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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Newbie Solomon Island Guide: What to bring

Okay, I have to go back a step. I've been here so long now that I skipped an important part: packing before you get here. I was asked (actually one friend demanded and got quite cross with me that I forgot to include this) by some friends to cobble together what I believe to be crucial items to stuff into your suitcase before making a visit or a move to the Sollies. THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD BRING IF YOU LIVE HERE. If you are just visiting, bring items 1-5, 7-10, 12, 15, 21-27, that should be sufficient for the time you are here.

NOTE: This is based on MY experiences and those of my close friends. Other expats may have a different list entirely and thats cool. If you have any questions about any of the below, feel free to email me. Also, you will notice this is skewed towards the ladies, as I am a girl. Tough luck, boys.

What you need to know before you go:
First off, remember that this a developing country in a very isolated part of the world. Everything comes here by shipping boats and, well, sometimes those boats don't show up or can't pay the port fees or other taxes to offload their goods. This means that food and product shortages occur often. What you can rely on is the basics like local veggies and fruits and fish. You may have a shipping allowance to bring goods into the country (I discuss that further below) which means you can bring stakka (lots) of stuff but I would focus your packing on things that aren't available or are very expensive to purchase here.

The Golden Rules
      1. Don't bring anything that you can't bear to part with. I know this may sound harsh but if you have something that would make you sad to part with, like a teddy bear your mum gave you or a diamond engagement ring, I wouldn't bring it. A good example: my dad lost his wedding ring, which he had for more than 30 years, whilst snorkeling in Hawai'i. He never got it back and he was gutted. But many people do and nothing happens, however be aware that you are taking a risk to lose those items. I have known several friends who were very upset when personal and sentimental items went walkabout and never returned.
      2. The more things that serve dual or triple purposes, the better. For instance, a yoga mat is great for relaxation but also makes a good bed roll in the villages. I have torches that have a red light as well as a regular light that can serve as an emergency signal. Again, the more multipurpose, the better.
      3. Bring extras. If you have room, chose a few things to bring doubles of. I've mention them down below.
      4. Don't panic! IF you don't get everything on the list, you will be fine. Many expats leave frequently and they often leave stuff behind. Also, remember that you will likely be going home at some point, so prioritise what you need to be bring based on usefulness to you.
Your luggage
20 kilos is your check in luggage allowance for all flights in to the Solomons (commercial) and seven kilos for your carry on. However, there are few things you can do to get more on the plane. You can pay extra OR, if you are going on Solomon Airlines, ask for a 10 kilos sporting goods allowance (call first to make sure this policy is still in place). Its free and I have done it myself. Also, check what your international flight limits are. Mine was 30 kilos for Emirates and I checked my bags all the way in from Charles de Gaulle to Honiara. I had 27 kilos and was not charged any extra coming into Honiara. Maybe I just got lucky.

Bring at least one really good back pack, the more waterproof, the better. Also, don't bring the flashiest luggage you can find or anything too new. My suitcase is a road warrior and looks that way. I've never had my stuff broken in to because of it. Just sayin.
Stuff to pack in your luggage (in no particular order):
  1. Snorkel, fins and mask. Buy a good set. If you can afford it, bring two. I have three sets of fins/masks/snorkels. Whenever I go anywhere with friends, I always find that someone has left their gear behind, so I end up loaning my extra gear to people. Its also handy to have a few spare sets in case your best set breaks. Snorkel gear is expensive here, and not easy to find, so bring it! Slightly used rather than a older set is best. The plastic around the mask does age and will eventually crack, causing the mask to leak. No one wants a mask full of sea water, so bring something either new or just slightly used.
Snorkel purchasing hint: bring the best kind you can, with tempered glass so it can double as a diving mask. Also I prefer the one with one big lens rather than the dual one.
NOTE: IF you are a diver or interested in becoming a diver, BRING YOUR OWN EQUIPMENT minus weights and tanks (if you have a shipping allowance, feel free to stick your gear in there if you don't want to dive straight away). Seriously, renting gear is very expensive. After about 10 dives or so, you will have made it worth the initial cost of getting your gear.
