Posts Tagged With: solomon islands

Tetepare

Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific.  It hasn’t always been this way.  A distinct ethnic group, with their own language, still resided on this 118km2 block of land up until around 150 years ago.  The reasons for the sudden mass exodus of the tribe came down to three things:

  1. Coming off on the losing side of the headhunting game.
  2. Severe dysentery causing bloody carnage.
  3. Yep, apparently a lot of men lost their lives needing to enact bloody revenge or fight to the death for their honour against rumours of infidelity and weakness.

And so, the last man standing (or should I say, woman) left Tetepare in a dugout canoe in the mid-19th century.  Since then there have been a few attempts to resettle “the fighting boar”, and all of them have failed.  A coconut plantation, established in 1907 by Burns Philips Co., was one of the most successful in the country until the war hit and the plantation was abandoned.  Twenty years later, it was kick-started again, only to fail due to labour unrest.  The inability for any of these to take hold has simply cemented the belief that Tetepare is a living island, filled with spirits who wish to restrict human habitation.

Since the last woman left Tetepare, another thing has happened.  She has produced over 3000 descendants who all lay claim to the island.  Now this can cause a bit of a headache when trying to make decisions regarding the land.  With the very genuine threat of indiscriminate logging and the promise of get-rich-quick royalties gaining popularity among descendants, the Tetepare Descendants’ Association was formed around 15 years ago with the aim of conserving some of Solomon Islands’ pristine land and coast.  So far, they have succeeded, and with good reason.

The area around Tetepare is home to 230 bird species, 24 reptile, 4 frog and 13 mammal species, including rare and endemic bird and bat species.  It is the nesting site for three species of turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill.  A variety of seagrass provides perfect foraging for dugongs, while freshwater rivers and lakes support crocodiles and unique fish species.

The 13-kilometre long Marine Protected Area (one of the largest MPAs in the Solomon Islands) support coral reefs with one of the highest diversities of fish and coral in the world (second only to Raja Ampat in Indonesia, according to Wikipedia).  Some of the only remaining primary lowland rainforest in the region is also home to one of the largest (if not the largest) skinks in the world – it also has a prehensile tail.

Tetepare is the island that I so desired to come to at Christmas time, during leatherback nesting season, only to be thwarted by that near-death ocean crossing.  Three months later, we tried again.

First Day in Tetepare

After recounting our previous nightmarish crossing attempt to the other guests bound for Tetepare, I felt like liar when the trip this time around was so incredibly smooth.  In fact, the water was so glassy we were able to look at the reflections of the clouds and pick out animal shapes.  I had been bracing myself for such rough seas that when we reached the island without a hiccup, I refused to believe it was Tetepare.

After landing at the beach, we were taken up to our comfortable leaf bungalows, before being briefed about the unique and dangerous animals of the island, and what activities we could do to get close to them.  Sadly, we were also informed that we had missed the last leatherback hatchlings for the season….by one week!  Our afternoon was spent lounging on the hammock, spotting turtles in the water from the lookout or – in the case of animal-whisperer Manyoni – spotting green and hawksbill turtles while snorkelling just off the beach.

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While a lot of the coral in the shallow areas was damaged by the 2009 tsunami, Mannu the guide took us out to the passage where we pushed forth against the current to swim over huge coral bombies stretching from 7m below all the way to the surface.  The abundant fish were supersized, with many of the same species we had seen elsewhere in the country, only five times bigger!

At sunset, we resumed the position on the hammocks at the lookout, before answering the cow horn to come to dinner.  There we were treated to delicious and fresh islander food, including fish in coconut milk, greens, ginger pumpkin, mangrove fruit and five types of carbs.

At bed time, we took our old-fashioned kerosene lanterns to guide us to our rooms so we didn’t step on centipedes, and had a parade of 8 staff come around to affix a sheet to the ceiling to stop the fire ants falling on to the bed and attacking us.  While this may all sound a little bit uncomfortable, I must admit that this was the best sleep I’ve had in any lodge in Solomons.  There was a lovely cool breeze, no fire ants, few mosquitos, and nothing but the moonlight to keep us awake.

 

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Day 2

Alright, so the first night I did have one disruption.  I awoke suddenly with the feeling that someone was shaking me.  I looked up and saw a man peering at me from the end of the bed.  In my semi-slumber state, I thought it was a staff member waking me to see dugongs, but then he suddenly disappeared.  There are two reasonable explanations for this:  a) I’m delusional;  b)  Tetepare really is full of spirits, and I had just experienced that first hand.  Certainly, the staff at Tetepare were kind enough to think it was option b.

As the daylight came, I stepped out of my bungalow and headed toward the boats for an early morning trip to the reef.  In that short walk, I came across a sleeping snake, megapod birds and beautiful monitor lizards.  In the water, we were taken to the outer reef, where we saw giant bumpheaded parrotfish – first one, then another, then a school of about 100.  They must have been a metre in length, half a metre high, with the big daddy nipping the smaller ones into line.  It’s easy to see why this place is so special.

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Then it was time for breakfast (yes, all that happened before breakfast!).  We engaged in more carb-loading in the form of pancakes, scones, fresh bread, fried bread and fruit.  We then decided that we should try and work it off.  So off we headed into the bush, with little idea of where we going, but plenty of enthusiasm.

Within 5 minutes, we had the guides chasing after us and redirecting us along a “more appropriate” path.  It was a good thing, too.  Our guide, Tumi, made the walk doubly enjoyable by pointing out all the different medicinal plants, food plants, and plants of seduction as we passed from the secondary forest into the primary forest.  We made up to the highest point of the island, where we got a view of – well – trees, then headed back down again for lunch.

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The afternoon was spent back in the water, snorkelling the passageway again and, this time, being treated to the sight of sharks, green turtles and cowtail rays.  As dusk approached, we jumped in the boats for our first serious search for dugongs.  Within a minute we spotted one!  By that I mean we saw its voluptuous body – in the form of a dark blob – dash underneath the water.  I’m not sure if it was the motor of the boat, or the splashes from 7 people frantically jumping into the water to get a better view, but that was the only glimpse of the dugong we got that night.  Dugongs 1 – Isabel 0.

As if the first day on Tetepare could not involve any more wildlife, after dinner we were taken on a guided walk to search out cuscus.  No, this is not a delicious form of grain, but a type of possum that has largely been eradicated (ie. eaten) in the rest of Solomon Islands.  It should now come as no surprise that Tetepare was able to deliver on that too, with three cuscus found hiding in the trees close to the lodge.

Day 3

A beautiful sprinkling of overnight and early morning rain put a dampener on our plans to continue our dugong hunt.  Instead, we headed down to the jetty to watch the sharks nonchalantly glide past below us  There is such an elegance and beauty about these creatures that I truly find indescribable.

The continuing rain foiled much of the rest of the day’s plans, too, so it was fortunate that we had Manyoni there to coordinate crafternoon for all the guests.  In between crafts, we dozed and read books.  It was tough.

