and that seems to work okay, even if I can’t exactly explain what it is that I do do.

To be brutally honest, though, I do miss the quiet and carefree solitary life in the woods. The weight of command is burdensome, even if I’m willing to serve that role for a while when asked…

Photo by Eric Zdenek for All Hands Volunteers


(These are answers to questions asked in response to my last post. Please note that, while I am volunteering with All Hands Volunteers, opinions and observations expressed here are my own, and do not represent those of the organization I am with.)

How has your time in solitude in the mountains influenced your decision to go and your presence there?

Interestingly, after Project 31 ended, I decided that while I was perfectly happy being alone, my life was starting to feel stagnant. Even before this volunteer opportunity popped up, I was starting to think about how it’d be nice to be and work among people again. After spending months mostly alone, I’d come to see my own limitations; I realized that I’m not good at challenging myself, and that I like having other people around to challenge, inspire, and motivate me. On the other hand, I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t want to go back to work in an office, but I couldn’t think of anything else I was qualified to do. Until, that is, this volunteer project came up. I feel like I was meant to do this, and it just happened to be the perfect “job” at the perfect time.

What’s the infrastructure like?

It varies quite significantly depending on the area. Most infrastructure has recovered in areas that hadn’t been hit by the tsunami, excepting some train services (like the shinkansen bullet train). In Ofunato city, water, power, gas, and communications are back up in areas that weren’t hit too badly by the tsunami, though some parts still have no physical infrastructure. Many businesses are still closed or are open for fewer hours. A Lawsons convenience store nearby is only open until 6pm (it’s normally open 24 hours) and have half-empty shelves. Our meal ladies buy supplies at another supermarket that’s better stocked, though we’ve also been given boxes of vegetables that had been sent here as relief supplies. I’ve heard that neighboring prefectures that weren’t affected by the earthquake or tsunami actually have more supply issues, because so much stuff is being sent to the “front lines” (i.e. the coastal tsunami disaster areas). Many towns and cities are far worse off than Ofunato. Neighboring Rikuzentakata basically has ceased to exist, so infrastructure is virtually non-existent. Even if there are supplies, they aren’t necessarily being distributed well, so there could be food rotting in a warehouse (or school) while people live off of instant noodles. In some areas, it’ll takes months to a year to repair water and power infrastructure, and many people still rely on water distributed by the JSDF, or are trying to use/recover local wells.

How are you getting your basics (water, food, shelter)?

Our base has running water, and food is available in the city we’re in. Shelter is a bigger issue, however. Our current base can only house a few more people, and we have another 50-70 volunteers showing up over the next week or two. We’d initially secured a campground to serve as our base where volunteers can sleep in tents, but the prefecture decided to build temporary housing there (which is great… temporary housing is a priority). In general, there are so many evacuees needing housing that “proper” housing is basically unavailable for volunteers. Fortunately, we’re willing to endure more basic living conditions than most people, so we can be more creative in finding solutions.

How do you guys find projects?

Believe it or not, finding projects has been a huge challenge. Getting word out about our activities has been somewhat challenging, but the bigger issue is cultural. As outsiders (and foreigners at that), it’s been difficult to gain enough trust to be allowed into individual homes and business. Furthermore, Japanese people are still unaccustomed to the kind of assistance we provide, and many people seemed to not believe that we actually provided services for free (though, to be fair, there are scammers who go around “volunteering” then send a bill later). I think Japanese people are also self-sufficient, and just used to dealing with their own problems without relying on others. So, we’ve faced a number of obstacles.

The All Hands assessment team (the first of whom arrived a few days after the earthquake) and early volunteers did a great job of establishing local political support. Many of our projects have come through a single local leader who’s introduced us to residents and businesses in his local area of influence. From there, we’ve been able to slowly grow our operations. The press has been covering us pretty extensively (we had 3 camera crews filming us this past week), and it’s a lot easier to gain trust if we can show a newspaper clipping with our name in it.

