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Sunday, October 31, 2010


After nine weeks of travelling, the adventure in the Solomons has finally begun. I left France, sad to see my father leave and a little scared about the next 72 hours ahead of me.  The flight to Dubai was elongated by two hours due to fog, leaving little time to scurry through duty free.

The trip to Australia was long and filled with turbulence fun.  The bathrooms were filled with people getting violently ill due to the shaking.  Now, I’m not a fan of turbulence but after being on the boat and on trains and having been, as my mother put it, “shakin like a bag of ze walnutz”, I was pretty immune. 

It’s always interesting who you meet on planes and I am one of those annoying people who like to talk, even briefly, with the people sitting next to me.  I figure, if you are going to share a cramped space for 14 hours, you should at least know the names of people around you. I sit next to a girl from York traveling to work on a cruise ship in Brisbane.  She is an interesting lady, working on the sound and lighting for the ship and we got on well.

I always pre-order the vegan meal on planes.  But I’m not vegan; I just got sick on a beef ravioli dish on a 14 hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg ages ago. It was awful.  So I made up my mind to lessen my chances of getting meat based food poisoning again (yes, I know you can still get sick on veggies.)  The great thing about ordering a vegan meal is that it’s always very fresh, well made and you get it about a half an hour before everyone else does.

By the time I got to Brisbane, I was pretty wiped out; not entirely prepared for the next leg ahead of me.  I had heard bad things about Solomon Airlines (the Lonely Planet Guide called said it was in competition for being the most unreliable airline on the planet).  But I found this to not be the case at all.  The staff was very polite and the plane was clean.  It was another bumpy flight but by that time, turbulence just put me to sleep. 
The Henderson Airport is based on the old military base which was the basis for the Guadalcanal battles in World War 2.  I won’t get into yet (because there is so much other stuff to talk about right now, I leave that for a “Sara is bored and has nothing else to talk about” blog) but the World War 2 stuff is pretty fascinating.
As we fly into Honiara, I get a pretty good view of Guadalcanal.  It’s hilly and lush; jungle everywhere below lined with white sandy beaches.  Paradise.

The airport, again, was clean and tidy and immigration/customs were a breeze.  I know I was worried about the weight of my bag but because I checked it through Charles de Gaule, they didn’t weigh it or charge me extra!  Yay!  I didn’t have to wear all the extra panties after all (I did wear jeans under my dress for the duration of the flight just in case though).

I met a girl on the plane, Scarlett*.  She is friendly and lively; originally from the Philippines but living in Australia now (except when she works in the Solomons).  We click instantly and exchange email addresses, promising to catch up.

I get out of customs to four people waiting for me.  Three people from my host organisation present me a beautiful lei, welcoming me to the islands.

I’m exhausted, and they can tell, so they take me to the office quickly, give me a quick tour of everything and drop me off to my new home for a year.

When I arrive, it’s not at all what I was expecting.  I had really wanted a place where I could grow a little garden and maybe adopt a cat (sorry Mr. Dot Dot, you will always be the best cat in the world, but I have to move on too).  Instead, I got a very clean and tidy studio with a nice kitchen and a lovely warm shower. 

I put my suitcase down, took off my clothes, put the sheet over me and drifted immediately off to sleep.
When I woke up at 2 a.m., I couldn’t go back to sleep.  I looked around me, confused and not entirely sure I was ready for this experience.  I was frustrated that things hadn’t turned out as planned; I had planned the little garden in my head.  I had planned to bake, to decorate, to have a cat, to set down roots for awhile (something I’m not terribly good at but I’d like to try more of).  I thought I’d have a flatmate but instead I was living alone.  I started getting very nervous and wondering if I’d made the right decision all together.  I was looking at months of being alone, isolated and sad.

I flipped through the little introduction packet to the apartments, which are in Sanalae.  Sanalae means “for the time being”.  I can’t help but smile; the universe suddenly had just winked back at me. 

Then I started looking at the place from a totally different perspective.  It was a simple; I had someone to clean everyday so I didn’t have to worry about getting cockroaches or ants (as long as I clean up and store stuff in the small fridge).  I don’t have to worry about buying bedding, towels, dishes, cooking utensils; everything was provided.  I never had to worry about fixing my own toilet (which, I am awesome at due to some very fun times in Namibia..ah the ballcock…) or buying a light bulb.  Everything is easy; I guess I was expecting to have to work a little more.  I can’t believe I was disappointed about having to work less! 

My host organisation has kindly provided me with a driver, Lucas* for the weekend to take me around and after a delayed start, we head off to the central market.  The market is sprawling; under the huge covered structure are tables filled with fresh vegetable and tropical fruit, some of which I have never seen.  The prices are cheap so you don’t bargain in the Solomons. 

Tidy little piles or heaps of tomatoes, capsicum, peanuts, chillis, limes, mangos, bananas (of which there are over 30 kinds) and other items litter the tables with small signs that say “five dollars”.  At the front near the dock is the fish market, which I stay away from for now because I don’t yet know if I can handle gutting a fish in my apartment yet.  Bake good are also for sale, as are bottles of fresh coconut oil; some are fragranced with frangipani and roses to use as moisturizer for the skin and hair.  The market smells clean and fresh; unlike the souks in Fez. With the help of Lucas, I quickly navigate my way through buying a full bag of veggies for less than 50 dollars Solomons (about 10 dollars N.Z.)

