A voice falls out from the darkened bedroom––a voice like dried palm fronds brushing against each other in the wind. Loud. Tumbling. Urgent. The words are one big exhale, a gravely sigh many years in the making.
Make, my hostess, is out celebrating the first day of the year with her friends. New Year’s Eve is a weeklong affair in Tuvalu. I peek into the living room and find everyone else asleep, sprawled across the woven mats that line the floors.
I take a gulp and walk into the bedroom, guided by a single fluorescent bulb hanging in the adjacent kitchen and my desire to be of use. Make’s mother croaks from the bed. I see the outline of her body lying down, feel her eyes on me as I move. I tread lightly, as if that could help. No one is around to translate.
The woman starts again with a stream of Tuvaluan. Rhythmically I hear the same two sentences over and over. I recognize one word: wai. Water.
On a table close to me sits a thermos of boiled water. I pour it into the thermos cup and walk closer. The woman belts out a few more sentences that I have no hope of understanding. She is ninety-five and I am twenty-two and the gulf of language between us is nearly un-crossable. Nearly, but not quite.
I hand her the cup. “Wai.”
Make’s mother sits up slowly, so slowly. The pink, plastic sheets crinkle under her bodyweight, releasing a faint smell of urine. I can see the edge of the adult diaper under her sulu.
She lifts the yellow cup to her thin lips, one hand quaking on the handle. I reach over to steady it and help her drink––three small sips in all. It is still dark, but my eyes are adjusting. Make’s mother rests the cup on top of her bedside table next to a blue crocheted cloth.
She points to the bare light bulb on the ceiling and mimes with her hands turning on a switch. I walk the perimeter of the room until I find it. When the light comes on she smiles and I smile. Up close I can see the texture of her white chin hair, her skin like a piece of roti, pocked with splotches of brown.
Make’s mother continues to speak. I continue to have no idea what she’s saying.
Finally I recognize two words. Igoa and palagni. The first is name. The second is the catchall term for white foreigner.
I point to myself and say my name. “Devi.”
“Devi,” I point.
We continue like this for some time.
Finally I point to myself and say, “America.” Make’s mother nods, as if this was the answer she had been waiting for.
“Window.” She points to the latch that will shut the slats of glass. This I can understand.
“Window!” I hop up to shut the three windows.
Make’s mother smiles. I smile.
She motions for me to leave the room and I do.
I look in moments later to find her huddled in fetal position, eyes pouring over two pieces of paper from a daily prayer booklet. She mumbles the prayers aloud, clutching them like a talisman.
Half an hour later I pass the doorway while brushing my teeth. Make’s mother is asleep, snoring lightly, the prayers on her bedside table next to the glass of water. I dart in to oust the light.
The next morning Make threads her sewing machine, readying herself for a day of hemming dresses. Trying to sound casual, I ask: “What’s your mother’s name?”
“No silly, I know your name! Your mom’s name.”
“Oh, my mum? Her name is Malaika.”
For the next three days I am knocked out with a particularly virulent form of giardia, likely from drinking a bit of contaminated water. I make six miserable trips to the toilet on the first day, read the first book of the Hunger Games, and sleep without memory of when I wake up and when I doze off again.
I am vaguely conscious of the episodes of Australian Master Chef that play on loop in the next room. Not one of these ingredients that the chefs are working with, not one, could be found on this island, I think, bitter and nostalgic for fresh foods. The thought of food turns off my stomach, though, and I roll off to sleep. Make offers me tinned meat for supper, which I politely refuse.
The second day is Sunday, and I know I ought to tell Make why I am sleeping so much and keep refusing her offers for meals. She returns from a post-Church feast at her sister’s house with a plate piled high with rice and chicken in soy sauce, topped with a generous drizzle of catsup.
My burps have turned sulfurous overnight––this is when I know it’s not just the stomach flu. I have to seek out help. Make sets the food at the edge of the mattress. The smell turns my already-queasy stomach.
“Make,” I start, taking a deep breath. “I’m sick.”
I watch her face turn to concern.
“I don’t want you to worry about me, but I’ve had some awful diarrhea.”
“You go to toilet a lot, yes?”
“You should try eating something.”
At dinner I manage rice. Just rice. Three bites, maybe four. Make rides her motorcycle over to the hospital––the one site of medical care on the island––to get some rehydration salts for me from the dispensary. I learn that health care and medications in Tuvalu are completely free.
I start making circuitous routes to the toilet in the back of the house so that I can avoid using the one in Malaika’s room. I am certain that this sickness would kill her, and that is the last thing I want to do. Please, lord of lords, may I not be responsible for the death of this ninety-five year-old woman with the voice like palm fronds.
That night I throw up three times in a row, all rice and water. I step over a frog and two cockroaches in the hallway to make it to the toilet in time. There’s no one to hold back my hair, but fortunately I had the foresight to cut it short a few days before getting sick.
An extended family member of mine once told me, “Devi, you know you’re an adult when you clean up your own puke.” Well, the single bulb above the toilet isn’t functioning, nor is the flusher, and there isn’t a bucket of water nearby to dump down. I am completely beyond hauling a bucket in from the navy-green rainwater container out back; I barely have enough energy to make it back to the mattress in the hallway next to the kitchen where I collapse.
I take comfort in the fact that I have good aim and hope that my hosts won’t be angry. Before I doze off I make a resolution to go to the hospital in the morning. I let myself cry myself to sleep.
