The first thing I noticed was the smell of rotten fish. There were about 40 of us on the tour bus that drove through Onagawa, a small fishing village about 2 hours north of Tokyo. We had just finished 2 days of voluntary mud digging in nearby Ishinomaki and were brought to Onagawa to understand the extent of damage. I had my mask on during the ride and when I got off the bus, I simply tried not to breathe.

Toppled building

But that wasn’t it. I think I mentally blocked my emotions too. It was simply too much. To see how this village had no chance. Then I got angry, mad angry that the people chose to live in an area that has been wiped out by tsunamis before. Then again, is there a place in the world that’s completely safe?

I decided to join the voluntary relief effort organized by American Chamber of Commerce Japan and Peace Boat because I knew I wanted to do something. The last time I volunteered was when I was a kid and I still remember how great it felt to be able to help someone.

Although I didn’t actually get to talk to the people who directly benefited from our black gunk digging, I do believe that our 2 day clean up gave them a bit of hope: that there are strangers out there who care. We wanted to talk to the locals and understand more what they are going through, but we were all mindful of the fact that they’ve had their share of volunteers coming and going through a revolving door for the past 2 months, giving them volunteer-fatigue.

So instead we got to know each other more. And for me that was a wonderful gift. I didn’t expect anything from this trip other than to do some good. Instead I met a few dozen like minded people who all went to Ishinomaki to “get our hands dirty”. [“Get Your Hands Dirty” was actually the project name].

I also didn’t realize how out of shape I was. After the first day of mud shoveling and bagging, I was so tired I couldn’t stay awake beyond 9pm and the last time I went to bed voluntarily at 9pm was when I was 6. My muscles were sore the next morning, but what was worse for me was the sun burn I got on my back (from forgetting to put sun block on!) So a word of warning for those who decide to volunteer anywhere outdoors, remember to slap on sun block on every single patch of skin you can see. Also, prepare for some heart aching moments as I’ve discovered when I found some photos in the debris. I don’t know if the children in the photos survived, but looking at their smiling faces in the photos was enough to rip my heart out.

Right now, Tohoku is trying to get back on its feet with the help of volunteers and government assisted programs. It was clear to us that this road to recovery will take at least a decade if not more. But that hasn’t scared us away. We have all started to converse among ourselves and with Peace Boat on what we can do next.

Shot of the team that cleared Mr. Chiba’s backyard

Some are planning on another trip north, one I believe is working with his company on donating sustainable housing, while I am working on getting the word out – that more volunteers and donations (not just monetary) are needed in the coming months, etc.

I believe that volunteering teaches us to be more grateful for what we have. And a lot of us need this little reminder once in awhile. The first night I got home, I was so grateful for the bed, the hot tub and good food.

I am humbled and grateful for the new friends I made in a country I had just moved to, in which I now call home.

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