  1. Knife-Swiss army knifes are great, I suggest buying one or a big knife. Note: I had a diving knife that I forgot to pack in my check-in (it was in my carry on) and I had to give it up. I'm still sad because that knife was SO Lara Croft and Marco gave it to me as a gift (Actually the cheap Italian made me pay him something for it, he said you can never give a knife for free)...
  2. Sunscreen. Bring a LOT. Sunscreen costs about $250 sollies here, which in my book is pretty pricey. Typically you can only get it here at the chemists and there isn't a lot of choices (mostly its Nivea). So wherever you are, load up.
  3. Board shorts and swimming shirts. I highly recommend getting yourself some board shorts because showing thighs for women is a big no no here. Rashies or swimming shirts are also great to protect your skin against the sun and coral reefs. Believe me, if you snorkel, you will probably get a coral cut and those are no fun (coral can GROW inside the wound. Believe me, it sucks). I suggest getting a short sleeve and a long sleeve one because the long sleeve one is great for protecting your skin when you are on a banana boat.
  4. Books-There is one bookstore in the whole Solomon Islands. That's right, ONE. Its a second hand bookstore and closes often without much notice for weeks at a time. If you want to be very generous, buy some kids books, there really aren't any here and kids will love you for it. If you have a shipping allowance, use it to ship out books. You won't regret it. Alternatively, I have an e-reader and that is also very useful. Either way you will want something to read while you are here.
  5. External hardrive. Buy at least one (I have two), I recommend the one terabyte hard drive. If you have Irish pirate neighbours, like I had, get them to fill it up with stuff you want to watch while you are here. Minus the entire series of Krog Mandoon. Well that actually was pretty funny. Also, use it to back up your hard drive on your laptop.
  6. First aid kit-I got one from my volunteer organisation before I came here but I think investing in a good first aid kit is an excellent idea. St. Johns in N.Z. has a great set of first aid kits, as does the Travel Doctors. I would go with the Travel Doctors because theirs is focused on people traveling in exotic areas. Bring some extra Savlon or anti bacterial cream. Also, extra Panadol is a good investment as it is slightly pricey here.
  7. Malaria pills-Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether to take malaria pills or not, but I would suggest bringing them anyway, no matter what your opinion is about it.
  8. Small mosquito net. I recommend bringing one when you travel. You can bring a larger one for your bedroom at home if you wish too. I would pack the larger one in my shipping allowance and bring a small portable one in my luggage.
  9. A big floppy hat and sun glasses- As a bit of a ginger, I BURN in the sun. To stop this from happening, I have a big floppy hat that I wear to the beach and on the banana boat. I recommend bringing some kind of hat to protect you from the sun. Don't bring your expensive designer sun glasses here unless, again, you are prepared to part with them. There are quite a variety of cheap sunglasses here and I buy a pair every other month or so, because these break easily. But again, its up to you.
  10. Laptop. I highly recommend bringing your own personal laptop. Pinky, my 2009 Sony Vaio, goes everywhere with me and I would be lost without her. I watch movies, do work out dvds, talk to my parents on Skype, and all kinds of stuff on Pinky. I love her.
  11. Map of the Solomon Islands. You really can't buy these here, except for at LANDS, which is a government outfit. I suggest buying a good map before you come, if possible. Laminate if you have time.
  12. Torches (flashlights). Look, you will be without power at some point, whether in Honiara or out in the provinces and in the villages. I recommend at least bringing two (big surprise there). Bring at least one waterproof one. Wind up torches are great because batteries are expensive.Head torches are wonderful things, bring one.
  13. Computer related stuff: Bring some electronics dehydration packs. Moisture (and insets) get into things like laptops and you never know when your boat is going to sink and you have to save your laptop from a watery death (even with the silica beads, you might be out of luck). I wrap up my laptop in lava lavas and stick a silica gel bead packet there for about a day or so in the back of my closet. Works a treat and Pinky seems happy as.
  14. Dry bags-Beloved by kayakers, dry bags are created to keep your stuff dry. I have a huge 60 litre dry bag and a small 10 litre dry bag for electronics. I have a dry bag back pack (which I LOVE). All my luggage is waterproof. Why? I go on banana boats quite frequently and it does rain and the boats fill with water. I want to protect my stuff from getting wet as much as possible. I would recommend bringing a dry bag, at least one, whether you are in the field a lot or not. Most of the resorts require banana boat trips, so it never hurts to have one.