A window of clear sky in the afternoon allowed us to head out for a short snorkel.  This time we investigated the coral bombies around the jetty.  Again, there were so many fish here, so big and travelling in every direction that while I floated there, mesmerised, it felt like downtown New York of the underwater world.

This evening was the last night at Tetepare for some of the guests so, in what I was to discover is a Tetepare tradition, we were all treated to the staff singing a farewell song.  In what is also a Solomon Islands tradition, the song was also accompanied by a power outage.  I guess that’s the price you pay when your only source of electricity for the whole island is solar, and the sun doesn’t shine.

Day 4

By the fourth day, I had begun to sense a theme for my trips to Western Province:  Rain.  Yep, our plans for a full-day hiking, snorkelling and circumnavigation of the island went out the window.

Figuring that we were going to get wet anyway, we instead headed out for a morning snorkel in search of dugongs.  Manyoni and Sardi went ahead in the canoe, with the explicit instructions to yell out when they saw one so we could come swimming.  That plan did not work, as they recounted afterwards the family of three dugongs that they saw close up.  Ah well.  We did still manage to catch sight of a couple of turtles, octopus and a nudibranch.  Dugongs 2 – Isabel 0

Crafts continued throughout the rest of the day alongside the continuing rain.  As the dusk came, we felt in need of some outdoor activity so embarked, yet again, on a dugong hunt.  (You may have gathered, by now, that I was pretty desperate to see dugongs).  Tumi, our guide, headed out first in the dugout.  The group of us followed behind in an OBM that was also being paddled to avoid scaring anything with the motor.

Then we saw it – sort of.  What we saw was the shape of a big dugong and a calf, with the hump of the back rising out of the water as it swam over the shallow coral.  Tumi suggested we jump in the water to see if we could get a better look.  We saw silvertip shark, a school of great barracuda, trevally, a blue-spotted ray, but no dugong.  It has escaped yet again.

As we started heading back toward shore, we spotted Tumi and Manyoni gesturing wildly in one direction.  Like lemmings, we followed.  For the next 30 minutes, we were led on the wildest, unsuccessful dugong chase known to man.  I’m not sure who had the most fun – the dugongs or Manyoni.  Dugongs 3 – Isabel 0.

We were far more successful in our hunt for coconut crab later that night.  You might remember one of my first blogs from Solomon Islands, when I indulged in the delicious and highly endangered meat of a coconut crab whilst on Santa Ana Island.

From that culinary encounter, I had no idea how incredible these things really are.  The crabs live in caves and rock crevasses, they walk backwards, and they feed on coconuts at night that they can crack with their bare claws.  Plus, they are big – the front legs of the one we saw being a least 20cm.  And strong – it took two grown men to wrestle a medium-sized one off a rock ledge.  Much credit must be given to Manyoni who had the courage to pick one up.

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Day 5

With the rain finally taking a break, we decided to have an active final day in Tetepare.  We woke up and started our day with – you guessed it – a dugong hunt!  Day by day our success was improving, with a blob sighting 10 metres away, and a glimpse of nostrils and a hump but, alas, no underwater viewing.  Dugongs 4 – Isabel 0

After breakfast we decided to try one of the activities that was described to us by the Tetepare staff as a “Turtle Rodeo”.  Intrigued?  So were we.  It turns out, the turtle rodeo forms part of Tetepare’s turtle monitoring and tagging conservation efforts.  It basically involves heading out on to the water on two boats.  When a turtle is found, the boats work together to round it up.  As the boat gets close, the ranger (in this case, Mannu) steadies himself on the bow, before leaping off into the water in what looked like a belly flop.  A few seconds later he comes up holding a turtle.  Easy.  Admittedly, it wasn’t as easy for Tumi, who we encouraged to try it for the first time.

Tetepare - diving for turtles

 

With turtle in hand, we then load it on the boat and head back to the beach to measure it, weigh it and tag it.  Our biggest catch of the day was an 80-year old green, with a shell stretching 97cm and coming in at 102kg.  Amazing.

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Later in the morning, we headed off on a coastal hike to Crocodile Lake.  As the name suggests, the lake is home to crocodiles.  If you’re lucky – as we were – you might come across giant salties while walking along the beach.  Then once you reach the lake, you can almost always catch a glimpse of one by climbing into the tree and barking like a dog – true story.

After sufficient crocodile sightings, we headed to the beach for a snorkel…..right opposite the crocodile lake.  The guides assured us it was safe, and so we blindly believed them.  Obviously I survived.  A short while later, we were called on to shore to partake in a nice hot picnic lunch, direct from the lodge.  As we snacked away under the trees, Tumi spotted an incredibly rare and endemic nightjar minding its egg.  A short time later, we also spotted a bright blue and white kingfisher.

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Tetepare - Kingfisher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we didn’t think that things could get any better, our after lunch activity was the most spectacular of all.  The guides took us to yet another snorkelling place called “the dropoff”.  Of everywhere I have been in the Solomons, this is it.  This is the most spectacular.  So many fish, in so many shapes, sizes and colours.  So much coral.  And so much colourful algae that formed patchworks of blue, pink, yellow, purple, green and burgundy on the rocks.  All in the most crystal clear water.  I couldn’t get enough.  I only wish I had a working camera so I could bore you with the pictures.

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As this was to be our last night in Tetepare, we were treated to the usual farewell song from our hosts after dinner.  However, tonight, the hosts did not settle with just one song.  Noooooooo.  From there it carried on to dancing, by which I mean them (the hosts) forcing us to dance.  I will never forget the tears of laughter rolling now down their cheeks as John spelled out his name using his supple hips, or as Suzanne held the broom, I formed the body, and Sardi wagged the tail to mimic the local Bilikiki bird against a backdrop of “Bili”….”Kiki”….”Bili”….”Kiki”…….

Tetepare - bilikiki

Departing Tetepare

The final morning in Tetepare and our absolute last chance to see dugongs underwater.  We adopted the strategy that seemed to be working for above-water sightings – Tumi in the dugout and the rest of us paddling behind in an OBM.  Sure enough, we spotted them but, sure enough, they swam away before we had a chance to jump in.

Then Tumi had the brilliant idea of dropping me off in the middle of the channel and chasing the dugongs toward me.  What could go wrong?  Well, after spending 10 minutes floating and staring unflinchingly at a big empty blue space below me, I was having my doubts.

Then suddenly it happened.  Dugongs!  A mother and her calf swam beneath me in a manner so calm it made me wonder what all the fuss was about.  They were beautiful.  Nothing like mermaids (silly Christopher Columbus), but beautiful none-the-less.  So, after five attempts, and in a manner similar to the ridiculously-scored Quidditch game, the tally at the end of our Tetepare adventure is Dugongs 4 – Isabel 150.

Final words

If you have managed to sit long enough to read this blog, then you not only need a new hobby, but you must also understand why I consider Tetepare to be the best place to visit in the Solomon Islands.

