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Sunday, January 16, 2011

My Wantok

In the Solomon Islands (and most of Melanesia), there is something called the wantok system.  The translation of wantok literally means “one language or someone who speaks the same language”.    

Once someone speaks the same language, you are obliged to take care of them.  To be a member of someone’s wantok, you either have to be a family member or someone who comes from the same place.  Or someone who is friends with someone who comes from the same place. Or have visited that place at some point.

I’m actually not entirely sure what constitutes someone as being a member of your wantok; the rules seem slightly fuzzy to me.   But, if someone is a member of your wantok, it is your responsibility to look after them, especially if you are older than them.  Well up to a point and then when you are old enough, the wantok takes care of you.  There are no homes for the elderly here; the wantok looks after its elders.  However, the life expectancy is 71, so maybe there is something there…. 

The wantok system does leaves the Solomon Islands sort of open to in country corruption; because you are always looking out of for your wantok, you give them the plum jobs, money, land rights, etc…at times, this makes having an expat running an organization somewhat desirable because there is no chance of items or money owned by said organization going into the wantok system.  It also can create a system of reliance on the more successful members of the wantok by the less motivated or successful members.

I mean it does make perfect sense to want to look after your wantok because, in a smaller society, you need to make sure that someone has your back.  However there can be a huge culture clash when organizational structures created overseas are imposed on the wantok system.

Now, I’ve decided to go with the wantok system for myself.  Recently, Eddy from Hawai’i, came to visit.  I used to live in Hawaii, Moilili, to be specific.  Eddy grew up just up the road from where I used to live.  I’ve decided that he is a member of my wantok and therefore I must look after him.  Eddy seems to be open to the idea of being one of my wantok, even though I actually grew up thousands for miles from Hawaii.  But still, when you live far away, your wantok rules become pretty cloudy…Eddy and I say “da kine” and other things; we speak the same language.

Eddy isn’t the first person to be identified in my wantok.  I’ve taken in James and Steve because they are a) both from New Zealand and b) are in the same volunteer programme as me.  Plus it helps that they are really nice guys.  AND when I come and visit, I fully expect to be housed, fed and have my feet rubbed by those boys.  Now that’s when the wantok system really works…

Anyway, pretty much anyone from Canada or the U.S. would be part of my wantok.  My mom is French, so I’ll bring the frenchies in too.  And my grandmother is Italian, so why not the Italians? I already live with two of them…While some of you might balk at such big numbers, it’s actually quite reasonable.  Americans are rare in this part of the world, only about 100 or so in country.  Frenchies are rarer still.  There are five Italians.  One is a catholic bishop, the other a nun.  The rest live in about 10 metres of where I live.

I like the wantok system; it creates a family away from home, at least for me.  And, as any expat will probably tell you, close friends are essential for keeping your sanity (except for James who is, of course, a total rockstar and doesn’t need anything but number 8 wire, a few novels and the resident saltwater crocodile, Mr. Snouty.)

One of my wantok from New Zealand, Charlie, has his final leaving do on Thursday evening.  He and two fellow expats play guitar and sing.  Man, they are amazing; I spend less time talking to friends and just listening to the sound of passionate people doing something they love.  To add to the music, it pours down with rain, adding percussion to the music.

Charlie’s shoes have, thankfully, been found.  Funnily enough, someone who works with the police grabbed them on accident, as we suspected.  Charlie leaves Honiara with his shoes.  I wish him well on journey; he is off to Hawaii, a place very dear to my heart.  I know full well what it feels like to leave a place I have grown to love; it feels like you are jumping off the face of the earth.

Anyway, after work one day, I drive Tina, my faithful counterpart in my host organization, home for the first time.  Tina lives past the airport, in the palm plantation.  As we drive further and further from Honiara, the area changes from ramshackle buildings to deserted bush.  Very few people are walking along the road and there are fewer cars.  One way bridges are the norm as we cross over huge brown rivers, due to the intense rains, 30 metre below us.

I stop at Tina’s place which has a lush, huge garden and yard.  Her house is beautiful, filled with wood paneling.  Most Solomon houses have a large amount of wood; the stuff is pretty plentiful here. Tina has a huge flat screen television, which I eye up in envy; I haven’t owned a television in four years.  I always think I’m probably better for it but there is something about being disconnected from the rest of the world that sometimes bothers me. 

