CORNWALL — Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu once said, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”
Japan is still taking baby steps in recovering from last March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, but volunteers — like Cornwall’s Paul Viko — are helping the Asian island nation complete the journey.
Viko, 81, returned on Oct. 16 after spending almost a month volunteering in various tsunami recovery efforts in Japan, the landscape of which continues to be strewn with the rubble of buildings, roads and bridges torn apart following an 8.9-maginitude tremor and resulting tsunami that overwhelmed the nation on March 11.
Like millions of others throughout the world, Viko was moved by the images he saw of the flattened Japanese infrastructure and the prospect of additional suffering brought on by the structurally compromised Fukushima nuclear power plant. So when he learned that one of his acquaintances had volunteered to go to Japan and help, he followed suit.
“I thought, ‘Gee, that sounds interesting,’” Viko recalled. “So I joined up, and off I went.”
He signed up with a group called Volunteers For Peace, which organizes humanitarian trips for people wanting to help struggling countries. Once in-country, the volunteers work with various nongovernmental organizations to perform tasks ranging from medical care to economic development.
This wouldn’t be Viko’s first foray into international volunteerism.
A retired American Express official, Viko went on a Peace Corps mission to Eastern European country of Moldova in 2004, and followed that up with trips to Iraq in 2005 and Mozambique in 2006. In Iraq he helped teach Iraqi contractors how to place bids, and in Mozambique he taught aspiring entrepreneurs how to write business plans.
But this was a trip that saw Viko use his blue-collar, rather than white-collar, skills. He left for Japan on Sept. 22 and spent his first two days outside of Tokyo planting trees. He was part of an international group of four men and four women — with two Japanese mentors — who planted 900 trees in 48 hours. It proved a harbinger of activity to come, as the group would spend the majority of its time in agricultural pursuits — namely, readying flood-damaged fields for planting. The tsunami had caused erosion and spread rocks on fields, rendering them inhospitable to crops. So Viko and his colleagues found themselves doing a lot of rock picking, grass cutting (sometimes with dull sickle) to put the fields back into food production.
“It was rewarding,” Viko said of the work. “Complete strangers thanked us for what we were doing.”
The group made its home base in a rustic Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Sendai, a city located around 250 miles north of Tokyo. The four men slept in one room and the four women slept in another. They slept on the floor in sleeping bags and borrowed blankets. Viko noted cold air rushed its way into the temple through a series of holes. The group eventually got some propane-fueled heaters to warm up the place.
Volunteers did their own cooking and housekeeping. Viko arrived not having been a big fan of Japanese food, but he adjusted during his stay.
“We had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said with a smile, adding he ate most of his meals with chopsticks.
“It was kind of fun,” he said.
From the temple, the group would go out on day trips, sometimes as far as two hours away, to work the fields and plant trees. Locals would often pitch in to help them.
But the group was not asked to participate in any of the heavy lifting in terms of clearing building debris or building schools. That was being done by contractors and local officials. Nevertheless, Viko and his colleagues got a good look at the damage.
They were far enough away from the Fukushima reactor so that they didn’t fear radiation poisoning.
“It was just terrible, the devastation,” Viko said. “You would look on land and see the boats washed onto the shore, and you knew the boats were not usable anymore.”
He noted there were some areas close to the coast that could only be visited during the day because large stretches of land would be underwater at night, when the tide came in.
Viko made a special delivery to two schools while in Japan. That delivery involved a series of goodwill cards written by Mary Hogan Elementary School students to their Japanese peers. The group’s two Japanese mentors translated the messages in the cards to Japanese.
“They really enjoyed it,” Viko said of the Japanese students’ reactions to the messages.
The trip gave Viko a better understanding of the challenges facing Japan, as well as some satisfaction in knowing he helped that country in his own small way.
He said he would definitely return again some day.
“If I go over again, I would be tempted to send over some sharpened tools or some sharpeners,” he quipped.
Viko and his fellow volunteers offer first-hand observations and photos of their experiences at http://tohokurevival.blogspot.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.