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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Truer words were never written about 2010.  At least for me. 

2010 will go down as being one of the best years of my life.  Not because it was easy; hell no.  But because it was the year when everything changed.  Every aspect of my life turned upside down; I left my well paying job to become a volunteer, I moved countries, my marriage fell apart for good, it…was a very tumultuous time.  I can honestly say that this year has been the most transformative of my life.  I grew, changed, and freaked out with the best of them this year.  Blessing rained from heaven and I fell between the cracks of life for awhile.  

Things got pretty bleak, and then things got much, much better.

This is the year that I really had to face myself and all the really ugly things that I had been denying.  I had to dig deep and really learn something about loving myself more completely, to stop hiding in other people and enjoy my own life more fully. I took risks, huge risks.  I sold everything I own (pretty much) and lived out of one suitcase for five months.  I jumped without looking.  I took leaps of faith every day.   

I travelled around the world, made new friends, reconnected with the old ones, had some pretty amazing entanglements and ate some great cheese.  I reflected, screamed, raged, cried, sang, played and danced my heart out. 

I think the most important thing was to realize that I have very little control over things that happen.  I can only control my responses; everything else is beyond my control.  I think it is a completely delusion and a waste of time, now, to try and control anything. Life is messy; people do stupid stuff to each other all the time.  That’s part of being human; no one is perfect. What a boring place the world would be if we didn’t have conflict or make mistakes.     

Anyway, psychologists used to have a stress test with key indicators of stress and man, I scored the highest you could score in one year.  Technically I should be a basket case.  Or so emotionally cut off I can’t feel anything.  Or just be a bastard to everyone and blame everyone else for my problems.  Or drink myself under the table.  Or do all kinds of bad things to other people.  There are a thousand ways this could have played out for me.

I guess I chose a different path cause I don’t feel or do any of the above. I’m pretty sure I’m not a basket case.   

During challenging times, I guess you can choose to walk the bitter victim path of blame, anger, hatred and misery or a path of acceptance of responsibility, growth and change.  I chose the latter.   I figured out that you either learn and grow or you just stay the same bitter, horrible person you were.  And I couldn’t be that person anymore.

I remember one game changing moment came in early January. The old bed in my apartment had an interesting fault.  The slats would come unbalanced and the mattress would usually slip to one side.  You usually needed two people to adjust it and even then it was always a bit of challenge. So there I was, one January evening, contemplating my life, when CRACK, the bed slipped out and my face was suddenly facing the floor.

I panicked; I had never fixed the bed alone before.  After about an hour of trying to adjust it the old way, with a partner, I gave up.  I sat in the middle of my bedroom floor and I cried.  I didn’t know how to live this new life alone.  My face turned bright red and I just wailed with frustration, anger, loss and grief. Then suddenly, everything became really calm and still.  I realized that the reality of me being in a couple no longer existed; no one was going to help me out.

No one was worried if I didn’t come home for dinner or if I was stressed out at work. I had no one.  I had lost not only my husband but my dear in-laws who had been such a supportive, loving family over the years.  I was 20,000 miles from my family, in a foreign country, completely alone. Those things hit me hard. Before that moment with the bed, I had been full of bravado and anger; enough to be really cut off from the reality of the situation. Now, I felt the full impact of the loss, wanting to sink into the deepest hole on earth.

And suddenly, in the storm of self pity, came this calm. 

I got up, pulled the mattress completely off the slats.  I picked up the slats and put it firmly back into place. I put the mattress back.  I tidied the bed and it all took me less than two minutes. I went to sleep.  I woke up the next morning and realized that I could do this; I could be alone.  I could manage on my own; I didn’t need anyone else to fix things for me or prop me up.

This revelation was pretty awesome; in that moment, I knew that despite the ups and downs, I would come out of things okay. But if I was going to do this right, I was going to have to stop running and face things full on.  I made a promise with myself that I wouldn’t try to cover up my feelings, I would ask for help and I would feel my way through every moment of the process.  I had to accept that the life I had known was gone forever and the future was a complete gray area of no guarantees.

Was it always that easy? Nope, there have been dark, dark days indeed. Has it been scary? Absolutely mind numbingly terrifying.  Have I wished things were different sometimes? Sure, I play that game.  I wouldn’t say that I’m happier than I have ever been but I’d like to think, I hope, I pray, that I’m smarter, wiser, more loving and independent.        

People say that everything happens for a reason.  I think that’s far too tidy a sentiment.  Or that everything that happened is meant to happen.  I still think that’s a heap of bollocks as well.  I think it’s better to say that something happened, you made a choice and you can learned something from it.  That you won’t repeat the same mistakes or hurt people the same again.  I think, for me, that is much healthier. 

When my dad came over last December, we went on a brilliant road trip together around the South Island.  Dad is sort of my spiritual guru; I trust him completely.  He is very loving and forgiving of people, even when they don’t do what he thinks is best for them.  As we went through the countryside, we listened to a LOT of music together but one song was a favorite from the Mountain Goats.  The lyric he loved the best was:

“I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.”

We both laughed and laughed.  When I said goodbye to him at the airport, he told me that I would have a rough year.   I sort of didn't believe him; I thought I was totally over it.  I was wrong. 

He said he felt that through the year I would be sad, frustrated and alone.  But he smiled and said that I was going to make it through the year, even if it did kill me.   Later, in October, we spent a lot of hours together.  He put his arms around me and said “Kid, you made it through the hell year; I’m proud of you. It will all get better now. Trust in God and trust in that.”

He was right; I had turned a corner.  I felt it in my bones; the years of sadness, anger and isolation were over; now it was time to celebrate the coming through of a great ordeal and to start a new.

I am truly grateful to all the friends, family, lovers and strangers that carried me through this interesting time of change.  I could not have done this without you.  And despite all my self love, independent blah blah blah diatribes, I did lean on all of you quite a lot.  So thank you.

