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Wednesday, November 24, 2010



This week is when people in America are sitting down together and munching down loads of food.  Halloween is my favorite holiday but Thanksgiving would have to be a close second.  I like the concept of sitting down and sharing stories, food and fun with my family.  And I like the idea of having a day just to be grateful. What a wonderful gift to give to each other: gratitude.

Christmas always disappoints but Thanksgiving is always pretty good. I haven’t been home with my family for Thanksgiving since…well it would have to be around 2000 and that makes me sad because the date always represented good times.

The expat Thanksgiving last night was pretty cool.  The spread is impressive: turkey was replaced by two delicious chickens, the pumpkin pie was homemade (as was everything else) and for dessert was the most gorgeous little pecan pies.

As we sat down, everyone went around the table saying one thing they were thankful for.  After each person spoke, everyone at the table "cheered" and gently clinked our glasses.  I thanked everyone for their tolerance; I was unable to purchase any wine and my beans weren't boiled...I am a horrible guest.

I sat next to a woman who is a harpy of disasters like me (e.g. leaves a place and then disaster hits).  On the other side of me was a Pisces girl, born on 7 March; we are planning a joint birthday party.  We seem to have had parallell lives; she, Australian, lived in the states for nine years, while I lived in N.Z. for nine years.  Across from me is the most gorgeous Italian woman; vibrant and expressive.  And the list goes on...amazing people, amazing food in an amazing place.

We walk out on the balcony, trying to get out of the hot apartment.  The moon rises, orange and almost full.  The night is slightly coolish; the rainy season has begun in earnest.  The big fishing boats are lit up like Christmas trees across the bay; it is a beautiful night for a Thanksgiving feast.

I didn't want to bore the people last night with my long, long list of gratitude but here it is:

Being American (Yep, I said it…deal with it)

Being here in the Solomons has made me view my life in a totally different light. As a woman, I fully appreciate all the advantages given to me growing up in the U.S.  Here, women are treated as second class citizens; not one woman sits in Parliament.

After giving birth, in some places, women are exiled from their villages for up to six months, with the baby and no support.  Infant mortality is high; 40 babies out of 1,000 die before six months.  Many women die in childbirth.  Although women own land, they rarely are allowed to participate in decision making that involves their own land or wealth.  Women work an average of 15 hours a day, while men work an average of 10 hours a day. 

Clearly it is a man’s world here.

Because women are treated less than men, their literacy level is significantly lower.  Boys are given priority over girls to go to school and girls leave at a younger age.  The list goes on and on...I'm not saying that Solomon Islands should change and get all feminist, but I think some thinking and basic changing regarding equality is important. And women being empowered and educated is a central part of development.

There are many other things I like about being American.  As a culture (especially from the West Coast), we are eternally optimistic people.  We are pretty trusting and always think the best of everyone in our lives.  We tend to be less critical and more accepting of people.  We aren't afraid to discuss politics or religion, sharing our views openly.  We are unabashed workaholics BUT I think thats fine, if you are doing something that fulfills you.  I appreciate the American loud and happy nature; even through dark times, most people find reasons to smile and have a laugh.

I love the vastness of land, the diversity of environments and people.  Its a land of immigrants (which it sometimes forgets).

In America, it DOES feel like anything is possible.

Being French too
Yep, I love the frenchies.  The French, for all their strikes and interesting policies, are pretty cool people.  Their cheese alone makes me proud to be a half frenchie.

Living in New Zealand

This week, the miners on the West Coast lost their lives to a tragic accident.  Kiwis across the globe grieved, mourned and supported each other.  The loss of 29 men on a small West Coast community is beyond tragic; it is devastating.  I had the privelage of working for the New Zealand Blood Service back in the early 2000s, and I know every community on the West Coast to Fox Glacier…

I was proud to work with the people of the West Coast…Coasters have a different sensibility than the people in the east…I remember one time, I got a rental van stuck in the mud on the way to Greymouth.  I remember the two men clearly, wearing stubby shorts and long, waterproof jackets with gum boots.  The men pushed us out of the mud and when we offered them a bottle of wine instead of beer, they politely turned us down, clearly wanting a beer instead.

I am eternally thankful for having the opportunity to live in one of the best countries on earth. Kiwis are an pretty cool bunch of people and I feel, in my heart, deeply connected to New Zealand.

Someday I hope to live there again, a nice little house on a lifestyle block with llamas, a big garden and ducks and a new cat with the name Mrs. Dot Dot.  I imagine sitting on the porch, with a few more grey hairs and a big smile, sipping happily on a red wine and eating some stinky cheese, reflecting back on my life, watching my kids play, the Southern Alps glimmering in the background.

It's a whole thing, a whole life that I look forward to someday, just not quite yet.

Being alone
I have a confession to make: I like living alone.  I’m not the easiest person to live with, certainly, so I sort of figure I’m better living on my own.  I’m an independent soul; I like taking care of myself and not being reliant on anybody. 

I think living alone teaches you a lot, it has certainly taught me a great deal.  You have to learn how to like and love yourself, understand your flaws and work on them.  I’ve begun to really cherish my own company, without the need of TV. or friends to distract me from thinking about things.  All the energy I have is dedicated towards making me a better person.  And what can be wrong with that?