I make my way to the supermarket to buy some rice, noodles and sauces.  This market, which has a great deal of Chinese food and some nice dusty bottles of capers, is clearly catering for expatriates, who are all around the island.  It’s incredibly expensive and I quickly spend 200 Solomon dollars (about 40) on two small bags of groceries.  In comparison, it’s clear that eating fresh, local food is the way to go here, which suits me perfectly.

Lucas takes me up to the U.S. World War Two memorial and we quickly discuss the war.  He says that the Solomon Islanders fought alongside the U.S. but wonders where their big memorial is. I agree.  The memorial gives a wonderful panoramic of Honiara.  Before I came here, people warned me that Honiara was not a beautiful city.  But I find the place captivating and real.  There is very little pretention here; people just get on with the art of living. 

The city is also very lush, like Hawaii and Samoa.  There are large tropical trees everywhere and the air is perfumed with frangipani.  Rhododendrons colour the streets with corals, rose and purples.  Lucas takes me on a tour of the botanic gardens.  There are paths along the way and we talk about living in the Solomons.  Lucas makes lots of references about the Solomons not being as nice and tidy as New Zealand; almost a little embarrassed.  But he has no reason to be; I’ve already fallen in love with Honiara, whether it’s like home or not.    

He takes me back to the hotel, where I take a nap.  I get woken up by my friend Scarlett, inviting me to dinner.  Less than 24 hours here and I already have an invitation to go out!  Scarlett and I agree to meet at 6:30 p.m. at the local market.  I take my first steps towards walking on my own in Honiara. 

As I walk down the hill, I realize that no one knows where I am.  That if I got picked up or taken, no one would know I was gone until the following day.  And it was getting dark.  I begin to panic as I walk; I completely disregarded all the rules about security in Honiara.  What was I thinking?  And what did I know about this Scarlett person anyway?  Was she going to sell me off into white slavery (Mom is forever cautioning me against being taken into white slavery).

I get down to the meeting point and meet up with Scarlett, who, as it turns out, isn’t going to sell me off into white slavery (at least yet).  Scarlett is loads of fun and we have a lovely Chinese dinner at a local place.  It’s not too expensive for two people (about N.Z. 40) and that includes the three Solomon Island beers.  Now, I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the beers, but it’s a nice fruity lager and I find it really drinkable (but hey, I don’t normally drink beer, so what do I know?).

I get a text message from another friend, Ally*, saying that there is a big party at the Kava Bar and to come down.  Scarlett decides not to come along but she helps me primp up for the big shindig and we talk for a long time.  Scarlett is a totally street tough lady and although she is younger than me by five years, I feel like she is slightly older by what she has seen and experienced.  I explain to her a bit about my life and the fun fact that I leave disasters in my wake.  She looks at me, a bit bemused and pronounces:

“You are shit magnet.” 

I laugh; she is right though, I am a bit of a shit magnet.

“But we can change that, first you got to change what’s in your head.  You worry too much, think too much.  You need to relax more and stop thinking that everything is going to go badly, because it’s hurting you.”

This is one of the fundamental problems of working in emergency management.  It’s my job to think everything is going to go to shit.  I always think about the worst possible outcome and try to figure out how I can deal with it.  Emergency managers aren’t the world’s biggest optimists; we can’t be.  So I’m pessimistic, sometimes overly so. 

To top that off, I work also in public relations, which is all about looking at risk and sorting out responses to those risks.  The loss of control of a situation frightens me; I like contingency plans on top of contingency plans. I do count the rows of seats to the exit and I don’t wear high heels on planes just in case.  And I DO worry far too much. 

Scarlett’s good for me already; she lightens me up and painted my nails to boot!

We head off to the Kava bar, which is pretty much a shack with some great lighting and fun people. I meet some great expats and dance the night away with my friend Ally.  She drops me home and I’m filled with a sense of peace and happiness; everything will be okay.

On Sunday, I get to go to the beach outside of Honiara. I am taken there by Petra*, a local staff member.  Petra is from Malita, which is a long island north of Guadalcanal.  Everyone here seems perfectly comfortable discussing the “tension”, which lasted from 1999 to 2003.  The tension was a period of violence between the Gwales, who are the local people of Guadacanal, and the rest of the Solomon Islands but predominately the Malitians. 

The Gwales consider Honiara their city and everyone is essentially squatting on their land.  After years of encroachment by other peoples, looking for urban opportunities like jobs and education, the Gwales armed themselves.  In response, so did the Malitians.  Now, I’m not going to make judgments here and clearly, the Solomon Islands, while being open about the experience, also want to move on.

In 2003, the Solomon Island government requested assistance to keep the peace from its neighbours.  Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and other pacific island nations answered the called and RAMSI, the peacekeeping mission was created.  Its worked pretty well in keeping the peace but some argue that its also created its own problems of financial inequality between the expatriots and locals.   

