Sunday, June 12, 2011

Makemo and the Saga of the Zombie Hand (part 1)

We ended up staying in Makemo for a week. It was a great week but it was marred a bit by what I came to refer to as my zombie hand and its associated rash. I apologize for the rather ugly nature of the things I'm about to describe but I feel duty bound to describe my affliction so that I don't leave you, the reader, with the impression that everything is always perfect out here.

Just before we left Nuku Hiva on June 1st, I got a bunch of bug bites on a trip to shore. This has not been an uncommon occurrence so I wasn't worried but a day or two into our crossing to Makemo, a couple of the bites on the back of my left hand turned ugly. They blistered and raised a bunch of smaller blisters all around them and started looking more like a poison oak rash than bug bites. I also developed a fever and runny nose that may or may not have been related. By the time we reached Makemo, the fever was gone but the back of my hand looked like the living dead and was oozing so much gunk that it was difficult to keep bandages on it. They'd get soaked and just slide off. I also stared developing a rash on my side and my elbow. I wasn't sure if the new rash was related to my zombie hand or merely the result of the poor level of personal hygiene that, in my fever induced stupor, I'd maintained during the 4 day passage. I resolved to bathe more frequently (an easy resolution given the amount of snorkeling that we did) and see if the rash cleared up. After almost a week of frequent snorkeling, the zombie hand patch had moderated a bit but was still slightly yucky and the expanded rash still looked about the same. I consulted the skin rash chapter of "Medicine for the Outdoors" and was thoroughly disgusted by the myriad stomach churning possibilities for what might be ailing my dermis. Once I calmed myself down again, I was able to narrow the possibilities. I'd already tried some benadryl with no discernible effect so I figured it wasn't an allergic reaction. From what I'd read, it seemed like some sort of bacterial infection was the most likely cause. I think my bug bites got infected and while being a filthy pig on passage, I let the bacterial filth from my zombie hand establish little frontier towns of rash on other parts of my body. These little towns were evidentially well enough established that a weeks worth of comparatively clean living wasn't sufficient evict the bacterial squatters. We had Doxycycline onboard (provided by a prescription from a travel clinic for exactly this kind of thing) so I decided to suffer the side effects (nausea, increased sun sensitivity, etc) in order to make sure that I didn't end up with some kind of full-body bacterial zombie costume. By the time we left Makemo, my hand was looking better and the other rash areas had started to abate. This is where we'll leave the saga of the zombie hand for now. There's more to come but friends and family need not worry, it's all ends up fine (I'm actually writing this on June 25th).

So, back to more pleasant things... There were two other boats anchored in the southeast corner when we arrived but they left within a day or two. Shalimar and Architeuthis were the only boats out there the rest of the time. The shore nearby (a thin strip of sandy soil between the reef and the lagoon covered with palm trees and various shrubs) was only sparsely inhabited. There seemed to be one small family run copra harvesting operation for every mile or two of shore line. I think all the land is owned but people are very friendly and don't seem to mind if you beach your dinghy on the uninhabited stretches and wander around, so that's exactly what we did. In fact, they don't seem to mind if you beach your dinghy in their front yard and say hello. That's what Ryan and Alex did and they made friends with a family there. The next day one of their new friends (I think he said his name was Nicodem - but I'm probably slaughtering the spelling) took Ryan and I spear fishing. He came and picked us up on a hand made wooden speedboat looking kind of deal. It had a big old two stroke outboard on the back and was steered from the bow with a sort of a vertical control stick kind of deal. That's the way most of the local boats are laid out here and it makes sense because the bow is the best place to look out for the shallow coral heads that you have to dodge in the lagoons.

Nicodem took us out to a very shallow area inside the southern edge of the lagoon and anchored us to the top of a small coral head. From the way he homed in on this particular coral head, climbed all the way out on the front of the bow and very gently set the anchor on a particular part of the coral head, I got the impression that this was a spot he came to often. Nicodem then proceeded to give us the most remarkable pre-dive briefing I've ever seen. He told us that we would stay together and all try to spear fish. When one of us succeeded in getting a fish, that person would immediately hoist the fish out of the water by holding the spear vertically and swim back to the boat in that manner (because sharks can sense a wounded fish in the water from a long way off and it gets them into the kind of mood you'd rather not have them in) while the other two swam behind looking for sharks. When we saw sharks we were to defend the fish carrier's back by slapping the surface of the water violently to scare off the shark and, if that failed, to prod the shark with our spear. He also told us to keep a special eye out for grey sharks because they're more aggressive than the black tip and white tip reef sharks. The thing that made the briefing so remarkable was the fact that it was conducted almost entirely in pantomime. Nicodem spoke almost no English and Ryan and I speak almost no French and even less Tahitian so Nicodem had to communicate all of this information via hand waving and facial expressions. It was amazing how quickly he managed to get all the details across.

In the water, it all happened just like we'd been told it would. Our guide speared at least twice as many fish as Ryan or I but we each managed to get a few. Nicodem was mostly targeting the squirrelfish and soldierfish so that's what we went after as well. This involved a lot of poking around under coral ledges and waiting for them to peek out from their little hiding spots so they could catch a spear in the face. The more fish we caught, the more sharks we saw and by the end of the dive we had a couple of white tip reef sharks, four or five black tips, and at least one grey. They came pretty close and were definitely interested but none of them were too large and none of them seemed willing to fight us for the fish. After we'd gotten all the fish we needed and attracted enough sharks to start making Nicodem nervous, we divvied up the fish and headed home. We invited Nicodem to come eat with us out on the boat but he said he politely declined. We thanked him and gave him some fruit that we'd brought from the Marquesas (apparently fruit is hard to get in the Tuamotus). It was a fun day and a delicious dinner and a good time was had by all.

After almost a week in the southeast corner of Makemo, we sailed back up to the pass and tied up to the big concrete pier for the night. Before we'd even finished tying up, we were accosted by a small group of little kids. They asked to come aboard the boat and since we'd had nothing but great interactions with the locals so far we agreed and helped them aboard. They were polite but they were quite a handful. They wanted to inspect everything on the boat. We let them play with Christine's camera, my guitar, our little video camera and a few other things. They asked to keep a few things but they weren't interested in anything that we were willing to part with. As we started to run out of ways to entertain them, Shalimar finished tying up next to us so we told them that our friend on the new boat spoke French so that we could pawn them off on poor Alexandra. Christine, by now eager to facilitate the hand off, got all three kids into our dinghy and rowed them over to Shalimar. Alex let them aboard but quickly decided to usher them back onto the pier. They immediately returned to us and climbed into our dingy. After a few minutes of being satisfied with that, they asked if they could take the oars and go row themselves around. I replied with the international facial expression equivalent of, "Uh, no way." They soon tired of the stationary dinghy and departed. They weren't bad kids or anything but I can't say I was entirely sad to see them go. The combination of the language barrier and my lack of child wrangling experience made the whole thing a bit stressful.

We used that afternoon for a bit of grocery shopping and then headed out the following day after a quick snorkel in the pass. We didn't time the exit out of the pass quite perfectly and had a bit of an exciting time bashing through the waves to get out but we made it with only mild discomfort and prepared for an overnight passage to Tahanea.

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