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Broken Trailers

I have a story to tell.

On September 27th of 2017 I was again alone in the village. When I say ‘alone’ I mean I was the only white man and the only representative of Outreach International; but sometimes it also means I was the only problem solver. Or at least it felt that way.

Our story begins in the afternoon of the day in question. I’d spent the morning doing naught much more than waiting, finally my waiting was put to an end by a shout from below my window; my boat had come in. Within ten minutes I was on ye olde Massey-Fergussen tracor heading down to the water. Behind me, Alus- OIPNG’s proverbial right hand man- was following on the atv. Between the two of us we hoped to get both the cargo and the boat back to the base in one trip. Alas it was not to be.

During rainy season, the water’s high enough that the boat can stop within a twenty minute tractor drive of the our base. Now, because it was dry season I’d have to travel about an hour, past 2 other villages just to reach where the boat was beached. I wasn’t unduly worried by the drive or the distance or even the remaining daylight. But I did figure something would go wrong because… PNG.

Surprisingly, the drive down to the water was completed without incident. The boat was pulled up on (in) the mud just about a mile from the nearest village.

Once we reached the boat, we loaded the cargo onto the atv trailer, and the boat onto the trailer behind the tractor. As the tractor pulled the heavy boat and trailer out of the mud, the inner-tube inside of the right tire on the boat-trailer blew, leaving it completely flat.

I still wasn’t too worried, living in a swamp has the benefit of there being no sharp rocks or otherwise jagged objects. This meant that, even running flat, I shouldn’t have had any problem making it back. Though being an hour’s drive away from any tools or means of changing the flat did weigh in a little on the decision to drive back on the flat tire. We took everything we could out of the boat to make it as light as possible and headed back. Alus took off back towards the base with his load on the atv. I set about to follow (much more slowly) behind, pulling the boat/trailer with the tractor.

The road I was following had been more than two meters under water some four months ago. Normally, the tractor has no trouble pulling a load over the thick grass and mud and dirt that passes for a highway here in the swamp. Normally the tractor isn’t pulling a heavy load on a trailer with a flat tire. With loose tire flapping to the wind, the rim itself began to dig into the ground; piling up an impressive mountain of mud, weeds and debris in front of the wheel after only a short distance. I became afraid that the trailer would dig in far enough to tip the trailer and break something. An hour away from my nice little house full of tools, I really didn’t want to take that chance.

So we took a break while I sent one of our employees up a tree. I wanted him to cut me a good sized limb, only problem being that none of us had thought to grab a machete. Now the cargo I had come all this way to get was all items to be sold at our local trade store. It was an itinerary that contained, among other things, machetes. So after staring at each other stupidly for several seconds, we broke into the cargo, liberated a machete and in no time at all had a tree branch about the size of my leg.

Using local manpower and a little finesse from the tractor, I shoved the tree branch under the trailer’s axle. I then used a ratchet strap to lift up on the front and secure it tightly to the trailer itself. Now we had a trailer with one wheel; and one runner all credit for this idea going to Bush Mechanics. It worked fine as far as saving the tire and rim went, much less so in the not digging ditches department. But we were on our way, with our new made runner, serving dual function as a ditch-witch.


It didn’t take us long to arrive in the first village on our route, a place called Raten which just happens to be where almost all of our clinic staff live. So I pulled up at the house of one of the nurse’s and took a break to check on my new, improved, transport system. As I dismounted the tractor decided to display one of it’s quirks and immediately shut off. After three attempts at starting it I gave up and began to plan alternatives.

By this time Alus and the atv were well out of sight, probably almost back at the base already. With the tractor dead, and no tools, there wasn’t much for us to do but wait. Alus would have to come back eventually in order to get everything we’d taken out of the boat earlier. As our wait stretched on, I realized that Alus, go-getter that he is, probably was grabbing the necessary tools and supplies to swap out the flat tire. Fair enough, if the tractor was working that would definitely be worth the extra wait.

Sure enough, when he came blazing back, he brought with him a jack, some wrenches and a tire! I thanked him, informed him of the tractor situation and sent him back down to the water to get the rest of the load we had left there. Even with the tractor inexplicable refusing to turn on, I had nothing else to do while we waited, so I set about changing out the flat tire with the spare Alus had brought. With what seemed to be a hundred bystanders providing muscle, it didn’t take long to get the old tire off. It would have taken much longer to get the new tire on as neither I nor Alus had noticed that the spare he had grabbed was a 5 lug in a 4 lug world. That is to say that he’d grabbed a tire with 5 holes in the rim for studs and the spindle only had 4 studs. It would have been nice to have noticed before I’d done all that work getting the old one off… oh well.

And so we waited, again, munching on coconuts and fried sago loaves. By the time Alus arrived back in Raten darkness had descended. He paused while I explained the situation and we decided to leave the boat with at the nurse’s house for the night and work on it again in the morning. The tractor would either go or stay depending on whether or not we could get it started. Typically, all Alus had to do to get it started was: walk over, reach up and turn the key. The tractor started with barely a murmur after I hadn’t been able to get it going no matter how hard I tried only a half hour before.