She makes me creamed banana, which I am immediately wary of.  Cooking bananas are larger and starchier than their chubbier, yellow counterparts.  Typically green, they are neither sweet nor savory.  In the Solomons, these bananas are cooked with a bit of water and salt and are typically blander than a potato.  But the salty banana covered in coconut milk is good; the saltiness and creaminess works somehow.

Tina picks her best beans for me and gives me some rose plantings for my new house.  Her beautiful children run around me, happy.  Tina is 30, her life perfectly balanced and happy.  I’m 32 and starting over.  Our lives could not be more different but she puts her arm around me.

“You are my wantok now, Sara.” 

I can’t help but get a bit emotional at being given wantok status by Tina. Tina is from Lae in Papau New Guinea…I know now that my wantok could beat up your wantok and eat them for dinner. Seriously.
Tina is one of the best people I have met here and I am profoundly grateful for such a patient, funny, creative and competent counterpart.  

 (Mom and Dad, stop reading this if you don’t want to have a heart attack.)

 I feel like there is something in Papau New Guinea drawing me in; I’m terrified of it so I have to go.  The romance has already begun; I’m wantok AND Tina has given me the Air Niugini in-flight magazine.  Plus Tessa has a copy of the Lonely Planet guide for PNG.  Clearly I am now an expert in all things PNG.

The pictures promise adventures in the Highlands, a diverse cultural experience and crystal clear waters in the islands.  I feel like it’s only a matter of time before the current trajectory of my life lands me there.   

Occasionally I worry that I’m in danger of going tropo; a term used for ex pats that end up in the bush for years at a time, living as locals do and unable to re-integrate back into their own society.   Think Robinson Crusoe combined with Marlin Brando in Apocalypse Now and you will get an inkling of what I mean.   

Turning tropo does have some romance to it; after living here for awhile, the world of internet, satellite television and people living in little homes never going out or socializing with each can seem pretty cold.

Anyway, I give up on being tropo for now, although I am trying to do things a bit more locally.  For instance, I am trying to make my own coconut milk, which involves scrapping the brown coconuts out and taking the meat of the coconut and squeezing it until rich cream comes out.  Back in New Zealand, I would just buy a can of coconut milk but canned goods are expensive here.  So I need a coconut scrapper but finding one is easier said than done.

The next day we continue the unending quest for a coconut scraper.  Seriously, I have been to every hardware shop and got nothing.  The only reply I would get when I ask is:

“Go lo market on Satuday.  They garem coconut scrapers.”

Saturday market is crammed full of people and despite having many things, coconut scrapers are nowhere to be seen.  I want to be able to make my own coconut milk by doing it manually but apparently, my quest for being independent of cans remains elusive. 

The trip to the market isn’t in vain; we buy bunches of fresh tropical flowers to decorate the house and use old water bottles for vases.   

Afterwards, we stop at the lovely Margaret’s garden.  Margaret is a local woman with a killer green thumb; her garden is outside of central Honiara, closer to the beaches.  Her village is filled with classic grass huts and houses and is a happy place with kids playing the bamboo pipes and the drums.  The lids of cans are made into cymbals and they sing in perfect harmony.  Music is possible with anything; you just have to want to make it.  James and I just stand and listen to the music.  Both of us love music; another kind of language and we both speak it (he plays guitar, I play piano).  Another reason why James and I are wantok.   

I talk to Margaret about growing in the Solomons and she offers some sage advice.  Margaret has an infectious smile and gladly shares her gardening secrets with me.  We pick up basil, mint and James picks out a beautiful bird of paradise as a gift for the house.  Margaret is a local woman who clearly loves gardening; hundreds of little plants surround her in a variety of containers including old tyres and paint cans.  Around her, everything seems lush. 

Now, I learned to garden in New Zealand.  After years of being a garden denier but happily taking veggies out of my ex mother-in-law’s beautiful garden, I broke down and became a gardener.  I found the experience profoundly rewarding.  I planted; things grew that I could eat.  It seemed so easy.  And I, fortunately, never have had a dirt phobia.  If I had, there is no way I could have survived two days in the muddy, dusty Solomons. 

