Archive for the ‘15k miles from home’ category

Coconut Wireless on tour

October 8, 2011

Jerry reading Coconut Wireless.

This is a late posted blog by Nicola Baird about travel and homeschooling in Solomon Islands.

The first stars were just settling into a squid-ink dark sky when my friend Navie whispered across the fish and rice-laden table that her son Charlie had missed half a day of school to read Coconut Wireless. I met Charlie when he was a tiddly baby, and suddenly he’s the first Solomon Islander to read my book AND love it enough to ignore what he should be doing in a bid to get to the end. It was a fabulous feeling.

Lola, 13, was shocked. I’m always telling her to stop reading – you know, when she’s laying the table or eating, or talking to me or doing her homework – convinced I’m the only mother in the world who tries to limit their kids’ reading. “Missing school is really bad,” she told me, “what’s happened to you?” But in a country like Solomon Islands where reading material is limited, seeing a teenager settle down with a book is one of the most unlikely sites you’ll see.

Today (August) at Nguvia Community High School, about 30 minutes past Henderson airport, I gave a talk about Coconut Wireless to Form 3s after an invitation from their teacher Jamal Ed Namo. During the talk I hinted that a key part of the novel’s action happens on a bus just near their school.

The moment the session was finished Jamal’s colleague, Jerry Urahora, grabbed the copy of Coconut Wireless and started reading it (see the pic).

Book promo in Solomon Star and the Island Sun.

I can’t tell you how good this makes me feel. I made Coconut Wireless into an ebook so it was downloadable for free until 22 September 2011 from (use the code ZV47Q).

If you are reading this and are a Solomon Islander contact me for a free e-copy of the novel Coconut Wireless.

The next step is to turn my book into a play and let the students (or SEI group at Solomon Islands Development Trust) have a go transforming it into something that might make learning English much more fun because it’s all about them.


Back to reality

September 1, 2011

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This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling.

Years ago – the sort of time scale (20 years?) that I left between leaving the Solomons and revisiting them – Soul2Soul was the most listened to dance band in London. It’s not island reggae, but I quickly began to enjoy their music, and especially “Back to life, back to reality…” It’s an anthem with meaning!

Today the travelling ended. The passports are locked up. There are no plane tickets or plans or reservation vouchers to guard.

In short, we are back home with milk bottles on the doorstep and a lawn to mow. Everyone is beaming – even now with jet lag when it’s 6pm but feels like 11pm. Actually I’m not beaming, I’d have been v happy to stay in the Solomons for months, no years, longer. I miss staying with ML and her lovely family, the beautiful food and those blue skies.

London at 5.26am when we landed was grey and a tad cold.

Back home I’ve tackled the jobs that build up after three months away – the mountain of post especially. I’ve also done the family washing (suds’ law), mended the wooden dugong and helped Nell sand her carved dolphin (woodwork), buried poor Snowflake our pet mouse who, once dead, was placed in the freezer and fortunately didn’t get defrosted in the new microwave. The microwave is not technically new – it’s from a neighbour who gave it to our housesitter Christina, and I guess we should play with it to see how useful it is, or not. I’ve also picked up the dog from kennels where he ended up for the final week of his staycation and amply reapplied red mite barrier to the hen house in a bid to tackle these horrible pests before the hens arrive home. Then, in case the pesky critters had crawled on to me I removed all my clothing and did another load of laundry…

So busy at home, though upsettingly I’ve found out that my uni teaching hours have been halved.

Reality is like London weather (I’m thinking it never rains, but it pours). What I have to do is ignore all the inconveniences and find some good tricks to recall all the happinesses and lessons learnt over the past three months travelling. In short: smile more, listen more, do more and realise how lucky it is to be born with a British passport, in Britain.

Back to the here and now
Here’s what the girls are feeling as they settle back to breakfasts of butter, granary grains and lashings of marmite!

NELL: “I don’t want to tell you what I learnt because you’ll think I was really stupid. But… I can now picture the globe and all the countries and think about their different climates and realities. I learnt that in the Solomons the sky is much clearer, that might either be because of less pollution or where it is positioned.

“I found that it is a lot easier to breathe in a hotter place if you have asthma which is incredibly annoying as I do not like hot climates – they are too hot. In fact I spent about half an hour in a cool house in Singapore which had fake rain. I loved it, I could have stayed there for one whole day. I learnt that the countries all around the world have different currencies that can be more or less than English pounds, so if you visit a different country it is quite hard to know what you are paying – whether it is a rip off or not – unless you have taken time to learn about the exchange rates. I also found out that England is one of the well-off countries compared to the Solomons and other small Pacific islands because there they still have houses made of leaves, without proper windows (but that’s because of the climate). No one complained about being poor. People make their own houses which is extremely impressive. And I think a TV would be very expensive, and not everybody has one. But in England if you don’t have a TV or computer it would seem quite weird.