  15. Insect repellent: There are mosquitoes here. These little bastards sometimes carry malaria. I recommend wearing some when out in the field (I recommend Bushman, mine is 60 percent deet and has sunscreen in it). Sprays work good too, as do the coils (which you can purchase in Honiara. I am sure its filled with toxic stuff, which makes it so cheap). You can buy some hippie stuff that is a natural repellent but I've used some and it was basically a herbal perfume (which was quite pleasant).
  16. Iron tablets and vitamins : Okay, if you love meat, you are out of luck here in the Solomons. There is beef here but its very expensive and not the best quality. You can get a meat license, to bring 20 kilos of beef (vacuum packed) on the plane. Its a hundred Sollies and worth the investment if you can't live without your steak. Having said that, bringing iron tablets is a great way to ensure you stay healthy by keeping your iron levels up. I think a daily vitamin is also a good idea. It is difficult to get all your nutrients here, especially if you live out in the provinces and other than Centrum, the variety of vitamins here is low. There are no health food shops here, so if you can't live without it, bring it.
  17. A light rain jacket. Its a tropical country. Enough said.
  18. E-perb: Okay, your basic eperp (or emergency beacon) is a great idea if you are spending some time in the field. It is not uncommon for boats to get lost or capsize here, and if you want to get rescued (hey, who doesn't?) an eperb is your lifeline. Basically, this little device sends a signal to Australia and then your home country is notified (there's a whole system) with your exact GPS coordinates. Then someone is called here in the Sollies and a rescue is organized. I've heard of people needing rescue in a number of situations here and they have had good success using an eperb.
  19. Coffee. Yeah I know, it sounds strange, but if you are a coffee snob and/or Italian, it is better to bring your own here. Espresso coffee is VERY expensive here. I am not a coffee snob and I drink the Solomon Islands coffee and green tea. Its not as strong but I like it. Again, its up to you.
  20. Yoga mat. Okay, you might not do yoga or any form of exercise. I do, yoga is a great for relaxation and refocusing (which you will need to do from time to time when working here). But I also use my yoga mat when sleeping out in the villages. Often, all you get is a woven mat on the ground. The first night is pretty uncomfortable but you will get used to it. In the meantime, a little extra padding that a yoga mat provides is priceless.
  21. Drugs and women's hygiene-Bring your own, if you require special medication. Do not assume the drugs will be available here. This includes Epipens, birth control pills and things like condoms. While there is some availability with these items, I worry about the quality of what is provided but its up to you. Also, consider bringing your own favorite brand of tampons or pads as you may not be able to find what you want here.
  22. Small toolkit. I know this will come as a shock to you, but I fix stuff in my house. A lot. A good little toolkit is great to bring as these are quite expensive here and difficult to find. Mine is pink, comes in a small brief case and is generally hilarious to carry around. Shout out to my ex husband for sending it to me here as a birthday gift in March; its been a great little toolkit and has gotten a lot of use by me and my neighbours. However if you don't have a generous ex husband, bring your own.
  23. Good underwear. The stuff you can buy here is pretty low quality and personally, I wouldn't buy a bra from the second hand shops. I'm just sayin. Ladies, bring your sports bra. Or two. I have two (I have two of most things). I recommend wearing them on banana boats, ladies, I promise your breasts will thank you for it.
  24. Clothes. Bring light coloured, light weight and loose fitting clothing. I recommend linens and cottons. Just don't bring white as it will stain immediately. I wouldn't pack too much though, clothes are cheap in Honiara at the local kalico shops. I've found quite a few nice clothes. Ladies, leave your short shorts at home, showing thighs are a big no no here. If you aren't sure, bring a lava lava (sarong) to wrap around you. You can buy these here but its always good to have one to start out with. Skirts are wonderful to wear and most Solomon Island women wear them as opposed to pants or shorts.
  25. Beauty products. Ladies (or I guess dudes, if you are metro-sexually inclined) bring your good moisturizers, toners, cleansers, shampoo and conditioners if you feel you can't live without them. HINT: IF you don't want to fill your bag (there is a 20 kgs weight limit) with beauty products, buy them at the Brisbane duty free. Also, bring a good set of razors, the ones here are pretty dull and expensive. The beauty products here are pretty sub standard, so bring anything you feel you can't live without. However, don't bother with the nail polish, I found the best nail polish in the world right here in Honiara. More on that later...
