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Monday, January 31, 2011

This one is for the boys...

I think one of the saddest things I’ve seen is a Wildcat airplane sitting in a jungle, rotting in the hot sun.  The Wildcat was pretty much intact when it crashed in 1943 but years of sunning in the Solomons and looters have let it a shell.   

Stan, his son Ryan, and myself embarked on a little day trip west of Honiara to the open air WW2 museum.  First off, finding the museum is no easy task; the sign has been ripped down at least three times by locals.  Secondly, it’s pretty far out of town.  There are small roads leading in and out of the jungle so it is pretty difficult to figure out which one it is.  Good thing Stan had been there before and despite his mass of white hair, his memory is pretty intact.

We are greeted by Anderson, who has been hired to be the caretaker and tour guide of the place.  The open air museum used to be quite something back before the Tension, but it was raided for anything useful during the conflict. Now it’s just filled with the skeletons of the war.

The museum is filled with relics from the brutal Solomon Island campaign; the wreckage of ten planes sit under trees (and sometimes have trees growing in them, with branches snaking around the metal and holding the plane tight to the trunk).  Large artillery guns sit abandoned and a large copper cooking pot is riddled with bullet holes.  Anderson shows me where bees have attached themselves to the hanging vines of a tree and died; a sort of bee graveyard.  Hundreds of bee carcasses cling to the vines.  Even the bees know that this is where you come to die.

I walk towards the Wildcat; its frame is almost completely intact.  It sits there, sort of ghostly, the metal still gleaming in the sunlight.  Anderson shows us how to bend back its wing; a useful piece of engineering to store more planes on a carrier.  While the electronics and all the wiring and all the other stuff is gone, it feels amazing to run my hands down the intact wing and run my fingers across the make, model and patent number (patent pending).

Anderson, the caretaker, proudly walks us through the rest of the museum.  It isn’t very large but there are several Japanese, U.S. and New Zealand memorial plaques there. 

As the war is fading fast into our collective memories, so have visits from tourists and veterans.  We look around the grass is high; there is barely a path to follow.  It must have been at least two or three weeks since anyone else had been here.

The amazing thing about the open air museum is to really touch these planes.  These aren’t replicas, they aren’t museum models.  These planes were shot down in battle.  The retrieval stories of these planes are probably as interesting as the war itself; some were pulled from the bottom of lagoons; others towed from the deep jungles in Guadalcanal and Savo.     

Anderson was a part of all that, in the late 1960s and 1970s.  That was the time when war veterans seem to reconnect with their past and could finally talk about it again.  Anderson looks sad; he says he hasn’t seen a veteran here for several years.  It is a reminder that we are losing all those brave men to the inevitable; old age. I bet some of those guys in retirement homes thought they would never made it off Guadalcanal alive.  32,000 Japanese and 7,000 Americans died here.

On the memorial for the Japanese, it states: “when two sides go to war, both leave the battle scarred and wounded.  Both are defeated.”

I believe that.  Even though we won the war, it was at an enormous cost.  Stan says to me that he thinks about the enormous waste of money because it is simply too hard for him to think about the loss of life.  I understand.

Stan, my intrepid neighbor, is one of my favorite people in Honiara.  His wife Jean too.  Stan was born in Egypt and has travelled around the world, working in far off places like Afghanistan and East Timor.  He is practical and moves quickly.  We go to the market together and he walks off, anxious to get his fruits and veggies. 

Now, being an obvious foreigner with my hands filled with produce and flowers, and alone has made me a target for a pickpocketer.

I knew it was happening; I could sense myself being watched from above and the man pushed me unnecessarily and moved fast.  A local woman screamed at him and grabbed his arm.  I looked down at my pocket and my money was still there, all accounted for.

A crowd gathered around the young man, who denied any wrong doing.  I glared at him and moved forward to confront him.  He ran off.  I guess I have a fairly mean glare.

This, however, brings home a point for me.  As a single woman, I am constantly targeted by men here.  Either they want to sleep with me, mug me or take advantage in some way.  Here I feel it truly is a man’s world.  It seems the men make the decisions and the women have to dutifully stick by their men.  Except in cases of pickpocketing, where it was a woman who helped me out.  

The funny thing is that women in development jobs outnumber men pretty significantly, so obviously women chose to put themselves in this kind of environment. 

Anyway, Jeremy comes around, quite unaware about the pickpocketing incident.  I tell him but he doesn’t here.  I’m slightly shaken up by it, to be honest.

I go home and meet up with Marco, who is also not too worried about the experience and just states it is a normal part of life.  He is probably right; it’s a pretty common thing in Italy.  I remember when I was in Rome celebrating my 21st birthday, my grandfather was picket pocketed not once but twice.  Tessa and Marco are both reveal one night that they are both Sicilian, which I can’t decide if that makes me feel safer or makes me want to lock my bedroom door at night.   

But I do have my wantok around me if things get tough.  Eddy returns from surfing the amazing breaks in Gizo (he wanted to surf a break that NO ONE he knew would have surfed).  He goes to the market on Sunday and buys fresh tuna.  The two houses break into a raw fish making competition; Eddy with his poke (raw fish dish from Hawai’i) and Marco with his capriccio.  Actually, Marco teaches me how to make it while he is busy cooking.  Some olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and spring onions can do wonderful things…  

Tuna is amazing.  A darker and richer fish than most, you can replace pretty much most meat with tuna.  It’s a good thing too; one thing the Solomons have in spades is fresh tuna.

Marco makes the most delicious tuna pasta I have ever eaten.  The things the man can do with food is unreal… basically we use all the fish and he kindly fries up some fish heads for me.  Clearly, the man knows the way to my heart…fish heads.  I happily eat one at dinner until I find its tongue.  Now, eating tongue feels wrong.  It’s like you are making out with the fish.  Only not.  Anyway, it’s not good and turned me off fish heads, at least until the next morning, when Marco fries me up another fish head and its all go.

The protein breakfast does me some good; I voluntarily go to Hash in the evening.  Now, we have not one, but two cyclones in the area making everything wet and windy.  The rain is coming down in curtains and it takes all of two minutes for me to get completely soaked. 

Now, the event is a bit of a hill run and it quickly turns into mud skiing.  I spend more time on my ass than I do on my feet.  I’m soaked to the bone, covered in mud.  Some local boys decide to follow and laugh at us unfit white people struggling to stand in the mud.  But they are good sorts and help us through some of the unsafe bits.  We trek through a plantation of cassava plants and sadly, we used some for stability.  Some cassava plants did not survive the Hash experience.

At times I was annoyed, scared and numb.  But overall I had an absolutely blast; what an adventure trekking through the mud and rain in lush out hills of Honiara.  Afterwards I felt alive and happy. 

Marco and Tessa, who both piked out of Hash to hang out at the Mendana Hotel, got wet, muddy hugs from me.  Marco ran away quickly; it’s not nice to mess with an Italian man’s appearance.  I think he is still at home, try to wash the mud out of his clothes…

I have to say I was getting a bit bitter, a bit jaded about the men folk.  Watching gender dynamics in this country can be difficult and challenging and my own past has coloured my view about boys.

But this week challenged me to rethink my relationship with men.  From taking me to see the old bombed out WW2 planes to getting fed tuna to having my hand held in the rain and mud (thank you Rainmaker!), men have been there for me this week.  I marvel at what happened here in WW2; I mean, sure men caused it in the first place but they also committed selfless acts of bravery too.      

So I guess what I’m trying to convey is my thanks to the boys this week…this one is for you.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Solomon Islands Recipe of the Week: Cassava Pudding

Yes, yes…its puddin’ time!  After weeks of boring you with curry this and weird fern dishes, I thought it was time to take a walk on the sweet side.  Now, a quick note for the Americans: pudding tends to mean dessert in  commonwealth countries, like the Solomons, not the stuff that Bill Cosby sold us in the 1990s.  

