In Search of Families In Search of Adventure
A Family on a Bike Tour: New Zealand, Samoa, USA and Canada 2004/2005

Eaten by a tiger

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From:       Kirstie
Subject:   Eaten by a tiger
  Date:         16th May 2005
     Satuiatua, Savai'i, Independent Samoa


A large Samoan lady sat between me and the doctor's surgery.
"She must be the Women's Committee representative," Steve whispered, "We'll have to win her around to get anywhere near a doctor." I looked down a long airy corridor, lined with Samoan people queuing for treatment. Children lay dozing in their parents' arms, women with bandaged feet tried to get shelter from the hot morning sun, and the men read their papers, or chatted lazily. It was going to be a long wait. Steve straightened his lavalava and rammed his hat more firmly on his head.
"Talofa, talofa, you are looking wonderful today," he said in English, grabbing the lady by the hand. She smiled broadly. "Are you Women's Committee?" Steve asked. The woman raised an eyebrow in affirmation. "Can we see a doctor?" She twitched a little. "A nurse?" Steve tried again after another almost imperceptible twitch. "Is there a pharmacist in the building?"
One of the men who had been staring into space suddenly launched into a torrent of Samoan, and everyone in the queue looked pointedly at us and laughed. Within seconds Steve had answered back in equally loud Samoan. There was a sudden silence and people shuffled in their seats, heads down looking embarrassed. Steve grinned triumphantly and whispered an explanation. "That was dead funny. They thought we were a palagi husband and wife and assumed we couldn't understand their comments. That guy there was very rude about the foreigner with the weird beard who gave you a fat belly."
"What did you say back?" I asked, intrigued.
"I told him I'm your house slave not your husband," said Steve, stroking his beard. "They are all suitably mortified."

The incident got us promoted as far as the chemist's counter. But we still had to get past a pregnant receptionist to speak to the pharmacist.
"Talofa, talofa, How are you today?" Steve turned on the charm offensive. "Don't tell me you are pregnant?" he said, sounding disappointed that he hadn't been included in her life plans. "How many children have you got?" he asked.
"None yet," she replied.
"And how many husbands?" Steve asked with an innocent smile. His smile was returned as she giggled happily. He leaned in close to her,
"Can you put the right medicine into this bottle for us?" She took the bottle away, then returned to the counter smiling. "We can get some medicine in that bottle?" Steve checked. The receptionist nodded at him. "Today?" he questioned. She laughed again and went back to some paperwork.
Steve took me to one side. "They're notorious for leaving you waiting around," he briefed me. "If you were here on your own they'd probably take the bottle, allow you to wait all day for it, then when you asked for it back at four o clock, they'd say the pharmacist has gone home and you need to come back tomorrow. But don't worry, I'll keep the pressure up. By the way, if you can ever make them laugh, then do. They love a joke the Samoans." The receptionist looked our way, "Shall we go dancing tonight?" Steve asked her, "and we'll take the medicine with us eh?" The receptionist called to someone in another room and a barrel like lady with thick black hair came over to see us.

"Talofa, talofa, it's great to see you," Steve pumped the woman's hand. "You are the pharmacist? Can we get some medicine for this lady's child?"
The woman narrowed her eyes. "You need to see a doctor?" she asked.
"No, no," Steve rushed in, "we just need a repeat prescription. He has the same condition that his brother had last week and needs the same antibiotic. Can we get it soon, because I expect you'll be going off in a few minutes to get ready for your party tonight." The barrel wheezed with laughter and disappeared. "If they insist we see a doctor as well, we'll be here for days." Steve sighed.
She returned with our bottle; it was full of orange syrup, identical to the medicine we had been given for Matthew.
"You are an angel," said Steve, pressing something into her hands, "and this is my small gift for your party tonight." He then shook the hand of the receptionist, "tai lava. This is for your beer." The receptionist looked at the tala that had exchanged hands, then threw her head back and laughed. "You won't be having a beer tonight?" Steve asked in mock surprise, knowing that pregnant Samoan women rarely drink alcohol. He then thrust the medicine bottle into my hands. "Just give a few tala to the women's committee rep and then we're outa here," he said, grinning widely at the queue of people he had embarrassed earlier, none of whom had moved an inch further towards the surgery. I thanked Steve, deeply grateful to have had a guide with me. I would never have dreamed up bribery or flattery for my route through the Samoan National Health Service. Instead I would have waited in line all day like a tourist, with everyone making rude comments about the size of my stomach.