  26. A small sports towel is a good idea. I wish I had brought one of those microfibre ones that pack up really small.
  27. Your toiletries bag. Bring a toothbrush, floss can purchase all that here but its always good to have something with you already.
  28. Shoes. Yes, I said it. Now, I'm going to recommend what kind of shoes to bring, because I have witnessed all kinds of shoe debacles here (and experienced my own). Shoes here are fairly expensive to buy and you certainly won't find the quality/quantity/price that you will at home. The essential list is:
      a) Flip flops/thongs/jandals/slippers: This is standard footwear for the Solomon Islands. If there was a dress code, this would be nambawan on the list of footwear. Seriously. This place loves its jandals. I wouldn't suggest bringing your $60 aussie pair of Havanas, especially if you want to bring them back home. Buy something cheap and comfortable because they will get WRECKED here.
      b) Sports sandals. I love my Keen sport sandals. They are durable, comfortable and I can pretty much walk anywhere in them.
      c) Crocs. Okay, I said it. Now, seeing Crocs being worn outside the home setting typically makes me cry inside BUT these shoes are ideal for the Sollies. Comfy, easy to wear in muddy conditions, dries easily; these shoes have it all. Ladies: I suggest buying ballet flats or similar if you want a more stylish option. My friend Viola owns a particularly stylish pair, sort of Mary Jane flats. These look great on her and she wears them all the time.
      I feel dirty now that I have recommended Crocs, but it is what it is.
      d) Running shoes. Only if you like to run. However, most running shoes don't do too well in these conditions (dirt roads, lots of rocks, no flat surfaces) so be prepared to slip down hills.
      e) Walking shoes. You can get away with just sport sandals BUT there may be a time when you want to cover your whole foot. This could be when you are walking through the bush and need more protection.
      f) Reef walkers. Now I often just use my sport sandals in the water but owning a pair of reef shoes is a good idea. I own two and regularly lend out a pair to my friends. (If you are tight on space, you can use ditch these and use your sports sandals instead).
      g) One pair of Stilettos. Okay people, its called Stilettos in the Solomons for a reason. However, I do not recommend walking in these big girl shoes around town. Here is what I do if its a stiletto type situations: I wear my jandals to the party (cause its always a party thing) and then do a quick switch in the car or just outside. Pop your jandals back in your purse. When the party is finished, switch again. For men, I think it might be good to consider bringing one pair of dress shoes.
  29. MP3 Player. I use mine all the time while on banana boats and walking to work. I have audio books and enjoy rocking out to my favorite music while riding over the waves. I also listen to the BBC World Service and Wantok FM on the MP3 radio. It calms me down and helps make a rough ride a bit more enjoyable. Try to get one that is waterproof; my two aren't (yes I have two) but I haven't had any problem. I pop them into my electronics pouch (the one that helps dehydrate the device) every three months to keep them running smoothly.
  30. A cheapie phone- Bring a cheapie phone, cause if you lose it, it is easy to replace. I recommend something by Nokia; the battery lasts for ages and its quick to recharge. Plus everyone seems to have one here.
  31. A few extras: Ladies, if you have long hair, bring extra hair bands, clips can buy some here but really good ones are hard to find. Also if you want wireless or Internet in the home, consider bringing your own equipment to make this happen e.g. external modems, hubs etc...
MAKE SURE TO PACK SOME CLOTHES ON YOUR CARRY-ON. Luggage does get lost here, even for a day, so make sure you have an extra change of clothes on you.

Duty free (what to buy)
  1. Booze. If you can't live without your gin and tonic, buy some bottles at Duty Free. Be aware about travel times, sometimes the flights here leave Brisbane before the shops open (which sucks). You can pre-purchase your items online, just google Brisbane Duty Free and everything should run smooth (you can even get good deals by doing this as well as saving time). So make sure you have planned to pick up your duty free cause booze here is expensive.
  2. Perfume. I wouldn't pack mine, I'd rather save my luggage allowance and buy it cheaper at duty free.
  3. Beauty products: I bought a few items, including moisturizer (you will need a LOT here). You won't be able to buy Clinique or any other brand names here so load up.
  4. Watches. I bought my little waterproof watch at duty free and I love it.