Now, a couple of things on the culinary front that have made me terribly excited this week.  First, I have finally procured a coconut scraper!  For weeks, I have hunted like a mad thing, around the markets and hardware stores for a coconut scraper.  But sadly, my efforts were in vain.  Yet hark!  When one of my delightful coworkers, who is off to Mongolia, announced a moving sale, I moved quickly for one coconut scraper.

Sadly, it was already purchased by Ben (remember him, from Gizo?).  I grabbed it anyway, marveling at its beautiful craftsmanship.  The scraper bit was made in Vanuatu and therefor somehow really special.  I decided then and there, that I must have it and that I would simply hit Ben over the head with it until he gave it to me.

Ben, being the kind of guy he is, gladly gave it to me.  So now, I have a coconut scraper, which I named after the co worker going to Mongolia.  He found it slightly funny, as I have to sit on said scraper to make it work.  
Or something. 

Anyway, am excited about milking coconuts…just trying to figure out where the nipples are…
Okay! Enough thinking about coconut nipples!  Time for the cassava recipe!

Cassava, according to Wikipedia (the well of all knowledge), is the third most common crop in the world.  It can be used for either sweet or savory dishes, or as a door stop. Your choice.  It looks like a root, pretty much, with a wooden veneer. It’s called a tapioca, by the way.  

I usually buy the pudding at the market because I’m lazy and because it makes an excellent breakfast, when heated up with some milk, brown sugar and cinnamon.

So here it is:

·         2 medium sweet cassava
·         2 cups brown sugar
·         eggs beaten
·         3 oz. butter
·         2 cups coconut milk
·         1 teaspoon cinnamon powder (you could use nutmeg too…anything spicy is good).
·         1 teaspoon baking powder
·         ½ cup warm water

·         Preheat oven to 180 degrees Cel. Or about 350 degrees.  (There is a reason I don’t bake very often; I tend to not be very specific).
·         Wash and grate cassava with a fine grater. (Apparently, I’ve just been told I need to buy a cassava grater….)
·         Combine cassava, coconut milk, sugar, cinnamon and mix
·         Combine all above ingrediants with beaten eggs and mix
·         Slowly add the half cup of warm water…stir…stir some more…stir….keep stirring…
·         Now, put in a greased baking tin.  Cook for at least 30 minutes or until bouncy.

Ah….I’m going to try this and review this recipe, which isn’t terribly local.  Most puddings aren’t made with eggs, milk, cinnamon or sugar because these items are rare-ish in rural villages. 

If you have any questions, concerns, comments, rants, or reviews, please email me at

Lukim ui! 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Three’s Company (Solomon Island Style)

Marco, our wayward Italian housemate, has finally arrived to a fully set up and furnished Casa Turchese.  Marco arrives with typical Italian panache, having spent much of his luggage allowance on Parmesan cheese, olive oil, chocolates, huge wine glasses, coffee, sharp knives and, of course, a pasta maker.  Our dining room table is covered in staples from Italy.  He brings gifts for me and Tessa; it’s like Christmas and New Year all at once. I don’t know how I am going to lose any weight in this house. 

It feels like, now that Marco is back, the house is complete.  His arrival feels like a breadth of fresh air as we discuss the garden in earnest (Marco has many years of experience in agriculture) and drink coconut water with lime on the balcony in the morning. Plus, he has an outrageous Italian accent that makes me chuckle inside and despite the tropical weather wilting everyone else, still looks clean and well dressed.

From Rome, originally, with a French mother, Marco has travelled all over the world to help people grow stuff sustainably.  Among his many adventures are owning his own monkey and mongoose (who, apparently fought like, well a monkey and a mongoose), being attacked by pirates in the Caribbean, owning his own Ducati and Triumph sports car, sailing around the world for two years…the man has lived an amazing life.   We both come from broken marriages, so we relate to each other on that level as well.

Tessa plans a dinner party on Monday, inviting the loveliest French couple imaginable and Elsa.  However, the party expands quickly to include three more Italians (yes, I discovered recently that there are more than the bishop, nun and the three Italians that live either with me or in the house next door.)  These Italians are a bit different; the wife, Greta, comes from Hungary, so we decided to call them the Hungary Italians…Anyway the party balloons to 10 people, which is a bit problematic because we only have nine plates and not nearly enough silverware to cover it.

The party becomes a chorus of Italian and French.  Pasta whirls around the table with fried chicken and salad for the second course.  I sit back in the corner with my friend Arno, exchanging disaster stories.  The night flies by and, at one moment, I simply sit back and watch in awe of the people around me.  The coconut lamps cast a warm glow over smiling faces and I sit in wonder, so grateful for the events that led me here. 

The next night is James’s farewell dinner.  James, our calm and cool kiwi volunteer takes Tessa and I out to the Honiara French restaurant.  Tessa and I dress up in our finest dresses.  My legs feel naked and I put on my black high heels.  I haven’t worn them since I got here.  Marco comments that he thought he would never see me dress up. Ha! Little does he know that I was quite the clothes horse in New Zealand, with my hot pink trench coat and six inch heels. 

Here, my clothes have taken a distinctly down market feel.  First, everything I own is covered in some sort of mystery stain, despite my best efforts to keep my whites white and my colours, well, coloured. Plus I don’t think it’s appropriate to wear expensive clothes here.  But I do start feeling like I need to bring my dressing up a level; even my white jandals/flip flops/slippers/thongs are turning to a grey with all the mud they are exposed to.  It can be easy to let your appearance go here; its hot and I sweat here profusely.  Sweat is not sexy.

Anyway, we head out to the hotel and enjoy a steak dinner with blue cheese sauce.  Now, I haven’t had steak in…maybe six months?  I can’t even remember when.  The steak is very good but so rich that my body doesn’t really approve, I struggle to sleep that night.

James has been a pretty constant presence in the house for about three weeks and all three of us have 
established close friendships with each other.  He has been our cook, our washing line fixer and has helped us with pretty much everything, even our massive dinner parties.  He has taken everything in stride with typical kiwi stoic aplomb. 

He will be missed by both Tessa and me.

Power outages start plaguing Honiara; we wake up to a darkened house and the distinct lack of noise from appliances.  We don’t have air conditioner in the house, which suits me just fine but we do have big ceiling fans that hum throughout the house.  The next day, the office spends half of its time in darkness until the generator is started.

During the day, Tina and I have been delivering our calendars to our partner agencies.  Every stop I go to (except for the Australian High Comms…and I find friends there, I swear!), I know someone.  Tina even comments about how I managed such networking in the past three months that I’ve been here.   I am not sure how it happened though; I guess I’ve just been lucky with my friends. 

On Wednesday night, it’s my turn to hose a dinner party, which exploded to 11 people.  I start cooking early, mostly fresh salads and noodle dishes, but struggle to keep up with the demands of cooking.  I decide to try my hand at a green papaya salad; an old favorite from Hawaii.  Eddy, thankfully, assists me in the kitchen. Eddy is a kitchen wizard, whipping up dishes quickly and giving me excellent tips on preparing the meal.
Dinner is served a little late, but the group doesn’t seem to mind.  This dinner party is decidedly different from the one on Monday night, filled with volunteers and Adam, a new friend from my American Wantok.

Adam could have been a typical New Jerseyite: coming from a prestigious university, going to law school, he could have taken a much generic path.  But nobody who comes here is exactly normal.  He is a self styled "Hindu, Buddisht, Jew" or a Hubujew.  Adam makes me laugh hard with his classic american wit.

Adam spent several years southeast Asia, writing and working his way around.  He came to our sleepy little country to look at the peace process.  Adam has the kind of infectious energy and rabid curiosity about everything that I appreciate.  I feel an instant connection with Adam and he is just fun to be around.

But by the end of the evening, Tessa is clearly over the dinner party scene for awhile.  It is understandable: we have had almost six dinner parties since moving into the house and we still have friends who haven’t visited there.  I am having trouble keeping up with who has been when and who hasn’t, the bureaucrat in me cries out for a spreadsheet.  Finally, Tessa gives the verdict: let’s chill out on the parties for awhile. 

I’m surprised; Tessa is the definition of extroverted; clearly I’ve finally broken her.

