A Tooth for Mango

I already mentioned the mangoes, didn’t I? From Anahoe Bay there’s a mule trail leading over the mountain ridge to the neighboring Bay of Hatthieu, which we decided to tackle after two days of confinement on Aluna, due to some improvements our tender Alunita needed urgently. So up we go along this switchback trail, sweating exuberantly but intoxicated by the views that stretch along the North Coast of the island out to the hazy horizon and almost a little beyond.

Aluna in Anaho Bay, anchored precariously close to the reef

Once we pass through a saddle like indentation in the jagged ridge we’re going down the other side through a mixed forest of palms, other leafy trees, the ever-present switchgrass and more scrubs of sorts. Every now and then you see a lonely mango tree, the ripe fruits always out of reach up high.  Further down the path there are more and more mango trees and eventually we pass through mango alley, a forest of mango trees just dropping the ripe fruits on the ground by the truckload. We pick some up, peel them with our teeth then dig in and slurp the honey. On the way back we will fill our bags! The feast continues almost all the way down to the village. During the visit there I rip the husk off a coconut, picked up along the beach. We drink the milk and I scratch out the tasty meat with the pocketknife. I start to have a strange sensation in one of my lower molars. It feels like it is loose when moving it back and forth. Strange, but not really alarming. So on the way back through mango alley our bags become heavier and heavier, and of course we slurp some more. You just can’t eat enough of this elixir. The tooth still feels lose and now there’s a little pain going with it when I move it.  Strange, but still not really alarming. At night back on Aluna I’m unable to chew through dinner, excruciating shooting pain with the slightest pressure on the molar seriously caps my appetite. Next morning finds me with a pronounced swelling along my left lower jaw akin to the standard depiction of any toothache sufferer. Not good news I’m sure, that tooth will most likely have to be pulled!

I vaguely remember having seen a community health station in the village at the end of the neighboring bay, which was closed of course, like all the others we’ve seen on the island so far. A note on the door said: In case of emergency call such and such and a phone number. And I also remembered reading in the guidebook that there was only one dentist on the island in, of course, Taiohae, on the opposite side of the island! Shall we try to go there over land? That means to walk back over the hill, try to fetch some car going over the mountains, then where would we stay in Taiohae without our floating home? No, we have to cut our excursion short, abandon the plan to continue around the island in counter clockwise direction and sail back down the East Coast. I’m reading in our on board medical emergency kit that an abscessed tooth can spill its bag of germs into the bloodstream and cause a blood clot at the heart. Now there you have some really helpful information!

