Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scrambled Egg Foo Yung

31 October 2013
We started our day having breakfast at the Bamboo CafĂ©, a nice little spot not far from our hotel.  (Our hotel has a restaurant, but there was a death in the chef's family, so the place is closed until the weekend.)  Anyway, as we were waiting for our meal, I heard the pitiful cry of an unhappy kitten.  I went to the counter and asked if that was a little kitten, they said yes.  I asked if it wanted to be held and that's why it was so noisy, they said yes.  I offered to hold it, so the young lady brought out an adorable kitty, maybe 6 to 8 weeks old, dark grey stripes, with Cleopatra eyes (the lines look like very long eyeliner) - and the little kitty snuggled up and began purring.  There is nothing sweeter than a purring little kitten who nibbles on your fingers.  So I kitty-sat while we waited for brekkie, and I had a wonderful time.  (When my toast showed up, the lady took the kitty back.  He was ready to climb up on the table and help himself.)
We headed on down to the market, looking for the shell money.  Turns out the shell necklaces, what we used to call puka shells, are the shell money - and the longer the necklace, the more money on it.  Used to be a long long necklace for a bride's dowry.

But more exciting, there were a few dugout canoes right at the water's edge, in back of the market.  Not moored or anchored - they just seemed to stay in place.  I don't know how, but they did.

There's a sort of shanty town across the harbour, a collection of thatched houses that appear to be lived in.  Very traditional, and several are on stilts to accommodate storm surges.

There's also an island in the harbour or bay, with a collection of buildings - I don't know who lives there, but I'd guess they may be the owners of the dugout canoes.

It's always interesting to walk around traditional markets.  There's always something interesting, like the traditional thatched houses nearby.  Or the ladies selling cooked or raw fish, who have home-made fly swatters that they wave over the fish like metronomes, back and forth - basically a thin dowel or stick with a shredded plastic back on the end, making a fly whisk to keep the flies off their goods.

I should say something about Solomon Islands money - the current exchange rate is something like US$1 = SI$7.31.  Or, SI$1 = US$.14.  Changes daily, but only fluctuates by a few Solomon cents.  So something that costs SI$10 is about US$1.45.  A cup of tea for SI$5 is really US$.75.  We just go with multiplying or dividing by 7, as a round figure.  

So, the pineapples are sorted and priced by size.  These are $10 pineapples.  That, in US $, is really about $1.45.  For a big ripe pineapple.  The bunch of five coconuts are the same price.  That's about $.28 per coconut.  Definitely a buyer's market!!!  No one is getting rich on the extra produce from subsistence farming - but no one in Auki seems to be starving, either.  No one is begging, no one is asking for help, everyone seems well-fed and happy.

Like my little buddy here - what a cute child!  He's maybe 4 or 5, and wouldn't stop eating whatever it was that he's munching on.  I asked if I could take his photo, would that be okay, because he was so handsome - he gave me the smile and eyebrow raise that means yes.  (I know, somehow it seems so funny to have a sophisticated non-verbal response from a little kid.  But hey, we're used to kids who nod yes or shake their head no - so here, instead of a nod, we get an eyebrow lift.)  Anyway, he was just so adorable I wanted to get his photo.  The children all look healthy and well-nourished, as do the adults.

And today, a sunny morning (before a very rainy afternoon), people seemed extra friendly.  A lot of people stopped to say hello (hallo), and asked where we're from, and what do we think of the Solomon Islands.  One older man shook both of our hands, but we couldn't understand much of what he said so we just smiled and nodded and thanked him for his welcome, and went on our way.

We were impressed with the dirt and gravel roads, which have potholes (rather than having speed bumps, you know) that turn into major lakes during rainy season.  Yes, this is a pothole on a sunny morning.  Can you imagine what it looks like after a rainy day???

There are also a variety of tobacco where people sell home-grown tobacco.  In various shapes and forms.  I'm not sure if the different shapes mean different kinds of tobacco, or different ways it is cured.  I talked with one vendor, who of course was smoking a manufactured cigarette rather than home rolled, and an older woman who was smoking a pipe.  They didn't want their photos taken, but the two girls next to them agreed that I could take a photo of the tobacco and then they hid their faces!

Looks weird, doesn't it?  At first I thought maybe it was some dried meat - salami, or jerky, or something.  But then it registers as tobacco.

There were also a few little sheds that sell papers and cigarettes - you can even buy cigarettes one at a time.  I explained that I don't smoke, but these two dudes (check the gangland hand!) said I should take their photo so of course I did.

Things are just colourful - the umbrellas, the clothes people wear, the "public" transportation system that seems to be big pickup trucks where people just pile into the back, as many as can cram in with their legs hanging over the edge, looking like too many sardines spilling out of the can.  And of course the colourful classic, laundry on the line - I really liked this primary colour sequence of towels.