The rest does us good.  Thursday night, Marco brings home a data projector for us housemates to watch a movie.  Pinkie, my faithful laptop, is hooked up to the projector and we all climb into my massive bed to watch the movie.  Now, a word about my new bed. It is massive.  A small village of troglodyte gnomes could set up a village and make me toys and I wouldn’t notice.  It’s also a feather top, which makes it massively comfortable.  Like so many things in this house, it is simply the best thing I’ve experienced.

We sit and watch Bladerunner, which puts Tessa to sleep in about 10 minutes. Marco and I stay up talking about whether Harrison really was a replicant (I think it’s pretty obvious) while Tessa purrs quietly next to us.
The next day, I get charged with helping sort out Marco’s bed.  I get dragged along with ten Solomon Island men in a huge truck with a bedframe on the back.  Who knows what people must have been thinking about that scenario…Unfortunately, it is just the bed frame and Marco is left with a single bed mattress with a double bed frame.  Marco is devastated; it’s a huge blow to his Italian ego to not have a big double bed.

The next night is kava night.  Now, kava is a traditional drink of the South Pacific, known for its mild hallucinogenic/relaxing qualities. It’s not illegal anywhere due to its mild nature and I don’t think it would ever really catch on outside of the region.  First off, it looks like dirty dishwater and tastes like it too.  The mild pepper taste numbs the lips and tongue.  We all suck on lollipops afterwards.  Unfortunately I chose a blue one and it looks like I’ve been making out with Papa Smurf.

We head home for pasta (which Marco dutifully makes) and Adam joins us for a night cap. Adam clearly wants to bunk here; he says it reminds him of a zany Three’s Company and he would just like to be a fly on the wall to see the antics.  He remarks about Stan and Jean next door, as potential Ropers.  The place is rife with comedy; Tessa, Marco and I make up an interesting mix.

I sort of take on the role of the “wife” of the house; cooking and shopping have become largely my tasks (although Marco and Tessa help a great deal). Saturday rolls by with a huge shopping trip with my neighbor Jean.  We have to hurry because all the shops close at noon on Saturday.  After rushing through the dusty and dirty shops of Honiara, we escape to the Rain Tree café for much needed pizza and a gigantic jug of bush lime drink.  After a final trip to the central market, its rest time at Casa Turchese.

At night, I cook up chicken and local mushrooms with a blue cheese cream sauce.  It’s the first time I’ve ever made it; I have no recipe, I just fake it.  Marco smiles and says it is one of the best chicken and mushroom dishes he has ever had. I find this hard to believe given his Italian/French background but take the compliment 

Sunday is a World War 2 tour.  I have to admit by the time I take the tour, I’m a bit exhausted.  This has been such a social, crazy week and so much has happened that I’m still processing everything.  The guide is good but much of what he shows us really isn’t terribly impressive.  Most of the artillery and other stuff have been taken away by scrap dealers.  Other than seeing a beach, an empty field and the two war memorials, there isn’t much to see.  Usually, I’m the annoying tourist in the group, asking all the really probing questions but Adam takes on the role happily and I am able to just sit and think.

The large group goes to the Iron Bottom Sound and we munch happily on pizza.  I go home, exhausted. 
Marco sits down next to me outside on our balcony and we talk about how the house really feels like a home.  It’s true; even in the two weeks I’ve been here; this place feels more like a home than any I have lived in for the past ten years.  I’m excited to come home rather than feel a sense of dread that I used to feel in Christchurch, avoiding home as long as I could; dragging my feet at work.  This place feels like mine, every quirky little angle or misshapen corner feels comforting.  And the view…well who can argue with waking up and looking out at the ocean in the morning or watching the full moon illuminate the trees around us.  I’ve never been someone to put down roots but here I can feel myself enjoying the process here.

I feel like I’ve been here forever and that is the tricky thing about being here.  Three months feels like six months.  Life moves at a different pace here and I take a lot of time enjoying simple pleasures.  The slower pace, warm weather and beautiful environment are getting to me; much more romantic thoughts enter my brain. 

Even my friend, Carlo (one of the Hungary Italians), notices.

“You are a very happy person…it infects everyone around you.  How did you get so happy?” he asks me.

I’m stumped.  I have no idea how all this happened. 

Maybe it’s the new romance of this place.  Maybe it’s the sea or the trees or all of it.   Maybe it’s my amazingly fun, zany housemates.  Maybe it’s the influx of pasta and good cheese that Marco brought from Italy.

Whatever it is, I’m not going to question it or wonder how long it’s going to last…I’m just going to go with it.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Solomon Islands Recipe of the Week: Sikaha Ha'ania Kiu (Eggplant with Shell)

This week's recipe: Sikaha Ha'ania Kiu (Eggplant with Shells)....

Last week's recipe, Kasume (Fern) Curry was tried and field tested at the Casa Turchese Kitchen last Friday.  Our intrepid friend James (the volunteer of steel aka the man who lives on his own island and wrestles Mr. Snouty, his local crocodile, for fun) did the cooking.  To be fair to James, we had to deviate from the recipe somewhat because we forgot to get a can of coconut milk and I am still unsuccessful in finding a coconut scraper.  I will find you, cursed coconut scraper!!!!  

The curry was...interesting.  Without the coconut milk to provide sweetness and a bit of creaminess, the curry tasted, well, too curry like.  James also used whatever veggies he could scrounge from our vegetable tray and had to be a bit...creative.  Now, just a word about veggies in the Solomons.  Because everything is organic, stuff goes off very, very quickly.  Sometimes I bring tomatoes home from the market and the next morning, they have already split and are stinky.  Yes, it is that fast.  So having a supply of veggies is difficult to maintain; the things that last the longest are beans, onions, and eggplants.  Most everything else needs to be used in a few days, so regular visits to the market are necessary.  Luckily, I work less than 20 metres from the second largest market in Honiara (and my personal favorite).  Someday I'll have to write a review about the different markets of Honiara....but I digress.

Tessa, James and I enjoyed our Fern Curry, sitting on our balcony overlooking the ocean.  Personally, I thought the curry was fine but James just shook his head, truly unhappy with the results. I, however, am not the best judge of food because I'm a volunteer and I eat cold fish heads for breakfast.

Anyway, on to possibly the most challenging recipe yet: Eggplant with Shells!

I've also decided to chill out on the editorial comments on the recipes for now because some people just prefer the straight recipe.  So here it is.

  • 10 eggplants
  • 2 dry coconuts (or a can of coconut milk)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt 
  • 20 (!) Mud shell crabs (Kiu) or fresh fish
  • 10 tomatoes
  • 1 packet of noodles or rice
  • Handful of Home Mushroom or Button Mushrooms
  • More salt (a pinch)
  • 1 bundle of shallots
  • Cut eggplants into pieces
  • Scrape coconut milk and put it in the pot (or open the can and put milk in the pot)
  • Open the Mud shell and scoop out the meat
  • Slice tomato into pieces
  • Cut shallots into pieces
  • Put the pot with coconut milk on the fire till it bubbles (boils) and put all th eprepared veggies into the pot
  • Put the lid over the pot for about two minutes until well cooked.
  • Serve with Kumara or Rice
  • To be served for ten (!!!!)
So, my cooking adventurers, enjoy this week's recipe.  If you do try a recipe and want to give feedback or write a review feel free to email me at

Till next week,

Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Wantok

In the Solomon Islands (and most of Melanesia), there is something called the wantok system.  The translation of wantok literally means “one language or someone who speaks the same language”.    

Once someone speaks the same language, you are obliged to take care of them.  To be a member of someone’s wantok, you either have to be a family member or someone who comes from the same place.  Or someone who is friends with someone who comes from the same place. Or have visited that place at some point.

I’m actually not entirely sure what constitutes someone as being a member of your wantok; the rules seem slightly fuzzy to me.   But, if someone is a member of your wantok, it is your responsibility to look after them, especially if you are older than them.  Well up to a point and then when you are old enough, the wantok takes care of you.  There are no homes for the elderly here; the wantok looks after its elders.  However, the life expectancy is 71, so maybe there is something there…. 