One of Make’s nephews laughs out loud to episodes of Mr. Bean playing in the next room. He must be nocturnal.
Monday morning: Make is scheduled for work cleaning rooms at the lodge. I wake up just before she leaves at 7:30, lightheaded from dehydration.
“Make, today I’m going to the hospital, okay?”
“Okay,” she nods, halfway out the door. “Can you close the back door for me?”
It takes me a full hour and a half to leave the house, though, because I keep surrendering to mini-naps. The temperature climbs and I sweat even sitting in front of the fan. A line of Audre Lorde floats into the haze: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
I instruct myself to leave in small steps that seem more manageable than the twenty-minute walk to the hospital. Devi, sit up. Put two feet on the floor. Good. Put your backpack on. Take it off. Lighten the load a bit. No, you really don’t need a harmonica or laptop at the hospital. Good. Sling it back on your shoulders now. Walk the ten steps to the front door. Put on your right shoe. Put on your left shoe. Take a sip of salty water. Take another sip. Now walk.
I take the journey in small chunks, moving slowly. While I’ve never been to the hospital before, there are only two main roads on the crescent-shaped island, so it should be difficult to get lost. I stop by a baker to double check my directions and buy a bun that turns out to be a frosted piece of white bread. I surprise myself by managing to keep it down.
When the woman at the shop sees me sitting at the bench under the awning a good ten minutes after she sold me the bread, she asks, “Did you like it?”
“The bun? Oh, yes. It’s quite a feat, too, because I’m sick.”
She looks at me blankly and smiles. I lick the icing from my fingers.
“Do you make them?”
“Oh, no. My husband does. He bakes and I sell.”
“He must wake up very early in the morning. The bun was so fresh.”
“Yes. Always early. Bread in the dark,” she sighs.
I thank her for the 50-cent bun and trudge onwards towards the hospital. The waiting room is full when I arrive.
“I.D. card?” the woman at the front desk asks.
“Yes, I’m here to see the doctor.”
I pull out my passport and hand it over, grateful that I remembered to bring it, given my current physical and mental faculties.
“D-e-v-i-K.-L-o-c-k-w-o-o-d” she types with her middle finger. “You take a seat now.”
“How long will it be? An hour? Two?”
She smiles, pitiful. “Two or more. Please sit.”
I manage to find a seat at the edge of a bench next to a breastfeeding mother and child and two teens playing cards. The room is clamorous with children. The walls are green. A kid two benches over spits up a red lollypop and wipes it off on his shirt. The adults in the waiting room seem absent or occupied with sicknesses of their own.
Eventually the exertion of sitting upright is too much for me and I have to lie down. I find a spot next to the windows in the back of the room and curl up, using my backpack as a pillow. The last thing I remember before falling asleep is a Tuvaluan woman pointing me out to her neighbor and saying: “Tapa (Wow).”
I open my eyes, disoriented. Green walls. The sun is higher and the room hotter than I remember. To my right a group of Tuvaluan kids sit under a crumbling stairwell, tossing bits of tile at each other. One hits my leg with a clattery thwack and I have to hold myself from getting angry. I half fall asleep again, only to be wakened by another flying piece of tile.
Mercifully the door to consultation room number five swings open and someone with a clipboard calls my name: “Dave Lockwood.” Finally.
I’m not sure where to sit. A Tuvaluan woman with a topknot and colorful scrubs stares at a computer screen with my name in the top right corner.
“What’s your problem?” she asks, still looking at the screen.
She looks over from head to toe and laughs, a full-bellied, hearty chortle. I blink twice, refusing to believe that a healthcare professional is laughing at me.
“Ha––ok. Diarrhea.” She types the word painfully slowly, using only her right pointer finger. “And how many times do you, you know…” she trails off.
“Anywhere between four and eight times a day. Oh, and last night I threw up three times.”
“You puked?” her face contorts into pure disgust. I have to remind myself that I’m not paying for this.
I take a deep breath. “I need Flagyl. I used it once before in Tanzania and it worked for giardia. I have giardia.”
“What is Flagyl?”
“Metronidazole. Do you have that?”
The nurse-doctor spends a few more moments typing at an astoundingly slow rate into the keyboard before looking up at me. “Yes. We have. I give you one dose? Five days enough?”
She sends the document to the printer and hands me the prescription, signing it with a loopy hand.
“Where do I take this?”
“Dispensary. That way,” she points. “Next.”
I amble in the direction her fingers pointed towards, finding a door marked Pharmacy. It is locked. I put my prescription in a pile along with thirty or so others at the window next to the locked door.
An hour later a harried-looking man unlocks the door and scoops up the pile of prescriptions, disappearing into a back room. I’m not the only one waiting, but I am beyond striking up a conversation. When the packet of pills with my name on it arrives at the front window, it is late afternoon and I feel that I have witnessed a small miracle.
I am startled awake in the pre-dawn hours by, of all things, a rat crawling over my leg. The lights are never fully out in the hallway where I sleep in Make’s house, so I can see its furry body clearly, the beady eyes staring up at my own.
I panic––“Jesus!”–– shove it away, and bring my pillow into the room where Malaika sleeps. I curl up on the floor next to Make and her two grandsons, hoping that I am beyond contagion. I don’t seem to be able to protect myself very well on this trip, but the least I can do is look out for the ninety-five year-old woman with the voice like palm fronds who I gave a glass of water.
How do you say, “Tuvalu, you kicked my ass,” in Tuvaluan?