Saturday, February 23, 2013

Life in the Solomon's

When we first entered the straits between Kolombangara volcano and Vonavona lagoon it was almost dreamlike in its elemental nature.  Lush gum trees soaring 200 feet carpet the slopes of the volcano to our right.  Mangroves and smaller trees cover the scattered motus to the left.  The channel is mirror calm.  As the sun rises, slanting rays of golden light stab down into the waters picking out iridescent plankton and squid.

In the strait - early morning

A few grass and pole houses, beautifully made and situated, cluster near streams mouths and bays.  Next to the huts on shore are small intensively cultivated garden plots.  Taro and cassava fill in the corners, and fishing nets hang over bushes drying.  A few dugout canoes ply the waters between islands.  It seemed that this scene is timeless, and is essentially unchanged since the times when my own ancestors lived in much the same manner in Europe.

They say that Gizo town is the second most populous town in the Solomon's.  That statement gives rise to expectations unmet, as most of the small towns back home are far larger, and the town has but one significant street that follows the shoreline and is lined both sides with wooden shops and warehouses, with a smattering of WWII era Quonset huts rusting away for flavor.

The street is dusty, and outside each shop are garbage cans and refuse overflowing into piles on the street.  Under shade trees everywhere people cluster around vendors selling tobacco and betel nut.  The locals are very dark skinned, with mostly African features.  Some clearly have polynesian ancestry, and there are groups of recent (1950's) Gilbert Islanders settled near town.  Smiles are quick and friendly, but seem a bit strange at first with the deeply red stained teeth and gums from betel nut chewing.  The ground is covered in vivid red dried spittle marks.

Most of the shops in town sell the same products; tinned meat, flour, oil, cloth, and the like.  All the shops appear to be owned by Chinese families, much like how in Fiji shops were owned by Indo-Fijians.  I spent some time talking one day with the son of the owner of the Wing Sun Store.  He and his family, he explained, are "Old Chinese" and have lived in the Solomon's since just after WWII.  The family started their store shortly after arriving, and there were only a few other stores back then, so business was good.

But in the late 1980's and 1990's there was an influx of "New Chinese" stores, owned by overseas interests (Mainland China) and staffed by young english speaking Chinese who are in the country on tourist visas, and thus technically are not allowed to work.  But work they do, for three months - bossing the local employees around in a superior manner before they return home to the PRC to further their education.  You never see them out and about in town these young twenty something Chinese, as they've been told to keep a low profile.  They sit on elevated platforms in the stores, watching every transaction with a suspicious eye and being addressed as "Madam" and "Sir" by the Solomon Islander employees.

I asked how the Solomon government lets this situation go on, and I was told it's all bribery and money crossing palms.  Now none of the shops turns a good profit, and the locals have essentially no chance of starting their own businesses.  The can't compete with either of the Chinese factions.  No... for the locals the place for business is the market.

The market is what makes the town tick.  It is the clock that governs when people leave their home island by dugout, laden with produce grown in their own garden, or fish caught during the night.  It's "the Mall," a place to meet, sell, talk, gossip, and at the end of the day - to buy, before packing up and paddling home.  

The market exists most days, but on Friday people travel from all the surrounding islands, and the market on that day is something to behold.  Dozens of types of greens, fruit in profusion, Stalls full of fish, from sardines to tuna five feet long.  Crowded and alive with colorful cloth and small children holding onto the mother's skirts, the market is full of life and sunshine, and is the exact opposite of the shops which are dark and smell of flour beetles and dust.
Tamsyn and friend

Our days begin an hour after sunrise as the light grows, and we begin to hear canoes being paddled by.  Griffyn usually runs on deck first waving and greeting the families paddling by, mothers shielding their infants from the already oppressive sun with brightly colored umbrellas.  These folks know our kids and they wave back and call out "hallo's."

