Sunday, January 08, 2006

Solomon’s Report

7 Jan/06

Hello again, good friends, with another roughly-monthly ‘report’ from the Solomons – this time, primarily about our Christmas holiday.

The big overall impression: what a truly awesome profusion of life there is in our world – certainly this part of it which we are now discovering. We can’t get over the multi-hued greenness of the forests, just seething with growth (and decay, of course) … and even more, life under the surface of the sea. Hundreds of species we saw – which is presumably a fraction of what’s there … sharks, barracuda, bumphead parrot-fish, rays, moray eel, lion-fish, giant clam, sea cucumber, green turtles, various crabs, clownfish (‘Nemo’), etc. etc.

I could see it on Solomon Islanders’ faces: ‘Why are these visitors so enthusiastic about something that we see every day?’ So I tell them: in our Canadian climate, for the majority of the year we have a certain blandness – greys, browns, white. Here in the South Pacific, everything is bursting with strongly radiant colour. All the different corals, anemones, sea urchins … the electric blue and orange and yellow and iridescent green fish … and the deep blues and turquoises of the water itself.

Here’s the narrative ...

On the 21st we – M&R + two young CUSO women + another Canadian and his Japanese wife – boarded the early-morning ship for a 7-hour trip to the western islands + a 2-hour motorboat ride to Tetepare. It’s a big uninhabited island (abandoned in the 1860s because of disease and head-hunting attacks) which the descendants of the original owners have turned into a nature preserve; a CUSO couple act as chief wardens. We snorkelled on the reef; we walked to a lake to see crocodiles; we hiked through the rain-forest and went up-river to frolic (including swinging on a vine) in a fresh-water pool. Two highlights … (1) Camping out overnight under a tarp (in the rain) on a black-sand beach to patrol for egg-laying turtles. Mar’s group unfortunately picked a beach that was empty that night, but I went with a ranger who had a hunch that proved right: at 5 a.m. I got up close and personal with a giant leatherback turtle – about 2 metres long, a metre and a half wide, 700 or 800 kg of determined motherhood. (2) A meal with the staff which spontaneously developed into an inter-cultural sing-and-dance-along, ending with Christmas carols.

On the 24th we moved along to Matikuri eco-lodge in the Marovo Lagoon. It’s a different sort of lagoon than we expected – a sort of inland sea protected by strings of forest-clad, often mountainous islands, rather than an atoll (shallow sea ringing an island inside a coral reef). It struck us like being on a big Canadian lake. Tetepare and the eco-lodges provide ‘leaf-hut’ accommodation – a building on stilts, sometimes out over the water, made of native timber with walls and roof made of overlapping battens of folded sago-palm leaves. There’s no electricity, but you have rain-tank water. The food is traditional SI stuff – cassava, fish, leaves cooked with coconut-milk, banana, often in a ‘motu’ (in heated stones under banana leaves) … somewhat adapted for western visitors – e.g. a sort of pancake breakfast. At Matikuri we snorkelled; we visited a couple of villages to see wood-carvers and paper artists, and climbed through the forest to see a boulder with designs carved by “the old people”; we confronted sailors from a logging ship from China who barged onto the lodge grounds; we learned a local card-game and had Canada-SI competitions; we fished for squid right off the dock and so kalimari was plentiful. On Christmas day we boated into a village (Seghe) for a United church service. Our hosts Jilli and Benjamin put on a lantern-lit Christmas dinner for about 25 – our group of 6 Canucks + families of J&B and two brothers: crayfish (lobster), coconut crab, pork (‘pik-pik’), kalimari, veggie stir-fry, etc. Then on the open deck over the water, the Canadians and Solomon Islanders took turns to present songs and dances … concluding with joint carols.

