Friday, April 19, 2013

Back to Alaska Tales

          Before you get into a bush plane, not only is your luggage weighed, but you are.  And when you are returning from the village, the pilots ask from the front of the plane how much you weigh.  I had to get over being shy about that early on.  The last thing I wanted was for the plane to crash because I was vain.  While I don't think that's how it works, it seemed like that at the time.

           Getting out to the schools was an event.  Climbing into the tiny planes, carrying forty or fifty pounds of gear, navigating getting from the airstrip to the building itself all proved a new challenge.  Once in the villages, I discovered I had to redefine squalor yet again.  Shacks masqueraded as homes.  Most didn’t have plumbing.  Often out in the villages, only the school buildings were plumbed.

            The schools are the hub of each village.   It is also the gathering place for people who have no place else to be.  People have their own stories.  One of the more amazing stories was that one village has a self appointed greeter.  I was duly greeted by a remarkable older woman who appeared to be mentally challenged.  She introduced herself and asked my name.  I smiled brightly after telling her my name, shaking her hand and graciously said it was very nice to meet her.  Later I heard she greeted all of the planes, looking for her mother who had left her when she was a little girl and had never returned.
In the villages, dogs howl continuously.  It sounds dreadful and sad.  You have to be cautious if they are roaming around.  They are work dogs, bred to team a sled. Not pets.
Once in an actual school, I was confronted with some of the most severely profound kids I’d ever seen.  Fetal alcohol runs rampant and every one is so casual about it.  “Oh, well she was diagnosed FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) about a year ago.”  They make it sound like the student had a cold, but instead will be affected for the rest of his or her life.  The Yup’iks are smaller people than we are, and fetal alcohol also stunts growth.  Children I have thought were five or six were in reality ten or eleven.  
            Also, strep infections and meningitis are extremely common.  Kids are always coughing.  Sometimes the effects of meningitis are forever too.  Hearing loss is extremely common.  Often all of the children in a family will be affected by bi-lateral hearing loss.  Yet, to suggest that it might be genetic is a conversation never spoken.
Tuberculosis is another disease that isn’t spoken of.  In the lower 48, a person with TB would instantly hospitalized and quarantined.  Not up here.  Kids and adults alike exhibit active TB and yet they are treated as any other person, not quarantined.  Meds for TB are available, but it’s a challenge since they must be taken on a regular schedule to be effective.  Up here clocks mean little.
            I saw a little cemetery in one of the villages when flying in.  It looked so forlorn with small white wooden crosses sprinkled throughout.  Suddenly, a question overwhelmed me:  how on earth do you bury someone when the ground is frozen solid?  I had to ask.  The answer:  Oh, well there’s a jackhammer that circulates amongst the villages.  The rest of my questions I left unasked after that. 
Social issues (abuse, addictions to substances, etc.) are heightened by the isolation.  There is no real law enforcement in the villages.  Evidently they have something akin to a constable in the villages, but that person doesn't carry a weapon.  However, everyone else does. 

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