Katydid and lunch

On Fridays, if we are near Gizo, we too plan on going to market after a hurried breakfast of pancakes and coffee (We have finally run out of syrup, so now use jam on our pancakes).  Tamsyn quickly does the dishes - usually with some prodding, and we lower the dinghy into the water and ready our shopping bags, and fill up water bottles and apply sun screen to noses.  

At the market we usually get enough greens for much of the week, plus some cucumbers for snacking, and green onions for cooking.  Grapefruit, papaya, limes, mandarin oranges and bananas round out our purchases.  I then pop into a shop and get a kilo of flour and and maybe some crackers.

Once we are back on the boat it's time for some school.  Griffyn is still doing reading lessons most days, and hasn't quite found the magic point at which it becomes easier and a joy.  He still has to work at it, and struggles when he's tired.  He plugs away at his math, and we do science or geography every few days too.

Tamsyn is reading up a storm, and can plough through her school work quite well.  I've been working a lot on creating more challenging math problems for her.  The latest batch usually involve multiple factors that she has to consider in figuring her answer.  I try to keep them fun.  Here's one from last week:

• There are 310 people in a village.
• At zero hour there are 3 zombies.
• Zombies can eat 2 people per hour.
• Once eaten, that person becomes a zombie the next hour.
• People can kill 3 zombies and hour - but only after hour 6 when they realize what is happening.

Determine for every hour after zero hour, how many people, and zombies, and 'totally" dead zombies there are.  How long until the zombies are wiped out?  How many people are left?

Tamsyn has never seen a zombie movie, but she and her brother seem to know all about them (wonder how that happened?).  She does really well on this type of problem, and when the form is extended to a problem with disease incubation in a population vs. treatment, she just applies the same methods and does great.

By late afternoon we are watching the clouds that always form for signs of rain.  It always seems to rain downwind of the volcano, but seldom near this island.  Four o'clock brings a hue and cry for swimming and a relief from the heat.  Before long we are jumping and splashing into the clear blue water.  The kids are getting to be great divers - going down to the snubber hook - which is about twelve feet deep in these windless conditions.

I've been doing more deep diving lately, following the anchor chain to the bottom fifty feet down.  The sediment there is a fine grey silty sand with numerous round white disks scattered about.  A few weeks ago when I first noticed them I grabbed a handful of sediment and surfaced to look in better light.  The round disks were different sizes, most half a centimeter in diameter, and less than a millimeter thick.  Many had a small hole in the middle.

Seeing the odd "disks," I was suddenly transported back to my childhood - fossil collecting with my dad at "the brickyards" near St. Paul, Minnesota.  We poured over ancient limestone sea beds, populated with a multitude of shells, trilobites, AND little round disks with holes in the middle.  When we first ran into them back in the 1960's we called them "Cheerio's" and later learned they were in fact called crinoids and that they when stacked together made up the stems of Sea Lilies, a primitive marine animal that looks like a plant.  And here they were in my hand, picked from the living sea floor much like the ones preserved all those long ages ago on the other side of the world.  I wished my dad could see them.

After washing up with fresh water in the cockpit, we start dinner and get ready to put up the mosquito net over the main hatch.  At dusk the "mozzies" fly out from the mangroves looking for a blood meal, so we try and keep them out, since malaria is a problem in the Solomon's.  We take our doxycycline daily, but keep our windows and hatches screened too.

Before bed there are stories and talking, then the fans go on in the v-berth where the kids go to sleep.  Outside the wind dies down and stillness fills the night.  Carrie and I stay up reading and talking until the kids fall asleep.  Sometimes we watch a movie, sometimes we're not far behind the kids, and our heads nod.  

One last thing.  The other day Griffyn was on deck looking over the lifelines looking at the water and talking up a storm.  I assumed he was talking to some local kids in a canoe.  Then he came down the ladder and announced that it would be o.k. to swim later because his "Sea Friends" are guarding the boat, and that they can't keep up with us when when we are sailing because they have some "Sicklings" with them.  We all like it here.


1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Beautiful writing, Owen! Thanks for this glimpse into your lives. The kids are getting so big! We miss you!