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The baby Jesus bird

Saying goodbye is always a difficult thing.  There are those people that you’ve really grown fond of, and are going to miss deeply.  There are those people you didn’t realise you would miss until you actually said goodbye.  There are those people that you are not going to miss at all.  And then there’s the bird.

The story of the bird starts a long way back.  You may remember my blog from 2 years ago, when I mentioned our pet pigeon, Itchy.  At the time, Itchy and I were not the best of friends, and he made me doubt my potential parenting credentials.  Sadly, my relationship with Itchy did not get any better, and as he became more aggressive and started attacking me when I tried to give him food, we knew it was time to send him back to “the farm”.  I thought our birding days were over.

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Itchy

I was wrong.   It wasn’t long before my bleeding heart husband surprised me with…….a pet parrot.  Surprise! Not just any pet parrot, an itty witty baby parrot that was clearly ripped from its nest too early and then paraded around the hot streets of Honiara in a cramped wooden cubicle in the name of income generation.  Sadly, this bird didn’t last long enough to receive a name:  we found the poor little pet dead in his cage after just three days.  With self-esteem in my parenting skills hitting rock bottom, I thought this event would finally cement our bird-less future.

Wrong again.   It seems my husband’s compassion for birdlife knows no bounds.  In February last year he surprised me with yet another pet parrot.  The same size as the first, cramped in the same small bamboo cage and dehydrated in the hot sun for the same time, I didn’t really foresee a bright future for this one.  However, unlike me, Manyoni was determined to make it work.

I shouldn’t have been surprised then when I came out to the verandah and found Manyoni with the bird nestled in his hand, feeding it masticated food directly from his mouth.  This continued for weeks.  Oral hygiene became the number one priority in our household from that day on.

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Clearly his devotion was having the desired effect because the bird started to grow.  Realising that it may be around for longer than I thought, we decided to give it a name:  Kara, meaning Parrot in morovian – one of the Solomon Island’s languages.  While the morovian word, Kara, is gender neutral, the English version is not.  Given the fact that we had no idea what sex our baby bird was, poor Kara grew up in a very gender-confused environment being labelled she, he, and it.

Despite this, he/she/it continued to grow, and then started to attempt to fly.  Now, I have never attempted to learn to fly (barring leaps off the verandah when I was a child), and it became clear that it can be a little scary, even for birds.  Whenever I was cradling baby Kara, she would try to break free, resulting in her almost falling.  Her response:  a big poop.  Clearly, this built up an association and she just commenced pooping every time she tried to fly, and every time I came near.  Yep, that’s class A parenting right there.

Despite the shaky start, Kara did begin to fly.  She flew into walls, windows and people.  It was around this time that we observed her becoming lethargic and unable to lift his head.  Given its recent flying attempts, we thought that perhaps she had misread his ability to stop when flying towards a cement wall, and had injured itself.  Sadly, Kara just got worse and one morning I went onto the verandah to see her lying dead on the floor.  Unable to bear the sight of her, I found a sheet to drape over his lifeless body.  As I did so, it let out a squawk.  He wasn’t dead!

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A dying Kara

Manyoni, the doting Dad, decided to take her to the vet in a final attempt to prevent our third bird murder.  The vet prescribed milk and antibiotics to be administered through a syringe.  The doting Dad did so, every few hours as required, even during the night.  Within just a few hours, our baby Kara bird had risen from the dead.  She began lifting her head, then he began walking, and within days, it was flying around and smacking into walls once again.  It was a miracle!  Hence she was dubbed the baby Jesus bird.

That near-death experience helped us all bond as a family, and I began to take my parenting role more seriously.  Every day, we spoiled Kara with an unreasonably huge serving of milk, rapidly depleting my personal rations.  We celebrated when she spoke her first (and only) word:  Kara.  She became playfully aggressive, flying on top of our heads and squawking in our ear, occasionally doing a happy poop while there (trying to get that stuff out of dreads is not easy!).
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The most exciting thing was watching our little gender-confused bird grow into a juvenile superbird with its own personality.  Some days, she would just stand on her perch and do a side-to-side dance, with or without music.  Other times, I would catch it contorting itself around the cage, with one leg holding herself from the roof, and his other leg and beak lifting up two separate coconut shells (like some sort of prisoner, body building thing).

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007 music rings in the background

When released, Kara would run along the swinging clothesline, like a stealth army commando; or she would just swing upside down like a wannabe bat.  The cutest, for me, was when she would try to bathe himself in the teeny tiny drinking bowl (because if we gave it a bigger bowl he would just tip it over), making her looked like a drowned rat.  All of this was possibly a result of psychosis from being in a semi-permanent state of solitary confinement, but we found it endearing.