Great jobs

Okay, I’ve had great jobs.  I really have.  No, really.  Stop laughing.  I have been in places that are unique and I’ve met the most amazing people.  Like women who have survived years of domestic violence, only to leave the relationship and become a community advocate against it.  Or the women in Namibia who house 60 people because they can.  Or the guys who have gone to every large scale disaster in Asia in the last 20 years.  I mean the list goes on…

My jobs have done that for me, the new one and the old.  I am forever grateful to those jobs and those people who mentored me, helped me and made me a better person. 

My Family

My family is just awesome. They just are.  Not to say your family isn’t too; these things aren’t mutually exclusive.  My parents are patient with their wayward travelling daughter and they help me out all the time.  My mom helps me do things and my dad helps me feel through things.  They are great. So are my brothers, and my sister in law.

I also got an awesome extended family too.  

My friends

Seriously. I have great friends.  I have had friends who have helped me cry, dance the night away, drink me under the table, pack up my things, drag me up Ben Nevis (I’m looking at you, Eddy) and help me live my life.  I am indebted to all my friends.    

My pain

Life is not without its heartbreaks and sadness.  Of course there are days when life sucks and when you wish you could do things differently. Regret is a part of learning. I’m not going to tie a bow on this one and make it pretty but my pain and heartbreak has helped me along the path of my life.  Sometimes I did the hurting and sometimes it was the other way around but either way, this year has been a great teacher.  It taught me how to let go with love, how to put the needs of others first. It is better that you let someone go, with grace and kindness, than to keep them in misery and anguish, thereby stifling their growth as a person.

That is real love.


This year, I am grateful that I connected with my old hobbies, especially my love of music, both performing and listening.  I had really limited myself musically for a long time, and I don’t know why exactly.  But I am grateful for re-connecting with my love of music. It saved me.


The gift of strangers; what would I do without the people who helped me get my leg untrapped in Sydney?  The countless people I asked for directions because I was lost and they gave me the right way to go? Or the bartender who introduced me to Isley whiskey free of charge (because he was quitting)? 
I have been really protected by having come across good people who have looked after me and I never see them again.  I am grateful for them.


Seriously. I have a lot of fears. I’m terrified of sharks (which is why I’m going to go diving and get PADI certified). Heights (which is why I joined an abseiling team). Miley Cyrus (there is no cure for a Miley Cyrus phobia, sadly).  Coming to a new country where I know practically no one.  These are all fears of mine. Some of which I can deal with, some I can’t.  But my fears often compel me to do something different.  I’ve had a great year of facing fears about being alone, heights, traveling to exotic places. 

Fear hasn’t stopped me but just encouraged me along the path.


I am grateful this year of having loved and having been loved.  I believe that love is the most powerful energy on this planet and it can transform our whole lives, if we let it.  But the most important love, I learned this year, was for myself (I know, I sound like a Whitney Huston song…deal with it). 

Seriously, after years of searching for love in other people, I realized that I was wasting so much time and energy when I just needed to give love to myself. This may seem basic to most people but it took me quite awhile to get a handle on it.  So I am grateful that I learned that.

All this gratitude leads me to one fairly fundamental issue: I am grateful for my life.  I couldn’t always say that this year with confidence but I can now.  And I hope that when you sit around with your family (whoever you are, gentle reader) that you can say the same.  Because life is too short to not be grateful for what you have.  

And you have much more than you can imagine.  The list above is so small compared to the detailed account of my life. 

That is my wish for you this year and the next.  Be grateful for what you have and enjoy the ride.  Be gentle to others and respect their journey too.  Understand that in life, we actually can only control ourselves and how we view the world, everything else is in someone else’s hands. 

I wish you, my friends, family and strangers (aka people I don’t know yet) the very best this Thanksgiving.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Duck! Flying Fish

On Saturday, a 12 hour day trip is changed to Monday to wait for petrol.  Life at the Gizo office is a bit of a waiting game; there is a petrol shortage and boating schedules get changed quickly.

So, instead, Crissie and I do some work at the office and walk around Gizo.  Gizo is a great little town; sure there are heaps of piles of rubbish on the side of the road but everyone is friendly and I feel safe here.  Its hot and dusty and there are probably only four restaurants in the whole place.  My favorite is a place under a palm frond hut, I think its called Gina's but I can't recall.  Anyway, they have the best fish and chips I've ever tasted; the fish was caught in the morning.  Its a reef fish and is slightly sweet to taste.  We sit and munch on our food, waiting for the word on the boat schedule.  It doesn't come.

Instead, I book a massage at the Gizo Hotel.  The massage hut is right next to the pool and a wonderfully motherly looking woman named Anna gestures for me to come inside.  I mean its a real massage hut; the roof is made of palm fronds and two massage tables are set up inside.  

First off, modesty goes out the window with only a small towel covering me up.  There is no changing area but its okay, no guests walk by.  At first I get a bit stressed at the lack of security but then I relax.  The massage is wonderful, maybe the best I've ever had.  Anna combined a local technique with Swedish and Deep Tissue massage.  In the Solomons, there is a local technique which is indescribable but amazing. 

