Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Painter

Yesterday we found out where all the squid came from that the supermarket owner told us about two weeks ago. This week we were clearing out a small complex of buildings just North of the river from the supermarket which turned out to be the seafood frying factory that lost all its squid. Before the tsunami hit, all the workers were able to escape up the hill to safety. The boss though, getting impatient as bosses tend to do, ran back down to check a few last things and had to be rescued as the wave rushed up the river. They all made it back OK, but a lesson there for bosses everywhere I think...

We were met by a woman who asked us to start first on her grandfather’s house which was the main house in the complex with an adjoining flat, then a barn and if we had time and finish off with the house she lived in. All these places were dotted around the main factory but before we could start there was a magnitude 7.3 earthquake and a tsunami warning. We could hear the emergency PA broadcasting warnings and fire engines were driving around warning of a tsunami. Combined with a high-tide we heard this could mean a possible 6 metre rise in sea level so we drove up to the evacuation area to wait it out. We returned after hearing the warning was actually for a 60cm tsunami but left the bus parked in a quick getaway spot at the bottom of the hill and all us team leaders were given whistles to get everyone out and back on the bus sharp if it looked like going pear-shaped. 30 mins later the tsunami warning was cancelled.

It was 34°C but felt much hotter in the sun. It was a big ask but we got through it much quicker than we thought and had the main house cleared just after lunch. The grandfather is now 87 and currently in hospital. He’s an avid painter and photographer though and we must have pulled more than a hundred paintings and old photos out of the back room. The woman must have been through the house and assured us she’d retrieved all the valuables she needed.
As we were starting to pile up our usual stock of mementos she was confidently saying it was OK she’d taken everything she needed and we could bin everything else. We piled them up separately for her anyway and the longer it went on, the more stuff we brought out and she slowly started to pour over the old photos, wedding albums, old paintings and old portraits that she’d either forgotten about or had no idea were in there. Dirk, my only fellow foreigner and sunburn victim on this trip, who kindly supplied a couple of these photos, did an outstanding job gently talking to her, chatting about how he still has one of the first black-and-white portraits ever taken of his great-grandfather and how nice it is to have to show his kids, and grandkids, and their kids… and just gave her plenty of space to mull things over and make up her own mind. Slowly she started gathering up some of the photos and putting them in her car.

We cleared out the barn in about 40mins and after another break did as much of the last house as we could in the final hour, about 80% of it. She was stoked we had time to get to her place, as she couldn’t have directly asked us to start on it first. Her 87-year old grandfather was in hospital so she couldn’t very well ask us to start on her house first and do his last.

As we all got back on the bus she stood alongside waving, bowing and thanking each of us, waving all the time till we drove out of sight.

On the way back we drove past the place we worked on five weeks ago and stopped off at the wrecked primary school where we’d heard the head teacher and others had written thank you messages on the second floor wall. Not a bad place to go to school, right by the beach... you’d think. The grass is starting to grow back but the overturned car is still there and further down there were lots more houses that just haven’t been started on yet… plenty more to do.

And finally, the main reason I reckon we were able to get so much done this time was we had one of the Blues Brothers on the team, although he did claim to be a dentist from Asakusa.

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