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A drowned bird

Much less endearing was when she would make a rapid attempt to fly over our heads into the house, which ultimately ended with me breaking my ankle in an effort to turn and catch her while on the edge of a step.  We won’t dwell on that.

With such fondness for our miracle bird growing, it was sad to have to put her into foster care during our month-long visit to Africa.  However, Kelvin is the biggest bird lover I know, so I knew she would be in safe hands.  Indeed, when we arrived back in Solomon Islands, Kara was doing well, so we didn’t feel the need to collect it straight away.

As Murphy’s law would have it, that night Kara disappeared.  We are still yet to determine if it was a case of birdnapping, or if Kara had just got smart enough to let himself out of the cage, but poor Kelvin was beside himself.  (I, personally, thought it solved us a lot of problems).  In contrast, Manyoni had a sense that that was not the end.  Indeed, after three days, Kelvin found Kara happily perched on the shoulder of the neighbour’s child, and she was quickly returned to its cage and into our care.  The miracle bird strikes again.

Whatever had happened with Kelvin, or with the neighbour’s child, had changed Kara.  For the first few weeks after his return, she was the most placid and pleasant bird-child I had ever encountered.  I thought, perhaps, that she had finally reached maturity.  But I was wrong.  Sombre Kara was clearly just a mask for the fully aggressive Kara that would come soon after (which makes me certain it has something to do with our parenting style).

However, with only a couple of months before our Solomon adventure was to come to an end, we also had to find a new residence for our multiple-personality child.  As in many cases, relieving yourself of a burdensome pet can be easily achieved by sending them to “the farm”.  This is exactly what we did, except that we sent her to a real farm – Modi’s farm – in a new, bigger cage, surrounded by trees, dogs, and other parrots in cages to talk to.

Prior to our Solomons’ departure, we visited her there and he has settled in well and started talking more (Yep, we clearly were the worse bird parents ever).  It was an epic parenting adventure with our miracle gender-confused multiple-personality baby Jesus bird.  May she/he/it one day spread its wings and fly.

 

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Honiara is….

1.  Hot. And Humid.

Okay, I concede that the “It must get cold sometimes….surely!” jacket probably was a huge waste of luggage space.  For someone who grew up in central Queensland and spent the last 3 years in Africa, Honiara feels painfully hot.  Maybe most of the pain comes from the fact that I am just metres from the ocean, yet am unable to cool off in its muddy, rubbishy, seweragy waters.  The one bit of relief has come from the nearby cyclone, sending days of rain and the threat of natural disasters.

2.  Expensive!

Australia is beginning to look like a budget tourist destination.  I suspect that it would probably be cheaper for me to fly to Australia once a month to pick up a suitcase full of groceries, than it would be to shop locally.  With rent twice my mortgage repayments in Australia, and electricity five times when I was forking out in Zambia (despite having solar hot water AND gas stove), I honestly don’t know how people survive here.   My guess is point number 5.

3.  Full of Australians.

I suspect this is what Bali feels like, except with fewer drunken party touristy types and more dinner party advisory types.  Despite the apparent Australian invasion (meant in the nicest possible way), it amazes me that the locals here still seem to revel in any interaction with us whities,  and will still ask where you’re from, knowing full well that there’s 99% chance your home is a 4-hour flight away.  Of course, Manyoni’s “not-quite-Pacific-but-maybe-a-distant-cousin’s-cousin” appearance brings the novelty and excitement of these interactions to a scale unseen.

4.  Smiley

It seems the country’s self-designated title of the “Happi Isles” is spot on.  That’s not to say that people here don’t have their fair share of problems – recent history shows that’s not the case.  It’s more like there was a moment in time where the majority of people in the country were smiling, and then the wind changed, and the smiles stuck as a permanent feature.  It’s incredible.  And infectious.

5.  Nutty

From what I can gather, the average Honiaran can survive on a daily diet of coco nut and betel nut.  Anything else is superfluous.  On the upside, one can get a freshly-cracked, refreshing coconut water for about 50 cents Australian (compared with $5 a bottle in Australia), while our purchase of a coconut scraper has enabled Manyoni to eek out 2.4 litres of fresh coconut milk from half a dozen dried coconuts at a grand cost of about AUD$2.  On the downside, the walk to work is a case of Russian roulette as I dodge the spit coming from passing mini-buses full of betel nut chewers, and my conversations with colleagues are constantly distracted by the red, rotten-teethed grins resulting from a life-time of betel nut damage.

