Search This Blog

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Temotu Part 3: Cruzin’ Santa Cruz

Mystery surrounds Temotu, almost as if every story you ever heard about the Pacific got its whispering start from here.  The French expedition in the 1700s that was missing for more than thirty years; apparently the wrecks survive of the coast of the Reefs, an adventure for the truly brave diver.  Stories of castaways, slaughtered missionaries, missing boats, the wild man of Lata (half beast, half man) are whispered amongst the locals.

Let me expound on the wild man or men of Lata.  Tina gets me up to speed about them.  Apparently, these fellahs creep around at night and either outright attack you or cast black magic on you.  As Tina explains quietly, they go through your body, into your heart and “spiritually” kill you.  However, some people manage to walk home only to die a few hours or days later.  The men are described as half beast/half human.  The shops close in Lata at six so everyone gets a chance to go home before dark, just to avoid the wild men.

There are also rumours of a cow up in the hills from Vanuatu.   The one goat in Lata is no myth; she munches happily outside the office, as do 10 little black and white spotted piglets with their large and mostly grumpy mother.   

On our morning walks, we stop by the market to pick up greens, which we didn’t have much of in the Reef Islands.  A few heaps of green tomatoes, some wrinkly small eggplant and a few bunches of slippery cabbage are all that are available from the market. 

We eat a breakfast of chilli and onion corned beef and rice and a coconut.  The driver gets up an hour late or so but driving here seems a ridiculous exercise.  There are only about ten or so cars in Lata and the roads don’t go very far.  What works well here are motor bikes; there are few very old ones, probably from the 1960s or even older that the locals have kept in good nick. 

The ute we pile into is beat up and old with large dents but manages to take us the 500 metres to the boat. It’s warm by 8 a.m. and the water is clear. We board the boat and are told that we are going to circumnavigate the whole island, as it is about the same distance to the communities. 

The sea is calm as we make it across to the windward (read: windy) side of the island.  Large, lazy swells come up and I get my first sight of some really amazing breaks.  One area has a reef that is a giant semi circle; huge white waves come in and make a bit of a whirlpool effect.  There are few villages on this side of the island.

The cliffs are covered in trees that look almost like pines.  We see dolphins, flying fish and sea turtles.  I am totally charmed by this side of the island, which surprises me.   As we go to the south part of the island, the water gets chopping and the front of the boat continues to smack down loudly.

As we head over to Lord Howe Island, the water gets significantly rougher.  We try to make it to one of the villages but the sea is far too rough; large waves come crashing down on the beaches.  After 30 minutes of trying various beaches, we decide to call off that visit to the village and continue to the next one.

The next three visits are a bit of a blur; not much stands out.  I try to hold a baby boy, who shares the same name as one of my exes.  Babies up to a certain age, say three or four years old, don’t wear clothes in Temotu and this boy decided it was time to pee.  On me.   He laughs, his mother looks slightly mortified and I have no choice but to just go with it.  I take a quiet moment to wash my shirt in the sea.

The day turns out to be beautiful on the other side of the island; completely calm.  The sun isn’t too bright for once.  We go through another large mangrove area, skirting our way through cut pathways.

The day ends too quickly and we make it to our guesthouse happy with the field visit.  Tina has purchased a bunch of clams or mangrove shells, as they are called locally.  I get worried for a second; I know what people do in the mangroves here.  But I decide that even if I get gastro, well, that’s all a part of the adventure.

So I cook up the clams in a nice coconut cream sauce.  Now, I actually scrapped the coconut flesh myself and made the cream, which was a first for me. 

It is surprisingly easy and satisfying exercise and one I hope to do again soon when I return to Honiara.
The next day is spent at the office, chatting with staff and enjoying the last of the Temotu experience. Tina and I continue our morning walks; we talk about our dreams from the night before and share funny stories.  We visit both markets; one is on the main grounds and has a small variety of greens, tomatoes, taro, and fried breads.  The one down by the wharf is small, only five or six vendors and it’s mostly beetlenut.  I am lucky to buy a little yellow fin tuna and some white clam shells to make a bouillabaisse that night.  We eat with the members of our guest house and enjoy a quiet last night in Lata.    

The plane arrives on Saturday morning right on time.  Check in was quite hilarious; two men who looked slightly drunk weighed our luggage and hand wrote our boarding passes.  Mr. Mark Brian Sara makes it through all the security checks, of which there are none.    

The plane takes off quickly from Lata and I look down, marveling at the reefs and the multitude of different blues below me.

After we leave, no other islands are underneath us; it’s just the open Pacific, yawning out for miles in all directions. 

I sit back, watching out the window at the water, waiting for a glimpse of sunny sand with green foliage below, signally to me that I am back home.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Temotu Part Two: Attack of the Crazy Yellow Ants

Before going to the Reef Islands, I did a bit of research on the place.  Now, if any of you have had to do any research on the Solomon Islands, you will be painfully aware that there actually is not a lot out there on the interwebs about these beautiful islands.  There is even less info on the Reefs.