I leave, completely relaxed.  If you are reading this to get tips on what to do in this...totally worth the 80 solomon dollars! (about 12 dollars N.Z.)

On Sunday, we hop aboard ye olde speed boat for a day trip out to Kolomonbangara, the big, circular looking island.  The volcano hasn't erupted in 10,000 years but scientist still say it can go off at any time.  I really, really don't want to be around it on that day.

The island is lush; we attend a high school graduation and walk around the campus.  We go to the waters edge and Ben and I notice a sea turtle in the water.  I get excited and quietly move towards the turtle; I don't want to disturb it.  I get about five feet and I can't see the body, only the head occasionally bobbing up and down.  My heart beats faster; I love sea turtles.  

"It's a stick!" shouts Ben.

I turn bright red...there goes my ability to tell sea turtles from a stick. Wahoo!

We head over to Kennedy Island, the place where the U.S. former president swam for hours to get to after his boat was sunk by the Japenese.  The island is a typical picture of paradise; a grove of large coconut and palm trees a top of white sand beaches.  Coral reefs surround the island and I take a dip to play with the fishes.  

A long time ago, my brother and I did a seminar way back when I was in my early 20s.  It was sort of an empowerment/counseling seminar popular in the late 1990s, a lot of fuzzy, huggy stuff, which I am in favour of. Anyway, in the seminar, they asked to visualize where we would like to go to talk to God, where would be our sacred place.

I said that mine would be on an island, with no one around, a white sandy beach, a few palm trees and calm, clear waters surrounding the island.    

This is the place, back then, where I imagined where I could talk openly with God.  

I wonder what I would ask God now, after all these years?  Or would I punch God in the face for being such a bastard?  For breaking my heart and allowing me to question the very value of my existence? Or scream at God for all the unfairness I've witnessed? Or would I get down on my knees and honestly, deeply thank God for my life, my friends...all the love that I have experienced in my life?

I'm not sure; I might do all of those things. 

We leave the island and head over to Fat Boys, the local diving resort.  Its mostly Australians everywhere but there are a few European tourists.  By then, I'm lobsterfied; no matter how much sun block I put on, it never seems to work.

Ben joins me in the snorkeling.  Its Ben's first time snorkeling and he takes to it pretty well.  Ben is big on "friendly fish" and "communicating with fish", so he heads straight for all the reef fish. One particular fish is completely startled and just stares at him.  

"Me and the fish, we communicated!" He smiles when we hit the surface.

Later, as I suck down a SolBrew, we see the black tip of a shark fin swimming not 100 metres from where Ben and I snorkeled.

"Don't worry, its a friendly shark!" Ben says, laughing.  He swims off to go communicate with it.  Sigh...

Somehow, I don't really believe him.  But there is that feeling of sharks being friendly here.  Ben insists that sharks protect people in the water after a boating accident (he is on the marine rescue team here).  Still, I think if my boat was sunk, I wouldn't want to see any shark fins swimming towards me.

The day is perfect, warm, sunny...and I get back to the motel exhausted.  

The next day, we head off to Vella...we go around the whole island, hunting down our distribution team.  We spot two large pods of dolphins just off shore.  It takes about three hours skirting through reefs and dodging markers.  I can smell the local volcano, rather than see it.  Steam rises up from the island, encircling it with a menacing smog.  

The driver smiles.

"Croc area here...lots of crocs!"


The village we visit is clean, tidy and there are loads of little children running around, happy.  The project my host organisation started was very successful here and we are able to complete the work in about three hours.

By then the wind has whipped up and its about 35-40 knots.  The sea starts to churn and large swells come in as we hit the channels.  The speed boat, with two large engines at the back, slaps up and down along the waves.  Ben and another worker have to sit in front to stabilise the boat.  They let off squeals of delight as the boat goes up and down.  

Suddenly, a flying fish makes a suicide run in the air towards Ben...Ben, with the reflexes of a panther, screams like a girl, bats it away and it flys overboard, across my shoulder.  The moment of tension is broken, the whole crew doubles over with laughter, even the driver.  We laugh until we cried.

The rest of the trip is uneventful, except Ben eggs the driver on to go as fast as possible back to Gizo.  We whip our way around reefs and shoals quickly.

The trip ends with a quick visit through the crowded market at Gizo. Crissie and I make big plans to cook a feast only to find out at that the kitchen is now out for good.  We eat some biscuits and go to bed.

The next day we head off or at least try to head back to Honiara.  We head off to the airport island on the speed boat.  And wait. And wait.  For about two hours, which is nothing in Solomon Islands...we munch on fish and chips...probably the best fish and chips I have ever eaten.  The fish was caught in the morning, fresh tuna (or bonito as it is known here) and it is delicious.  

The plane, a small 15 seater, finally arrives and we head off into big storm clouds.  I love flying on the smaller plane; the small islands and atolls look amazing from the height.  

Honiara is stormy and wet when we arrive.  The next three days are a blur of meetings; there is an important three nation meeting for my organisation there.  We go out to Red Mansion, a place only about a five minute walk from where I live, for a Melanisian buffet and dancing.  The dancing is better than in Gizo; its essentially about twenty nice looking young men dancing around.

