Sunday, November 13, 2011

In the bag

Having spent the past few days reading Bill Bryson’s account of his travels in Australia, and finding hilarity in the details of everyday life as experienced by a foreigner, I’ve decided to re-invigorate my blog with a few tales of sporadic travels to the Pacific. The fact that I’m here for work means that I need to be a bit circumspect about which stories I tell, but I thought I’d start with a little glimpse into packing for the trip, which should be harmless enough. A friend who travels frequently for work suggested I start up a separate "Solomons Bag" so that I'm ready to go whenever I need to suddenly relocate. This bag includes typical items such as travel pillow, mosquito net, all in one bed sheet in the style that my grandparents used when hostelling around the world, all-purpose plug, packets of tissues, mosquito repellant and travel wipes as well as a small first aid kit and a modest supply of pharmaceutical products. 

I also try to include thoughtful but easily transportable gifts for when visiting communities, such as handicrafts as I have no interest in adding kitsch, plastic, touristy items to a country that is already riddled with Chinese shops selling almost any piece of plastic crap you care to name. Incidentally, those Chinese shops are an anomaly in themselves. While we are familiar with the Two Dollar Shop idea in Australia, these shops have all the same crap but a slightly different set up. The Chinese manager sits up atop a high seat not unlike those used by tennis umpires, which is surrounded by a small cage. They manage the money while the locals are trusted only with running around getting the items and passing them to the umpire – sorry, cashier - for processing. A few years ago, there were riots in Chinatown, and a number of these shops were destroyed. It seems that the management didn’t see any correlation between the riots and the way they treat their staff, as they seem to be following the same management model as before the riots.

I always bring muesli bars and chocolate, but have recently added herbal tea bags and hot chocolate sachets to the consumables section of the list. A sarong (lava lava) is a must as it can double as a shade cloth, bed sheet, skirt, modesty swimsuit, light weight towel and more. When I went shopping in Sydney for suitable clothing for the Pacific, I was served by a Polynesian girl who sent me on my way with a few loose and flowing tops that have become the staples of my wardrobe over here, and a pair of pink court shoes which she suggested would be ideal, together with a short black number, for meeting dignitaries. Given that everyone in the Solomons wears flip flops (referred to here as slippers) regardless of whether they are travelling, working, or meeting dignitaries, and I can’t really see myself traipsing through mud in a pair of pink court shoes at the best of times, they have remained at the bottom of my cupboard at home. Of course, the list is a work in progress, and I’m always looking for ideas to add to it. Just the other day I heard somebody describe how they removed the mud from their shoes using their “second toothbrush”, and made a mental note to myself. I just need a way to make it clearly distinguishable from my teeth toothbrush. Another colleague swears by his billum (woollen woven shoulder bag – PNG style) as a great bag for getting about town. Even though it’s an open bag, it kindof closes in at each end, so if you hold it a certain way it’s almost impossible for anyone to pickpocket you. I procured one as soon as I could.

It’s ironic, though, that while we foreigners are getting geared up with local bilums, slippers and lava lavas, Solomon Islanders are increasingly wearing western clothes. Bales of donated second hand clothes and accessories are brought in on boats, and people can purchase sought after items such as t-shirts, women’s trousers, and bags at a reasonable price. On Saturday mornings when it is announced that new bales have arrived, the kalico (meaning clothing, not necessarily calico) shops are crowded with hopeful shoppers in search of a bargain. As a result, I often see men walking around town with a lady’s handbag casually slung over their shoulder or around their neck. I guess it just goes to show that it's not about the type of bag you have or even how you wear it. It's what's on the inside that counts!