For instance, one of the main source documents I found online about the Reefs was this.  That’s right, the document came from 1908, written by a missionary about his experiences there.  Sadly, it was in the top five search results and the other ones got more and more grim.

There are also some stories about a shipwrecked Englishman who started a family there, a la Swiss Family Robinson and well, the family is still there.  They own a resort on Pigeon Islands…there is a whole other story there that would take far too long to detail in this blog.  

Anyway, we visit our first set of communities on Monday.  I’m excited; I love going out the field, getting away from the office and getting to know people in the community. 

Reef Island communities are…well…kind of like the rest of Melanesia in that nothing is consistent or the same.  There is no consistency in governance structures, custom, social greetings; it all varies village to village.  Languages vary and the only similar thing is the governance structure is based on dominance rather than birth.  This keeps the Reefs an exciting place, dynamic in social and political structure.  Sure people hold on to old grudges but they also have to be very present thinking as well.

My pidgin doesn’t serve me well here either; many people refuse to learn, preferring to stick to their own language.  This makes me totally reliant on my coworkers, who are local Reef Islanders, to make connections for us.

After I take some pictures and get everything set up, I ask to use the facilities.  A lady takes me to a hut that has a toilet, an actual toilet.  Of course it only partially works but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

I get up to wash my hands and notice a burning sensation on my thighs and well, ass.  My mind starts racing about possibilities of what it could be.  I think about detergent, or a spider bite.  Maybe an STI I just got from a toilet seat (which I know is pretty unlikely; however, you mind does jump to pretty odd conclusions when everything stings).

I wait, thinking it will go away.  It doesn’t.  I walk uncomfortably out to the ocean, walking around.  Unfortunately I have to go quite a ways out because the water is so shallow.  The pain stops, slightly. 
I go back to the woman and ask her to use the shower.  I pull down my pants to discover, much to my dismay, red ants aka fire ants…everywhere.  Now there was a time in my life where I was, for various reasons, very fond of ants. I was even thinking about getting a tattoo of one at some point (thank god I didn’t…I still don’t have a tattoo because I can’t think of anything I want on my body for that long).  Now I feel no such loyalty; sure I get their complex underground world, I owned an ant farm like every other eight year old.  I’m over it and I start to hate the little assholes; I’m over ants biting me on the ass.

Anyway, those little bastards bit me pretty much everywhere. However, last night when I was having dinner with my two favorite English Doctors and explaining this story, they got very excited! They pointed out that is the fire ant's urine that causes the stinging.  Now...the irony of the ants peeing on me because I was peeing on them, actually I'm not sure I can go further with that thought other than to say...oh the irony!  And, sadly, that would not be the last time that I got urinated on in Temotu... 

The moral of the story is: when using toilets in a dark building, squat.  Remember kids, I do the stupid stuff so you don’t have to.

We finish our work and head off to the next village.  I walk slightly funny back to the boat but everyone seems cool with it.

The next village that shall forever be known, in my mind, as the Village of the Crazy Yellow Ants.  Yes, the ant adventure continues…

So we go to this village and are warmly received.  We talk to some of the villagers and I notice several large tropical ulcers on their legs.  Open sores are nothing new to most islanders but these look particularly nasty and infected.  The chief points down to his foot.

“Crazy yellow ants.  You will know, you will see. They kill the snakes, the birds, pig pigs (no, that’s not a typo, that’s pidgin for pig), the land crabs and the rats.  They kill everything,” the Chief says grimly.

He had me totally against the bastards until the rats thing came up. I’m all for anything that kills rats; I have a deep and abiding hatred for rats and anytime I see one, I turn from a pretty secure, brave lady in my 30s to a five year old screeching at the top of my lungs, looking for the closest chair to jump on.

We start up towards some gardens the villagers have planted.  We are stopped by another village elder who warns us about the crazy yellow ants.  I’m thinking twice about even going up there.  But I have a job to do, so Tina and I bravely march.

Then, we seem to cross some imaginary ant Maginot  line and they appear everywhere.  Ants as big as my thumb nail begin to crawl all over my legs and feet.  The villagers stomp their feet to keep them off.  I mimic them; the villagers laugh at watching me march into place.

The ants begin their progress up my legs, where their genetic wantok, the small fire ants, had already been earlier that day.  I try to brush them off with my legs, praying to several deities for one not to bite me.  We were warned that when one bites, they all start.  The crazy yellow ants continue their manic swarm all over my legs.  I try to focus, take my shots and get the hell out of there.

We cross the Maginot line again and the ants suddenly disappear.  I look down; no bites. I figure it was a draw; I didn’t kill any of them and they didn’t bite me. 

Still, I go back to the guest house, sore, sunburnt, covered in fire ant bites on my ass.  Good first day.

Tina and I take our showers and eat some tinned tuna (taiyo) before going off to sleep.    

The next day would prove to be less challenging in terms of local bug life and more interesting overall.  The morning starts early with a lovely boat ride through a large bay of mangroves.  I see some man made islands, which are essentially stone or coral platforms with a small hut on top.  It looks ancient.  It probably is. You can see where new reef stones have had to put in to meet the rising tides and keep the island intact.

