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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.