Thursday, August 25, 2011

There's No Place Like Home

Sunday afternoon I clicked my ruby red slippers together (ok, so they were actually TOMs…), boarded plane after plane, and after 7 incredible weeks and a long 36 hours in transit, I am finally settled back in at home. Well, maybe not as completely settled as my mom would like being that my suitcase still lays sprawled open on my bedroom floor. Yet it's more than the jet lag that keeps me from beginning to tackle this seemingly impossible task; I think I may be delaying unpacking because it would mean the end of my adventure, an adventure that has captured me fully for the past seven weeks. Sitting outside on my last day in Auki, I tried to reflect how different it would be returning home. I knew I had changed, both from the experiences I had had and the beautiful people I met along the way but I wasn't sure how this would fit in to the daily life I had left back in Connecticut and at PC. My main hope was that I would not quickly lose the humbling sense of simplicity that I had experienced the past three weeks and resist getting sucked into the materialistic hustle and bustle of schedules and technology. It was amazing to witness the community-oriented way of life in the Solomons and how it operated without the "new and improved" gadgets that you just "have to have." I also noticed that it seemed as though the less people had, the more they seemed willing to give. On one of the last days, I watched as the small daughter of the woman who presented me with the beautiful shell money necklace at St. Augustine's tried to give her own necklace away to someone else in the parish after seeing what her mother had done earlier. I was blessed to share this moment of genuine giving and sharing and appreciate the selflessness of this small girl. 

I will be honest and admit that it was wonderful to once again enjoy a hot, pressurized shower and to sleep through the night without being woken by crowing roosters at 4am. However, being immersed in the culture of the Solomon Islands, even for just three weeks, has made me rethink priorities and all the 'extras' that we expend unnecessary energy on with a focus on ourselves rather than serving others. Throughout this trip, I realized I was completely dependent on the help of others in all areas, including navigating through new environments, introducing me to new people, and translating conversations (yes, both in Auki and Sydney, ha!) Life in the Solomons is simple, though far from easy, and people rely on each other's strengths to help them through challenging times and situations. In this way, I witnessed firsthand how interconnected we all were, even as an outsider from half a world away, and how each of us benefits from the strengths and unique perspectives that every individual contributes. I could not have fully prepared myself for the world that I stepped into but I did find that even after only three short weeks, I began to feel like I was being woven into the fabric of the community, each thread criss-crossing one another and ultimately all connected.

In the end, while it sounds cliché, this journey and the people I meet will remain with me forever. Years from now I may not be able to recall all the names of my Form 4 students or what specific grammar lessons I had taught, but I will always be able to bring back memories of being coated in chalk dust, nervously trying to figure out how to start that first week. Other moments, like seeing the smiling faces of the Fanualama kids swimming on our beach picnic day and the friendly “Odang!” greeting walking to school each morning, will remain special to me. And thinking about it further, coming home does not necessarily mean an end to the adventure. Rather, it gives me a chance to share my amazing experiences with others and opens new doors for further opportunities and learning. Sharing what I have. Sharing my gifts and talents. Just like that little girl and her necklace.

I guess that means I should get to unpacking that suitcase…

Friday, August 19, 2011

Tuesday, August 16th- Thursday, August 18th: “Nothing happens until it has happened”

These wise words of Father Jim, an Irish Dominican who I met in Honiara seem to perfectly describe my experiences here in the Solomon Islands. Gearing up for this trip over a month and a half ago, I couldn’t even begin to anticipate both the challenges and anxieties and the successes and accomplishments I have felt during my time in Auki. “Nothing happens until it has happened” was Fr Jim’s way of saying you couldn’t plan on everything, but rather you had to learn to simply live by experiencing moment by moment. Coming from a completely different culture where often it seems as if every minute is scheduled and ‘time is of the essence,’ it was a transition not to have the pressures (though sometimes also the security) of following a strict timetable. Even the teachers at Aligegeo showed me that things operate on “Solomon Island time” and spent an 15 extra minutes deep in conversation with me about American and Solomon Island history while their class waited for them across campus or left early to care for a sick neighbor. Things operate moment by moment, giving me more insight on what their –and my –priorities are. Living in the Solomons for over 20 years, Father Jim has had plenty of experience with this way of life and joked that he has been stood up at funerals, weddings, and even waited to celebrate the midnight Christmas vigil mass until 4:00 the next afternoon! It’s patience, flexibility and understanding what people need, he said, and I’ve been reminded time and again to “take time to smell the flowers” over the past few weeks.

