Tuesday, October 06, 2009

October 6, 2009 - South Malekula Island, Vanuatu

To the right, communication by outrigger canoe.
Below right, communication by slit-gong or tam-tam

Following up on Eve's posting, we are safe and sound following the quakes and tsunamis. Still in Vanuatu, we were about 1200 nautical miles west of the Samoa quake, and 3600 nautical miles east of the Sumatra quake. (A nautical mile is 15% longer than a statute mile, so these are substantial distances.) We did not feel, hear or see any impact. We also did not hear any warning on our marine radio which we keep on at all times. We don't really know very much except our own experience and messages from the family: we have had 30 minutes on the internet in seven weeks and seen a current Vanuatu newspaper once or twice in the same period.

A tsunami is generally not felt just offshore. If you have just a few minutes to pull up your anchor and get to open sea, a boat should be fine and not notice much of anything. When you are at anchor, you are usually in close contact with people. A place where a boat can anchor is a valuable harbor for the natives as well, and consequently, it is where people live.

We were able to tune into Armed Forces Radio and hear NPR's All Things Considered - a very rare event for us- and heard a piece speculating about how tsunami warnings might get spread in this part of the world. Which gives us a chance to offer you our thoughts about communication of important messages here.

Within ear or eyeshot, news travels incredibly fast by word of mouth, walking, and canoe. Example: arrive at new village, give some fresh caught fish to a couple of guys who paddle out to your sailboat to say hello (see the photo above). Ten minutes later, as darkness falls, more guys paddle out because they learned there might be some fish aboard.

Onshore, people have a traditional set of emergency signals kind of like a musical Morse Code that they play on hollowed logs to spread word from village to village - someone is sick, someone died, an event is about to begin. (See the other photo showing elaborately carved slit-gongs/tam-tams used for this purpose). The message is relayed from village to village that way. Between islands without phone or radio communication, they set fires to summon help (such as, my wife is expecting a baby soon, please send a boat to come get her).

We were in a community with no telephone, radios, or cell phone service during a medical emergency ashore. At dawn the villagers swarmed out to the yachts in the harbor and begged for help. They knew that boats have radios and they knew that the police in the "big town" with the airport and the clinic monitored the radio, but they had no idea about the channels or the times. They wanted the police to send the motorboat to pick the patient up, about a two hour trip one way. (It's a six hour walk over mountain trails for a healthy adult.)

We had a satellite phone. We found out that there were land lines in the big town but they had been out of order for some weeks. We found a list of Vanuatu emergency numbers and started calling. Five calls later, we found someone in the police headquarters 250 miles away with radio information. We radioed and radioed. We reached the police after they finally got to work in the morning. Yes, they would send the boat. Yes, today. The boat didn't arrive that day. The boat didn't arrive the next day or the morning after. (Despite repeated promises over the radio.)

Wisely, early on the villagers had formed a thirty man convoy to carry the patient to the next village (three hours away for a healthy adult without a load). There was a medical dispensary there where he received some medication that provided some alleviation of the symptoms. We received several updates via the trail grapevine during this period of time, people running and paddling, back and forth, back and forth. It works for them. Needless to say, it is very educational for Westerners who are used to using technology to "get results". Doesn't really work in remote areas around here. Skipping several generations of technology, cell phones seem to be a tremendous boon. Things seem to work a bit more reliably where they are available.

It's a sobering experience when places we have visited are hit by natural disasters or when we contemplate what might have happened if it had been us with a medical emergency or a tsunami in a remote place. We take lots of precautions but ultimately these risks are part of this adventure.

Our thoughts are with the people we met in 2007 in American Samoa (Pago Pago) and in northern Tonga (Nuiatopotabu), which we understand were hard hit. You can reread our blog entries from those places.


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