Ultimately, we have to let our work speak for itself. I’ve started leading a few “gutting” projects (removing drywall and floor boards), and one thing I stress to everybody (my team members, the leadership, the locals) is how important it is that we do work that meets local standards, and how high those standards are. If we do sub-par work, the locals will simply wait until professional carpenters can do the work, since they’d rather have the work done properly later, than to have it done poorly now. On the other hand, if we do good work, that’ll go a long ways towards earning trust, and it’ll become much easier to find new projects. Fortunately, I’m working with some incredible people, so doing work that we can be proud of hasn’t been too difficult.

These projects seem to be more often community buildings than individual homes, is that the case?

Actually, most of the “projects” we’ve worked on have been individual homes. The project at the high school I’ve been helping coordinate is actually our first major project in a public building. It seems the All Hands staff are interested in finding more of those, since it impacts more people at a time. Having said that, we’re here to help, and we’ll do whatever and go where ever help is most in demand.

Who provides your lunch bento boxes?

A local bento shop delivers them to our base, and then a hired driver delivers them to work sites. There aren’t too many bento shops open yet, so it’s not uncommon for our volunteers to be eating nicer lunches than the residents that we’re helping. Whenever I can, I offer the same bentos to residents at our worksites, but that’s a custom that hasn’t been adopted as widely as I’d like (mostly because the bentos are expensive).

How are the survivors doing psychologically? Is there any help in this regard? There are possibly cultural differences of which we aren’t aware – such as the Japanese people being very resilient or fatalistic.

Many of the older people I’ve talked to remember the tsunami triggered by the 1960 Chile earthquake, which killed hundreds here. In general, the Japanese are used to hardship. In fact, I’ve come to realize recently that the culture almost seems to have been defined by hardship. Traits like “endurance”, “resilience”, “self-reliance” are highly valued here, and those qualities help people overcome hardships. We’ve seen old men and women, perhaps over 90 years old, bent over piles of rubble, clearing debris a tiny handful at a time. When asked if they need help, they would smile, and tell us that they’re doing just fine. It’s obvious to everybody that they won’t clear the mountain of rubble that surrounds their home in their life times, but that’s besides the point. If all you can do is move the mountain one handful at a time, then that’s what you do. That’s the attitude people have here.

Having said that, not everybody lives up to those ideals, and to no fault of their own. The losses are overwhelming. The tasks at hand are overwhelming. Many people are overwhelmed. We’ve been able to help some of those people, but there are many, many others who haven’t received much help. Those who’ve lost only material positions probably consider themselves fairly lucky. Many have lost loved ones. One of our volunteer translators went to Rikuzentakata, which has had a much higher death toll than Ofunato. She told us about how, when she offered condolences to a local official when she learned that he’d lost his wife, he replied “We don’t do that any more. Everybody’s lost somebody, so we just tell each other, ‘ganbarou’ (let’s work hard).”

I haven’t been involved in any psychological relief efforts, but I’ve heard that volunteers (both professionals and ordinary people) are being sent into evacuation centers to talk to people, and to provide emotional care. I’ve also seen an ad-hoc kitten-petting-zoo-on-wheels visiting an evacuation center, to give kids a bit of fuzzy cute relief. Overall, though, I think there’s tremendous need for mental care and support (especially for kids and the elderly), and that need is not being met as adequately as I’m sure everybody would like.

I’m curious if you’ve seen any looting or stealing in the wake of the disaster.

I haven’t heard of much looting, but there’s definitely a lot of theft. In fact, I saw one house today that had a cardboard sign up on the window. It indicated that the residents were living at an evacuation center, and at the bottom of the sign, it read “Please do not burglarize.” Later, though, the resident at our worksite told me about how his tools had been stolen. At the end, humans are humans.

Ryo, my question would be about the total devastation you’re witnessing. It just seems so overwhelming. How do you deal with that, and how long for Japan to get back on their collective feet?

It is overwhelming. Fortunately, it’s too overwhelming to really be affected by it. All I see, most of the time, is rubble. It’s just bits of wood, metal, plastic, cars, boats etc. It’s stuff. It doesn’t affect me too much, because it’s difficult to actually mentally and emotionally tie all that rubble to human suffering.