And thank you, 2010.  You have occasionally been a bitch of a year but I can honestly say, I’m glad I lived through you. I had some of the best moments of my life this year; such amazing highs! And less amazing stuff too.

2011 already appears to be a much more stable year; Casa Turchese is going to be in full swing (Marco is going to put in an outside wood fire pizza oven!!! Tessa going to help me train for a 21 k in Bali in May), more travel is in the cards (Bali, back to N.Z. in October probably!), kittens abound, new hobbies (hello Karate, mural painting, guitar and Melanesian cooking), new languages (hello Italian, pidgin, and catching up on my French!) and many new adventures await.

Already I know one thing about being here in the Solomons: it is wasn't what you expect.  I don't think I could ever work hard enough to balance out, as a thank you to this place, everything that I have learned already about myself from being here. 

I hope you have a year, sometime, like 2010.  Not because I hate you but because of how much I hope you will grow through meeting some pretty big challenges.  Sometimes you need certain things to happen in your life to humble you.  I can honestly say I have MUCH more empathy in my heart than I did a year ago.

So if you do have a year like this one, I hope you chose a path of kindness and forgiveness, love and empathy, strength and occasionally being a bad ass. If you do have one of those years, email me; I’ll be a support person. Cause I’ve been there.  And because I owe the universe some pretty big favours. 

I thank you, 2010! I hold you in my heart with much affection; loving and respecting the past and looking forward to a new year.

Till 2011,

S     


  

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Santa Nightmare



I'm scared of Santa.  Here is why.

Okay, so here is something that very few people know about it.  As a little kid, about 12 years old, I played Santa Claus in the school play.  This play was about Santa losing weight and getting healthy.  To clarify for any confused readers, yes, I am a girl. 

Now a couple things happened during the play.  First, I got a horrific case of strep throat right before the performance.  I went on anyway. Secondly, because I was wearing so much padding, my pants fell down during a crucial running scene.  In front of 500 people.  Luckily I had on black leggings.  But still; not cool for a 12 year old girl.

I was in the play with a sidekick, my buddy Mike.  Recently he got back in touch (thank you Facebook, you are occasionally an awesome thing) and he reminded me of the play, which involved copious amounts of twinkies and other food that I had to eat.  He also reminded me that I stole the part from him. 

But what is awesome about this, as a sidenote, is how cool my sidekick buddy turned out to be when he got older.  He is now an the armed forces, serving his country and generally doing cool things.  And while I’m not one for serving my country through military means, I respect his service.  Its cool to see people grow up around you and achieve amazing things; even if you beat them out of a part in a play almost 20 years ago.  
Plus, Mike, if you are reading this…there is no way you had the lungs for Santa.  Just sayin. J

Why is this relevant to Christmas this year?  It’s not.  Or it is…I don’t know.  I’ve always had a pretty love/hate relationship with Christmas.  I haven’t had a Christmas at home with my parents since 2004.  Why? Because its bloody expensive to fly from where I have lived back home to the states during Christmas time. And it is HUGE hassle.

Also, mostly during Christmas, everyone seems really unpleasant and stressed out; too strung out of candy canes and sugar plums to really chillax and enjoy the season.  The other Christmas’s were spent at my ex’s family house, which was really lovely and I have good memories of ye olde Christmas BBQs and drinks…very, very good memories.

Last year I spent Christmas with my friend Louise and her miniature donkey and 14 alpacas.  My theory was that if I was going to have a weird Christmas, I was going to make it all out weird.  Her family was so lovely and welcoming (I got gifts even! Wahoo!) that it didn’t feel like a weird Christmas at all.  Thank you so much, Louise and family.

Even still, the many years of living overseas in a warm climate has taken something out of Christmas for me.  And this year, there were no miniature donkeys to cheer me up.  To rub salt in the wound, I had to go pick up all the Christmas packages for my fellow volunteers and I didn't have ONE.  Not one.  After years of living overseas, I've gotten used to getting left off the Christmas card list, but still.  One card or letter might have been nice.

So with this in mind, I wasn’t in the Christmas mood this year.  I’m far away from home and slightly grumpy about most of my mates clearing out of town to be with their families for Christmas.  Sorry but I’m needy and shallow occasionally. Or often.

Anyway, I got the job of hand delivering Christmas Cards this year to my host organisation’s partners.  Honestly, I didn’t want to bring on the shiny, fake smile but I agreed to do it.  As I visited the partners, I began to realize all the amazing work these people do every day.  I smiled and delivered the cards with my colleague, Tina.  I said “Me hope you garem goodfella Christmas and New Yai”…to everyone I met. 

I began to feel this lightness.  My smile didn’t feel so fake; I felt the happiness come from naturally.  And the people around me changed too; before I was intimidated by some people but they warmed up to me like a snow man on a beach in Honiara.

I went to places where they are helping manufacture soap with local communities and I bought some as gifts.  The next was farming, naturally and sustainably, sponges from Western Province (I bought some too).  And so on…the work really inspired me from earlier in the week where I had started to become disenchanted with those expats taking advantage. 

I saw the other side of the work we do; the good stuff, the smiling people and the great community projects.  Development can and DOES work and there are a whole group of people here who do this work every day.  I am proud to call myself one of them.  I am so glad I accepted this role, although it did come with its share of sacrifices. 

And isn't this what Christmas is about? Helping others, being kind and loving to each other?  Serving our fellow men?  Some do it by coming here, or singing carols at home or fighting for their country (like Mike) or feeding orphans in India.  Or being a stay at home mum or dad, who serves their family.  And so many other roles.  Maybe its just as simple as sharing a smile, an email, a letter or kind words.

And sure, sometimes we get roles that we are happy to play.  That makes it easy to be smiley and happy.  But sometimes we get stuck with roles that we never want.  But how we embrace the challenge of all these roles is what really makes or breaks the experience.

