• Floating Foundation

Monday 6th June

It’s as if there’s a welcoming committee as we walk up the steep yellow tiled road that leads to Hunga village. There’s a boom box blasting techno hits, a band of teenagers and some older women sweeping and weed-whacking at the top of the road; a straggle of dogs looking on. They’re not here for us though - offical dignitaries will be arriving the next day say the people Craig greets.

“Coming in from the sea is really like arriving on someone’s doorstep” Michelle says.

Craig starts to recognise faces and asks where his key contacts are, Vaha and Napa’a. As we walk towards the town hall where Floating Foundation training was held last year, Ana, one of last years volunteers, arrives, holding a machete from trimming the side walks. She points out that Napa’a the town officer (Akesa, the Tongatapu head nurses’s brother in law) is walking across a grassy commons area towards us. Napa’a is smily and slightly sheepish, he welcomes Craig. "The village is busy this week he says", with two funerals and official guests arriving tomorrow. That’s why the whole town is cleaning. He suggests we go to Vaha’s house to organise timing and participants for the training. Vaha is the pastor.

The village is open plan, growing out from the grassy commons and freshly planted after cyclone Winstone. New street lights tower above us, “Someone’s spent a lot on these” Craig says. Pigs, dogs and chickens go where they please. The pigs wag their tails in half circles under their bums and munch at the ground, tiny piglets run behind their mothers. Michelle swoons over the little pink runt, “That’d be me” she says. Later we see the runt at the top of stairs that are twice it’s height. The air smells sweet and smoky, it reminds me of childhood. Dad was often burning things, branches and weeds from his work in the garden. Our crew in long flowery skirts, T-shirts and hats are respectfully attired but still an oddity. We and the villagers eye each other surreptitiously.

Vaha, the church pastor has been sick, so has Craig’s Canadian friend Barry who lives in a tiny house he and his wife built themselves just outside the village. A flu bug has been going around the village. And Barry’s tiny Yorkshire Terrier Sadie has jaundice. When Barry radioes in the morning to organise an internet connection for us he asks if we have anything on board that could help, in a buttery voice laced with concern. We don’t think we can diagnose a dog but Emily gets on the radio to give some dietary advice about cutting down protein to reduce stress on the liver.

Vaha is charismatic and suave in a deep red shirt with orange palm trees on it. He reminds me of my Dad. He lives in square white house with pink trimming in front of his church which has a roof like a sail also pink trimmed. Vaha emanates calm and efficiency.

“I’ll find volunteers” he says, “We can work times around the other things that are on. When do you leave?” he asks.

“Saturday” we say.

“I’ll make it work” he says.

Emily mentions her promise to do a clinic stock-take to Akesa and Vaha sends us to the town clinic. He brings out the duffel bag which is last year’s medical kit for us to take. The clinic is clean, roomy and empty except for a container of used sharps and some new ones. So taking stock involves going through the remains of the Floating Foundation kit Vaha gave us. There’s a yellow log book with the kit, several pages filled with firm handwriting recording the issue, product used, volunteer medic and date.

While Emily and Sarah stock-take the rest of us have a look around. A cluster of villagers move around the village with the boom box cleaning. An older woman dances in a wheelbarrow while the young kids imitate her. Michelle and Carla engage effortlessly. I’m more reserved. When Carla disappears from view we find her sitting with toddlers in her arms, a teenage girl with yellow ribbons in her plaits taking photos with Carla’s expensive camera. “Oh you can take more photos” Carla says when the girl tries to give it back. I wince at the risk, but the girl just wanders a few feet away, takes some photos of a little boy and brings it right back. Michelle asks a woman in blue walking past if she can help with the cleaning. The woman’s eyebrows tweak.

“You can do as you like” she says.

When I next look back Micelle has a broom in her hands and is sweeping the long tiled road that runs straight through the village while the wind undoes her work behind her.

“It’s therapeutic” she says.

We take photos of the villagers and they take photos of us. “They’re more polite though - they ask first” says Michelle. Carla has just given a rousing dance performance to a rap song, especially the line; ‘Elbows to your knees’ while little kids filmed. Michelle has started following the boom box with her broom, before you can say ‘drop it like it’s hot’ she’s locked in an epic dance-off with the group of young women wheeling the boom barrow. Luckily I’m there with my video phone. Standby for the footage. When I tell Michelle Craig has summoned us back to the boat and she leaves reluctantly. The villagers call out goodbyes to her “Nice to meet you” they say and they sound like they mean it.

Back on Sea Runner Emily and Sarah go through the medical supplies to create a comprehensive new pack for Hunga. Their voices are bright and flow back and forth seamlessly. Emily knows about treatment of the body and Sarah, a pharmacist, knows about the products. They have similar and complementary experience in health training groups in cross-cultural environments.

We return to the village at 4pm to meet with Vaha and the medic volunteers. It’s dusk and there’s a soft sparkle around the pigs and us all gathered on Vaha’s porch. The training will be here tomorrow at 10 we agree, as the town hall is being used for visiting officials. One of the all female volunteers recognises Carla and greets her warmly. Her name is Lanu. Emily introduces herself and clasps Lanu’s hand with both of hers. They whisper and laugh as we get to know Vaha better. He was a farmer in the South Island for six years. His vanilla plantation only produced 30 kilos of pods this year because of the cyclone, it’s usually 200.

Vaha thanks Craig formally and warmly for being here. The Volunteers are mothers and teachers, one is Vaha’s daughter. They smile shyly. Lanu smiles much more widely and chats with us easily. As we leave there are calls of “See you tomorrow”. We haven’t covered much in the meeting, just met and agreed it will start at 10 tomorrow but there is a feeling of satisfaction. We are in motion. Tomorrow at 10 we will show the cut of our jib.

Later in the evening Gandalf’s engine fails as Craig and I motor out to Barry’s mooring, where we can access his WIFI network called Hunga Haven to post the blog. I realise as Craig fiddles vigorously with the engine, if anything happens to him I’m helpless - I can’t even use the radio. “Please don’t blow up in his face” I silently intone and send a positive vibration upwards into the dense dark sky.

Later still we have a radio training session. I had no idea radios worked like this. Lines of listening, open in the night; you have to know which lines to listen to. And know the Universal emergency lines. You are more likely to be received if you repeat the name of the person you are calling three times and then your own name three times and count out the frequency you are calling from. One Six. Then say “Over”. And when you’re finished talking, say ‘Out’.

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