Sunday, October 21, 2007

tagging along with medical teams.

this is a summary of the last three weeks. i apologize for its length, but i am covering a lot of ground (well, water mostly) in this.

i flew from vila to sola, on the island of vanua lava, on the 1st of october. i was trying to figure out hiking plans, or how i might be able to get to some nearby islands without spending an arm and a leg for boat fuel, when i met a couple of nurses and a doctor who were going to two other islands to do work in women's reproductive health.

before i knew it i was on a tiny outboard motorboat, getting thoroughly soaked in seawater, visiting the islands of mota and mota lava. mota is a rugged island that jutting out of the sea. somehow we managed to debark from the little boat onto a narrow and slippery rock path without dropping any of the medical gear into the sea. i had a nasty headcold, a belly full of seawater since my clogged nose forced me to breathe with my mouth open in the spray, and clothes that were entirely wet. i was loving it.

mota lava, on the other hand, has beautiful long and low white sand beaches gliding into warm water, with reef that keeps the breakers far from shore. that night i stayed at the sunset bungalows, on a perfect quiet isolated bit of beach, and the place lived up to its name with a spectacular view of the sun setting over vanua lava to the west.

the next morning, at low tide, i walked across the reef to the little island of ra, just off mota lava. i was able to take a walk all around the island -- white sand beaches on the west side and sharp, steep coral on the east side -- in about an hour, and then i returned to mota lava via canoe since the tide had come in a bit.

the night i got back to sola i met a pair of auzzies who were about to start a two-week yacht-based medical missions trip to the outer banks and torres islands. they described pacific yacht minsitries' work in providing medical and dental clinics, health education workshops, and immunization services to the most remote parts of vanuatu. it sounded like pretty amazing work to me. it is run by folks who believe in and follow the bible, which also intrigued me.

so i figured it couldn't hurt to just ask, maybe this auzzie team would let a strange american messianic jewish girl, about whom they knew nothing and who had no medical background, come along. the torres especially are virtually impossible for anyone to get to without a boat of their own. i spoke with one of the captains, james, who peered at me for a minute as if to determine if i was an axe murderer. he must have decided that i wasn't, since he told me that if i could get my bag packed quickly i could have a berth on his boat.

my bag was packed in five minutes and next thing i knew i was on the back of a pickup, then on a little inflatable dinghy, and then on james's yacht with a nurse my age named alison and the expedition's cook, paul.

don't get the wrong idea when i say "yacht." one certainly has to be somewhat affluent to afford one, but we are not talking luxury here by any means. the one i was on, windango, was a cramped 32-foot single-hulled vessel. the four of us lived on narrow bunks in one small, shared cabin. the other three yachts on the expedition were catamarans and much nicer. ours was... more of an adventure.

i have learned that i do not get seasick at all, which is a good thing when one hasn't packed any motion-sickness meds because one never expected to be on a boat.

there were 20 people on the team, including a doctor, a dentist, several nurses, and the crews of the boats. and then i made team member #21. i was a hitchhiker in a sense, but the team accepted me beautifully and condescended to allow me to feel like i was helping, at least. my job wound up being triage and "medical record" keeper for the medical team, who had their hands full; there were days when we'd open the clinic for business and i'd immediately have 30 people pressing into me from all sides to get their names and symptoms on my intake list.

i have learned a lot about the medical problems plaguing the outer islands of vanuatu, alas. far too many STDs. infected wounds everywhere you look. rotting teeth. i hope the educational programs that the team provided help some of these problems, specifically as regards STDs.

i did get to see places that "tourists" simply never see. the north of vanua lava. two sides of ureparapara. loh and linua islands. tegua. hiu. toga. a highlight for me was hiu, the northernmost island of vanuatu, and possibly one of the most remote islands of the world. the people of hiu were unbelievably hospitable and told us that we were the first "sailing boats" to arrive since 2003. we were the first sailing boats to anchor at toga ever in the memory of the people there... and that wasn't even in a bay, but was just the side of the island that was opposite to where the wind came from.

but winds change.

so i have learned that, when the anchor chain is jerking madly and making horrible noises so that you're sure the anchor must be losing its grip on the sea floor, and the boat is writhing and rocking through the night so that you have to brace yourself to keep from flying across the cabin, and at midnight you realize that nobody else can sleep either... the best thing to do is all laugh together. lest you cry.

i became close with many members of the team, but our little four-person crew on windango did develop a special bond. after two weeks i felt like i had known aly, paul, and james my whole life. one can't really hide anything from the others in that sort of situation!

the expedition was officially over on the 19th, when some sailed away and nine of us were all to board a plane at the torres' only airstrip. but the plane they were planning to send was broken. air vanuatu paid for us all to stay at the little guest bungalows near there. it wasn't too terrible to be stuck in paradise for an extra couple of nights, except that one by one as the weekend ticked by, the auzzies were missing their connecting flights. and i had to fight to get any time alone to process the experiences of the last couple of weeks.

i have learned that, as much as i can grow to love and admire people after two constant weeks with them, and as much as they feel like family to me and i miss them when we're apart... i have quite a good deal of introvert in me.

sunday morning, soon after we had given up hope of a plane that day, we heard the little propellers of an islander aircraft. all of us almost wept for joy, stuffed dirty and wet clothes into our packs, and ran out to the airstrip.

so i got to santo, thinking to go from there to ambae, the only other island i had hoped to visit on this trip. all flights were booked up (and charlie, our pilot, told me the weather there is atrocious now anyway), i wound up joining my new auzzie friends and going back to vila.

once again it is raining in vila. a tropical depression, but it's going to move out to fiji soon, the locals tell me. i am back in the dorm beds at the moorings hotel, which feels like home. hot shower. internet. laundry facilities!

i have learned that hey, i'm a wuss, and eventually i just get tired, and want a comfortable bed that doesn't rock back and forth, and machine-washed and pressed clothes and sheets. and -- soon, i think -- a hot rocks massage.

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