I wish you all a happy upcoming Christmas, wherever on the planet you are.  I will let you know how the expat Christmas events go (I believe there is a three day party I am going to attend.  Pray that I survive).

May you all have a very Merry Christmas and may your pants never fall down in front of 500 people.  

Seriously, I still have nightmares (maybe I should have let Mike have the part after all…).


P.S. My mother would like everyone to know that twinkies are of the devil and should never be eaten.  According to her they are as toxic as a cigarette.  She said that once in church and was almost run out of Relief Society (a women’s group) by an angry mob…ah Mom…anyway, don’t eat twinkies.  
S

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Exodus

Over the next couple of days, Honiara begins to clear out completely of expats and locals alike.  The office only has a handful of people left and its pretty quiet.  Everyone is ready for Christmas break.

Before that happens, the three amigos, Tessa, Marco and myself go out to dinner at a French couple’s house, Celine and Arneau.  It’s a great meal and a good time; French, Italian and English are all spoken liberally throughout the meal.  My French is still shaky but I get the drift of most things.    

One of the wonderful things about holidays is access to vehicles left behind.  I was lucky enough to grab one; a lovely little Toyota Hilux, which I love so much, I am considering orchestrating some kind of “accident” of its owner.  Just kidding.  Sort of.

Anyway, Honiara is EXTREMELY difficult to navigate around in at night time.  There are no streetlights, no road markers, no signs…nothing.  It’s pretty much a road (and often times barely that) and that is it.  Pedestrians walk in the centre of the road and are typically impossible to see due to the dark clothing.  It’s amazing I haven’t hit anyone; I worry about that all the time.  There are many small panicky moments with the Hilux; it is much bigger than anything I have ever driven before and I am a horrible backer upper. Or at least I thought I was; I’m actually better than I thought!

The week is spent saying farewell to my new, dear friends.  At the airport while dropping off my friend Tessa, I experience a whole new level of queuing…literally we wait for two hours to get her checked in.  Now, I know that things go at a slower pace here than back in good old New Zealand or the U.S. but really…I mean seriously the line wasn’t that long and there were three people at the desk.  Seriously, they could use some kind of efficiency experts here or something.  One couple I knew took forty minutes to get through (due to excess baggage).
(Editor's Note: In the original posting, I had a very large rant about certain expats.  At the time, I felt I just needed to vent some perceptions that I had.  However, it has come to my attention that some people, who were never considered when writing this post, took it personally.  I have never intended to hurt or offend anyone with this blog; the work the expats do here is amazing and I am honored to be counted amongst these people.  My sincerest apologies to anyone who felt as if I was personally attacking them or their lifestyle, it was never my intention.  I have deleted this rant not only because of other people but because on reflection, I felt myself that it was an unfair and overly critical assessment. For that, I apologise. Hey, nobody's perfect, especially not the author of this blog!!!!)

Anyway, the rest of the week was all about trying to deal with the transition of moving from my little hotel room in Sanalae, working and hanging out with Steve, a volunteer from Choiseul.  Steve’s experience is VERY different than mine; don’t worry, he is writing his guest blog as I write mine, so more on him later. 

I’m sad to be leaving Sanalae; the people are so lovely there and I learned so much.  Like washing all my clothes by hand.  Or how to make sticky cabbage soup.  Or how the people who worked there walked and talked with me about what was going on in their village or settlement.  So thank you Sanalae; it’s true, you were just for the time being.  And it was a wonderful, interesting time of transition. 

Until the next bloggie, hope you and yours are happy, healthy and loving where you are at.

S

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Solomon Island Recipe of the Week-Fish Curry, baby!

Hi Everyone,


Because I lack any real cooking facilities until I move into Casa Turchese (Jan. 7th! Woot!), my dear friend Helen has kindly volunteered her kitchen and cooking skills. She even New Zealandised the recipe...here is her review of last week's recipe:


Who can resist trying out a recipe with “Slippery Cabbage” in the title?  Unfortunately I had no slippery cabbage, let alone a puzzle of it, but I did have a three-week-old remnant of red cabbage sitting forlornly on the bench (Editor's note: Clearly my bad behavior re: ignoring my cabbage for weeks on end has rubbed off on poor Helen.  Anyway, continue on).  For a low saturated fat option I went with a can of coconut flavoured evaporated milk (like a true kiwi dairy lass), a curious mix, but quite tasty and much easier than scooping out coconuts themselves (I imagine, having never scooped out a coconut)(Editor's note: I have...its hard work!).  In went the finely sliced red cabbage, some chopped red onion, a dash of chilli powder, a chopped tomato and some spring onion (no shallots in cupboard either) (Editor's rant: THE OUTRAGE! NO SHALLOTS! WHAT KIND OF SHODDY CHEF ARE YOU, HELEN???), finished off with a generous sprinkling of salt.  Result: a tasty purple soup (Editor's note: ala Bridget Jones, who made blue soup.)  To my surprise the soup was just as nice reheated gently the following day for lunch.  Am looking forward to more recipes and will be stocking up on coconut flavoured evaporated milk in anticipation.


Okay that's the review.  If you want to give this recipe a go, here is the link to last week's recipe:
http://stilettosinsolomons.blogspot.com/2010/12/solomon-island-recipe-of-week.html


Many thanks to Helen!