“I was really excited when we got on the plane to London, even though it took 13 hours from Singapore. But it actually seemed pretty quick because about 10 hours of it I was asleep! When the plane arrived at Heathrow airport I was really excited. It seemed really strange seeing all the lights of London compared to Honiara, which is about the same size as a tiny town in England which hardly anybody knows about. Anyone from there who has come to London would probably think it is one of the biggest cities they’d ever seen, and they’d be right. the UK has 60 million citizens, whereas Australia which could cover most of Europe only holds 20 million people. It’s really strange because you’d think they could fit a lot more people in. I think I know why – it’s because most of Australia is uninhabitable, for example we spent three days crossing the Nullabor Plain on a train which is incredible. We boarded in Perth, I felt like we should have got on the train in China or Russia or somewhere just from the amount of time it took.”

LOLA: “Going around the world I’ve learnt so many things. Like people are so kind and I’ve learnt a different language. I’ve learnt about different animals, and volcanoes. It’s hard not to when you see one. I’ve seen many things on my travels but I’ve come to realise that none of them hold the same place in my heart as my home. That sounds really cheesy! I think it will change me for good, I think I’m more relaxed but I think I’d like to put more effort into the things that I do, because I see now I’m so lucky to live in England and get these experiences and opportunities in things like music, riding. The classrooms in my school are so different to the Solomons. In the Solomon schools everything is bare. There are no posters, no carpets, no proper desks. Half the kids didn’t seem to even have books. And the books in the library at one of the schools I visited had all been eaten by white ants! People say state schools aren’t nearly as good as private schools, but I think state schools in London have so much more stuff, like computers and posters and paint on the walls, than the private school we went to in the Solomons. However the kids there really concentrate and learn so much better because they know it’s the only chance they will get. In England you have to keep going to school until you are 16, but in the Solomons you can get failed from school at 11; 13; 14; 15 and 16. To have a chance in life it helps to stay at school until 16!”

Fabulous Singapore

August 31, 2011

This blog is temporarily about homeschooling and travel.

Singapore has marketed itself as much a stopover city as the ultimate mix of Eurasian experience. The result is a really easy place to get around (although the MRT/subway sure helps) and some of the most delicious eating choices.

NELL: “I liked the cleanness, and the way there is air conditioning in the shops and hotels and cars – there was even a cool house (montane) in the orchid garden at the Botanic Garden. Best thing we did was go on a boat trip along the Singapore River. I learnt about all the buildings in Singapore, and liked the flying saucer best – that’s the one they use for the law courts.”

LOLA: “It was so humid! I hadn’t expected that. Now I’ve been to three very humid cities – Hong Kong, Singapore and Honiara.”

We only stayed 24 hours, but managed to go around the Botanic Garden and see the spot where rubber trees were first trialled, take a great boat trip from Clarke’s Quay, get a bit tiddly on Singapore Slings at the famous Raffles Hotel (see pic) and finally meet a friend, Tony, for noodles at one of the Hawker sites. These offer tasty food – carrot cake which is more like spicey omelette is a must try, especially if you don’t want chilli crab – all at dirt cheap prices, approx £3 or £4 a dish.

How I wish we could have oggled the Sky Garden (very high!), gone to a chocolate buffet, explore Little India and China Town, met more people I know in the city and been in far less of a hurry.

Don’t make the same mistakes we made.

We were there on a public holiday – Malay new year. Surel yan auspicious moment for all of us just on the cusp on going home to settle back into another round of study/save?

Going for a paddle

August 28, 2011

Lola sets off with Patrick for the best possible kayak tour (aka Natural Wander) around Sydney Harbour.

This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling.

The Solomons may be coincidence capital, but it also leads to the most amazing opportunities too. A few weeks ago I got an email from Patrick who had read Coconut Wireless on his kindle. He’d visited the Solomons to backpack back in the 1980s and lucky for me really enjoyed the book. He also noticed some typos, so contacted me – and then ended his email saying if I was ever in Sydney then come for a paddle around Sydney Harbour as he runs a kayak business early mornings and weekends.

Obviously he didn’t expect me to say I’d be there in a fortnight, especially as he thought I lived in London… Anyway we met up, had a good story about his adventures in the Solomons. I hope he writes it all up one day, because there’s the time he nearly jumped on to a shark. The back of the truck full of dolphins. The introduction to canoes and kayaks in the Roviana lagoon. The huge amounts of WW2 weaponry he found on beaches – Japanese on this one, US on the one opposite, etc, etc.

Today Lola and I went with Patrick, and his friend John, from the base in Lavendar Bay for a fantastic paddle. If you are ever in Sydney, please treat yourself to this as it was fantastic. Try Natural Wanders, or call 0427 225 072.