Our boat goes up to the village and I am told quickly that warriors are awaiting me.  Great.   

So let me break it down for you.

We walk up to the village pathway and an old woman sits on the ground as we are walking and start to cry and scream.  She shrieks and tries to push us away.  Several men and young boys scream at us, threatening us with bows and arrows and an axe.  I get nicked with one ceremonial arrow by a guy getting too into his part.  I maintain a calm exterior (I think) but secretly I’m a bit thrown; the woman and the warriors are very good actors! 

The screams from the woman continue as she tries and stops the warriors.  Finally, she gives them a parcel on our behalf and the singing starts.  Rows of woman dressed in tropical lava lavas greet us; they bang coconuts together rhythmically (note: the author is very tempted to make a Monty Python and the Holy Grail comment here but is 
showing some restraint. For once. ).

Warriors covered in white war paint dance and sing.  Children greet us at the end of a clearing with pipe instruments.  The bass is quite extraordinary; a storage drum was cut up and a series of four large bamboo pipes are lashed together.  One boy pounds on the end of the drum and the other breathes through the pipes, creating a wonderful bass sound.

The rest of the kids play amazing music and everyone sings.  The greeting has left me breathless; sure, I’ve had my share of warrior greetings but this one was pretty amazing.

We sit down and are handed drinking coconuts.  Drinking coconuts are large and usually white or creamy coloured.  These are filled with a clearish liquid that is filled with good stuff like sugars and salts that rehydrate for the body.  Coconuts are my main drinking source on the island, which suits me just fine.  Did I mention there aren’t any shops in the Reef Islands? No?  Yeah.  Anyway, we sit down and eat a lovely meal prepared by the villages; they seem happy to share their food with us.

We talk story and Tina and I get the work done.  We leave and people follow us through the village.  This time we have to walk to the next village which takes about an hour.  The walk is pretty enjoyable; I’m glad to not be in the boat for awhile and I get to stretch my legs a bit. I notice pigs tied up by their legs around the trees. 

The path, which the boys call the “Reef Island Highway”, acts as a major route across the island.  Paths in the bush disappear into unknown locations.  The bush is lovely and thick; we are shielded from the sun during the hottest part of the day.  The route is well warn so all the sharp rocks have been rounded out over time.  Brightly coloured parrots flit around up top and large blue butterflys wing around lazily.

The next village greets us with drinking coconuts and no warriors.  The staff and I introduce ourselves in front 
of the whole village.  One can’t be too shy in this job; public speaking is a part of it.

We talk for awhile and a local parrot falls in love with me, hanging out on my shoulder for the better part of my visit.  When me and Elsie (the parrot) get separated, it squawks and howls in protest.   It’s a good thing that I’m not allowed birds on the plane or else Elsie would be going home to Honiara with me.

We end the day with a boat ride through a series of mangrove canals.  People have cut into the mangroves to make for safe passage through; the water is very shallow and boats often get stuck there.  We duck down to avoid mangrove branches that have grown too long.  The water is very clear and you can see the grassy walkways underneath the water that are used by the villagers during low tide to reach their bathrooms (the mangrove trees).

The water is calm as we head into our last day in the Reef Islands.

In the evening, the new telephone booth, which was put up during the day outside the guest house, glows.  The pikininis (children) come to look at it and somehow interpret that I am responsible.  My manna in the village grows.

We go to bed early to leave the Reefs at 5 a.m.  Waking up at 4, we decide to leave as early as possible.  The full moon illuminates our way across the water.  The water is completely flat, like a lake with a slight one metre swell that rhythmically hits the boat.  It feels like we are escaping from the Reefs, under the cover of darkness.  The water is black, except where the moon light glistens off of the swells. 

Eventually the sun rises and we witness a most beautiful sight: sunrise over the Pacific.  The volcano puffs slightly away in the distance and we see Santa Cruz, getting closer and closer.

“As soon as the sun rises, the wind picks up,” the driver muses.  He is slightly correct but the water remains 

A huge storm lies over the island and the driver moderates our path to miss it.  Boats often fill with rain water and sink.  Plus the few raindrops I felt are like little pellets snipping at my skin; our speed and the speed of the rain make for a slightly stinging combination.

We reach Lata early and go back to our rooms.  Tina and I are both very tired and we decide to postpone the 12 hour day planned for us until the next day. 

I step in the shower, happy even though it’s cold.  I secretly rejoice at the little flush toilet (even though it lacks a toilet seat). 

But I still remember to squat.  Just in case.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Temotu Part One: Reef (er) Madness

(So starts the three part series regarding my adventures in Temotu.  Read and enjoy!)  

The trip to Temotu starts off with a fantastic false start: at the airport, trying to check in and getting ignored by the ground crew.  The plane takes off without us and I have to wait another five days to go.  Planes only leave for Temotu every five days, so missing one really puts a spanner in your plans.

