Sunday, October 02, 2005

Life in the Solomons

Sunday 2 Oct/05 (14 hours ahead of PEI time)

Hi there

Our telephone got hooked up at the end of the week, and yesterday Mar managed to get our internet/email working ... so here’s a record of our first 3 ˝ weeks in the Solomon Islands.

We left PEI August 30, as the people of New Orleans were trying to cope with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Our first week was spent in Vancouver, visiting and saying farewell to two of our children’s families. On the afternoon of Tuesday September 6 we flew to Los Angeles, and then by Qantas across the Pacific for 12 hours – it sure is a big ocean! – to Aukland … then on to Brisbane on the east Australian coast … and finally a 3-hour further flight north to Honiara in the Solomons. By this time it was mid-afternoon on Thursday, September 8. Why? because Wednesday disappeared as we crossed the International Dateline.

The heat hit us like a hammer as we stepped off the plane and stood in line (for a long time) in the immigration and customs queue – our first taste of Solomon-style speed and efficiency. Off we went to our home, a brand new house; in fact it was just getting its doors hung and its tile floor laid, and is still a bit of a work-in-progress. Further, it didn’t get cleaned, and so we’re doing that in a staged fashion now. We were sharing it with another couple, Matt and Anna, who left early this week (Sept 27) for another island for their assignment.

The house is a ‘modern’ one, made of concrete rather than timber and sago-palm leaf battens. Downstairs there is a spacious kitchen with fridge, propane stove, sink and lots of cupboards; a small dining area; and a big living area whose two walls are almost entirely windows. There is cyclone wire on all windows – a sort of steel checkerboard which is meant to protect against flying coconuts, metal sheets, etc. in a storm. Downstairs is all painted bright pink. We are soon supposed to get a couch and a couple of comfy chairs. The major feature of the house is a curving staircase made of rosewood: dramatic, beautiful … but the finish work is poor, which is typical throughout the house. Upstairs we have three bedrooms, each with a sort of built-in wardrobe and teak floors. Lots of louvred windows. The bathroom has a flush toilet, a tiny sink, and a huge tiled bathing/shower tub or pool. Yes, we have running water (even hot, from a solar unit on the roof) and electricity. The plan is that our extra bedrooms can be used by CUSO visitors.

The house is located in an area about 3 or 4 kilometres from the centre of Honiara, which is stretched out in a narrow band along the sea – called Iron Bottom Sound, because of the sunken remnants of the famous WWII sea battle of Guadalcanal. From the main 4-lane road we have a 10-minute walk up a track which leads in a fairly steep way up into a narrow valley. From our windows we look down over palm and papaya trees about a kilometre to the open sea and other islands. Back of Honiara is a maze of gullies and ridges, and every surface is used for housing and small gardens. Our neighbours are closely clustered all around us. Most of them have very simple houses elevated on pilings, so as to have an under-house space for wood-fire cooking, washing, lounging and such; some construction is from boards, some from metal sheets. Our place certainly stands out as different in our immediate cluster, but a few houses further up, the top of the ridge has fancier places than ours, so I guess we have a sort of average place. Our closest neighbours do not have water and electricity, nor indoor toilet.

Honiara is a bit of a dump. The surrounding hills look pretty good, and there are a few places where trees and flowers are nice … but mostly the buildings are very plain; there is little attempt at beautification; and what makes the overwhelming impression is the dirtiness: a lot of dustiness, litter everywhere, and an often pervasive smell of burning garbage. We heard a cute way of describing the need to get used to the weather and dirt – acclimatization and a-grime-atization!

There have been times in these first weeks, especially as we start a day, when we have been feeling lonesome and discouraged by the physical character of the town, the differentness of everything, and the isolation from family and friends. But we are getting along.

