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Solomon Time

The start of the journey.

So the time is finally here! I am writing this 5 days after leaving home, 3 after arriving (you do the maths, it’s a looong way) in my new home. I am a bit behind on my blog so this first post will just bring you up to speed with everything that has happened between applying for Project Trust in September 2016 and our arrival in the Solomon Islands August 2017, so sorry but it’s a bit of a long one! The year away has only just begun and already it’s been an incredible journey.

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So this time last year I never would have guessed that I’d be taking a gap year, never mind living on the other side of the world for 12 months and absolutely not that I would be living in the Solomon Islands, largely because I’d never even heard of them. I always thought I’d be one who went straight to uni but when it came down to actually filling out those dreaded UCAS forms I really struggled to decide on what I wanted to do. By pure chance through word of mouth I came across Project Trust so with no expectations and a lot of apprehension I headed up to Scotland for a week-long selection course in October 2016. At this time I was at least 50% sure I was accidentally joining a cult and would never be seen again (jury’s still out). But it was on the remote, wifi-less, signal-less island of Coll that I learned what Project Trust was all about and my life was undeniably changed forever (and yes I’m cringing even while writing that – I promise I am trying to avoid the gap yah clichés).

Training was a weird week: strongly resembling big brother, everyone from our host families, to the people we did an afternoon volunteering with, to our teachers watched and reported on our every move. But nevertheless it was fantastic: complete with sunset hikes up neighbouring hills, endless card games and finally a ceilidh!!! For those who don’t know, a ceilidh is a Scottish kind of barn dance, which apparently is a regular event in Scotland, with schools having these socials at least once a year. As someone who grew up in England the only comparable event would be the dreaded year 6 discos where the boys and girls stood on opposite ends of the room giggling at the thought of dancing with each other and bouncing along to the Cha Cha Slide. But the ceilidh was so much fun with people getting so into it that everyone woke up with numerous unexplained and dodgy looking bruises the next morning. We were also taught in this week all about Project Trust: that it was an educational charity operating in roughly 20 countries in Africa, Asia and South America and sending 200 volunteers abroad every year for teaching, social care or outward bound (outdoor activity) 12 month volunteering placements. To be selected we had to apply online with a school and personal reference and then on training give a 10 minute lesson and a 5 minute talk about Coll. We also had a few interviews with members of staff and got to specify which country would be our first choice, what kind of accommodation we would prefer (private or with a host family) and what kind of project we would like. From this they would try to give us a project that suited us.

About 2 weeks after selection everyone got a call saying whether or not we had been selected and as you may have guessed I was! At this time I was headed to Zambia after saying that I would like to teach in a rural community. And so began the next big step: fundraising.

In order to do Project Trust I had to raise £6200 in 8 months. I know this sounds like a ridiculously large amount but once you take into account that this covers travel, accommodation, support, some very impressive insurance and the fact that it is not uncommon for school-run volunteering trips to cost a few thousand for two weeks, it is not unreasonable. So I raised the funds through writing to charitable trusts, holding cake sales and doughnut days, selling stuff, donations from family and hosting a fantastic and hugely successful 5 course dinner party for 50 people at our house (shout out to dads madness for coming in handy). During this time I got a call from Project Trust asking if I would like to go to a brand new project in a new country: the Solomon Islands. After googling it (I’d never even heard of it) and seeing the images of remote islands so idyllic they look photo shopped of course I said yes.

So then with fundraising complete and my final destination set, I headed up to Coll again at the start of summer for another fantastic week training. I met my project partner, Jet, and the two other people who would be coming to the Solomons for a different project, Noah and Ultan. With more cards, hill climbs, sunset swims in the Scottish sea and another ceilidh, it was again a great week and meant I really couldn’t wait to go away. We also had a crash course in teaching (who says you need a degree?!) and various sessions to try to help us stay safe in a foreign country. By this time we were counting down the weeks until we would leave about a month after training.

So there you go: selection done, fundraising finished and training complete – we were ready to go! Since it’s a new country we knew very little about the Solomon Islands compared to other people’s projects, with staff at Project constantly telling us to stay in touch so we could tell them what it was like, while other countries were busy being told what to expect by these staff. The most we got was people laughingly talking about ‘Solomon Time’, the South Pacific way of life where everything happens slowly, late or not at all, with our country coordinator at Project describing it as “so laid back its horizontal”. This said, with our project teaching in a school of nearly 2000 students from nursery to 18 year olds, this year is not just going to be us just chilling in a beach (and not only because if we did there’s a chance we’ll be eaten by a saltwater crocodile).