We returned to the beach resort and Cameron rushed to greet me, "have you got my medicine Mummy?" His excitement was heartbreaking, as his scabbed faced lit up at the prospect of a cure. "It's orange, it's orange. Oh thank you Mummy. Look Daddy, I got orange medicine. Mummy go'ed to the doctor for me." I sat down at the bar and ordered a stiff orange juice. The last few days had been hard for me as I watched the three men in my life turn into lepers. And while Matthew had finished his course of antibiotics and was definitely on the mend, Cameron's little body was covered in sores as the impetigo left his brother's body and took hold of him. Unable to relieve his pain in case I contracted the bacteria myself and jeopardised the pregnancy, I had to stand by and watch while Stuart bathed his son's sores and Cameron writhed with pain. It was a horrible position for a mother to be in. There were several times I wondered aloud whether we should just get ourselves on a plane back home. I even made a secret phone call to air New Zealand only to discover there were no seats out of here until our scheduled flight. In any case, as Stuart pointed out on more than one occasion, they could just as easily have contracted impetigo back home. But stuck for now on the island of Savai'i, the antibiotics that had cured Matthew so effectively were our best hope until we could get Cameron over to the private hospital on the other island.
"Look, look I got orange medicine," Cameron was dancing around in the pyjama top he had been wearing for days. It was the only top he possessed with long sleeves. We had attempted to buy another, but it was impossible in Samoa. In a country where the temperature rarely drops below thirty degrees, they have no need for long sleeves.

I took a sip of my drink and reminded myself once again that Samoa was not to blame for our family breakout of impetigo. Matthew had contracted it in New Zealand, and imported it in with him. Many Samoans had never heard of it or assumed Cameron had chicken pox and probably blamed us for failing to keep him quarantined. A lot expressed concern for the poor boy's condition.
"What is wrong with your little boy?" asked one of many sympathetic onlookers.
"He's got impetigo," I replied.
A look of horror spread across the woman's face, "He got eaten by a tiger?"
It took a few moments to clarify that particular confusion. I'd had my fears about Samoa from the start but tigers was not one of them. "Samoa's quite a safe country," said my laid back GP when I consulted him about travelling with the kids, "Diarrhoea or impetigo, that's all they're likely to get there." Unfortunately we got both, and living in beach falé didn't help Cameron's condition, where the only available shower source was a cold water pipe or a bucket of water and there was little escape from the fierce sun and gritty sand. But Cameron suffered silently, scratched at his sores and kept himself busy with sand sculptures because he wasn't allowed to cool down with a swim.
"Hey Kirst, look at this." Stuart peeled off his top to reveal a new outbreak of sores under his own arm. "Oh God, I'm not going back to that hospital." I told him, routing out the emergency antibiotics we had ordered from the doctor back home. "Do you think we accidentally booked onto the survival tour instead of the eco one?"

A week later I was queuing again. This time at the private hospital in Apia, as Cameron's antibiotics hadn't worked. "I'm not surprised," said Doctor Adams when I showed him the bottle, "they only gave you half a course. You should have gone back for the other half." I kicked myself for not realising. "Take the full course this time, but his condition should clear up within forty eight hours." I grabbed the prescription and jumped into a taxi to the nearest pharmacy. Perhaps the pharmacist on Savai'i was still waiting for Steve to come back and tell her how nice she looked. Or perhaps her pregnant colleague was waiting for another beer. I knew of one pregnant woman who was about to enjoy a nice cold beer and toast the return to good health of my family.



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