Thursday, March 09, 2006

The 6-month mark – we’re a quarter done our posting in the Solomons.

Rain again has been significant.  One night about ten days ago, there was a raging mini-river, with rapids, in our yard ... from under the next-door shack, gushing through our flowers, and on down the valley.  It cut itself channels, and down at the bus-stop, the main road had a huge build-up of silt and coral gravel, spilling across it in a virtual drift.  It had rained all day, and then at suppertime it came down in sheets and kept coming throughout the night.  We’ve never seen such a quantity.


And I think we caused it!  That’s because I spent the previous afternoon cleaning out our rain-water tank.  The screen on the intake from the roof had been broken; mosquitoes got in and laid eggs; for several weeks we had been having to strain the larvae out with a cloth, and the neighbours had quit using the tank.  So I disinfected it.  And that meant it was empty, and—here’s the important part—we wished for rain to fill it up!!

OK, that was the flood … Now here’s the plague.  An epidemic of pink-eye in Honiara – itchy/burning blood-shot eyes for about 3 days.  Lots of people we know suffered, but we escaped.

Power and water outages continue.  Every once in awhile the water stays on, and you think ‘Ah, maybe the problem is solved … but then in a day or two it goes back to ‘normal’.  We think that people can get inured to almost anything, if in a gradual way it becomes a custom.  Can’t get over the fact that there hasn’t been a revolution.  Flash: announcement that the grid our office is on will have power continuously this week.  Reason: it’s the hospital grid, and a visiting heart-surgery team needs uninterrupted electricity and water-pumping – this will last for one week.

There’s water in the brand-new 30-metre pool at Honiara Hotel, where we have semi-regular swims—usually after church on Sunday morning, and almost always we have it to ourselves.  One morning, though, we got chatting with two Australians who work for the private supplier which feeds and otherwise takes care of the RAMSI, the mainly Australian peace-keeping force here.  It makes you realize how big and expensive an operation it is to have such a force in the field – as Canada has in various places.  As we talked, I forgot I wasn’t wearing a hat … and my balding scalp paid a price for several days.

Funny story at church … One of the priests got married one Saturday a few weeks ago.  During the announcements Sunday morning, the priest doing the announcements mentioned the wedding and offered our congratulations (“Iumi givim hem wan bigfala klap”).  We all applauded.  But then he continued “Actually Father Stephen isn’t here with us this morning … and I guess we all know why.”  After a beat the congregation erupted in laughter … which made him realize his unintended joke – and caused him to add the explanation that the party had gone late into the night.

Our days of sharing dinners and activities with the three young CUSO folks (Crystal, Chris, Ashleigh) have come to an end.  Their 6-month placement (in Canada’s “NetCorps” program) finished, and they’ve flown home.  We hosted a going-away supper: hamburgers and potato salad – summoning up a PEI barbecue atmosphere.  Gonna miss them.  Interesting how an age-gap can be insignificant under different conditions.

We had an earthquake one mid-February morning.  We’ve felt a good number of slight tremors before – perhaps magnified because our office is in a building on stilts.  But this was the real thing: 5.1 Richter, its epicentre just 35 km south of us.  Fairly violent shaking—just for 4 or 5 seconds, but enough to knock a plastic water bottle off a shelf, enough to send us all outside for safety … which was probably pretty stupid, since our exit is onto a hillside which people think is fairly unstable and might shower us with rocks!

One evening we suddenly heard wailing that wasn’t the valley’s dogs for a change—it was the ritualistic keening of the women at a neighbour’s house: they’d just brought the body of Julie’s ‘cousin-sister’ who died the previous night at the hospital—and had been kept in the morgue until the relatives were ready to do the wake.  (No embalming here, and you know our climate)  Julie, by the way, is the one whose sneezes shake the neighbourhood.

One Saturday morning on a walk back from the Kukum Hot Bread Kitchen (for hamburger rolls) I was attacked in three different ways … 1) a man carrying sugar cane and a machete suddenly ran at me brandishing the machete.  I was dumbstruck, but got distracted by 2) a dog coming at me from behind … and in retrospect, the man had probably seen the dog, and was scaring it off.  Then, just below our house, I’m walking on the path which runs along the side of a stilted house; as I round the end-corner, I walk right into a stream of urine from just a foot from my shoulder: the 3-year old is peeing off the verandah and neither of us saw the other one!  Big laugh for the neighbourhood: Junior got Rob.