Before I departed on Tuesday for my boat ride back to Honiara (jokingly I said I would have to stay if I “happened” to miss the boat and I think Sr Regina was looking for a chance to hide my ticket!) I said my goodbyes to the families at Fanualama and the pikininis at kindy. After missing them last week from being sick, I looked forward to seeing the young students once again before I left. They put on a show for me, performing a handful of songs both in English and Pijin, including, of course, “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Five Little Monkeys.” They sent me off with a farewell of “lukim iu behind!” and I soon said goodbyes to Srs Regina and Maria on the wharf as well. Sr Loretta and I traveled by boat back to Honiara and I felt a drastic difference this time around after having a traveling companion and being used to the culture. We were greeted by more Dominican sisters, Teresa and Hilda (who has an infectious laugh that can put anyone in a good mood!) and went back with them to shower and settle in.

I got to see the sights and sounds of Honiara –even within the islands there are huge culture differences and I witnessed much more of a hustle-bustle city feel in Honiara than in Auki. Again entering into a new neighborhood made me miss the community at Fanualama I had just left and the familiar and friendly faces I had come to know and love. At the same time, this new place offered new experiences and I joined the sisters for a farewell celebration for Teresa’s niece traveling to Australia and got to enjoy the festivities of Kirabati culture as they sang and prayed in their native language. I was not the only one entertained, however. The youngest kids immediately threw themselves at me, fascinated with my pale skin and one of Teresa’s nieces rubbed my leg and said with a smile, “iufala white…mifala black!” This realization was such a novelty for them just as it was a special moment for me to witness the celebrations of their own culture. 

Monday, August 15th: Malaita Day!

 As I enjoyed a restful night’s sleep Sunday night, there were big preparations being made throughout the night for the celebration of Maliata day on Monday. The youths of each of the local parishes were given the task to “divide and conquer” the preparations for the celebratory meals for the Prime Minister’s visit the following day. Starting at 10pm and working throughout the night, the students filled tables with puddings, potatoes, greens, chicken, fish, rice and even a full roasted pig! The Prime Minister, along with other local magistrates, arrived Monday morning to celebrate Maliata’s anniversary of declaring itself a province after the Solomon Island independence.

Besides the feasting, the Maliatans put on another beautiful show of traditional song, dress and dance during the parade to honor the Prime Minister. Various community groups, including the local marching band, police force, tribal groups and students from the community high school and Aligegeo (most of my Form 4 students!) marched valiantly onto the soccer field and stood at attention for 3 hours in the sweltering sun during the ceremony. I was grateful for my umbrella to block the sun as the Solomon Islanders kept with their custom of giving long, formal speeches and felt sympathy for the marching members who seemed to be baking out on the field!

Following the formalities, I watched as each of the cultural groups performed and I got another chance to enjoy the barrel drumming, panpipes, shell shakers that are tied to the dancers’ legs and the beautiful choreography that honored their tribal roots. The costumes, too, were amazingly intricate and dancers were draped with layers and layers of shell money and adorned with flowers and leaves. At one point, however, the crowd erupted into laughter when it was discovered that the leaf belts used as a covering for the dancers weren’t all that secure with all the jumping and stomping and a few of the dancers raced off the field mid-performance to cover themselves –oops!

Monday night was dubbed “the last supper” and I enjoyed my last night with Bishop Chris, Fr Moses, Agatha and Srs Loretta, Regina and Maria. Dinner was a time of reflection (and more speeches by all!). I was touched by the many heartfelt thanks but felt that they were the ones who should be celebrated for opening their hearts and homes to me, making me feel welcomed. Although I’ve appreciated the ceremonial announcements and attention that comes from introductions like “Bishop Chris’ wontalk,” I am especially thankful for the simple signs and small displays of community. I am grateful for the giant hugs I get from Denise each morning after mass, the way the sisters include me in meal preparations (at first they only allowed me to chop the greens, but I think I’ve graduated to more advanced levels after they let me husk, chop and scrape the coconut for making rice, ha!), the enthusiastic “Iu go lo wea, Annie?” from Chrisma as I pass her house for school each morning, the smiles and waves from the familiar faces of the students and teachers in the market, and young Waisu’s shy routine of inching closer and closer to me on the chapel bench, hoping I won’t notice. It’s moments like these that have made me truly happy while being here and the moments I will miss the most. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thursday, August 11th –Sunday, August 14th: A Show of Thanks –Tanggio tumas

