Even before we could unpack our medical supplies from the row boats, we had Natives waiting in line – well, a circle, really. My eyes scanned the scantily clad people and gulped. Talk about primitive. I’d seen pictures from National Geographic Magazine, but they didn’t compare to the reality. I couldn’t help but feel a small kernel of misgiving deep in my gut.
‘Just remember that a smile is universal.’ Stephen said as he sat a crate on the beach. ‘That frown you got going will scare them away.’
‘I’m not frowning – I’m – I’m thinking.’ I grunted, placing a second crate beside his. ‘I do that.’
‘Not saying that’s a bad thing to do.’ He chuckled. ‘If you ask me, you look scared.’
My eyes met his ever so briefly. How did he know that so easily? How did he always know what I was thinking and feeling? To be totally honest with myself, I was terrified. The spear-welding Natives were jabbering among themselves, tamping their spears in the sand with one hand while gesturing large with the other.
Stephen winked. ‘It’s okay to be a little scared, just try to do it with a smile on your face. Courage is fear put to use.’ He motioned back to the row boat. ‘The sooner we unload and set up, the sooner you can find out that you can work through that fear.’
Consciously, I forced my lips to curl upwards. This wasn’t going to be easy. Especially not with all those looks the island Native’s were giving me. I gulped and went back to the row boat for more supplies.
‘They’re excited to see us again.’ Diana spoke as she joined me. ‘And, Stephen’s right about the smile. Body language speaks so much louder than words. I’ll be beside you, so don’t worry. The Natives know me.’ Diana smiled broadly. ‘Tambu will translate for us, and he used to live the next island over before he joined the crew.’
‘I don’t know how you do it, Diana.’ I spoke with soft words. ‘Aren’t you at all afraid?’
‘I was, years ago. But, I’ve been on the ship for five years, now. These islands are my home.’ She smiled broadly. ‘I care about these people. Trust me, your fear will go away, soon.’ She winked.
What was it with all this winking? Was it an island habit that I hadn’t read about. Sometimes, it was most disconcerting.
‘Why don’t we start with the women and children. We’ll let the men take care of the men unless they ask for us.’ Diana motioned for the women to come closer to line up behind the solitary chair.
Then, as the first woman sat down with a tiny babe on her lap, I couldn’t help but smile. I self-consciously touched my own stomach. Soon, I thought, so very soon.
I soon learned the wisdom of a simple smile that crossed all boundaries of race, culture, or social strata. A smile didn’t need a translator, and put even the most nervous looking patient at ease. Quite the opposite of the stoic look that was encouraged at the convent, so very different. Soon, I found myself relaxing into a routine. By the end of the day, I thought that I had never smiled for so long, or so genuinely in all my living days. We had worked all day, and even as evening was falling around us, we worked by lantern light.
Later, after a feast of roasted pig and the ever-present cocktails and beer, some stayed on the island to camp on the beach while others went back to the ship. All hoped that in the morning a sea plane would come with new sails. By the time we made our next port-of-call, a new mast would be waiting.