 

Thank iu tumas

6 months ago, I dragged myself through Honiara international airport, to the plane that would take me home. A sea of crying faces lay behind me, and in front of me airport security guards, who I doubt could have looked more scared had they found a bomb in our bags. Jet and I were in an absolute state: weighed down by generously gifted presents, which we were ready to defend to the death from security; crying inconsolably after having just said goodbye to our Solomon family; and crying all the more as we laughed at our ridiculous situation. But while we undoubtedly looked like a mess from the outside, what we were feeling on the inside would have made my dump of a teenage bedroom look like a model showroom. We were painfully aware that we were about to do one of the most difficult things we have ever done: to leave the Solomon Islands.

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Before you pass judgment, yes, I am aware how over the top that sounds. But no matter how much Project Trust talked to us about reverse culture shock (effectively homesickness for somewhere which isn’t your home) nothing could quite prepare us for the reality. When you throw yourself into another life like we did, it is not just decent chocolate, hot showers and a life without ant infestations that you leave behind: you leave behind your entire support system. Left in this new country without my family to lean on, my friends to laugh with and my dogs to smother with cuddles, I had to make new foundation blocks pretty quickly or risk failing the year before it had even got started. This resulted in friendships as strong as those I’ve had at home for years. Not just because the people there are the most amazingly warm people I’ve met, but because it was a necessity. The teachers at St Nicholas, my wonderful church Graonz family, the two boys also volunteering with Project Trust and, of course, my incredible partner Jet, became the crutches holding me up throughout the year. I genuinely couldn’t have done it without them. And while this was wonderful when I was living in the Solomons, it meant that when I returned home I was once again left defenceless. I had grown so accustomed to my life there, that upon returning home I was once again left feeling like a fish out of water.
This may be why it took me so long to do something I have been meaning to do since returning; to say a big thank iu tumas (translating to thanks too much from pidgin) to everyone that helped me get to the Solomons and have the most amazing year of my life. To all of you who gave such generous donations to help me get overseas, who sent such lovely messages throughout the year and those who helped me readjust upon returning home, I want to say a huge thank you. You have changed my life more than you can imagine. While trying my best not to spout any ‘gap yah’ clichés, you have truly helped change my outlook on life, my belief in myself and the lives of many people I met while out there. The idea of a gap year being a break from education is completely false: it was likely the biggest learning curve I will ever experience.

 


It gave me an unparalleled insight into life in a developing country: the hardships and struggles that this can entail, but also the incredible benefits of living in a country with such strong community values. The Solomons are riddled with corrupt officials, wide-spread poverty, poor education and healthcare systems. It is one of countries with the highest rates of domestic and sexual abuse, there are limited opportunities for employment and having very few valuable resources of its own, it is low on the priorities of other countries to help it develop. But despite all this, the people we came across were filled with the most infectious joy that I have ever seen. From the moment I woke up in the morning, until my eyes were closing at night, I would have a constant smile on my face, as our friends could turn even the most mundane of tasks into a comedic skit that had us crying-laughing. Before Jet and I arrived in the Solomons, we believed one of the highlights of our year would be travelling the luscious islands of this palm tree paradise, yet by the end of the year we were passing on travel opportunities to stay in the dust filled town we can now call home. The highlight of my year was not scuba diving coral walls or drinking coconuts on sandy beaches; but singing worship songs with the All Saints church youth group, whose incredible voices can produce an energy and emotion which surpasses anything I have felt in my life.

The Solomon Islanders are incredibly strong in their religious devotion and experiencing this side of the culture redefined my view on the power of religion. I’ve always viewed faith as providing a strong moral compass, yet it wasn’t until I saw people going through truly shocking experiences and turning to God to comfort them that I came to appreciate religion’s true power. To some people a belief in a greater purpose is not a helping hand through tough times, but the last line of defence between them and the blow that could break them. It unites people of all ages from all backgrounds and creates such strong bonds that no one is ever truly alone. It has the power to inspire people, to sustain people and to give this country, trying so desperately to develop, the unity and strength it needs to keep pushing forward. For the glory of God.