Here’s the really good news: some of our co-workers and our neighbours are delightful, and we are already able to communicate in a passable way through Pidgin and English. In fact the Solomons used to be called “The Friendly Isles” and that’s true. We really appreciate the atmosphere: there are almost no tourists, and people don’t seem to treat foreigner/whites in any special way, good or bad – just as people. Everyone smiles a lot and there’s a PEI-like habit of wishing everyone Good Morning or Hello. Right beside us is a houseful of women – five of them in three generations: grandma, late-20s daughter (a policewoman) and two friends, and the grandaughter. We “story” a lot – the SI pastime – about cooking, conditions in Canada, market, the neighbourhood and so on. We just had a visit, too, from the builder of this house and his wife, Samson and Ruby, our landlords who are nice and full of life and very helpful.

We moved in here right from the first day, but after a few days of paperwork and an introduction to Pidgin, we ‘went native’ by going to a village for a week of immersion in Pidgin. Quite a trip to get there and back: in the back of a truck for 2 ˝ hours along the main highway. Highway? Ha. Had to ford a couple of rivers without bridges; went through ruts that were truly two feet deep – got stuck axle deep at one point, and all the men had to push. The village was Balo, a place spread out in about a square kilometre next to the sea, home to about 50 families. What an experience: rather a trial, especially for Mar, because life was so very rustic and because we never felt clean. Have I mentioned it’s hot in SI?! Sweat all the time, and the washing facility was the mouth of a salt-water stream. The toilet was a leaf shelter over a pit (at least we had that; one of our group was housed on the outskirts, where the toilet was an open field). Food was rudimentary. A few times there was reef-fish or some canned tuna, but for six days we ate mainly rice or a type of potato + a cooked mixture of Chinese cabbage and green beans + some papaya or banana. We slept in a stilted wooden house under a mosquito net on a thin foam mat and felt, well, greasy. Mar had a cold, which didn’t help [I’ve just started one myself]. During the day our group of seven gathered under the shade of an enormous rain-tree for Pidgin lessons. Much of the time, though, we ‘storied’ with our host families and went walk-about visiting – to reinforce the lessons and learn about things like cooking, legends, people’s travels, the village economy, shell money and bride-price, copra making, survival through the times of “Tension” (read: incipient civil war) during recent years. After some initial shyness – many of the kids had never seen a foreigner up close, and at first the adults didn’t know what our visit was all about – the big compensation was the wonderful friendliness and generosity of the villagers. Some of us joined a sizable number of people at the open-air church for morning and evening prayer each day; in fact Mar and I took a turn at reading the lesson (me in Pidgin!). SI people are _very_ religious, we think. We had one glorious morning of swimming and wandering the shore of a tiny picture-book island, reached by canoe, with a large gang of kids. And the other rewarding thing was the three evenings when we and the villagers gathered at the rain-tree for sharing stories, songs, dances and games – SI and North American. It was like a big campfire, and the spirit moved in goodwill and laughter. At our departure, the head-man did a very uncharacteristic thing: he cried.

Our typical day … Birds and insect-hum wakes us at 6:00 am. After breakfast the laundry, done by hand in an outdoor tub … but a few days ago the landlord delivered a used washing machine. It’s a 10-minute walk downhill, wishing everyone a good morning – even a pet parrot at one house, who says “Bye-bye”. Take a bus – any one of hundreds of Toyota vans cruising back and forth along the main road: fare is $3 (less than 50c Cdn) no matter how far you’re going. We ride about 5 minutes to the entrance to Chinatown. A 10-minute walk in to the office, across a bridge and down a street that looks like it’s out of a Hollywood wild-west set with the covered wooden verandahs of the scores of near-identical shops – all selling the same goods: clothing, food, kitchen stuff, hardware, electronics, etc. Work in a dark-wood building which houses a bunch of non-government organizations. Our particular office – the Literacy Association of the Solomon Islands (LASI) is a mess, both physically and organizationally … but at least we have overhead fans and even air conditioning in one of the three rooms. Often there is no water: you have to use a bucket to flush the toilet. But we do have a couple of desks, telephone and a photocopier, and everyone is friendly, always ready to ‘story’. We have started to take our laptop into work each day. Mar is trying to figure out whether there is an accounting system and whether there is any money. For starters I’m creating a syllabus for the use of drama as a daily component of a 2-week training program which I, and later a local trainer, can deliver to trainees who are preparing to run literacy and life-skills and ‘critical-awareness’ schools in villages scattered around the islands. Three weeks from now I’ll be going to another island to put on a play as part of a workshop for 60 chiefs about land tenure. For lunch each day we have gone to several different kinds of local restaurant, or just bought buns and cheese at a bakery. Our work hours are 8 to 4. We’ve been doing some shopping after work, trying to get the house outfitted (dishes, fans, tools, etc.) … then getting home around 5:00. Make supper, eating about 6:00 just as the sun goes down. Sometimes we have done supper with the other CUSO people who live about a kilometre away. There are a couple of ‘European’ places to eat in downtown – good food at fairly reasonable prices, but we’re trying not to be dependent on such ‘expat’ places. Usually not much doing in the evening … so we’re getting to bed about 9:30 or so.