One man, sitting next to me, mentioned that he thinks this dance is more for women to enjoy than men.  Unless you are of a certain persuasion, he winks...

All and all a good week in I've been here a month.  I'm learning something new everyday; time is moving quickly.  Life is happy.

At our devotion today, a guy from India mentions that:
"We must get out of our comfort jones..." (he means zones; its an accent thing).

And he is right.  Its great to stay comfortable, to never change or be challenged.  To stay with people who believe as you do, and pat you on the back saying how awesome you are.  But here, I find myself every day being challenged, and faced with assaults on my belief systems.  Its wonderful and difficult and frustrating.  I'm growing and changing and moving on.  

After thinking about the island where I could talk to God, I think, if I was to see God, I would thank God for all God (notice my non gender specific use of God) has done for me.  I am grateful for my new life here. There are days when I miss people from Christchurch or miss my old life or relationships.  But I accept that things change and this is the new reality.  I'm wrong sometimes and here I'm finding out just how wrong about some things I am...its hard to know but also I'm learning about how to change myself too.    

I just have to watch out for flying fish.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gizo Town

Honiara becomes cooler over the next three days; rainy season has finally arrived.  The city seems to take a collective sigh of relief; temperatures had soared up to 36 degrees. 

I go to a couple of parties and get an invite to join a singing group, a potential new flat and five new friends.  It’s amazing how quickly I’ve gotten to know people here; both the expat community and locals are so willing to make friends. 

Crissie*, my host organization counter part and I make plans to head off to Gizo at the end of the week to finish the comms work on a tsunami recovery project the organization has been working on.  Getting to Gizo is a little bit of an effort; planes get cancelled and we fly into a nice thunderstorm in our 30 seater Dash-8.

One of the panels above the heads of one of the passengers comes off and gently smacks him in the head.  He smiles, some of the passengers laugh and he replaces it, securing the duct tape.  I wonder to myself what else is secured by duct tape on the plane. 

Islands in Western Province
I sit next to the engine, counting the rivets as we fly high above sparkling little atolls and jungle islands.  It’s a beautiful flight to Gizo but it takes almost double the time because we stop at Munda and Sege, two little settlements.  It is difficult to imagine but Western Province is home to about 83,000 people scattered across hundreds of small islands.

Our Dash 8 and Crissie

As we fly into Gizo, I can see Kolombangara, which is a gigantic volcano.  It resembles a Hersey’s Kiss that a toddle bit the top off of. Because we fly in so late, we just go to our hotel. 

Gizo is like an antidote to Honiara.  In Honiara, there is a great energy but also a strong urban angst.  Here, everyone is laid back and pedestrians rule the road.  There are only a few cars here and people walk in the center of the road, surprised to see a truck when it passes.  The markets are packed; Gizo is a hub for the surrounding islands.  There isn’t as much variety but food is cheaper here and the fish is fresher too. 

Island Boys dancing...
Ben*, the office manager, takes me and Crissie out to see local music.  It’s basically an acoustic guitar jam, with about seven guitarists. In the middle, is the famous bamboo instrument.  This is an impressive instrument, about three metres long and three rows of bamboo high. The bamboo trees have been polished and hollowed out, cut to a certain length to create a note when a piece of dried coconut, like a stick wacks the opening of the bamboo.  When they finish, they take apart the instrument and it strikes me that it resembles the harps in a piano.

There is also local dancing.  Its only men and boys, painted with white lyme from coral.  It’s sort of a warrior dance but they also dance to reflect the birdlife there.  It’s totally different from any Polynesian dancing I’ve seen; its primal and jarring to watch.  Ben explains some of the dances to me and tells me the story of the Solomon Island icon, Nguzonguzo, which is basically a big head of a guy.  The head graces the front of canoes, and when he is carrying a bird, it means peace.  When he is carrying another head, it means war.  By the way these guys dance, I’m not sure I would feel very comfortable going to war with them.
Me and Ben.

The next day we head off to Simbo, one of the islands effected by the tsunami in 2007.  I thought we were going to take the “banana boat”; a common canoe with a small outboard motor.  Instead, we go in luxury on a 20 foot speed boat that powers its way quickly to the island.  As the boat starts on the plane, I get a familiar sinking feeling.  The first “whack” hits and I remember what this is going to be like.

When I was living in New Zealand, my ex father in law used to take us out in the Marlborough Sounds for holidays.  He is a typically stoic kind of guy, economical with his words and smiles but he still has the best mo in the business.  He loves speed and would typically go as fast as humanly possible, not caring if his passengers didn’t enjoy being shaken and whacked around.

Pretty beach.
In this moment, I am supremely grateful for my ex father in law’s ways; he turned a prissy, spoiled American girl into an adrenalin loving, sea faring wench.  I say a little prayer of thank you to him and hope it reaches him in N.Z.  I end up loving every minute of the hour ride over. 

It’s interesting how experiences we think are traumatic and unpleasant at the time just prepare us for some bigger purpose.    

My life jacket gets untied briefly and the straps fly out behind me, creamy coloured flags like I’m surrendering.  I’m embarrassed; my knots really SHOULD be better!  When I’m done tying the knots better, I notice the water, while deep, is totally clear and I can see the bottom; the water clarity must be about 200 metres!   