Now for this week's Solomon Island Recipe:


Fish Curry with Tomatoes:
You will need:

  • 1 medium size fish (fresh fish/Snapper/Yellow fin tuna/Trout...whatever, it has to be fishy)
  • 2 table spoons of curry powder
  • 2 table spoons of oil (I think sesame seed oil would be nice with this but I have a fondness for the stuff...up to you, really)
  • Tomatoes (go nuts...really, the recipe says any amount...)
  • 1 bush lime (or a regular lime...bush lime is like regular lime only wild...WILD LIME!)
How to prepare:
1. Pour yourself a gin and tonic.  You will thank me for it later.
2. Cut tomatoes into desired size (I have no idea what this means....I guess quarter the suckers)
3. Heat oil and add curry, stir under low heat.
4. Add tomatoes, stir...stir like the wind, damn you!
5. Add fish into the mixture; stir to allow mixture to coat the fish.
6. Cook them very slowly on low fire (I assume that means heat but in the Solomons, it DOES usually mean fire) till the fish is cooked.
7.  Add salt/pepper to taste.
8.  Make sure to eat the fish head.  I'm a big advocate of eating fish heads; they are tasty and highly underrated. The eyes are especially yumtastic!
9.  Pour another gin and tonic and/or mojito.

That's this week's recipe...next week: Christmas Feast: Solomon Style!

Till then, wear you stilettos and keep rockin on.

S




Monday, December 13, 2010

Hash Addiction

Normally I don’t blog back to back but I made an exception today.

Remember in the other bloggies, I said that expats are weird?  The event on Monday night proved it to me FOREVER.

I lucked out and received an invite to a running group called the Hash.  Now, I had heard snippets of about the Hash group but I hadn’t had the time to go.  In Hawai'i, I heard tales of a running group that ran for a mile, then drank a pint of beer, then ran another mile etc...for about ten miles.  I believe that these urban legends were trying to explain the Hash.

After some miscommunication about the location of the Hash, I was off in my truck, zooming through the streets of Honiara, wearing my stinky workout clothes.  Along the way, I got heaps of hoots and hollers from the local boys; apparently they aren't too used to seeing a girl drive a truck alone. 

Finally I roll up near the beach with Marco.  A crowd has assembled amongst stakka four wheel drive trucks and utes.  All are wearing athletic gear, many are wearing hash t-shirts.  There are a few kids and adults of various ages and sizes. I walk up, the last to arrive, hoping to understand what this hashing business is all about.

The Hash Hound Harriers is an organization of long standing and fine tradition.  It started in December 1938, in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.  It started as a way for members to “get rid of the excesses of the weekend” e.g. a hangover cure.  The race aspect of hashing is that someone starts off as a hare and everyone else are the hounds and we have to give chase.  The hare’s trail is determined by markings; typically paper.  In this case, it was shredded paper resembling snow.

The run starts off fairly easy and I keep up okay; it had been about four months since my last run.  The heat doesn’t bother me too much at first but within five minutes I’m covered in sweat.  My new flatmate, Tessa, runs beside me; unfortunately for me, Tessa has run five marathons and totally outpaces me.

After about ten minutes, my calves are burning, I'm sweating buckets and completely out of breath. I decide to give up the run and go with the walkers. As I head back, the tail end Charlie person of the group, a guy with a huge grey beard, screams at me that the entire running group is going the wrong way and I have to run back to tell them.  I make chase, screaming that they had to go back; finally the runners believe me.  By then, the walking group was well and truly ahead of me and I was stuck running a six kilometer run.

The run itself was an adventure; over small trails, through villages, running behind people’s houses, over rickety bridges and along the road.  The villagers were very friendly, helping us find our way.  Many of the young men joined us and the children laughed and ran with us part of the way.  One little girl, wearing a pink t-shirt and a black skirt, keeps up with me and Marco the whole way, running fast and laughing.

I was at the end of the group, chugging along and Marco joined me, not wanting me to run alone.  About halfway through, I was pretty thirsty.  We passed a coconut stand and bought two coconuts, walking while we drank deeply.  Coconut water is fantastic; it’s like a sports drink without all the sugar.  When we finished, we chucked the used coconut into the bush and started running, faster and stronger than before.

We ran through a palm oil plantation; huge palm trees created a canopy over our heads.  Finally we got to the beach.  The water was completely smooth, like a lake and the sun was setting beautiful behind the mountains and the sand was golden.  It was very scenic but exhausting to run through. 

We finally arrived to the Hash area, where I was inducted to the Hash organization.  The Hash circle was formed and the organization was explained to me a bit more.

The Constitution of the Hash House Harriers is recorded on a club registration card dated 1950:
  • ·         To promote physical fitness among our members
  • ·         To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • ·         To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • ·         To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel

For many expats, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s the only way to get outside the compounds and run safely in numbers.

In the circle, they offered us a beer. Beer is an important part of the Hash; on many Hash events there are beer stops at certain points.  Members often describe their group as "a drinking club with a running problem but the Honiara group is family friendly and no one gets too pissed.  New members are forced to drink beer as quickly as possible (although you can ask for soda).

Everyone gets in a circle, and funny songs are sung and people are humiliated.  It’s all very British and all in good fun.  

We end the Hash evening with a meal at Taj Mahal; the premier Indian restaurant of Honiara and suck down curry and lime drinks.

I get home, happy, sweaty and full of Indian food, looking forward to my next Hash event. 


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ch ch ch ch Changes...

Man, things progress quickly in Honiara.

At the beginning of the week, I was stuck in my tiny, oppressive little hotel room, feeling a bit sorry for myself, feeling a little homesick and fragile.  By the end of the week, my life was sort of magically transformed.

It all started with a little pasta party at my friend Tessa’s house.  Tessa and I had sort of been playing with the idea of moving in together (sorry not in a sexy way), with Marco, our other Italian friend. 

The house Tessa lives in is amazing; the woodwork is spectacular and it is shaped like a chalet; an odd design for Honiara.  She greets me at the door and tells me the house next door is for rent and in our price range.  I take a look and immediately fall in love, with what has now been dubbed, “Casa Turchese”(Turquoise House). 

The name stuck because of the alarmingly bright blue paint on the outside of the house and also because of the amazing sea views from the balcony and two bedrooms.  The master suite, which is mine, has a huge bed, ensuite, and again, an ocean view with the islands and hills in the background.

