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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Solomon Island Recipe of the Week: Chilli Taiyo (tinned tuna) with Chinese noodles

With Tessa and co gone for nine days, Casa Turchese was mine, all mine!  That means it’s time to experiment with foods that the housemates might look down on, which means only one thing: adventure in tinned meats!
Anyone who reads the recipes on this blog will figure out that tuna or bonito or taiyo (tinned tuna) plays a vital role in the Solomon Islander diet.  Whether fresh or tinned, it’s a staple in village life. 

Now, being the western consumer that I am, I bought loads of tinned tuna in New Zealand and the U.S., never giving one thought to where this tuna might be coming from.   A LOT of the world’s tuna comes from these beautiful islands and it is tinned here locally, with new labels put on it upon arrival to its destinations around the world.

The fishing industry in the Solomons is, well…like a bad marriage.  Developed or wealthier countries come in, take the fish and when the fisheries crumble, the fishing fleet moves on to more fertile waters.  This leaves villages without their major food source.  It can take years for the fishery to recover; sometimes it never does.  This makes villagers more reliant on external food sources to survive, like hard navy biscuits and…tinned meats.  This, of course, is an over simplification but again, like many developed/developing country relationships, it’s a one way street with the locals often seeing little or no benefit of their resources. 

I digress.

Anyway, I purchased a tin of chili tuna a few months back and without a soul in the house, it was time to try it 
out with some nice thin, almost linguini like Chinese noodles I purchased in the discount bin at Wings supermarket for 10 solomon dollars (I do love the discount bin at Wings…).  Hey I’m a volunteer, I live on discount bins and at the Bulk Food Shop.

About the Chilli Tuna: usually packed in vegetable oil with three or four local, very hot little chili peppers.  It’s yummy but you can use plain old tuna and just put chilli in separately. 

So here is my recipe:

Chili Taiyo (Tuna) with noodles
·         1 can of chili taiyo (preferably white flesh tuna)
·         1 clove of garlic
·         ½ onion
·         Smiggen of veggie oil (I mean just a wee bit.  The tins of tuna here are packed in oil already.)
·         Fresh basil leaves
·         1 lime
·         100 grams of noodles per person
·         Salt and pepper to taste.

1.       Chop up the garlic and onion.
2.       Put the garlic and onion in a fry pan on low heat with a bit of veggie oil. 
3.       Open the tin of tuna.  Once the garlic and onion are slightly browned, put the tuna in the pan.
4.       Boil a pot of water for the noodles.  Put in salt and noodles.
5.       Stir the tuna, garlic and onions. 
6.       Put in the fresh basil leaves.
7.       Cut the lime and squeeze juice into the tuna mixture.
8.       Heat for about five minutes or until noodles are almost ready.
9.       Pour noodles in colander and drain all water.  Make sure the noodles are slightly undercooked as it will finish cooking in the hot fry pan.
10.   Put noodles from colander into hot fry pan with tuna mixture.  Mix all around, letting the noodles cook slightly in the tuna mixture. 
11.   After about two or three minutes, serve in bowls.

Serve with gin and tonic or coconut water with lime or mint.  Make sure to eat on your balcony overlooking the sea; it does wonders for the soul.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oh My FAQ! (Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) about Stilettos in the Solomons)

I’ve started a frequently asked question section for the blog because I do get questions from time to time from friends, family, acquaintances and the odd internet stalker who has nothing better to do than read my blog. 
So here it goes:  

Q. Do you, in fact, wear stilettos in the Solomons?
A. Yes.  Only indoors; the roads and/or sidewalks are very uneven. The risk of ankle trauma here is high, as is the possibility of going ass over face and revealing your under things. 

Q. How many pairs of stilettos do you own?
A. Well, I brought with me one pair of red, crocodile skin stripper ones.  These are super slutty and I love them. I own a few wedges as well.

Q. You have typos.  You suck.
A. Yes I know.  I write a lot very quickly and so far no one wants to edit my stuff.  Sorry.

Q. I am new to this whole blog…give me a summary…Dance, monkey, DANCE!
A. Okay! So in August of last year, I left my work and city etc…to travel around the world to take up a volunteer assignment in the Solomon Islands for one year.  I started my assignment in October of last year (after having a blast getting here) and it’s been a full on experience ever since.  If you read the blog, you will pick up that I was married once. A lot of people do a volunteer assignment as a way to flee bad situations at home and I do not recommend that.  Development work is something I have wanted to do for a very long time, long before the marriage ended. While being here is healing, it is in no way my sole purpose for coming here.  Neither is it the reason I write this blog. So, sorry but if you are looking for salacious details or me bashing my ex husband or the marriage or figuring out what happened etc…look elsewhere.  I don’t do that, it is crass and cruel and not very helpful to anybody, especially me. My ex is a lovely fellah, that’s why I married him in the first place and I wish him all the best in his new life.   

