Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Steve McQueening

I've banged-on enough about my veggie garden over the last year or so for you to get the picture that I really love getting amongst the compost and the loam; recycling my coffee grounds to prevent snails from getting into my luscious basil leaves and doing everything I can to coax my seedlings out of the earth, and to give those young 'uns the fighting chance they need to rise up from the filth to produce fine flowers and fruit. 

I guess you could compare my dedication as a gardener to the kind of teacher who, in sappy movies of say 15 years ago, would see promise in the misbehaving youth and, against all advice and opinions of their colleagues, would take this student under their wing, spend all their spare time tutoring them, and then, to everyone's complete amazement, have them shine at the end-of-term maths quiz or whatever.  Interestingly, the same relationship portrayed in more modern films would probably see the teacher completely vilified and possibly slapped with an investigation into inappropriate relations with a minor.  But I digress; there is nothing inappropriate about the tenderness and loving caresses I give my sweet, burgeoning tomato bushes and the tender kisses and playful licks I bestow upon my zucchinis of a summer evening – absolutely nothing!

To say that I just love getting out into the garden and doing a bit of digging and sowing is true, but not entirely.  It's true of the digging and sowing one does for one's summer crop, in about September or October, but it's definitely not true of May.  I friggin' hate the cold.  I hate the damp.  And I hate going to shit-loads of effort for average winter veggies such as bloody spinach and cauliflower.  So today, my plan was to get the job over with as soon as possible, and to get back inside to the warmth and the paper, pronto!

So I had a dump of dirt scheduled to arrive mid morning, and before that, I was out there, up to my ankles in the frigid filth, mixing stinking compost and rancid manure into what was left of the sodden beds.  Eventually the dirt arrived and I got to the back-breaking work of carting it across the yard and into the garden, only to realise after I was halfway through the pile that I had come a cropper (once again) to my meagre skills in mathematics – I had completely fudged the primary school-level mathematics equations for measuring volume in a right-angled wooden enclosure, and had ordered twice as much soil as I needed.

This soil having been dumped by the truck on my postage-stamp lawn, I couldn't leave the remainder there, and our entire yard being only slightly bigger than the lawn (comparatively, I'd say one of those postage stamps from the former Soviet Bloc countries is a pretty apt description), I was really in trouble.

So for the rest of the day, instead of being in my toastie-warm living room with a fresh coffee and the newspaper, I was walking around in the freezing, winter shadows trying to dispose of a little dirt here and a little dirt there – I felt like all those prisoners of war in The Great Escape, trying to dispose of the contents of three tunnels in little dumps here and there, right under the noses of the Germans.

I guess everyone, like me, if imagining themselves as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, pictures themselves as the rugged, all-American hero on the back of an Enfield, flying his way over a barbed-wire fence to freedom, rather than the short, chubby, British "Tommy" having to carry stinking dirt in his daks and divvying it out across the compound.  Indeed, reality really does bite!

Let's face it, I'm probably more likely to get the role of the barbed-wire, than the rugged, all-American hero.  Pic: http://www.coventrytelegraph.net

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Be alert, but not alarmed

My final, happily humorous observation of the Solomons during this visit relates to that Pacific-wide phenomenon which I have discussed before; the thriving, second-hand rag trade which sees Australia's fashion cast-offs becoming re-born over and over again in the cities, mountains and remote lagoons across the region.

On this visit, I had a nice little chuckle to myself when I saw a middle-aged woman wearing a t-shirt featuring a presumably un-licensed reproduction of a very sultry, short skirted and buxom-cleavaged Smurfette giving one of her male compatriots the come hither stare, beneath the caption, "Let's smurf each other's brains out".

And I also saw a tough looking teen at the market who, for all his mean, former militia-looking appearances, was sporting a Summernats 2008 t-shirt; an annual event attracting a massive gathering of NSW bogans just outside of Canberra that this Honiara bad boy was unlikely to have even heard of.

Of course there were also the usual smattering of (recently ironic) Osama Bin Laden and (never out of fashion) fluffy pink pussy cat t-shirts on this visit.  But for mine, the bravest, and most alarming fashion statement came from one of the airport 'security' staff as I was checking-in for my flight home.