But, we also witness suffering. One evening, a bunch of us watched a YouTube video of the tsunami engulfing this city we’re in. After the video ended, one of the local volunteers muttered “my friend’s house was in that video.” When someone asked him if the friend had made it out in time, he shook his head. In another instance, a local volunteer told us that he’d miss a day of work the next day because it was a day of mourning for an uncle who’d died in the tsunami. Until then, we didn’t know he’d lost a family member. Today, a local supporter of ours spontaneously gave me and another volunteer a tour of a temple. Inside the main building, in a dark corner, were neat rows of boxes containing the cremated remains of perhaps 20-30 tsunami victims.

How do we deal with it? All Hands requires volunteers staying for over a month to take at least 3 days’ break every month. I’m sure that’ll help, but I haven’t quite decided how I’ll deal with it. I can feel the sadness and pain accumulating in myself, somewhere in my soul. Someday I’ll find a way to process it, or maybe I’ll reach a limit of some sort, but I’m ok for now. I think the best way we deal with it is by working hard. We deal with it by working hard, and doing good work, so that we can see the locals smile. Every time someone tells us that we’ve brought them a step closer to recovering their lives, it also eases our souls and fills our hearts.

How is the local radiation and type of contamination being monitored and dealt with?

There are a number of organizations, both Japanese and international, monitoring radiation levels in Japan. We also may have a dosimeter donated to us, though, frankly, I’d rather see that money spent on more power tools. I’m slightly more concerned about bacteria and asbestos. We inhale a lot of dust, and who knows what’s in that dust. I do have a P100 respirator, though I normally just use a N95 face mask, if anything at all. It’s probably not enough, but it’s hard to be too worried about it when there’s so much to do. I’m not trying to sound brave or cavalier, but it’s just the reality. Fortunately, the locals are more concerned about our health than we are, and they’ll usually bring us masks (and goggles) if they see one of us working without one.

I read your comment regarding those who lost everything need your (volunteers) help the most, yet you felt there was little or nothing you could do for them. Have you come up with a solution or fix to that conundrum yet?

Sadly, no. At least, not directly. The labor that we’re providing should be saving people a lot of money, which means more money should become available to those who need it more. Also, by off-loading work from carpenters, they should be able to spend more time building temporary homes and fixing houses. But, that’s too nebulous to really feel like we’re “helping.”

I see all the rubble in the picture above, and I think hmmm with some re-milling a lot of that material could be reused. Bigger beams and boards cut smaller. Or small boards laminated into bigger beams. Metal and plastics to be recycled. Is anyone doing this?

A carpenter told me that 50% of Japan’s plywood production capacity got wiped out by the tsunami. So, yes, between constrained supply and huge demand, stocks of building supplies are quickly dwindling (or already depleted). What little is available is all going towards temporary housing, so carpenters don’t have enough materials to start repairing homes.

However, I’m guessing mills that are operational would rather keep processing logs, rather than have to retool and adjust to dealing with irregularly shaped and sized debris. Using lumber that’s been soaked in salt water may not be a great idea in the first place. In Ofunato, there’s talk of burning wood for fuel at the local cement plant, but otherwise, I haven’t heard much talk about recycling. However, considering how high metal prices are these days, I’d be surprised if at least some metal weren’t being recycled or sold.

What do you do with the trash/rubble? I have a hard time imagining a landfill big enough.

These decisions are made way above and outside my organization. From my personal perspective, all I see is that whatever we dump on the streets get hauled away. From what I understand, the rubble gets collected in one place, then sorted, and disposed of somehow. I read an article that in some places, they might haul them up into the mountains to be dumped into valleys and gullies. I worry about the long-term environmental effects, but, unfortunately, the priority is to clear out the rubble so that rebuilding can begin.

Do they have “Tsunami insurance” in Japan?