I was pretty irritated by the turn of events but it all worked out for the best in the end. On Wednesday evening, I got second place in the week’s Solomon Island Poker Association Texas Holdem game.  Tessa turned out to be a much more gifted poker player than myself and takes home the first prize.  I have to admit that I didn’t last long against my housemate and her last hand, a pair of pocket twos which turned into a three of a kind.  My pair of pocket aces, a pretty good hand, did not compete.

Also, I was able to attend Daphne’s Go Finis (farewell) party.  It turned out to be a pretty good night; all of us dressed up like 80s rock gods.  Daphne, of course, looks amazing and I rock my Madonna t-shirt (which I already had in my wardrobe).  There is an 80s fashion show and loads of dancing.  Of course I embarrass myself by sexily trying to crawl across the floor circa 1983 MTV awards with Madonna’s wedding dress performance but fail miserably.  Oh well.

Miguel, a good friend of mine, comes as “Miguel Jackson”.  Miguel is from Spain, has long black hair and looks exactly like a Spanish Michael Jackson.  When I go to him and say that I think he looks amazing as Michael Jackson, he smiles.

“I know.  Yes, I am very good…,” he says in the most beautiful Castilian accent.

We stagger home around 3 a.m. I’m in pretty good nick; I couldn’t drink during the party because I had the 6 a.m. plane to catch to Temotu.  I make sure that my ever- patient counterpart, Tina, and I are the first people to get checked in.  On the air plane ticket, my name is completely incorrect.  I turn out to be Mr. Mark Brian Sara - hilariously incorrect!  Good thing Solomon Air doesn’t even check i.d.s to ensure correct identity.

We board the spacious Dash 8 and I sit and am asleep before the island of Guadalcanal disappears from view.  I wake up some two hours later, only a couple hundred feet above the island of Santa Cruz.  From my window, I can see a volcano, a perfect cone-like structure just plopped there, rising above the sea.

Santa Cruz, from what I can see of it, is a lush volcanic island, surrounded by coral reefs and sandy beaches.  There are little villages around the outside of the island but the inland part looks like no one has been there. Ever. There are few roads that I can see. I can’t see the Reef Islands (known as simply the Reef by locals), our main destination, at all.

We land in Lata, the capital of Temotu Province.  The Dash 8 lands easily on the grassy airstrip.  There are, according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), 36 airstrips in the Solomon Islands.  Only two are paved.  The rest are grassy or coral or sand or a combination of all three.  Most are leftovers from World War II that have simply been maintained over the years.  I think the Sollies would be an ideal place for a fleet of sea planes.  

As I get out of the plane, I am hit by a wave of humidity and heat.  Apparently Lata is significantly more humid than Honiara.  My hair turns to auburn ringlets as soon as my feet hit the ground.  Its only 10 a.m. and it’s more than 35 degrees.  People surround the plane; mostly locals waiting for wantok.  We have one staff member, Gregory, who is returning to the Reef Islands for the first time in a decade.  When people leave Temotu, they don’t return for a very, very long time. 

Geographically, Temotu is so far away from the main strip of islands that it probably should be in Vanuatu rather than the Solomons.  Its isolation makes it a difficult place to get anything done and most people are lucky if they can get out with any .  It is easy to get marooned in Temotu.  But more on that later…

We are surrounded by Temotu-ians…all scrambling to grab gear; it’s hard to maintain focus and grab my own bags, but I manage.  I meet Jack, the new area manager for the organization I work at.  Jack is from Romania and has been living in Temotu for six months.  He has picked up pidgin quickly, being only one of five expats living in Lata.

We drop off the bags in the nice guest house.  There are no hotels in Lata - population 1,000 (maybe).  There are no restaurants.  There are two bars but I am cautioned to stay away.  We walk around the whole town in a matter of minutes.  To be honest, there ain’t a lot to Lata.

I try to stop and talk to the local RAMSI officers to see if they know where the rumored Lata dive shop is but they are busy napping.

Jack walks around with us and explains to stay away from a few of the more crazy locals.  One attacked a volunteer from N.Z. with a crow bar.  The other likes to stalk people but this is, apparently, only when you have lived there for a little while.  A woman likes to show you her leather belt on her fist in an attempt to be menacing.  Everywhere we go, Jack and I get stares.  When I say hello, people laugh or run away.   

After we stop at a few of the small shops and pick up a few supplies, we head back to the guest house.  I take a nap, just like the RAMSI officers. I, personally, am exhausted and the little nap turns out to be a BIG sleep, waking up early in the morning. 

Roosters surround the guest house and crow and crow and crow until I start reciting the recipe for cock au vin in my mind.  Land hermit crabs as big as my fist crawl around on the gravel.   I go to bed to finish up my rest; we have a long boat ride in the morning.


The morning is hot by six-ish.  Tina fixes a small breakfast for us.  I pack  my two bags; one for Reef and one to stay in Lata.  Pinkie, the ever- adventuresome laptop, stays in Lata in the security of Jack’s house.   
We go down to the wharf.  One of the big boats is docked.  Now, these big boats, which are essentially rusted islands of steel that are kept together with some rope and mechanical tape, carry many people around the province.  It’s only a matter of time before one sinks; clearly maintaince ain’t that important and some of these heaps have been sailing around since the 1940s or even earlier.  This one has come all the way from Honiara; a quick five day boat ride.  Supplies come off in large sacks and people mill about getting their shipments from the capital.