One of the most beautiful things about Tetepare – apart from its nature, of course – is its commitment to provide sustainable income opportunities for the descendants.  In fact, this is necessary if it is to continue to compete with the lucrative interests of logging.  The eco-lodge was built by the hands of descendants (literally – no machines here!).  It now employs more than 50 of its descendants to work as hospitality workers, rangers, trained guides, marine monitors, seagrass monitors, and boat drivers. 

All the food served is grown in the nearby communities where descendants live.  The “gift shop” provides a market for nearby wood carvers who are also descendants.  Plus, it is one of the few “eco-lodges” in Solomon Islands that is actually eco, with solar power its only source of electricity and almost no solid waste to speak of.  All they need is a composting toilet!

With that, I have just one piece of advice:  Go to Tetepare!  You won’t regret it.

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Kakabona

Kahove Falls

Kahove Falls

Of all the hikes in and around Honiara, Kakobona seems to be the one least mentioned among the expat crowd.  So when a friend of mine got around to organising a hike there, Manyoni and I dragged our two visitors into the Solomon outdoors.

The little that I did know about hiking Kakobona was that you walk inland alongside the Kakobona river (just West of Honiara), and that it’s flat and easy.  This small amount of information left me envisaging a flat hike along a muddy track, through tall and thick itchy grass, with the sun beating down from above and a wide, raging, river beside us.

In actual fact, it was anything but.

We met at Godfrey’s place, and were escorted by Benjamin and Austin along a muddy single track through the bush.  This track opened up onto the wide, dry Kakobona riverbed.  So far the hike was exactly as expected.

From there, we followed the riverbed upstream, with the bed becoming narrower and narrower until, very soon, we found ourselves in a cool chasm surrounded by rock walls and enough foliage to prevent the sun from sizzling our skin.  This was not at all expected, and it was such a welcome surprise that my normal heat-zapped energy rapidly returned.

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As we continued walking upstream, we commenced climbing over rocky boulders that paved the way for a never-ending series of crystal clear cascades.  Every so often, we would plunge ourselves into a natural swimming pool amidst the falls, letting the uncharacteristic coolness of the Solomon Islands reinvigorate and reenergise our minds and souls.

The boulders became gradually bigger the closer we got to the falls, and a stack of gigantic fallen trees made for some adventure-filled scrambling, climbing, wading, and new path-setting.  It was not uncommon to need a pull up from above, accompanied by a push up from behind.

After 3 hours of walking (okay, make that 2 hours of walking and 1 hour of splashing around in the water) we reached Kahove Falls.  After the beauty of the previous three hours, the falls were a little underwhelming (perhaps due to very little recent rain), but beautiful none-the-less.  The best part of the falls was standing under them and letting the water provide an all-over body massage as it dropped from 40m above.

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A quick snack and rest was in order before making our way back in reverse: sliding down the same boulders we had climbed up, plunging ourselves in fresh pools whenever we got a little hot, and exiting the cover of foliage and rocks right as the clouds in the sky opened their arms and gave us a parting drench.

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Out West – The calm after the storm

 

24th December, 2015 – Arrival at Matikuri

Nothing could dampen my excitement for the planned Christmas holidays to Solomon Islands’ Western Province – not even the fact that one of our pilots was asleep and the other was reading the flying manual during our 40-minute flight.

Suzanne, Tess, Jen, Manyoni and I touched down safely at Seghe airport and were met by Ben from Matikuri Eco Resort.  As he helped us carry our mountains of luggage to the awaiting boat, we could instantly see by the crystal clear water at the boat taxi rank that there was going to be plenty of good snorkelling and diving.

After setting ourselves up in our gorgeous private leaf hut bungalow on Morovo Lagoon, we wasted no time and joined a group to snorkel a wonderfully intact WWII bomber near Seghe airport.  Although the visibility wasn’t terrific, one could still dive down and check out all bits of the plane.

Western - it's 'da bomb (er)

Due to water shortages (El Nino) the day ended with a “bath” at one of the freshwater streams on a nearby island.

25th December – A Pacific Christmas

It seems that mosquito nets don’t stop everything – I woke up covered in fire ant bites!  Despite a spot of rain and persistent clouds, we took a fantastic morning snorkel to one of the many nearby islands where a very large fishing boat found its ultimate demise after hitting a coral wall.  The boat now stands perfectly vertical on its stern, making the snorkelling around the bow of the boat and the coral wall much like a Jackson Pollock of colourful sea life splashed against a deep blue ocean canvas.

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As the rain intensified, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the lodge with a good book and some cards.

26th December, 2015 – Uepi

One of the first things you hear about when you get to Solomon Islands is Uepi Resort.  Rumour has it that Uepi has some of the best diving in the Solomon Islands….and a lot of sharks.  Since I don’t dive, we decided to head there for a day of snorkelling instead.

Sure enough, the snorkelling was fantastic.  Steep coral walls with huge schools of fish that I had never seen before – Damselfish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, goat fish, trevally, trigger fish, anemone fish, morish idols, leopard-spotted fish, puffer fish, surgeon fish, beche-de-mer, gorgonian corals, brain coral, other corals, as well as some huge bump-headed parrot fish –  all contrasting magnificently against the dark blue background.

Of course, where there are reef fish, there are reef sharks, and Uepi did not disappoint in this regard.  Within the first two minutes, I had a shark swimming nonchalantly past me.  As I headed closer to the sharks’ favourite spot, I sat there for about 5 minutes counting half a dozen magnificent black-tips heading straight for me to get a better look, before swimming away disappointed.  I did try to take a selfie with a shark for your viewing pleasure – unfortunately, they don’t do well at sitting still, and they definitely don’t smile.

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27th December, 2015 – A rainy day in Matikuri

Today the clouds of the past two days eventually dropped their particles and blessed us with a day of rain.  I suspect Bopo the cat exerted more energy throughout the day as part of its ongoing search for scratches than I did reading and sipping cups of tea.

A short break in the rain enabled me to drag the dugout canoe onto the water and paddle out to the next island, before returning to the lodge and spending an extended amount of time mesmerised by a sea cucumber expelling, what looked like, very sticky silly string from its anus, before sucking it back in.  Apparently it’s a thing, with the silly string called cuvierian tubules, and is a sign of feeling threatened.  Oops.

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That evening would be our last evening in Matikuri, and so we celebrated with a meal cooked by Ben’s wife, Jilly.  To add to my day of indolence, I gorged on fish curry, breaded fish balls, bok choy, green beans, roast curry pumpkin, kumara & papaya coconut milk bake, fresh pineapple and mango.  Like a well-fed baby, I fell soundly asleep to the sound of rain on the leaf roof.

28th December – Trip to Tetepare

We awoke early to embark on our next part of the holiday – a trip to Tetepare.  Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, covering 188 square kilometres, and is now a conservation site managed by the Tetepare Descendants’ Association.  Apparently, it is a great spot for dugong spotting and watching turtles nest and hatch, making it the most anticipated part of my holiday.

As we piled our bags and ourselves in the boat, our driver gave us a calm pre-departure briefing:  “It’s 25 knot winds and it will be rough over the channel, so hold on.  If it’s too bad, we’ll come back”.  Such words by a two-time OBM champion Solomon Islander, who has voluntarily donned a life jacket, are not good sign to begin a reputedly dangerous cross-channel voyage in a 40 horse-power OBM.  However, I had complete faith that Captain Mike Charlie would keep us safe.

