木曜日, 6月 23, 2011

Good Idea: Volunteer Interpreter

As promised, the other side of my week in Ishigaki, Okinawa:
Mayor's thoughts: "I see you takin' my picture"
So, I mentioned previously that day one I met some triathletes from the same flight to Ishigaki. What I didn't mention however was that the nice woman from Chile I met went on to win 1st place in her division (the highest womens' division, that is)! How did day two start? After the Spatan-style madness that was breakfast with my host family (see prior post), the other interpreters and I headed to the City hall and met the mayor! At the meeting, Stephanie, the local CIR who was in charge of organizing us (along with a million other aspects of the triathlon), explained what we were doing there to the governor.

After that we had several hours of orientation, including a tour of the facilities on the island that would be used by the international competitors, as well as the hotels they would stay at. These became the places we were posted throughout the week to help them in shifts.  We also received our schedule for the week, and everyone had several free days and half days to spend with our host families and sight see.
Once orientation was over, we volunteers decided to grab lunch together and we followed Clayton, the only volunteer doing it for the second time, to Indian, but since it was packed, the four of us who had to work later split off to find local food and see the shopping arcade. 
Orion, brewed in Okinawa released a special can commemorating the Triathlon
 After getting to know each other over lunch, we shopped around and discussed our host families while enjoying the local color. Everyone in Ishigaki seemed to be not just friendly and approachable, but more tolerant (read: less gawky) of us foreigners and rarely made a big deal about us speaking Japanese (a point I really appreciate since I'd rather use Japanese to communicate the same things I would in English, not just discuss how, where, and how long I've studied Japanese). Basically, I was loving everything about this island!
This fishing shop sells the most ridiculously big and beautiful, old shells you've ever seen!
Tom's host father was actually the owner of a minshuku, a family-operated Japanese lodge, so not only did he have a hotel room for his room, his host, who had nothing better to do (thanks to the international panic after the March earthquake and tsunami, closer to MONGOLIA than Ishigaki), took us out for a tour of the island the next morning and snorkeling after lunch! We visited a recently discovered, ancient cave, and stopped all over the island to take photos of breathtaking panoramas and picturesque beaches with absolutely no one taking advantage of them!
See what I mean?
After sightseeing and lunch, I went snorkeling for the second time in my life, and let me tell you, it could not have been MORE different than my first time. The biggest difference was Ishigaki is covered in reefs, which might as well be the underwater nations' capitals they are so busy and crowded with every kind of fish and coral going  their way and not caring one bit that you're there! I even saw 4 sea-snakes, which look like 6 foot long air-conditioning ducts painted with snake patters and a face like mollusk from outer space! Apparently they are one of the most poisonous things on the planet as well, but because they have tiny mouths, and are happy to creep along the ocean floor, we didn't have to call in the national guard.
Up to this point though, it had really only been the 4 of us hanging out, even though I already knew 3 of the other volunteers from conferences in Tokyo and online forums, and I was worried that everyone would be happy to go to bed at 9 every night and hardly hang out with each other. Luckily, that was not the case AT ALL!

That evening I was invited by a local English teacher, Sean, to a house party of mostly older Japanese people who volunteer every year to help the triathlon as well. He had stopped by my evening shift Day 2 at the hotel, to say hello and see this year's batch of volunteers. That whole week, he and Alex, a cool dude from England, also teaching English on the island, extended these warm welcomes, and this, the first of many such nights, turned out to be some volunteers who had also used their network to invite pretty much all of the other volunteer interpreters. What started as a quiet get together and drinks with a half-dozen older, but very pleasant folks, turned into an all ages party with 30 people spread throughout the kitchen, living room and front porch, with children and and dogs running around between everyone's legs, good food on the bbq, more coming from the kitchen, and the older men urging the volunteers to drink more Orion and shima, the local term for their long-grain rice alcohol, Awamori, that is famous all over Okinawa. 

The next evening as well, we were invited to yet another host's minshuku and Jeff, the Taiwanese-American volunteer made ginger-chicken soup along a pot-luck of other food brought and/or made there in the kitchen by other guests. We stuffed ourselves on hamburgers, taco-salad and snacks, and talked with owner, who also ran a dive shop, and a couple other Japanese families who showed up late.