 

As volunteer teachers, there was only so much difference we could make in the classroom. However, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we had a positive impact on the people we met in the islands. Throughout our year we were very conscious to not step on toes: we conformed to cultural expectations; we made sure we showed our gratitude by putting our absolute most into our work; and also worked hard to create positions where we didn’t steal the employment of the hardworking teachers at St Nicholas College. Jet did some amazing work with her remedial grade 1 and 2 classes, which saw many students learning to read. Some students who had been struggling improved so much that they were integrated back into the main stream classes. Meanwhile, I shared year 8 and year 12 classes with some secondary English teachers, helping to teach basic English as well as literature to the older grades. This meant I was teaching at most 290 students. It was incredibly rewarding to watch them improve, and even in these first few weeks of 2019 I have had ex-students messaging me to let me know that they have passed their exams and made it into the next year of school. It made me indescribably happy that they felt the need to thank me for this result, but their success is wholly their own and down to their incredible hard work and determination.

I believe the most significant impact I had while away was done by just interacting with the students in English. Learning the language for them, had mainly just been copying from text books, focussing on passing the next exam and getting good grades. Yet I believe, and hope, that our presence there helped remind them that learning English is not primarily for these motivations: it opens the doors to a huge wealth of opportunities, waiting to be discovered. And this impact was not just confined to the school. As very few foreigners visit or live in the Solomon Islands, many of our friends there had never really interacted extensively with white people, which was very evident when we first arrived. It took months for us to build up relationships with some people, as they felt uncomfortable or unconfident in talking to people from such a different life. Yet as we spent more time there, and learnt the local language of pidgin, we could see their expectations of white people changing. Both we and they came to appreciate that background and culture had no impact on our friendships: cultural differences only cause division if you let them. Two new volunteers replaced us in August in the Solomons and this unexpected impact of our project was heart-warmingly evident, as those who had taken months to become comfortable with us rushed to become friends with the new ones, and got to know them well in a matter of weeks. Giving people confidence in their English is fantastic, but to give them confidence in themselves: in their identity, their community, and their culture, is the most rewarding feeling ever. You are not defining their school career, you are helping them to redefine their self-worth. And if we helped make the people there respect themselves even a fraction of the amount that we respect them, then that is my greatest achievement to date.

 

When you live with the same people, in the same country with same culture year after year, it is easy to become desensitised to how fantastic our lives are. Living for 12 months in a developing country really opened my eyes to how incredibly lucky each and every one of us are in the UK. Although we may claim that we don’t, most of us will take for granted things which we are, in fact, incredibly lucky to have. Such as a bed to ourselves, access to healthcare and the ability to kick back and relax after a long day at work. While living in the Solomons, I heard regularly of people dying of conditions as basic as asthma, and virtually everyone I knew had lost at least one family member far below the age of 60. People were often living with multiple families in a two-roomed home, leaving everyone sleeping on the floor, balcony or under the house. Some people’s houses get washed away every single rain season, but they can’t afford to build anywhere outside of the flood plains. While we may complain about school being boring, kids in the Solomons must sit in classes of up to 70 in the same room for 6 hours, without the relief of any subjects like art, drama, music or sport. And then they may well have to work for a family business or help take care of siblings after school. A vast majority of teachers had to work other jobs, such as selling food outside of school time, just to make ends meet. It is easy to get bogged down by the small things and get annoyed at having to wait a while at the doctors, or your TV breaking or WiFi being slow, but we are all incredibly privileged to live the lives that we have. Sometimes we just need to slow down and take a look at what’s around us. The people I met in the Solomons made me so incredibly happy and I was so incredibly grateful for their kindness that I went out of my way every day to show everyone my love and appreciation. But that does not mean that everyone around me at home is not equally as amazing. I had just got out of the habit of noticing it. Therefore, I am now making a conscious effort to always appreciate those around me now too. And the thing I have learnt is that, I guess unsurprisingly, the happier I make the people around me, the happier I am myself. While I’m still working on keeping my room tidy and helping around the house enough to make my mum truly happy, I am making an increased effort to smile more, chat more and just put more effort into the relationships that fill my life. Each and every one of us has the power to make life better for others, whether that be through volunteering, giving to charity or even something as small as paying someone a compliment or smiling at a stranger. And the benefits will be threefold.

