Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Looking for the 'There' There (Prologue)

If I were asked what defines my life at this particular phase, I would say that it is to research 'place,' to see how a particular place defines the culture, beliefs, and lifestyles of those who live there.  My marathon walks have proven to be the best means to get out into the world and examine these very points.  (An fact obvious to all those who read this blog.)  But what if there is no longer any 'place' left? 

It was with this in mind that I decided to walk through the Tohoku tsunami zone.  I am driven by history, and this event went beyond history, into the realm of epic.  Like many of us, the triple disaster had haunted me.  On the day that it occurred, I was living in New Mexico, and even from that distance, it had been horrific to watch the suffering befalling the country that had become home.  My first instinct had been to pack all my camping gear and hop on a plane, in order to do what I could, to lend the strength of my arms, or utilyze my ability with the language to interpret for the international rescue teams.  But my wife was then seven months pregnant, and I knew that my place was with her.  

Returning to Japan nearly a year later, I had heard the stories of those who had gone to help, and I still felt guilty that I had been unable to offer any assistance.  Another year, then two, passed, where my own immediate needs took precedence.  But the desire to do something continued to work on me.  

When I heard the announcement that Tokyo had been given the 2020 Olympic games, I was crushed.  I felt that this was the ultimate betrayal of the survivors.  This decision seemed immature to me.  It had all the makings of a sympathy bid, but would be much more meaningful were the Tohoku region to be completely stable and rebuilt, a parallel to a 1964 Tokyo rising from the rubble of war. I decided that what I could do was to visit the area and talk with the locals, making their tales known.  We heard many of their horror stories about the disaster and its immediate aftermath, but I wanted to tell how things were today, three years on.

It was an impetuous decision to be sure.  I relish the planning of my walks almost as much as the walks themselves, but this one was much more impromptu.  I had no maps, no idea of the current circumstances.  Whereas my earlier thought of bringing camping gear and food had been more about not wishing to add more strain to an already difficult situation, this time I thought that I'd need the gear since I wasn't sure if there were any places to eat or sleep.  I packed my big backpack for a two week walk.  Then sitting down with Google Maps, I saw that I could break the walk in two parts, so decided to do just that, racing as I was the start of rainy season.  I unpacked the big bag, and packed my medium bag with lighter gear -- a bivy sack, sleep pad, sleeping sheet.  But a few days later I took all of these out and decided to go very light.  I recalled an earlier conversation I'd had with a taxi driver in tsunami-stricken Shiogama, in which he'd mentioned that all the clean up had already been done, but what was needed was a means for the people to move forward economically.  In this spirit,  I'd eat what I could find, sleep where I could, hopefully putting much needed money back into the hands of the locals.  

But how would they take my presence there?  Despite my best intentions, something about all of this felt a bit off, like I was trying to find entertainment or adventure in an area that had been very badly traumatized.  My discomfort continued throughout the preparations, and hung more heavily upon me when I stepped off the train on a Monday morning in the Iwate city of Miyako...   

On the turntable:  Taj Mahal, "The Essential Taj Mahal"
On the nighttable:  Jeffrey Eugenides, "The Marriage Plot"

1 comment:

wes said...

Ok, now you've got me hooked. Anxiously awaiting for your saga to play out on this blog in the coming months