The islands are spectacular and we power around reefs and shoals.  Sea birds perch on floating logs and coconuts. Flying fish glide gracefully across the glassy water.  It’s a beautiful day on the ocean and I think to myself, not a bad day at the office.

We get to Simbo and clamber up a path to get to the village.  It has been completely rebuilt, although some houses still need to be completed by the community.  I talk to the villagers; the kids just stare at me the whole time and follow me around.  I’m surprised at all the good works my organization has done in the space of three years.  Rebuilding entire communities is no small tasks; recovery takes years to happen properly.  I feel really grateful for this job.  Anyway, we shoot some interviews, take some still photographs and are back on our way.
A bar made ENTIRELY of Bamboo...called the Bamboo Bar...what will the clever kids think of next???

The ride back is a lot smoother and quicker than the way over.  I feel powerful, alive and fearless; I greet every whack with joy and laughter.  I’m no longer afraid.  Sometimes, my own life surprises me; I never planned to be the adventure girl.  But here I am, powering my way in one of the most remote places on earth.  A million things could go wrong and no one would be able to help me. But nothing did.

I can’t imagine a better life for myself and the alternative of living in Christchurch, sitting behind a desk and living a life of routine leaves me absolutely cold.      

All good things have its price. When we get back to the hotel, I discover have a slight sunburn, despite my best efforts to slather myself in sun screen, wearing a hat and sunglasses.  And I have a lovely purple bruise on my side from to boat ride. Also, my camera got a good whack and deleted all the photos I had taken thus far! BOO!
You better not cause any trouble in Munda...or they will throw into the Police Shack!  Fear the BLUE POLICE SHACK!!!

We spend the night out again, this time we go to the Gizo hotel and watch another guitar group, with a bored looking bass player at the back.  The lead singer created a shaker using shells and a used water bottle.  Talk about reusing!  The music is beautiful and the performers clearly enjoy themselves.

Then there is dancing, tameray, which isn’t really local.  Polynesians have settled in parts of the Solomons and brought their dances over, so it’s sort of an amalgamation of Tahitian dancing and Hawaiian hula.  Afterwards, the dancers grab people from the audience to dance with them and Ben and I hit the dance floor.  I’m tired from my day at sea and walking but I feel alive; filled with adrenalin from the boat ride over.   

In that moment, I’m grateful for every disappointment and traumatic experience, for every preverbal “whack” of the speed boat, because it brought me here, to Gizo.   

Monday, November 8, 2010

My coconuts

The Sanalae walking group takes real form over the next couple of days.  The group has a revolving members, but one day Cynthia*, from Vanuatu and John* from Fiji walk with me down through the valley to visit one of the villages.  Cynthia is a gender and cultural trainer and John works in a women’s health organization.

Cythnia is a small Vanuatu lady, in her 40s with a mass of beautiful curly hair and she carries herself with power and respect.  John is a Fijian but looks very Tongan, tall and imposing. Later, over drink, we discover that he is, in fact, part Samoan. I could walk anywhere in Honiara next to John.

We follow a dirt road down into the valley.  There is a spattering of modern houses but it mostly thatched huts, the kind I’ve seen mostly in photographs.  In Samoa, the houses are entirely different.  There the houses are open air with cement pillars on the outer walls to hold the structure up.  But here, the huts are real traditional grass huts, not a stone’s through from my thoroughly modern hotel. 

It’s a Maliatian village; this area of Honiara is mostly Maliatian.  Some of the children have blonde, curly hair.  They giggle when they see me; I guess I must be fairly funny looking with my red hair and pale skin.  Or maybe I’m just funny looking full stop.  As we pass, people smile and say “ev-an-ning”.  Fires are lit and fill the valley with smoke.  We climb up a ridge and get a wonderful panoramic of the neighbouring valleys.  On the ridge there a lovely flat field covered in high, brown grass.  Frangipani trees line the field and perfume the air, counteracting the smoke.  I felt miles away from Honiara town and closer to the real heart of the Solomons.

John and Cynthia are great company; we talk about gender equality in the South Pacific.  As we talk, I realize that I’m not sure that we are exactly any better in New Zealand.  Most of the organizations I have worked for have been run by men.  When Helen Clark ran the country, she was respected but most people thought of her as cold and calculating; if she was a man, I doubt those words would have been used.

“Yes.  Feminism actually worked against us there didn’t it?  Now men expect us to work but we can’t walk away from our traditional roles of taking care of the house and the children.  If we fail in any of those areas, we are thrown away for someone who can fill that role.  Men can sit around and not work but we have to do it all.”

“We have to be superwomen, good at everything.”

The hill climbing has made us all sweaty and we go back to the hotel and have showers.  I crack open my bottle of gin and we have Sprite and Gin (normally it would be tonic but there is none available close to the hotel).  I learn a couple of painful lessons that night: never let a Fijian grab hold of your bottle of Bombay gin and never try to keep up with their drinking either.  My head pounds the following morning; it’s been ages, I think since Edinburgh, since I’ve had a good night on the terps…and my body is still adjusting to the climate and the meds I have to take for malaria. The next day, I’m not very hung-over but more listless. 