The following morning the day of worrying about the anchor stuck between some coral heads has finally arrived. I had tried an Ibuprofen, to see how my body would react to it should I need it out at sea on our way down. I never take any of this stuff, so I was curious if I would get all drowsy. My stomach does feel tight and cramped, but this little pill did put a full stop to the pain in the tooth. I was able to bite normally at dinnertime! Dangerous! I was totally disconnected from the problem brewing trouble in my body! Just to stay on the healthy side I put a small slice of garlic between my swollen gums and the cheek pocket when going to bed. But back to the anchor, the darned thing was definitely stuck. Aluna’s nose was directly over it, the rode going straight down and me up on the foredeck pulling with all my strength. Nope, it does not want to come up! Beatriz stands at the wheel, ready for action, since we’re dangerously close to the reef, so would need to get under way immediately once free. She tells me afterwards how she saw me swearing to any imaginable devil, pulling here, pulling there and then swearing some more. Just then right over at the beach the local folks had congregated in the little rustic church and she started to hear them singing their hymns. As their voices rose up to the precarious heights only faith can dare to go without getting dizzy and drunk, she saw me pulling up on the rode with a big smile on the face and soon the clunker of the chain rattling over the roller meant that we were free. Well, free of the stuck anchor that is. The real ordeal was just about to start. The wind has almost died and comes from the worst possible side. It makes us fall off towards the beach and we have to do a full turn to swing around and make way towards the mouth of the bay. This brings us really close to the shallow reef, which we’ve seen exposed behind us all this time during the low tides of the new moon. And there’s three other sailboats anchored in our way on top of it all. We pass the stern of the first one, then try to point up into the wind to pass the second one in front. But the gods of the winds relax their bellows and want us to suffer some more. We pass the second boat also at its stern. After that it would be good to tack but I’m unsure we would make it through the tack with this slither of the breeze. So I decide to fall off instead and gibe around the third boat. Again that means skirting the reef, but it does bring us in better alignment with the wind to pass by the same three boats again on the opposite tack. By now their crews are all on deck desperately trying to stay polite and not show their state of alarm. The blond chap on the middle one who on our last close encounter just now had kindly asked if he could take a picture of us, now even more kindly asks if we might need some help with his dinghy, equipped with a functioning version of the lifeless outboards motors we have on board. I cannot refuse his offer in the situation we’re in. So while we’re inching our way up, this time in front of the good looking boat at the end of the row, he jumps in his hard shell skiff and is at our side just as we’re in need of another tack. His pull on the rope gives just enough drive to Aluna’s nose to point her out towards the open sea again on the starboard tack, and right then the wind starts puffing a little stronger. The sound of water lapping at the chime below indicates that we’re moving ever so slightly, and for once in the right direction. Aluna’s motion can still only be described as ghosting, but we are on our way out of Anaho Bay.

Since the theme of this piece is the tooth, I will summarize the nautical part of the journey in a couple sentences. We still had to tack our way up maybe three miles. The current was significant, more so with the feeble trade winds blowing that day. So much so that after the little progress of the first tack we decided the time had come to try out the big mainsail, newly equipped with a fairlead for the upper brailing lines, to make it close without having its upper end flapping violently in the wind, like it had done so many times before when taking it down to reduce sail in deteriorating weather.  With the big sail up we still needed three additional tacks to once again make it past the curious likenesses of Adam and Eve perching on top Nuku Hiva’s Northeastern extremity, then glide down the confused seas of the East Coast, rock around Cape Tikapo and Sail Rock with the last light of the day and under the steely shimmer of the quarter moon sail downwind along half the South Coast. The promontory that forms the East side of Taiohae Bay has been visible from afar and so the sentinel island sticking out in front of it. We have to make it to our anchorage by night, not something you do lightly as the prudent mariners we’re trying to be. But all goes well, there is a gentle but steady breeze blowing out of the bay, which allows us to tack up into it, and I learn that Aluna with this rig actually does tack nicely in the very little wind at hand, just by pulling the mizzen sail into the wind while turning the wheel. We drop the hook around eleven and once the rig is secured, go straight to bed bogged down by sheer exhaustion.

My body shivers in fever during the night, sweating profusely, tackling the infection radiating out from the damaged roots in my jaw. In the morning the swelling has gone down just a little and the pain inside the tooth has not come back from being knocked out by the magic pill. The early afternoon sees us once again walking the streets of the tiny town, where the many mighty pickup trucks don’t seem to give a damn about two lonely warriors of the post petroleum society stumbling along the sides of the road.

