SINGAPORE - Whenever islanders from around Indonesia's Banda Sea spot the familiar red sails of the 124-year-old historic vessel Vega near their shores, they will enthusiastically paddle their canoes to guide it through the shallow waters to a safe anchorage.
This is always a welcome sight to American Captain Shane Granger and his German wife Meggi Macoun, who have been delivering medical and educational supplies to some of the country's most isolated islands for the past 13 years.
"We go to the same islands where we have made many friends, over the years we have seen people's children grow up, get married, and start having their own children. It's like returning to your own village," Capt. Granger told The Straits Times from on board the Norwegian-built sailing cargo vessel, while docked in Marina at Keppel Bay.
The couple planned stops in Singapore and Malaysia to load supplies from their supporters. They will then head to Jakarta to load up medical supplies before sailing east of the sprawling archipelago.
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When they first started their mission, many of the small Indonesian islands had no health posts, or "puskesmas" in Indonesian, said Capt. Granger, 68, a former advertising photographer.
"But now many more of them do. Most of that improvement was in the past three years. But still there are problems, because you can see it's a strain for the government to reach that far," he added.
Indeed, there is a marked disparity in the standard of healthcare between the rural and urban areas in Indonesia. In remote regions, medical facilities are limited, emergency services are scarce, and doctors are few and poorly paid.
In April, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health Dainius Puras lauded Indonesia's "commendable efforts" to develop a sustainable and equitable healthcare system.
But he noted that the "availability, access to, and quality of health services remains a challenge in a country where the population is spread throughout thousands of islands often in remote areas."
MISSION OF PASSION
During their dozen-year odyssey, the couple have heard many stories of struggle faced by the rural communities.
Capt. Granger recounted one such story of a boy from Pulau Nila who survived an arrow wound straight through his stomach.
The boy and his friend had gone hunting for wild boar with their bows and arrows. While he hid behind some bushes, his friend climbed a tree to have a better angle. By a stroke of bad luck, a tree limb moving in the wind deflected his friend's first arrow, sending it straight into his belly.
Unfortunately, the only "medical tools" available in the village were five old razor blades, a sewing needle and thread.
"They couldn't pull the arrow out because it had barbs and they were afraid it would tear the stomach and the boy will definitely die," Capt. Granger said. "So they took two spoons and pushed the arrow all the way through and out the back."
For 11 hours until the crack of dawn, the village headman and midwife laboured tirelessly to dislodge the arrow, bringing "every oil lamp from the village so there would be light". They succeeded and he lived.
There were plenty of other such "absolutely stunning" stories, shared Capt. Granger.
An old woman was so overjoyed after receiving a pair of S$1.50 reading glasses that she could not stop touching and scrutinising things she had not seen clearly in 15 years. "Her whole life changed and that's something that makes you feel good," he added.
So despite being certified for sailing in freezing Arctic waters, the boat is content as "a glorified floating DHL" in the tropics for now, he said with a laugh. "After all, our island friends request everything from from sewing machines and fertiliser to brass water taps."
A request for four brass water taps came from an island with no running water and electricity. The headman drilled holes into four posts and installed the water taps, then placed a post in the middle of each village.
"Seeing the shiny new water taps, the villagers got to work running bamboo pipes up to a spring on the mountain. Four kampungs now have running water!" he said.
The couple have no plans to end their humanitarian work anytime soon. In fact, they are expanding their mission and exploring ways to tackle the increasingly severe issue of plastic waste dumped into the oceans.
Their humanitarian work keeps them busy and the Vega in good condition, Capt. Granger said. It also keeps them close to the friendly people and amazing country they have come to adore.
"We did a lot of travelling in our lives... and Indonesia is the place we like the most," he said. "There's such a wide contrast of cultures ranging from super modern to people still living in caves with bones in their noses. It's really amazing."
To support Vega and its humanitarian work, please visit http://sailvega.com/vega/support_the_vega.html