Friday, August 29, 2014

Slippery cabbage, soft rock and slidey slippers

As I wait in line to top up credit onto my phone, a familiar sound enters my consciousness. It's the nonchalant meandering of slippered feet across the tiled floor of the "Our Telekom" shop. Everyone wears flip flops in Solomon Islands, referred to as slippers, and they make a swishy sortof sound as people casually stroll the counter where they take a small piece of recycled paper on which to write their details, then cruising wistfully past the cabinet with the new smart phones in it, stopping to greet an acquaintance or two and then proceeding to the end of the queue. I realise I'm going to miss that swishy, slidey sound.

Given that this was my last trip to Solomon Islands, at least for a while, I was taking time to savour those sights, sounds and taste sensations that make a place unique. I tried cassava in coconut milk again the other night, because an Australian colleague was raving about it, but, this only served to confirm that I really don't like it. The taste is too bland and the texture too starchy for me. But there are taste sensations that I have enjoyed and will definitely miss. I like slippery cabbage (or ferns, yep like the ferns you would encounter on a bushwalk in rainforest conditions) cooked in coconut milk, which is sweet and green and delicious. I also got used to banana pancakes at the Lime Lounge, and omelette a la 2 minute noodles, a staple lunchtime meal at Red Cross cafe in Chinatown.

Banana pancakes
This visit, my colleagues had organised for us to hold our staff reflection workshop out of town at one of the community learning centres where we work. I like visiting communities. Apart from seeing what is actually happening on the ground, its also a bit like camping. You take a head torch on the midnight toilet visit, bathe in the sea or river, and tell stories into the evening. At our workshop evaluation, a few people said it was the best workshop ever, so that was a great note to end on.

Relaxing in between sessions
For my farewell, a few friends and colleagues kindly accompanied me for dinner and dancing in town. I think the Solomons might just be the only place where my preference for soft rock is shared by those who in every other respect are way cooler than me. We grooved the night away to the sounds of Elton John, Barry Manilow, Elvis Presley, Billy Joel and some pacific island artists that I was less familiar with. I also learnt a new phrase in pidgin - "fillim up buckets", which I think would loosely translate to "crying a river", used to describe what happened when we thought of no longer seeing one another every three months or so.

Farewell at Iron Bottom Sound Hotel
But eventually the evening came to an end, and the next day it was time for my flight home. The goodbye entourage was there to see me off at the airport amid hugs and smiles. Fond farewells were slightly marred by the discovery that Solomon Airlines had changed the time of the flight and was taking no responsibility for onward connections. This risk was made clear to me during my handover 3.5 years ago, and had never eventuated until now. Having carefully planned a 90 minute connection in Brisbane, I was now left with 30 minutes in which to proceed through immigration, baggage, customs, transit to domestic, go through security and board the flight. Not being one to give up, I "mentioned" the issue repeatedly to the flight attendants until they upgraded me to Business class for landing and then I raced like I've never raced before. It turns out that particular connection can't be done in 30 minutes. 45 maybe. I have to say Virgin was very good about rescheduling me onto a later flight at no extra cost, and so all was well that ended well.

Solomon Islands sunset
I know I will look back on these years of Solomons travel with fondness and nostalgia. There were many difficult meetings, sleepless nights and challenging situations, but also times when I have never laughed so hard, and moments of immense pride and gratitude. I know that the APHEDA staff and the communities they work with are incredibly inspiring and dedicated people. I look forward to seeing where their careers and life journeys take them, and hope our paths cross again in the future. Lukum iu fella moa.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perfect match

Almost as soon as I open the email I know. Its another "Dear Aletia..." letter. Something to do with a crazy ex-girlfriend and needing space. At least this time I am granted the right of reply, and am able to wish him all the best before whatever it almost was, isn't any more, and we cease contact. He was a lovely guy, and I'm sad.

Yep, I am starting to think I have a little too much in common with unlucky-in-love Rachel from Friends and George from Seinfeld. As I accrue a collection of "meh" first dates, a few promising second dates gone just a bit wrong, and add a couple of friends turned lover turned stranger scenarios into the mix, I start to realise that at least I have some interesting stories to tell.

I was talking with a colleague the other day about how job searching is kindof like dating, except that for some very practical reasons (ie money) you don't want to be "unattached" for too long. Like dating, though, first you have to get the profile/resume right, then you go for the date/interview, and then, at least in my recent dating experience, one of you attempts the delicate art of gentle rejection and the other tries their hand, with varying levels of success, at graceful acceptance.

With these thoughts in mind, I am marvelling at how pleasant it was to have a different conclusion to my first foray into the job search process. I had completed steps one and two, and knew that I was still interested. So, it was with a little surprise and much delight that I learnt that the feeling was mutual. I was being offered the job! My new boss even confessed later on that she "knew" almost as soon as she read my application. Wow, maybe there is such as thing as a job match at first sight.

So, as I weigh up dating disappointments against employment euphoria, I can't help but feel lucky overall. We spend 8 hours a day at work, and longer if we're travelling, so it is important to feel valued and, as the Quaker advice goes, that you have taken "the path offering the greatest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community". I feel good about the change.

And as for dating, Quakers have some advice on that too. "In close relationships we may risk pain as well as finding joy" the advice reads. "When experiencing great happiness or great hurt we may be more open to the working of the Spirit". I agree. To be fully alive, you have to be willing to risk pain. And there have been some special and joyful moments. Even when experiencing a sad goodbye or the hurt of realising somebody you care about is just not that into you, it is still part of the beautiful and complex experience of being human, for which I am endlessly grateful.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Oh captain my captain

My favourite movie for many years was "Dead Poets' Society". Being a drama student I guess I felt I could relate to some of what the boys went through. Theatre was my mode of self expression, and I was also trying to find that balance between being brave and seizing the day, while at the same time being expected to fit in with societies norms and structures.

The film was also my first introduction to Robin Williams, and he quickly became a favourite actor of mine. I loved the passion, the integrity and the courage of his character in Dead Poet's Society - I, too, wanted to be challenged to rip out the pages of the textbook, emerse myself in poetry, express anger wholeheartedly and be encouraged to go think for myself.

In many of his roles Robin Williams seemed able to capture complex elements of the human spirit, whether it is the heartbroken yet tough-love psychologist in Good Will Hunting, desperate father in Mrs Doubtfire, or radio presenter in Good Morning Vietnam. And his comedy always had a depth to it.

The most memorable scene in Dead Poet's Society for me was the one where Robin Williams' character returns to collect a few personal items after he has been asked to leave the school quietly. He has been scapegoated as the cause of his student's suicide death and the class has gone back to using the textbook and thinking within the box. You begin to wonder whether the teacher had any impact at all. But one boy dares to stand up, to express his gratitude and sense of injustice as a small act of civil disobedience, and gradually the others follow. I am always in floods of tears at this point.

So, as I mourn the departure of a man whose life work touched so many people, I give thanks for the ways that he made us laugh, encouraged us to seize the day, and bore witnessed to the complex realities of being human. I want to stand up on my desk and address him with the respect he deserves: "Oh captain, my captain".