I’m still trying to get my head around living so far away from so many people I love. For example, having the incredible priviledge of having a baby named after you (with the combined name of Flojet – name a more iconic duo), and then not being able to watch it grow up is incredibly difficult. But in the six months since coming home, I have come to see that I will never really leave that part of my life behind. What I learnt is always with me, and it has luckily made an amazing cheat sheet if I haven’t finished my reading for seminars! I am now studying at the University of Leeds, doing International Relations; a course I switched to as my interests changed overseas. It is amazing how regularly something we came across while away is discussed, and I am sure the first-hand experience of living in a developing country will provide an extra drive throughout the rest of my studies and beyond. While it was, at first, difficult to watch two new girls step into our shoes, we are so happy that Project Trust’s work there is continuing. We have come to appreciate that to the people there, being replaced doesn’t mean we’re replaceable, and that no matter if people there are moving on, it doesn’t mean they are moving away. We know that the friendships we made there were meaningful enough to all of us that neither the 10000 miles nor the time apart could diminish them. While I wish I could have stayed in my Pacific bubble forever, life continues. It is more than time for me to move on: if not to let the Solomons go, then at least to loosen my grip enough that I can reach the next ring of the ladder. I will always be incredibly grateful to all of you who helped me make this year happen. I am now officially signing off from my Project Trust blog. I would say over and out; but while we are out, it is definitely not over.

 

The Magic of the Movies

I could tell you stories from the Solomons from dawn until dusk, but it still wouldn’t really give you a sense of what it was like to live in that incredible country. Instead, please watch this video made from clips taken throughout my year away to truly get a sense of the awesome atmosphere I was living in. While it can never do the place justice, this 4 minutes of fun is my best attempt! Watch out for the groovy moves that got us nationally known as “the white girls who can dance”, the beautiful scenery of the palm tree paradise and the smiles so warm they earned the Islands the nickname the Happy Isles… 

P.S. I am aware that there are very few clips of me in school, and none of me teaching but please don’t think this means the trip was one big holiday. I just thought having my phone out while telling the students not to may undermine my classroom management, and with classes so big I needed all the help I could get!

The land of 100 languages

While I am posting this about four months late, International Mother Language Day was held on 21st of February this year and to celebrate my partner Jet made a video showing some of our our local friends and teachers talking in their mother language. Despite the fact that everyone in town lives here for 99% of the year, everyone identifies with a different province as their home, and often speak at least one other Solomon language because of this. This video is a nice way to show you just a fraction of the languages they speak here, while also giving you a chance to meet a few of the locals!

Thanks to Jet letting me post her fab video 🙂

International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language day is about celebrating and supporting linguistic and cultural diversity, as more than 43% of the languages spoken around the world are endangered due to globalization. Here in the Solomon Islands, this has become painfully clear to me. The many different languages that are spoken in the different provinces here, are being threatened as people have started to move to town where pidgin is the lingua franca.
I made this video to capture some of the nearly 100 languages that people speak here and to show you what an amazing and culturally diverse country this is.

 

Rave rave missus

I am now 10 months into what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best time of my life. Even though I am now sharing a room about the size of a king-sized bed; am even on the coolest days bathed in sweat; swallow enough dust daily to fill a crematorium; and feel like I am constantly about 8 hours short of getting my full 8 hours rest, life has never been better. Except, of course, for the physically sick feeling the thought of going home and leaving everyone here gives me. But guess that just goes to show how truly incredible this year has been.

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In the five or so months since my last blog post, life has been a whirlwind of happiness. And the use of the ‘whirlwind’ is fairly accurate as time has passed so head-spinningly fast that I’m fairly sure I’ll be left with whiplash when we fall back to reality. These past five months have felt about equal to five days back at home. And it’s not even like the time has passed so quickly because we’ve been flitting between beautiful travel destinations: the time since we have returned from our Christmas holiday has been amazing because of its normality. By which I mean, I never would have guessed that I could feel so at home in a country and culture so different from my own. Most of our spare time is spent just sat around markets or the church grounds chatting to our friends here, and since Solomon Islanders are both the most pure-hearted and playful people I have ever met, even the most mundane of meetings brings me into absolute fits of laughter. We have actually got to the point where we are passing on incredible travel opportunities to tropical paradises in order to spend more time sat around aimlessly in this dusty, rubbish filled town. We now live so much like the locals that our friends even call us ‘rave rave missus’ meaning ‘fake Whiteman’, which has got to be my new favourite compliment. And that is what is so amazing about our year and about Project Trust: it has given us the opportunity to not just see a place, but live it. We crash landed in a completely alien country and culture and have now become so integrated that our homes seem like the strange planet.

 

 

However, I’m not saying it has been a quiet few months: in fact, it’s probably the opposite. My project took a huge upward turn after Christmas (not that it was bad before) as I got a proper timetable for my classes. Consequently, I have had a huge rise in responsibility in the school and a huge decrease in free time. Since it’s the first time Project Trust has been to the Solomons, the project took a few months to get up and running, but that has just made it even more rewarding now it is. I now teach 5 classes: two Year 8 classes of up to 65 students (one of which I take by myself and one which I share with another teacher) and one class a week with each of the three Year 12 classes. Luckily, the Year 12 classes are a more manageable size of only about 55 students aged up to 23 (!!). So, all in all I teach just under 295 students. Or in other words there are about 295 students who I disappoint daily by not knowing their names. For the Year 12s, I have been given the challenge of teaching poetry and literature analysis to them for their national exam at the end of the year in the space of about 12 lessons, with them never having studied this before. Fair to say it’s been a challenge, and I absolutely have newfound sympathy for all the teachers out there who are daily drowning in marking, but the students are lovely so it’s been great. I am also now helping to coach to the netball team. This is definitely one of the best things about my project as the girls are angels so it’s so much fun, although while I thought playing netball in the hand-numbing cold of an English winter was bad, turns out playing here is even worse (30-degree heat plus 100% humidity is not exactly conducive).

 

 

Of course, our project is just a fraction of our life here in the Solomons. The past months haven’t been filled with the weekly trips to different islands that we had before Christmas, but that doesn’t mean it’s been any less amazing. Our weekends have now fallen into a bit of a routine of church activities, netball practice, and chilling with friends. We still sometimes go out to visit the two other Project Trust volunteers, Noah and Ultan, at their boarding school two hours outside town, where they have a beach, beautiful rainforest and the peace and quiet town is lacking but our visits are getting less and less frequent as the countdown towards our separation from our town friends continues.

 

 

My parents and younger sister Maisie also finally made the 30+ hour trip to visit, which, if it wasn’t for the palm trees, golden beaches and break from the long winter providing an incentive, might have disproved all middle-child theories. They spent a week in Solo, which gave them just enough time to meet all our town friends, experience life in town, and see a little bit of Western Province, the most beautiful of Solomon paradises. It was so nice to be back with them, and finally gave them a chance to understand a bit of what I’ve been blabbing on about. St Nicholas College and the All Saints youth put on fantastic events for them, to showcase some cultural dancing and just give them a glimpse of why we love it here so much. This year I’ve taught some of the youth some Ceilidh dancing, with the most hilarious results, so this was also a chance for them to perform it for my dad to get some true Scottish approval. So, my dad ended up belting out ‘Flower of Scotland’ to a couple hundred church members and nuns, presenting an old kilt of his and watching 20 kids fly around the hall in a loosely Scottish way. Of course, he loved it. After their time in town, Jet and I then tagged along on the other leg of my family’s journey: a week in Australia for my dad to visit his best man who emigrated there. This was a lovely if strange week of trying to adjust back to Western culture, as the hot showers, amazing food and the thousands of people we saw while attending a few Commonwealth games events was all a bit overwhelming after 8 months in the Solomons. However, it was fantastic, and reminded me how much I’ve got to come home to.

 

 

After just a few days back in town, Jet’s mum arrived, followed by her family a week later. After 9 months of being attached at the hip to Jet, it was lovely to finally properly meet the in-laws, although we all knew so much about each other that it felt more like old friends. Jet then spent a week and a half on holiday with them, which is the longest stretch of time we’ve done apart by about a week and a half. Having to make my own decisions about what movies to watch, what to eat and what to wear every day was a bit of a shock to the system, and made me dread going home even more as Jet will be flying back off to the Netherlands. Jet’s friends Floor and Maxime then came on a week visit, which was also lovely and has made me really look forward to catching up with friends from home.

As you may be able to tell, this year, in particular these last few weeks, has been an emotional rollercoaster. Living in the Solomons has been like living in a hug: we are constantly embraced in a feeling of love, happiness and comfort. While the complete lack of privacy and open culture of the people here can be a bit overwhelming sometimes, the prospect of going back to a country where people basically go from home to work/school to home again, rather than spending 24/7 chatting with friends and family, is a bit hard to face. As we head into the three-week countdown, we are just trying to make the most of every minute here. It is a weird sensation being at the happiest you have ever been in your life, while at the same time constantly having the underlying sadness at the prospect of leaving it all behind. However, we are working on the idea of accepting that we are living on borrowed time. At the end of the day, this is not our life. The time we have spent here has been a privilege, and we are just trying to appreciate how lucky we are, rather than being sorry that it’s coming to an end.