The time of departure is drawing near as I wrap up my stay in Auki and I waffle back and forth, thinking, am I ready to go home just yet? In one sense, I look forward to seeing my friends and families soon, being able to share my awesome experiences and enjoy some of the luxuries of being home, like a hot shower and my own bed. At the same time, however, I’m not ready to leave behind the relationships I have formed here. A year and a half ago, my knowledge of the Solomon Islands consisted in the sparse number of facts from WWII trivia. After only three weeks, the Solomons became not just a name written in the pages of a history textbook or travel brochure but has become a part of my life in a bigger way. I now appreciate the countless people I have met and the special moments we have shared in the classroom or chapel, on the road or at the dinner table. Living and working with them, even for only three weeks, has given me an experience I will never forget.

As I said goodbyes to my students over the past two days, it was easy to see the difference in both them and myself. Arriving, I was a slightly overwhelmed visitor who had only a little experience in education and was handed an English grammar workbook to refer to. Similarly, the students were taken aback by this strange foreigner who didn’t speak their language and who seemed to ask impossible grammatical questions. Yet in these last few days, the students have jumped at the chance to take group photos, exchange addresses and even bid me farewell with “Mi fala luvim iu, Madame!” (“We love you, miss!”). It’s wonderful to feel a part of this community at Alegegeo, but an even better feeling knowing that I have been able to help in some small way. This past week, instead of looking out and seeing averted eyes or hidden faces, the students opened up enough to ask questions and help for English grammar review. By benefitting from their questions and feedback I felt that this week, especially, I had been able to focus on what they needed and wanted rather than going blindly by the book. I wish I could stay longer and have more time to interact with these students; it seems I have to leave just as we’ve reached a comfort level with one another!

In recognition of my past two weeks at Alegegeo, the teachers graciously hosted a farewell celebration where they did what Solomon Islanders do best –give speeches, food and gifts. I returned to the staff room after my last class, surprised to find all faculty and staff gathered with a prepared lunch and a warm welcome. I was taken aback by the humble speeches as teachers and class captains alike apologized for the lack of resources and the possible behavior of the students. I couldn’t help thinking, “But they have nothing to apologize for!” feeling appreciative and respectful of their culture. As I’ve come to discover, gift giving is a huge tradition here in the islands and so the teachers presented me with traditional shell money jewelry and handmade baskets. In return, I was able to offer them a donation of flash drives for the teachers’ use. This exchange is only a physical expression, for it’s been a learning experience for us all and an exchange of language, culture and traditions.

Saturday was beach day! “It’s sunny days like this and pictures of picnics on the beach that make people think my job is a year-round vacation,” Bishop Chris joked. After a morning in the kitchen preparing, we loaded up Bishop’s truck (not an exaggeration, as we managed to fit 20+ people as well as food for all!) and headed to the seaside for beach soccer, swimming and picnicking. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day –we enjoyed beautiful weather and warm water, which was clear enough to hunt down the blue starfish hiding in the coral. It was soon established that I was to be used as a human diving board, and the pikininis nearly drowned their new friend as they all tried to climb up and jump off my shoulders at the same time. Driving home, we made a pit stop at the river for a “free car wash,” during which we had to sacrifice a few passengers in the back to lighten the load after getting stuck halfway through…oops! We returned in time to watch the final game of the Maliata cup between green Central Province and blue Auki. (After a weeklong tournament that had been played on the soccer field on the Alegegeo campus, the teachers will be relieved that they can now teach in peace. I, too, found that the rules of English grammar couldn’t compete for the students’ attention while there was excited cheering just out the window. I can’t say I blame them...) 