The wantok system does leaves the Solomon Islands sort of open to in country corruption; because you are always looking out of for your wantok, you give them the plum jobs, money, land rights, etc…at times, this makes having an expat running an organization somewhat desirable because there is no chance of items or money owned by said organization going into the wantok system.  It also can create a system of reliance on the more successful members of the wantok by the less motivated or successful members.

I mean it does make perfect sense to want to look after your wantok because, in a smaller society, you need to make sure that someone has your back.  However there can be a huge culture clash when organizational structures created overseas are imposed on the wantok system.

Now, I’ve decided to go with the wantok system for myself.  Recently, Eddy from Hawai’i, came to visit.  I used to live in Hawaii, Moilili, to be specific.  Eddy grew up just up the road from where I used to live.  I’ve decided that he is a member of my wantok and therefore I must look after him.  Eddy seems to be open to the idea of being one of my wantok, even though I actually grew up thousands for miles from Hawaii.  But still, when you live far away, your wantok rules become pretty cloudy…Eddy and I say “da kine” and other things; we speak the same language.

Eddy isn’t the first person to be identified in my wantok.  I’ve taken in James and Steve because they are a) both from New Zealand and b) are in the same volunteer programme as me.  Plus it helps that they are really nice guys.  AND when I come and visit, I fully expect to be housed, fed and have my feet rubbed by those boys.  Now that’s when the wantok system really works…

Anyway, pretty much anyone from Canada or the U.S. would be part of my wantok.  My mom is French, so I’ll bring the frenchies in too.  And my grandmother is Italian, so why not the Italians? I already live with two of them…While some of you might balk at such big numbers, it’s actually quite reasonable.  Americans are rare in this part of the world, only about 100 or so in country.  Frenchies are rarer still.  There are five Italians.  One is a catholic bishop, the other a nun.  The rest live in about 10 metres of where I live.

I like the wantok system; it creates a family away from home, at least for me.  And, as any expat will probably tell you, close friends are essential for keeping your sanity (except for James who is, of course, a total rockstar and doesn’t need anything but number 8 wire, a few novels and the resident saltwater crocodile, Mr. Snouty.)

One of my wantok from New Zealand, Charlie, has his final leaving do on Thursday evening.  He and two fellow expats play guitar and sing.  Man, they are amazing; I spend less time talking to friends and just listening to the sound of passionate people doing something they love.  To add to the music, it pours down with rain, adding percussion to the music.

Charlie’s shoes have, thankfully, been found.  Funnily enough, someone who works with the police grabbed them on accident, as we suspected.  Charlie leaves Honiara with his shoes.  I wish him well on journey; he is off to Hawaii, a place very dear to my heart.  I know full well what it feels like to leave a place I have grown to love; it feels like you are jumping off the face of the earth.

Anyway, after work one day, I drive Tina, my faithful counterpart in my host organization, home for the first time.  Tina lives past the airport, in the palm plantation.  As we drive further and further from Honiara, the area changes from ramshackle buildings to deserted bush.  Very few people are walking along the road and there are fewer cars.  One way bridges are the norm as we cross over huge brown rivers, due to the intense rains, 30 metre below us.

I stop at Tina’s place which has a lush, huge garden and yard.  Her house is beautiful, filled with wood paneling.  Most Solomon houses have a large amount of wood; the stuff is pretty plentiful here. Tina has a huge flat screen television, which I eye up in envy; I haven’t owned a television in four years.  I always think I’m probably better for it but there is something about being disconnected from the rest of the world that sometimes bothers me. 

She makes me creamed banana, which I am immediately wary of.  Cooking bananas are larger and starchier than their chubbier, yellow counterparts.  Typically green, they are neither sweet nor savory.  In the Solomons, these bananas are cooked with a bit of water and salt and are typically blander than a potato.  But the salty banana covered in coconut milk is good; the saltiness and creaminess works somehow.

Tina picks her best beans for me and gives me some rose plantings for my new house.  Her beautiful children run around me, happy.  Tina is 30, her life perfectly balanced and happy.  I’m 32 and starting over.  Our lives could not be more different but she puts her arm around me.

“You are my wantok now, Sara.” 

I can’t help but get a bit emotional at being given wantok status by Tina. Tina is from Lae in Papau New Guinea…I know now that my wantok could beat up your wantok and eat them for dinner. Seriously.
Tina is one of the best people I have met here and I am profoundly grateful for such a patient, funny, creative and competent counterpart.  

 (Mom and Dad, stop reading this if you don’t want to have a heart attack.)

 I feel like there is something in Papau New Guinea drawing me in; I’m terrified of it so I have to go.  The romance has already begun; I’m wantok AND Tina has given me the Air Niugini in-flight magazine.  Plus Tessa has a copy of the Lonely Planet guide for PNG.  Clearly I am now an expert in all things PNG.

The pictures promise adventures in the Highlands, a diverse cultural experience and crystal clear waters in the islands.  I feel like it’s only a matter of time before the current trajectory of my life lands me there.   

Occasionally I worry that I’m in danger of going tropo; a term used for ex pats that end up in the bush for years at a time, living as locals do and unable to re-integrate back into their own society.   Think Robinson Crusoe combined with Marlin Brando in Apocalypse Now and you will get an inkling of what I mean.   

Turning tropo does have some romance to it; after living here for awhile, the world of internet, satellite television and people living in little homes never going out or socializing with each can seem pretty cold.

Anyway, I give up on being tropo for now, although I am trying to do things a bit more locally.  For instance, I am trying to make my own coconut milk, which involves scrapping the brown coconuts out and taking the meat of the coconut and squeezing it until rich cream comes out.  Back in New Zealand, I would just buy a can of coconut milk but canned goods are expensive here.  So I need a coconut scrapper but finding one is easier said than done.

The next day we continue the unending quest for a coconut scraper.  Seriously, I have been to every hardware shop and got nothing.  The only reply I would get when I ask is:

“Go lo market on Satuday.  They garem coconut scrapers.”

Saturday market is crammed full of people and despite having many things, coconut scrapers are nowhere to be seen.  I want to be able to make my own coconut milk by doing it manually but apparently, my quest for being independent of cans remains elusive. 

The trip to the market isn’t in vain; we buy bunches of fresh tropical flowers to decorate the house and use old water bottles for vases.   

Afterwards, we stop at the lovely Margaret’s garden.  Margaret is a local woman with a killer green thumb; her garden is outside of central Honiara, closer to the beaches.  Her village is filled with classic grass huts and houses and is a happy place with kids playing the bamboo pipes and the drums.  The lids of cans are made into cymbals and they sing in perfect harmony.  Music is possible with anything; you just have to want to make it.  James and I just stand and listen to the music.  Both of us love music; another kind of language and we both speak it (he plays guitar, I play piano).  Another reason why James and I are wantok.   

I talk to Margaret about growing in the Solomons and she offers some sage advice.  Margaret has an infectious smile and gladly shares her gardening secrets with me.  We pick up basil, mint and James picks out a beautiful bird of paradise as a gift for the house.  Margaret is a local woman who clearly loves gardening; hundreds of little plants surround her in a variety of containers including old tyres and paint cans.  Around her, everything seems lush. 

Now, I learned to garden in New Zealand.  After years of being a garden denier but happily taking veggies out of my ex mother-in-law’s beautiful garden, I broke down and became a gardener.  I found the experience profoundly rewarding.  I planted; things grew that I could eat.  It seemed so easy.  And I, fortunately, never have had a dirt phobia.  If I had, there is no way I could have survived two days in the muddy, dusty Solomons. 

In fact, as a little girl, I used to make mud cities for ants to populate…the ants were never very impressed with my high and mid rises and stuck to their more elaborate made homes underground.  Anyway, the little mud child in me can’t wait to give my green thumb a go; already growing wild at the house are pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelon and slippery cabbage.