We have had a couple of evenings of entertainment. Cooking-baking and a game of hearts at the other CUSO house. The “Queens contest” as part of Women’s Week at the town fairground: ‘modern’ queens dressed in (sort-of) fancy evening garb; and ‘custom queen’ contestants dressed in traditional grass skirts, woven leaf things, flowers, etc. (even a couple of them bare-breasted). And last night we were at the Honiara Amateur Music Society (HAMS) for “Divorce Sale”, the first play this mainly Australian group has put on since the ‘Tensions’ three years ago – it could have been a good comedy, but was pretty amateurish.

The sun can be punishing. Despite our tans we use sun-screen, wear hats and usually carry an open umbrella. What with sweat and walking at least 4 or 5 kilometres every day, we’ll waste away: I lost a belt-notch in the first two weeks. We can buy almost every kind of food we want – hamburg, chicken, peanut butter, spaghetti, curry, green pepper, onion, pineapple, papaya– but some of it is ‘different’ – e.g. a very dry potato-equivalent tuber. A quite-decent restaurant meal can average about $25 SD (under $4 Cdn), which also happens to be the price of a box of Kleenex. Locally bottled beer and pop are affordable (just over Cdn $1), but liquor and wine will be out of our range. TV exists but is not affordable for us, but radio gives us a local station + Australian + BBC. There is no cinema. There are movies to be rented, but you’d need a TV. We think we’ll be frequenting a place which sells imported second-hand books at a price of so much per kilo. Much of our leisure time will be just socializing – whether storying with neighbours or taking advantage of offers from more well-to-do expats … example: we spent most of last Sunday at the relatively luxurious seaside home of a Canadian married to a European Union consultant – swimming on the reef and in the pool, having a wonderful eggs-and-sausage brunch, and even playing an hour of bridge.

This morning we went to the Anglican cathedral, a no-walls place that was packed with 600 people. It was ‘Mothers’ Union Sunday’, and so there was exciting custom-dancing by groups of youths at several points during the service; that was special, but the magnificent singing – the whole congregation in four parts, without any instrumental accompaniment – is a usual thing. In fact it happened every day in the church we went to in the village; indeed one day I sat beside a fellow from a religious order who sang an astonishing counter-tenor.

After church today our CUSO gang went to a fairly new café on the shore at the far end of Honiara for brunch: pancakes and honey, banana smoothies, omelettes, etc. – a treat, but affordable.

So I hope this has given you some impression of the beginning stage of our new life, and that you can see that it’s going to be OK, even fascinating. Even so, we sometimes feel rather lonesome, and so we would love to hear from you.

By the way, a photo of the wonderful ACT folks (the farewell gathering at the Elmwood estate) is on our fridge, and the bulls, Brenda & Gerry, are ensconced on the shelf between kitchen and living-room.  Gerry, perhaps you might want to post this message, or excerpts of it as you see fit, on the ACT website.

Our email address, you can see, is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) For a mailing address we’re using c/o CUSO, P.O. Box 1138, Honiara, Solomon Islands.

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