Thursday, December 01, 2005

Guadalcanal -  the Christmas letter ...

This year’s big personal news, of course, is that we’re in the South Pacific.

A reminder of how that came about ... A year ago we mentioned to the PEI rep for CUSO (the volunteer-sending organization with whom we went to Malawi and Malaysia in the late 60s/early 70s) that we could be interested in going overseas when we retired. She said: ‘Give me a resumé and I’ll start looking—it can take a year or a year and a half to find a good match.’  So I did that in February, a bit after turning 60.


A few weeks (!) later we were interviewing for jobs in the Solomon Islands. Interestingly, these jobs relate to our extra-curricular lives over the past years—theatre and book-keeping. What made us move at this time was the coincidence of the CUSO thing and the PEI government’s offer of an early-retirement incentive. So we quit our career jobs in the spring and spent the summer painting/purging/packing-up our house for rental. We spent ten days in July in Ontario, for a CUSO orientation and assorted family visiting—joined by all our children’s families—including the celebration of Mar’s father’s 90th birthday. After wonderful farewells from friends, we left PEI at the end of August, spent a week in Vancouver, and arrived in the Solomon Islands on September 8th.

That was when Hurricane Katrina had caused the total evacuation of New Orleans. We’ve since had a bad hurricane in Central America, and a terrible earthquake in Kashmir. But top disaster for the year was the Boxing Day Tsunami which killed an unbelievable 1/4-million people around the Indian Ocean … which puts in perspective Canadians’ bemoaning the cancellation of the professional hockey season.

We live in Honiara—capital town, pop about 40,000?  We have a ‘modern’ 3-bedroom concrete house, with running water (sometimes—it is being rationed), electricity (sometimes—also being rationed), toilet and shower (even solar hot-water), fridge and stove, couch and easy chairs, telephone with internet connection (dial-up). Lots of louvred windows, with cyclone wire to protect against flying coconuts, metal sheets, etc. in a storm. The walls are sky blue and bright pink, and finish work is poor … but there are some teak floors and a curving rosewood staircase. Our extra bedrooms are occasionally used by CUSO visitors. We live about 3 km from downtown, at the top of a valley which leads steeply up—a taxing 10-minute hike from the main road which runs along the shore of Iron Bottom Sound, (so called because of the sunken remnants of the famous WWII battle of Guadalcanal). From our windows we look down over palm, banana and papaya trees about a kilometre to the open sea and other islands. Our neighbours are closely clustered around us in simple houses elevated on pilings. We get around by mini-buses which run up and down the main road; fare is about 50c Cdn. Honiara is a bit of a dump: there are a few nice places with trees and flowers … but what makes the overwhelming impression is the dirtiness: a lot of dustiness, litter everywhere, and an often pervasive smell of burning garbage. Someone told us about getting used to the weather (always punishingly hot) and dirt—acclimatization and a-grime-atization!

We really appreciate one aspect of the atmosphere: there are almost no tourists; people call us “whiteman” but don’t treat us in any special way, good or bad—just as people. We feel entirely safe and comfortable. Everyone smiles a lot and there’s a PEI-like habit of wishing everyone Good Morning or Hello. The SI pastime is ‘storying’—just shooting the breeze.

The first week we were here, our whole CUSO group lived in a village to start learning Pijin language and something about ordinary culture. Pretty rustic: slept on a pad on the floor; toilet was an open pit; bathed in a stream; diet of cassava, rice, some spinach-like leaves, some fish, etc. … there were rewards, but a bit of a challenge, village life—Mar figures she’s done more than her duty!

We work at LASI, a literacy association, which is a rather sick organization: terrible work ethic and morale, disorganized, can’t even tell whether the several dozen local schools it’s supposed to support are operating. Mar is trying valiantly to put the office in order—with filing, sensible bookkeeping, financial controls etc. I am supposed to do two things: (i) help the Board and staff to get back on track with regard to roles, programs, modes of operation, priority project planning, policies; (ii) train people how to use ‘popular theatre’—drama with a social-action purpose—in their local literacy programs.

An extra: in late October I got to go to a fairly remote station on the east coast of Malaita, another island, for 8 days to help with a workshop of chiefs about development; at the end of each of four days of presentations, I worked with a small group to create and then in the evening perform a play which drove home that day’s material. Great experience: storying with chiefs, leading campfire-like sing-songs with women and children, swimming in a rushing stream, getting caught by a storm in a small boat on the open sea, accidentally eating the nose of a roasted pig.

In Honiara we are not badly off. We can get a decent restaurant meal for about $6 Cdn, and we can buy virtually any groceries we want—green pepper, peanut butter, ground beef, spaghetti, whatever … except sometimes there’ll be a few weeks when, say, tomato paste is not available. Great fruits—watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, mango, limes. With all our walking and a pretty good diet, but mostly because of the heat, we’ve lost weight (2 belt-notches for R). The activity is good, because in retirement we noticed that we were spending whole evenings watching crime shows on TV. But the heat … I see PEI had 3 blizzards in a single week last January … 6” snow twice in April, and even snow on May 13—from here in the sweltering South Pacific, we wax nostalgic!

Some events this year are not fond memories … 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and the end of WW II. Distrust and worry among many toward the U.S. as George Bush started his second term—despite a historic election in Iraq, that situation seems to go nowhere; U.S. budget this year is $2.7 trillion, with a deficit of $427 billion (these are conservatives?!); refusal to comply with Kyoto and international trade rules regarding Canadian beef and softwood lumber. Al-Qaeda attacks on London subway/bus; bombings in Egypt and Jordan. Ethnic rioting in France.