In our assessments, we ask home owners whether they had tsunami insurance. Most of the time, the answer is “no”. Many of the people whose homes were flooded but not destroyed lived far enough away from the ocean that they didn’t think a tsunami could possibly reach them. I don’t blame them. It’s possible that people who lived in areas that got flooded in the 1960 Chile earthquake tsunami had insurance, but I haven’t talked to those people too extensively since we have no services we can offer them. I think the general attitude is that tsunamis are so rare and tsunami insurance so expensive, that most people couldn’t afford it, or didn’t consider it to be worthwhile.

How are YOU doing. We sometimes forget how traumatic it is for the people doing the helping. Seeing all the devastation, and the devastated people, knowing there is only so much you can do can take it’s toll.

Thanks for asking. I’m doing pretty well. It’s not easy being here and doing what I do, but it is also tremendously rewarding. I think the hardest part is not being able to talk to my friends back in the US because of the time difference. But, I’m surrounded by amazing people, and that makes things a little easier. I’ve also only been here for 10 days, and I think I’m still adjusting. We’ll see how things go in the coming weeks (and perhaps, months).

What type of construction withstood the earthquake and tsunami? Likely nothing close to the coast, but further in you should start to see structures that are still standing.

Steel-framed buildings did well, but when it comes to houses, those built using the traditional method seemed to have faired best. The traditional method employs lots of wood, including nice big fat posts and beams with intricate joints, as well as sturdy diagonal braces in many/most walls.

What is being communicated to the Japanese people regarding recovery, relief, planning, etc. How is the message sent to them?

“Japanese people” is a bit broad, but the media here is still actively reporting on the disaster, from what I can tell. More locally, newspapers, radios, flyers, and the internet offer more relevant and specific information.

Are you seeing anything spontaneous develop among the people? Entertainment? Work details? Child care sharing? Anything that wouldn’t happen under normal conditions?

I haven’t seen large or concerted efforts (and I simply don’t have much visibility into other organizations), but from what I’ve seen and heard, there are pockets of grassroots activity here and there. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, volunteering became a social phenomenon for the first time in Japan. In this earthquake, local governments were fairly quick in setting up basic support for volunteers, but volunteerism and NPOs are still a relatively nascent phenomenon here. Hopefully this disaster will act as a catalyst to empower and embolden those organizations and add momentum to this trend.

I’m thinking of volunteering with All Hands. Wondering what it has/or will cost you total for travel/passports and such?

As for travel costs, it’s the price of a round-trip flight to/from Tokyo, plus another 100USD or so to get to/from our base in Ofunato, Iwate. I think a passport was a bit over 100USD the last time I got it (expedited). You might perhaps need to buy some gear as well. Once here, you’ll be fed and sheltered.

However, we’re only accepting volunteers through mid-July, and we’ve had an overwhelming number of applicants. If you’d really like to try and come here, apply via the All Hands website. Alternatively, you can donate money, and that’ll be appreciated quite a bit too.

Has seeing what you have of the aftermath and the effect of this disaster given you a new appreciation for life and living?

I think I’ve always had a healthy appreciation of life and living :-), but I certainly feel fortunate to be here, and to have been given the opportunity to do what I’m doing. If anything, I think I’ve a new appreciation for people and society. I spend my days with some amazing people, both volunteers and locals, and I’ve received heartfelt support from friends (and strangers) back home. I think disasters bring out the best in people, and that’s what makes this worth doing despite all the challenges.


Judging by the feedback to my last post, it seems like there’s a fair amount of interest in what I’m doing and what it’s like here in the disaster zone. It’s hard to summarize my experiences and observations, but I was thinking I could get more information out if people asked me questions.

So, if there’s anything you’d like to hear more about, leave a question in the comments below. I’ll follow up with answers in another post. Questions can be about my specific experiences, or general questions about the conditions in the disaster area, as long as they are fairly specific.

A Letter from the Disaster Area

(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.

One Week in Ofunato

I got here a week ago tonight, though it feels like it must’ve been ages ago. I’ve seen and experienced so much in such a short period of time, and with so much to do, it’s been difficult to find the time to write blog posts. If you’re interested in following what I’m doing here, I’ve been posting short snippets on my Facebook page, and I’ve posted some pictures on my Flickr stream as well (though, our internet access is limited, so I’m falling behind with my uploads). Anyway, it looks like I’ll be here for a while, and things may calm down a bit in the weeks ahead (or not), so I’ll try to gradually get more content up when I can.

