10 September 2013

Mota Lava Island

Breadfruit is a curious plant: it takes like neither bread nor fruit. Mota Lava, our current island, seems to be covered in breadfruit trees. These are huge, sparsely leaved trees with their spherical studded green fruit with yellow flesh dangling from its branches. They hang from their long narrow stalks like hundreds of small limpit mines floating in the air, and threatening, like a tropical version of Newton’s apples, to fall on some unsuspecting passerby to which the tree had decided to take a disliking.

We have now discovered many ways to eat breadfruit. They can be roasted, smoked, boiled, dried, or added to just about any vegetable or fruit. Ground up and combined with coconut it makes quite a tasty lap-lap. On Mota Lava where cyclones have been known to raze villages and decimate food sources these fruit are dried, peeled and stored as emergency rations. The ‘fruit’ ends up as hard as a rock cake but still edible.

And the people of Mota Lava are just as intriguing as their staple fruit.

Early this morning Patrick came on board for a breakfast meeting to discuss the transfer of the medical gear to the clinic. Even though he is not a village chief he has contacts. After said meeting and said breakfast we made our way ashore to a rather uneventful, almost disappointing landing on terra firma. There was no crashing surf to overturn the dinghy, there were few hidden rocks to navigate, there was no coral reef or slippery rocks to jump onto, there was no long climb to carry the gear. It was simply a quiet white sandy beach with tiny waves lapping at its shore. Yes please, more of these landings we thought but did not state in front of Robert.

Within a short period of time Patrick and rounded up some locals, one of whom was Freman who owned a ‘truck’ (or 4WD ute in Aussie parlance). This was to convey the team with our gear to the clinic. Now when I say “truck” I mean the semblance of a 4-wheeled vehicle with little tread on the tyres, no brakes, no starter motor, leaky radiator, and doors that could only be opened from the outside door handles. As we discovered later, the leaking radiator required regular topping up from a large water container stored under the bonnet next to the rusted air-con compressor. But this was not our first problem.

Unfortunately the motor had stalled whilst the truck was facing downhill towards the beach 20-meters away. “Everybody out, please” he requested. Push starting the truck required four locals to push the vehicle backwards up the hill to a flat area where the vehicle could be turned around to face the opposite direction and push-started. “OK, we go. Hop in.” Most of the team decided an early morning walk to the clinic, no matter how far, was the safer option.

Like Freman there are always interesting characters here in Vanautu, many of whom visit the clinics.  For example, there was Marie who came for a simple check-up. At 72-years she was thin and aged with no substantial medical problems despite her 10 children and 26 grandchildren! She doesn’t have time to be unwell.

Then there were two cute little albino Ni-Van girls, who needed sunglasses and spectacles to correct poor vision that is often associated with the condition. And there was the school principal and the teacher who had both come for a check-up and were more interested in our education posters and the copies we left at the clinic for them to use as educational class room material. The principal’s daughter came too, but she was less impressed at Doctor Doug’s prescription of frequent saline nasal rinses for her chronic nasal infections!

Born in 1927 on this same island, Salatxial [sic], had seen a lot during his life and career: building and setting up new schools for the colonial powers, experiencing the freedom independence in 1980, and World War 2, plus several cyclones – “Yes, 1939 cyclone much worse than in 1979!” We had no reason to disagree with this assessment. “And, oh yes, in 1944 soldiers wanted to put benzene supply up on the hill but all the village chiefs said ‘No’ so they didn’t.”

Sandy and Abigael were two of the clinic nurses, and most helpful during the day. Abigael turned out to be the daughter of Zebulon the larger-than-life character and clinic nurse we met 4-years ago up in the Torres islands, whom we will hopefully soon meet again. She had no seen him for 3-years. When asked if she had any message for her father she replied, “I love him very much. And hug.” with almost a tear in her eyes. Graeme offered to pass the message but maybe the hugs he would leave to the girls.

Then there was Harris, a new and first-time grandfather, whose first words at the clinic today were: “Where is the girl with the picture?”
“That’s me!” replied Ruth. You see, four days prior, whilst running our clinic at Losalava (on Gaua), Ruth had taken a photo of a newborn called Alice. It had been a chance encounter for her to be invited into the 1-bed maternity ‘ward’.
Alice’s mother Brianna asked Ruth if we were going to Dives Bay [on the island of Ureparapara]? “Yes, next week, why do you ask?”
“That is my family village. Can you take a photo of baby Alice to my family and friends? I miss them.” “Sure.” The phot was duly taken to be printed and given to the family.
Then today whilst we were working on another island (called Motalava) Alice’s grandfather, Harris, turns up on his way from his home island (Ureparapara) to Sola asking for the “Girl With The Picture”, aka Ruth. Somehow he had heard that somebody from a medical clinic had taken a photo of Alice and was going to deliver it to his home village. It was a joyous event as we acquainted Harris with (a picture of) his first grandchild for the first time!

The last patient of the day arrived with a cloth over her eye just as we were packing up. She hovered in the distance and Graeme with his insightful medical scent for trouble thought “Hmm, maybe wincing and holding a cloth over the eye is not usual NiVan behaviour?” She seemed reluctant to come any closer than observe from a distance. Graeme introduced himself and invited her to have a check-up.
“What is wrong with your eye?” As she removed the cloth it revealed a blood-shot and very painful looking left eye. Nancy later checked it out and found there were severe abrasions to her cornea (front of the eye) but hopefully with simple treatment it would heal without permanent eye damage.
“What happened? Did you fall? Did someone hit you? Did you get a stick in your eye?” Was it a stone? Did you get sand or dirt in your eye?” were Graeme’s excessively leading questions. He gave her no time to reply. After the interrogation had ceased she plucked up the courage to say one word: “Breadfruit.”
“Breadfruit?!” asked the perplexed doctor.
“Yes, breadfruit, him he fall into eye.” She had been attempting to knock the ripe fruit from the branches above and copped one right in the eye.

There are, after all, 101 Ways To Enjoy Breadfruit.