When I tell people that a large part of my job is looking for shit in pits, I don’t get a lot of job envy. But that’s because they never bother to ask, “Where?” A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of heading to Santa Ana, in Makira Province, as part of a monitoring visit. If you don’t know where that is, don’t worry – neither did I. To get there, it’s just a few hours on a little 16-seater Twin Otter plane…….. or a really, really long time on a boat.
Checking in at Honiara, nobody cares about seeing your ID or confirming that there’s nothing flammable in your luggage. What they do care about is how much you and your luggage weighs. Fear of terrorism in the form of over-consumption? First stop on our journey was Arona (on Ulawa island), and then to Kirra Kirra to refuel (using a hand pump and a 44-gallon drum). Finally, it was on to Santa Ana island.
Domestic airports in Solomon Islands seem to be little more than a ploughed strip of land sandwiched between the rough, rocky ocean and an island of endless palm jungle. The tarmac is coral, and the terminal – well – there isn’t always one. Embarkation and disembarkation are all a pretty DIY affair.
On our arrival into Santa Ana, we took the shortcut route to the guesthouse through beautiful dense rainforest track and down slippery coral slopes. Yep, no cars on Santa Ana, and no malaria either. The definition of paradise! Sort of. I did quickly discover that the island is home to loads of gigantic spiders that like to hang out above my bed and on the toilet seat – that was some real character-building stuff for an arachnophobe.
Santa Ana island is made up of three (and a half) communities, with a primary and high school built in between. The communities are straight from a BBC documentary – little leaf shacks built atop sandy, coral atolls, with the turquoise blue ocean crashing against the rocks that fringe the community, and half-naked kids with wild hair engrossed in a never-ending game of marbles.
The purpose of our trip was to look at the progress of CLTS in these communities, which were triggered in December 2014. As the rain bucketed down (a drought here is considered to be 3+ days without rain), we – the “yellow men” – wandered between villages, speaking to Chiefs and community members about shit.
They greeted us with freshly baked taro, and tours of the Kastom / Spirit houses (for men only, although the view into the house isn’t exactly protected). They made assumptions that we would bring materials for their poorly maintained water supplies and complete lack of sanitation. Then, they got a shock as we reminded them that CLTS stands for Community-Led Total Sanitation and that God helps those who help themselves, not the government.
In our down-time, as the rain continued to pour down, there was little to do except make the most of our remote surroundings. We took a dip in the island’s beautiful freshwater lake, which nobody informed us had a resident crocodile until AFTER our swim. We drank warm SolBrew beer on the beach while watching the sun set and the entire village’s children splashing about and learning the art of dug-out canoing (they start them young!). We dined on freshly retrieved megapode eggs, smoked fish, and freshly caught coconut crab, obtained from the local fishermen at bargain basement prices. And we snacked on the bananas of the day (Fun trivia fact – Makira Province is home to 189 varieties of bananas, with a festival held each year to celebrate the versatile fruit!).
Before long, and with another low pressure system looming, it was time to head back to Honiara. First job was to package the remaining, live coconut crabs to take with us – no easy task, given that these little guys are so strong that they can climb coconut trees and crack open coconuts with their bare claws. Why we thought they’d be safely contained in a cardboard box, I have no idea.
Then it was off to a random guy’s house to weigh ourselves with our bags in the rain, and tick our names off a list. It’s a great way to see how many kilos the coconut crab has added to your physique in just a few short days. Then it’s a walk back to the airport, and a wait by the tarmac for plan to arrive – a bi-weekly event for this island that seems to draw out the entire community.
As the islands, ocean, rocky shorelines and palm trees passed beneath me, one can’t help but think how great a job this really is.