Thursday, September 3, 2015

Does your rash itch sometimes?

Today is the first day since our arrival on Nanumaga when I have felt words running into my head and had the energy at the end of the day to sit at the computer and get them out. We have been working so hard for the past two weeks that, at the end of each day, it’s all I can do to crawl into the cold shower, dunk my concrete dust and sweat saturated clothes in a bucket and stare blankly at our assortment of tinned and dried food for dinner inspiration. I’ve barely been keeping up with e-mails - the outside world is not missing me very much.

Getting off Nanumea and moving us and our gear to Nanumaga proved as adventurous as anything to date. The Baldur arrived to collect us and part way through loading our tools it became clear that the process was taking longer than the ship’s crew were obviously hoping. Anxiety started showing on their faces by about midday when the swell hitting the opening of the reef passage made it too dangerous for the small whale boats to navigate safely, loading was stalled and the ship drifted away. When she returned at 4pm we were being pushed to board but refused without our cargo – afraid that once aboard they’d tell us we had to sail for Nanumaga and leave our remaining gear behind. We finally managed to get from the panicked Captain the reason for the pressure to sail – the ship had left Funafuti amid a strong wind warning with barely enough fuel to make the round trip and no contingency for delays loading or unloading cargo (despite a contract with us covering daily rates for just this). How could this happen? How could a ship risk stranding like this?

Luckily we were able to negotiate purchase of some spare diesel from the Nanumea Kaupule and TEC – 25 barrels which had to be moved to the wharf at 10pm that night and then carefully transferred to the ship the next morning in addition to all our own cargo. The end result was an unplanned 24hr delay in the charter but some assurance that we’d have enough fuel to unload on Nanumaga and for the Baldur to safely return to Funafuti.

Loading diesel in Nanumea
By the time we arrived at Nanumaga (about 4pm Tuesday afternoon), we were strung out and anxious that the unloading be completed by mid-afternoon Wednesday when the boat would have to set sail for Funafuti regardless of whether we were done or not. To their credit the crew and local labour we arranged on the shore worked through until it was too dark to be safe and were at it again by 7am the next morning. We were fully discharged by 2pm and watched the Baldur disappear into the distance.

Back to work!

Hadley started the conversation… “Does your rash itch sometimes?” I can’t quite remember where it went from there but it wasn’t dinner conversation. My rash doesn’t itch so much as prickle. My skin is covered in small red spots – a heat rash? And I hate wearing clothes: they scratch and rub and need constant adjustment. Marty deals with his rash by going shirtless. Hadley wears indecently short shorts.  I have been dreaming up the perfect island work wear – a pair of seamless, Kevlar embedded, lightweight overalls that somehow don’t actually touch my skin anywhere and steel-capped jandals(?).
Concrete dust angels
My trusty work boots

We all had expectations about what it would be like working out here. They weren’t idealised but they were kind of “all the best bits, none of the bad bits”.

Nanumea was an island of flies. They were everywhere. And in everything. Although the Aussie’s in our party seemed less bothered by them than the Kiwi/Dutch contingent. The biggest challenge was keeping them away from open healing wounds – they would zero in on any scratch or sore and use their little suckers to probe for yummy morsels (I’m sorry but this is the imagery that stuck with us each day as we fought to keep wounds covered!). We discovered a new use for Chux-wipes and electrical tape – fly-guards.

Hadley's modelling island work wear: fly-guard, short shorts, neck snake, flappy hat and bushy beard
Nanumaga will be remembered for the ants. I wish I had taken a photo of the Nanumaga Kaupule guesthouse when we opened the door on that first afternoon. The floor was literally alive – crawling with yellow crazy ants which have almost taken over the island. There are nests under the front porch and they swarm over every surface including the mats and mattresses laid out on the bedroom floors. They even make it up into the camp beds with us at night – an unsettling feeling but one you get used to eventually. And there are holes and “soft spots” in the floor where the supporting timbers have become rotten and mice and rats freely rampage through the house. They are as bold as brass – gallivanting up and down the corridor in broad daylight.

Ants swarming on the array foundations provided motivation to keep moving and work fast

Our first full day on the island was spent trying to carve out a space to live alongside the ants and rats for the next month. And convert this semi-rotten shack into a haven from the daily toils of working in the heat, dirt, sand, grime and salt. We started unpacking food and setting up tables in all corners of the house with little bowls of water under their feet. The ants kept coming. And as we unpacked food from crates outside, the ants discovered this new source of wonders and seemed to come up through the ground itself. If you stood still for more than a second, they would swarm up your legs. I tried spraying my feet and sandals with surface (bug) spray, then a piece of cardboard to stand on, then I stood in a bucket of water. They were unstoppable.

As for the rats, we’ve started feeding them. It seems easier to sacrifice some food than battle constantly with trying to keep everything away from them. They are keen on noodles. The big fellow in the front room is onto his third packet.

Our remaining food being preciously hoarded from from scurrying housemates

Nanumaga has also been the first island where falling coconuts have proven themselves a significant threat. The walk from the guesthouse to the powerhouse is only about 100m. But on the corner is a cantankerous old coconut tree with a mean sense of timing. After a combined 5 months now in the outer islands of Tuvalu, Marty has had two near-death experiences in under a week, and Shane one. The verge under this tree is littered with coconuts which have only just missed their target. We are cutting a wide path now.

Amidst these challenges of daily life in the islands we are working hard, but we are also working smarter and faster. Two weeks after we started on site and we switched the system on this afternoon. Kaupule Secretary Sefuteni Liki was there to flick the switch – even if it was a bit of an anti-climax – solar doesn’t make much of a bang. Tonight the sweet joy of having a fan on all night and (hopefully) sleeping my first night through in weeks.

As individuals, we are all coming to grips with our roles and getting our heads around how to manage our respective parts of the installation efficiently. No more missing some little step and having to retrofit something which would have been way easier to do 3 days ago. No more double doing. We’ve also had a fantastic group of local workers here on Nanumaga – a crew who’ve worked really well together and solidly from start to finish. It’s a system that Powersmart, MFAT, TEC, and Nanumaga, can be proud of.

The Nanumaga work crew


We’ve also been lucky to have Falani from TEC here with us throughout the install. Falani works for TEC in Funafuti and has had an opportunity to see some of the other (non MFAT funded) systems going in on the central islands.  It’s been wonderful for us to get some feedback from him on the quality of the work we’re doing and to hear through him how positively all the northern islands are viewing our work in the context of the broader Tuvalu Renewable Energy program. 

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