Despite recent, somewhat spurious financial reports espousing the economic prosperity of the Sols, the reality is that this is still a dirt-poor country.  And when I was living there seven years ago, when the place was still emerging from five years of civil conflict, things were even worse.  Back then, the national airline was only just limping along; its schedules being met only when there was enough fuel available to get a plane across the pond and back.

So it's not surprising that while the rest of the world had completely overhauled airport security by 13th September 2001, it took the Sols until 2004 before the entire national air service shut down for a week, and all field-office staff were brought into Honiara (by boat!) to undergo training on the new national civil aviation security and anti-terrorism protocols.

We in the outposts eagerly awaited the return to duty of our provincial Solomon Airlines team from their training to see what the new, highly publicised security regulations would look like.  Up until that point, Felix, Peter and Sam's modus operandi had been to don shorts, t-shirts and thongs, and to wander out across the muddy airstrip with a trolley once the engines were cut (although there seemed no need to wait for the propellers to have stopped), and to climb up into the cargo hatch to eject boxes and cases out the door onto the dirty ground.

Post security and anti-terrorism training, things were indeed different.  Under the new regulations, Felix, Peter and Sam donned shorts, t-shirts and thongs, and wandered out across the muddy airstrip with a trolley once the engines were cut, and from the cargo hatch, threw boxes and cases out onto the ground.  What was different from before?  They did all this in flouro safety vests!

Over the next couple of months, the stash of Solomon Airlines safety vests at the provincial airline office dwindled as various family members required new upper-body clothing, and in the end, there were only three vests remaining, so Manager Felix was forced to keep these locked in the office after each shift.

During my recent visit, I was very glad to see that the commitment to safety, security and anti-terrorism remains as strong today as it was all those years ago.  I noticed this while I was waiting to go through immigration on my way out last week.  At that time, the Solomon Airlines 'security officials' were changing shifts, and the end-of-shifters were handing over their flouro safety vests to the new workers coming on-shift.  I reflected as I watched this that the safety vests are indeed a necessary security item, as once removed, the individuals beneath, dressed in shorts, t-shirt and thongs, and with half-smoked fags hanging from their lips, looked much the same as any other young men in the country.

But the best thing about this little transaction of the only weapon in the Solomon Airlines' anti-terrorism armory, taking place as it did beneath a big sign warning passengers that Solomon Airlines treats terrorism very seriously, and that jokes about bombs and hijackings are a prosecutable offence, was what one of these 'security officials' was wearing underneath his bright yellow vest; a black t-shirt emblazoned front and back with the name of a band he'd probably never even heard, 'Megadeth'.

Be alert but not alarmed?  I guess I should have been thankful he hadn't been wearing one of the afore-mentioned Osama Bin Laden t-shirts!

It really is amazing [read disturbing] how much of this stuff there is on the internet.  Pic: http://orlandonewscenter.com/

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Myths and Myth-conceptions

There’ve been a few changes in Honiara since I last dropped-in, and a particularly noticeable one has been the opening and maintaining of the two pedestrian subways under the [only] main road through town.  Today, these are well-maintained with clean coats of paint courtesy of the new, controversially-appointed mobile phone operator, and are gated and locked after hours to ensure they don’t become a meeting place for miscreants to gather in the dark night to drink kwaso (illegal, distilled home brew) and indulge in other ‘unsavoury’ acts.

Although I’ve not been game to enter one of these yet, I have seen others using them, which is a tremendous contrast from five years ago, when anyone reaching within ten metres of their entrance would be repelled by the smell of stagnant mud, rotting garbage and other forms of refuse, both human and organic.  In some cases, this festering mess reached half-way up the stair-cases, and provided a reasonable indicator of the functionality of the Honiara Town Council at the time to maintain the city generally.

Now anyone understanding anything about the aid and development sector will appreciate that in many settings, expat aid workers rarely have much to do with the indigenous population, and never was this more so than in Honiara, circa 2004, when the population of the city doubled overnight with a foreign military and civil police force intent on returning this ‘rogue state’ back to peace and economic stability, as well as an additional handful of development workers concentrating on the re-establishment of the health and education systems.