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The Runaways

With three weeks of relentless cloud cover and drizzle, we were finally blessed with a two-day reprieve of glorious sunshine.  Fortunately, that reprieve fell on a weekend, and it was on this weekend that Helene, Louise and I decided to head to the South-West of Swaziland to a little place called Mahamba.

Mahamba roughly means “runaways”.  It is the area where, in 1844, Christian missionaries first set up shop in Swaziland.  For a couple of years things went well for them, with many locals converting and a school being established.  However, the Wesleyans soon found themselves caught in the middle of a row between the king and a rebellious relation who was hiding nearby, which eventually erupted into violence in the mission yard.  No missionaries were hurt, but they fled the country none-the-less, and the name Mahamba stuck.

Our journey started well, buoyed by the surprising weather.  One hundred kilometres in, however, things started turning sour.  A light rattling in the car forced us to pull over for a look and we found leaking oil and a baking engine.  A single call to the mechanic and it was decided that we needed to be towed home.   Still, one could not waste the sumptuous sunshine, so while waiting for our knights in towing armour, we decided to enjoy a picnic lunch and a dash or two of rum, helping the time to evaporate.  The festivities continued as we were towed back to town, where they dropped us off and I grabbed my car to attempt the adventure a second time.

We arrived at Mahamba Lodge in the late afternoon, a community-run enterprise with beautiful self-catering stone-walled cottages overlooking a gorge and the (now bulging) Mkhondvo river.  The remainder of the evening was spent sipping wine on the deck, as we soaked up the views, chatted under the (almost) full moonlight, and made friends with the resident mouse.

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After a nice sleep and huge breakfast, it was time to do some exercise, so we set about hiking toward the ridge of the gorge.  As the sun continued to rise, Louise opted to head home, while Helene and I pushed onwards, upwards and around.  The view from the top was……windy…..but for those moments we were able to stay upright, it was also beautiful.  It stretched far into South Africa and showed off the sheer lines cutting into the gorge face opposite.  As we descended using the most direct and, hence, steep “route” available, the river beckoned us nearer.  Upon closer inspection of the muddy waters, though, we decided not to venture in, but we still enjoyed the itchy grass and slippery rock scramble alongside it – no doubt disturbing several deadly snakes in their warming slumber.

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Louise was already preparing lunch on our return (bless her!), which we enjoyed leisurely before making our way home.  No trip to Mahamba is complete, however, without first paying a visit to Swaziland’s oldest (intact) Christian church, a gothic Methodist structure built in 1912.  It owes its continued existence to some recent renovations, and a swathe of masking tape.  We also detoured slightly into the bustling metropolis of Nhlangano, the region’s capital, before paying our respects to the previous day’s injured vehicle by stopping where it did and crossing a rustic old bridge that we’d spied from the tow truck.  The two days of sunshine and adventure was bliss and just enough to prepare us for the return to Swaziland’s wintery summer.

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Poem

One of the random things I was involved in starting in Geraldton was the occasional poetry night with friends.  From the first poetry evening held in the ambience of the historic Hermitage, to poetry around Johnno’s backyard campfire, last Saturday was to be the first poetry night that I would miss. So, in its honour, I wrote this little contribution that I thought I would share.

SWAZILAND

An adventure to the unknown, a foreign dot on the map

I said goodbye to those I love, too nervous, too excited to nap

 

Destination: Africa, The land of the Swazi

An absolute monarchy led my King Mswati

 

A country built by fights between the Brits and the Boers

With more HIV than anywhere else, it’s now a different war

 

I live here, a volunteer, yet still paid more than most

Working with rural women, “Gone Rural” is my post

 

Exported across the world, baskets and mats they weave

My role is to help in health: Diabetes, HIV, TB

 

Lured by skin that’s white, proposals are a part of life

My highest offer:  50 cows to be a second, or third, wife

 

The language is siSwati, the hardest I’ve ever tried

Three clicks and stupid noun classes. Each day, my brain is fried

 

Maize is the staple diet, beaten and boiled to mush

Served with meat: braaied, boiled or stew. To eat it, I’m not in a rush

 

Come Friday afternoon, it’s straight next door to the pub

“Mallies” or “Sundowners”, Cheap drinks and western grub

 

Every now and then I plan a weekend getaway

South Africa, Mozambique, or Lions and Rhinos at Hlane (pron. Hlan-ay)

 

The best weekends by far are spent up in the hills

Out hiking with new friends or biking for extra thrills

 

Yet the best thrill of all, what makes it all worthwhile

Is getting to know the women, their songs, their dances, their smiles

 

At the end of the day there’s nowhere I’d rather be

Except, perhaps, for tonight spending it with you and poetry.

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