I woke up the first morning to the orchestral songs of jungle birds. Wow, I thought. We’re really here, and I can breathe. The climate in the mountains was cooler and there was the smell of acrid wood smoke in the air. Through the mosquito netting I could see the morning sun shining through the pinpoint gaps in the bamboo walls of our hut.
Our house was one of many similar structures in a newly refurbished village that occupied a small meadow carved out of the dense forest and accommodated a diverse crew of men from around the world who had come to work on this exploration project. We were the only Americans and I was the only woman, but apparently, not the first woman to ever live here. I was told that another married couple from England had apparently left suddenly in the middle of the night after only a few days because the “missus went longlong” which means crazy in Pidgin English, the official language of the islands. They suggested, not subtly, that it would be most unfortunate if I also turned out to be “delicate”.
Along with being given this couple’s former residence, we also inherited their “houseboy” who called himself Bob. He was quite stocky, black as coal, and his hair, cropped close on the sides, stood straight up about eight inches on his head with a trademark flower always sticking out of the top. He was missing one of his front upper teeth and he would stick his tongue in the gap and suck on it when he wasn’t talking.
A houseboy, I thought? Seriously? But he came with the hut and apparently, because we were Americans, working for us gave him an elevated status in his social circles; he did not hesitate to flaunt it. His duties were minimal, but he was flamboyantly meticulous. He washed our clothes in the river on the rocks and then folded them like fancy Christmas packages before lining them up methodically on the shelf. Each evening he set fire to a 50-gallon drum so we could bathe. He also brought over our meals from the mess kitchen, which in Australian cuisine at that time was about 95% animal protein.
But mostly he hung out on our steps gossiping with his friends. To my chagrin, as I discovered later, he brought them into our house when we were at work to show them my silk underwear and birth control pills, which he thought were amusing once I explained what they were, explaining to me with great authority that everyone knew all you had to do was go in the forest and kai kai (eat) a certain plant when you didn’t want a baby, then kai kai another plant when you did.
Turns out he was a local expert on medicinal botany, and as time passed, I discovered that Bob was quite an advocate and teacher, frequently hauling me deep into the jungle during off hours with my nursing bag to care for people tucked away in villages he felt needed medical attention. He became a faithful ally during my momentous year as a bush nurse.