We leave the happy village for the roast chicken stand on our way back to town.  Now, while some people might balk at buying chicken on the side of the road, I’ve got no issues with it. In Namibia, my best girl Katie (Hi Katie!) and I used to eat at a place that we called the “meat” hut. Raw meat hung from hooks and was typically covered in flies.  The proprietors of the meat hut barbequed the meat there and I have to be honest, it was the best meat I ever ate.  Barbecued chicken is no problem for me.

James, Tessa and I eat the chicken with rice, spring onions and cucumber on a bench at the beach.  The chicken is greasy and fibrous; I take a huge bit and struggle to swallow.  I look around me, wondering if it’s impolite to spit it out.  Dogs circle us; anxious for our scraps.

As we sit beside the ocean, the water appears unusually cloudy.  It’s been rainy; we have had two cyclone warnings in as many days.  They don’t call it the rainy season here for nothing.  The ocean is pretty dirty from the flooding rivers but it is still peaceful.

We stop at the Rain Tree Café; one of the landmarks of Honiara, in the somewhat dodgy area of White River.  The Café is perched on a wall overlooking the ocean.  We sip on bush lime drinks, which come out eventually.  The carpark is filled with local arts and crafts; I eye up a stone octopus but don’t buy it.

One of the best parts of the Rain Tree Hotel is the toilet.  It’s a long drop or composting toilet that is a fairly good sized shack.  There are two toilets side by side, nothing separating them.  The wall is cut away so you can look out into the ocean as you…well…do what needs to be done. The Rain Tree is also a bed and breakfast.  The place works also as a tourist booking agency; day walks and surfing expeditions can be booked directly from there.

We go home and James, again, cooks.  James is enjoying full use of our kitchen and Tessa and I couldn’t be happier to let him cook to his hearts’ content.  Saturday evening is taken up by a cracker of a party; my friend Bud’s birthday.  For the party, Bud has purchased a stack of clothes from the second hand shop and we all have to dress in them.  After choosing a costume that “looks like I’m a nun”, my friend and another wantok member, Daphne, styles me much more appropriately.

I know I shouldn’t have favorites in my wantok but Daphne is just cool.  From New York, she never fails to make me laugh or think or both even when I want to do neither.  I enjoy her amazing dress sense and her ability to entertain everyone around her.  She exudes warmth and fun.  If she wasn’t such a nice person, I might almost hate her.  Yeah, I got a girl crush; whatever, it’s cool.

Anyway, the men wear dresses…one of my good friends has a spandex unitard and resembles Super Man.  I go down to the pool and chat with some nice looking Aussie blokes and unitard boy takes a stack of wet clothes and puts them on my head.  I promptly push him into the pool; he flies through the air like, well, Superman, until he hits the water with a resounding splash.

All and all a good party; one of the better ones I have been to in Honiara.   

The next evening Eddy and I talk about Hawaii.  I loved living in Hawaii; I was constantly on the go and I had great friends there.  I loved the heat and the ocean but most of all the culture; Hawaii is a vibrant place.  Eddy and I reminisce about Bubbies Ice Cream, the Dew Drop Inn, the Indian Kitchen and Magoos.  It was a golden time in my life. 

Eddy asks me a good question: if I loved it so much, why don’t I go back?  Because all those places I listed above are closed now.  My friends have all moved to different parts of globe.  It simply wouldn’t be the same. You can never really go back.  And even if you did, you would see the place with totally different eyes, changing your experience of a place. 

And perhaps that is one of the best things I’ve learned here.  I’ve cared for people like they were family, even though I’ve only known them for months, weeks or even days.  We have looked after each other with much affection and kindness. I’ve made connections and built relationships at lightning speed because of the shared cultural connections, because we “speak the same language”.  Those connections help me live in the now.  I am deeply grateful to my wantok. 

Maybe that is the best thing about a wantok; a huge extended family that cares and looks after one another. 
This is all well and good until I go tropo and start committing tribal warfare on opposing villages in PNG. Then I might be in a spot of trouble…

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Solomon Islands Recipe of the Week: Kasume (Fern) Curry

Welkam to the first Solomon Island Recipe of the Week of 2011!  This week: Kasume Curry.  Now, some of you will be scratching your head wondering a) what is kasume and b) FERN???? WTF?
That’s right, gentle readers, it’s time to explore the more…creative veggies in the Solomon Islands.  I made some soup last night with kasume in it and the best way to describe it is sort of like bitter bok choy or maybe silver beet.  So perhaps you can use those to replace ferns as the main ingredient.  Or baby spinach. 
However, I think that most ferns are probably okay to munch on, provided you use only the shoots or tops of the fern (the most tender bits).  However, just check first to make sure they aren’t poisonous…I really wouldn’t want to be responsible for any deaths or cases of diarrhea due to my recipes (I’ve had enough of that already…hey, there IS a reason I had to leave New Zealand…)
Okay folk, here is the recipe:
Kasume Curry:
·         1 parcel fern (Kasume)
·         5 ripe tomatoes
·         10 short (Deborah, whatever that means) beans
·         5 capsicums aka green peppers
·         2 hot chili peppers (or to taste..I know some of you kiwis have gentle pallets while some of my other friends in the states have burnt off their taste buds ages ago…up to you!)
·         2 onions or shallots
·         1 dried coconut or 1 can of coconut milk.  (I’m getting a coconut scraper soon, so I’ll be making my own.  Can’t wait!)
  1. Break up the top of fern and put inside a basin.  (Yes, you can eat the top of ferns, if they are tender enough.  I know this sounds slightly mad…but give it a go; I’m pretty sure that ferns aren’t dangerous.)
    1. Cut tomatoes, beans, capsicum, hot chilli and onions into pieces. 
    2. Pour coconut cream into pot/add five teaspoons of salt to taste
    3. Put pot on the fire (or on the element, depending on your access to fires) to boil.  Add ferns.
    4. Cook for 15 minutes or whatever.
    5. Remove from fire (or said element) and eat...(maybe put a candle or lamp on the table to make it more romantic...hey, its fern curry, obviously its a bit of a special event...)

    Writer: Ms. Jocelyn Toligesu, Kwage Villiage, North Malaita, Solomon Islands.  (Please note that anything in parenthesis is from the editor and therefore meant to be taken less seriously.)

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    The Big Move

    This is the first blog of the rest of my lif….er…I mean this is the first blog written from my new house, Casa Turchese.  The view from my balcony looking out into the bay and a small cup of espresso in my hand means that, after months of moving around, I finally have a place to call home.

    The last week have been particularly mad; shopping for a house and getting everything set up is no fun.  So I won’t bore you with the details.  BUT here are a few things to note.

    First off, setting up a house is not as easy as it sounds in Honiara.  There is no Briscoes, no Target, no one stop shopping place that has everything you need.  The Honiara shopping scene is made up of dozens of tiny little shops; each carrying different supplies and items.  We had to go to literally about 20 shops to sort of outfit the house, even after the landlord supplied many kitchen items for us.  It’s not, what anyone would define, as a relaxing experience.  People don’t shop here for fun or for leisure; it’s basic and rough.

    The prices and quality vary from shop to shop.  The shops are dusty and there are rarely any sale signs out-front.  Finding things like fitted sheets are impossible. It’s a bit of nightmare trying to get everything sorted and as I sit here, enjoying the view, I’m still exhausted from three days of nonstop running around. 

    Store names are great too…there is K-K Mart, Barak’s, Rainbows and Pomas.  We tried to get our keys for the house cut and the lady at the hardware store (Placemakers) told us to go to what sounded like “Legal Queen”.  When we found the store, it was Kwee Kwok might have guessed that all the shops are run by local Chinese families.

    On Friday, we go to about 14 stores…Saturday is a bit of a problem because stores are only usually open for half the day.  Christmas has depleted the stocks of many items and new items won’t be coming in until February.  The combination of small stores, lack of supply, lack of variety and just plain hot, dustiness of it all does NOT make for a pleasant experience.       

    To top off the running around, I have stupidly organized a housewarming party on Sunday afternoon….I thought it would be pretty straight forward getting the house sorted. I was wrong.  Once again, my optimistic nature undermines me.  