Ehem.  Anyway, this is no Eat, Pray, Love, people…it’s more like Eat strange things, live in a country with huge development issues, party, and do good stuff sometimes. 

Q. Why don’t you talk more about your work?
A. While I find my work personally very rewarding, most people would find it slightly boring.  You don’t read my blog to find out that I wrote a magnificent report today….that would put you into a coma.  So I don’t write about it.

Q. I get the feeling that all you do is party.  Is that true?
A. Kind of. Interesting things happen at parties, which is why I blog about it.  But I probably go to about one or two significant parties a week.  Because there is no television, really, here, dinner parties etc…are a huge part of life here.  And I like that very much.

Q. Who is your host organization?
A. If you know me in real life, you probably know who my host organization is.  I don’t reveal it because I don’t want to ever embarrass my host organization by what I write.  Sorry, but you ain’t findin out through this blog.

Q. How often do you update your blog?
A. Usually I update with a summary of weekly events on a Monday or Tuesday.  Then I do a Solomon Islands Recipe of the Week on Friday.  Am still toying with the idea of a section call “Sh$%t that scares my parents about the Solomons”.

Q. Do you have a boyfriend?
A. That’s none of your business.

Q. Can I be your boyfriend?
A. Maybe.  The guy running the beetlenut stand down the road offered me a pig and as many coconuts as I could carry to be his girlfriend.  If you can top that, we might be in business.

Q. Where are you from?
A. I would define myself as an Amerikiwi.  So I was brought up in the U.S., in the best state ever…WASHINGTON! Not D.C….anyway, it’s a badass state…BUT I lived in New Zealand for 10 years, which is one fantastic country, in the great city of Christchurch.  My mom is a frenchie so I have heaps of aunties, uncles, cuzzie bros, etc…who are French.  Which means I can say “pass the stinky cheese” in French quite successfully.  I also hung out in Hawaii for a bit.  I feel really fortunate to have lived in the some very beautiful places.

Charmingly, my good friend Mike from Ohio pointed out that the more I drink, the more I sound like a Kiwi…which is odd and the reason I stopped drinking. 

Q. Why did you go back to Christchurch for the earthquake?
A. Why, indeed.  It has something to do with work, something to do with my heart and something to do with my overwhelming sense of self importance.  But I love Christchurch like a mad thing, it’s a great place, no matter what you have heard and every day it gets better and better.

Q. You don’t seem to write much about development issues in the Solomons or politics.  Why is that?
A. Because writing about politics can get me into trouble.  And the politics here are diverse and complex, like everywhere else.  Only the politicians here tend to have a criminal record of some description.  So I will remain silent…

I am happy to talk about development issues when it pops up but I do steer away from this for several reasons.  First, this blog is seriously first person, observation stuff.  I don’t quote other people or put other publications on my blog to make you think I’m smarter than I am.  This blog is about my experiences and observations living here, as well as my journey throughout this year.   

Also, development issues are extremely complex, like politics.  To put these issues in a blog is, in a sense, 
treating these issues as if they can be solved easily.  The issues can’t.  So I tend to steer away from things except for my occasional rant.

Q. How do I help in the Solomons?
A. Good question.  Email me and we will talk.

Q. Does everyone get fake names in your blog?
A. Yes.  For the most part, everyone gets a fake name. I like to protect the innocent (and not so innocent).

Q. How do you choose fake names?
A. I used to let people choose, but that got me into trouble (Maverick is the worst). So now it’s usually by random association.   There is some method to my madness but revealing that would be potentially revealing the real name of the person.

Q. Can I have a fake name?
A. Maybe.  

Q. Can I stay with you in the Solomons?
A. Depends on how much I like you.  But something can probably be worked out, if you let me call you Felipe and you become my houseboy (or girl).  Duties include: fanning me with a palm frond, fetching me coconuts and rubbing my feet. 

Q. Do you like the food there?
A. Yes, it is very good.  I find Melanesian cuisine full of surprises.  I love going to the markets and getting fresh, organic fruits and veggies.  I miss parsley and potatoes (you know, the white kind. Sweet potatoes abound here). However, the seafood cannot be beat.  Forget about beef.  Chicken and pork are okay but kinda expensive.  So I try to eat as simply as I can because I can’t afford the expensive stuff.  