Our pre-retirement life was much the same as last year … for Mar - swimming, bookkeeping, ladies’ night-out; for me - choirs, refugee stuff, theatre. Oh, one change: cheap seniors’ tickets at the cinema!

China’s population hit 1.3 billion, and it is becoming an economic giant. The 6th Harry Potter book appeared—a worldwide event, and the biggest publishing run in Canadian history. Some famous deaths: the charismatic Pope John-Paul; Monaco’s Prince Rainier; Yasir Arafat; Terry Shiavo, the woman who was finally allowed to die after a huge controversy which went all the way to the US Congress and Supreme Court. In our simple PEI, we had a major news story about the death of an old harness-racing horse who sired many winners. Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles. Canada changed its law so as to allow for same-sex marriage … and even PEI had its first.

Ken (34) and Wakako had their second anniversary; Megan (30) and Chris their third. Their son Jordan is 1 ½, and it’s great to be grandparents being excited about his walking, talking, etc. … except that it has to be mostly at long-distance—although we did get to spend time with him during summer visits in PEI, Ontario and Vancouver just before we departed Canada. Although someone stepped on and broke Ken’s hand, his Ultimate team again became Canadian masters champs. Wakako has just endured a gruelling first term for a masters (of business admin) degree at UBC.

Can’t say too much about Alec (31), because our contact with Banff is sporadic; and so, we admit, we often feel concerned. He moved to a new house, but continues to share with people he’s lived with for years. Graham (24) moved to Montreal last January to do his Masters degree at McGill in solo voice performance (for opera). At that time he was strongly affected by the death of a good friend (skiing accident). He lived on his own, but since September—after summer in Edmonton and London—he’s been sharing with four others, including PEI pals. That’s London Canada—the location of his serious girlfriend, Suzy.

Canada’s Liberal (Paul Martin) government just fell. Canadians have been disgusted by the political sleaziness emerging from the Gomery inquiry into the ‘sponsorship scandal’. On the other hand there is the inspiration of a new Governor-General, Michaelle Jean, who is (as was her predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson), from a refugee family, and overcame big odds to become successful in broadcasting and the arts. Along those lines, this was the 25th anniversary of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.

Back to the Solomon Islands. An impressionistic list to try to give you a taste …

- Church music—from guitar/folk mass to astonishing a-capella four-part harmony … plus young people dancing up the aisle … Every meeting, by the way, starts with a prayer.

- Betel-chewing … lips and teeth stained orange-red … spit-splotches everywhere on the ground … people stopping on the way to work to pick up betel—like grabbing a coffee at Tim Horton’s

- Tattoos: lots … including uncoloured stylized designs scratched onto people’s faces as infants

- Really cute kids (‘pikinini’ in Pijin), many with surprising golden-blond hair

- Wonderful exotic woods, clever carving with shell inlay, artifacts like ancient shell money, bark painting, soapstone sculptures

- Chinatown (where our office is)—like the street in a 1950s western movie—wooden verandahs and between-building walkways, dust, fascinating signs, crowds and bustle of commerce

- Mango madness: start-of-season frenzy—climbing trees, hurling missiles to knock down fruit

- Australians everywhere—a huge investment of people and money to try to get the country back on its feet after “the Tensions”, the low-level civil war a few years ago

- Mid-evening outside our window—pitter-patter of small feet - group chanting “Good night Mar and Rob—have a nice sleep” … Group of drinkers by the bottle shop down the hill: “Halo, uncle Rob”

- Sudden all-drenching rains … great lightning displays over the sea

- Stories about black magic and ways to ward it off (carry turmeric that has been blessed)

- Sound of coconut being scraped out (scratch, scratch, scratch) for cooking

- 13 passengers (+ driver + conductor) jammed in a mini-bus; conductor calls out the stops—Kukum Hot Bread, Casino, Kingdom Hall, Down Kola, Baha’i, Supreme (our own stop)

- Music groups at the market: 5-foot pan pipes played by wind and as percussion (striking ends with flip-flop sandals)

- Battle of brains and wills: 2 weeks of ever-more-devious trap-setting before I caught the little rat in our kitchen

- Everyone barefoot in the office … many go barefoot in the streets - tough feet!

A big change from being overseas 35 years ago—communication: local phone, daily email contact, even VOIP - telephoning Canada by computer (we brought a laptop). For entertainment: lots of dinners (at home and out) with friends; can watch a rented movie on computer; trip to the beach; happy hour at the Yacht Club; game of cards. The 25 Canadians in Honiara gathered for a turkey/pumpkin etc. potluck for Thanksgiving. And most of our CUSO gang celebrated Hallowe’en at our house—with beach costumes, a jack-o-lantern, stuffed pumpkins, some ghost stories, treat bags and bobbing for star-fruit (no apples).

There are plastic snowmen in shop windows—in the 30-degree sun—as we lead up to Christmas. It’s the big SI holiday; people go back to home villages, and work grinds down for about a month. We will go with a half-dozen CUSO people to the western-province islands for about 10 days—to visit the protected and uninhabited island of Tetapare (where a CUSO couple does park-warden duty), and also to a couple of eco-lodges on small islands in the gloriously beautiful Morova Lagoon … for swim & snorkel, hiking, turtle-watching, birds, awesome trees. It won’t be a very traditional Christmas, but we will be thinking traditional Christmas thoughts about our blessings—including the people we value so much.

From this very warm place, we send our warm wishes to you

Rob & Mar

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