There is a small market under some trees selling beetlenut, nambo (the local Temotu breadfruit biscuit which tastes like molted paper), and some veggies.  We board the little boat in the harbor, which is a typical banana boat, approximately 14 feet in length with one outboard motor.  The five of us pile in and put on our life jackets.  Jack says the weather looks good, if not a little windy and we should be fine to cross over to the Reef Islands.

Did I mention that the Reef Islands were a three hour boat ride away across open water?  This ain’t no channel, it’s the Pacific in all its glory.  I gulp.  Even the Reef Islanders on board look nervous.  And, as I would learn, they had every right to be.

We head off; its warm and the ride is somewhat pleasant.  There is a slight swell and it is choppy.  The front of the boat slaps down as we ride over waves.  The ride around Santa Cruz island is fairly quick and we stop off at a village before making our way across.  I use the facilities, which is pretty much an isolated, covered part of the beach at the village. 

We leave but we start with a prayer before crossing to the Reef. 

The first 20 minutes are awful; it’s basically crossing over a bar and the waves are very high, almost the size of the boat.  I’m nervous, as are all the crew but it passes.  My strategy for not letting fear drive me totally bonkers is music; I clutch onto my little MP3 player with a death grip and listen to the heaviest rock I have. As the White Stripes and the Black Keys serenade me across, I look at the smoldering volcano as my main point.  When we start, it is slightly to the left and in front; half way through we pass the island.  Then it is behind us and out of my view.

We don’t pass a single boat or canoe on our way to the Reefs.  Every year people make the crossing and get lost at sea; last year a huge search effort was put out of a Telecom worker and four other people.  For two weeks, a massive search went out and they think the people lived until then because searchers were getting signals from their satellite phone every afternoon.  The boat eventually drifted to Malaita, and that’s where the story gets weird.  Apparently, from local legend, the people were still alive when they reached Malaita and then were attacked by local pirates.  Their stuff was sold back to the family for a large sum.  What really happened to the people remains a mystery; another group of lost souls the Pacific swallowed up.

I had been told that the Reefs are so low, you can’t see them from the boat.  I found this to be untrue; I was very relieved when I saw a row of trees jutting out from the water.  The swell has calmed down some and is now a nice two to three metres.  

I think about my emergency beacon, tucked safely in my dry bag, out of reach. I decide to think about something else.  Tina clutches onto my leg to keep herself from moving all over the boat.  We took the centre seat and are covered in spray, completely soaked. 

Finally, the water calms as we get closer to the Reefs.  The islands are a series of, you guessed it, old reefs that have emerged from the sea floor.  Most islands rise about three metres above sea level.  High tide covered some islands completely. Changes in the climate and over population in the Reefs have forced some villages to evacuate.

We finally make it to our destination; a guest house on one of the islands.  We unload our gear and everyone looks relieved.  Only later I am told that people go to the Reefs all the time in little boats, never to return.  Of course this was always in rough weather but the boatman says grimly that you never know when the weather will turn.  Weather reports are useless, except to say when cyclones are coming. Temotu is a particularly popular spot for cyclones; they like to holiday there after going to Vanuatu. 

The guest house we stay at is nice but no one has the key to the bedrooms.  They use a spoon to break in because the owner lives in Lata and it would take days to get the key to us.  It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable about the lack of proper security there.

It is the only "permanent" building on the island; every other building is a grass hut of some description.  As I sit on the stairs, after settling in, I watch a pig and chicken compete for a wounded land crab.  The pig is obviously bigger but tied up to the tree.  The rooster, a beautiful one with bushy black feathers, torments the pig, and is able to pick easily at the land crab.  The pig snorts in anger and frustration and finally gives up, sitting in the black earth, depressed.  In the battle of chicken vs. pig, chicken wins.  

There is no shower; we take showers outside through our lava lavas, which we wrap around ourselves.  It’s kind of uncomfortable because the little eyes follow me everywhere, including when I’m bathing myself.  I take to showering at night.

Living in the Reef feels like turning the clock back 100 years or more.  There are no stores, no electricity, no mobiles, no television, no sanitation...only people, grass huts, and the occasional dug out canoe.  The poverty is intense and all consuming; kids with limps, scars, malformed pallets, all kinds of disabilities run around.  It might seem like an environmental paradise to some but here the lack of development is clearly impacting on the lives around us. 

I’m a subject of fascination for the children here; some burst into tears when they see me and others look at me with wide eyes.  I can’t decide if they think I’m a devil or an angel or a ghost.  The little ones follow me around everywhere watching everything I do.

Tina and I go for a swim around the coral reef and the fish life is pretty amazing.  Little yellow and blue fish hug the reef and then it drops off to darker water.

As we settle in for the night, I read by the light of a kerosene lantern and my torch (flashlight).  My body feels beaten from the boat ride over; I feel sore everywhere.  I’m exhausted from the heat, the sun; my nose turns a bright red.