And just because there aren't enough adventures, well, I make my own.

There's a cute little red-cheeked parrot in a tiny cage at our hotel.  I stop and talk to him every time I go past, and he chirps and squawks back at me.  He's just a little guy.  I found out from the hotel manager, Peter, that this is a wild parrot, just a young one, who was caught by one of the guys working at the hotel.  Well, baby parrot is okay eating his applesauce or mashed banana or whatever, but he seems to not have any water.  And it's very hot here, being only 9 degrees south of the equator.

So after lunch today (which was scrambled egg foo yung - really, exactly like Chinese restaurant egg foo yung, but scrambled, not an omelet, with rice on the side), as we looked in various stores (which have limited items to buy, but you can usually make do with what you find), I bought a little metal bowl, thinking I could fit it between the wires of the cage, and give little Mr Red Cheeks some water.  Of course, the bowl was too big.  So I had to go find the owner of the bird, who turned out to be the security guy who is also helping with some construction here at the hotel.

I explained that I thought the bird needed some water.  Mr Security Guy opened the cage, and Mr Red Cheeks hopped out onto his hand.  I put some water in the bowl, held it, and little Mr RC sipped some water and then tried nibbling my fingers.  I put the bowl in his cage, and chatted a bit with Mr Security Guy and another man who is also working on the building.  The agreed that the bird needs a bigger cage, and explained to me that this is a baby and he's still getting in his full feathers.  And they thanked me for the bowl and getting water for the parrot.

OH - last thing - when I was buying the bowl, I noticed that the younger salesman had faint tattoos on his face, just two concentric circles on the apple of each cheek, with a few lines radiating out of the circle and back toward the temples.  I asked if he minded if I asked about the tattoos, because I had seen similar tattoos on a young woman at the bakery across the road.  He laughed and said that it's traditional in his village, which is on the island of Malaita but up north - just the traditional tattoos that let people know they come from there.  We talked about the Maori facial tattoos, and I said we also saw some Samoan people with facial tattoos.  It was interesting - they are barely-there tattoos, almost not there - like when you go to a club and they stamp your hand and in the morning it's still a faint color - that's what the tattoos look like.

Oh, one more thing - betel nut does have caffeine.  People tell me if you drive a long distance, you need to eat betel nut to stay awake.  (And there is NOT a car dealership on this island, people go to Honiara or a nearby country to buy a vehicle, then ship it to Malaita.  But that Honiara mostly gets reconditioned vehicles that are sold as gently used, and they really aren't in very good shape.)

We are definitely off the tourist track!  Still having fun in the Solomons!!! 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Auki, Malaita Island

30 October 2013

We arrived at the dock for the Discovery 360 ferry to Auki, the town on Malaita Island (#1 on the map to the right).  (pronounced mah-LIE-ta)  

It doesn't look like it's really far from Honiara on Guadalcanal, but it took about 5 hours to get there.  The ferry stopped at Tulagi (#2 on the map), where we'll stay later in the week, and stopped at a few other small villages as well.  (Number 3 is where we'll go next week, the island of Gizo (GHEE-zoe, hard G) up in the Western Province.

So we left from Point Cruz - this was the big arrival and launching location during the war, so a lot of people come to see Point Cruz.  It's now the freight dock, complete with cranes and all.  Plus the various ferries which go to all of the islands of the Solomons - although not all on the same days.  Or even the same islands.

And yes, we quietly sailed (well, motored) over all those sunken warships.  The Canberra.  The Enterprise.  The Washington.  The Vincennes.  The Atlanta.  The Monson.  All the ships lying on the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound, quietly rusting as we travelled over the water.

I've asked people we meet if they were alive during the war, but haven't found anyone of that age yet.  Not even anybody who was a baby at that time.  I'll keep asking.

We started out with a beautiful sunny day, clear skies and calm seas, almost like a mirror.  Very few waves.  And strange little flying fish that would leap out of the water as we went by, and they'd fly off away to something like 20-50 feet (7 to 18 meters), when they'd splash back into the water.  I asked the man sharing out table what they were, because their faces didn't really look like fish - they almost looked more like birds, with a pointy beak, and the tail didn't have fins like fish.  Turns out these are small squid!  Have you ever heard of flying squid????  Wow, crazy!  They get freaked out when the boats go by overhead, and they leap out of the water and sail along on their fins, like wings, until they splash down.  They actually looked like very big hummingbirds, sailing along just inches above the water.  I kept trying to get a photo, but they are speedy little suckers!