    To be honest, the adventure really started last Wednesday, when another volunteer and his son and his son’s friend arrived in Honiara from Kia, off the boat.  Now, there are really only two ways to get around here in the Sols; boat and plane.  Flying is EXPENSIVE, but it is the preferred method of most people.  My friend, Steve, almost spent 800 New Zealand flying from Choiseul to Honiara (from one end of the province to the other). 

    James*, the guy from Kia, on the other hand, took the boat out, which took about 16 hours and had to sleep on the top of the ship deck, under a series of small, blue tarpaulins. It cost him about 300 Solomon Dollars (around 40 N.Z. bucks) to come out on the boat but it sure was an uncomfortable ride.  Also, the boats are unpredictable; he came a day early because the boat didn’t stop at all the villages, like he initially thought.     

    Anyway, I pick up James and the two youngish Kiwi blokes from the wharf, a bit unprepared for their arrival but hopeful it would turn out alright.  Suddenly, I was surrounded by men everywhere, with Steve still around, we have five people staying at the house for one night.  We watched a movie, ate dinner and talked until late.

    James is an older gentlemen and he is a tough kiwi bloke, for whom everything is possible with some number 8 wire.  James is an introspective sort of fellow, like most kiwi blokes and literally, he is a man who lives on his own island.  By himself, with only solar panels and mosquitoes to keep him company for months on end.  He has his own boat to ferry himself over to Kia, the local village.  There are no stores or local markets in Kia.  He has to fish every day to eat.  The man is completely amazing.

    While living alone on a tropical island might turn some people a bit funny, James takes it all in stride, with good humour.  He finds Tessa and my antics hilarious, as he helps us get the shopping done.  Now, shopping is not James's bag but he puts up with the dusty shops, the quarreling between me and Tessa pretty well.  

    Anyway, on top of the fun with James and his boys, our charge (Steve and I have been house sitting), the high energy puppy called Shiva, goes into heat for the first time while the owners are away. We first realized this when we saw little blood splatters on the floor everywhere.

    “Er, Sara…is everything okay with you?” Steve asks, looking completely mortified.

    “Its not ME, stupid…it’s the DOG!”

    My dear friend Steve, who wasn’t raised around dogs, hadn’t realized the whole “going into heat” process”. To be fair, the tiled floor in the house starts looking like a murder scene and we spend time dodging blood droplets and running around with a paper towel to clean up after the dog.  The male dogs in the neighborhood circle the house like sharks.  At night the Honiara Male Dog Choir bleats beautifully, serenading dear Shiva. Sleep doesn’t come until late.

    On top of the howling dogs, I struggle with sleeping due to my weird nightmares.   Or, more specifically, I fall asleep, in that place between waking and sleeping and I sense a gigantic spider in the room (well not like the Hobbit gigantic spider, but Huntsmen size, anyway).  I wake up, like that jerking reflex you get when you are in between the space of sleeping and waking.  I then go back to sleep, seeing no spider.  Then the spider has perched itself above my bed; watching and waiting to jump.

    I wake up again, this time, deeply afraid.I go to sleep again. The last one, of course, was the spider perched on my pillow.  I wake up this time, screaming.  At no time does the spider attack me; it simply watches.  I’m terrified though the whole time.  I turn the lights on when I sleep now.  Scary stuff!

    At first, I consider the obvious.  Maybe it’s late onset schizophrenia. Maybe there are simply giant spiders in my room.  Maybe it’s the Doxycycline I’m on, an antibiotic used as prophylaxis against malaria.   

    Tina (my local counterpart), god bless her little cotton socks, says that in PNG, some people take on animal totems and that, if she was still there, she would suggest that someone from a spider clan is attacking me.

    I ask her what the locals would say, wanting to keep my name out of it.  When I get back to work on Tuesday, she looks at me quite concerned.

    "I talked to some people and they asked me if someone from Western Province owns the house.  Because if they do, they think it might be the guardian of the house. The guardian doesn't recognise you and wants you out.  You need to leave immediately." She says, very serious.

    Phew! Good thing I moved out of that house sit.  Thank goodness my new landlord is from Angola...

    Whatever it is, the next night, after an truly fun game of Texas Holdem with eight other players, whisky and me losing all my money in about an hour, I sleep like a baby. To top off all the excitement, I’ve been charged with looking after several friends of friends visiting Honiara...the house becomes filled with people coming and going to and from the airport in transit.  Life buzzes around me and I struggle to keep up with the constant movement, a dog in heat and change of plans and socializing.  I get slightly grumpy.    

    As Steve and I leave the house sit, the guards make us a full barbecue of blue fin tuna, sweet potato, melons, and assorted yummies.  The guards have been so lovely to us; we have really enjoyed this house sit.

    To top it all off, there is the mysterious case of Charlie’s shoes….

    One of the best (and worst) things about Honiara is the constant ebb and flow of people.  Charlie was one of the first people I met here in Honiara and is now heading off to greener, more developed pastures.  I’m sad to see him go; he is a decent fellow.    

    On Saturday night, he hosts his farewell party.  Charlie is a piano player, like myself, and I spend much of the party being anti-social, enjoying the feel of piano keys under my fingers.  Charlie has a nice Roland; I’m envious because my piano doesn’t come until Feb/March.  I miss playing dearly; I’m not the best at it but playing relaxes me.  I have started playing the guitar a bit more and I enjoy it but nothing can replace the pure joy of playing piano. 

    Anyway, the party ends abruptly with poor Charlie getting threatened with a punch in the head by a neighbor (another ex pat) because the music is too loud.  Here I thought Christchurch had the monopoly on bogans…We evacuate the house like a prison break, running for taxis.

    Unfortunately, I imbibed a bit too much and had a slight hangover then next morning.  So, I move into my new house and have to cook not feeling my best.  Now, I FULLY realize I have no one to blame but myself for these somewhat unpleasant turn of events.  But still…

    With some valiant assistance from Tessa, Steve and other people, the housewarming party hums along, with about 25 people attending.  I’m sort of shocked and pretty grateful with how many friends and associates I’ve made in the last two months; I think my leaving party in Christchurch had about the same amount of people and I had lived there for four years. 

    Anyway, at the end of the party Charlie comes up to me and blurts out that someone has taken his shoes.  We search for his shoes; there was an older, similar looking pair of shoes left behind.  This is one of the problems with parties in the Solomons; no one wears shoes inside and so you leave your shoes exposed to potential switcheroos.

    I email and ring around to find out who might have taken Charlie’s shoes but sadly no one fesses up.  Charlie’s shoes remain at large in Honiara…

    Despite the madness, Tessa (remember Tessa? She is my new housemate. Marco doesn’t come back until sometime next week, no one knows for sure…) and I have gotten on pretty well during the shopping excursions and parties.  Even after spending all week together, we still stay up until 2 a.m. talking.

    The next day is filled again with shopping errands and a dip in James's pool (he is house sitting too).  Steve, James, Tessa and myself play a classic game of Marco Polo.  Now, for those of you who aren't familiar with Marco Polo, it goes something like this: one person is in the centre of the pool, and has to have their eyes shut.  The others arrange themselves around the pool.  The centre person or Marco (no, not that Marco), disorients themselves and then calls out "Marco!".  The others answer "Polo!".  The Marco has to then figure out where the people are in the pool and lunge at them, tagging them it.

    Now, this is a game I played in my childhood.  The average age of all of us in the pool is about 33.  We squeal with delight at the game, splashing  and swimming quickly away.  My top falls down (as per standard operating procedure of any swimsuit I have ever owned that does not go up to my neck).

    Swimming in the pool is lovely; after all the hot errands and dustiness, the water feels like cool silk on my skin.  After the game, I just float, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness and the sun reflecting on the water.

    At night, we host our first of probably many ad hoc and last minute dinner parties, with 11 people in attendance.  Because it’s a new house, we don’t have enough dishes so the invitation reads: bring your own plates, knives, forks, tongs, serving utensils, wine glasses and/or cups and toilet paper.