Along for the site visit is two Australian blokes, who volunteer to come with me and ask the technical questions so that I don’t make any rash decisions.  I tend to go with my gut on things and well, that hasn’t always worked out so well.  They ask sound questions of the landlord about power, water, and security. 
But no matter what the answers might have been, I knew within five minutes this house would have to be mine.  Before I arrived in Honiara, I had all these plans to get a kitten, grow a garden, learn to cook great food and get an expat family around me.  I was disappointed that it hadn’t worked out that in Sanalae but I tried to accept it for what it was rather than what I wish it would be.

I go back with the Aussie boys and tell Tessa my decision.  Tessa isn’t as rash as me but she is excited too at the possibility. 

The pasta party turns out to be a real treat; the company is fantastic and I make some more new friends.  But I can’t stop thinking about the house; houses like that go QUICK in Honiara.  I stalk my work mates at the host organization to get things sorted as quickly as possible.

Tessa hums and haws a bit but commits early on.  Marco took some convincing; living with two singles girls in their 30s must be a daunting thing for a single guy but he eventually came around.

The house is secured with a contact and all issues with the house (wonky staircase, bizarre layout of the downstairs bathroom) are quickly resolved.  The landlord will allow us to paint a mural to cover up the downstairs (Tessa is a beautiful artist and is currently taking painting lessons from a local man to master Melanesian art).   

The landlord promises us not one but TWO kittens.  His cat just had kitten yesterday and will give them over to us after Christmas. 

There is a great space for a little garden and wild cherry tomatoes and pumpkins are already growing.  For Tessa it is ideal; her last place is across the street and her old flatmate, Elsa, promises to visit daily. 
This is the place I have dreamt about. 

I was so excited; I got sick the following day and had to go in for a malaria test.  I went to a local clinic that was basic but clean.  The nurse stuck my finger and put a bit of blood on a slide. It took about 15 minutes and the results, thank goodness, were negative.  My local doctor was named Lazarus, which I think is probably the best name for a doctor ever. He is kind and efficient and gives me an antibiotic for a sinus infection. 

After an afternoon in bed, I feel much better and start getting up the courage to do something I had been avoiding: the PADI course.

Now, those who know me well know that I have what one might define as an extreme and irrational fear of sharks. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate sharkies; in fact I am fascinated by them.  I’m the first person to sit on the couch and watch Shark Week on Discovery Chanel.  I find them to be beautiful creatures that are sadly facing extinction due to overfishing and destruction of their environment.

I just never, ever want to meet one in the water. 

I take a deep breath.  I pick up the phone and call for my lesson.  The Solomon Islands has some of the best dive spots in the world, due to the plethora of ship wrecks, water clarity, marine environment and temperature of the water.

I sign up and hope for the best.

The next day, its another party, this time for the younger Australian volunteers.  It’s a hot night and a huge thunderstorm is hanging around, just over the water.  The thunder sounds like God is playing pool upstairs.  We talk the night away and before I realize it, it is midnight already and this girl is about ready to turn into a pumpkin.

During Christmas time, it is a veritable gauntlet of parties; one almost every night and new people to always meet.

I realize that it may seem like all I do here is party or go on amazing adventures, but I do actually do some work.  I chose not to write about it much because a) I don’t want my host organization to be embarrassed by this blog (or me) and b) its boring.  Who wants to read a blog about work?

But here is a moderately funny story. Today, I got invited to cover a signing of an important agreement between my host organization and another country.  As a comms person, I’m used to sitting the background, joking with the reporters and making friends with camera guys, listening to the radio jounros complain that they don’t get the same access as the t.v. crews…. But not this time; I was dragged up, front and centre, to represent my organization.  Now, I was wearing my organisation’s polo shirt and a pair of shorts, with jandels, no makeup and legs that hadn’t been shaved in a couple of days.

Now, the host country is very…formal.  So let’s just say I felt completely out of place and I inwardly scolded myself; the problem is here it is hard to dress fancy because the sweat wrecks your nice clothes so quickly.  So yeah, I looked like a university student in finals week.  I vow to step up the work wardrobe…
After that, the weekend perked up quite a lot with another party on Friday night and a beach party on Saturday.  We went to Kangaroo Point, where there is a lovely little house that you can rent for the day and you get the whole beach to yourself. 

We swam in the clear water and created a lovely flotilla of mismatched floaty thingys and gently drifted in the Pacific, with cool beer and good company.  I sit on the beach talking to friends and see a sword fish jump out of the water.  I'm the only one who sees it; everyone else turns around, looks, sees the wake and thinks I'm probably mad.

In the evening, the fire wood was brought out and a we sat around the bon fire, which worked pretty well until the skies poured down rain.  There was something pretty romantic about sitting next to the fire and getting soaked at the same time, with the waves lapping softly in the background. 

The next day was pretty much the same; we went to Bonege Beach.  Now, if there was one famous spot to snorkel and dive in in Honiara, it would be this one. There is a lovely sunken boat there and an artificial reef was created.  Sea urchins and brain coral have attached themselves to the bottom of the ship floor and through it sides.  I’m a bit nervous; the water near the beach is cloudy and the waves are slightly higher than I typically feel comfortable with.

Marco and Tessa stay with me the whole time and we make it over the bow of the ship.  Tessa holds my hand as we swim over the bow of the ship. The ship’s bow comes out like ribs from the ocean’s floor.  As I look below me, the whole thing feels like swimming in a gigantic fish tank.  Tessa grins as she see clown fish swimming in and out of a sea creature’s tendrils. After five minutes or so, I let Tessa's hand go; I felt absolutely silly holding her hand but it did make me feel more at ease.

When we surface she tells me why she loves the little clown fish so much.

“When I was back home, the school I worked with didn’t have enough money to go to the aquarium.  So I hosted a big party and called it “Funding Nemo”.  We made enough money that night to fund not one but TWO trips to the aquarium,” she grins broadly.
 