Mike was not kidding.  The swell would have been at least 2m, we were heading straight into super-strong headwinds, and had the added bonus of being pelted by stinging, gusty rainy.  Mike did really well to try to buffer the swell, but there were several times where we caught ourselves on the face of a wave and almost capsized.

In addition, we were being thrown around so much that the weight of Manyoni and my butts continuously hitting the seat ended up cracking it (a secret karate move from way back).  All this was before we had even hit the channel! Mike had been navigating us close to the islands on the edge of Morovo lagoon so that we could bail if need be.  It suddenly became clear why Tetepare is uninhabited.

After about two hours of bouncing and battling waves (I was told that it usually takes 30 minutes to get to Tetepare island), and as I clutched tenuously to my broken seat, perhaps the most scared I have ever been in my life, a small pod of dolphins came up and swam beside us.  Immediately, Captain Mike yelled from behind, “Don’t panic” and started heading us toward a huge cliff with waves crashing against the rocks at its base.

I was really trying not to panic, but with image of being smashed against rocks at the forefront of my mind, the no-panicking thing became a little difficult.  As we were about to hit the base of the cliffs, Mike steered the boat through a small gap between the cliff and rocks, and into the most tranquil, calm, serene spot ever known to man.  Someone in our boat likened it to a journey into the bat cave.

As we pulled up to the beach, and jumped out to pee our pants in the calm, tropical water, Mike came up to me, full of unnecessary apologies, and explained his actions.  His tribe are the dolphins, and when he saw the dolphins swim alongside us – not playing – he knew that they came to keep us safe.  When the dolphins directed us to the gap, he followed them, knowing that it would be too dangerous to go against their advice.

Now, whether or not you believe in the ancestral connection between man and animal, all I know that Mike’s belief in his tribal heritage could well have saved our lives (unlike others that, I later heard, did perish in this storm), and that’s all I need to believe.

As we made our way back to Matikuri, via the calmer waters of Morovo lagoon, we looked back at the gap from which we came.  It had now closed over in the burgeoning swell, making it impenetrable.  If we had been 5 minutes later we would have been stuck between a life-threatening rock and a hard place – literally.

After the morning’s excitement, we were all content to spend the remainder of the rainy day reading our books, playing cards and staring with post-traumatic shock out into the lagoon.  Extreme weather warnings started drifting in on our phones from the National Disaster Management Office.  The joy of our now-safe and beautifully-located circumstance came flooding back as we spotted the odd sight of a black fin breaking the water below our deck, and a garfish leaping up and flipping around a couple of metres above the water.

29th December – A wet day in Matikuri

With the bad weather still hanging around, Manyoni spent the day doing what he does best – engaging all the lodge’s guests in a day of handicrafts!  The rain came and went throughout the day, enabling the odd snorkel out the front of the lodge.  With poor visibility there was little to see, but it was still nice to get wet.  As the poor weather continued, flights and boats were cancelled, leaving us to discover that we weren’t the only ones to be stranded in the Hapi Isles.

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30th December – A windy day in Matikuri

An overnight storm brought with it horizontal rain and cooling gales.  By morning, the rain had stopped but the strong, gusty wind remained.  This spelled the end of our hopes to get to Tetepare, with its dugongs and turtle hatchlings.  I will just have to plan a return trip…some time.

Due to our unanticipated, extended stay, we had to continually change rooms to make way for scheduled guests arriving.  In the end, though, I enjoyed sampling the unique views and feel of the different leaf bungalows, regardless of sinking decks.

The view from our second bungalow

The view from our first bungalow

31st December – An almost sunny day in Matikuri

Sun!  A little bit, at least.  Enough to make us think that a snorkelling expedition would be worthwhile.  Naturally, as soon as jumped in the boat, the rain started pelting down.

First stop was Bohero village, a place known for its traditional handicrafts.  We visited Aldio Pita, who dabbles in the craft of wood prints on home-made leaf paper; then we went to look at carvings of sago palm nuts; then to see the revived traditional war canoe.

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Our next stop was to Bambata – the calm, tranquil place where we had unsuspectingly found ourselves three days previously.  This time, we were here to view the sites rather than to escape near-death.  We unpacked a picnic lunch on the beach just as the rain returned, turning our crackers soggy and converting our salad bowl into salad soup, as we shivered non-stop while hermit crabs crawled across our bare feet.

Post-lunch we dived into the warm water of the lagoon and paddled across to the cliff on the other side.  Close to that fateful gap between the cliff and rocks was a deep underwater cave, with coral and a plethora of fish above.  Today’s new fish find consisted of a lethargic balloon fish that looks very dead among the coral, and eventually moved after prodding it several times.

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Back at the lodge, we spotted another shark fin from our deck, as well as a turtle and a pod of dolphins to usher in the new year.

The evening was spent in a largely civilised way, listening to Spanish guitar from one of the guests, accompanied by Manyoni on djembe drums and drunk Solomon Islanders on vocal.  It was fantastic.  The air was a surprising calm, and people were enjoying the entertainment so much that no-one even noticed when the clock struck midnight.  That was, until Suzanne and I started yelling it out, then it was hugs all around.  Seemingly on cue, a huge gust of wind swept through the lodge, knocking over chairs and plates, welcoming us to 2016.

1st January, 2016 – A sunny day in Matikuri

The day started with another teaser of sunshine, beckoning us into the water.  On cue, the rain started pelting down as soon as we left the lodge.  It didn’t dampen the enthusiasm, although after a brief return to the shipwreck, we decided to leave those choppy waters and head to a new island where the water was much calmer.

By now the rain had stopped and the fish and coral were excellent as always, with some new types of starfish (including four-legged ones that are more like cross-fish) and huge batfish to add to the sea life checklist.  The sun eventually returned and we saturated ourselves in its rays while beachcombing for exotic shells and strange seagrass fruits.

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The evening was spent gazing out at the water, watching luminescent dots rise to the surface and divide multiple times to form a line of light.  I still have no idea what it could have been, although google suggests a mating display of ostracods (“seed shrimp”).  Awesome.

For our second, last night at Matikuri, Jilly cooked us up a huge chilli feast that left me looking and feeling much like a lethargic Bopo the cat.

2nd January, 2016 – Trip to Gizo

We awoke at the crack of dawn, when the sea and wind is calmest, to make our second attempt out of Matikuri.  All was looking promising with a clear sky and glassy water.  This time our destination was Oravae cottages near Gizo – about a 5 hour boat ride away.

Captain Mike took us back through the lagoon and out the gap by the cliffs at Bambata where we had sought shelter from near death just five days before.  What a difference a few days makes!  The waves were a gentle bobbing size, lolling us to zen mode as we passed by striking huge cliffs of New Georgia island with the waves battering their underbelly.  We passed a giant pod of dolphins early on, wishing us a safe journey.