A new girl comes to the organization and we go out to lunch.  Lily* is a traveler from Australia but staying in the Solomons for a few weeks as a volunteer.  For being as young as she is, she is down to earth and practical.

In the evening coconut, I drink rum, lime and coconut water with Renegade* (I really need to stop allowing people to choose their own fake names), a man originally from South Africa but now living in New Zealand.  Renegade is a man of many talents, a lawyer, computer programmer and business man, he is incredibly interesting.  He started his career in a seminary and has an interest in matters of the church.  We stay up late talking about life and the gospel; it’s interesting how easy it is to talk about theology here. But don’t worry, my peeps, I’m not going to turn into a bible thumping teetotaler any time soon.

The next day, Cythnia and I walk down to the market around noon.  It’s hot and dusty.  The market is popular and we run into about four friends while we are there.  Cynthia used to live in Sydney and here, in the Solomons.  Her husband left her for a couple of years and returned after a serious incident.  We talk about safety and how dangerous it is to travel as a single woman.

“Men are useful for security,” Cynthia says.

Sure, I’ll buy that.

On Sunday, Renegade and I join the owner of the hotel, Phillip* and his wife Bella* for a day of touring around Honiara and the surrounding area.  Phillip takes us to his furniture factory.  Phillip designs his own furniture and makes it from local hardwoods.  The factory is beautiful and smells of wet sawdust.  The designs are simple and beautiful.  It’s thrilling to see that the timber here doesn’t just end up directly on the boats to China; here value is added.  I wish New Zealand did more of the same.

I’ve always had a thing for exotic woods; here there is a lot of ebony and other hardwoods here.  Wood carving is a real skill here, with sea shells inlaid.  Turtles seem to be a common theme, as well as canoes, warriors, fishermen, and sharks. 

Anyway, the next stop is to the Chinese noodle shop (not its actually name; I doubt anyone knows the name of the café.) The doors are metal and the sign is so faded I can’t make out a name.  If I didn’t know it was a café, I would never have gone in.  We walk in and it’s a tidy wee place.  Local Chinese delicately munch on the noodles; wait till they get a load of me slurping down my fried noodles.

We sip on iced coffees.  Peter*, who is studying to be an Anglican minister, and Renegade get into a vibrant discussion about who suffered more: Job and or John the Baptist.  It’s a total Candide moment and besides, you can’t compare one person’s suffering to another’s.  It’s impossible; everyone has a different tolerance level for pain and grief.    

We shuffle on to visit the Church of Melanesia’s Brotherhood.  The religious community is about 45 minutes from downtown Honiara.  Because it’s Sunday, most of the brothers are relaxing.  I get a chance to speak to one of the novices, who has been charged with showing us around the compound.  No women live there; these men emulate the life of monks and priests of the Catholic Church. 

Peter* takes me to the graves of the seven brothers.  Peter is a novice, not yet a full brother.  He wears a bright blue shirt and lava lava with a brilliant red sash.  His rosary is made out of shells and a small wooden cross inlaid with mother of pearl.

He explains that during the tension, the brothers helped arrange for a peace treaty between the factions.  But being the intermediary has its price; one of the brothers was captured.  Six brothers went to find him and were reported missing.  It turns out that four of them were tortured to death and the three others were shot on sight.   Of course the Tension is long over and hopefully it will never happen here again.

Peter is such a lovely, warm young man and my eyes tear up listening to the account of the seven brothers.  I wonder what would move people to such violent acts against men of peace.  I sit under a tree, looking at their graves, contemplating cruelty and courage.  I wonder if I would have gone to a dangerous place and pleaded for peace, like the Brothers.  Or would I have stayed at home, safe and self satisfying. I guess by coming here and giving up my life back home, I sort of have made my choice to follow the peaceful path and putting money where my mouth is.  Only time will tell if it’s false bravado and arrogance or something more. 

We walk around the courtyard; simple buildings encircle an area with one very large banyan tree.  We leave the campus to go and visit Peter's house.  He is finishing his Bachelor in Theology this week; his family moved from Vanuatu to live here and support him in his studies.  Kittens scramble and play around the house.  Kids play in the kitchen house. Kitchens are kept separate from the living area, which seems a good idea in a tropical climate with no refrigerators.  Smoke curls from the chimney of the kitchen house, which is predominately made of grass and palm fronds.

We leave the whole compound and drive down to the beach where I take a nice dip in the ocean.  Renegade tries a beetle nut, and I give it a go too.  Locals combine chewing the nut with mustard and Lyme ground from coral.  It is suppose to give the chewer a hallucinogenic and calming experience, all the while giving the chewer a red, slaughtered looking mouth, similar to the Joker. I didn’t try it with Lyme or mustard but chewing the nut felt like chewing on a block of wood.    

The day ends with Phillip taking us to his very purple house.  His wife is a big fan of purple, a royal colour and the colour of powerful women, she says, smiling.  She is a powerful woman too and gives me good background on all kinds of issues in the Solomons, from the Tension to women’s rights to where to go snorkeling in Gizo.

