Monday, 19 May 2008

Of greener grass

I don’t know how else to say this, but I am in love. We have just been to the most beautiful and idyllic place I have seen yet in this country; it was everything that I hoped the Solomons would be, really. And now I am suffering from a fairly severe case of “grass is greener” syndrome. It’s all relative, I suppose, we liked Honiara well enough until we got to Auki. Now we think Honiara is a hole. We liked Auki very much until we got to Atoifi. Now, well, fill in the blanks I guess!

Steve, his trainee Willie, and I travelled over to Malaita’s second hospital over on the east coast last week. Atoifi Adventist Hospital has no road access, like most of eastern Malaita, so for us it meant a good couple of hours getting over to Atori by truck, and then a half hour in a boat to Atoifi. I felt mildly unwell after the rough ride in the truck (I’m sure the potholes were enough to induce a slight concussion), so I hate to think how the patients feel when they make it, via whatever means they can, to the hospital.

We didn’t know what to expect of the place, and thought we should prepare for the worst-case scenario – three days of sleeping on the floor, being stared at and not spoken to, eating whatever we were able to purchase locally (perhaps an exclusive diet of bananas, seeing as they don’t require cooking). What we got was a lovely (by Solomon standards, and I am okay with this!) self-contained flat, multiple warm welcomes from a number of staff, vast quantities of lovingly prepared food from several local families, and requests for further visits. As if that isn’t enough, the surrounds are peaceful, the people are friendly and the staff really want to take better care of their patients and would like our help to achieve that. More than a volunteer could hope for, really.

The evenings are even more serene than the days, and as the sun sets and brief twilight settles over the bay and its artificial islands*, the locals walk down to the small wharf (built by the EU). People set off over the quiet waters in their dugout canoes, children splash in the shallows or jump off the wharf. Somehow this doesn’t frighten the fish, who are quite content to flip around and make ripples across the mirror-like inlet. Many of the makeshift rigs (metres of line spooled around plastic bottles) still reel in enough for a little bit of protein with the evening meal. And most importantly of all, people sit down, or stroll together to engage in the national pastime, “stori stori” (talking).

When the sun departs for the day, and only the moon is left to light the sky, even then Atoifi is peaceful. The trilling of the crickets seems somehow more muted than Auki, and the silence is palpable between their songs. Only the occasional cry of a cat can be heard, and the mangy dog population I would put at less than three. I slept without ear plugs, and it was bliss.

Ah yes, the grass is very green on the other side at Atoifi, and I am very pleased to report that this first liaison is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship. There are lots of lovely things that we look forward to doing with the team there, but I won’t bore you with work talk, rather I’ll just revel in the knowledge that we get to go back.

*Malaita (and probably a number of other provinces, I’ll let you know when I’ve been there!) has many man-made islands dotted around its coast. They have been built on top of areas of reef by some very enterprising people who were struggling for land. So they made their own, out of rocks they collected and deposited at low tide. These people are the “saltwater people”, who, naturally, tend to do most of the fishing. They depend on the “bush people” for root crops such as taro and kumara, as the soil on the artificial islands is not generally amenable to growing these. There is a huge amount of anthropology and history literature available, about most of which I’m not that well informed, really. But Roger Keesing is one of the gurus, so if you’re interested, he would be a good author to look up.

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