Q. Is there a McDonald’s there? Subway? Arby's? WHITECASTLE????
A. Er, no.  Although I am not sure I want to write this because we have NO chain fast food outlets here. Long may it stay that way.

Q. Have you had malaria?
A. Not that I am aware of.

Q. Have you had round worm?
A. Probably.

Q. Have you had syphilis?  I heard Paul Gauguin had it when he lived in Tahiti and he died from it.  That’s what I heard, anyway.
A. No, not according to the travel doctor and really that’s none of your business.

Q. Are you a really shallow person?  Why don’t you do more advocacy in your blog to bring out issues that we are unaware of?  Why? WHY?
A. Aren’t we all shallow and self centered?  Look, I don’t write this blog so you can think I’m a super intelligent, caring wonder woman.  I write it so I can make my friends and family laugh and so that they know, at least once a week, that I am alive and well and that I have not been cursed by witchdoctors in Temotu or had my head removed by headhunters in Munda.  Yet.

Q. Do you like being there?
A. Generally, yes.  I like it less when Christchurch has earthquakes and more, you know, normal stuff going on but yes I do like it here.

Q. So is this like Sex and the Solomons?
A. Yes. Sort of, minus the sex, plus the flip flops.  My mom reads this stuff people!  I like to think of this blog as more of a Bridget Jones does the Solomons because I never want my humour to be about making fun of other people but more about myself, because I get myself in some crazy situations.

Q. What are the people like?
A. “The people”…hmm…can’t answer that one, it’s too complicated.  Ask again later (I consulted my magic eight ball before constructing that answer).

Q. Where to you live?
A. Somewhere in Honiara.

Q. What island is that on?
A. Guadalcanal.

Q. What country is that in?
A. The Solomon Islands.

Q. Where is that?
A. Between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

Q. Where are those countries?
A. North of Australia.

Q. Really?  Isn’t Australia full of poisonous snakes and sharks and stuff.
A. Yes.  I guess it is.  I haven’t spent much time there, actually.  I went to Brisbane a couple of times and Sydney twice.  Am very fond of Sydney.  I would like to go to Melbourne at some point but I also want to go to Scott Base in Antartica.  If I go, I’ll blog it is as Stilettos on the Ice or Stilettos and Penguins or Stilettos at Scott Base…Anyway, clearly, some dreams aren’t coming true.

Q. I actually don’t know where Australia is. I’ve met a few Australians and I don’t like them.
A. I really can’t talk to you anymore.

Q. Really?  Why not?
A. Because. 

Okay, that’s it.  If you have a question for me, email me and I’ll do my best to answer it and do another FAQ.
All the best,


Monday, April 25, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe out...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The party is exactly what I needed.

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

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

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

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

Nothing happens.  No tsunami.  Thank the gods.

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

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

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


Yep, am pretty much back to normal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Cordon

Behind the cordon, a gigantic fence that circles the city, there is no movement.  There are no people amongst the rubble, except the occasional rescue or army person.  Birds don’t seem to want to go there and even rodents seem too nervous; I don’t see a single rat the entire time I am there.  In the evening, no lights turn on in the high rises; it is like the heart beat of the city has gone.  The cordon was put there to protect people from going in, while search and rescue and demolition efforts continue.

The cordon takes on an almost mythical status in the city.  Rumours fly about rats the size of cats and of strange men who walk in the “Red Zone” at night, staying in abandoned hotel rooms, eating candy out of fridges.  These make good stories but aren’t true. 

In a way, after I left Christchurch I had psychologically put the whole experience there in a type of cordon, where I didn’t want to go.  Emotionally things were too raw and I didn’t want to deal with the disappointing turn my life had taken. I just wanted nothing more to move on quickly.

But now I feel I don’t need to cordon, to ignore places or people anymore.   I feel that I could just be.  Because now I realize it’s not at all about “moving on” and pretending to be awesome…it’s about moving forward, without any cordons or emotional skeletons in my closet.    

I wonder why we feel the need to cut things off completely, to have clear cut endings, to be so black and white.  I promised myself that when I left I wouldn’t ever return to Christchurch to live; now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. 

I think the moment came to me when I take one weekend off with my buddy Eddy to go up to Castle Hill, one of my very favorite parts of New Zealand.  The limestone rocks have been molded by wind for millennia and now have the most magnificent shapes.  I feel a great sadness here; I find myself missing all of it.  Christchurch. Lewis Pass.  The Sign of the Packhorse.  Magedelan Hut.  The keas at Arthur’s Pass. The vicarage at Ross.  All of my history with this place sort of flashes before me and I am humbled in front of this beautiful land.  The land I hated.  Because it had broken my heart.

“Being with you right now is kind of like being with a ghost.” Eddy says.

He is right.

I can’t bear the thought, in that moment, for this to be it for me and this place.  I can’t bear the thought of never coming back, of not having it be a part of my life.  It doesn’t sit well with my soul and I really feel the full grief.  I grieve for what I had lost before I left and for what I had lost in the quake.  I grieve for a future without my mountains.  I grieve for my former life; for all that it was that I simply could not appreciate. 

My love for this place is like the love you have for a reconciled relationship.  After time apart, you can see more clearly the other person, what you lost and how important the person is to you.  And I see things with the eyes of a wiser, gentler and more accepting person.  I can see its beauty and its ugliness and know that in my heart this place is perhaps the city that I will love forever. 

Speaking of reconciling old relationships, I spend some time with my ex mother in law, who is possibly the most lovely woman I have ever known.  We went to Pomeroys one night and talked up a storm (actually I probably did most of the talking).  Afterwards, she was dear enough to drop off some boxes stored at her mother’s house on my behalf. 

I felt it was time to get my stuff back in one place (thanks Matt!) and not have to bother her anymore with the small stored details of my life.  It also means now that our relationship has no pretense; if we want to send an email or stay in touch, for the simple sake of doing so, we can.  She has been a magnificent part of my life to ten years and for that, I am truly thankful and hope that I can still email her or sit down with her to have a nice wine ten years from now.   

It sits well with me to move the relationship in a positive way, so I can look back at all those years and feel proud of the time we spent together at family get togethers, holidays and weekend dinners, rather than be bitter or angry.  I feel grateful to her that she let me do that; she showed me that I was a meaningful person in her life too and that she still cared about me and my life, even if things didn't go the way it was planned.

I work a lot still but as the weeks go by, my life becomes more routine with 9-5 shifts (ladies hours) and more manageable work load.  I enjoy the work still and have a blast working with such an amazing variety of people.  I am truly grateful for everything that each one of the them taught me over this time.

They say you can never go back, but I disagree.  Things can never be the same, yes, but things can also be better, stronger, more resilient.  Christchurch will never be the same; some things are gone forever.  Even though I’m sad about those things, I am so grateful that I got to reconnect with the city that I had fallen in love with ten years ago. What I appreciate better still is that the city, like myself, has undergone massive change.  And I believe that someday, it will be the better than before because of this trauma, just like me.  Like I said, not everything happens for a reason but it’s how you what you do about it that is what matters.  

I remember clearly the first day I arrived of the plane, ten years ago this year, to this beautiful Christchurch , looking out at the “Avon Creek” as I called it.  Hey, it’s barely a river by North American standards. I remember looking around with curiosity and I was waiting for someone, I sat next to the Avon, near the old Chambers building under a weeping willow and just enjoying the September spring day. 

It was, in fact, 11 September, 2001. 

At that time too, I was thinking of my home, what would happen there, and the massive destruction that my country was facing.  Life comes around in circles, swings and roundabouts, as they say in New Zealand.


It is just when I start to settle in again that I am called back to my new home in the Solomon Islands. 
On Friday, I am certain I am staying on in Christchurch.  I am so happy with this thought.
On Monday I get the word that no, I will be returning Wednesday.  I burst into tears; I don’t want to leave while I still felt more work could be done. 

On Monday evening, I am filled with dread at the idea of returning to the “Friendly” isles.  I feel that my work isn’t done here and that I am pulled away too soon.  I can’t sleep.  

The problem with being in an emergency is that everything is immediate, it is now.  And in the Solomons, every day could be considered an emergency, with very little infrastructure, access to health etc…but no one seems particularly bothered.  It is a lesson of patience.  Flying back was like downshifting from fifth gear at 200 kms an hour in a Ferrari to a leisurely pace of 20 kms an hour in a dirty old combi van in first gear…up a steep slope.

After a six hour delay in Brisbane, I get off the plane, pelted with big drops of tropical rain.  It is dark and I, unfortunately, somehow manage to be at the back of the queue for immigration.  I talk to a nun from Tonga.  I’ve always been fascinated by nuns; maybe I’ll be one someday.  Maybe.  (I can hear you guys snorting from here, you know)…

I come back to a much changed Honiara.  Marco is not returning from Rome.  Mackenzie has moved into the house, as has Maggie, a lovely doctor.  The house resembles the King Solomon Hotel with all the paintings now on the walls.  I realize that my six weeks away, which seemed to fly by in Christchurch, did not go so quickly here in Honiara.

As we drive down the street in the morning, a puppy is crushed and killed by a combi van, while its sad mother looks on.  There is a cholera outbreak in the Shortland Islands.  I resume my two showers per day routine, along with the sweaty climb up the hill every afternoon after work. 

Work also becomes routine again; am back to graphic design, writing and doing everything on a much more basic level.  Gone are the amazing crew of people I worked with to make stuff happen.  Hello me and my counter part, struggling away to get out a simple newsletter.  But the work is good, if not as immediate or interesting.  The issues here are long term, deep seeded and immense.  It will take years to bring this nation up to even a semblance of development, like New Zealand.

I order a tuna sandwich at the Lime Lounge.  After five minutes I check to see what is going on, why it was taking so long.  The man had just started making it.  I pace.  I swear under my breath. I mean, how long does it take to make a freakin tuna sandwich, especially since I was the only person in line?  I watch as he almost finishes my sandwich, only to pick up the phone, knife in hand to cut it and start talking away.  He walks away from my sandwich, chatting in pidgin.  Having up to here with him, I tell the lady at the counter to get me my sandwich.  She tries to comply but that man pulls the knife away, still chatting away.  Argh! It takes another five minutes to get my sandwich.  Doesn’t this man know I have important stuff to do???

And then I remember.  I am back in the Solomon Islands.  Where relationships matter more than time, more than reports, more than the media.  Everything stops when people talk story.  Life slows down for me and I have to remember where I am at now. 

I sit and look out at the ocean from my balcony.  The table lizard (a small, little guy who I thought was a geiko but isn’t) pops his head up from beneath the slats, watching me.  He pops his head up and goes back down.  Over and over again he repeats his little game of “now you see me, now you don’t”, watching very carefully what I will do.  Am I friend or foe? By the Tuesday, when my plate has a sticky, sweet dessert left overs on it, he feels free enough to slide on my plate and start licking.  He stays there for quite some time, licking away.  Definitely friend.

I feel guilty, in a way, to be back in this tropical paradise while my workmates and friends battle away in a broken city.  But I also know that I’ll be back there soon, it’s only another six months at the most and I’ll be back in it. 

I need this time for myself and I need to finish what I started.    

Then I’ll be back, I promise. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

The City

There was a stillness, a quiet to the whole place, a little like a Zombie movie. The Christchurch airport is filled with the signs of a mass exodus; white tape lines the floors with arrows, as a way to tell people where to go. People in the airport talk in hushed tones and everyone is skittish.

Old friends I met looked shocked to see me but me showing up was just another odd occurrence in the bizzaro world that had become their lives. It feels like the world’s longest snow day; only with piles of rubble and silt everywhere.

I arrive in the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) promptly at 8 a.m. the next morning. Media flooded the outside of the art gallery and inside were hundreds of people, all wearing fluro or overalls or camo. Some looked calm, others shocked, others were very, very angry.

John (remember him?) gave me a big hug, a man of few words, but I think he was glad to see me. I was very glad to see him too.

I was put into a team of people I hadn’t worked with before and I was given some pretty gritty tasks to get underway. The work was beginning.

And I worked, just like everyone else. I had a week longer of rest than most everybody and I had spent the last four months in the Solomons, working at much more leisurely place. So I pushed myself pretty hard those first two weeks; which are still a blur to me.

I hate to think of our exact man hours put in; many of us worked 16 plus hour shifts. A thousand decisions
had to made every hour and each decision would have tremendous long term effects on lives and property. I was both invigorated and exhausted every night I went to bed.

Aftershocks become common place. I hadn’t spent the last six months getting use to the feeling of an aftershock; for me it felt like being on a train. People I worked with stopped, nervous at the shaking because they know that it might start off calm at first but then it just gets longer and the shaking gets worse. I don’t have the same memories, the same trauma, so I continue on my way.

I talk to people about it and some try to put on a brave face. Some people insist on repeating my least favorite phrase on earth, the ever popular catch all “everything happens for a reason”, is often repeated. To me, that’s total bullshit. Not EVERYTHING happens for a reason. There is no reason to people getting killed under piles of rubble or being washed away in a tsunami. There is no reason for good, kind, honest people to die needlessly. Sorry, but that phrase never made me ONCE feel slightly better.

Rather, random shit happens. The innocent suffer. The best people in life often suffer the most (it’s like some sort of bizarre mathematical equation). Kindness and charity towards others equals people being horrible to you and taking advantage.

So life can be pretty bleak at times. Things happen and it’s how to deal with what happens is what is important. And there is no rockstar way of dealing with grief; everyone deals with stuff differently and no one gets a gold medal for being particularly cool or awesome at it. Some of cry, some work like mad gerbils, some talk, some sit quietly and wait for things to pass. Some drink, some sleep around…sometimes we do all those things. We all deal with the chaos and the randomness of life in our own unique way and often with a variety of methods.

Clearly, anger is a part of my coping mechanism. So is ranting on my blog. Isn’t that fun?

So is working. After pushing myself to work an insane amount of hours and having no permanent abode to go to, I eventually got a New Zealand mum (thanks Esther), who did her best to look after me. She cheerfully gives me a bed to sleep in, a ute to drive (I named him Grant) and a warm, wonderful place to call home for six week. But some days I couldn’t face the prospect of being looked after; I just curled up somewhere in the arms on an old friend and went to sleep, often not coming home for four or five days.

I learn quickly not to talk about the have nots in the Solomon Islands. No one wants to hear that life without electricity, food, petrol or a running toilet are quite common in some parts of the world. See, that’s the thing, everybody gets that somewhere people are in a worse situation than them but they don’t want to know too much about it. Lots of people don’t want reminders right now of what I’ve seen back in the Sollies, so I oblige by staying quiet, after a couple of not some warm and fuzzy moments.

I go out to Rangiora to visit with my mentor and personal life inspiration, the fabulous Ms. Abbie. Abbie is one of the most amazing women I have had ever known; she served two tours of duty in Iraq as a sergeant. Her first marriage ended in a ball of rage and betrayal so spectacular that anything I went through pales in comparison. Her efficiency, command of organization and ability to get things done astounds me.

I sit down with her, tired but keen for a visit. I watch Abbie play with her delightful 10 month old girl, Emily. Abbie is the mother of three children and works full time and maintains a happy, successful second marriage. I find myself totally enchanted, watching the most competent woman I know playing gleefully with her little girl. In that moment I felt a surge of hope for my future; to have a life filled with adventure and a family, a career, a happy marriage and a beautiful home all seemed possible watching Abbie and Emily. Of course, I’m no Abbie, but someday I could be.

I leave feeling happy. Until the Grant’s bonnet starts to smoke. Grant is out of water and turns out, needs a new engine. I feel immediately guilty; I had killed him! Argh! I wait inside Grant just off the highway; several good Samaritans stop and give me water. It’s dark, cold and wet. I feel like an idiot. I am patient as I wait in the dark, thinking about what I would have to do if this was the Solomon Islands, land of no safety net. I don’t have to wait long, my beautiful friends show up, take me home and leave Grant beside the road. Grant will eventually need a new engine, sadly.

On my birthday, my friends sneak in a small gin and tonic and a few small gifts in the EOC.

My father sends me a text message that I have become an Aunt again. Little Sophia Marie, born on my birthday. It is the best gift anyone could give me. I smile at the text, tear up and go back to work.

I am 33 years old.

Mom calls up, worried that she hasn’t heard from me. I try to explain to her about how the emergency sucks the life out of you but she doesn’t understand. I know she wants to hear more from me but it is hard to talk to people from home right now, to get them to understand how bad it all is. She says she is going in for more tests about a lump in her breast and that it is probably cancer. Also, p.s. your uncle has cancer too. She gets shrill with me, like she was trying to figure out whether I cared or not. Of course I care. Dad says she will be fine and not to worry. Just keep up the good work. Dad turns out to be right; it turns out it’s not cancer after all.

I walk back into the office in a daze, not sure what to think about the news. But I follow Dad’s advice and just get back into work.

I find time, occasionally, to go for a few drinks at Pomeroys. This was a place I never visited before the quake but appears to be the last really nice brick pub standing. I like going there, it gives me a sense of normality.

Hene, my good friend from Auckland, has been there since the beginning and has been working her arse off. We spend an entire Saturday together in her hotel room, eating the worst junk food and watching worst junk television. We leave briefly to get some takeaway Thai. I think our lowest moment is when we watched Toddlers and Tiaras. Words cannot express the horror. It gets worse as we watch the Farmer Wants A Wife. Both of us at that point are drunk on bad food, worse wine and looking wistful at the easy/hard life on the farm in the arms of a hunky Australian farmer.

Clearly, it was a low point for both of us in this emergency.

Days blend into weeks. The Memorial Day, which I spend working, was particularly beautiful. I see Russell Crowe, Prince William and meet Ritchie McCaw, the captain of the All Blacks. I leave before Prince William comes in, not wanting to start another Wallis-Simpson debacle…American divorcees and British royalty aren’t a good mix. No one wants to go there again.

Ritchie and I have a nice conversation and he seems like a good guy, even if he is from Kurow (my apologies to my readers from Kurow). I actually like Kurow; they certainly know how to fry their food…indeed we could not get anything from the bar there that was not fried.

I go to work every day in a building not intended for this purpose, but instead built to house priceless works of art. Occasionally I see a displaced Art Gallery person; worried looks abound amongst them. I can see they are calculating the days it will take to get their gallery back up and running. Truth be told, the Art Gallery makes for a tremendous facility to work in; I love walking up and down the large marble staircase and I like walking around its wooden floors.

One day, I pop outside with one of the hundreds of cups of coffee I must have drunk, just to look down the street and see the remnants of the cathedral. I watch as St. Elmo, a favorite pink building of mine, is quickly reduced to rubble with a wrecking ball.

Okay. So where the #&$^@& does anyone get a gigantic wrecking ball these days? It seems so…1930s depression era or like something from a Looney Toons cartoon. Seeing the wrecking ball slam through the walls of the pink building is so ludicrous, I almost chuckle nervously at the sight of it.

I see the look on the rescue teams as they go in each day. I want to go with them, desperately, but the work in the EOC is all consuming.

I go back inside to get another cup of milk with coffee. I ask the coffee makers how many they have made during the response.

“We lost count at 40,000 two weeks ago,” the barista says grimly.

(To be continued)…

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Call

(The Stilettos in the Solomons blog took a six week break while I flew home to Christchurch to assist with the earthquake.  Sorry I was rather busy at that time; too busy to blog!  However, the following three blogs are about my experience there and will be posted in rapid succession.  I decided to post in three separate blogs because it was just too lengthy as one blog!) 

On a hot, sunny day I arrive back from lunch to my desk, typing up a farewell letter to my old boss, John.  Johnis retiring on Friday and I want to write him a blatantly honest, funny and kind letter of farewell.   As I write, small tears come to my eyes as I think of John with such fondness and wonder to myself when I would see him next.  I press send.

It is 22 February, 2011.  I arrived here in the Solomon Islands exactly four months ago to the day, wide eyed; travel worn and ready for a new adventure.  The Solomon Islands had not disappointed; I had a new life with a new home, new friends, sexy stuff was going on in my personal life and a new job.  I was rocking on in my real life.

The happy little life that had bloomed around me was about to change. 

A text message comes through on my phone.  It is from Peter, the volunteer wrangler.  Christchurch has had a big earthquake, fatalities reported, widespread damage throughout the city.  I’m in shock; of course this happened before but I don’t want to believe it.  I go online, see the damage.  The cathedral in rubble, people gathered in Hagley Park.  I feel, as I did last time, powerless to do anything to help.

I watch the news. I don’t sleep much that night, wondering if I should go home.

The next day I can barely concentrate on work.  I snap at a coworker. All my friends are accounted for, except some colleagues at CTV and one acquaintance at the Christchurch City Council had been killed, but I feel like I need to do something. Emergency management in Canterbury was what I did for so many years; I felt like such a waste by not going.

I stay at a friend’s house that night.  We talk till late, considering all the options.  Finally, I call it a night and say to myself that by the next morning, I will know what to do. 

I wake up and the first sentence that pops into my head is:

“I’m going back to Christchurch and I need to be there by Tuesday morning.”

With the decision made, I promptly go to my office and tell my bosses.  They agree.  I book my ticket.  I feel a bid mad; I haven’t been asked to go back and I wonder if I am really needed.  But the decision has been made.  I will be flying out on Sunday, it is Thursday evening.

My mobile rings and John is on the other line. 

“Come on, then.  I know you want to come back.  But you need to be here by Tuesday morning.”

I smile.

“John, I already knew you were going to say that.”

I could hear him laugh on the other end, slightly confused. I tell him goodbye and that I will see him on Tuesday. I hang up the phone.    

It’s strange what your mind focuses on in times like this.  For instance, on Friday I look at my volunteer wear, knowing that it won’t cut the mustard even in a disaster.  Christchurch will be significantly cooler than the Solomons and I would need to get clothes from storage.

I text my friend Daphne, explaining what is going on.  She agrees to meet me that afternoon.  We head to XJ6, perhaps the best place to shop for clothes in the Solomons.  We buy a selection of business type clothes quickly.  The Solomon Islanders look bemused at us as we try to search out the warmest clothes.   I am still amazed at the designer wear you can find at the second hand shops here. I leave with a Witchery dress, sass and bide, and a little Trealise Cooper number. Afterwards, we stop by the Lime Lounge for a lovely lunch. 
The Lime Lounge and Bamboo Bar are the only places that resemble a proper café back home, which is why it is popular with expats.  I look around the restaurant with envy at the aussies and other expats; their homes weren’t lying in rubble. 

For months I had been fantasizing about my return to Christchurch.  I longed for a cocktail at Fat Eddy’s on open mic night or to go climbing at the YMCA with my friends.  I wanted to go to the Knox Church on Sunday and have Eggs Benedict at Vic’s Café on Sunday, chatting away with my best mate, Helen.  I wanted to buy Epoisse at the Cheese Mongers and jog through Hagley Park in the morning.  In the Solomons, there are only a handful of eateries and bars that are acceptable for me to go to.  I dreamed of my home, knowing that the places I loved were either gone or going to take a long time to rebuild.

On Friday night, Tessa throws me a farewell dinner.  I look around the table at my nine good friends, all beautiful and interesting people.  All people I care about.  All people I didn’t know until three months ago.  Now I wonder how I could go this long without knowing them.  I don’t know how long I will be away or what it will be like when I return.

Life isn’t without irony as on Saturday morning, my things finally arrive from Christchurch.  Peter comes early 
to Casa Turchese, large boxes in tow. My Korg piano, my clothes, my books…my things.  I look at the boxes and it seems like a mad person packed them, just sticking all kinds of stuff inside the box.  The knot in my stomach tenses up; what if I feel the same when I return?  I paid for the tickets, I had to go.  And I felt I was needed.  It was time to return to the city and face what I had been running from. 

We go to the beach on Saturday; I take one final snorkel around, enjoying the warmth and the beautiful marine life.  I sit on the white sandy beach, soaking in the sun.

At the airport, I spot Stan, who has just returned from Perth.  We exchange a quick hug before I board the plane.

I stop over in Brisbane for one night.  The experience was jarring; the streets were clean and no one was walking anywhere.  There wasn’t piles of rubbish around.  No birth defects that hadn’t been cured; in fact I would be pressed to find one person without a hair perfectly in place.    

My lovely host drives me to the nearest mall to pick up a pair of boots, a new purse and some stockings. The couple I stay with are lovely; he is a brother of a friend, who was kind enough to take a wayward, anti establishment, environmentalist, raving volunteer hippy like myself in.  Of course I spent hours boring them with talk of western materialism and how silly people in developed countries are, caring only about their flat screen televisions, xboxes, sport and other things that typically don't matter in comparison to family, protected environments and wontok. I felt we had become a society based on entertainment; all the other stuff like access to healthcare, food, electricity, education, and infrastructure were already taken care of, so life could just be about entertainment and the pursuit of personal happiness at the expense of everything else.

Yep, probably should have just kept my mouth shut on that one; it probably made me sound supremely ungrateful.  Which I wasn’t.  (And it makes me sound supremely up myself and thinking that I'm better than everyone else.  Which I'm not.  Okay, well maybe a little; hey I got an ego just like everybody else! I'm not perfect!!!)

I jetted off easily to Christchurch the next morning, not sure what to expect.   When I arrived off the plane, I found a much changed city.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Short Dispatch From Christchurch

Well my Solomon Islands journey has taken a quick or not so quick detour to assist with the Christchurch Earthquake.  Am heading back shortly to the Solomons to regroup and relax on its warm shores. 

Before I left this city in August, I felt a deep resentment at times for being here.  I wanted nothing more than to flee the city at speed, disliking the bogans and all the bull that comes with the city.  But now, my heart is aflame for this city; I love it in a way that I have never before.  I have made peace with this place.  I have made heaps of new friends and new relationships.  It is a new era of love and happiness for me and this beautiful city on the South Island. 

I feel like I have finally come into my own professional and personal self, my planning and old work appreciated and my new work.  I cannot express how fulfilled I feel and how happy I am to have been here to help the city and people that I deeply love. 

Am sorry to all those who I haven't been in contact with.  When you are working long days, life takes a very different rhythm. The earthquake swallowed me up and I was happy to work hard. 

I look forward to returning, perhaps sooner rather than later, perhaps to settle or perhaps to simply help rebuild. 

Love you much, Christchurch.  See you soon, Solomons.