    The party is lovely; we light the new coconut oil lamps and look out on the water at the large fishing boats.  Tessa is a perfect hostess; she can see I’m less than up for the party and keeps everyone’s glasses and plates full.

    The party goes on till late and I crash into bed.  The next day, Steve leaves at 4:30 a.m. for his flight back to Choiseul.  Steve has been a pretty constant companion for almost a month and his help has been invaluable to me.  He has chopped up food, organized people, entertained, fixed stuff, dealt with bugs and rats, and looked after the dog and cat.  But I think Steve got something out of his experience in Honiara too…he even got a bit of romance (NOT FROM ME, PEOPLE!).  When he leaves, I miss his presence, his passion for the environment and Anchorman (the film) and his absolutely dirty sense of humor.   

    Fleur, our house mere (or keeper), comes early the next day.  Okay, I want to say a bit about this arrangement because for those of you not living in developing countries, the concept of a house keeper or mere (as they say in the Solomons) may seem lazy or downright offensive.  Fleur is much more than just a cleaner; she looks after me and Tessa.  She gives us good tips on sourcing local goods, she teaches us about Melanesian food and helps me with my pidgin.  She has a wonderful sense of humor and brightens our day.

    Granted, she isn’t the world’s best house mere; my clothes are covered in weird red brownish spots and the window slats are still dusty but having her there does help the house run smoothly.  And it’s fairly inexpensive to have her there.  Fleur comes twice a week to help with the running of the house. 

    The other reason for having a house mere is that all the mod cons that one has living in a developed country aren’t here.  Everything takes much longer; speed and efficiency isn’t the Solomon Islanders’ bag.  Even simple tasks can take hours because we simply do not have the same access to time saving devices.

    So working five days a week (and obviously hosting dinner party after dinner party) and doing all the housework is downright a huge task.  House meres are a part of expat life in Honiara and it is sort of expected that, as an expat, even a volunteer, that you have someone occasionally come and look after you.     

    Fleur comes early and gives me a big kiss on the cheek.  She speaks quickly to me in pidgin and despite my pidgin getting better; my head can’t quite get around her cheerful conversation.  I need to sit down.  I need to take a moment from the craziness.

    So I ask Tessa to look after Fleur for a few minutes while I sit on my deck and soak in my busy week.  I look around at my turquoise house, at the coconut trees lazily swaying the breeze.  I sip my espresso. I can see the local guys mowing the lawns of the high commissioners’ house; he is coming back soon.  I see my next door neighbours, the lovely Stan and even lovelier wife Jean, sipping their cups of tea on the balcony of their chalet.

    The activity is slow and gentle in our little cul-de-sac.  I feel peaceful and take a few minutes to reflect back on the week. I know it’s been crazy and social, but that is what I wanted. Still it’s nice to take a quiet moment to reflect and enjoy the sounds around me.

    “Sara, can we have Elsa and her friend from China come over for dinner tonight?  Also, Martin and Jean want to have a neighbor dinner, so they need to come too…and Jocelyn wants to meet Elsa’s friend, can she come too…oh and we need to pick James up from the other house today…” Tessa yells from the downstairs kitchen.

    Here we go again...

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    Adventure Island

    Happy new year! This bloggie is going to be a bit back to front, with the New Year's adventure first in Savo and then the info about Christmas/Boxing day at the end.  I figured if you got here because you googled Solomon Islands, adventure, tourism, hotel, will want to read the Savo Island bit first. 

    Savo is essentially a volcanic island covered in jungle bush and rivers, about 20 kms or so from Guadalcanal.  The island can be seen from Honiara on a clear day and even, a not so clear day.  To say the island is lush is like saying the sky is blue; it simply is the lushest place I have ever visited.  We leave at 7 a.m., bright and early.  Unfortunately, it’s December and rainy season has decided to do her thing and pour down for the better part of eight hours. 

    Its cloudy and the wind picks up.  By the time we reach the place where we take the boat across to Savo, the waves are between 2-3 metres high; a bit perilous in a 14 foot boat.  Its choppy too; so the boat guys decide to wait until things calm down.  We wait for about two or three hours for the boats to come across from the resort, brining back soaked tourists.  

    The journey lasts about an hour and the boatman carefully navigates his way across the waves.  As we get closer, Savo reveals itself to be a volcanic island, with high peaks and black sand beaches.  The island looks like something out of Robison Caruso or Monkey Island video game (I loves me some Monkey Island!!!)
    Savo was the site of many big battles in World War 2, especially the Battle of Savo, which was, according to some historians, the first major battle in the Solomon Seas.  Fighting in Savo would be rough; the bush is dense and the presence of two, slightly active volcanic zones create a sulphuric haze. 

    We get to Sunset Resort; a locally owned and operated place located on the western end of the island, in the centre of a peaceful bay.  The beach is black sand and the water is muddy  from all the rains but we sit in hammocks and drink deeply from coconuts.  The resort isn’t anything flashy; the accommodation is in a large two story facility, with the resort workers staying downstairs and the stayers upstairs.  Everyone gets their own room if they want one; no other guests are at the resort.  The rooms are tidy and clean, with a large balcony (but no chairs, which is sad because I would have loved to have just sit outside and enjoy the view from my room).

    The beds are comfy and nicely sized.  After checking out the rooms, we go downstairs and eat in a large hall.  The Sunset Lodge is nicely equipped for larger groups and it seems a bit sad to have just the six of us staying there.

    While waiting for dinner in a hammock, I spot the dorsal fin of a small (probably 1.5 metres) white tipped reef shark, cruising in the muddy shallows.  The guide, John, confirms the existence of the shark; he saw it too the next morning. 

    The food is great; fish caught that day and then fried up nicely.  The chicken is also pretty good, as is the fresh fruits and veggies.  All and all, it’s simple but delicious food, with fresh fruit for dessert.

    We spend the rest of the day napping, relaxing in hammocks, playing with kittens, swimming and talking about the end of 2010.  In the evening, a nice beach bonfire is built for us by the staff.  We sit around the bonfire, talking about the year, life and everything in general.  We do a nice ceremony of writing down things we want to leave behind in 2010 and then throwing the paper into the fire.  We also write down what we want for 2011 and throw that into the fire as well.

    I am ashamed to say that I didn’t quite make it to midnight; I was tired and I wanted to be fully rested for the next day’s activities.  I was happy to see 2010 and go, I felt I made my peace with the year and I wanted a fresh start to 2011.

    The next day was adventure day! We woke up and munched on crispy bacon, spicy sausages, and yummy eggs.  We needed a big breakfast; we were going to climb up to Big Savo Volcano!

    We slather on suncream (I still got sunburnt, what a shock!) and head out for the big walk.  On our way out, we encounter the resident pod of dolphins.  The grey and black dolphins danced with our boats, and swam so close I felt like I could just reach out of the boat and touch them.  We saw baby dolphins jump high into the air.

    Under the water, which wasn’t terribly clear, the dolphins looked like phantoms, swimming quickly to keep up with the boat and jumping out into the wake.   It was magical to see the dolphins dance, sing and jump around happily in the waves.

    After about 30 minutes, we jetted off to our big walk.  We landed on a large span of black sand beach and clambered out.  The group started walking through the large braided river bed; the guide said the water had been very high the night before, at least a metre...the river bed was now completely empty.  As we gently climb higher, we reach a black stone gorge, eroded by time and the rivers running down it.  

    According to the leader of our group, Rachel, the river was much higher than the previous times she has walked up it.

    Seriously folks, it was like Indiana Jones and the Lost Volunteers; large vines hanging down and heaps of foliage everywhere.  Strange birds and stranger spiders (one shiny black with, get this, RED WING type things on it!  I was horrified; hey that kind of spider is usually a black widow where I am from, when the guide let it crawl all over him).  As we climb higher and higher, the water gets hotter and hotter.

    We reach a fork in the river and go up a small creek area.  Our guide, John, touches the water and says “Too hot! Be VERY careful now; could burn your skin!”.  Yes, we had reached the place where the water was too hot to fall into.  Now, I’m not known for my skills at balancing and, more often than not, I just walk through rivers rather than avoid getting my boots wet.  I know I have no skill when it comes to hoping from rock to rock so I just plod on through.  No such luck this time.