"The gap" on a calm day

“The gap” on a calm day

First stop was a research station near Ballewi village, where we got to use the much-needed amenities and take in the views from the top of the cliffs.  Then it was on to Munda town, where we refuelled.  From there, it was super smooth sailing through the glassy and picture-perfect turquoise waters of Roviana Lagoon.  What most amazed me were the number of little islands… everywhere… like forest-covered mushrooms sprouting out of a turquoise field.  Suddenly, 900+ islands in the country doesn’t seem so unbelievable.

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We tried looking for our accommodation on one of these islands, passing by Kennedy Island (where JFK sought refuge when his plane went down), and seeking directions from some old Aussie codgers living a sweet retirement life by running a bar on “Imagination Island”.  We had no luck in finding the island so, instead, we headed into Gizo, the capital of Western Province.  Within five minutes, Manyoni’s calm head managed to locate the owner of the Oravae cottages – our next destination.  We wished Captain Mike a safe return trip back to Matikuri, and let the next part of our journey begin!

Oravae cottages are located on Seppo Island, about 20 minutes boat ride from Gizo.  With the whole island to ourselves, accommodated in tree-top bungalows and a water-front house with private outdoor showers, it classes itself as a “rustic romantic” destination.  This may have meant it was Manyoni’s lucky week or his worst nightmare, given that he was the lone man among four independent Aussie chicks.  He seemed to manage just fine.

Oravae Cottages

Oravae Cottages

3rd – 6th January – Oravae Cottages

Over the next four days, we got into the habit of waking up in the early morning and gazing over the balcony to look at the 60-odd garfish congregating in the water below, trevally & small fish chasing each other in circles, smaller fish chasing even smaller groups of fish, clown fish checking out the scene from their anenomes, and to count the black-tip reef sharks gracefully swimming past (on the final morning, I counted 10!).

Then we would enjoy our delicious breakfast delivered to us, before jumping in the warm water for a snorkel.  With so many islands around, there were plenty of different places to snorkel.  Each place, and each snorkel, presented us with a few new sea creatures we hadn’t seen before, including a turtle, nudibranchs, starfish, lobsters, eels, strange slugs, and different types of fish.

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Then it was time to take a break, lounge in the hammock, read a book and drip dry while we waited for lunch to arrive.  Post-lunch, a snooze/3-hour sleep in the cool breeze was required to help the food digest, before launching ourselves back into the water by way of a rope-swing, half-inflated lilos or by paddling the dug-out canoe to a new snorkelling spot.

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By evening, we would return to the deck for a view of the sunset with cold beverage in hand, again counting the sharks that swam by.  Once the darkness arrived, we enjoyed a delicious dinner with Darcy the dog while listening attentively for the sound of a dugong breathing nearby or splashing around trying to unlodge themselves from the shallow waters.

Oravae sunset

Just before bed, we would spend some time playing cards / Pictionary, staring up at the cloud-less star-filled sky, or peering below into the water in search of dugongs or luminescent delights (such as ½ inch bug that left a 50cm trail of light behind it like a snake, which apparently was a signal that it was going to die).

This routine was only punctuated twice during our stay.

Once was a small trip to Gizo to check out the town – it didn’t take long. The town has one road that took us past the new prison, the new hospital and through the markets full of crabs claws and betel nut spit (Oh, how I didn’t miss that).  We then spent the rest of the time chilling at the yacht club watching Western Province’s version of peak-hour, as small boats came in from every direction carrying families headed to Gizo for work or shopping.

Gizo markets

The second time our routine changed was to be treated to an amazing evening of entertainment by local band “Two brothers, a cousin and a friend”.    Apart from Oravae being a private island, guests also have private entertainment.

This band is the amalgamation of two brothers from the next island, their cousin (ie. the son of the owners of Oravae), and a mate from another island.  They have never had a music lesson and made their own five-piece drum kit themselves out of plastic SolRais rice packets, wood, and scrap metal.  Plus, they are amazing.  Actually amazing.  Four young men, each with a unique, beautiful voice, harmonising and able to play every instrument.

For about 1.5 hours they treated us to covers ranging from old-school Bee-Gees and Creedence Clearwater, to more modern (and, I daresay, more beautiful) versions of Rhianna and Carly Rae Jepsen (I had to look that one up).  I couldn’t get enough!

Evening band

Finally, it was time for our holiday to come to an end.  To mark our stay, the conservationist owners asked us plant some coral, before driving us to the airport (spotting a turtle on our way).  Being far too early for true Solomon Islanders, we sweltered in the heat of the tarmac before making our way back to Honiara and the bright orange sunset of a polluted city.

Planting coral

Planting coral

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Hats off to Isabel!

No, this is not a self-congratulatory post.  At least not completely.

After returning from Australia – where the sun shone daily, the streets were clean, the internet was fast and people turned up to work – I fell into a slump back in Honiara – where the sun shone daily, the dust from the streets stuck to my sweat, the internet barely functioned and work was merely a place people went in their spare time.

Slowly, slowly, things started to get back on track and, by the end of the year, I am pleased to say that Isabel has done it!  Of course, Isabel did not do it alone.  No, there are some really dedicated people here, and this blog goes out to them.

First major breakthrough was the completion of the baseline surveys for our handwashing campaign.  Using some statistical methodology that I learned many years ago at Uni, I calculated that we had to go as far west as Vaturanga and as far East as Ruavatu to do surveys.

I had heard that Ruavatu had a bit of a muddy road, so we got hold of the 4WD and off we went.  Little did I realise that the direct road to Ruavatu had actually been destroyed, so now we had to take an ultra-long inland road, climbing incredibly steep and muddy hills and crossing rather large rivers.  There were moments there where we definitely not in control of the vehicle, but I was very impressed by our driver’s ability to casually cruise through.

I was even more impressed by the team’s steadfastness when the wheel came entirely off the vehicle while driving east to Vaturanga.  They found most of the pieces, put it back together, slowly and safe made their way back to base, before grabbing another vehicle and heading out again.

Even back in Honiara, I was enthralled at the way my counterpart has managed to achieve the household surveys at a time when there are no cars, no fuel, no drivers, and everybody has gone on Christmas holidays.  He has artistically integrated the surveys into a response plan for the latest diarrhoea outbreak and it looks like he will actually achieve the deadline of completing surveys by Christmas.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

The second break for me came with my Annual Performance Assessment.  I won’t go into the details, but after all the challenges that I have encountered this year, it was heartening to hear that those efforts were recognised and appreciated.   Not only did I score incredibly high in my assessment, but I was also told that “having managed advisors for a very long time, it is rare to find a technical specialist who also has the ability to engage and work with the local people as you do”.  Awww.

The final win for the year was thanks to Isabel province.  You may recall a blog from a few months ago where we did an amazing CLTS triggering of Kolomola village in Isabel province.  Two weeks ago, I went to check on the progress.  Kolomola has made great progress and, with a few more handwashing facilities, is on track to become “No Open Defecation” (NOD) by Christmas.