The ship's rusty old stack rise high about the ocean and local kids happily scale the structure and jump off from the top.  There are lots of people there; it’s a favorite diving and swimming spot.    

After the swim, we sun ourselves and dry off.  The beaches here are mostly rocky and have loads of shell and broken coral.  Note: if you come here, reef shoes are a very good idea!

I’m off to the airport; I’m dropping a colleague off and in return getting their truck for six weeks!   I am beyond excited at this point to be getting my own wheels.

I miss my Jeepie; a little Suzuki I picked up in Christchurch.  This year, after four months of not having any vehicle, I broke down and bought Jeepie.  It was an important purchase for me; it was the first vehicle I ever picked out myself.  I picked it because I wanted to be able to go anywhere; I wanted the freedom of doing what I wanted, when I wanted.  And I got exactly that.  Jeepie was a great symbol and it made me feel just good having her.

The new truck has that same feeling.  The environmentalist inside of me hates to admit it but I simply LOVE driving a truck.  I love the feeling of riding high and the visibility.  I like the feeling of power as well.  It makes all the men here smile when they see me, quite a short woman, climb behind the wheel and take off.

After the truck pick up, was a get together at a woman’s house to look at local art.  Many people are going home for Christmas (I’m not, I’m braving the orphan Christmas once again!) and they want gifts.  The artist’s work is beautiful; he works in three different media: carving, drawing, and painting.  His carvings are really, really special; he uses ebony and rosewood as well as stone.  He inlays shell to beautiful effect and has some 
real unique pieces. 

I don’t buy from him but enquire if he would consider doing a flying fish tattoo design for me (it’s something I’ve been toying with for awhile).  I like the concept of a flying fish; it’s such a unique, beautiful creature and I think it fits me.  He seems excited at the idea and I take down his phone number.  Time will tell if I have enough courage and/or desire to actually do it. 

The day ends with a visit with the new kittens.  Tessa and I pick a brother and sister; one is white with calico spots and the other is fully tabby with beautiful orange throughout her fur.  They are very small; only two weeks old but already the white one is showing his personality.  He talks a lot and playfully fights with his litter mates.  The little girl is the runt of the litter; small and petite and is quite shy but very laid back.  I can’t wait to bring them home. 

In the evening, we have a pasta feast by Tessa and some friends sit around the table talking about life and passion.  A great week, to be sure.

So from last Monday to this were monumental changes in my life.  My Solomon Island family grows; I have a beautiful home, great friends, kittens, a truck and am going to be exploring the underwater world. 
I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it is my constant worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (I mean, who can resist his noodlie appendages and the correlation between pirates and climate change?) or my belief that if are going in the right direction, things just work for you. Blessings rain from heaven. Whatever it is, I am so grateful.

I can’t take credit for any of it; I’m just a very lucky fish. 

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." -Anais Nin

Till next time,

S

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Solomon Island Recipe of the Week

Recently, I discovered my host organisation has published its own Solomon Island local recipe book. So I thought I'd add a new feature to this blog by posting one Melanesian recipe per week.  Eventually I hope to actually try them but my small kitchen won't allow for much experimentation.

I do however have some great news on that front; last night at the pasta party I went to, I secured a house and not one BUT two Italian flatmates, Marco and Tessa.  The house, which is across from the house the party was at, is beautiful; wood paneling, huge kitchen, and the most beautiful ocean view.  I am so excited!!!

So without further ado, the Solomon Island recipe of the week is:

Slippery Cabbage Soup
  • One puzzle (bundle) slippery cabbage
  • 2 dry coconuts for cream milk (or just a can of coconut milk)
  • One onion
  • Two red fruit chillies
  • Three long shallots
  • Tomatoes (one handful)
1. Scrape and squeeze coconut milk and put to boil (or boil milk from the can)
2. Add chopped onions
3. Cut slippery cabbage twice only and add into boiling milk until half cooked
4. Smash chillies and add onto soup
5. Add sliced tomatoes
6. Cut up the shallots and add to soup, simmer until well cooked
7.  Add salt to taste

And that's it.  Enjoy!     

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Tao of the Expat

On Saturday, it is bright and sunny; perfect day to finally do some laundry.  The laundry machine was already full of washing, so I talked Mary*, the hotel maid, to do some hand washing with me.  Most washing here is done by hand; washing machines are rare. If you go to the beach on Sunday, the rivers are filled with women doing washing; chatting, splashing and laughing while clean clothes dry on the rocks.

Now, I’m not stranger to washing some things by hand but this is a completely different deal; I have a LOT of laundry to do due to the brown water weeks and well, it’s just piled up.  Mary shows me how to effectively wash the whites: spot cleaning with bleach.  There are soap suds everywhere and the great smell of clean washing.  It’s pretty strenuous work though, I break a sweat in the first five minutes of scrubbing, squeezing and sloshing the clothes around.

Mary is endlessly patient with me; I’m much slower than her.  Her movements are expert, rhythmic and her arms are well muscled from years of this work.  For every item of clothes I do, she finishes three.  She checks my work and points out spots that are always an issue on clothes.  Mary is excellent at quality control.     

After the washing comes the rinsing and drying out on the clothes hanger.  I never had a dryer in N.Z., so I had to learn to dry out the clothes on a line or clothes horse.  The effect is better and there is less damage to the clothes over time.

The great thing about handwashing clothes is the company.  Mary tells me a bit about her life; married at 17, six kids and a grandmother at 37.  She smiles and says that she has had a good life and her little pikininis (children and babies) are now grown up.  Originally from Malaita, she moved here in the 1980s but left during the tension.  We sit around and gossip for awhile; it’s a great way to spend a Saturday morning and I have to admit that I can’t wait for next weekend to do the washing.  I’m a total convert to the concept of hand washing; it saves energy, water and its good exercise and its actually quite fun, but probably if you only have a small amount to do. 

