Thursday 9th June
We roll out of bed and into the water at 6:45 am for swim washes. The day is warm and languid, we are speeding through it already towards the final training in the village. Winter in paradise brings a light sweat to the brow as we labour up the steep Hunga yellow brick road. I fall back so no one can see me gasping, like Arnie, on the surface of Mars in Total Recall.
Lanu is late today, first time someone has been - she walks in from another part of the village with her pram half an hour away. We wait, she’s a pivotal figure in the group, and seems to set the mood. Her fine-boned face turned towards Emily, her laughter brief and arcing quickly back into focus. We talk to Vaha about hand washing as we wait. It’s hard he says, when many toilets are long drops and there’s no source of running water nearby. It’s another project.
Emily asks Vaha about handing out condoms. He doesn’t blink. There are specified women in the village who do this he says - a small reprieve in our cultural navigations. We’re happy to leave this to them. Lani arrives beaming with her baby and we kick off. Karla with baby in arms. The agenda for today is sprains, a recap of fever, burns and treatment of bites or poisoning from local sea-life.
I pair up with Lanu. She has a note book and asks me to show her how to bind a sprain, she was taking notes while Emily demo’ed. This time it’s easy. Her hand is all wound up and all pro-looking in less than two minutes. An image of myself in paramedic greens (I have no idea what colour paramedics wear) flits into my mind. Hugo the AUT paramedic lecturer is coming on the next expedition. Food for thought.
There are clear and hard limits to what the training covers. Training covers, physical injuries, insect and animal bites, flu, fever, minor eye and ear irritations, head and stomach aches, general wellness and hygiene, and emergency assistance and protocol. Often we say - “if it is (insert issue) then you have to go to the doctor/hospital”. I sensed some disappointment initially at the number of times this was said, but as the training went on and the women understood the scope of ailments and accidents they can help with and the focus on caution and safety tis dissipated.
Everyone is sparking this morning; practical exercises are smooth. The women absorb the information and ask clear pointed questions. When Emily asks “How do you treat vela - burns” Sia says “We either put under cold cloth” she curls her lip “Or some people do the Tongan way.”
“What’s that” says Emily.
“Put flour on it or butter” says Sia.
The women nod as Emily says “Butter on burns is a common misconception for palangi too. But it can actually make burns worse. The best solution is cold running water for as long as you can - or ice though I know it’s hard to get, not seawater, Seamu in the sea”.
We stride through the agenda. To close, Emily runs through the emergency protocol. Someone stays with the victim and someone else finds a radio from Sione’s house or Barry’s house and calls 922 (police), or emergency frequency 16. “And what if” says Sia, “Sione is not home and we can’t reach Barry. What if the police don’t answer”.
“Go to hospital in a village boat” says Craig.
“What if the boats are out, or the owners says no” says Sia. We pause feeling the vulnerability in her question.
“Sometimes human life needs to be take precedence” says Craig.
“Do that best you can” says Emily. “Use your emergency training to help the person and do anything you need to to find a radio or a boat and get them to Neaifu”
Craig locks eyes with Vaha. I think he is thinking about funds to buy the village a radio.
“In Neaifu my niece got sent home without medication” says Sia. We look down - acknowledging this.
The training we are providing will help the village in sometimes small but important ways, possibly life saving ways. It could spark wider initiatives and build confidence and leadership, in someone like Lanu this feels like a given. But it is not a complete answer to the health and safety needs of Hunga villagers even if it gets them to hospital alive. Sia’s comments highlight this. Yet, seeing her ask these questions in front of Vaha is in itself is empowering. Eight women came to training this year. Eight women to support each other, help their friends and family and the village, and ask important questions.
The women stand to leave and we start packing. Vaha, who has leaned back on the pew, addresses us with his gravelly voice.
“You know” he says, “This has done so much good.”
“The women are so beautiful” says Emily. “Strong women, fast learners. I feel sure they will use this knowledge”. She is blinking back tears.
“I do too” says Vaha. “But I wish more people in the village were here, you know? Some people in the village laugh at us. Their minds are black. They want to be fed but they don’t want to do that work.” Vaha frowns and leans further back on the pew.
“Their eyes are black” he repeats.
It’s a privilege he’s being this open with us. Pushback is to be expected, to palangi's coming from outside Hunga, outside Tonga, into the village with 'better' ideas; a burst of brightly coloured awkward outsiders with incomplete solutions. But it’s a shame Vaha is not more supported. He sees value in us being here because he acknowledges the need in the village; evident in the empty clinic. Akesa is looking for a male nurse but what happens in the meantime? It was Vaha who asked Craig for medical support.
We listen to Vaha and nod. “There were 8 women here this year” says Craig. “Three more than last year.”
Despite Vaha’s words, both teams of women are beaming. We’ve worked together well together. Saturday we’ll have a ceremony, eat together and hand-over the medical kits.
As I’m walking out backwards, waving, something bumps my leg, it feels familiar like a friend. It’s the golden dog. His muzzle is already healed over and he’s putting some weight on his leg. He’s as happy to see me as I am to see him, but I forgot to bring crackers, and he doesn’t like my peanut snack bar. He’s so sure that I have either pats or snacks for him. I’m trying not to touch him for fleas, and seamu, but his joy is hard to evade. He licks both my elbows while I back away. He walks us down to the boat and stands disappointed at the dock watching us leave. When I look back from Gandalf I see four yellow legs sticking straight up, he’s rolling in the deep grass beside the dock.
On Sea Runner, Emily and Sarah start work on the revised medical kits and training manuals for handover. They need things that only Barry has, strong scissors and sharpies. I go on the trip to collect them. I need to sate my curiosity about the tiny house. Barry obliges and gives us the royal tour, starting beneath the lantern tree, where he and his wife Cyndi camped for almost year before the first part of the roof was erected, covering a large enough area to sleep under. They cleared the whole section before building. Barry show’s us the Avocado from the galapagos and his mini pineapple plantation with 100 plants, spiky dwarves squatting between the assertive flax-like boundary plants with deep purple undersides.
“I thought pineapples grew on trees" says Michelle
We go into his house, the bay window opens so close to the water it seems like the moored yacht is in the backyard. There is a spacious kitchen, house dividers rather than walls and a rough hewn timber feel, belying the latest mod cons, and large fridge and freezer. “Come in” Barry’s wife Cyndi calls from the bedroom and I meet Sadie for the first time. She is 3.5 pounds with a topknot that makes her ears looks like pigtails, she’s wearing a red Canadian Ice-hockey T-shirt. Her milky cataract eyes roll in my direction as Cyndi holds her out for me to take, she is strangely little-girl like. I hold her to my chest and she feels like a bird, fragile, warm, quivering.
"It's like she's my child" says Cyndi.
At sunset we have drinks with a German couple the team befriended before Emily and I arrived, on their ludicrously luxurious catamaran, which we postulate, John Key probably couldn’t afford. Their names are Sandra and Dieter. Dieter has a machine that turns sea water into ‘sweet water’ - as he calls it. But he and his shipmate Clause have been trying to devise a way to turn sea water into sweet water without using any power or machinery. They've been trying for two weeks and the most they’ve achieved is a tenth of a glass in a day. “What’s pushing a button?” Dieter says “I want the real thing”.
“I challenge you to do it” he says to Emily, who says “I don’t have time.”
That night I talk to Craig about what could be done to make sure the yellow dog is OK and cared for. “Could I give Sione some money to go towards his food, maybe adopt him?” I say.
“No” says Craig. “That’s too palangi - don’t offer money.”
He muses about taking on a ship dog. Or a chicken or a goat. I go to bed, trying to think of another way.