In this high security environment, where for a foreigner to even look a local man directly in the eye was seen as a potential trigger to provoke aggressive confrontation, allegedly resulting in the foreigner’s likely maiming or even murder, it became very convenient for expatriates to adopt a mandatory policy of civil movement restricted to the air-conditioned comfort of sparkling, white, Toyata Hiluxes, and ‘as a security precaution’, to frequent only those public sites designated as ‘safe’ by security forces, such as one of a handful of cafes, bars and restaurants serving only ‘Western’ coffee, food and drinks, and whose prices were too exorbitant for local incomes.

As a result, in those days, aside form the daily, patronising engagements with national staff [as few as possible, I should note] foreigners had very little interaction with local people.  Now, as you can imagine, drinking crap coffee in the only espresso outlet in town and eating spaghetti with tomato ketchup from the only ‘Italian restaurant’ will only occupy a foreigner’s complete attention for so long, and after a week or so, even the most alcohol-befuddled middle-aged male, or meticulously manicured and groomed female expatriate aid worker will eventually gaze out the window of the Toyota, and wonder aloud about some curious structure or local practice for which their own experience and upbringing (in New Zealand or Australia) can offer little explanation.

Without exception, such an utterance or question will be eagerly leapt upon by the expatriate’s colleagues or peers in order to establish the latter’s superior field credibility, and an answer to the query will be confidently provided.  The questioner will then lock that piece of information away and have it ever at the ready to drop surreptitiously into the next conversation over a steaming, muddy espresso (probably at morning tea that very day) in the hope of promoting their field credibility, and at least two of these caffeine-enhanced individuals will rush back to the office to casually drop their ‘long-established awareness of local customs and practices’ into the conversation.

And by Saturday night, at someone’s exclusive, invitation-only party [attended by every expatriate in town], there will not be a soul present who doesn’t know the reason behind the curious observation from the cab of the Hilux, just a few mornings ago.

In the ‘high security’ humanitarian setting, when interactions with local people should be kept to a minimum [or preferably avoided altogether], this is how expatriates learn about local customs and practices.  While one may consider that it’s as good a process as any other, the obvious flaw is the extent to which the original ‘authority’ had any factual basis for their confident explanations or, as has often been the case, they simply made them up.

It was in this setting, some seven or so years ago, that a younger, thinner and certainly more naïve Donkey uttered a query about why young men and women, clutching their babies and young children, were taking their chances to run across the busy main road and only narrowly escaping being run-down by the speeding, shining, white Toyota Hiluxes which seemed to have recently doubled the number of vehicles on the road, when there were much safer, pedestrian subways and overpasses they could be using.

My esteemed colleague riding beside me (who I later learned had only been in the Solomons for a month, and until that time had spent his entire, thirty year career working in a regional branch of an Australian bank), assured me that the reason for their lack of use was that in many indigenous Solomon Islands communities, it was inappropriate for anyone to be positioned higher than a ‘Big Man’ (an elder or chief).  This, he informed me, meant that women could not cross the overpasses in case a Big Man was below, as she would have to pay compensation, and likewise, a Big Man would not use the underpasses.  Further, if a Big Man wasn’t going to use them, then why would anyone else?  And so, they remained unused and poorly maintained.  My colleague added that these structures had been built by the World Bank ten years before, and were a prime example of the poor outcomes of foreign aid when the community is not consulted in the planning of activities (pretty rich words from this bloke, given his performance, or the lack their of, over the proceeding years, but that’s another story altogether).

Now while I have been guilty of furthering the propagation of these kinds of myths in the past, in this instance, I do not believe I shared this information more widely, however I did believe it.  So I was admittedly surprised to see that since my last visit, the subways have been cleaned, painted, maintained and are being used.  Is there any truth to the words of my former colleague?  Who knows?  But one thing’s for sure, if it is indeed true that the reason for the lack of use of the pedestrian overpasses is that a lesser-ranking individual should never be positioned higher than a Big Man, then you’d assume that it would also be taboo to take a dump above his, and considering the amount of human excrement strewn across the overpasses each morning, for mine, the ‘official’ explanations are rapidly losing credibility.

Not much [day time] traffic along here, and on investigation (rather than swallowing unsubstantiated here say), perhaps the reasons are clearly obvious – yes, that is poo in the bottom right corner.  Pic: Hagas