More importantly, we also did a very sweaty, and very slippery, two-hour hike way up into the highlands of Isabel Province to look at Tirotonna village.  This village was triggered just after Kolomola, by some of the community members who attended our CLTS training.

After visiting every single household, I am extremely excited to announce that Solomon Islands now has its very first, verified “No Open Defecation” community.  This is a massive milestone, especially considering the widespread resistance to the non-subsidised approach, and the fact that no other village has achieved this since CLTS was first introduced in 2013.  Tirotonna did it in 3 months.

Not only is Tirotonna the first Solomon Islands village to achieve this feat, but they did it with style.  Walking around, I can honestly say that the level of thought and pride that has gone into these toilets and handwashing facilities rivals what I’ve seen anywhere else.

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Apart from the Hyatt, where else would you find vases of freshly plucked flowers placed alongside handwashing facilities?  Tirotonna, that’s where!

Where would you find tropical flowers adorning the walls of the toilet and lining the path to the outhouse?  Tirotonna!

Where would you find such carpentry genius as to fix a rubber seal around the edge of a toilet lid to stop any possible chance of flies entering the hole?  Yep, Tirotonna.

And where else would you find the amazing craftsmanship of 20-metres of traditional bamboo plumbing just to ensure the handwashing tap is right outside your toilet?  You guessed it, Tirotonna!

 

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This place needs to be seen to be believed, and when we celebrate their milestone in February, I really hope it is the non-believers who come to see.

So, from the depths of post-Australia depression, Solomon Islands has come up trumps and handed me some fantastic little Christmas presents.  As I head off to the Western Province, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Catch you in 2016.

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Diwali food & Buddhist lights

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When I returned to Honiara, I entered one of those surreal ‘where am I?’ situations.

Firstly, it was Diwali time. My Fijian Indian neighbours, who have never been to India, very kindly invited me to their place for Diwali celebrations.  Like most Indians, they don’t do celebrations in halves.  I arrived and was greeted by Nisa glamorously dressed in a sari, and laden with shiny jewellery.  She directed me over the coloured-rice mandala lovingly created on the floor, to a table full of laddoo, burfi, halva, and fruit, that they had spent all day preparing.  Then once I was full of that, we replaced the table of sweets with a table of dahl, eggplant curry, chicken curry and roti.  Bear in mind that there was no-one else at this grandiose gathering – all that preparation for just the three of us.  As I waddled out at the end of the evening, I was thankful that my place was downhill.

The following night, I received tickets to go to a Thai Buddhist lantern ceremony.  This was the first time that I became aware that Honiara even had a Buddhist community, not to mention the fact that it was just around the corner from where I lived.  After spending half an hour driving around, lost, it became very clear why I never knew about this place.

Firstly, it is very well hidden.  Secondly, a few months ago it didn’t exist.  In just two months, the dedicated monks (plus a bunch of volunteers from Thailand) had managed to reshape an old property into a garden of eden, complete with small waterfalls that made a welcome home for the dust-coated frogs.  Finally, I never knew about the monks because communication is a bit challenging  – they don’t speak a single word of English.  However, their broad, never-ending smiles says a lot.

There was one monk, however, who did speak a bit of English.  However, even that had hilarious limits.  When I arrived at the event, my friend introduced me to this monk, and described my profession.  Somehow bits of this introduction about “health” and “Isabel” got lost and misconstrued, and for the rest of the night my name was “Help, Isabel”.  Or perhaps that should be “Help Isabel!”

As the evening went on, this monk guided us on the lantern lighting process or, at least, tried to.  Needless to say, it was chaos.  Given that the lanterns are nothing more than thin paper cylinders being lifted into the air by the heat from burning balls of fire, it was a huge surprise to me that there weren’t any casualties as the lanterns crashed into houses, power lines, trees and people.  Ah, Solomon Islands.

With this experience still front of mind, I decided to take up the offer of trying one of the monks’ Sunday afternoon meditation sessions.  I have tried meditation many times, and while I accept that my mind is in desperate need of some quietness, it has become abundantly clear that my mind is incapable of it.  Today was no exception.  As my mind darted from forgotten tasks to need-to-do tasks, I spent 30 minutes moving my numb legs around in a variety of a contortions while trying not to disturb everyone else’s zen.  Then, as I tried to save face by making a rapid escape at the end, I was cornered by a Thai monk gesturing that he wanted me to do an on-camera interview about my meditation experience.  All I could say was that it was a “starting point”.

It’s nice to know that there are always those little surprises out there in Honiara, if you’re willing to look.

 

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Nugu

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This blog will be short.  Mostly because any trip to Nugu is filled with a whole lot of nothing.

Around mid-October (yep, sorry for the delay), Manyoni and I joined a group of kiwis (obviously pre-world cup) to take a weekend jaunt to Nugu Beach Resort.

Nugu lies in the Florida Islands, in Central Islands Province, and is a 2.5 hour OBM boat ride from Honiara.  Its main attraction is its white sand beach (rather than coral) and clear water.  That, and the fact that it’s not Honiara.  On this weekend, the weather was perfect, and the ride was so blissful that I could have fallen asleep in the boat if it wasn’t for the diesel fumes.

On our arrival at Nugu we set up chairs by the beach.  That is where we stayed for the rest of the day, intermittently moving between the chairs (and snack table) where you went if you felt like having a conversation (or a snack), the beach where you went to get that rare feeling of soft white sand between your toes, the warm tropical water where you went to try some snorkelling or feed the frenzy fish some coconut, or the hammock where you went to read and inevitably doze off.

If you were feeling really adventurous you could swim or walk a bit further down the beach, and then climb and jump off a big tree into the clear water below.  I started the climb, but after being bitten by about 15 really painful ants in the first few metres, I decided the thrill wasn’t worth it.

As the sun sets, the generator comes on, the fridge starts to work, and the wine starts to get chilled.  The evening is then spent eating a big group dinner, sipping barely-chilled wine and playing cards before retiring into the hot and mosquito-ridden leaf huts.

After our extreme lack of energy exertion on day one, we decided to spend the next day taking a trip to Maravaghi, just “around the corner”.  The fish and coral at Maravaghi never fail to please and while I didn’t get to sight any sharks, rays, octopus or lion fish this time around, I did see a sea horse.

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This was also Manyoni’s first time to experience Maravaghi’s mass of damsels, butterfly fish, Moorish idols and anemone fish, while almost drowning at the amazing sight of a school of goat fish being rounded up by Bluefin trevally.

Day two finished up pretty much the same as day one, and before we knew it, we were up before dawn and making our way back to Honiara as the sun rose across the quiet and calm Iron Bottom Sound.

That’s all there is to say, really.

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Washim han blong iu!

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the blog front, lately.  There has been a good reason for this.  The very best reason.  Hand washing!!!!

Yep, I have had my head, arms and legs buried deep into the second of my major projects for the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Health – the development and launch of a National Handwashing Strategic Health Communication Plan.

Handwashing is one of those things that we take for granted.  As children, we are taught to wash our hands after the toilet, before eating, after eating, after blowing our noses, after playing with the dog/cat/bird/mice/guinea pigs/chickens, after gardening, after pretty much everything.

