Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A big first week on site

What a week! It feels as though an eternity has passed since the Komawai reappeared on the horizon with our two missing comrades and remaining equipment aboard. It was only 8 days ago.

The unloading process recommenced last Saturday and after almost two weeks holding our collective breath, there was a shared sigh of relief with the arrival onshore of our crates. In two of these; our much longed for food supplies. In a third; our bicycles. And last but not least, the tools we’d need to start work.

By Monday night we were loading the civil equipment for McConnell Dowell that will now go on to Nanumea including a tractor, trailer and one of the excavators. In the fading light, finally independently mobile and re-energised on spaghetti, chocolate, muesli and tinned peaches, we started to feel like ourselves again.

Finally have our transport

On site Tuesday morning, the chaos started to give way to order.  By mid-afternoon I’d realised that my most valuable tool through the months ahead is going to be my steel hunting knife that Shane made me buy the day before we left. I can tear through the most stubborn packaging tape. And I’m learning to open my own coconuts.

By Tuesday afternoon, tool boards were up, building mark-out was complete, a mountain of packaging had collected behind the powerhouse and the first battery rack jigsaw puzzle was spread across the floor. Under torchlight Tuesday night, we measured and marked drilling holes for the first array. We were underway.

Array team stalled by rain on day one

Our schedule over the next 5 months has us partially completing the system on Vaitupu before moving on to Nanumaga, Nanumea, Niutao and returning to Vaitupu late May to complete the main array. Groundwater issues discovered when clearing the site in November resulted in McConnell Dowell halting work on the main array foundation until an engineering solution is agreed with MFAT and the local Kaupule (council). The McConnell Dowell team is due back here after we leave to complete foundation works. Our hope is to have the powerhouse fit-out and smaller battery charger array complete by the time we leave here in just under 3 weeks time.

Site overview - powerhouse centre, SIC array right and main array left

And we think that is achievable. Our local workers have earned our immediate respect for their positivity and strong work ethic. By Thursday morning our team had grown from 5 to 15. And they would work 14 hours a day if we felt we could keep up with them!

In efforts to manage our enthusiastic workforce, we have split off into three clearly defined teams: Hadley’s electrical team, Roger and Marty’s array team and Heather’s battery team. Shane likes to think that we are all his team.

In the inverter corridor, Hadley has been orchestrating a fine ballet. Alongside him, File keeps asking questions about what all the equipment is and Vilium, Aneila and Paka are unflinching when told that half the inverters now have to be taken down and moved 200mm to the left (thanks to the inaccurate drawing). The electrical crew now have all the inverters mounted, the multi-cluster box in place and cable tray ready to fill. Visible progress is fast but will slow from here as they begin the complex cabling process.

Outside, camaraderie in the array team is at an all time high. Three days in and they’ve knocked up a 50kW array. Working out in the heat, regular coconut stops are essential. One of the local boys scrambles up a 20m high tree like it’s a staircase. Epati, Bean, Konza, Ety and Sammy have lanolin dripping down their arms from the freshly lubricated bolts. Dropping one in the sand earns a jibe from Roger – “fall behind and you’re next up the coconut tree”. On Monday they start tightening fastenings, grouting trestle feet and digging trenches for the cabling. Another 360kW still to go in May will be a walk in the park.

SIC array framing went up in a day

In the battery room it’s all I can do to stay one step ahead of Bob, Eddi and Puaa. When we opened the first battery rack on Tuesday my only head start was a technical drawing and some notes from Dean. I try to anticipate the next question and am grateful for their patience when I demand for the seventh time that we recheck the diagonals to make sure it’s square. It’s a slow process but they will be a well-oiled machine by rack number 12. Just in time to move onto Nanumaga and start all over again with a new crew.

Hot on their heels, the battery loading team of Peter, Fata (Greenstuff), Teanua and Polevia are carefully and steadily lifting and positioning batteries. At 200kg each, a dropped battery will crush your foot. One rack holds 48 batteries and each must be lifted into place and slid onto the rack in the right position ready for connection. The dangerous process of connecting batteries is on hold until we can clean many of the connecting cables that have corroded in transit and storage.

At the end of week 1 we have 3 ½ battery racks built, 2 ½ now stacked with batteries. The 55kW Sunny Island Charger array is up. The inverter corridor looks almost finished with 36 Sunny Island inverters, 12 battery disconnect boards, 24 Sunny Island Chargers and 15 Tripower solar inverters and switchboards all hanging. The multicluster box is in the building, cable tray is up and the real work begins tomorrow.

And in the background of all this activity, the import of what we are here to do has become evident. The ferry is running late and we’ve been on diesel rationing for a week now. Generator hours have been cut from 6am to midnight down to 8am to 10pm. But today the generator is struggling. It’s 7:30pm and it’s died for the third time today. We suspect that it won’t be coming back on again tonight.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A growing obsession with food

Once the ferry leaves, Vaitupu is almost a closed system for another month. Except for fish, all food is now either packed into the shelves of the six little stores across the island, growing 20m up in the air or scampering through the underbrush foraging for scraps.