In fact, as a little girl, I used to make mud cities for ants to populate…the ants were never very impressed with my high and mid rises and stuck to their more elaborate made homes underground.  Anyway, the little mud child in me can’t wait to give my green thumb a go; already growing wild at the house are pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelon and slippery cabbage.

We leave the happy village for the roast chicken stand on our way back to town.  Now, while some people might balk at buying chicken on the side of the road, I’ve got no issues with it. In Namibia, my best girl Katie (Hi Katie!) and I used to eat at a place that we called the “meat” hut. Raw meat hung from hooks and was typically covered in flies.  The proprietors of the meat hut barbequed the meat there and I have to be honest, it was the best meat I ever ate.  Barbecued chicken is no problem for me.

James, Tessa and I eat the chicken with rice, spring onions and cucumber on a bench at the beach.  The chicken is greasy and fibrous; I take a huge bit and struggle to swallow.  I look around me, wondering if it’s impolite to spit it out.  Dogs circle us; anxious for our scraps.

As we sit beside the ocean, the water appears unusually cloudy.  It’s been rainy; we have had two cyclone warnings in as many days.  They don’t call it the rainy season here for nothing.  The ocean is pretty dirty from the flooding rivers but it is still peaceful.

We stop at the Rain Tree Café; one of the landmarks of Honiara, in the somewhat dodgy area of White River.  The Café is perched on a wall overlooking the ocean.  We sip on bush lime drinks, which come out eventually.  The carpark is filled with local arts and crafts; I eye up a stone octopus but don’t buy it.

One of the best parts of the Rain Tree Hotel is the toilet.  It’s a long drop or composting toilet that is a fairly good sized shack.  There are two toilets side by side, nothing separating them.  The wall is cut away so you can look out into the ocean as you…well…do what needs to be done. The Rain Tree is also a bed and breakfast.  The place works also as a tourist booking agency; day walks and surfing expeditions can be booked directly from there.

We go home and James, again, cooks.  James is enjoying full use of our kitchen and Tessa and I couldn’t be happier to let him cook to his hearts’ content.  Saturday evening is taken up by a cracker of a party; my friend Bud’s birthday.  For the party, Bud has purchased a stack of clothes from the second hand shop and we all have to dress in them.  After choosing a costume that “looks like I’m a nun”, my friend and another wantok member, Daphne, styles me much more appropriately.

I know I shouldn’t have favorites in my wantok but Daphne is just cool.  From New York, she never fails to make me laugh or think or both even when I want to do neither.  I enjoy her amazing dress sense and her ability to entertain everyone around her.  She exudes warmth and fun.  If she wasn’t such a nice person, I might almost hate her.  Yeah, I got a girl crush; whatever, it’s cool.

Anyway, the men wear dresses…one of my good friends has a spandex unitard and resembles Super Man.  I go down to the pool and chat with some nice looking Aussie blokes and unitard boy takes a stack of wet clothes and puts them on my head.  I promptly push him into the pool; he flies through the air like, well, Superman, until he hits the water with a resounding splash.

All and all a good party; one of the better ones I have been to in Honiara.   

The next evening Eddy and I talk about Hawaii.  I loved living in Hawaii; I was constantly on the go and I had great friends there.  I loved the heat and the ocean but most of all the culture; Hawaii is a vibrant place.  Eddy and I reminisce about Bubbies Ice Cream, the Dew Drop Inn, the Indian Kitchen and Magoos.  It was a golden time in my life. 

Eddy asks me a good question: if I loved it so much, why don’t I go back?  Because all those places I listed above are closed now.  My friends have all moved to different parts of globe.  It simply wouldn’t be the same. You can never really go back.  And even if you did, you would see the place with totally different eyes, changing your experience of a place. 

And perhaps that is one of the best things I’ve learned here.  I’ve cared for people like they were family, even though I’ve only known them for months, weeks or even days.  We have looked after each other with much affection and kindness. I’ve made connections and built relationships at lightning speed because of the shared cultural connections, because we “speak the same language”.  Those connections help me live in the now.  I am deeply grateful to my wantok. 

Maybe that is the best thing about a wantok; a huge extended family that cares and looks after one another. 
This is all well and good until I go tropo and start committing tribal warfare on opposing villages in PNG. Then I might be in a spot of trouble…