We are also taught the link between washing hands and disease – the fact that 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, and that handwashing with soap and water at key times can halve the number of diarrhoea-related deaths, not to mention cholera, dysentery, acute respiratory infections, trachoma, scabies, etc. etc.

Our love affair with handwashing is also demonstrated through our investment into aesthetically pleasing and super-user-friendly hand washing facilities – think soft lighting and strategically placed mirrors, carved and sweetly smelling soaps, artistically folded hand towels, motion-sensor liquid soap and faucets, or basins built into toilet cisterns for eco-friendly water conservation.

Despite this, some bored researcher discovered that 14% of banknotes in America are contaminated with faeces.  Either a whole lot of Americans (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) fail to wash their hands as they should, or there are a number of rich people who are running out of toilet paper and using the next best thing.  Either way, I have a newfound appreciation for my credit card.

The humble art of handwashing has been described as a self-administered vaccine.  But, in fact, handwashing with soap and water at critical times has proven to be more cost-effective than any single vaccine.  It is also more cost-effective than the distribution of malaria nets, the construction of sanitation, improvement of water, and every other public health intervention known to man (so far).

So why does the majority of the world’s people still fail to practice this one simple act?

Perhaps it is because handwashing is an action that needs to be repeated about 100,000 times during an average lifetime to be truly effective, unlike the single or triple dose of most vaccines.

Maybe it’s because handwashing is too subtle, unlike mosquito nets that tangle you up the second you climb into bed (with buzzing mosquitoes in the night to serve as an added reminder).

Possibly it’s just because handwashing isn’t sexy, unlike the sight of fresh, clean water flowing across the plump lips of a broadly smiling model.

Hopefully, this handwashing campaign will change that.  At least for the Solomon Islanders.

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

We officially launched the campaign last week on 15 October, as part of Global Handwashing Day celebrations.  Through a great team effort (I am so proud of the team), we held a large event at one of the rural schools, in a gorgeous setting sandwiched between the Pacific ocean and Visale’s towering hills.  We even managed to drag a number of VIPs from the comfort of their urban offices to participate.  In addition to speeches that actually stuck to time, we had great songs and dramas from the primary school children and San Isidro Care Centre – a school for the hearing impaired.

The event culminated in a mass handwashing activity, using home-made pressure taps from recycled 1.5L water bottles.  If you ever need proof that children actually like washing hands, then this was it.  The children were so keen that our guest speakers had to fight their way to the front to do the demonstration.  Naturally, as 800-hands got washed, chaos and hilarity ensued.

Let the handwashing begin!

Let the handwashing begin!

It is estimated that only 5-10% of the Solomon Islands population currently wash their hands with soap and water at key times – far fewer than the proportion of the population that have access to clean water, proper sanitation, mosquito nets, malaria treatment, iron-fortified salt, and a full course of government-subsidised vaccines.

The impact of this is obvious.  More than 34,000 cases of diarrhoea were recorded in the country’s health clinics in the last 12 months.  I’m sure that’s only a fraction of the real number, given that many cases don’t even make it to a health clinic.  This is despite local research showing high knowledge of the health impacts of washing hands.

The big gap lies in attitudes and, most importantly, practice.

For this reason, our national handwashing campaign will focus on improving the social norms around handwashing, and improve access to handwashing facilities at toilets and kitchens.

We hope to build habits young by targeting children aged 6-12 and the people most likely to influence their behaviour – peers, parents, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders, and popular media.

We also hope to do this through a long-term approach, starting with a two-year pilot and three-year scale-up.

Last week was just the beginning.  The biggest and the best is yet to come.

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Isabel (Part 2)

Once the excitement of Isabel being in Isabel subsided, it was time to focus on work.  I had joined a group of people from UNICEF Solomon Islands, Fiji and Kiribati to look at the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) program that was started in late 2014.

As with most work plans, our agenda for the trip was thrown out in the first five minutes and replaced with something far more relevant, and incredibly more ambitious.  Rather than simply monitoring the existing CLTS programs, we were going to train 10 representatives from 2 communities in the CLTS approach, and then put it into action with a complete Pre-Trigger, Trigger and Follow-Up of one community.

The challenge came with the fact that we had not prepared to do CLTS training and so did not have the appropriate resources.  Also that the CLTS training normally takes 5 days and we were to do it in 3 hours.  Oh, and that of the two people qualified to train in CLTS, neither one spoke Solomon Islands’ Pidjin.  Easy.

Full credit must go to the amazing community representatives, and the local staff from UNICEF, who accepted this challenge with great gusto.  They really underwent a baptism by fire, and came out only slightly singed and full of enthusiasm.  This chaotic and jam-packed program also reinvigorated my belief in the CLTS approach and reminded me of how much fun my work really can be.

It all started with the Pre-Triggering, where we sat down with the Chiefs, Catechist, Youth Leaders and Women’s leaders from Kolomola village.  We were there to introduce the program and arrange a time and date for the whole-of-community Triggering.  Any successful CLTS program starts with a successful Pre-Triggering, which means empowering the community leaders to really take the lead, and also getting them to agree on a crude local word for shit.  As we witnessed in Kolomola, this is not as easy as it sounds.

Strong culture dictates that the only way to respectfully discuss faeces is through respectful terminology, and despite our attempts to persuade them otherwise, there was little inclination to budge.  However, after multiple attempts, we had a “breakthrough moment” where they finally realised that shit is shit, and open shit is bad, and that bad open shit needs to be discussed openly if we want to stop it from being bad shit.  So, in stark contrast from the start of the meeting, we left Kolomola with its community leaders yelling out “Ta’e” – the Meninge word for shit.

The following day, we returned to Kolomola for the community-wide Triggering.  This is where the facilitators run through a series of activities that allow community members to realise that the current practice of open defecation ultimately results in them eating their own shit.  None of this is achieved through lecturing or teaching, though.  Nope, it is all based around probing questions and demonstrations that get people to reflect and come to their own conclusions.

Kolomola community didn’t miss a beat.  By the time the community had mapped their community and sites of open defecation, it didn’t take them long to recognise that they were eating shit.  In fact, the first testimony came from the Catechist:  “I speared a fish in the stream then bit its head off (apparently they do that here).  Then I smelled something funny and looked down and saw that I had just bitten into shit”.  From there, people were so determined to step forward and share their experience, that we had trouble stopping them.

What did stop them, was the entrance of the community’s 70-odd children chanting and asking why they were being forced to eat shit.  As the leader of the group stepped forward to recite a speech, tears welled and her voice broke, creating a pretty high impact message to those parents present.

From there it was the Shit Calculation (how much shit does your community produce in a year, and more importantly, where does it all go?), followed by the Medical Calculation (how much does it cost you to eat shit?).

Then it was the community walk to a site of open defecation.  This is always my favourite part.  This is where people are so disgusted by the sight and smell of shit, yet are so curious about it all, that they are pushing and shoving to get closer.  It is the pinnacle of CLTS, where the movement of flies between shit and a nearby plate of food really brings home the point that when we openly defecate we really do eat our own shit.