Our starting frame of reference is New World or Countdown – 20 isles filled with every conceivable packaged food, more than 100 different types of bread, fresh fruit and vegetables transported from every corner of the globe, a meat isle so large that the chicken section alone has 7 different flavours of skewers and the sausage section offers varieties as obscure as lamb with sage and fennel. With a plastic card we can walk out of that store with almost anything our heart desires. And then go back again tomorrow to find the empty slot on the shelf full again.

As our adventure stretches into week number three, we are like newborns having to rebuild our relationship with food. Where it comes from? How it gets to us? What our bodies need to run and jump and to concentrate on site measurement calculations and precision excavator driving?

Still waiting for our crates to arrive, we’ve been emptying the stores. There is a store which stocks tinned pineapple but there are only two tins left. Yesterday the island ran out of sugar. And I think I bought the last box of Weet-Bix on Friday. The shelves are thinning out but there is plenty of rice, palm oil and grape soda. There is also jam, Sao-like crackers, sweet biscuits, tomato sauce, soy sauce, tinned mackerels and corned beef. We cannot yet bring ourselves to eat the corned beef as it looks, smells and tastes exactly how I imagine cat food to be.  And I cannot describe my excitement when I found I could buy onions and garlic – the starter and key flavouring in every meal since.

In our first days here, we treated ourselves to a sampling of the local food. A platter prepared by a local family filled with rice, breadfruit, cassava, fish and chicken, much of it cooked in generous amounts of oil. I couldn’t quite face day 3 of the same so we’ve since been trying to cook for ourselves, a task which has only been possible with the assistance of our fabulous house-frau, Lily.

Our staple dish is fried rice. Onion, garlic, rice, a tin of soggy mixed vegetables and lashings of soy sauce. It’s actually pretty good. As we start to navigate the pathways by which other food is procured, our menu expands. From the hidden freezers out the back of little stores, Lily has helped me to find chicken bits, pre-cooked pork sausages and a 2kg bag of the fattiest lamb chops I’ve ever seen in my life. BBQ’d with a side of fried rice and a glass of coconut water; we chewed every morsel off those bones in absolute silence.

The makings of "fried rice"
Lamb chops but not as I remember?

Then there is tuna. If the weather is good, local fishermen will head out early and can be intercepted at the harbour about 7am. At $2/kg, the freshest tuna I’ve ever eaten is also the cheapest. We managed to get a 7kg tuna last week. Roger enjoyed every minute watching my butchering the poor thing into steaks. There was a handsaw involved. We were still eating tuna and breadfruit fishcakes 4 days later – Lily’s special recipe.

Gutting our tuna
Lily preparing breadfruit for her fishcakes

And so while the cupboards look bare, we are far from starving. Each new ingredient that we come across is worthy of celebration. There is bread baked on the island; “donuts” would be a more accurate description. The day I found a bottle of tomato sauce coincided with our first sampling of Lily’s fishcakes. Today I discovered the last jar of vegemite on the island and lunch was different to yesterday and the day before. You don’t need a brimming pantry afterall.

But what we crave more than anything else is fresh fruit and vegetables.

Last Wednesday Lily produced a pawpaw from her garden. I’d seen a few trees around and had been asking where I might buy one. Not easily it seems. That pawpaw tasted like a swig of cold beer after a long day herding sheep. And then on Friday she produced a bowl of bananas. We had these sliced on top of toasted slices of stale donut on Sunday morning and were sure we were brunching in a posh cafĂ© in Ponsonby. And there was a cucumber for lunch in one of those early days after we arrived. I crunched it down without a thought and only now realise I should have savoured every bite.

Stuff does grow here but it’s just not available in neatly refrigerated supermarket isles. And it may not be simply a matter of money needed to acquire it.

Vaitupu is more fertile than I’d prepared myself for. It was described to me as a sand and coral atoll with little or no soil. But the vegetation is thick and lush, bursting with ferns and vines beneath a canopy of coconut trees, breadfruit and Pandanas palms. Beyond the main village where most people live in small concrete block houses, families own a “plantation” on which they grow coconuts. A very few families also grow pumpkin, capsicum, bananas, pawpaw and even tomatoes.

It feels as though you could grow anything here

We would gladly pay $50/week to have a delivery of bananas, pawpaw, pumpkin, fresh eggs, capsicum, cucumber and tomatoes. The fact that we can’t suggests that there is no local demand for this food that might motivate someone to start producing it beyond their own needs. There are hundreds of chickens but no eggs? Is it too hard to save them from the rats? There is an agricultural centre on the island of which the locals are very proud. On it a plantation of coconut trees in neat rows… surrounded by acres of bush comprising mostly coconut trees? The only other vegetables that are grown in any quantity are taro and cassava alongside the road to the High School.

Best bananas you've ever tasted!

We’ve wondered why there isn’t more effort put to producing greater quantities of fresh produce on the island since the land is clearly fertile and the climate conducive?

But why produce what is not needed immediately or can be sold/traded for those items? Taro and cassava are vital staples in the local diet. Eggs obviously are not. And coconuts can be traded with Funafuti for money to import rice, soap, soda pop, laptop computers and Internet minutes. Coconuts travel well. Paw paw would not.

And while our being here presents a current demand for these non-staple foods, we are also a short-term market. We will be gone in a month and who will pay money for cucumber and capsicum then? In the meantime I’m thinking of putting a poster up on the wall of the guesthouse: