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Monday, July 18, 2011

How Sara got her groove back...Part Two: Jump!

The next day is a blur of food, snorkeling, hammocking and sleeping.  One of the big things about Maravagi is the hope of swimming with manta rays.  Maravagi is parallel to another large island and the current between the two is strong.  Nutrients from the sea are funneled in this tight spot and the mantas feed in this current.  Homer, Brianna and Alex chat with me and attempt to unravel the case of Sad Sara.

Each friend has their own way of tackling the problem.  Alex strokes his long reddish beard whilst being the best 500 team member a girl could as for.  Brianna takes the much more feminine approach, talking long walks with me and allowing me to vent. 

Homer however tackles this problem with action. 

The jetty I so fearful gazed down on becomes first priority.  After lunch one day, he takes me out and  throws his snorkel and mask into the water and takes a running jump.  I’ve never jumped off a pier or a jetty or whatever you call it.  I stand looking at the clear water some two metres below me.  I waver but I leap into nothing.

I make impact loudly and without much grace.  Plus I screamed all the way down.

Salt water splurts up my nose and stings my eyes.
“Homer, why do you make me do this stuff?”

“Because look at that smile on your face.  Crikey, that’s good stuff!”

I hate Australians.

Homer urges me to put my mask on immediately and I do so.  The huge school of reef fish moves in odd shapes below me.  The sandy bottom is clear of big reefs, except to the left and angles steeply down into the tropical blue.  Although life surrounds me I find it surprisingly calming to look out into the blue nothingness.  I take on the observer role again, swimming between large rocks covered in coral.  A set of clown fish try to attack me as I threaten their home.  I may be frightened of many things but I know I take Nemo.

Again, I jump into the water, this time, instead of falling without grace, I shuffle a good three steps first  before I leap.  Homer cheers me on and says he thinks I'm ready for the manta rays.  My stomach drops.  But I can't stop now; there is a big smile on my face for the first time in weeks.

One of the big things about Maravagi is the hope of swimming with manta rays.  Maravagi is parallel to another large island and the current between the two is strong.  Nutrients from the sea are funneled in this tight spot and the mantas feed in this current. 

The idea is this: a boat takes you out in the middle of this channel and drops you off.  You float in the sea until you get your full manta ray experience and the boat comes back to pick you up.   Sounds wonderful…and absolutely terrifying.

We plan to go in the afternoon.  I’m ready, I’ve got all my positive self talk in my head but it gets called off.  Now I have a full 24 hours to sit and think about stuff.  I find its better to jump and not have plenty of time to process things, now I'm stuck with time to kill.  Probably time to go back to the reef.

This time we go in the late afternoon as the sun is setting.  The fish are completely different this time of day.  The schools dart quickly and the lazy romantic setting changes to feeding time.  Everyone is on the look out for the bigger fish hunger for a bite.  Our friendly fish come out and nibble our feet.  I get the sense that this is not the best time to be swimming on the reef.  We head back quickly to the shallows and see a reef shark dart quickly out of it as we are coming in. 

The night is filled with laughter, Solbrew and friendship.  I feel really supported by this little family of friends. Alex strokes his ginger beard and reads the back of Solomon Times, a classic novel about living in the Solomons, in a variety of accents (the Scottish one was particularly good) that have the rest of us in stitches. 

The next day, another successful snorkel takes place.  When I get back to the lodge, I can’t hide anymore.  The manta rays trip is on.  The first trip out on the boat nothing is spotted.  My friends hop overboard and hang off a rope like lures behind the boat.  I decide to wait until mantas a spotted to get out.  The mantas are shy and we don’t see any. Everyone is disappointed but me.  We head back to shore for lunch.

The resort sends out a boat again in the afternoon with a stack of pikininis (children) piled on the front of the boat to spot the mantas.  The boat comes back quickly with the kids squealing in delight.  Mantas have been spotted and the group scrabbles for snorkels and fins. 

We pile into the boat and get ready for some serious underwater action.  Wait, that sounded slightly dirty...oh well...anyway, we scoured the surface until we saw a big brown blobby shape under the water.  I hear a splash behind me as the boat unloads its Australians.  I wait till the end, looking for Homer.  Homer promised to hold my hand during the swim (don't get excited Mom, Homer has a partner and one thousand children. It's a fact.) 

I flop out of the boat with the grace of one of those hippos from Disney's Fantasia without a tutu.  Here I am in the open ocean with no life vest...not even some floaties on my arms.  Great.

I clutch onto Homer like a koala bear.  He pries me off on and grabs my hand.  I put on my mask and get my first look at the ocean below.  Nothing but blue.  No bottom. 

I curl up into a little ball trying to be as small as possible.  I hold Homer's hand tighter than Kate Middleton's death grip on her father's hand when she walked down the aisle.  Fish are swimming below me at speed, fighting against the current that is now pushing me into shore.  I'm a bit relieved to be going to a place where I can see the bottom.  Then the current whips up strongly and I can't see anything below me at all.  Not even a fish. 

The current is so strong that even without any wind, white caps form at the top of the waves. 

My breathing speeds up and I hope the monsters of the deep can't hear my heart racing out of my chest.  This is by far the deepest water I've ever been in.  I relax after about five minutes but by that time we have missed the manta rays completely and are now being pushed far into shore.  The boat swings round for another pick up and we all climb in.  My entrance is by far less graceful than when I jump into the water with Will, a strapping Aussie lad hauling me up by the back of my board shorts.  

We turn around and start at the opening of the channel for another round of manta hunting.  Again I flop into the water, following Homer in.  I put on the mask and gaze into the blue world below.  Within two minutes, Homer squeezes my hand and points to the deep left in the water. 

There she is, gliding through the water.  Her wing span must have bee two meters (six feet for you yanks) and her large eyes gaze up at us.  For a moment she seems suspended in a place that has no current, no movement.  And then she picks up speed and is gone, ghosting past us into the deep.  I exhale, not realising that I had been holding my breath. 

And that was it.  That was all I got. 

It was spectacular. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Sara got her groove back...Part One

(Note: I will not be writing about the rest of my trip to Makira. It was a taxing but enjoyable trip but afterwards, I came down with a serious case of writers' block. Here is my attempt to get my writing groove back and share with you my wonderfuly, happy trip to Maravagi).
After returning to Makira, I was happy to spend some good old relaxing around the house and enjoying myself. However, peace simply would not find me. One morning, Priscella, my newly acquired chicken from the Weathercoast, decided that the laying boxes just weren't comfortable enough for her. She walked up the stairs whilst I was talking via Skype (I heart skype) in N.Z. And quickly walked down the hallway.

Not wanting to cut the conversation off, I let her roam around, thinking nothing of it. After the Skype conversation ended, I tried to find her. Not in the bathroom, so that left only one other place. My bedroom. I look around and there she is...sitting on my, wait...she actually is laying an egg...on my bed.

I am present for a chicken birth on my bed...I'm stunned and react quickly to try and get her off my bed. I know this sounds ungrateful to the beautiful gift of yummy goodness that Priscella is about to give me but I just can't stomach the idea of a home chicken birth on my bed. I make my move towards her and she squawks, angry at being disturbed. Feathers fly EVERYWHERE. She jumps on my digital piano and plays “Chicken dance” on the keys. There is more squawking and more feathers until finally, I grab her and put her out the front door. But she isn't done.

She comes back in (stupidly, I left the kitchen door open) and hops up on the kitchen table. I run downstairs and leap for her. She flys onto the kitchen bench and runs around, almost lighting herself on fire on the kitchen stove because Tessa is making espresso.

I grab her and she squawks loudly. We talk it out and she agrees to lays eggs outside. Until she stops laying at all. chickens are on strike...

Some other stuff happens in Honiara and I realise that I'm sort of over it. I'm tired; I haven't had a nice, good break from Honiara that was pure relaxation since February. And believe me, sometimes you just need a break from this city.

So when a couple of friends suggest a weekend's trip away to Maravaggi, I jump at it. Now, I didn't enjoy Maravaggi when I did a fly by visit there in February. It seemed dusty and run down and the hosts seemed unfriendly. But I am a big believer in giving people and places and experiences another chance. Recently, I even agreed to return to the Weathercoast...but I digress.

I pack up my now thoroughly travel tested bags and make my way to the yacht club one dismal looking Thursday morning. The weather didn't look nice but I didn't care. I was going to relax and unwind whether I wanted to or not.

Look, I'll be honest. The past four months haven't been sunshine and kittens; I've been through some rough stuff, both personally and professionally. I'm not pointing fingers, most of it I did to myself, which is the worst kind of suffering. There has been a distinct lack and swagger in my life. I needed to get my groove back and fast because no one wants to hang out with the girl from Sad Town. I didn't want to hang out with the girl from Sad Town and its pretty bad when you don't even want to hang out with yourself.

So, it rained. A lot. I listened to my MP3 player (thank you Henry Binns and Black Keys) and enjoyed the nice swell. I tried not to be miserable. I tried to enjoy it. I didn't enjoy it. But I survived it, like so many experiences I have lately, the best I can say is that I survived it.

But I wanted to do more than survive something so when the boat came up to jetty at Maravagi, I jumped out of the back torture device/transportation tool and jumped into the warm water of the Solomon Sea. With all my clothes on. In the rain.

My friends, thinking I had gone mad, shrugged and followed me in. We stayed, chatted and instantly bonded more than before. It was like a baptism, a new commitment to be better and challenge myself to not just experience but to enjoy. I would say yes to everything, even the stuff I didn't want to do. I committed to myself to enjoy the dry, dusty, unwelcoming Maravagi.

And enjoy I did...

The day was I took a nap. I found that while I wanted to enjoy everything, I was deeply tired. So instead of a one hour nap, I slept for four. I woke up just in time for dinner to be served. I always order fish in the Solomons because...well its what they do best. Pork is pretty fatty and well I just like fish.

The two little reef fish look up at me, fried on the plate. I eat them, heads and all. Now, I know that eating fish heads is not everyone's cup of tea but I made a promise to myself that I would learn how. A lovely fellow taught me back in November how to do it and I've been rocking on it ever since. This fish is tasty and the food nice and basic. The host is still pretty unfriendly but everything is clean and tidy.

My bungalow faces out towards the ocean. Its a lovely room with three beds (I guess just in case). The only minor drawback is that the bungalow is shared, with only the barest of walls between myself and another guest. The other guest, who will remain nameless, was pretty good about my typical 2 a.m. wakeup time and any other noises I make. I, in turn, yell over the barrier at night to “turn over” when he is snoring.

In the morning, I wake up early. Like 5:30 a.m. Early. I sit and watch the sunrise. I yoga. I write in my journal. I think really deep thoughts. I do all kinds of terribly healthy stuff. I get bored waiting for the friends to wake up.

I walk over to the jetty and look down. The jetty is about two metres above the water and I look in, admiring the crystal clear quality of the water. A large school of reef fish permanently swarm around the jetty. I wonder what it would be like to jump in. I've never jumped off a jetty before. I chicken out.

To save a bit of cash, we self cater breakfast and then head off on our first snorkeling adventure. Maravagi is known for its beautiful reefs and my heart pounds slightly as I follow my mate Homer out of the shallows and to the edge of the reef. As we draw closer the reef takes on a much more multihued quality, leaving the brown and grays behind. Oranges, greens, and pinks come into view and brightly colour fish swim around in large schools. Little silver fish swim around me and when the sun hits the water, I fill like I entered an underwater disco.

And then, I spot it. The edge. Nothing but blue...and then...darkness. I look down and spot a reef shark hanging out below us. My first shark encounter. I marvel at how beautiful the animal is, perfect from 300 million years of evolution. The fish swim calmly around it; they know its not looking for a snack.

We hang out, fighting against the different currents for about two hours. I swim past the shelf and into the blue, trying my best not be terrified. Look, us yanks don't always have the best relationships with water. The ocean is where Jaws comes from, and stingy things that killed Steve Irwin. The sea is not my friend, it is a place to be feared. And yet with my recent dive training, I've come to try and make peace with the sea. So I try to float, live in the moment and enjoy.

It works, partially and by the time I sit on the white sandy beach, I feel a slight movement of energy, a wee glow of happiness inside.

I feel the groove starting to come back...

Monday, July 4, 2011

Magical Makira Part One: Shake your Kira Kira

After my adventures in the Weathercoast, I was keen for a couple of days in Honiara, enjoying my bed,  hot showers (well, mostly) and the wonders of electricity. 

My chickens, Henrietta and Priscilla, were nervous at first after their long and traumatic voyage.  At the bogan village, I thought I had lost one of the girls in a dog fight but she made it through just fine. 

I realized when I brought the chickens home that I know absolutely zero about raising chickens.  I vaguely remember something about needing a house, chicken wire and some sort of grit food.  No one told me that chickens can fly.  Over a fence.  Or two.  Or that they like to nest in papaya trees.  Or that when they are scared in the early morning from flying down off of said papaya tree that they make a huge racket. 

Every morning I go out and throw uncooked rice at them, like I am at a wedding.  Priscilla emerges quickly as the dominate one, pecking at Henrietta and stealing her food. 

Mackenzie helps me build a few laying boxes and we wait for several days to see what happens.  A week goes by.  Then one day Mackenzie brings me a small, white creamy egg.  Priscilla has finally come through.  I think there is nothing more thrilling than going into a laying box and seeing a perfectly shaped egg, just sitting there in the straw.  Or maybe I’ve become a boring person…

The week that I am back is really about recovering from my gauntlet of traveling through the Solomons.  Visiting three provinces in four weeks is pretty exhausting.  I simply come home and look for a place of peace and quiet to recover.  Of course there is the usual drama that comes from living in Casa Turchese but it all feels slightly removed from me now.  Spending hours on end in a banana boat has a wonderfully numbing effect and I seem to care less and less about the small things in life and more about the bigger questions.
Like why Henrietta is laying any eggs.

By the time two weeks are up, I feel pretty much rested and ready for the next adventure: Makira.
Okay, I’m going to be honest for a second.  I love Makira.  I puffy heart love Makira province.  I can’t help it.  Sure, it’s not as beautiful as Western Province or as majestic as Guadalcanal but its got something.  It’s got charisma. 

Makira has always played up to its friendly image.  That and the fact that they have more than 100 species of bananas.  Maybe 150 species.  Whatever, thats Makira’s claim to fame.  And Wogasia, of course.
Now, when I went to Wogasia, I was adopted into one of the main two tribes in Makira.  Now this gives me some amount of credibility throughout the province.  That and I can say hello and goodnight in their main language.  

Oh and Makira is pretty much the centre for earthquakes in the Sollies.  Good times!

I fly out of Honiara on Saturday, alone without a companion for the first time.  Obviously I’m nervous but my pidgeon tutor has finally said that I no longer need lessons; am officially fluent in pidgeon.  Setwan!
Like all airstrips, the Kira Kira airport is set just above the water so you don’t really know whether you are actually landing on land or in the sea.  It always make for a slightly tense moment, that and seeing that both tires on the plane are flat. As usual.

We land and chase off some big pigs off the runway.  I walk through the grassy airstrip to meet my team.  Jospehine, a good friend of mine, is there to greet me and ensure I settle in.  Josphine is the kind of woman that you love on sight; she is warm and kind and loves a good laugh.  When I ask her what I should bring from Honiara to give for her she has one simple request: bread.  There is no bread in Kira Kira.  I am humbled by this request; typically I ask for a bottle of my favorite Nando’s Peri Peri sauce or a single malt whiskey from Islay.   

I hand over the bread to Josephine, which she accepts with so much gratitude that I get embarrassed. 
I get a ride to Freshwind, the local guesthouse.  The Freshwind is a wonderful place to stay and definitely not your typical guesthouse.  It’s more like a backpackers, with individual rooms.  There is a clean shower with hot water and a working toilet.  Choice, bro!

The lounge room is clean, tidy and there is Sky TV.  The local RAMSI guys stay there and keep me company while I eat dinner.  The local matron cooks us a beautiful tuna steak with fresh veggies and rice.  Fab!
I go to bed early because I have an early boat ride in the morning.  I wake up at three a.m., as has become a habit of mine, on and off, during the last two years or so.  I watch some junk television and then manage to go to sleep again. 

I wake up to a beautiful morning in Kira Kira and I get a quick tour of the town, which has one main road that appears to snake throughout the small township.   The roads are typically bumpy, made out of dirt or old coral and varies in size.  There are a variety of permanent houses and leaf huts.  There is a small hospital with no doctor.  The provincial offices are small.  But Kira Kira has a lovely feel to it, relaxed and friendly.  Sure there are a few drunks but none of the crazies that roamed Lata or Honiara.  There are no bars and no restaurants but a few shack stores and some kai (food) bars are there.
It would be the last beautiful morning I would get. We take the truck down to the dock where our boat is waiting for us.  We opt for a different, larger boat than a banana boat.  It’s longer and larger than your typical banana boat.  There is no small cabin for luggage and no seats.  The boat is shaped like a ski and with it’s two engines, this baby is a lot faster than your typical banana boat.
I climb in and sit on a hard round pad with a big hole in the middle.  I’m told that it should take four hours to get to our destination.  Never believe a Solomon Islander when it comes to time frames and boats. 

As we make our way out to the other side of the island, it begins to rain hard, thick drops.  I put the rain jacket on over my life vest and listen to my music.  Makira, even in bad weather, is a stunning island, with large lush trees and ragged coastlines. 

After about three hours, we stop into some mangroves for a rest and a bathroom break.  The rain has gone and is replaced with a glaring, hot sun.  We decide to take a little detour over to Santa Catalina island, the place I went to for Wogasia.

The channel between mainland Makira and Santa Catalina is intimidating.  Large swells slow our progess to the island.  I’m happy to see the sunny little island that I called home during the Wogasia festival. 
When we stop there, I meet with another fellow attendee who stayed on to do some work with the festival for next year.  There, I also meet a French anthropologist who is possibly the most glamorous field worker I have seen.  She feeds us some lentil salad (LENTIL SALAD?? Where the frack did she get that?) and chats away with me in French. 

I think I didn’t fully appreciate what Wogasia actually was and how important culturally it is in the Solomon Islands.  It’s the only festival where spears are still involved or allowed but it’s more than just the spears.  It is the whole kastom festival that is so meaningful.  I invite the French anthropologist to dinner at my place to give a full accounting of it (she did her thesis on Wogasia) and will relay back to you, my faithful readers, what I can.

We leave Santa Catalina despite me wanting to stay and talk to my parents.  I am told we have another two or three hours to go.  So I hop into the boat and shortly I fall asleep with the large waves gently rocking me to sleep, hoping to get to our destination soon.