That evening, after a dinner of delicious coconut crab with the sisters (yum!), Sr Loretta and I went to see the students at Alegegeo showcase their dance talents and perform some traditional island dances they had prepared. Although initially very shy to step out onto the dance floor, they blew me away with their song and dance, each different one representing the cultures and traditions of various tribes. After cheering on their favorites, the dance floor was once again open to all the brave souls. My students dragged me out again and again, calling, “Madame, come dance so you can show your friends how to dance Solomon Island style!” (Warning to all you at home: be prepared…!)

Sunday morning called for an encore of French toast (I can’t tell if the sisters will miss me or the recipe, ha!) followed by mass down the road at St. Augustine’s Church. During mass, the parish community presented me with a beautiful flower lei, shell money necklace and carved wooden cross. I am truly humbled by the generosity of the community here in Auki, for even though they did not initially strike me as a wealthy community, they are wonderful givers of warmth, hospitality and love. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Wednesday, August 10th: Rest and Reflection

Looking back and thinking about how “jump” had been my initial approach to spending my time here in Auki, I’ve come to realize that quiet observation and reflection are just as important when tackling something new. Often times, however, I am filled with excitement and greet these new opportunities with such energy that I can forget to briefly take a quiet time-out and to stop and reflect. After a busy week and a half in Auki, my stomach finally met its match with some of the foods during the weekend celebrations and I was forced, reluctantly, to sit out some of the week’s planned activities and spend some quiet rest time. (During this time I’ve discovered that Solomon Island lemons are the cure-all for all sicknesses here!) Although I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to practice the new sing-sings with the kindys or make another visit to Kilu-ufi, I took this opportunity to reflect on some of the things I have learned while in the Solomons.

1.      Listen. One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in the Solomons was how very soft-spoken people are. Considering both this and the fact that most are speaking in Pijin, I faced a bit of a challenge with communication my first few days. At home, I needed very little effort to hear and understand what someone said and a simple response of a nod or ‘uh-huh’ would suffice. Coming to the Solomons, however, I had to adjust this approach altogether and focus attention on active listening rather than simply hearing what people were saying. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to lean over, face to face, with students asking questions in class in order to hear them. I’ve also had to ask people to repeat their names an embarrassingly large number of times before I’ve heard them correctly. These listening exercises have made me aware of the distractions we face and the ‘automatic response’ that we so often resort to in conversation rather than being fully present.

2.      Why be intimidated? Walking through the market with Srs Regina and Maria my first Saturday here, I was completely overwhelmed by the chaotic atmosphere and even felt intimidated by the attention I drew from everyone in the market. I found, too, that walking through Alegegio campus and Kilu’ufi hospital that all stares were directed at me, which made me feel out of place. Getting up in front of a classroom full of students only a few years younger than myself, was definitely unnerving and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making any difference. Yet, as I came to grow used to my new setting and learning names and faces of the people around me, I grew much more comfortable and relaxed and able to start forming relationships with these people. I even came to find out from the teachers at Alegegio that the students were more intimidated of me than I was of them and I had no reason to be worried!

3.      Dancing brings joy. Dancing, whether it is the Hokey Pokey or traditional Solomon Island dance, brings a certain joy to a situation. Sharing the laughter and fellowship of those around you allow you to connect with people –even if you don’t speak the same language.

4.      Go with the flow. I’ve come to find that things here operate on “Solomon Island time.” Just like my flight to Honiara at the beginning of the trip, the weather dictates much of what happens here on the island –everything from when stores open and close, to the bus schedule (or rather, lack thereof) and whether or not school is in session. Be flexible. Be patient.

5.   Power of prayer. Arriving in this totally new culture with new faces, sounds, foods and customs, I was relieved to find that the church and its community was somewhere I felt at home. No matter how different other things were, there was that same sense of community when people gathered together in prayer, both in the small chapel here in Fanulama and in the larger church down the road. It was inspiring to see the faith of all the members of the small community here –even down to 5-year old Waisu, who joins us each evening for the rosary, even though he understands very little English.

Sunday, August 8th: More Staka Kaikai

One thing that I’ve noticed here in the Solomon Islands is that when a community comes together to celebrate, there is always lots of food! This morning’s mass was a special celebration of Brother Malkalm and Bernard’s deaconate ordination and this occasion called for an elaborate show of Solomon Island culture. The opening procession was lead by a male pan pipe group dressed in traditional grass skirts and draped in shell money, ushering in Bishop Chris and the 20 priests that have been meeting with him this week. Malkalm and Bernard were escorted in by their parents, who were also in traditional Solomon Island style dress, followed by some members of the youth group in Auki who performed tribal dances up to the alter. The whole ceremony was a fantastic show of community support and beautiful Solomon Island tradition! Following mass, the entire parish gathered outside to share a huge feast that the families of the parish had prepared (and another family welcomed everyone back for dinner again! Ooof, my stomach!)
I’ve learned that while people here eat light, simple meals throughout the week, using things they grow themselves in the garden, they pull out all the stops for celebrations like this! Families are responsible for all contributing their fair share and there is often an unwritten account kept of who donates what, as they can get quite expensive. Mothers and daughters of the families will spend days preparing for feasts like the ones today to provide enough food for the guests as it’s considered unsuccessful if there isn’t enough food to send home with guests at the end.

The tradition of serving the food is another whole story! After the head of the house or the guest of honor blesses the food, he will often end with “Attack!” and it’s a rush for the women and children to the serving line first. Since there is no such thing as seconds, the strategy, from what I’ve gathered, is to pile as much food as you can in whatever bowl or plate you brought along (and I’ve seen some pretty creative platters using container lids and buckets). Community meals are taken very seriously here and give a sense of unity to the people sharing it and I feel blessed to be able to participate in a number of these celebrations since arriving here.

Saturday, August 6th: Solomon Style Swimming

Saturday is a free day for the sisters here at Fanulama, so after morning mass and breakfast of leftover fish from last night’s celebration, Regina and I took the bus into Auki to the market to do some shopping. I was on a mission to find bread so I could make French toast for breakfast for the sisters tomorrow. Upon arriving, I immediately recognized a few teachers and students from Alegegio who waved and called out “Morning, Madame!” which is the usual address for a teacher here in the Solomons. Seeing these familiar faces made the market much less overwhelming than last week; however finding the ingredients I was searching for proved to be more challenging. Instead of the clearly marked isles in the local Stop and Shop which separated fruits and vegetables from the dairy and cereal, market vendors and shop keepers sold virtually anything and everything in their small stalls –that is, everything except for sliced bread! I came to discover that fresh sliced bread is not a common item here in Auki, and instead, the vendors must wait until it is shipped over from Honiara. But if I’ve learned anything from this trip so far, it is that improvisation is key, so I’ll be trying out some Solomon Islands French toast tomorrow morning!

After returning from our wild goose chase in town, the sisters and I packed a picnic lunch and headed for a walkabout to the beach for the afternoon. On our way, I got to experience a little more of the rural part of Auki outside of Fanulama and witnessed everything from a family’s washing and bathing session in a small stream by the road to a Solomon style game of bocce being played with plastic water bottles and empty tuna cans. At the beach, Regina and Maria educated me in the proper way to climb a coconut tree –all while doing it in their blue uniforms! And we enjoyed the warm waters of the ocean, while stepping carefully around the small purple sea urchins every few feet (and we stayed close to shore to avoid any confrontations with the sharks I’ve heard so much about…)

After a week of practicing my dancing skills during nightly dance parties with the sisters (where I’ve discovered that Sr Loretta is a huge fan of the electric guitar move!), it was time to put my dancing shoes to the test with the Alegegio students.  Every Saturday night the students gather together for a social night and Sr Loretta and I planned a few activities and dances to do with the students this week. If it’s possible, the students enjoyed the Hokey Pokey and the Chicken Dance even more than the sisters and then afterwards they showed me some Solomon dance moves of their own. Much like in the classroom, the girls were extremely shy and needed a lot of coaxing to get them out on the dance floor, but the boys had no problem running out into the middle to dance with one another (another big difference here in the Solomons). And while you couldn’t pay money to see me alone in the middle of the dance floor back in the states, here I was, jumping around and showing some “American” moves while about 300 students laughed and clapped along! Loretta and I arrived home exhausted but happy and I’m hoping that after seeing me joke around and dance with them, the students may be a bit more open in the classroom this coming week!