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Monday, April 25, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe out...

I arrive back in Honiara from my time in Christchurch slightly disoriented.  I speak in monotone; Tessa says it’s disturbing and she wishes I would come back.  It takes me two days to crack a joke and start smiling again. 

The thing with working in large scale disasters is that, no matter how long you have done it for or how professional you are, it does wear on you.  The adrenalin and the let down are killer.  I’ve made a rule with myself not to make any major decisions either during or after (for about a month) of working in a disaster area, if I can help it.  The last time I was this wiped was just after I spent eight days in Samoa during the tsunami, which was exhausting for a whole different set of reasons. 

Emotions are raw working in such conditions, at least for me, and my temper flares quickly.  Everything becomes really black and white and I become a little bit of a fascist about people and things.  My empathy flies out the window for people for a good little while. 

Tessa looks after me the best she can but I’m still a bit numb.  Finally I liven up a bit when we head to the Car Wash (kava bar) on Friday.

She turns to me and gives me one of her famous smiles:

“This is Solomon Islands, Part 2, Sara.  Let the fun begin,” she grins.

Tessa is right; she usually is.  I hate her (slightly) for her ability to do that.  

My mind is still racing through about the complete dissonance between Christchurch and Honiara. 
One of the major things I noticed in Christchurch: old people.  You would be hard pressed to find a person over the age of 60 in Honiara.  Life expectancy is 65 in the Solomon’s but that’s a pretty random guess; most people don’t have birth certificates, so they don’t know what year they were born.  There is no such thing as gerontology in the Solomons (sorry, Mom, you are out of luck here! For those who don’t know, Mom owns some retirement homes. )

The other thing, Solomons hasn’t had any surgical staples since November.  One of our staff members almost dies because of the inability to get her or anyone else into surgery.  How does a country go without such basic equipment?

The problem with being away and coming back again is that one develops, as my friend Daphne puts it so well, rightitis.  Simply put, rightitis is when you know something is right and people are doing the opposite.  Or the situation is the opposite of right and you must, MUST speak up.  Rightitis is when you just can’t help yourself on being, you know, right.

Anyway, I get back and my favorite public health doctor in the Sollies, Dr. Mark is sitting quietly in his office. I bounce in there, pronouncing foolishly:

“Man, have I had a hell of a month,” I giggle out.

“I got you beat,” he says, barely turning around.

Turns out, he did.  The month started off charmingly with a car accident.  Then, due to a visa mix up in Vanatu, he spent a week in jail in Fiji.  There is a whole blog story.  Then he got some gastro bug.

“Yep, you got me beat Mark,” I said, slightly disappointed.

With that, I left his office.  Life in the equatorial Pacific isn’t always as much of blast as it might seem. 
Tessa, Mackenzie and the Greek Doctor leave on Sunday to Maurovo Lagoon.  As much I want to go, I just got back from six weeks of heavy lifting.  The house is blissfully empty.  I pad around in my new flip flops and silky boxers I bought in Christchurch. I read.  I don’t talk and no one bugs me.  It is bliss.

Of course, my bliss is shortly broken by James calling and wanting to spend the night due to a scheduling mishap.  Internally, I groan but I can’t let a wantok down.  James is good company and we invite another volunteer, Luke, over for some whisky.  Luke is a newly arrived Kiwi boy whose loves include the Daily Show, which endears him to me immediately.

The next night is total bliss as I come home over the next week to an empty house.  I needed a people break in a big way.  I hang out with my new Sony Reader, which has a stack of Sookie Stackhouse novels (nothing better than pure trash to get your mind off of rubble and stuff) on it.  I paint my toenails and fingernails red.  I do girly stuff.  Feels wonderful.   

Daphne keeps me company one night and a good friend Viola comes over as well.  I enjoy just catching up and talking about life in general and Christchurch specifically.  Emotions still feel pretty raw but I start to settle in.