The lonesome dentist lives in a cozy little green house, quite a way up one of the valleys the town has overgrown, bottom floor the office, clean and nicely equipped, top floor the residence with nicely worked railings of treated natural branches in their irregular shapes and curves. Very formal with an intense stare radiating from the light blue eyes is the allure of Pierre the dentist. He needs only one short glance into my wide-open mouth to say: Not nice! Not nice at all! An X-Ray confirms the tragedy: The two infected roots of the molar are clearly visible, each with a shady abscess emanating from it. The cause of it all? Apparently the mangoes don’t have anything to do with it. A badly done root canal, Pierre didn’t seem to have any doubt about it. The cure? Pull the tooth, there’s really nothing else to do, no other way to stop the infection. “Hablas Español entonces?”, Pierre now diverts our attention addressing Beatriz, “Yo quisiera irme a Chile. Es el único país seguro de Suramérica.” Since the question about the cost of the extraction was logically next I let the conversation wander, and wander, and then wander some more. Jumping back and forth between Spanish and French, Pierre the dentist reveals himself to be a passionate connoisseur of all things philosophical, citing Espinoza, Socrates, and soon enough he leads us down the road of skepticism to a place where humans are egoistic bastards by nature and the whole kingdom of living beings is nothing but a manifestation of free wheeling self-centeredness. It’s hard to resist trying to bring a little light into yet another one of Plato’s caves and make the mind’s shadows reveal themselves as who they are, so I invite Pierre to take a walk on the wild side and to try for a moment to see and not to think. But as any stubborn skeptic, Pierre is incapable of being skeptical towards himself, so my task is once again that of Sisyphus pushing les pierres, I mean, las piedras, no, what I meant was: the stones up the hill, instead of letting them slide downhill forever and ever. And I did get confirmed two of the most important points I managed to make by a gecko voicing its mocking laughter at anything human right at the end of the sentences.

We must have been talking and debating for at least an hour, when the subject turned to the pain of the human existence. Finally back in the realm of practical things I saw the chance to push for a quote, the price in currency of the extraction. Five thousand French Polynesian Francs. First though I needed to take some antibiotics for a couple days to reduce the infection and avoid it spilling into the bloodstream after ripping out the tooth. It was time to say goodbye to our philosophical dentist, with a prescription in hand and a phone number to call and make an appointment, we headed back down the valley, past more preposterous pickup trucks and were soon rowing Alunita back to Aluna. I’m yet unsure what to do. The pain has diminished; the swelling seems to go the same way. Wait and see? There seems to be a dentist on government payroll on Ua Pou, the next island to the South, where we plan to go in a week, on our way to the Tuamotus. He might do the extraction for free. Wait longer and see? Can the body do more than the mind imagines, do what the externally applied medicine cannot and actually heal the infection? The words of Pierre, the one and only dentist of Nuku Hiva, reflect concisely the words of Francisco, our house-visiting dentist back in San Francisco, when diagnosing the abscessed tooth of Ashby, our cat. It’s the classic tone of righteousness so typical of any practitioner of Western medicine: if you don’t follow the prescription, disaster will infallibly strike. Francisco’s somber diagnosis mirrored the medical emergency kit’s prognosis to the letter: The bag of foul smelling pus under the infected tooth will eventually spill its beans, flush it into the blood stream, and a heart attack like system failure will send her feline soul to nether land and beyond. Since Francisco’s bag of tools and tricks did not do it for pulling Ashbys tiny molar we were lucky enough to muster up enough courage to resist the urge to spend 1,500 units of the imperial currency for having her earthly existence insured along the lines of Western medical thinking by the local veterinary clinic. Ashby continues to enjoy the rewards of a deepening friendship with the white rabbit in the back yard of her new home, three years and counting after the morbid diagnosis had been so self-assuredly pronounced. So why can’t I share a little bit of her outstanding luckiness, and disapprove in flesh and bone the absolute validity this accumulating structure of thinking domination pretends to have for granted?

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2 Responses to “A Tooth for Mango”

  1. Mihaly Says:

    Beat,
    Once the tooth gets infected like that, you must pull it. I am not a dentist, but it happened with me twice. Both time my regular dentist said, there are no other option. Luckily each time it was a wisdom tooth. Sorry for the bad news, but you better take care of it on land, because things can turn dicey on the see. Just my 2c (based on hard earned experience)
    Mihaly

  2. Round and Round We Go « Aluna’s Travel the World Blog Says:

    […] down in the beachfront village of Hatiheu, where we cover some previous tracks of ours, the warning of bumpy roads begins to make its imprint on our buttocks in spite of the padding […]

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