Despite enjoying the amenities of the hotel, I’m on the hunt for a shared house.  I’ve been mixing pretty well in the ex-pat community here and I think it’s time for me to make the jump and live with some other people.

On Sunday, I get an invite to go swimming at the Heritage Hotel with some friends.  The hotel is supposedly the only five star hotel in Honiara, but I wouldn’t consider it close to a five star hotel.  Maybe a three and a half star but that would be pushing it.  The day is overcast and grey but the pool is warm.  I jump in with my friends just as it is starting to rain.  The rain comes down in mad sheets, hitting the pool water, creating an amazing effect.  It looks like a thousand jewels plopping on the water.  It’s a great experience; the wind really picked up, causing a brilliant wave action on the pool. 

In the evening, we stay on in the hotel, sipping on gin and tonics and eating pizza, sharing about our lives.  As we talk, I am beginning to see a pattern emerge about expats (caution: generalities are about to used liberally.  Yes, there are exceptions to these patterns.  No, it is not a perfect science.  Chill.)

Anyway, expats seem to share a couple of common traits.  Everyone I talk to seems to have some sort of mixed background. For instance, I have a French mother and an American father and lived in N.Z. for about nine years or so.  Marco*, a lovely Italian man from Rome, has a French mother (we practice our French on each other) and an Italian father (my Italian is pretty poor but I think I gave a convincing Bueno Nueto when we said goodbye that night).  He was also born in Egypt.  My good friend, Tessa* has two Italian parents, but her father was born in Italy and spoke French most of his life. And it goes on…expats tend to have a weird, mixed upbringing.  We tend to not come from homogenous backgrounds.

We moved around, at least once, as kids.  We tend to not stay in one place for very long.  We also tend to like to do other things than just work; playing music, diving, running, being physical, painting, writing…expats always seem to have 100 and 1 hobbies going on.

We don’t seem to like the place we are originally from or at least we don’t feel like we belong there.  The exception in Marco, who loves Rome and hopes to live there again one day.  There is a constant feeling of a lack of home; I feel it myself.  I have no idea where home is anymore or how to define it to myself.  But most expats I talk to seem to feel the same way; there is a sense of homelessness that persists.

We all seem to understand that the way of the expat is a pretty lonely one; assignments last one year to three years and then moving on from beloved friends or relationships.  We are a transient group, moving on quickly from place to place, leaving loved ones behind. 

So I wonder what drives an expat?  Tessa and I both agree that sometimes, a place just kicks you out.  She got kicked out of Washington D.C. and I got kicked out of Canterbury.  Sometimes a place just doesn’t want you around anymore or there is nothing more left to do in that one location.

You sort of feel like that character in that movie I can’t remember; looking in at a house full of people, a warm, big family group. You want to join in, to be a part of it but you just don’t know how.  I don’t know how to live in a house, day in and day out, in the same relationship, same place, and same job for years on end and stay perfectly happy or content.  Neither does anyone around the table.  

Anyway, expats like variety.  Variety is the spice of life and I truly believe it.  All of us have had a variety of jobs, relationships, homes and lived in different countries.   We like to try different cuisine; often the conversation degenerates to “what’s the weirdest food you’ve eaten”.  Typically, rat on a stick in Vietnam or barbecued tarantula from Mexico wins pretty quickly. 

So yeah…we are kinda freakish in nature.  Sure, it would be great to have a home and kids and the whole thing, we all agree.  But we just don’t know HOW we could live that way forever.  Some people make it work and take their families with them.   But it’s a difficult thing, to strike out and live a different kind of life.  I used to take a lot of pride in my weirdness, and then I felt shame. Now I just accept it as a part of my nature. I’m a free spirit, it’s who I am.

There is a strangeness about being here; I feel like I’m finally with MY people.  My expat people, people who get me, who get the desire to try new things and new countries and speak new languages.  People who understand failure and profound loneliness.  People who know what it’s like to spend orphan Christmas’s and Thanksgivings away.   People who argue about futures markets and maternal/child health issues in the same conversation.  I have to admit that I feel a little lost sometimes, even with them. My brain was sort of stagnant for so long, it feels like an electrical shock to the system.  Like I was this thirsty plant and now I am soaking up water madly, almost too much.

As the week rolls on, I step outside my little hotel room and notice two strangers looking at some geckos on the wall.  I sit down, looking at the cooked fish head and invite the pair over.  To be honest, I’ve never eaten a fish head before and I’m a little nervous, so I look forward to the company.  The pair are from Australia, a father and daughter out on an adventure.  

The dad is a psychologist and the girl is studying ecology. We sit and discuss the “tao” of the expat, what makes someone want to leave their home and travel around the world.  

We break out our twin bottles of Islay whisky and start on a rambling conversation that goes late in to the night. Paul* helps me theorize about what makes expats into the weird human beings they are.  We discuss love and egos, transitions, change and growth.   I won't bore you, my faithful reader, on all the insights gleaned that night but I will give you some snippets that I find relevant right now.

We talk about the myth of martyrdom and how toxic it can be for expats, let alone normal people.  That concept of saving the world and changing people around them by sacrificing personal happiness.  I tell him that I feel I am getting more out of this experience, being here in the Solomon Islands, than I am giving into it.  I ask him if that is a good way to feel.

“Yes, I think it is very healthy because you reek of a martyrdom complex and it won’t get you anywhere.  You can’t keep going around, taking jobs, giving your all and resenting the job in the end because you aren’t getting the appreciation you expect.  It’s all tied into your ego and that’s the way to keep being unhappy and it’s putting expectations on people and relationships that is destructive,” says Paul.

“If you do something, do it whole heartedly.  If you give something, same thing.  Do it with a happy heart.  Expect nothing in return.  Do things because you love it.”

