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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.