On the 28th we moved on to Charapoana lodge in another part of the Marovo Lagoon. Fantastic snorkelling out on an open reef. A jaunt to see caves in the coral cliffs where people hid from head-hunters. Much swimming and reading and vegging. A really tasteful place: landscaping, artful decorations and presentation of food. The anomaly – toilet facilities: a platform-hut, leaf-walled on three sides, with a throne mounted over the seashore water in a dense grove of mangroves! And fire ants in your bed that produced nasty bites if you didn’t get rid of them before crawling in. New Year’s Eve … imagine us on the dock at sunset, the family of our hosts singing beautiful harmony as they prepared dinner; a pod of a dozen dolphins swam about in the bay for almost a half-hour, and one leapt out of the water in a back flip. After supper we star-gazed on the dock and observed the NY at 10:00. Neat to see both the Southern Cross and also our familiar north-hemisphere Orion. On New Year’s Day we flew back (in a Twin Otter – and they weigh both your baggage and you yourself!) to Honiara.


OK, we’re going to vent about some negatives ...

At work … we’ve gone from skeptical to downright discouraged. The supposed big purpose of our being here is ‘skills transfer’ – not doing a job, but building systems and talents up, so that someone will be doing the job after we’ve left. For that, you need a “someone”. In our organization, that means the admin-finance person for Mar … and for me, two persons: the co-ordinator of all training who is supposed to incorporate social-action drama into all the literacy schools, and the director who is supposed to manage the organization. Well, we have three problems. The director is a really nice man who is unbelievably out of his depth and who will probably leave when his contract ends in March. The admin-finance person and training co-ordinator have, in our four months of presence, come to work approximately 10% of the time, and between them have probably done the equivalent of 2 weeks of actual work. Just before Christmas, the admin person announced she was leaving that day, since she was 8 ˝ months pregnant (she had told no-one, and no-one guessed); so she’s gone for at least 12 weeks. This week the training co-ordinator asked for paid leave because of the stress of the work (!), and the director granted this – so that fellow is gone for 6 weeks (to work on a private business while our literacy organization pays him). We despair. Well, not entirely … as soon as the training co-ordinator left, we remaining few went on an impromptu housecleaning binge – throwing out a wonderful heap of useless old paper, moving desks, and actually washing floors, windows, shelves … a grand purge which perked us up a bit. Simple pleasures, eh?!

Another source of frustration: we’re still having significant water and electricity shortages. The power shuts down for a couple of hours in the middle of every work-day; water this week was a mere trickle … until the water authority found a blockage in our area. Pressure is now back, but the supply shuts down at unpredictable times. We are so lucky that soon after we arrived, the landlord agreed to install a tank to collect rain-water from the roof. Our tank has fortunately been able to help out our whole neighbourhood.

Another discouragement … the Form 3 national exam results have just been released, and it emerges that there is only room for one third of SI students to progress onward beyond grade 9.

Now back to positives:

- The holiday, of course – so great to get out of the dirty town and experience the natural Solomons

- Sometimes this month it seems (marginally) cooler – might have to use a bed-sheet occasionally if this keeps up!

- Again and again, the SI people – whether our hosts at the eco-lodges, our neighbours, the woman who runs the bottle shop where we buy a daily Coke, the folks who wave and shout a warm ‘Halo’ as we trudge up our hill from the bus-stop. And I don’t think it’s just a surface-token thing. I see signs of a genuine caring about people – in the way, for instance, people will touch one another as they talk (– I can still see our prison guard holding hands with one of the juvenile offenders during a literacy class); in the hugs we’ve got; in the respect for prisoners’ dignity and the concern for true rehabilitation; in the prayers that get said at the start and finish of meetings and events.

- Our Christmas present to ourselves: a blender … love those smoothies!

- The ships in Honiara harbour, a blaze of lights we see from our upstairs bedroom

- The young fellows in the Juvenile unit at the prison – what a good time we have in the twice-a-week drama classes

- Finding a new food - examples: ‘apple-cucumber’, ngali nuts

- The peanuts we buy at the bulk-food shop, fresh-hot from the ovens of the bakery next door

- Lots of good visits with our neighbours, especially Agnes (mid-aged woman who has had a tough life and has no money to spare) … a particularly heart-warming visit: she found out it was my birthday and came to give me, said she with a laugh, an “old man’s present”– a wonderfully carved ebony walking stick … I was speechless with emotion, so impressed by what this gift represented.

So, it’s been four months now. On we go into 2006 … and it will have one specially big positive for us – Megan expects to give us a second grandchild in July! Happy New Year to you.

Rob & Mar

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