• Floating Foundation

Tuesday 7th June

It’s the first week anniversary for Emily and I in Tonga. We’ve got our alarms set for 6:45 to motorboat out to the internet hotspot by 8am. Training starts today. We’ve got a slightly re-adjusted plan of attack which allows the non-medical team members to get involved directly in the training. The mood is quiet, focussed. I notice I’m clambering in and out of Gandalf with a new confidence and carelessness.

It’s surprising how what seems like a simple thing, like having covered shoulders and legs in the village, is harder than expected. We’re so used to our freedom, of movement, and to allow airing in this heat. Dresses that are entirely modest in NZ are vetoed. Fine lines are found around what constitutes coverage of shoulders and knees.

“You can’t see my knees in this dress”

“I’m looking right at your knees”

“Do capped shoulders count?”

I’m beginning to get the hang of occupying a small space. Daily routines start to show as a positioning of items from my bag. It lurks beneath the berth like a friendly beast. There are layers of clothes on top of it I'm most likely to grab in a hurry. Different depending on where we might be going. I’ve made a smaller version of my big toiletries bag which made Emily laugh when she saw it. The small one has just toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, facial cleanser, soap, moisturiser, sunscreen in it.

I'm still doing a full skin care routine and I won’t stop. But I can swap from togs to normal underwear and clothes in a flash. This is helpful when I need to vacate because the two other girls who live in my berth area rush in with the same thing in mind. Often the Captain has given us a countdown to departure but we’re still cutting it fine. Time seems to swell and then disappear here - it helps to have my gear stacked as clearly as layers of terrain for easy access.

We set off for Hunga. Emily is quiet but not nervy. She will be leading training. At Vaha’s house the volunteers arrive sharp on time, they bring their children. Vaha has set up two pews from his church next door, but we sit on the ground. It feels friendlier. Vaha opens with a prayer and we are off.

We spent hours the night before refining and testing the first day programme content as a crew. This is an example of the scenarios we talked through; Sarah noticed there was nowhere to wash your hands after going to the toilet.

“This is important. We need to talk to them about this” says Emily.

“But surely this is known” says Sarah. “Going to the toilet is tapu in many cultures.”

“Tapu is not the same as cleanliness” I say.

We are in a cultural chasm facing the challenge, to assist in sharing knowledge and good health practice without being patronising and with respect. It requires light-footed logic, cultural knowledge and sensitivity. I wish I could help more but I have limited experience, despite my bloodline and interpersonal logic, to call on.

Back at the training Emily starts by engaging the volunteers. Why are they here - what problems do they want to solve? How do they see the role of village medic working? Lanu and Sia speak out. “We want to look after the sick children” they say. “Nieafu is far away.”

Props are helpful. This session is for general health knowledge and to build trust. Emily uses white board to show Lanu how her dinner from last night compares to the ideal meal composition. “Vegetables keep the lines to your heart open” she says and Vaha repeats this. Emily tells the story of a 23 year old man she nursed who was diagnosed with diabetes by 19 and losing his sight. “He drank a big bottle of coke a day” says Emily. Yes, the volunteers nod. There are many diabetic people in the village they say. One of the funerals this week is for a woman who died from diabetes. “She died of too much sugar” says Vaha.

We break for lunch. Walking back to the ship we see an injured dog. “It’s been in a dog fight” Emily says. He’s golden, smiling and limping, his muzzle is bloody. “He just needs some healing time” says Emily. I feed him crackers from my bag. Some school children walk past in their pristine pinafores, shorts and shirts, looking at me curiously, while the dog limps quickly out of their path. Malo e lelei I say brightly walking on from the dog. This dog I want to take home with me.

Back at the ship we swim and have one-on-one’s with Craig to debrief after the intensity of the last few days. It’s needed and afterwards the vibe on the boat is fresher. Craig initiates a ‘mutiny’ in which we throw him off the boat blindfolded. Then he returns with gorilla physicality, throwing each mutineer unceremoniously off Sea Runner, except for me who has been filming the whole time. I will declare here, however, that I whole-heartedly supported the mutiny and deplored the lack of brutality from the crew.

Carla, Michelle and I stay back from the afternoon session to make dinner and have some downtime. We need to use eggplants, capsicums and cabbage so I make an eggplant bake with slightly pickled cabbage and ‘mashed potatoes’. We have a massive banana leaf basket full of a delicious kumara shaped root tuber. It looks like kumara but tastes and behaves more like a slightly sweet, unusually firm aragir potatoe. Around 6:30 Gandalf brings back the village team who circle the boat whooping. The afternoon session has gone well, and the team is on a high. “It’s all thanks to your cousin Diana; she taught me the word Uma (kiss)” Emily says “I used it in a talk to describe germs and it became the afternoon giggle reference”.

I go to bed at 8:30. Too tired to play El Presidente with the crew. In the middle of the night the wind comes in and Michelle, on a nocturnal trip above deck trip is concerned and wakes Craig. He rises to see that Sea Runner has dragged anchor and drifted. It's unsafe, we are dragging around the bowl of the reef. Craig navigates us in the dark to the Hunga Haven Mooring which is secure and connected to a concrete foundation under the water. The team functions as a slick unit, synchronised and motivated. Except for me. I decide against staying in bed after the activity wakes me, but get above board too late to join in the action. I sit on the deck in my sleeping skirt, bleary in the dark, wishing things to go well. Staring where Sarah’s headlight beams, off the forward deck, casting a murky turquoise beam across the choppy black sea.

Craig is moving Sea Runner using Gandalf for propulsion, giving Michelle, at the helm, instructions. “Hard port, Hard starboard, Hard Hard starboard”. I with my dyslexic left-right issue have two elimination processes to work through to determine port and starboard. What’s left, what’s right, is starboard left or right? I’m glad I’m not behind the helm - yet. “There do you see it?” Craig calls. I see a hunched white figure in the distant waves. “No” yells Michelle. I say nothing, I was probably wrong. We turn to port, then back starboard. There he is again, gleaming faintly this time. “I see it!” yells Michelle. And we moor safely. The crew and Crag buzzing at the smoothness of the exercise despite difficult conditions. It is another lesson in trusting my instincts and speaking out loud and fast. This is how you have to be on the boat.

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