 

 

 

Can you speak to pigeons?

As our Christmas holidays draw to a close, it seems like a good time to give you an update on my time in the Solomon Islands. 5 months have now passed since Jet (my Dutch partner) and I moved to the Solomons to start our year long volunteering placement. While I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New Years, we still feel like we’re stuck in a year-long August. Unsurprisingly, without freezing temperatures, brussel sprouts and (of course) my family, it just feels like we skipped Christmas this year. Nevertheless, our Christmas break flew by and our stay here has been absolutely packed with incredible experiences. While the first couple of months here were amazing, the year has really been taken up a notch since we learnt the local dialect of Pidgin.

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When I told my little cousin the name of the local language here, she asked very cutely if I would be able to speak to pigeons. While the ability to converse with birds still eludes me, it is now a lot easier to chat to locals, and though they were lovely before, that was nothing in comparison to their friendliness now. 5 months in and we now have about 6 Solomon families, 20 Solomon mami’s and a whole team full of bodyguards, should we ever need them. The language is essentially just a stripped back or “broken” form of English with some random local words thrown in. The language is spelt so phonetically that even English words such as “lelebet” are unrecognisable until you say them out loud (if you need a clue on that one add in some i’s and t’s). Learning the language was really useful for travelling over Christmas as many people in the rural villages don’t know how to speak English, and some of those in the most remote “bush” villages we visited are only able to speak their traditional tribal languages. Being able to speak the local language, along with learning the traditional dances and eating the local food means that many people say that we are now Solomon girlies. Apparently this also qualifies us to “marry come lo Solomons”, so if we really can’t bare to come home in July there’s always that option (only half joking).

The Christmas holiday marked the end of our first term teaching. I now work Monday’s in the nursery and the rest of the week in Secondary, helping to teach English to classes of 50+ kids or various ages. I’m really enjoying teaching and it can be incredibly rewarding, but there are many issues with the education system out here which also makes it very frustrating work. Here, children are kicked out of school if they don’t achieve high enough grades, and this process starts as young as primary school. By the time they reach year 13, there are only a handful of schools across the country offering to teach courses for that age group, meaning only a fraction of students can complete A level equivalents. And this doesn’t even take into account the children who never go to school or have to drop out when their parents can’t meet school fees. And even those students who do manage to pay their fees, turn up to school, and get high enough grades to stay in school may not be able to continue on to university as very few Solomon parents have enough money to cover tuition, and scholarships are few are far between. Basically the odds are stacked against students from the very start of their schooling career, so it sometimes feels like our work here is pointless. But our efforts here are just a small part of a very big picture. This is the first year for Project Trust volunteers in this placement, so when future volunteers come to St Nicholas school year after year, we hope English proficiency will rocket. The small but significant improvements we can see within our classes after our teaching also do make it all worthwhile.

Those of you who have seen any of my photos over the last 5 months have probably guessed that our time here has been far from all work no play. Over the two months of teaching before we broke up for Christmas, we went through a phase of being away literally every weekend for a huge range of fantastic events. School trips; religious events; year closing programs; and dancing opportunities meant our weeks were completely jam packed, to the point where we basically turned into old women and would be falling asleep at 8:30 every weekday evening. We are now nationally famous as the “white men who can saleolo”, due to our many performances traditionally dancing with the nursery teachers or the church youth. It is impossible to walk anywhere in town without being stopped by at least 5 people for a chat, many of whom we don’t recognise but seem to know every detail of our Solomon lives, even down to where we holidayed. It seems it is now impossible to go anywhere in the Solomons, even the most rural of villages, without someone knowing us, and we have come to the conclusion that this is likely the closest we will ever come to being celebrities.

