Eaten by a Tiger
Date: 16th May 2005
Subject: Eaten by a tiger
Place: Satuiatua, Savai’i, Independent Samoa
I’m at the Doctor’s surgery..
A large Samoan lady sits between me and the doctor’s surgery.
“She must be the Women’s Committee representative,” Steve whispers, “We’ll have to win her around to get anywhere near a doctor.”
I look down a long airy corridor, lined with Samoan people queuing for treatment. Children lie dozing in parents’ arms, women with bandaged feet try to get shelter from the hot morning sun, and men read their papers or chat lazily. It’s going to be a long wait. Steve straightens his lavalava and rams his hat more firmly on his head.
Is there anyone we can see for help?
“Talofa, talofa, you are looking wonderful today,” Steve says in English, grabbing the lady by the hand. She smiles broadly. “Are you Women’s Committee?” he asks.
The woman raises an eyebrow in affirmation.
“Can we see a doctor?” She twitches a little. “A nurse?”
Steve tries again after another almost imperceptible twitch. “Is there a pharmacist in the building?”
One of the men who had been staring into space suddenly launches into a torrent of Samoan, and everyone in the queue looks pointedly at us and laughs. Within seconds Steve answers back in equally loud Samoan. There is a sudden silence and people shuffle in their seats, heads down looking embarrassed. Steve grins triumphantly and whispers 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 ask, intrigued.
“I told him I’m your house slave not your husband,” says Steve, stroking his beard. “They are all suitably mortified.”
The incident gets us promoted as far as the chemist’s counter. But we still have to get past a pregnant receptionist to speak to the pharmacist.
A charm offensive
“Talofa, talofa, How are you today?” Steve turns on the charm offensive. “Don’t tell me you are pregnant?” he says, sounding disappointed that he hadn’t been included in her life plans. “How many children have you got?” he asks.
“None yet,” she replies.
“And how many husbands?” Steve asks with an innocent smile. His smile is returned as she giggles happily. He leans in close to her, “Can you put the right medicine into this bottle for us?”
She takes the bottle away, then returns to the counter smiling.
“We can get some medicine in that bottle?” Steve checks.
The receptionist nods at him.
“Today?” he questions. She laughs again and goes back to her paperwork.
It’s no joke but we’re joking..
Steve takes me to one side. “They’re notorious for leaving you waiting around,” he briefs 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 looks our way. “Shall we go dancing tonight?” Steve asks her, “and we’ll take the medicine with us eh?”
The receptionist calls to someone in another room and a barrel like lady with thick black hair comes over to see us.
“Talofa, talofa, it’s great to see you,” Steve pumps the woman’s hand. “You are the pharmacist? Can we get some medicine for this lady’s child?”
The woman narrows her eyes. “You need to see a doctor?” she asks.
“No, no,” Steve rushes 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 wheezes with laughter and disappears. “If they insist we see a doctor as well, we’ll be here for days.” Steve sighs.
What the Doctor ordered
She returns with our bottle; full of orange syrup, identical to the medicine we had been given for Matthew.
“You are an angel,” says Steve, pressing something into her hands, “and this is my small gift for your party tonight.” He shakes the hand of the receptionist, “tai lava. This is for your beer.”
The receptionist looks at the tala that had exchanged hands, then throws her head back and laughs.
“You won’t be having a beer tonight?” Steve asks in mock surprise, knowing that pregnant Samoan women rarely drink alcohol. He then thrusts the medicine bottle into my hands. “Just give a few tala to the women’s committee rep and then we’re outa here,” he says, grinning widely at the queue of people he embarrassed earlier, none of whom had moved an inch further towards the surgery.
I thank 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.
Back at the beach I’m a welcome sight
We return to the beach resort and Cameron rushes to greet me.
“Have you got my medicine Mummy?”
His excitement is heartbreaking, as his scabbed face lights 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 sit down at the bar and order a stiff orange juice. The last few days has been hard for me as I have watched the three men in my life turn into lepers. And while Matthew has finished his course of antibiotics and is definitely on the mend, Cameron’s little body is 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 have had to stand by and watch while Stuart bathes his son’s sores and Cameron writhes with pain. It is a horrible position for a mother to be in. There have been several times when I’ve 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 cured Matthew so effectively are our best hope until we can get Cameron over to the private hospital on the other island.
“Look, look I got orange medicine,” says Cameron dancing around in the pyjama top he had been wearing for days. It is the only top he possesses with long sleeves. We tried 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 take a sip of my drink and remind myself once again that Samoa was not to blame for our family breakout of impetigo. Matthew contracted it in New Zealand, and imported it in with him. Many Samoans have never heard of it or assume Cameron has chicken pox and probably blame us for failing to keep him quarantined. A lot express concern for the poor boy’s condition.
“What is wrong with your little boy?” asks one of many sympathetic onlookers.
“He’s got impetigo,” I reply.
A look of horror spreads across the woman’s face, “He got eaten by a tiger?”
Eaten by a tiger?
It takes 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 hasn’t helped Cameron’s condition, where the only available shower source is a cold water pipe or a bucket of water and there is little escape from the fierce sun and gritty sand. But Cameron suffers silently, scratches at his sores and keeps himself busy with sand sculptures because he isn’t allowed to cool down with a swim.
“Hey Kirst, look at this.” Stuart peels 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 tell him, routing out the emergency antibiotics we ordered from the doctor back home. “Do you think we accidentally booked onto the survival tour instead of the eco one?”
A week later and I am 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 kick myself for not realising.
“Take the full course this time, but his condition should clear up within forty eight hours.”
I grab the prescription and jump 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.