We go to bed early, tomorrow is our first field visit and we want to start early and fresh.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Dive

(This blog is dedicated to my mother.  Thanks mom, you are the best!)

This week I embarked on one of the most amazing experiences of my life: my PADI course (this is a SCUBA diving course, for those of you not in the know...)

Now, some of my very old friends will be laughing at this because they know I have several bizarre phobias, the strangest and strongest is of sharks.  Seriously, at times I refused baths as a child because I thought Jaws was going to come out of the fosset and munch me. I feared swimming pools.  When I went snorkeling last year, I asked Tessa to hold my hand.

I’m not confident in the ocean environment, so taking a diving course was a huge step for me.

So why did I do it?

Well, this ties in a bit with Mother’s Day.  It was my mother who inspired me to do it.  While this might surprise you, as mothers are usually the ones who caution their kids against risk, this wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows my mother.

My mother was the one who inspired me to face my fears and conquer them.  As a little girl, I would wake up in the middle of the night, crying about a monster in my closet. My mother looked at me and said, “You have to face the monster and call it out of the closet.”  One night I called out the monster and when it never appeared, I told my mother that the monster was a chicken to not come out and face me.  The monster never bothered me again.   

It was my mother who encouraged me to travel, to explore, to take on new challenges and never back down from anything.  She taught me to value myself and never let the brothers or boys to treat me badly.  It was my mother who encouraged me to take this role in the Solomons, to go back to Christchurch for the earthquake and to return back here when my job was done.  Mom always pushed me forward, to do the unexpected and to be constantly evolving as a person.

My mother suggested I go scuba diving.  After months of humming and hawing, I did it.  And again, I am forever grateful to my mom, because it was AWESOME.

Myself and the Greek Doctor make it down to Tulagi Dive for the course.  The two nights of theory go by quickly, with Gabe as our instructor.  The books arrive on the second day and we have to cut short the Friday night tutorial due to the hosting of a poker night at Casa Turchese (by the way, the night was great, we had 24 players at one point).  

Anyway, on Saturday, the Greek Doctor and I are nervous.   Neither of us feel prepared for spending the better part of the afternoon under metres of water.

When we arrive at the Bonege for our dive, it is overcast and rainy.  Not the best diving conditions.  While on our course, we only had one other person, a lovely older gentleman name Fred.  Now we are accompanied by nine army boys.  Now, settle down ladies, this would turn out not to be as sexy as one might think…

The first challenge: putting on all the gear.  Now, there are several important items you need to have when scuba diving.  The first is your buoyancy control device (BCD) which is basically a black vest that inflates to keep you floating and helps connect all the important stuff together.  Then you need your weight belt, to keep you down.  Mask, snorkels, regulators (to breathe) control gauges, scuba fines, dive tables, slates, a knife and an air cylinder are also included.  While these seems like a lot of stuff, it all fits together nicely around the mid section of your body (except the fins, of course).

It takes us a bit to get it all on and, as the only two girls on the course, myself and Greek doctor get special attention from the instructors.  The cylinders are heavy but both of us have enough muscle to lift it up and help each other out.

We walk down to the water.  We get in.  It takes me the longest to get on my fins…by the time I get on my fins, the army boys are way out, and metres down.  I hate them. And I would hate them most of the course.

The first decent feels weird, as we go down to three or four metres.  Holding the inflation/deflation hose above my head, I feel like I am parachuting out of a plane.  I look up and the water looks like a glass ceiling above me.  I look below and I see my classmates calmly sitting at the bottom.  I struggle to sit at the bottom.  I would struggle the first dive with getting down; it seems to take forever.

We go through drills like giving our diving buddy (mine was the amazing Greek doctor, who was ever patient with me) air, clearing our masks, getting on a vertical plane and other basic skills.

At the end, we go slowly around the wreck and I get a moment to actually observe the marine environment. The wreck is from World War 2 and the sea has covered it with coral and other reef material.  Fish swim around the reefs and I spot clown fish and tiger fish.  I take slow, calm breathes and enjoy my role as an observer. 

The experience is so amazing, I use the two thumbs up signal to show my enthusasim at Gabe...luckily, he knew that I didn't want to go up (that is what the thumb up signal is for) but that I was really impressed with the sea friend Frank, who joined us on the dive on Sunday, came up with a whirly finger thingy to show how impressed we are.  Frank also managed to do the hokey pokey and turned himself around in the was most impressive...

Back to dive number one...we head up and I am buzzing.  I take off my mask and realize that because I had the end of a slight cold, my mask was full of snot.  Not the sexiest of looks.  However, the dive was pretty amazing.

The next dive would not be as fun.

This one had us taking off our masks.  Now, I’m a nose breather, through and though.  I only breathe through my mouth when I am singing or am sick.  For some reason, the idea of taking off my mask in the water freaked me out.  My long hair got in the way and Gabe had to keep brushing it out of the mask.  I bolted to the surface.  Gabe grabbed hold of my BCD and helped me make a more controlled ascent. 

