Saturday, February 11, 2006

Feb in the Solomons

Hello, our friends.  Here’s the (close-to-)monthly newsletter for Jan/Feb ...

  5 months, now, we’ve been here in the Solomons.  The dominant feature for January: rain.  In two ways ...

First, although we evidently don’t get the sort of clockwork-regularity monsoon of southeast Asia, it is a sort of rainy season through January, February, March.  The pattern has been that it rains an hour or two, two days out of three.  When it rains, it can pour.  The property beside our house is the start of a sort of bowl, down whose sides the water comes to form a stream that gushes past our front step and on down the hill.  Paths are sort of slimy.  There’s a layer of mud everywhere … which shows us why, in dryer times, Honiara gets so dusty.

  The second thing is that we were feeling the effects of a cyclone (“Jim”) that was stalled between Vanuatu and New Caledonia.  For more than a week it rained every day, virtually throughout the day and night.  In the early stage, although there was not much wind, the sea became rougher than it has been in the past 8 years … the rollers broke through the sea-wall of the hotel at the foot of our hill and flooded its restaurant and the city’s main boulevard.  Several small ships were washed ashore.  Even a week later ship voyages were being cancelled.

  Solomon Islanders seem a bit wimpy about the rain.  A lot of kids did not go to school some days last week because of the rain – indeed, as schools on PEI were cancelled by the blizzard last week, some schools here cancelled because of all the rain; one even cancelled one day because it was “cold” (? under 30 degrees?!)  Even at work there was a day when nobody (except us) turned up until 11:00.

  The weather may have been symbolic, reflective of our life at work in the Literacy Association of the Solomon Islands! We get pretty discouraged, to be honest.  Half of the organization’s funding is in serious jeopardy because of sloppy accounting and reporting over the past couple of years, and Mar is having a heck of a time trying to sort things out with the German funding agent, the local auditor, and the woefully ignorant chairman-of-the-board and director of our literacy office.  Most of the things we try to get established to give LASI some stability and a fresh start – e.g. sorting out our service to the prison, staffing and sensible contract arrangements with our employees – bog down … and meanwhile we seem to be doing nothing in the area where LASI is meant to serve: supporting an islands-wide network of home-grown community literacy schools.

  Some very bad news a few weeks ago – two deaths.  Mar’s aunt in Holland … and then the real blow – Hasina Afzali, the 16-year-old daughter of the Afghani family with whom we were so closely involved over the past three years.  Very upsetting.

  We’ve had company staying at our house off and on – Dave, the park warden on the uninhabited island where we spent part of our Christmastime holiday, who has just headed off for a chief-warden job with Parks Canada on Baffin Island (extreme heat to extreme cold), and his wife Laurie, who will be staying on in a job here in SI, possibly with us.  Good company.

  Mar has again taken up cross-stitching … but her major leisure activity, whether in the evening or during the power-out hours in the office at noon, is Sudoku puzzles (the Japanese number grid game).  I’m taking part in a drama-game activity called “playback” once a week after work.

  Got a Christmas parcel from daughter Meg, with some delightful goodies: even a package of Kraft Dinner – which Mar just had to cook that very night.  It also included two CDs of recorded TV shows (‘CSI-Miami’ and ‘Medium’), which we’ve been raptly watching on computer on several nights.  We’re pathetic.  One of the reasons we were glad to head overseas was our realization that in retirement we were spending some evenings just watching TV … even looking forward to a program like CSI or Medium!

  Several purchases:

- a very fine ebony carving of sea creatures in a hollow column form

- a bottle of rum!

- prayer and hymn books, since we have settled on the church we’ll go to (at least usually) … It’s St. Barnabas, the Anglican cathedral where they have the fantastic 4-part a capella singing; the dozen young servers whose precision movements match the RCMP musical ride; occasionally the youth group in traditional dress (grass skirts, shells, etc.) who put on a 10-minute dance to bring up the gifts; and the man who puts on such a show with the incense burner, including what in yo-yo terms we used to call “Around the world”!

  A 30-metre swimming pool has just opened at the Honiara Hotel, and we’ve dropped in a few times on the way home from work. One Sunday after a swim we had lunch in the HH restaurant … and as we paid, we noticed that the liquor bottles behind the bar include Canadian Club - the only rye whisky we’ve ever seen in the Solomons.  Might be worth an evening visit!