At some of the small villages, there wouldn't be a dock or anything.  So the ferry would slow down, and the captain would look to see if anyone was coming over to catch the ferry.  And then we'd stop and wait for the small boats to come up so the passenger could board the ferry.

But I think my favorite was the dugout canoe, with two paddlers, and the woman in the center holding a baby and a lavender umbrella.  So unexpected.  Just so British and incongruous. 

We cruised along, going past various islands, around sandbars and giant rocks and reefs coming close to the surface, following some channel markers and hoping that our captain knew what he was doing.
There would be the occasional village, or maybe a town, or possibly a resort - no way to really tell at a distance.  Just blue blue water reflecting the clear blue sky and puffy little clouds.

Some islands were basically just little cays, almost like little punctuation marks to the larger islands.

With Guadalcanal, the BIG island, looming in the distance.  (Can an island loom when it gets smaller as we travel away from it?)
We passed the Central Islands, also known as the Florida Islands, and continued through the straits that separate this little cluster of islands.  The skies grew darker, and there was definitely rain in the distance.  But the sun was still shining on us, and the combination made for great lighting on the everchanging water.

And then the rain hit, just as we entered the narrow part of the straits, feeling more like a river.  Heavy torrential rain, obscuring the views and forcing the crew to close the doors, and everyone to come in from the upper decks.  It poured and poured, we could see the heavy raindrops splashing on the sea.

We arrived at some village (no one announces the arrival, they assume everyone knows where they are at all times - so I have no idea where this village was) - and there was a crowd to meet the passengers.  Some people were waiting for friends or family, others were waiting to help carry goods, and still others were hangers-on, just waiting around to see what exciting things might happen.  And there seemed to be some excitement about trying to catch some kind of fish in the water, but it was never caught, despite a few boys jumping in after it.

We sailed through the rain, through the straits, and out into the open ocean beyond, heading to Malaita.  This took another two hours or so.  You wouldn't think we'd get tired of beautiful scenery, but after three or four hours it gets tiring.  And even though we brought sandwiches and bought coffee, we were getting hungry.  (There wasn't much of a concession stand on the ferry.)

So we were happy to finally arrive in Auki.  Richard commented that it looked like a movie set - the dock was packed with passengers disembarking, other passengers trying to get on the ferry, as well as family and friends meeting people.  All the while the crew was unloading and then loading up cargo in sort of fire brigade fashion, tossing box from person to person, down the line.  At the same time, a few vehicles were trying to either back down the pier or drive back onto the road at the other end.  Just milling chaos, with no end in sight and no way to orchestrate some kind of order out of it.  Just a chaos of humanity.

We found our hotel, although we had to wind around the streets a bit.  Our room is comfortable but nothing special, although we do have a nice balcony and a super large shower.  The restaurant here is closed, there was a death in the chef's family, so we headed out to find somewhere else to eat lunch.  

People are very friendly - we passed a few women unloading bags of rice from a truck.  One woman called hello, and I said hello, then asked where to find some lunch.  She and the shop owner explained where to find a restaurant - past the market - and we headed down.  Had a nice little lunch, found a few traditional thatched houses, and then wandered through the market.

What a lovely market!  There are stalls that are clean and tiled, with room for the vendor to sit on a chair and display their produce on the counter - so many places have the items on the floor, and, well, by Western standards that just seems so unclean.   Plus the produce vendors were grouped by the kind of produce - greens in one section, root vegetables in another, fruits in a third, and of course the cooked foods somewhere else, and the fish far away from everything else.

We'll head back to the market tomorrow, since this is where some people still use shells for money.  

And we'll walk around Auki some more, see if we can find any more excitement.

Oh, I wanted to add something about the Solomon Islands coat of arms.  We see this on government buildings and such.  Notice the usual crest, flanked by a crocodile on the left and a shark on the right.  Yup, these two animals are common here.  But they are almost like guardian spirit animals.  There are legends where the sharks helped a stranded sailor to shore.  Or the crocodiles did something similar.  There are traditions of calling a shark.  Or people who live near swamps, who talk to the crocodiles.  They are considered part of the larger family, and are treated as such.  And, it is believed, if someone causes trouble in the community or doesn't respect these guardians animals, well, that's when the animal attacks.  So people seem to live peacefully with the sharks and crocodiles as their neighbors.

I just found that really interesting!!!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Some Days Travel is Just One Big Adventure

29 October 2013
There are the days when everything goes smoothly, travel is easy, and things just fall into place.

And then, there are the days when nothing seems to go right and the simplest thing takes an extraordinary amount of effort to accomplish.

Somehow, the farther OFF the beaten track, the more difficult those simple tasks are to accomplish.