That was the last time I had an underwater freak out. Tobias, a local dive master, stayed with me in the surface and said simply:

“Don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s only your first day diving, Sara!”

His words were a great relief; I didn’t have to be perfect, the dive instructors were looking out for me and my safety, always.

The next hour is spent doing more drills.  As Gabe turns to watch me do my exercises underwater, he gives me the “Okay” sign and gives me a little clap.  The girl swat in me secretly delights at getting a round of applause underwater.

After our drills, we tour the wreck again, this time going through the middle of the boat.

Its very easy to get disoriented in the water.  When you are midway between the surface and the ocean floor, its really difficult to tell directions.  It is very easy to lose people and I am constantly looking for my buddy, the Greek Doctor.  

As we go through the boat, an army boy, who I am following, picks up a shell and shows it to me.  This wouldn’t have been so bad except that there were ten people behind me and this caused a bit of a traffic jam, causing the Greek Doctor to get a small cut on her leg. 

At the end of the dive, I just sit on the sand, playing with the grits between my fingers, marveling at the textures, sounds, colours, shapes and tastes of the underwater world.  I come up to the surface to laughing; one of the army boys vomited through his regulator, feeding the fish.  Thanks guys.  

We get out of the water, exhausted.  We go home and go to bed early; our next dive starts at eight in the morning.

The next morning is partially sunny and the water is flat like a lake.  The Bonege 2 boat is rusting out of the water. I’ve snorkeled the wreck before and know that the ocean life is pretty spectacular. 

We start with drills in six metres of water, finishing with our emergency ascent in one breath.

At the end we go around the wreck.  As I watch my dive computer hit 18 metres, I realize that if anything serious happened, I was trapped under heaps of water and couldn’t just bolt up to the top.  We round the tip of the boat and I see dark blue down below me.  I calm down and simply look at the fish, trying not to think of what creatures lurk below me or what would happen if I get caught in the wreck.

Gabe takes me through the wreck, dodging rusted rigging and jutting pieces of wreck.  He plops a multi coloured slug on my hand.  The slug (Gabe called them a nuddiebranch or something like that; he is Aussie and therefor difficult to understand) has wonderful nubby tips of neon orange and white. It is beautiful to hold and I fall in love with this new, strange environment.

I sit back, surprised that diving gets such a perception of being a very hardcore sport.  You always see muscled supermen in black dive suits going backwards from a boat, wrestling with fish underwater.  But it couldn’t be further from the reality.  The environment is very calming, almost meditative and I have to remind myself several times that I am actually underwater.  I simply observe calming and let the current move my body around.  This is hardly the sport I perceived it to be.

As we go through the wreck, I touch sea creatures that live on the wreck.  My favorite is one that feels like pockets of soft silica gel.  We leave the wreck behind and go to the sandy bottom, where Gabe points out grass like creatures that point up and around.  I swim closer and the small eels slip quickly into the sands.
We end our dive and head back to the dive shop for more learnin’. 

We finish the course early because I have to Skype my mom on mother’s day.  I show her my face for 20 seconds (all the memory we can afford) and she says it was exactly what she wanted for Mother’s Day.  It seems a poor gift to the woman who not only gave me life but also encouraged me to get a real life, one full of adventure. 

Like diving.

I end the day exhausted but when my head hits the pillow, I have a big smile on my face.

Note: I HIGHLY recommend that if you want to learn how to dive or take a more advanced course in the Solomon Islands, chose Tulagi Dive.  They are great, professional, fun and they take you to interesting places.  When we were practicing with our compasses underwater, the water clarity was very poor and I thought that I had been forgotten in the fray and up popped Gabe to make me do my test.  Someone was always watching out for me and I felt very well looked after.  Thanks Tulagi Dive and the Tulagi Dive team for helping me on my way to becoming a diver.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Solomon Islands Recipe of the Week: Green Paw Paw (Papaya) Salad

We have two large, lovely papaya (paw paw) trees in our back yard at Casa Turchese. In fact, one is becoming so lovely and large that it is starting to block our sea view.  When I suggested that we cut it down, Tessa fought valiantly (and won) against me from committing tree murder.  So, we are now swimming in green papaya.

Now, when I lived in Hawaii, I used to frequent the Thai restaurants quite a bit.  My favorite thing to eat there was their Green Papaya Salad.  I drew inspiration from Hawaii and by our plethora of green papayas and the need to feed four people or more without spending very much money.  So, I came up with this recipe, which I think is kinda like the original. 

It’s fresh, easy to make, and very, very filling.

Here is the recipe:

·        1 medium or large green paw paw (papaya)
·        1 clove garlic
·        Sesame seed oil
·        Fish sauce
·        Olive oil
·        1 small chili
·        Peanuts
·        3 or 4 bush limes to taste
·        Salt to taste

·         Take your green papaya and cut it up in three or four large slices
·         Use a grater (the largest one you can find) and grate all the papaya.  You want the grated papaya to be somewhat large in size; about half a pinkie finger thick and about a pinkie finger long.
·         Make sure to drain the grated papaya because it can get very watery.
·         Mix olive and sesame seed oils, fish sauce, lime juice, salt, chilli, and garlic.  Ideally, the lime juice will be half the mixture and ¼ would be olive oil and ¼ will be sesame seed oil.   I don’t put exact measurements because it is to your taste, so feel free to be creative with quantities.
·         Put the dressing in the salad.
·         Serve with peanuts on top. Yum!
If you are a veggie, you can skip the fish sauce; it tastes just fine without it.  If you don’t have green papaya, you can replace with red cabbage.   

