Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

A couple of years ago, I was working in an island nation, in a small provincial “city”, whose main form of transport throughout the island was sea travel. On one occasion, we needed to take a trip to visit a small health outpost on the south coast, so we went about organising our transport.

Firstly, we had to go looking through town for a suitable boat. One of the two Health Department boats had “gone missing” in the last couple of weeks, and no one had noticed until that morning, and the other one was deemed “unseaworthy”, which is really saying something in a country where a degree of unseaworthiness is de rigueur for sea-going craft.

Finding a decent enough boat took a little longer than anticipated on this morning, because there was a fussy white man accompanying the team (if by fussy, they mean, “attentive to the preservation of life”, then yes, I’m fussy!), and a suitable replacement was finally located late in the morning.

Then (and I bet you thought a boat came with an engine, right? – Ha ha, so naïve), we tested the two engines owned by the Provincial Health Department; the 40 horsepower was knackered as it had not been stripped-back since its last trip due to the one-and-only engine mechanic going on holiday to the capital, and the other engine, a 25 horsepower, was able to be started only after being bashed a few times with a wrench. Hmmm…

Next obstacle; fuel. The Provincial Health Department had no budget left for fuel, due to the unanticipated rising price of oil thanks to the crazy, undergraduate antics of George, Tony and John in the Middle East, so we had to wrestle with miles of red-tape, then the accountant (whom we first had to locate, as he had not turned up to work for a few days) and finally the Provincial Director (who hadn’t been at work for at least twice as long as his accountant!). After many hours, and considerable angst, we had just enough fuel to get us there and back (as long as there were no emergency detours – “Safety procedures anyone?”).

I didn’t even bother trying to organise an Health Department vehicle to take us to the wharf … sometimes it’s just worth shelling-out the cash for a taxi. It was midday by this time, and I approached the wharf to glimpse our boat, shining gloriously out there on the harbour. Well actually, “shining gloriously” might be too much of a great, big, ridiculously inaccurate exaggeration bordering on a blatant lie! Our boat was an open-topped, aluminium dingy with three aluminium bench seats, no life jackets, our ridiculously small, 25 horsepower engine hanging off the back, one paddle and a broken bottle with which to bail water back over the side (summary: boat was small, old and leaky). With a glance at the beating tropical sun, I shrugged my shoulders and sighed a resignation to fate. As I shouldered my gear and waded out into the fetid, oily water of the harbour, my last humiliation came from the jeers of the tough boys on the dock who laughed and whooped as I tried to climb over the side of the boat, and slopped unceremoniously into the disgusting, fish-blood soaked bilge in the bottom of the hull – nice! Here’s to the next six hours smelling like the floor of the fish mongers!


A couple of days ago, I travelled to another island nation whose main forms of transport around the country are boats and planes. I disembarked from the latter, grabbed my bags, cleared customs and was onto the former all within 15 minutes. Another quarter hour later, I walked along the concrete wharf, to come face-to-face with the Health Department boat which would take me and the team to another health outpost.

This boat was a gleaming, white cabin cruiser that shined from repeated cleaning, thanks to the uniformed crew, one of whom actually reached up to help me with my bags, before scurrying off to do some checking, cleaning or whatever else trusty seafarers do before setting sail. I stepped from the firm concrete wharf onto the sparkling, white, fibreglass deck without so much as seeing the water, and as it was getting a bit hot in the midday sun, I ducked into the spacious cabin, and sat down in the shade, on one of the twelve clean, padded seats. Hmmm….

Just before we left to head out to sea, the crew pointed out where the life jackets were kept, and the skipper radioed to headquarters to announce our departure. I decided I’d like to sit at the rear of the boat, so on plush, waterproof carpets, I wandered down to sit next to two (count them, one … two), brand-spanking 200 horsepower engines. “Well now, this is the life, hey Donkey?” thinks I!


Thanks only to my bum having been soaked in fish blood and mud, my arse was saved a burning from the hot, aluminium seat as we headed out of the harbour. Before long we were on the open sea, holding on for dear life as we crested Everest-like waves, found ourselves floating in mid-air for a split-second, and then thumped back onto the hard seats as the boat plunged down the other side and we braced ourselves to do it all again. This continued for six hours, with occasional stops at various, picturesque tribal villages to pass-on month-old messages to families and relatives in this land without radios, phones or postal services.

Through the painful, disorienting haze of seasickness and with a thought that The End had finally arrived, a spied a break in the jungle and prepared to meet The Maker. I eventually reasoned that Heaven probably wouldn’t look like a mouldy, broken-down, windowless, leaking shack, and realised we had arrived at the health outpost. For the next four days, I would slip and slop along muddy “bush roads” to visit various communities, eat nothing but boiled fish and rice, and sleep with rats in a decrepit building with a fragrant, dysfunctional sewerage system and definitely no electricity.

During that time, I would meet and talk with communities.


As we glided over the tropical waves in cushioned comfort, I dozed off for a bit in the sun, and when I awoke, I saw rows upon rows of luxury resort villas spreading out into the glorious turquoise of the lagoon. I glimpsed a couple of Europeans snorkelling along the reef, but we were travelling very fast, and they were out of sight in moments.

After about thirty minutes, we negotiated through the points of a sturdy, concrete harbour, and tethered to another wharf which could be reached from the boat in a single step. Before visiting the health post to get started, we were ushered onto the polished wooden deck of a seaside restaurant where I partook in a perfect espresso and a crusty croissant. I took a call from the boss on my mobile phone, and then strolled through the meticulously clean, sandy streets; past concrete houses with overhanging palms; past the power house, with its 24 hour generator, spotless white-washed walls and landscaped garden; past the government building, each office with its own split-system air conditioning units; and onto the health post - fully equipped, staffed and powered, twenty-four hours a day.

The next day, I would meet and talk with the community.


These people have walked and carried goods up and down the muddy, slippery paths of this region for generations, and have fought wars with each other for land, pigs and marriages as recently as eighty years ago. Nowadays, there is peace, and their distance and isolation from government have made them very self sufficient. It is not difficult to encourage these communities to meet and to discuss their problems – they have very few resources, but they are willing to work together to do what they can for themselves and for each other.

After four days of meetings and discussions, I boarded the floating coffin and returned to base.


These people have lived under one religion and one, centralised government for over five hundred years. Their ever-increasing wealth allows them access to technology and they have become great consumers of western products. They proudly maintain their belief in their own individuality, and yet they live in their permanent houses, identically built and located in clusters, close to their worship. They rely on their government for everything, and have lost the spirit of compromise, cooperation and community in everything except religion. They have access to all the possessions and food they need, but they are reluctant to work together to even protect their families from disease or to manage the mountains of waste generated through their consumerism.

After four days of meetings, I boarded the luxury liner and returned to base.


It’s odd, isn’t it, how each of these communities have something that the other would value, and yet without all of the parts, the sum remains incomplete?

It’s also odd the kinds of communities that this sort of work will take you to meet … but when you scratch the surface of any community, you begin to see what barriers there are to development.

1 comment:

sabrina said...

God....you live such an interesting life!!! Are you like an anthropologist or something?