(Parental warning: this next part might upset you, Mom and Dad.  Please skip over this part).
I walk as much as I can because as a volunteer, I can’t afford a car or pay for a taxi everyday to come home from work.  As I walk up my hill one day, a scruffy looking guy with a huge afro crosses the street to do…something to me.  He tries to stop me, but I ignore him, listening happily to my music.  He tries again, I ignore him more and just quickly walk pass him.

I hear laughter behind me, which means my tactic worked.  He wanted to enrage me or get me to do something that gave him cause to react.  I didn’t and he left me alone.   I spoke with some other Solomon Island men and they a) recommended to keep doing that and b) to let them know when it happens again and this person will be taken care of.  Gotta love the wantok system.

In Christchurch, not a single male harassed me, call out to me and slapped the window of the car I was driving in.  Here the men are aggressive to the point of intimidating.  Even earthquake damaged everything seems so easy in Christchurch; I don’t have to roam the dusty streets looking for the most basic items all over the city.

But here I can take time to breath, to decompress.  I can sit on my balcony and relax…

After my self imposed exile, I get an invite to my neighbor’s compound for a party.  Now, not to give too much away, but my neighbor is a lovely fellow…with a very, very large…compound.  Seriously; palm trees line his driveway; he has an entire liquor closet.  He has a pool.  And very famous parties that include staying up late playing band hero, wearing wigs and typically partying the night away.

I would hate my neighbor if he wasn’t such a likeable fellow, damn him! 

The party is exactly what I needed.

The next day I go out with Stan, Jean, Jean’s sister Bonnie, some young boys and fellow volunteer Luke.
We go down to the river in the Queen Elizabeth National Park (I know what you are thinking, there are national parks in the Sollies? Yes.  Yes there are).  We drive through the jungle; large thick bush line the road with huge ginger flowers jutting out from the trees.  After a 20 minute decent that is decidedly four wheel drive, we arrive at a stunning river bank.  There are huge sheer cliffs lined with moss and greenery.  I can see, quite easily, beautiful fish glinting at me through the water. 

We spend the afternoon wading, swimming and even did a bit of fishing from the bank.  Finding live bait proved to be more difficult than I had imagined.  I go home, sadly, with no fish.  In the evening, its back to ye olde poker nights and suddenly I feel like I’m back into it, enjoying my life here again in the Solomons.

Luke and I make it to the Hammock Beach on Saturday afternoon, which is famous for, you know, having hammocks.  After several swims, I sit back and gently rock…until the rocking gets a bit too much; I feel like someone is pushing the tree back and forwards.  I look behind me and no one is there.  I get out of the hammock and look at Luke’s truck.  It is swaying; as is the local shelter next to me…the whole world is swaying.  I think, instantly, that of course it’s an earthquake and I am cursed.   After six weeks of aftershocks in Christchurch, I’m intimately familiar with earthquakes now.    

The earthquake lasts a very long time and, based on the type of shaking, I figure it’s pretty far away.  I’m right; it’s a 6.9 about 120 kms away in Makira province.  One person dies in Malaita.  I motion to Luke to get out of the water and watch the horizon for any big waves coming in.  Which, I know is totally pointless because by the time you see a tsunami, its kinda too late.  But I don’t want to make Luke leave just because of my paranoia. 

Nothing happens.  No tsunami.  Thank the gods.

I spend Easter with my Solomon Island family, Jean and Stan eating Easter Pie.  I’ve never had Easter Pie but apparently it consists ground mince and red sauce.  It’s yummy.  Jean even makes homemade cottage cheese!  I am beyond impressed.

The next day is Anzac Day.  Yes, I pull my sad, sorry bones out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to attend the morning ceremony.  I attend ANZAC day because, as an Amerikiwi, I feel that I should do my bit to show my respect for my adopted home country, New Zealand.

There are about 400 of us, gathered under a marquee, eyes still crusty from sleep.  Songs are sung, prayers are said.  Some Maori fellah stands there silently without a shirt on.  Men in uniform abound (um…I know it’s a special day…but seriously…WOW!)….Sorry, sorry…I got distracted…


Yep, am pretty much back to normal.