Patrick knows so much about the coastline so on the three-hour trip we were treated to all sorts of anecdotes about Sydney Harbour Bridge, the times when the AMP small building was the tallest in Sydney and who lives where along the most amazing waterfront houses – not just celebs, but the governor general ((Marie Bashir) and the PM when she’s in Sydney (Julia Gillard).

Lola enjoyed trying to catch jellyfish, spotting a cave dwelling and posing for cool kayak photos opposite Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge too. ” It was amazing because you could see all the things you couldn’t normally see, and it was a bit scarey because of all the waves.”

It was an incredible adventure. Being on the water in Sydney is easy to organise – there are ferries to all sorts of places – but to be able to do the paddling yourself, that’s fantastic. So here’s a big thank you to Patrick, and anyone who has ever been inspired by people or places – especially in Solomon Islands – to follow their dreams.

Oz is full of surprises

August 27, 2011

Breathtaking beach backdrop, still in sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Unusual car park visitor - we were walking through and noticed an echinada snacking on ants.

This blog is temporarily about homeschooling and travel.

“Are these kids homeschooled?” challenged the security guard at Brisbane airport. There’s a different school term in Oz so I was about to get a tad defensive – I mean Lola and Nell have partially been, but they don’t have to be doing education all the time, especially at an airport. I tried to say yes and no, and eventually yes.

The reward for all of us was unexpected. “You can really tell,” said the woman as she scanned my bags, purse etc while keeping one beady eye on my daughters… “kids who are homeschooled are always more self confident and intelligent…”

I thanked her graciously, but I reckon she just caught Lola and Nell on a very lucky moment. We’ve had a lot of squabbles about who sleeps with which pillow too. And Nell’s not keen on being called a worm…

But today has been pretty much perfect as Pete shows us around Sydney. It may not be the capital of Australia, but it certainly feels like it should be.

Mission today was to explore Manly Beach and the North Head. To do this you catch a ferry which takes you across the harbour. You can see jellyfish at Circular Quay, imagine all sorts as you pass Sydney Opera House, occasionally see a lost whale and count the bays with shark nets.

We took a 3 hour walk – possibly moving rather slowly – around the headland which is full of flowers. It’s spring here. Saw surfers, rocks, blossom and almost no cars.

LOLA “I thought Manly was really nice. I thought that beach was amazing – Collins – it was so pretty with a waterfall, stream, gallahs (big white parroty birds) and the promise of fairy penguins, yachts in the water and almost no people. I think Sydney is really cool. It’s a lot bigger and less dusty than Honiara, and there are a lot more shops. However Honiara is amazing. I’m really looking forward to going back to London. Cities are so different, even when they seem similar took, like Brisbane and Sydney.”

NELL “I loved seeing an echidna (like a hedgehog) eating ants near the beach. It really liked eating them! I think Sydney is really nice and I am looking forward to going to the opera house tomorrow.”

Tomorrow Lola and I have been invited to kayak around Sydney Harbour by Patrick, who has the best stories about travelling around the Solomons in the ’70s and ’80s. What an incredible treat for us both.

What makes you love somewhere?

August 19, 2011

This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling in Solomon Islands

Sometimes there are mountains in the driving mirror. Or silver clouds at sunset. Or a trail of dust behind an open-backed truck crowded with people and produce going to market. A snatch of song, Wantok is this year’s favourite or the smell of food cooked on hot stones. These are the moments I feel weak about Solomon Islands – crazily falling in love with it again after all these years.

Twenty years ago I arrived in the tiny Pacific Island country, the Solomons, a little bit shell-shocked to have opted for a two year contract as a journalist trainer in a place I frankly struggled to locate on a map. For a Londoner, those first few weeks were hard. I despised the one road, the lack of big buses, the small town feel, the crowds of young men hanging around. And then something happened that let me fall in love with a place head-over-heels. All I did was go for a walk.

Yes, a walk.

It was over some hills – a two hour trek uphill. Then down a big bank through the rainforest, via caves and waterfalls and pools and home along a river. I’d never imagined any place so magical. The sounds were exotic. To have to swim or wade most of the last part home down the Matanikao was extraordinary. I forgot about the heat, humidity, and teeming, biting insect life

That Monday I went back to the office a new person.

Time ticked on and I learnt a new language, made friends and thoroughly enjoyed working with my colleagues. Visitors from the UK came. Marmite jars emptied. Things normalised. But the immense pleasure I get from being in the Solomons has never worn away. I am so happy we’ve been able to spend two months here this year (2011) and that Lola and Nell have had a chance to meet my friends (and become friends with their kids!) and to love this country too. The Solomons is a place where I definitely smile far more.

I hope this happens to you one day too. Not the homesickness, obviously; the surprise attack of loving a place which you can stay in or treasure in your mind exactly as circumstances demand.