Take the travel alarm clock.  Simple, efficient, folds up, easy to carry, set the alarm and be independent from wake up calls.  Easy.  Wonderful.  Everyone should have something similar.  Until it needs a new battery.  Then, the search for a new battery becomes a quest, an epic search for the, well, not exactly the Lost Ark or the Holy Grail, but well within that range.

The friendly little store across the street only carries alkaline batteries - they suggested a store in town.  We walked to that store.  They didn't have the battery.  They suggested another store.  And said that if that place didn't have the battery, a third store might - name of Pinoko.  At least, it sounded like Pinoko.  So we walked to the other store they recommended, keeping an eye out for Pinoko.  Nope, no battery.  They said definitely at Pinoko.  And they said Pinoko was near our bank.  We stopped at the bank, took forever due to a teller error which took longer to correct than the original transaction - and continued on our mission to Pinoko.  As we walked, I tried to decipher the name - maybe this was a mispronunciation of Pinochle?  Like the card game?  Or an Italian name with a Solomon Islander pronunciation - could it be Pinocchio?  We kept looking, and walked at least a block past the bank.  Finally asked in a store, a young woman said go back four stores, there it is.  We walked, counting, and there it was - Pinnacle!!!!!  Well of course it was!  My ears just couldn't spell the Solomon pronunciation!  As I said, it was a major quest, and of course we felt as gratified with finding that little battery as Jacques Cousteau felt when he found, well, maybe a giant squid or the Loch Ness monster.


Oh - yes, people here chew betel nuts.  There are bits of red debris all over sidewalks.  People have red-orange lips and teeth from this stuff.  I don't know if there's a natural high, or a buzz, or some caffeine, or what in betel nuts.  But the practice here, explained to me by some people hanging around a market lady who I asked about the betel nuts, is to chew the inside of the nut, take a squeeze of lime, and a little nibble of some herb that looks like a large pea pod.  Sort of the Solomon Islands version of tequila with lime and salt, I guess.

And the kitty family was living under a place we went to for lunch.  I shared my burger with them, since the two mama kitties were so skinny.  Although the dad cat(s?) came out and ate some burger as well.  The mamas were happy with the burger bun and the fries, too.  This is the scene just as we left our table and went inside to pay.  (How could I resist those adorable baby kitties???)  Even Richard was petting them - and he still maintains that he's a dog person.

We're heading out tomorrow for a few days across Iron Bottom Sound, to the Central Province.  We're stopping first at Auki, where the people still use shell money as well as what we think of as money.  Should be interesting to watch the market.  (As long as they aren't using dolphin teeth, it should be interesting.)  Then we'll go to Tulagi, the old capital.  There are a lot of WWII historical sites around Tulagi, so we'll explore some of that as well.

And of course, this is another example where the planning of a simple five-day trip takes waaaaaaaay more time and effort than seems reasonable.  Step 1 - check the tourism booklet for the ferry company name.  Step 2 - check with a few people to be sure this is the right company.  Step 3 - look up the ferry schedule online.  Step 4 - make tentative bookings for two hotels, online.  Step 5 - go to the ferry office and find out that the online schedule is wrong, so you have to go on totally different days.  Step 6 - cancel the hotels.  Step 7 - make new hotel reservations.  Step 8 - buy the ferry tickets.  Step 9 - finally get confirmation that the hotels have space, and take care of the financial transaction online.  Step 10 - get the confirmation that the hotel is paid, and receive the voucher.  Step 11 - download voucher onto flash drive.  Step 12 - take flash drive to office to print the vouchers.  Step 13 - find out the people with the computers attached to the printer have left early, and the one lady who is there has a virus in her computer so you don't want to put your flash drive in.  Step 14 - write down all the relevant info in a book, and also carry the flash drive so I can show the hotels tomorrow that we do indeed have the vouchers, just not on paper.  (Shall I continue?  It goes on like that for a while.  This took three days!!!)

We're still having fun, and are looking forward to getting to the smaller, less developed islands.  Should be interesting to see the more traditional part of the Solomons.  Or, as one friend said, get a more authentic experience.  Plus do some snorkeling and see the wonderful tropical fish around here.  (And I hope to miss the sharks.)

And yes, for you observant art people, this is a traditional Maori marae, or meeting house - the cultural village was used for a Pacific regional arts festival, and some Maori people from New Zealand came to perform, and built this house on site.  This was built last year, but it's a popular hang out spot.  A couple of the people sitting inside explained to me the history of it.  I told them I recognized that it was Maori, and of course they assumed I was from New Zealand - I'm willing to accept that!

Okay - next report from Auki and Tulagi!  (Pronounced "OW-key" and "too-LAH-ghee" with a hard G)