I travelled to the other side of the world this summer and couldn’t tell you a thing about it until now.
Do you know how hard it is for me to keep my mouth shut?
I couldn’t tell you how I asked my kids whether it was OK for me to spend 10 days with UNICEF at the very start of their school summer holidays.
Or how they both said ‘we know you would absolutely love to go help other children so we’re fine with it. We want you to go’. And how I cried at that.
And how when I went for my jabs (lots of jabs. Jab, jab, jab) the nurse told me she’d never heard of where I was going and could I show her on the map before she sticks a needle in my arm and inoculates me for the wrong region . . .
And that when she did eventually call up a map of the area on her computer to show the malaria hotspots, every part I was going to was basically SCREAMING red. I mean every square inch of it is red, bright red. Warning red. RED RED RED.
I also couldn’t tell you about the overwhelming feelings I felt while I was there, as I walked amongst unbelievably poor families who just got on with the life they have been handed; smiled, played, welcomed us in with open arms. And all they asked for in return was for us to help make their mothers and newborns, healthy.
I felt electrified.
I had to keep all of this under my hat, and it was agony.
Because it was one of those experiences many people never have. Ever.
I went into the remote jungles of Papua, a place once famed for its headhunters. And I’m not talking about business men here.
It is a place almost totally unknown to the outside world. When UNICEF asked me to go on this trip, they couldn’t show me any photos of what to expect because there weren’t any. Nowhere on the internet.
This trip was utterly amazing and it made the whole writing this blog thing totally worth it.
So today I’m going to share with you a whole raft of photographs and let them tell the story of the amazing journey I made to Papua, in Eastern Indonesia; a place so remote I felt like I’d stepped into the pages of the novel The Mosquito Coast.
A place so remote, some of the tribes had never seen Westerners.
But despite being that remote, UNICEF are still travelling there with the joint initiative they are running with Pampers. They travel by plane, by boat, by dug out, by bike, by foot – whatever it takes to help those people who could so easily be forgotten.
And let me tell you this dear internet, it works. These villagers flock to meeting halls and shacks to greet the UNICEF folks and the life-saving bounty they bring.
And it’s people like you who are helping to make that happen.
Looking out of the aeroplane window, it feels like we’re at the very edge of the world. It’s been a bloody long haul (two flights, each over 7 hours) – well, we are just a stone’s throw from the north of Australia.
Indonesia I discover is made up of around 17,000 islands. We are heading to the capital city of Jakarta, right there in the bottom left. And Oh. My. Goodness. It’s SO busy. Like any built up city I guess and the billboards for mobile phones, fancy cars and designer shopping malls tell you it has a rather affluent undercurrent.
We have another 6-hour flight ahead of us (I KNOW!) to Papua (that big island right there over on the right), where we are told it is very VERY different to Jakarta.
The area you can just about see to the right of Papua is Papua New Guinea. A totally different place.
We need to wear long sleeves and trousers because of the mosquitoes and we need to wear old clothes because it could get messy. We have literally no idea of what to expect and we’re all kind of nervous but excited.
So we exchange money (this is about £10 – kidding, but there was an awful lot to the pound)
And we eat . . . . Hmmm . . .
And we spend the night in a Jakarta hotel wondering what on earth is to come.
We catch that flight to Papua. We make a pit stop at Bali and pick up our photographer Josh Estey who is joining us on our adventure. He speaks Indonesian which feels like a massive relief!
We arrive in Timika, which kind of reminds me a lot of some of the towns I visited in Thailand 10 years or so ago. Everyone travels around on mopeds – sometimes 3 or 4 people – like little bees flitting around; it’s basic and really dusty and there are the first signs of poverty. And boy is it hot.
We have dinner with some UNICEF staff working in Indonesia and they are so passionate about what they do. We meet the remarkable Dr Amiri for the first time. I bloody love him.
We visit our first health centre to witness an MNT (maternal and newborn tetanus) immunisation programme in progress. It is HEAVING. There are mums and kids everywhere and I could be back home at the local village hall as I close my eyes and listen to the hum of activity. Mums are hugging their kids, babies stare wide-eyed from where they are carried on their mother’s back.
It feels great.
The whole town is on stilts to rise it above to scummy waters below. The homes are one-room shacks barely enough to keep the elements off their many inhabitants.
We speak to a local birth witch. She is amazing; delivers all the town’s babies using traditional birthing methods. She’s being taught by UNICEF how to make sure those are hygienic and safe because the conditions these babies are born to are filthy. Utterly filthy. It’s a wonder any child survives these conditions.
She welcomes us into her home; her life. She has the most expressive face and chats happily about her work and as she stands there proudly with her husband.
This photo depicts exactly what life is like here.
We’re going remote. This is why we came; to follow the MNT vaccine as it makes the journey to places no one else visits.
We have to take a 10-man plane (eek) for an hour’s flight, then a 2-hour speed boat trip to get there. We’re told there won’t even be satellite phones it is that out of the way. We are going off the grid.
Here is our plane. At the airport.
LOOK at how small it is. This is how close I am to the pilot. We had to be weighed to get on it and we’re sat cramped in here with our backpacks and our life vests and a bag of sweets for an hour. And all we can see out of the window is trees. Lots and lots and lots of trees.
Which then had me panicking WHERE’S THE RUNWAY?
Ah look, there it is, that thin sliver of a clearing in the distance. Lovely.
But this is why we’re here. This has little vial has travelled on the plane with us in it’s cool box to keep it at optimum temperature and ensure it’s ready to be given to a family in need.
Which is no mean feat given the temperatures here. It’s hot.
So we’re in Papua, at the airport (yes, this here below is the airport!). And we need to get to those families. But there are no roads. So we take to speedboats. And by speedboat I mean a small boat with an outboard on the back. For two hours. See me smiling there? That’s nervous laughter. Because look at where we’ll be travelling.
There is NOTHING around. Except maybe a couple of crocs sunbathing on the river bank (which I thankfully didn’t see).
They said remote and oh boy did they mean it. I cannot believe anyone lives out here, it’s so isolated. How do they get around? How do babies born into this survive?
The aim of the UNICEF/Pampers programme is to reach these unreachables; to keep searching for communities – no matter how small and tucked away.
The aim is to eliminate tetanus and give these children a fighting chance.
There are women and children out here, lots of them. And they need these vaccine.
And we’re about to meet them.
FRIDAY: Witnessing UNICEF in action. Human poo. And nearly not making it home.
If you want to support the work UNICEF are doing for MNT in Indonesia – indeed all the other hard to reach places around the world – you can do so here:
If you’re a parent in the UK or Ireland and you buy nappies, consider buying Pampers from now until the end of December:
Every pack bought with the “1 pack = 1 life-saving vaccine” mark on it means you’ve helped.
Not buying nappies any more?
You can quite simply ‘like’ the Pampers Facebook page = 1 vaccine.
Personalise your own Miffy story for free = 1 vaccine.
Download the free Pampers Out and About iPhone app = 1 vaccine.