Sunday, August 05, 2012

Out of Honiara

8 seater plane to Marau Sound, Guady

Getting to most of the community learning centres that we work with in Solomon Islands is no easy feat. A typical journey to the provinces can involve a small 8 passenger plane, followed by an 8 seater boat with an outboard motor (referred to as OBM), followed by dug out canoe, wading through raging rapids or a hike into the jungle. In most of these scenarios it's better to pack light.

There is something very homely about boarding a small plane and being able to see the pilot and all the controls. It's "a more personal experience" when the pilot climbs aboard, checks the doors are shut properly, gives the safety demonstration, and comments on the weather and expected flight time before settling into his seat and starting the engine. Flights depart for most provincial capitals 3 times a week, and the arrival of the flight from Honiara is a community event, with people turning up to watch the landing, even if they don't have family members arriving or departing.

When you disembark, you find yourself in the middle of a large field, with a few people gathered around, and most likely no airport as such. It's important to be met at the airport, as getting from the airport to the port can often be an adventure in itself. At Kira Kira airport in Makira Province you have to either squeeze on to the back of a large communal truck, or organise a truck of your own, because the port is quite a distance away. Luckily you won't get bored waiting for your truck, because one of the locals makes it his business to greet every flight coming in, chatting away to passengers in sign language, and offering to carry bags for a small fee.

Once you're at the port, then it's a matter of organising a boat and securing enough fuel to last you for the return trip to wherever you're going. Given that fuel usage depends on how angry the sea is that day, the fuel discussion is always a lengthy one. Then it's time to board. One boat ride in Makira was so rough, I truly believed I would die. Rain was pounding our faces, while the boat rocked from side to side and waves crashed against the side of the boat. The captain and crew were excitedly shouting directives to one another and I expressed some concern. "Oh, don't worry", they assured me. "If we were really in danger, we wouldn't be talking at all". OK. My petite colleague told me that she once found herself literally flying from one end of the boat to the other in the bad weather. I was secretly glad to be on the heavier side of average in this case!

Dug out canoe for crossing difficult channel, Makira Province
When your boat approaches the shore, however, the journey is still not complete. To reach some villages requires a 30 minute hike inland, while others are closer to the shore. One village I stayed at was spread across both sides of a raging river, and the only way to get to my accommodation was to wade across the river. After much discussion, it was decided that I needed the assistance of a very skinny pre-teen boy. Another time, I was assisted across a river by a dug-out canoe, expertly steered by another very young man. My colleagues told me that I couldn't be trusted to sit in the canoe without capsizing it AND be responsible for my own bag, so my bag was taken across separately.

Normally arrival of newcomers at a village is heralded by calls on a shell or pipe, and then warriers turn up pretending to attack you while the other villagers gather about and help secure the boat or say hello. Garlands of flowers and speeches often follow. Normally I am drenched from head to toe, busting to "pay a short kastom visit" and a bit wobbly on foot during these prestigious welcomes, but always glad to have arrived safe and sound. I try not to think right away about the return journey.

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