    We climb up to a six metre or so waterfall.  The waterfall steams and, if any of us weren’t sweating yet well the waterfall solved all that.  Our clothes sticking to our bodies, we climbed up a lashed, wooden ladder with rungs too large for a midget to climb up (meaning that yes, I had problems with it.)

    We continued to walk along slippery logs, landslides and steaming hot pools until we reached the top.  The cone area was HOT, with pools of steamy, hot, sulferic type water bubbling away at our feet.  The cone was hot to the touch (yes, I did touch it) and silica mud streamed out of crevices.  There were large steam holes and little hot pools.  It looked like being on the moon; if the moon was white/yellow/orange/red/rust/brown and HOT.

    Being in the Caldara of a volcano was freaking cool.  After we came down a little, John took some local foliage and created crowns for all of us.  Apparently, this mossy foliage only grows on Savo near the volcano.
    It was slippery going down and I thought to myself “my parents warned me not to do stupid stuff like this”.  The walk down was pleasant enough and it was great to get out of the hot zone.

    We got back to the beach in no time and proceeded back to hang out with the dolphins some more.  This time, three of us got to get into the water to swim with the dolphins.  Now, swimming with dolphins is not what one might expect; the dolphins weren’t in a playful mood and liked to run away a lot. 

    With the water clarity being poor and the idea of hanging off of a rope in the pacific like bait off of a hook not seeming too fun, I decided not to go.  Plus some members of our group who really wanted to go never got the chance, because the dolphins swam quickly away.  When we arrived, hungry and tired from our big walk, back to the resort, the dolphins followed up and played not 100 meters off the beach.

    The rest of the day was spent...well resting.  Hammock time was a must and I took a nap, enjoying the sounds of the crashing surf. 

    At night we played a rousing game of spoons, tongues that included an interesting component of truth or day.  It was lots more fun than I remembered it at 16; clearly years of experience make the game more interesting.  If you want to know what went on, forget it. What happens on Savo, stays on Savo. 

    During one hand of spoons, the smallest geiko in the world fell from the rafters, some eight metres above, on to my hand of cards.  He was clearly stunned and then proceeded to vomit a little on the table cloth.  After he regained his composure, he scampered off. 

    The next day, we packed up and went back home.  I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Savo and can’t wait to go back.  The whole island has a magical feel to it; wild and unexplored. Climbing up to the volcano was a real highlight.

    In summary: If you visit the Solomons, GO TO SAVO.  Sure, there is no snorkeling or diving, really, but it has so many beautiful things to see and many great activities to do.  The resort is locally run and man, do they do a good job taking care of you.  I HIGHLY recommend Sunset Beach Resort, sure its pretty basic but hey, its cheap, fun and the people who run this establishment are very accommodating.  

    Prices (in Solomon Island dollars, which is between 6 and 8 dollars per NZD or 9 USD) are as below, for those interested and reading this blog for tourist tips:
    Accomd.: $120 per night, per person
    Food: $300 per day (three BIG meals a day)
    Big Volcano Tour: $50 per person plus $30 for transport  (HIGHLY RECOMMEND)
    Dolphin swimming/viewing: $40 per person.
    Megapod viewing (which I was too lazy to do): $40.
    Sitting in hammocks, drinking from coconuts, playing with the local kittens, getting a gigantic huntsmen spider out of your room (A big thank you to Steve for his spider wrangling skills!), and seeing the BIGGEST, FATTEST geikos every: FREE!
    Christmas and other holiday stuff

    Christmas Day was spent with a lovely bunch of expats. Again, the people around the table were from far off lands: Taiwan, India, Austria, Australia, Spain, New Zealand and American (me!). 

    We sat down to a beautiful Christmas dinner with a honey basted ham, a leg of lamb and a roasted chicken.  Steve and I had a bit of struggle roasting the chicken and lamb; neither of us had ever used a gas oven before and the ignition switch was taking Christmas off.  After a few panicked phone calls, we got it sorted.

    The day was filled with merriment, good food and good conversation.  The Princess Bride was screened after the dinner.  Manny, our resident Spaniard, clearly loved the filmed and quoted it to:

    "My name is Inigo killed my father.  Prepare to die!"

    Unfortunatly, Santa also gave me the raging Honiara flu, which meant that I spent much of Christmas evening and Boxing Day in bed with a high temp, coughing and hacking away.  

    On Christmas evening, I suspected that I might have malaria and went down to the hospital to get a blood test.  Now, normally I would just go to a local clinic, where everything runs pretty well. But it was Christmas evening, the clinics were closed and the Number Nine clinic was all there was available.

    When we arrived, the” Number Nine” (so named during World War II) clinic was packed full of sick kids and people.  Mothers and children were laying down on mats, trying to sleep, waiting for doctors.  I spoke to some local ladies and they told me they had been there since 10 a.m. (it was 8 p.m. at that point), waiting to see a doctor.  No doctors were actually at the clinic.

    It was a huge wake up call for me to witness the public health care service in the Solomons in action.  Triage nurses were set up in various rooms but I actually didn’t make it too far.  After speaking to a few people, everyone seemed to have the flu in Honiara and their symptoms seemed closer to mine than malaria.  After looking around at the really sick and injured people, I thought it was best not to waste the medical professionals precious time with my hypochondria and went back home to die quietly in my room.

    Now, having the flu is no fun but having the flu in the tropics...well...thats really no fun.  By the end of the flu, the sheets were soaked, and I was still sweating profusely even after the fever broke.  After the fever broke, I was euphoric to be feeling better, so much so I almost went out to finish off some partying but then decided against it.  Good call; turns out I was weaker than I thought; I almost passed out on my way back to bed.
    So a good, fluey time was had by all.

    When I did get back into the social scene, turns out almost everyone had the same thing.  Tales of fever breaking fun littered conversation and everyone was still sniffling and sneezing.  

    Steve and I attended a rousing game of Texas Holdem Poker and we munched on cigars, drinking some fine whiskey.  We also spend some time with the other Choiseul volunteer, Sam,a lawyer, and his girlfriend.  Sam has been out there a long time now in Choiseul and is Steve's only other expat around.  Sam is good value; we joke about getting him a white linen suit, Panama Hat and gin and tonics to get the full colonial expat look going on.  

    I felt better and decided to go down and finish mailing all the packages to various volunteers throughout the islands.  

    When I arrived at the post office, the guys knew me by name and had a big smile on their faces.
    “Mrs. Sara, we garem goodfella package for you!”

    Excitedly, the guys went into the back room and grabbed a lovely package that had my name on it from my friend Helen back in Christchurch.  I was speechless. In my hands was the first care package I had received in many, many years.  Probably six or so.  My cousin Amy used to send them but she gave it because I never sent her anything back.  I suck as a friend; that’s why I don’t get typically don’t care packages.

    I excitedly opened it up…first off were the pirate stickers! Yarg! Me love a good pirate sitcker!  Second, the kiwi chocolate.  Third, a precious little ornament for a tree (which I didn’t really have this year).  A card, and the last was a handmade calendar with pictures from 2010 of me and Helen’s adventures.

    I must admit, I wept when I opened the calendar.  I was so touched; words cannot express how much this small care package meant to me.  After all these years, I felt I was so over receiving things and that I didn’t need anyone to send me anything.  I hadn’t realised how wrong I was until that moment, when I flipped through the funny calendar with beautiful pictures.  In that moment, I felt all the years of being away from home, missing birthday, Christmases, Thanksgivings and all the other big and little moments.

    Occasionally, the universe hands you the bill for being an expat.  Right now, the price seems higher and higher and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if being away from my family for nine years has been the right decision.     

    Over the next few days, it’s a blur of social fun and activities until we get ready to leave for Savo Island...(please read above to see what happens next! OOO its like a Choose your own adventure...but...not...hey, these blogs can't all end awesomely...)