Onwards! (to Japan… and beyond)

It’s funny how sometimes life just happens to you… But let me back up.

I was down in Coalinga CA for 4 days of shooting last week, including at the State Service Rifle Championships (in case you’re wondering, I shot a new personal best on day 2, won 3 minor awards, then got my ass thoroughly kicked by placing dead last on the 4th day). On the long drive up and down, and in the days since returning to Serenity Valley again, I’ve been thinking about what I want to do next.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this is Year 3. I’m burning through my backup backup funds now, and when that’s gone, play time will be over, and I’ll have to head back to work (probably in a cubicle, as a code monkey). So, this is a make or break year for me. Not that going back to work would be horrible, but to a large extent, this is the year in which I figure out how to stay on the path less traveled, or admit defeat and join the traffic jam over on the well traveled superhighway.

So, after much contemplation and deliberation, I hatched a plan. I decided that this summer, I’ll try to enroll in an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) class at a community college in Chico. Chico’s 3 hours from Serenity Valley, and classes are Mondays through Thursdays, so I’ll be able to come up on weekends to tend to my garden and such. If I could get an EMT certificate, that would at least give me another marketable skill, and it might help me avoid the cubicle farm later on.

Of course, as they say, plans are there to fall apart.

Earlier this afternoon, an email I’d been waiting for –but had half given up on– finally arrived. It was from All Hands, the volunteer disaster relief organization I’d been hoping to join. The email had been sent to a small subset of registered volunteers, as they are (in their words) trying “to quickly assemble a core volunteer team with depth and variety of skills to help us get started in the first few weeks” in the earthquake and tsunami disaster area in North-eastern Japan. They describe the work ahead thusly:

Our programs are still in development; flexibility will be key. Days may be long, stop and start, with inevitable pauses and frustrations. We hope to work alongside many local residents and volunteers. Our communal living arrangements could range from something as simple as tent camping with portable toilets to our more typical dormitory style accommodations. We need volunteers who can help to build up our base infrastructure, so that others can join us and we can multiply our work and our impact. We continue to experience aftershocks and tsunami warnings.

Flexibility, primitive living conditions, setup infrastructure… in a dangerous environment? And where I speak the language? That’s got my name written all over it!

But… my plan! My shiny new plan! I contemplated my options for what felt like minutes, but was probably more like 10 seconds. Sometimes, opportunities fall in your lap. You can take it, or it leaves you. I decided to take it. They said participation depended on another questionnaire and that responding sooner would be more likely to guarantee a spot on the team. My response was sent 18 minutes after the first email hit my inbox.

Then, I had to wait.

I was so excited I couldn’t sit still, so I went for a walk in the woods (by which I mean, I stepped outside and walked around).

By the time I got back, there was another email waiting for me, saying they were excited to have me in Japan as soon as possible. As soon as possible! Yikes!

Right now, I’m trying to leave open the option of continuing with my Plan. One thing I need to do before leaving for Japan is to take a Healthcare Provider level CPR class, which is a prerequisite for the EMT class I’m hoping to take. Just in case I don’t have time to take it between when I get back from Japan and when classes start, I’m going to try and take it before I leave (and besides, that’s probably a valuable skill to have, heading into a disaster zone).

Next, I need to book a flight (which shouldn’t be a problem since nobody else is going to Japan right now), and pack. I’m waiting to get more information about conditions on the ground, but this packing list should be interesting. From what I understand, power and water is still out in the worst hit parts (i.e. where we’re going), and as the first project members on the ground, we’ll probably be expected to work largely autonomously. I’ll need to prepare for all kinds of work, from programming (they might need custom software/databases) to rubble removal, to construction, to… who knows.

Anyway, I’m super excited, and all geared up to go kick some ass… at helping people, or whatever it is I’ll end up doing.

Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.