The next day, I feel slightly ill and panic because I’m terrified of getting malaria.  I swallow my Doxycylican every day, like a good girl, which gives me slight stomach upset but totally worth it.  There is no 100 percent effective preventative medication against malaria.  And it can kill you, if it gets out of control.  But I feel my chances are pretty good that I would fine, with the right treatment.  After it has been determined that you have it, they give you pretty effective drugs against the virus. 

There is lots of fighting outside the compound at night; drunk men scream and fight each other.  I get scared alone in my hotel room, feeling stupid because there is a huge wall and security guards at night. I shouldn’t be afraid of drunken men; I lived in Christchurch for heaven’s sake!

Anyway, that night, I'm still feeling slightly shaky and to help me feel better, Renegade makes me vegetable curry; he uses leaves from the curry plant at the hotel to make it.  Renegade is one of the most resourceful men I have ever met; there doesn’t seem to be much he can’t do.  Once he hears I’m ill, he heads off and gets me a coconut. 

Now, I’m in danger of developing a raving addiction to young coconuts.  Younger, green coconuts are filled with coconut water and the coconut flesh is so soft, it resembles a jelly.  Coconut water is filled with good stuff, if you want to know more, go here:

The flesh is delectable.  After about three of these coconuts, I’m convinced that we are missing out on something in New Zealand (yes I know there are coconuts there but we tend to get old ones). 

Coconuts are pretty much the most perfect fruit on earth, as far as I can tell.  Not only can it re-hydrate you and feed you, you can coconut milk from it and coconut oil.  You can use the husks to make paper and other fibers.

In the Philippines, coconut trees are called the Tree of Life.  It makes me wonder whether the tree developed because we needed it or did we evolve our bodies to make such good use of something already there…Scarlett and I talk on Monday night, discussing my various adventures from the weekend and how I’m doing.

“You need to be like the coconut; totally capable and able to self sustain if you want to survive here.  Or actually survive anywhere.  Be your own coconut, Sara.  Be totally resilient.  By being that, you will feed and sustain others around you.”

I'm not sure what it takes to be a good coconut in this life.  I guess I'll just have to hang on and find out.

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent or not so innocent, as in John's case.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Honiara Daze

It’s hot here…I mean really hot.  I grew up in a desert and I’m used to hot. I lived in Hawai’i and I got used to hot and humid...must have lost that in when I was living in Christchurch for so long.  But right now, right before the cyclone season is set to begin…I’m not going to lie to you.  It’s hot.  But the locals say that it is unusually hot right now (thank you El Nino, you disturbingly named little bastard southern oscillation system).    

I thought Hawai’i would prepare me for this place.  It didn’t.  In fact, I think the Solomons is hotter than Hawai’i right now.  Things that bothered me about Hawaii were the overenthusiastic use of air conditioners.  That doesn’t happen here; people can’t afford to put the A.C.  to a constant 20 degrees (77 ish).  So it’s easier to get used to the weather here because you just have to.  I am getting used to a whole new level of sweat pouring down my back and pit stains.  Fantastic.

The other thing was that in Hawai’i it felt like an uphill battle to make friends and meet people, while here, everyone is so friendly.  I get dinner invites and party invites all the time, simply because I’m new here.  People offer to take me to the beach or to the markets, perfect strangers.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so trusting…but they all seem to have good intentions.  I make more friends here in a week than I did in a month in Hawai’i.  Or six months in New Zealand.  It’s fantastic. 

Living off the markets is a real thrill.  I’m becoming an expert at okra stir fry and the new, fresh produce inspires me to try new things every time I visit.  The markets are open every day, even Sundays (the Seventh Day Adventist market).  I'm trying out new things each time I go there; I'm looking forward to trying the tapioca pudding next and seeing what I can do with cooking bananas (once I get an oven, of course).

Everything here seems to open up so easily, like a flower.  I always meet interesting people who have lived all over the world, sometimes in less than safe circumstances.  The stories these people tell are fascinating.

People are transient here and the locals are seem to be generally interested in new people so I think the combination of this is that  there is a real willingness to be open and lively.  There is music and bands playing here.  The singing is amazing and everyone seems to play guitar.  There is a great rhythm to the city. 

Last night, I went to Scarlett's birthday party.  It was filled with people and I get phone numbers and promises of snorkeling, sharing documents (I'm a disaster geek, deal with it), and invitations out to eat.  Scarlett is the life of the party, as always, and it's good to be there for her when she is so far from home.  I know all to well what it feels like to celebrate holidays and birthdays far from family and friends. I've lived that life for almost nine years. There is always a fear that no one will show up or care about those important dates.  

It's a very hard thing leaving your family and friends behind.  Scarlett's kiwi friend Greg* tells me I'm a vagrant, a person without country.  He's right, I no longer have any plans to settle anywhere; I have no idea what I'm going to do once this assignment is over.  For all I know I could end up in Afghanistan or Timbuktu...nothing is holding me to one place anymore.    

But right now, I just hope my birthday in March will be a similar size and liveness to Scarlett's.  It's something small but I'm a little hopeful.

Getting into the swing of things at work has been really good too. Every Monday and Friday, my host organization has devotionals.  The devotional starts with everyone in the building getting in a room together and singing religious songs.  There is a prayer, then a little thought that involves reading the Bible (usually about service) and a summary of the week’s events given by one of the senior management.  People share personal good news (births, marriages) and losses (deaths, leaving the organization). 