Occasionally there are still tension that arise. In 2006, after the election, there were large riots in Chinatown and many shops were burnt and destroyed.  Some say what started as an expression of frustration turned opportunistic too quickly.  Either way, it’s earned the Solomons a probably unfair reputation for instability.  The last election came and went without any real issues.

Anyway, I don’t want to wade too much into the political realm and I don’t have enough knowledge here to make any conclusions, so that’s all I really plan to talk about the political environment here in the Sols.
Petra takes me through Honiara.  Honiara is a north facing city; a small plain that quickly rising to hills and then valleys.  Approximately 50,000 people live here, so it’s not a large city but it’s the largest in the Solomons. 

A lot of people don’t like Honiara but I think it’s a nice city compared to what it could be.  You have to avoid the occasional beetle nut spittle on the sidewalk.  Beetle nut is a nut that has a stimulant and potentially hallucinogenic quality.  People chew the nut and put lime with the nut to give it more flavor.  The nut spittle has a red quality, turning people’s mouths bright orange and red.  There are large pools of spittle on the sidewalk in some places.

There are slums on the outskirts of the city and as we leave, one teenager throws a large coconut at the car until he sees the NGO sign on the vehicle and then looks embarrassed.

We cross over some bridges, some in fairly interesting states.  It rains a lot and heavily here, causing flash flooding.  This makes it difficult to maintain infrastructure; the islands aren’t use to the way we do things in the developed world and doesn’t think much of our structures. 

We arrive at Bonege beach; a popular beach amongst the RAMSI people for diving.  It costs 20 Solomons (about three n.z. dollars) to get in.  There, Petra and I take shelter under a grass hut and eat our salad. 

We munch on some salad I fixed up at the hotel.  The capsicum here is small, crunchy and almost has a chilli bite to it.  The tomatoes I bought are small too; little cherry tomatoes. With some lime juice and garlic, boom, a salad is born.  I may not be able to cook much, but salad I can do. Petra is very happy with it and ask me for the recipe.

Petra tells me of her family in Maliata.  On that island, people are either from the land or the sea, meaning that essentially the population is cut in half between farmers and fishing people.  Her mother was from the sea people and her father from the land people, making her a mixture of the two.  She lived with her mother on a small island off the coast.  She tells me that every day she had to take a boat to and from the island to go to school.

I take a quick break from the conversation and jump in the water.  Currently, my bathing suit top is experiencing difficulties (the straps keep snapping off which is really annoying) so I wear a tank top and shorts in the water.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I was wearing my dark grey and pink pokka dotta’d bra, which must have looked lovely under my newly soaked white tank top.  The RAMSI fellahs were all over the beach and I could hear excited talking, staring and a bit of snickering.  Great.  I’m in the country from less than 72 hours and I’m already the Bridget Jones of the Solomon Islands. Fantastic.

When I return, embarrassed and covering my top with my arms, Petra smiles broadly and laughs.  We sit and she continues her stories.

Her mother’s grandfather was a man who practiced kastam or custom.  This is a belief system based on the old ways of doing things and the belief in magick.  The system is based on gods; shark and crocodile gods (on land its snakes). 

She tells me that one day, there was a big storm and her canoe broke up on the rocks of the mainland as she was going to school.  She said that the group of cousins and siblings lost everything, clothes, food and books.  They had to make a decision to swim back the 500 metres back to the island.  As they were swimming, she said a large black shark, the largest she had ever seen (with a white belly) swam underneath the children.  She started to scream and cry, she was eight years old and terrified.  Her cousin told her:

“Look, he is helping us by pushing us forward.  He won’t hurt us, he is protecting us.”

Turns out, he was either right or the shark decided against munching on one of the kids.

The grandfather, who was taking care of the nets on the beach, saw the big shark fin out of the water.  He believed it was a warning and ran to the village to tell Petra’s mother to go to the other beach to check on the kids.  Sure enough, she found the kids in shock, sitting on the beach.

As soon as the grandfather heard about the kids being safe, he took a piglet out to the water, slit its throat and gave it to the shark as a gift.  Sharks apparently don’t attack often here and if they do, its seen as people having made bad calls in their life and the sharks are taking out natural retribution.

Petra drives me back to visit Ally’s house, which is situated on the hill.  I am sad to see Petra go; she is good company and I enjoy listening to her stories.

Ally’s house is a stark difference from the slums we have just driven through, with security gates and a treadmill.  Ally and I gossip, swim and sun ourselves.  I pick up some books in her library and we munch happily on barbeque flavoured crisps.  We catch up on how the other volunteers are doing throughout the islands; most of us on in the provinces, where power and packaged foods are luxuries.  One volunteer lives on an island by himself, in a hut on stilts looking out on the ocean.  He lives on solar power and fish from the sea.  It’s a simple life but apparently he loves it.      

I return to my little hotel room, relieved and grateful to have it; glad I don’t live in a grass hut. And after all even if it wasn’t what I expected, it’s Sanalae: just for the time being. 

*Names have been changed to protect my new found friends; I don’t want to piss them off already (although they all know about this blog anyway).