After that, we loaded up the ATV trailer and the tractor bucket with what we could and headed home. As I was leaving Raten I was waved down by two women. Another of our nurses informed me that she was attending a pregnant woman who was having complications with delivery. We needed to move her down river to where she could be transported by car to the nearest operating hospital. That meant I had to get another boat into the water with fuel and a driver. I signalled my acknowledgement and we headed out into the night.

The rest of the trip back up to our village passed uneventfully. The road that I was following into the village comes in exactly opposite the primary school. Someone had set fire to three large rainforest trees right behind the school that night. As we came into the village they stretched glowing hands up into the night sky. Red embers glowing against a background of pitch black, like a row of infernal christmas trees. It wouldn’t be the last time they would greet me that night.

Back at the base I was greeted by the squealing of pigs, I hadn’t had time to feed them dinner before I’d left and they were vociferating their displeasure. But they weren’t high on my list of priorities at the moment. I needed to move this patient immediately and didn’t have time to waste taking care of pigs. Ignoring their squeals, I set out down the village to find the clinic boat driver, and inform him of our emergency. He was willing as always, so I went back to the base to get the boat ready and scale out fuel. The last thing I did before hitting the road again was make a trip to my neighbors house to ask him a favor. My pigs were hungry and loud and needed to be dealt with. He agreed immediately so we left him behind to feed them and headed back to the water.

I seemed to me, tired and hungry as I was becoming, that the road was just a little longer and a little bumpier every time I drove it. Surely just my imagination. As I had left Raten earlier, the nurse had asked me to grab a referral letter for the patient we were about to transport. In the bustle and the hurry I had completely forgotten. When we got back down to the nurse’s house, I borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and scribbled up a poor imitation of a referral letter that could only ever work in Papua New Guinea.

We made it safely to the water in just about an hour or so. By now it was ten o’clock at night. As I was backing the trailer into the water to unload the boat, I heard a loud bang and the trailer hitch leaped off the back of the tractor. Luckily, the weight of the boat was already in the water so we didn’t have any trouble unloading it or re-attaching the trailer afterwards. What had happened was the the trailer had actually broken between the hitch and the body where the boat sits, but because of my tiredness or the darkness or the busyness all around me, I didn’t even notice. I actually ended up towing the trailer all the way back with it hanging on by only a thin ribbon of twisted metal.


After the boat left, the crowds dispersed leaving me and one other other guy to make the long, dark and weary trip back to the village. The throaty roar of the tractor engine discouraged conversation So we followed the long, potholed road mostly in silence. I felt almost peaceful driving a tractor pulling an empty trailer back towards home.

Once we got back to the base I parked the tractor in the front yard and shut it off. Dismounting I took a look at the trailer and only then noticed that it was broken and dragging on the ground. I asked my last companion when it had happened and he was unsure. I didn’t remember hearing it break and it was so light (the trailer that is, the night was quite dark), I hadn’t noticed it dragging, so I concluded it must have somehow broken just at that moment. Determined to worry about it on the morrow, I headed back to the house.

At the time it seemed like a whole big ordeal to me. But in retrospect, it’s just the kind of thing people do out here. And have been doing as long as there’ve been missions and frontiers. Most people just don’t make a big deal out of how much work it is just to get groceries sometimes. And the patient? She traveled by boat for another three hours and then four more by car over the worst road I’ve ever driven. Chris Cooke, the expat nurse who’d picked her up, didn’t even check her in at the hospital, instead he drove to the back and transported her directly to the maternity ward, only afterward sending someone to formally admit her. At eight in the morning, the doctors arrived and performed an emergency Caesarean section. Both mother and child are living and healthy. Chris told me that the baby would have definitely died if we hadn’t gotten them out and the mother’s life would have been in grave peril. So I guess it wasn’t all effort in vain. I just wish people could have emergencies before 8 o’clock at night. Oh, well, so is the life.

Lost Fingers

Seems like it’s been the month for people losing fingers. I don’t really keep a journal. But I did write down the story of one boys lost fingers… Be warned, there are pictures.


July Seventh, the year of our Lord 2017. It is of the night before last I wish to speak.

It seems like taking a shower here is always a mistake, because as soon as I do something comes up and I have to go slog through mud again. The night in question was no exception. I’d just showered and put on a movie for the kiddos. As I was washing dishes and considering what to do for dinner, my attention was grabbed by shouts from outside. It quickly became clear that I was being hailed so put dishwashing on hold and headed out onto the front porch.

Outside I was greeted by a small crowd gathered around a teenager who was cradling his hand, wrapped tightly in a t-shirt.

As the crowd yelled out fragments to me, I slowly began to piece together the story. They had been fishing and a friend had accidentally cut him with a knife.