What isn’t much fun is having to say goodbye, I think each go finis gets worse. Years ago I was crying over a lost opportunity to live here; this time it’s goodbye to my lovely friend ML who has been the most generous host in the world – offering 4 of us a place to stay for 2 months after not actually seeing any of us for about eight years!! She is such a force of nature that I actually pretend to be her when I’m in a situation I feel that I can’t cope with.

Stocking up again on the way the Solomons makes me feel, or copying the way ML masterminds house, office and entertainment with panache, latte and a good bottle of red should see me burst back to the UK with reknewed vigour. Far better than being miserable about the possibility of not coming back to the place and people I love for a frightening length of time.

Look at the big rock

August 16, 2011

Here's a rock off Savo, Solomon Islands that tells a story of sea level change.

This blog is temporarily about travel and homeschooling in Solomon Islands. This post is by Nicola Baird

The sun is just getting high when I first see the big rock. It’s just a quadrangle of rough volcanic quartz jutting out of the sea on the edge of Savo island. Years ago the rock was a special custom site, and beyond it, where the sea is now, were the villagers’ food gardens.

That’s all changed. The stone is deep in the water now, and the only ones who think of it as special are the black tip sharks that crowd seaside in a small cave.

A few metres away from the waves, on a small land island, part gravel, part soil, stands a vast banyan tree. You’d need 20 adults to link outstretched arms if you wanted to measure its girth. The Solomon Islands’ children prefer playing in the tree. They love hide and seek inside the tree, or climbing up using the roots and branches as steps right to the canopy.

“Nothing can touch this tree,” says John proudly gazing up at the knot of branches which are home to myriad beetles, spiders, pollinators and birds. John’s from Temotu but has lived on the volcanic island of Savo for years. He now works as a guide for the Speaker of Parliament, and ex-Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza’s resort, Sunset Lodge. “Even when there’s a big sea or a king tide this tree stays strong,” he insists.

But like the custom stone nearby the special banyan tree may not be as untouchable as John and the villagers think. As weather events become more extreme the beach gets washed away, making the tides creep ever up.

Climate change is making the impossible happen.

The little changes don’t seem like a disaster at first. You hardy notice a rock edging towards water, a standpipe getting nearer the beach or a mangrove bank shifting. The loss of the villagers’ tabu stone doesn’t make any difference economically to anyone. But when you realise that 80 per cent of Pacific Islanders live on the coast of what can be rather flat islands it’s a different story. In neighbouring Kiribati, a group of 32 coral atolls on the equator, you could bowl a cricket ball from shore to shore over many of them, including the ones with runways.

Savo doesn’t have an airstrip, sewerage, electricity or tapped water, even though it’s big enough to have four primary schools, two clinics and is only a 20 minute canoe ride from the country’s main island, Guadalcanal. Its perfect cone shaped volcano, still smoking sulphorous mixes from the main crater and small vents in the most unexpected places, is the big picture view residents of the country’s crowded capital, Honiara, enjoy.

Looking into the far distance, in the other direction, Walande, a tiny artificial island off Small Malaita, has become one Solomons first climate change casualties. First the fresh water got polluted by salt, then the king tides rushed under the leaf houses, spoiling them. Finally the 100 or so residents were forced to wade to church each Sunday – hoping they could get the Big Man to rehabilitate their home. It didn’t work.

No one can live on Walande any more.

Over in Gizo, what was once reknown as the “prettiest town in the south pacific” until spoilt by a post-earthquake tsunami in April 2007, resulting in at least 50 deaths, WWF Marine Co-ordinator Bruno Manele, 35, is sitting chewing betel nut outside his office. The town has all mod cons – gift shops, restaurants, banks and an internet cafe – but the power supply is so erratic it’s hard to know when the computers and cooling ceiling fans will work. Despite the soaring noonday heat, Bruno good humouredly explains the main threats to the environment in his beat – damage to the coral reef, over harvesting (of fish/shells etc), marine pollution and sea level rise.

“We were running a workshop at Paeloge, a coastal village near Gizo, and asked ‘what’s changed?’. The villagers pointed at the standpipe. It used to be on the shore but was now in the sea. They know the sea level is rising and build their houses inland. They could move inland, the land is there, the problem is that it doesn’t belong to them,” explains Bruno.

“People aren’t frightened. It’s not our culture to be scared, but they really do worry about the coastline changing. If the sea comes up, and the high tide is underneath your house it makes life even harder. The big question for everyone is where else can we make our food gardens?”

Caught up in the rush to pay off our loans and mortgages, get the kids to school, dodge the traffic and do the shopping – even on a sunny Pacific island it’s easy to miss the small clues about the way the world’s climate changes is already changing people’s lives.

You and I may not have noticed a village landmark go underwater, there’s no TV footage in that. You don’t call it climate change in the Pacific, you switch tenses in order to deal with disaster relief.

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