Hands up who wants to end Open Defecation?

Hands up who wants to end Open Defecation?

Kolomola Village was so triggered by the day’s activities that they vowed to become Open Defecation Free within 2 weeks.  As our team went to leave, the community lined up to shake our hands, tell us that “this is the best program we’ve seen”, and then sing and dance for us until we were long out of sight.  I really do love my job.

The next day we returned to Kolomola as part of a monitoring visit.  This immediate follow-up is essential to ensure the CLTS message stays strong, and to keep the community motivated and focused on their life-changing goal.  We were ecstatic to catch the Catechist in the process of digging his pit – one of four pits that had already been dug in the 24 hours since triggering.  It was a promising start.

Unfortunately, that’s all that time allowed for during my visit to Isabel.  However, I heard through my people on the ground that Kolomola has continued to dig pits, and that they are on track to meet their ODF date.  If they do this, they will be the first community in the country to be declared Open Defecation Free.  Now that’s some good shit!

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Isabel (Part 1)

Isabel in Isabel!

Isabel in Isabel!

I’m surprised it took me this long to get there.  Apart from the endless number of gags, the joy about finally visiting Isabel is that everyone could say my name.  It’s the small things that matter.

Like most domestic trips, the tiny 12-seater plane lands on a cleared out strip of land on the edge of an island where, if anything went wrong with the landing or takeoff, you would inevitably end up in the drink.  In this case, we landed on an island called Fera and, from there, unloaded our own luggage and took it down to the sandy beach where our OBM boat was waiting to take us to Buala.

Buala is the capital of Isabel.  It is in a very strange place for a capital city.  Flat land is limited, and the hills that rise up sharply from the mangroves leave little space for infrastructure.  I guess it’s a good thing that there is only about 1,500 people living there.  Which makes it even stranger that it’s a capital city.  This lack of population, and relatively untouched geography, does make Buala one of the more calming capital cities that I’ve been to.

Our accommodation in Buala was Famane Guesthouse.  You won’t read about this place in guidebooks or on Trip Advisor, there are no signs for it in town or on the guesthouse itself, and it’s only through word of mouth that I knew it even existed.  Set half way up one of those steep hills, once you’re at Famane, it’s easy to forget you’re even in the Solomon Islands.

The place had chandeliers, a fully functional kitchen and lounge area, 24 hour electricity AND hot water, tasteful furnishings, polished wooden floors that didn’t creak, and a deck with a BBQ that looks out over the ocean.  Did I mention it had chandeliers?

If you’re not an inside person, you can also take joy by wandering around its flowering tropical garden and over the curved bridge that traverses a small stream, which flows into a rock-lined plunge pool for the guests’ use.

Once settled, and after a cold beer in the plunge pool, it was time to check out the rest of Buala.  Unfortunately, due to the mangroves (and quite possibly a lot of effluent), the ocean in front of Buala is not swimmable.  There is, however, a marketplace selling a small selection of vegetables, a shop selling the typical variety of tinned tuna and crackers, and overwhelmingly large number of SolBrew outlets.  Yep, for all Isabel’s beautiful, it has one of the highest per capita consumption of alcohol for the Solomon Islands.

If you dare to venture out of Buala, be prepared for some hefty hill climbs, with an occasional but well-earned ocean view.  Fortunately, lots of hills means lots of streams along the way to cool off.  Lots of streams also means lots of plants.  In fact, there were so many plants, growing so densely, that it was difficult to see the rainforest for the trees.

Lush rainforest on one side, deep blue ocean on the other – not a bad spot for a namesake.

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Back where I belong

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With countless people telling me, “It’s too dangerous”, “It’s too hot”, “Nobody does that in Honiara”, I finally decided to ignore all the advice and get back on a bike.  So I headed off to the one bicycle shop in the country, and took ownership of the best bike in store – a second hand Avanti hybrid.

Riding the 3km back from the store to my home felt fantastic – I had the breeze in my hair and the road dust in my eyes, nostrils and mouth.  That 3km was also enough to give me my first flat tyre (an indication of the level of quality of Solomon Islands’ only National Highway).  The store very kindly fixed me up with a new tube and tyre, and 3 weeks ago I embarked on my first group ride.

Saturday mornings, when sensible people are sleeping, I rise in the dark, fumble my way out the door, and roll down the hill to the starting point.  Along the way, I am greeted with a beautiful morning reception from the drunk locals, yelling “Hey baby”, “Go f*&kim yourself”, or running out in front of me with a broad betel nut grin, flailing their arms about wildly.

Finally I join up with my crew: Half a dozen lycra-clad, helmet-wearing whities, astride bikes ranging from cheap-and-cheerful to high-end pro racing bikes.  We must be the strangest sight in Honiara (except, perhaps, for that drunk guy with betelnut teeth, flailing his arms wildly).  Then we’re off.

We head out West, first passing through the informal settlement of White River, and then bracing ourselves over the nine sets of traffic calming speed bumps (with each “bump” actually consisting of 6 bumps in the space of 1.5 metres), interspersed by potholes.  Our only hope is that the bumps are enough to shake out the dust, but not the nuts and bolts.

Once past Kakabona, we are free.  We are separated from the hazy Honiara mornings and surrounded by the fresh, rural Solomon’s air.  We take pleasure in the day’s brief moment of coolness before the blanket of tropical heat descends over us.  We reflect on life at the same time that the rising sun reflects off the calm ocean.  We laugh with the kids as they run alongside us, barefooted, trying to outpace us.  It is bliss.

That is, until somebody gets a flat.  Then it’s just comical.  Everyone stops, pulls out their tools, and checks out each other’s kit.  Then everyone offers advice, all at once, on how to do the repairs.  Finally, one person is brave enough to actually give it a go.  They discover that the wheel is not quick release, so grab a screwdriver to undo the screws.  Then they discover that they just unscrewed the bottom bracket, so curse a bit and look totally bewildered.  Then one of the lesser experienced members steps forward with a tool none of us have seen before – a special device to unscrew theft-resistant locking wheel skewers.

With the wheel off, we then try to change the tube but it looks too big, so we argue for a while about sizes before realising we were all wrong and the tube is actually okay.  Then the bottom bracket is clumsily replaced with more cursing, and the theft-proof wheel skewers reinstalled.  Then one person pumps up the tube by hand, while the others stand around checking out each other’s pumps.  Then we are back on the road. J

While the idea of kick starting the weekend with a 45km bike ride sounds healthy and soulful, every cyclist knows that the real reason for any bike ride is the breakfast afterwards.  I am slowly working my way through the breakfast menu at The Ofis, and must admit that the banana pancakes with ice-cream, chocolate fudge and ocean views are pretty hard to beat.  So much for a healthy ride.

With stomachs full of coffee, we re-enter the Honiara mayhem, involuntarily inhale the fumes and dust, and climb the hill back home, arriving as the sensible people are waking.

Categories: Life in General | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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