As a public servant, I have to say that I’ve never come across anything like it.  I’m a strong separation of church and state kind of girl, through and through. But it seems to unite everyone to take 30 minutes at the beginning and ending of each week to remind each other why we are here, why we do what we do.  I’ve only heard one person espouse the belief that the Solomons should be more governed by Christian laws.

After about 10 days of living in the Sanalae apartments, I was driven literally up the wall.  The room, while nice, is tiny and I spent far too many hours in it.  I love living out of one suitcase; I think one of the best things about being here is the challenge of having very little and making due.  It feel great to let go of material things (even shoes) and live as simply as possible.

Anyway, the next morning, I ask Rose*, who works at the hotel, if she would walk with me around the area.  She agreed and in the evening we walked through the lush hills. The valleys are filled with small huts and houses and people are friendly enough.  I get a lot of stares and a few honks from various cars filled with young men.  This happens a lot; being a single woman does have its downsides in Honiara. 

The loss of freedom does really get to me because it isn’t safe to walk alone at night and in some place, during the day by myself. I’m used to being on my own, doing my own thing and going out where I want to.  Here, it’s just not safe enough for women, especially an expat. Men have no problem whatsoever. It’s frustrating to me but I’m trying to make peace with it.

The next day, Rose leaves flowers in my hotel room as a gesture of friendship.  She knows I love flowers in my apartment; it makes the whole place come alive. 

I meet some of the other guests in the hotel and we agree to start a walking group in the evening.  The people are usually from the U.N. or working in development or social issues.  It’s great to talk to people who are as passionate about development as I am.  I fell in love with development when I was in Namibia.  For me, Namibia was one of the happiest times of my life. Now the concept of living without a television, washing machine or running water (at times, but mostly we had it), living in one of the largest deserts on earth may not appeal to many people but I loved it there. I believed in the work I was doing, met interesting people, read heaps of books, and lived a pretty basic life.  It filled me with a sense of peace and happiness I hadn't really felt before or really since.  I got the bug and it never went away.

From a philosophical standpoint, I guess what pushed me into development was the concept of choice.  I’m a big believer in people’s right to choice, whatever the issue is.  In developing countries, people’s choices are very limited. 

For so long, people here have only had one choice here: to live in a subsidence lifestyle due to poverty and isolation.  Those wanting other lives had no choice but to get out there and fish.  To me, development means access to choosing differently, which I think is a human right.   

Now, I don’t have some fantasy of making the Solomons Islands like N.Z. or the U.S…I don’t think those places are good places to emulate.  A consumer based society, while making people more comfortable, hasn’t made people happier and it isn't environmentally sustainable. At least as far as I can tell.

At some point I think everyone asks themselves: what is this silly old life about?  And hopefully, we all come up with the answers.  I guess you get to a point where you want your life to mean something; you want to make a positive contribution to the world, even if it is small. 

My life in N.Z. was pretty sweet; I had great friends, a great job and a good relationship.  But I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing anymore. I mean, sure, it was great being able to eat out every night if I wanted to and walking around alone at night was wonderful.  

But for me, there was another side to it that I had struggled with for a long time. I couldn’t just live to go out and get pissed (aka drunk) anymore.  Or live for the weekend because that’s when the parties are.  After awhile, I just found that life exhausting and, well, shallow.  I just felt like I was treading water and not getting very far in life.  For some people, that makes them perfectly happy and alive.  To me, something was always missing; a sense of purpose, of direction, of fulfillment.    

I miss running in Hagley Park, going to Fat Eddy’s on Tuesday night’s (open mic...oh how I miss you), playing music with my co-workers (shout out to Rowan and Nathan, you guys are o for awesome), my piano, fishing, my tramping group, RATS (the rescue team), climbing with friends, eating at Helen’s bach and Mr. Dot Dot (the cat).  

In the last ten months I was there, I was ALL over the city, taking cooking classes, boxing, running, going out to the museums, seeing live music, hanging out in Lyttleton and Banks Peninsula, and  going out almost every night to something new.  I felt like a free bird, able to go out and do what I wanted, when I wanted and I lapped up every moment of it.  I danced around my apartment to my music and decorated the place entirely in pink (well not really but it felt like it). I really did love it there during those last few months; I finally made peace with my city and it opened up to me too.

Maybe I expect too much out of life, that I need a constant adventure. Maybe it’s too much to expect that being here  will give me that.  I know people say to help locally first.  Around me, I saw all kinds of people who were sad or struggling in Christchurch but you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped and there were all kinds of walls built up around them.  I just became frustrated and disillusioned after awhile.  It was depressing to see and soul destroying to stay.   

Here, any work I do is met with gratitude; everything I do seems to be a small improvement on what was before.  The relationships feel real; people look you in the eye when they speak and they share their stories openly and willingly, without mistrust or hiding.  They don’t “spin” the stories their way; they just tell it like it is.  The openness is wonderful. There is a positivity that radiates here…a hope for something better.

And I guess that is the reason I am here.  I hope for something better for myself too.   

*Names changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.