  One Sunday afternoon we walked out of town to visit the village of one of the CUSO staff.  Lots of storying with her family, mainly about two pieces of history: 1) how the village was wiped out a few years ago during ‘the Tension’ when rival ethnic groups of tribal ruffians took the country to the brink of civil war … 2) how the CUSO person’s father rescued a downed American airman in 1942.  We saw the monument to that exploit, beside memorials for Japanese soldiers who died like flies as they took control of Guadalcanal.

  Another Sunday afternoon walk was to visit a couple where the woman (Holly) is a Canadian academic who had part of her youth in Montague PEI, and did her PhD on sex practices among young Malaitans! … and the husband (Aru) is a Solomon Islander who is a star soccer player, a taxi driver, and one of the gentlest and nicest persons you could ever hope to meet. Tea and fresh-from-the-oven cookies - yum.

  We listen to the BBC, but it says almost nothing about happenings in Canada – over the election campaign there was not a single story.  We tried to take part in the election.  However, despite our faxing the application to Elections Canada on December 12th and making a special arrangement with the Australian High Commission to send the votes via Canberra to Canada, we have yet to receive our ballots!

  More personal news from Canada: three weeks ago son Graham sang the lead role in McGill’s production of the Bernstein opera “Candide” … Oh how we wish we could have been there.

  Big achievement: we ate some durian.  This is the fruit which causes Malaysians to go wild with excitement when the season starts … the one that stinks up the entire country.  In Malaysia we could never force ourselves to get past the smell to try eating it.  But two weeks ago a neighbour gave us one – they call it jack-fruit here – and we succeeded in cleaning it and having a taste … tolerable, but we did not go wild with excitement.

  No change in the scheduled power outages – 2 hours at noontime in our office’s area; 4 or even 6 hours a day in other sections of town.  The water continued to be turned off from 8:30 pm till 6:00 am … but that has not happened during the past three nights, and so maybe there’s a change.

Some miscellaneous impressions:

- common greeting on the street - raising chin/tipping head back a little (a reverse nod) or even just a quick lifting of the eyebrows

- shrieks of a flock of parrots … the screeching of the neighbours’ pet cockatoo

- howling, and _moaning_ of the dogs – bursting out together in a multi-tonal chorus for two or three minutes at a time, passing the tune from valley to valley

- fantastic canopies of cardinal-red blossoms on the flamboyant trees (which SI folks call ‘Christmas tree’ because of the timing of the blooming)

- foot-deep ruts in some of the roads

- open trucks carrying 20 or more people, regardless of rain, on roads out of town toward villages

- the rattle of coconut palm fronds in a gust of wind

- variety of hair-styles, both men and women: intricate braiding patterns … makes nit-picking easier, too

- some men’s finger-nails: often a one-inch thumbnail; sometimes with nail-polish

- the litter - in some places a carpet of plastic bottles and bags, tins and packages

- the straightforward common-sense of Pijin as a mode of [removed]as long as you don’t need precision or shades of meaning) … the simple strength of some vocabulary – e.g. ‘Disfala komputa hemi _bagerap_’ (This computer is broken, not working; it’s ‘buggered-up’)

- “Customer Service” at the national tax office: open 3 ˝ hours a day … unable to provide forms … sends you off to other places where you have to knock on locked doors to find a person who can answer questions

- not having to fret about tipping: it simply is not a custom, for any service

- not having to worry about a craftsman trying to rip you off: you can even commission a piece and know that the person will charge you a fair price

- greenness - especially, for example, if you go up on the ridges behind Honiara and look out over the network of treed valleys to the grass-clad gullies and plateau beyond

- a string of our neighbours coming to fill water-bottles from our rain tank: “Rob, Marie – oraet mi tekem wata?”

  Visits to the Juvenile unit of the prison have been the best piece of work.  Even there, there have been some frustrating cancellations or delays … but I really get energized by the boys, and a surprisingly good relationship has developed with some of the guards.  One day as I was leaving, I made some small joke about hoping they’d soon provide air conditioning in the cell-block for visiting cold-blooded Canadians … the guard, Larry – an immense and unbelievably tough-looking guy who had been quite terse – got the joke (after a 3-second delay – my pijin?) … burst out laughing and grabbed my hand … and in the SI way, held onto it for the next two minutes.

  In a way that’s typical: we often get discouraged … and then someone will give us a big smiling greeting or we’ll have some good storying with someone … and we get a boost.  Speaking of boost, they came late, but we got a stack* of Christmas cards in January: what a good perk-me-up reminder of the good friends we have.

Rob & Mar

  [*In Pijin, “staka” means lots, plenty e.g. “staka fren” = a lot of friends]

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