We’re in the midst of an election campaign – the vote is on April 5th.  Fairly often we’re reminded how much a Canadian takes common sense for granted.  It emerges that the man who is chairman of the Electoral Commission – who has the responsibility to make it a free and fair election – is president of one of the political parties!  There he was in the paper presenting the party’s platform … and amazed that someone was questioning his impartiality.  The party system is rather underdeveloped; people tend to get nominated as independents and then (perhaps) choose a party to affiliate with.  Our riding has 13 candidates; the neighbouring one has 20!

Work continues to be very frustrating – which fact has been driven home by our just doing the 6-month report which CUSO requires.  The Literacy Association has been a very sick organization, and try as we might, it’s slow, hard going to get it back on the tracks and doing the good thing it’s supposed to: supporting community literacy programs throughout the islands.  Mar is trying to get the past financial records sorted out so that the German funding agency will accept the audit and send us the next instalment of money. However, in spite of repeated promises, the auditor has yet to respond to her questions. And this is the 2004 audit Even my ‘treat’ away from the office – the drama session with 8 teens in the Prison’s Juvenile unit – got cancelled when we wrote up a contract for our service and the Prison suddenly realized that they have no liability coverage.  It looks like we may sort that out next week, after a month-long gap.

Interesting … there’s so much disorganization and dysfunction in government, schools, NGOs … but one set of institutions seems to work fairly well: the churches – national systems, indigenous clergy, effective training, operation of education and social programs … heck, church even starts on time!

The great bus-fare mystery.  A year ago the charge for riding in a mini-van went up from $2 to $3 (28 c Cdn to 42c) … but many, even most people continue, if they can avoid giving a bigger bill, to pay just a $2 bill, and the conductor doesn’t bat an eye.

We have made several telephone calls to Canada, using a web-site called “Skype” which offers Voice over Internet Protocol.  It’s cheap – 10 Euros has given us hours of calling – although the internet connection adds up on our phone bill.  There’s about a 3-second delay, and so you have to tell the other person “over” when you’re finished your sentence, like the old days of radio-phone, and sometimes there’s a glitch or a disconnection.  But it sure is great to be able to talk with the children, for example.

From two sets of children we’ve just received wonderful CARE parcels, full of goodies – such as Dutch licorice, magazines, instant latte, more instalments of some TV shows, Christmas cards, etc.  One of those parcels took 3 ½ months to reach us.

We’ve been working a little on the grounds of our house.  Planted several cuttings of bougainvillea and hibiscus; cut down a few scrubby shrubs and banana trees; cut some long grass – you make golf-like swings with a long machete whose blade is curved at the end; and whenever I have nothing to do, I “weed” – which means pulling all the grass, so as to allow a carpet of clover to spread.  I often get help from the neighbourhood kids.

Things we miss: CBC radio; choir; a car to bring home the groceries; news – the National, the Globe, Macleans; going out to a movie or a concert or the Dairy Queen; the end of a winter afternoon – sunset, darkness coming on and the feeling of coziness; sleeping under blankets; sidewalks.

Impressions:

- Our skin is healthy, but always feels oily

- Skin colour: huge variety, from tan to coal black

- Calls and laughs of the neighbourhood kids at suppertime … and their singing things like “Row, row, row your boat”, “Old MacDonald” and “I’ve been working on the railroad”

- The sound of generators – coming on automatically at institutions and stores as the power goes off … and through the night from the ships in the harbour

- People are not afraid of criminals and bullies – the “rascals” which plague Papua New Guinea are not a feature here in the Solomons.  We always feel comfortable.

- A church bell every morning about 6 o’clock: like most churches, this one uses a metal bar struck against a hanging empty propane cylinder

- Flattened bodies of toads on the roads

- The parade of school uniforms every morning: shirts of white, yellow, purple, blue, red&white; check

- Mini-bus conductors announcing the stops and telling the driver whether or not to stop: Kukum Labour Line, Town Ground, YWCA … “Psssst – stop” or “No sign – Olowe” (i.e. no one signalled, so we go ‘all the way’) … “Full house” or “Space – 2”

- Natural packaging: woven pandanus baskets, vines tying coconuts together, a leaf wrapped like a bandage around a bunch of green onions, a segment of bamboo as a bottle to hold powdered lime (an ingredient in betel chewing).

- Neighbours Lindelle and Janet raking and burning a pile of leaves – almost like autumn! … but it’s endless summer.



And that’s our summary for February/March.  Can’t tell you how much we appreciate the messages from you.

Warm wishes, Rob & Mar

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