 When I say "showed up late" it's because I didn't realize until about the 6th of 7 days there, that even though Ishigaki is very much a part of Japan, it was the first place in Japan I'd ever been where the entire island really didn't care about being punctual. Japan is right to pride themselves on how punctual their trains, planes, and subways are, but this town where everyone drove themselves, and liked to relax, had really embraced the island lifestyle and given up on worrying about being a couple minutes late. It was almost like culture shock when it finally dawned on me.

Finally, after a few more shifts sitting at help desks, and a couple trips to pizza and karaoke with my fellow volunteers and local English teachers, the big day had arrived:
The mass of white water is about 100 professional triathletes paddling the water like viciously fine-tuned machines
 After the morning of local and amateur participants, the pro women and men had their go at tearing all over the island! The swam two big laps in the bay before exiting, grabbing their bikes and tearing up laps, including both ways across that huge bridge in the photo above, before finally running a MARATHON. INSANE!!!
Some more of the local color, out cheering for his Kiwi countrymen.
Jeff, Tom and I were chosen to be on the anti-doping committee. So our job was to watch the athletes we were told to after the race and make sure the didn't drink, eat, or take anything shading between finishing the race and being taken for the doping test. We got to wear cool head sets and communicate with the people back at the test facility, and my guy, who placed 3rd was extremely cooperative and just happy as hell to have placed so well since coming back from an injury.
We're officially DOPE
 That night, at least half the island met out in park for a celebration with live music, and food stalls from various local organizations and school clubs. My host family took me there and After looking around, I joined the other interpreters. Not only was everyone and there brother there that night (including the athletes from that day), the mayor stopped by our little group sitting in the grass and started pulling beer after beer out from his jacket pockets, thank us each personally. What a great guy!
I took this on my cell phone, but that's the mayor giving the thumbs up!
 Meanwhile on stage, Stephanie was busy helping with the English and Japanese emceeing, so when she finally finished and the concert ended, we all marched back downtown, past the main area of the triathlon, for more drinks and karaoke, celebrating late into the evening.

Most of our merry gang, with Jeff brandishing the case of cola he got from Olga at the park!
Ben, Sean, and me (holding some shima) at karaoke
 The next day we took some of the different triathlete teams form their hotels to elementary schools to talk to the children about what they do and their impression of Ishigaki. Ben and I got the Austrian team and I got to dust off my veeery rusty 'ol German language skills!

The next, and final full day on the island was the first time all the volunteers had the day off at the same time so we all grabbed a ferry that morning to Hateruma, the southernmost island in all of Japan; it's so far south that they boast being able to see the Southern Cross constellation!
seriously, they're proud
 We rented bikes, and rode all the way to the southern tip of this southernmost island, and after many photos on the wave-battered, volcanic cliffs, we returned to our bikes, pedaling back around to a place for lunch, and then the beach for more snorkeling!
Oh and did I mention we looked incredibly intimidating? That's cuz we didn't.
 Then we barely returned our bikes in time to catch a bus back to the port and the last ferry of the day to Ishigaki. We all snoozed for those 2 hours, which was perfect because we had our own thank you/farewell ceremony and dinner to attend at a hotel conference room, and the City Hall
 (Stephanie included) did a cute, silly, magic show for us, but mostly for the children of all the host families who attended that night as well. Knowing this was our last night together, guess what? That's right! We went out for more drinks and karaoke. I think I got to go to karaoke four times that week, and since it's one of my favorite things to do, yet sometimes so difficult to find people in the mood to go with you, it was one more thing about my time there that I absolutely loved!
This was a wild bar where all the staff, surprised by a sudden audience, got up and started playing us rock covers!
The final day we had to say good bye to our host families and each other. After going through security, I sat with a few of the other volunteers, in an odd limbo where nobody spoke, lost in our thoughts of all the memories this week on Ishigaki provided. Then my cell phone rang, and it was Stephanie. with less than 10 minutes before our plane started boarding she called me back out to receive a thank you gift from the city hall staff, a few of whom also came to wave goodbye. Thus making this trip excellent, right down to the final moments before takeoff. But I don't say "flying home", because I didn't fly back to Hiroshima. I flew to Fukuoka for my flight the next day...to AUSTRALIA....

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