I smile. He is right. 

We also talk about the mind and the eastern philosophy of it being like a monkey, jumping from the past and the future, into fantasy and totally bypassing the present moment.

“Life is like a river and the monkey aka your brain is constantly jumping around, muddies the water completely.  But if you keep the monkey still, if you live in the present moment, the river will become clear and you can see things; the past, present and future, in a totally clear way.  Accept what is, rather than what should have been, should is actually the worst word in the human language.  Stop the monkey from jumping and clarity always comes.”

You know, life is pretty amazing.  This weekend, I really wanted someone to talk to about my life and about things.  I asked the universe to help me and here this guy shows up, with another bottle of Isley whiskey (possibly the only other one in Honiara) and really gives me what I need.  What I think the universe or God or whatever needed me to know.

Also, Paul, who lived in Guana and had plenty of experience eating fish heads, helped me get over my fear of eating fish heads…which turned out to be pretty good.  I feel like I want to bottle the conversation with Paul and anytime I've feeling resentful or angry or anything like that, I want to be able to drink in the wisdom again.

So, in conclusion to this rambling, happy long blog, if you ask for something from the universe (or whatever, as you may suspect I am religiously a la carte), you get it in the weirdest ways. 

Trust that, the universe looks out for you in the weirdest, best way possible. 

And as far as the Tao of the expat, I know it’s an often quoted phrase but it’s so true:

“All who wander are not lost.”

 Yep.   

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tok Pidgin

Last week, I started my pidgin lessons.  While English is the “official” language of the Solomons, hardly any locals speak it unless they are talking to expats. Pidgin is based on English but has splashes of French, Spanish and local dialects.

The need for a pidgin or bridge language is pretty obvious; there are about 128 different languages and dialects throughout the country.  Pidgin is pretty universal; most people speak some form of it here.

One of my favorite words is pig pig.  Kororako is also another favorite (pidgin for chicken).  Other words are great like stakka e.g. I got a stakka work or there is a stakka rain coming down. 

Celia is my language teacher; she has been teaching pidgin to starry eyed ex pats for years and anticipates my questions and difficulties. She is from Gwale or Guadalcanal as it is known and talks about life during the tension.  Because her village is away from town, supplies were difficult to get during that time. Celia found 101 ways to find good uses for a coconut, including using it as a soap and a shampoo. 

Not only does Celia act as my pidgin teacher but she also helps me get a better grasp about the culture. Language is the heart of culture; it tells you a lot about what a culture values and what they like to talk about.  For example, in U.S. English, we often express things in financial terms e.g. making an emotional investment or paying someone back when getting revenge.  It is kinda telling that our relationships have an economical basis.

Other than my pidgin lesson, I have been thinking that living in a developing company can be an assaulting experience because I think I have come to realize the illusions, the lies we tell ourselves about our own structures.  People in developing countries are a lot more resilient; they go with the flow a bit more and accept the way things are. 

I think one of the great things about living here is that you have to accept that we aren’t really in control of anything.  Power outages are common.  The water running from the tab is a lovely brownish colour, making it impossible to do washing or to cook rice without it coming out with a nice brown coat on it.  In the developed world, we have built ourselves up in this illusion of control.  It can be very seductive and very comfortable. 

In a place where hot showers o any shower for that matter, are not guaranteed, I have to admit; I would love to go to Vic’s CafĂ© and have Eggs Benedict or sit at Fat Eddy’s, listen to music and sip lightly on a Sexy Sara martini (yes they named it after me.  I’m just that sexy).    

After my Thanksgiving dinner, on Saturday, I get invited to a mango party, where everything is orange.  The party went on into the wee hours of the night and into the early morning.

I crash my incredibly shameful, exhausted self at Ally’s* house.  In the morning, Ally makes everyone a beautiful brunch, which includes barbecued bacon (I have never tried, but I love it now), crepes, and all manner of tropical yummies.  Other ex pats come over and we all have a dip in the pool.  An incredibly decadent weekend.         

After the weekend, there has been a small civilian disruption or a bit of violence in Honiara.  I won’t go in to the details but it made for some tense moments at the office.  During times like this, rumours fly all over the show; people ran out watching for the looters and fighters.  Rumours of deaths, murders and injured police officers across the mobile network.  The centre city was cordoned off and a curfew was called and then lifted. 
For the first time being here, I felt a little unsafe.  I mean, intellectually, I was in a big office, with lots of people, away from where people where fighting.  But it reminded me that life here can be unstable and it’s important to respect that.  Things can change here very quickly, so it’s important to stay alert.

I try to remain as calm as possible and just get on with my work.  But there is something almost exhilarating about being in the middle of it.  The exhilaration fades quickly and reality shortly kicks in and I realize, this isn’t a game and it’s not t.v.; some bad stuff could really happen and people could get hurt.  As I look around my office, filled with local people, I worry about their friends and family that might be hurt in the riot.  As an expat, I’m pretty safe; I have the power of at least two governments behind me.  Worst comes to worst, I get a ticket out.  But who will protect them? I would be devastated if any of them were hurt or affected by the violence.

As some of the men who started the fight drive along the roads of Honiara, my tropical escape seems less shiny.  Despite all the fun, the expat parties, there is real work to do here.  Illiteracy, unemployment, gender violence, child abuse…the list goes on and on…and the work will take decades.  The work I do today is a drop in the bucket (with the bucket having a giant hole at the bottom). 

So sure the parties are fun, the people are great and the climate a blessed change to the New Zealand winter.  But the riots, the brown water, the violence simply solidify my commitment to being here and doing all I can to help out.  Maybe I won’t change anything; it would be arrogant to think that I can affect lots of change in this country.  But I’m going to do the best I can in my small part of this beautiful, isolated country called the Solomon Islands.

And try to use the term “stakka” as much as humanly possible (I love it!)

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.