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Monday, January 31, 2011

This one is for the boys...

I think one of the saddest things I’ve seen is a Wildcat airplane sitting in a jungle, rotting in the hot sun.  The Wildcat was pretty much intact when it crashed in 1943 but years of sunning in the Solomons and looters have let it a shell.   

Stan, his son Ryan, and myself embarked on a little day trip west of Honiara to the open air WW2 museum.  First off, finding the museum is no easy task; the sign has been ripped down at least three times by locals.  Secondly, it’s pretty far out of town.  There are small roads leading in and out of the jungle so it is pretty difficult to figure out which one it is.  Good thing Stan had been there before and despite his mass of white hair, his memory is pretty intact.

We are greeted by Anderson, who has been hired to be the caretaker and tour guide of the place.  The open air museum used to be quite something back before the Tension, but it was raided for anything useful during the conflict. Now it’s just filled with the skeletons of the war.

The museum is filled with relics from the brutal Solomon Island campaign; the wreckage of ten planes sit under trees (and sometimes have trees growing in them, with branches snaking around the metal and holding the plane tight to the trunk).  Large artillery guns sit abandoned and a large copper cooking pot is riddled with bullet holes.  Anderson shows me where bees have attached themselves to the hanging vines of a tree and died; a sort of bee graveyard.  Hundreds of bee carcasses cling to the vines.  Even the bees know that this is where you come to die.

I walk towards the Wildcat; its frame is almost completely intact.  It sits there, sort of ghostly, the metal still gleaming in the sunlight.  Anderson shows us how to bend back its wing; a useful piece of engineering to store more planes on a carrier.  While the electronics and all the wiring and all the other stuff is gone, it feels amazing to run my hands down the intact wing and run my fingers across the make, model and patent number (patent pending).

Anderson, the caretaker, proudly walks us through the rest of the museum.  It isn’t very large but there are several Japanese, U.S. and New Zealand memorial plaques there. 

As the war is fading fast into our collective memories, so have visits from tourists and veterans.  We look around the grass is high; there is barely a path to follow.  It must have been at least two or three weeks since anyone else had been here.

The amazing thing about the open air museum is to really touch these planes.  These aren’t replicas, they aren’t museum models.  These planes were shot down in battle.  The retrieval stories of these planes are probably as interesting as the war itself; some were pulled from the bottom of lagoons; others towed from the deep jungles in Guadalcanal and Savo.     

Anderson was a part of all that, in the late 1960s and 1970s.  That was the time when war veterans seem to reconnect with their past and could finally talk about it again.  Anderson looks sad; he says he hasn’t seen a veteran here for several years.  It is a reminder that we are losing all those brave men to the inevitable; old age. I bet some of those guys in retirement homes thought they would never made it off Guadalcanal alive.  32,000 Japanese and 7,000 Americans died here.

On the memorial for the Japanese, it states: “when two sides go to war, both leave the battle scarred and wounded.  Both are defeated.”

I believe that.  Even though we won the war, it was at an enormous cost.  Stan says to me that he thinks about the enormous waste of money because it is simply too hard for him to think about the loss of life.  I understand.

Stan, my intrepid neighbor, is one of my favorite people in Honiara.  His wife Jean too.  Stan was born in Egypt and has travelled around the world, working in far off places like Afghanistan and East Timor.  He is practical and moves quickly.  We go to the market together and he walks off, anxious to get his fruits and veggies. 

Now, being an obvious foreigner with my hands filled with produce and flowers, and alone has made me a target for a pickpocketer.

I knew it was happening; I could sense myself being watched from above and the man pushed me unnecessarily and moved fast.  A local woman screamed at him and grabbed his arm.  I looked down at my pocket and my money was still there, all accounted for.

A crowd gathered around the young man, who denied any wrong doing.  I glared at him and moved forward to confront him.  He ran off.  I guess I have a fairly mean glare.

This, however, brings home a point for me.  As a single woman, I am constantly targeted by men here.  Either they want to sleep with me, mug me or take advantage in some way.  Here I feel it truly is a man’s world.  It seems the men make the decisions and the women have to dutifully stick by their men.  Except in cases of pickpocketing, where it was a woman who helped me out.  

The funny thing is that women in development jobs outnumber men pretty significantly, so obviously women chose to put themselves in this kind of environment. 

Anyway, Jeremy comes around, quite unaware about the pickpocketing incident.  I tell him but he doesn’t here.  I’m slightly shaken up by it, to be honest.

I go home and meet up with Marco, who is also not too worried about the experience and just states it is a normal part of life.  He is probably right; it’s a pretty common thing in Italy.  I remember when I was in Rome celebrating my 21st birthday, my grandfather was picket pocketed not once but twice.  Tessa and Marco are both reveal one night that they are both Sicilian, which I can’t decide if that makes me feel safer or makes me want to lock my bedroom door at night.   

But I do have my wantok around me if things get tough.  Eddy returns from surfing the amazing breaks in Gizo (he wanted to surf a break that NO ONE he knew would have surfed).  He goes to the market on Sunday and buys fresh tuna.  The two houses break into a raw fish making competition; Eddy with his poke (raw fish dish from Hawai’i) and Marco with his capriccio.  Actually, Marco teaches me how to make it while he is busy cooking.  Some olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and spring onions can do wonderful things…  

Tuna is amazing.  A darker and richer fish than most, you can replace pretty much most meat with tuna.  It’s a good thing too; one thing the Solomons have in spades is fresh tuna.

Marco makes the most delicious tuna pasta I have ever eaten.  The things the man can do with food is unreal… basically we use all the fish and he kindly fries up some fish heads for me.  Clearly, the man knows the way to my heart…fish heads.  I happily eat one at dinner until I find its tongue.  Now, eating tongue feels wrong.  It’s like you are making out with the fish.  Only not.  Anyway, it’s not good and turned me off fish heads, at least until the next morning, when Marco fries me up another fish head and its all go.

The protein breakfast does me some good; I voluntarily go to Hash in the evening.  Now, we have not one, but two cyclones in the area making everything wet and windy.  The rain is coming down in curtains and it takes all of two minutes for me to get completely soaked. 

Now, the event is a bit of a hill run and it quickly turns into mud skiing.  I spend more time on my ass than I do on my feet.  I’m soaked to the bone, covered in mud.  Some local boys decide to follow and laugh at us unfit white people struggling to stand in the mud.  But they are good sorts and help us through some of the unsafe bits.  We trek through a plantation of cassava plants and sadly, we used some for stability.  Some cassava plants did not survive the Hash experience.

At times I was annoyed, scared and numb.  But overall I had an absolutely blast; what an adventure trekking through the mud and rain in lush out hills of Honiara.  Afterwards I felt alive and happy. 

Marco and Tessa, who both piked out of Hash to hang out at the Mendana Hotel, got wet, muddy hugs from me.  Marco ran away quickly; it’s not nice to mess with an Italian man’s appearance.  I think he is still at home, try to wash the mud out of his clothes…

I have to say I was getting a bit bitter, a bit jaded about the men folk.  Watching gender dynamics in this country can be difficult and challenging and my own past has coloured my view about boys.

But this week challenged me to rethink my relationship with men.  From taking me to see the old bombed out WW2 planes to getting fed tuna to having my hand held in the rain and mud (thank you Rainmaker!), men have been there for me this week.  I marvel at what happened here in WW2; I mean, sure men caused it in the first place but they also committed selfless acts of bravery too.      

So I guess what I’m trying to convey is my thanks to the boys this week…this one is for you.