This is my second trip to the Solomon Islands but the first time that I've travelled here alone. I arrived about 10 days ago to work with colleagues in a Government department as part of a Capacity Development project. My Solomon's counterpart (David) had visited me in Melbourne in June which was a bit of a climate shock for the poor guy - I doubt that he was ever warm during that visit. By the time I left the airport, collected a hire car and checked into my hotel it was probably about 3:30 pm and so the plan was to start work proper the following day.
I arrived at work the following day at about 9:30 only to find that David wasn't around. It turns out that he was at my hotel looking for me and I ended up receiving a message that I had the day off - something about air-conditioning. So back to my hotel to try and do some work via intermittent internet and a lunch time/early afternoon walk down the main street of Honiara. I also visited a local art gallery which had exhibitions by local artisits of paintings, woven baskets, carvings (some magnificent large
carvings) and screen printed fabrics. When I visited here last year I had noted the shut-up appearance of many of the shops but this time I decided to have a look inside. Most of the shops appear to be variety stores stocking some clothes, toys, household goods etc and I read somewhere that most of them are owned by local Chinese. It seemed that the service staff in the shops that I visited were Solomon Islanders and the Chinese owner was the cashier - in one shop he was sitting on a raised platform surveying all before him. Honiara itself is not the most attractive location; it's dusty and a bit dirty (Betel nut chewing and subsequent spitting does not do much for the ambience in the streets), there is quite a lot of litter, the main street suffers from traffic congestion and in any street other than the main street the potholes threaten to consume your car. The traffic congestion in the main street is a combination of the numerous mini-vans that act as local buses and travel backwards and forwards from the "suburbs" to the "CBD", trucks ranging from semis carrying containers to and from the local port
to ordinary work trucks with numerous passengers being carried on the back tray, privately owned cars (mainly 4WD to cope with the potholes and generally poor state of the roads) and pedestrians who dodge the traffic as they cross the street. The traffic travels quite slowly, which is a blessing, as the mini-van buses tend to weave in and out as they stop to pick up and let down passengers. Despite this grottiness there is something about Honiara (or is it the Sols) that I really enjoy.
My almost 2 weeks of work has been an interesting experience. I had previously met many of the people that I was to work with and so I only really needed to put faces to names again. I shared an office with another 5 people; the building had the appearance of a Queenslander which had been built in below and our office was on the ground level. Our office wasn't too bad but I found it very dark; not all light fittings worked and my desk tended to be lit by light diffusing from a distance. They were hoping to demolish this building (it's about 50 years old I was told) and
rebuild and I reckon that they have a pretty goood case. The upstairs offices, which are occupied by senior staff such as Directors, First Under-Secretary, Chief Accountant etc, have quite large holes in the floor and where the floor exists it feels "spongy" as if it will soon cave in with rot. At the beginning of this week we had a couple of days where there were frequent but relatively short power outages. At my hotel and at work generators cut in quickly and I only noticed the drop out of my internet connection which was a bit frustrating while trying to work. Despite these less-than-ideal working conditions it seems to be a friendly, happy place to work and I quickly noticed the sound of laughter in corridors/outside.
My weekend was quite enjoyable. I had originally thought that I might spend it at a place called Mavaragi Resort (resort being a loose term to describe the accom) on an island group in the Ngella Group (or Florida Islands) in the Central Province about 45 km from Honiara out across Iron Bottom Sound (so named because of the large number of US and Japanese ships that were sunk there during
the Battle of Guadalcanal in WW2 - August 1942 from memory). I enquired about transfers to and from the island and I was informed that these were by motorised canoe from Honiara. Canoe in this case refers to a smallish fibre glass boat capable of fitting perhaps 6 passengers and a standing driver. I'd experienced one of these during my last visit when 3 of us went to the nearby island of Savo and I didn't think that I was brave enough to do a relatively open crossing alone so my plans changed. I ended up doing a day trip out to a place called Mbike Island once again in Ngellas. Our transport was a somewhat larger boat that carried about 40 passengers and was fitted with plastic awnings that could be shut down to protect from spray and wind. I was very pleased with my change of plan as the crossing to Mbike was quite rough with I reckon 1.5 to 2 metres between the bottom and top of the swell/waves. The boat made quite a few thumps as it ploughed through these waves accompanied by "Wows" and assorted exclamations from the passengers. It was a grey and over
cast morning as we left Honiara at 8:00 am and we had a couple of rain showers during the 1 hour crossing. I was very pleased with myself as I didn't get sea sick although other passengers did. Mbike Island is a very small island with a sandy beach, a couple of bungalows that look as though you can rent them, a couple of open-sided shelter for the day trippers and a house that I assume is used by a caretaker and his family. I spent perhaps 15 minutes walking around the island taking some photos across poetically named Sandfly Passage to other islands and then spent most of my time snorkelling or resting on the beach. The snorkelling was quite pleasant and ranged from corals etc in less than 1 metre of water to 3 or 4 outcrops on the the edge of the drop off in water that was probably 6-8 metres deep. There were 32 of us on this trip with quite a large group of Australian Federal Police members over here on 2-year deployments as part of RAMSI. A couple of these were quite friendly and it was interesting to here a smidgeon about their RAMSI life.