Now… maybe I was just feeling unloving or lazy. But I’d also worked a long day and was feeling quite worn out. So I directed them toward the local nurse, knowing full well he’d do just a good a job as me.

The crowd begged me to do it personally, saying that the wound was very bad and required my personal attention. Up to this point I’d not even actually seen the wound. Judging from the way he had his hand wrapped up in a t-shirt I figured that’s where the cut was, but I had no idea of the size or severity. So after dispatching someone to get the nurse, I called him over and took a peek at the cut. To my slight surprise, he removed the make shift bandage to reveal, not a small cut, but a missing finger. The middle finger of his right hand had been completely severed, and the index finger was only a flap of skin away.

Chopped fingers

I’d never sewn up a complete amputation, and was unsure if Jeff had any experience in that realm himself. I made a quick decision and set about getting the more experienced from a village down river.

A short while later I was seated on the tractor, backing the clinic boat down into the water. A brief conference with Jeff, on his way to the clinic, confirmed me in my decision so away we sped.

Except not really. I’d forgotten that we were going into the dry season, the river was so low that we had to alternate between using the motor and paddling the boat down river. So what should have been a short trip powered by a 50 horsepower motor became a much longer trip powered by the strong arms of a couple guys with paddles and dodging trees exposed by the receding water.

By the time we picked up the nurse, Marianna, and turned around we were heading back under cover of night.

I left her and the boat at the waters edge and headed home to get the tractor safely inside the fence. Back home I took a breathe, grabbed a pack of biscuits and headed back down to the clinic.

At the clinic I made my way through the customary, gaping crowd and into the operating room where the nurses where just about to start injecting lidocaine. With both nurses there, my help was superfluous, but I decided to take the opportunity to learn and so settled in to watch. At least that was my plan but somehow I still got roped into drawing up drugs and cutting gauze  and trying to keep the patient distracted while the nurses stitched merrily away.

Since Marianna had more experience than Jeff by over 10 years, I expected her to do the actual suturing, which she did. What I didn’t expect was for her to ask Jeff’s advice on the best way to go about it. It seemed like she was taking his cue from him. I soon learned that he’d actually done an almost identical operation just about a month ago (and would do another one in a couple weeks, though I had no way of knowing that at the time).

They quickly sewed the ragged edge of the index finger shut and then moved on to the middle finger. The last segment of his finger had been cut clean off and had apparently fallen into the water never to be seen again. The two nurses carefully pulled the surrounding skin tight and sutured the gaping wound shut. After watching for a while, I realized that the procedure was much easier than I’d anticipated, that my help was completely unnecessary at this point and that I still hadn’t eaten dinner.

So I left them to put in the last couple stitches and headed wearily back towards home; reflecting on the long day. Maybe it hadn’t been necessary to do all the work I’d done, but I didn’t think it was wasted. It is after all, easier to suture with two sets of hands instead of just one.

Something's not right here...

And then this guy shows up 2 weeks later.

June Photo Update

In the interest of conserving internet and posting photos only once I’m posting these here instead of sending them out in normal update. Here’s the last three months in pictures.

Gotuwa Patrol

Clinic Patrol to Gotuwa.

Standing up walls on the new staff house.Standing up Walls

I’m just off the screen, supervising.Jesse/Hendrik Measuring Clinic Expansion

Jesse and Hendrik taking measurements on the In-Patient ward.Shower!

My beautiful shower. I’m a little in love with it. Also nice to have my very own toilet to help with all those tropical diseases.Meldon

Little Meldon with his typical smile.Dike

Dike: Elementary teacher and my grade 10 student.Mandex

Mandepe our oldest, hardest working employee. Also Meldon’s grandpa.Nurse/Housing

The newest staff house as it stands today.


And those are the ways of Samban. Should have taken pictures of the pig we butchered… after all the work I put into her, gotta say the bacon’s pretty good.

What we do

I wanted to write a post about how many of the diverse community building aspects of our work here came together in one day this Easter but… there is a time to speak (or write) and there is a time to be silent.

I will only say that I finally got my first suturing experience on a real live human being and remembered to take a picture… as soon as I’d finished bandaging. I was slightly tempted to pull off the tape and get a picture anyway but… Instead I’ll just leave you with these. Really, they’re much more pleasant than a machete wound on someone’s butt anyway.

"A wild bush man appears"

On the way to the garden with the tractor

Yes, they were jumping from up there

Tree-Jumping in Angoram

Bananas, firewood and children. A good days harvest.

On the way back from the garden

Does this make us less redneck?

Moving the old jalopnik out of the yard

I told them I'd take a picture to prove how hard of workers they are

Guys resting under my house


March photo update

Living in the jungle and all, internet connectivity can be a bit of an adventure at times. So I apologize for any late updates, missed replies or general lack of communication. I am trying.

On that note, here’s some pictures. I’m trying to get an update out but until thenRaun long Painiten Kids and stuff. Doo doo doo looking out my front door. Putting siding on the house