Monday, May 2, 2011

A quiet one (finally)

Overall this week was exactly what I needed: boring.  Hey, it’s been a bit OTT lately and its nice having a quiet week. 

A couple of interesting things did happen, however.

Somehow I convinced/manipulated/used my mother’s jedi mind guilt trips to get a much coveted invite to Aiden’s house to watch the royal wedding on the big screen.  Aiden is my terribly connected, compound living neighbor, who hosts diplomatic functions and band hero nights.  Again, I would hate him if he wasn’t so lovely to his white trash volunteer neighbours who talk too loud, make off colour jokes and flirt outrageously at his parties.     

Now, I am no royalist; in fact, technically I should be banned at his residence.  After all, not only am I American but my mother is French, and we all know what they did to their royalty.  But Americans in general have a fascination with royalty.  One I share, slightly.  But not that strongly.  I just wanted to see the dress, wear my little black dress, hang out with friends and drink Pims.  After all, there are worst ways to spend a Friday night.

The wedding goes well, obviously and it is moderately interesting.  I, for one, believe in the intimacy of weddings.  I had a small one myself and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I get the feeling that the pair probably would have preferred to elope somewhere but had to do it that way.  And how many of us feel bound by tradition and family when it comes to the most intimate of ceremonies? 

So I sat there, gaping at strange hats and thinking that trees were a nice touch in the Abbey. 

The night ends somewhat dignified; I have a cold and cough and simply can’t keep my eyes open past 11.  In fact, I’ve been a terribly good girl this week, going to bed early to get rid of this chesty cough.

The dry season has come to the Solomons and everything is dusty.  However, after three weeks without rain, the Greek Doctor and I decide to go out shopping in a complete downpour. Bizarrely, neither of us have invested in an umbrella.

We sit on the bus, soaked to the bone, to the surprise of locals.  Shopping is done quickly; the Greek doctor likes to get in and get out of the shops as quickly as possible. 

I’ve enjoyed walking to work.  Besides the incident with the guy a few weeks ago, people are starting to accept me and ask me questions.  I start making a few friends on my way to work.  At first, most of the locals were slightly confused by a white girl roaming around the roads with a backpack on but now they are mostly happy to see me.  It’s not often an expat can be seen roaming the upper roads outside of a car.  But it gives me a chance to get to know people a bit better and for them to get to know me as well.

Jane, a good friend of a good friend from Wellington, has come to stay in Honiara.  She is a lovely lady and I start by giving her some advice and showing her the ropes (a bit) regarding the place.  We go on our first mission for kaliko shopping (second hand clothes shopping) and it goes down well.  Jane knows her fashion stuff and I appreciate her taste.  It’s always good to have another friend in Honiara.

Annabel, a wantok blo mi (a yankee like me), invites me and the Greek Doctor up to Visale for some much needed time away from the big dusty H.  Visale is a beautiful small bay, near, you guessed, a nunnery.  That’s right, the whole place rings of tranquility as little ladies covered in blue dresses, red sashes and white habits sneak in and out quietly in the afternoon.  The water is warm and fish hang out close to the shore.  Because of the early morning rains, no one else has bothered to make the trip up to Visale.

We spend some much needed time in the water, gossiping and girlifying in the sun and surf.  Only the occasional movement of a wayward chicken or the small, slight footsteps of a nun intrudes on our own private paradise.

And that’s what Visale is: paradise.  There is a bit of a break about 5 metres offshore to the right side of the inlet, but there is nothing to bother the almost lake like quality of the bay.  The sun glints off of the water and we cackle like a pack of witches.  All and all, a good day.

James comes for a visit and takes us out to Bonege for some snorkeling.  I stay on the beach; I’m sick, despite the fact that I refuse to admit that I am sick.  So I sit with my large, Scarlett O’haraesque sun hat watching people play in the water. 

It gives me time to think of the people in Christchurch, who are still knee deep in crap.  I feel guilty that I get to sun myself whilst my friends and colleagues have to work hard and then return to damaged homes and pissed off communities.  I miss them and think of them often and wonder when I will see them again after my self imposed exile.

Anyway, this week was also about queuing things up for May.  In May I will be:
Doing my PADI course (finally).
·         Going to Temotu and the Reef Islands (woot!)
·         Going to the Spear Festival in Makira (double woot woot!)
The month of May is looking like quite the busy one. Tessa, the Greek Doctor and myself have finally had the guts to put everything down on a calendar, the Casa Turchese social calendar and quickly realize that the first two weeks of May are completely booked up.

Let the May Madness begin…