On Sunday I decided to go to church. I'm not a church-goer and I must admit that most of my decision was based upon a desire to experience a part of the culture that is important to the locals. I chose what was advertised in my tourist brochure as the 7:45 service at St Barnabas Cathedral. This is a Church of Melanesia (or was it Solomons) service and is in the Anglican tradition so I was optimisitic that those years of Sunday School would at least give me some idea as to what was going on as I expected the service to be in Pigin. The cathedral itself is a mainly open-sided structure of steel girders, steel decking roof and concrete block for the vestry and similar rooms. Because of this, the nave of the church was quite cool with cross breezes being enhanced by ceiling fans. The Sanctuary was closed in as the vestry etc were to each side and the walls in this area were decorated with large and beautifully woven "mats" - I guess these took the place of what would probably be stained glass in a western church. The church itself was packed with "ushers" (I bet these have a church-related name) moving people along so that everyone could find a seat. I'd managed to choose what turned out to be the 2-hour Family Eucharist Service that was proceeded by 30 minutes or so of notices - reading of Marriage Banns, a thank you from the Duke and Duchess of Kent (i.e. Will and Kate). I was surprised to see that the service was in English, rather than Pigin, and so I was able to follow it, especially after being lent a Prayer Book by one of the young teenage girls sharing my pew. I "shared" this Prayer Book with an older (65-70 y.o. perhaps) local lady although I doubt that she neither read nor spoke English. She did keep indicating to me that I should follow the book. I'd been in the church for quite a while when I realised that the congregation was all women and children and no men. Eventually I saw that the adult men were all sitting on the right hand side of the church while women, children and teenage males were on the left and centre of the church. One of work colleagues told me that this is normal and a local cultural thing. The service was pretty much what I remember with the officiating priest "singing" much of the service in that distinct Catholic/Anglican voice but in this case the repsonses from the congregation were also sung rather than spoken. This, combined with the singing of hymns made for a very pleasant experience. Between the Offertry (collection) and Thanksgiving there was a "show" by a local youth group. I think that this was something special as some members of the congregation were taking movies and photos. The members of the group were dressed in traditional dress and the males carried pretend knives and spears. They sung and danced their way up the central aisle of the church to the alter area and eventually returned back and exited the church. I've no idea what it was all about but it was great.
After church I went back to my hotel and swapped my church-going clothes for swimmers, beach clothes and snorkelling equipment and made my way to Bonegi Beach. Bonegi is known for it beach dives and snorkelling which are on a couple of WW2 Japanese ship wrecks that lie just off the shore - you can still see some of one of these (known as Bonegi 2) sitting above the water. Bonegi 1 lies a bit away from this and is more for diving than snorkelling but I'd heard that there were nice coral gardens in front of the wreck and that you could see a small bit of the wreck in shallow water. So this where I headed. Unfortunately it was a bit windy and so the sea was choppy and not great for snorkelling. I di go in and have a splash around for a bit but I was very aware that I was alone and so cut my snorkel short to return to shore. What I saw was great and I'll definitely be heading back there if/when I next return to Honiara.
I can definitely see a multi-week holiday shared with Terry as a part of my future.
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