During our Christmas break we visited two different islands: firstly Isabel province with teachers from school and then Western province with Noah and Ultan, the two Project Trust volunteers who work at another school near us. In Isabel we visited 4 different rural villages as we went between various teachers from St Nicholas school. We started off in a village way up in the jungle covered mountains with one of the nursery teachers. Due to the inevitable heavy rain that comes with living in a tropical country, the mountain had turned into a mud bath despite the high temperatures, meaning it was so slippy that it was easier to walk up bare foot, while hoping no poisonous centipedes, millipedes or snakes appeared underfoot. We then visited three teachers who live ‘side-sea’: which ranged from a village on the beach; to a village completely on stilts; to being the only house on an island. We surfed waves in canoes; dived for shells; caught fish; snorkelled and even helped hatch turtles on a conservation island (although these were then immediately eaten by a shark so it was not quite as fun as we had expected). It was an amazing few weeks where we made a lot of friends; saw how Christmas and New Years were celebrated sol-style; and got a fantastic insight into the traditional way of life out here. While the places we visited were fantastic, what really made the holiday was travelling with locals, which allowed us to see the “real Solomons” in a way we never would have had we been travelling alone.

After returning to town for a few days we travelled off to Western province with the boys, where we spent a week in Marovo Lagoon, the most popular tourist area in the Solomons. We spent this time snorkelling and scuba diving with a 74 year old American woman who has spent nearly 2 years of her life underwater. A perfect example of age being just a number, she showed us probably the most incredible sights I have ever seen, while using a fraction of the air that we used up while scuba diving. If you had told me a month ago that this country is as beautiful underwater as it is above water I wouldn’t have believed you, but if anything the beauty of the coral formations surpasses anything I have seen on land. It’s fair to say that the Christmas holidays brought me some of the best weeks of my life.

After all that you’ve read you may find it hard to believe that we are actually not sad for the holiday to be coming to an end, but it’s true. We have really missed all our friends in town and are looking forward to getting back to teaching. Inevitably, I miss home a lot, and not just because of Dad’s Sunday cooking and the fact that it’s rare to end up with no clean clothes there. However, Project Trust did a great job matching me up with Jet, seeing as its a minor miracle that we’re five months into sharing a room and the worst arguments we’ve had have been about the temperature of our room at night and how far you can open a book without damaging it’s spine. With just a couple of weeks to go until the halfway point of our time here, I can’t wait to see what else the year brings!

Party Time

So we’ve been set the task of reporting back to Project Trust about a single party or special occasion we have seen in the Solomon Islands. However, there are too many for us to choose from, as out here it’s not a case of what is a party, but what’s not a party. From World Teachers Day, to fare-welling the principal, to Sports Days, to religious events, to just an afternoon in the kindergarten, we seem to spend all our time in a whirlwind of incredible celebrations. Even the 4 hour church services these events often come with can’t diminish our enjoyment of these festivities. Undoubtedly, the most amazing part of all of this is that the celebrations are not a tourist attraction: we are seeing the real, unedited Solomon Islands. And even more amazingly, we are a part of it. While we will never pass for locals, especially as political and religious leaders laugh at us at traditional feasts while we attempt to eat rice with our fingers, we are far from outsiders at these events. In every possible instance, we are now roped into traditional dancing with the teachers or students, and all spectators then proceed to thank us so much for participating in these cultural events. With the Islanders’ unwavering ever-happiness all celebrations are fantastic to behold – the only issue being that they don’t know when to stop, even when we find it impossible to keep our eyes open and have to be up at 4:30am the next morning.

We have decided that it is easier for us to show you what we mean than try to tell you, so we have edited together a video of just a fraction of the celebrations we have taken part in. While it doesn’t quite do the emotion of these events justice, we hope this gives you a taste of the incredible atmosphere that the Solomon Islanders create at even the most mundane of celebrations. Enjoy!

 

Hot, holy and happy

Nearly two months have passed since we left England, and from the moment we started teaching the weeks started flying by. While our project has only just started, we have already fallen in love with the people, place and culture, even if we do struggle with the constant 30 degree+ heat. If you’ve noticed the use of ‘we’ here, this is because Jet, my partner, and I now spend 24 hours 7 days a week together: we share a room, our work and spend all our down time together. We’ve got to give Project Trust some credit here because its some kind of miracle that they’ve managed to match two strangers so well that they can spend all this time together and not only not get sick of each other, but actually enjoy the time together.

After spending the first week after our arrival getting to know the one street that makes up the capital of this country, we started work at St Nicholas College. The college is made up of about 2000 students spread across the three strands of the school: kindy (nursery), primary and secondary. So that we get the opportunity to help out across the whole school, we have been put to work in the kindy on Mondays, primary on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and secondary on Thursdays and Fridays. The school is really glad to have us here because the political unrest they experienced back in the early 2000s caused all the expat teachers to leave the country, causing English proficiency to dip considerably across the country. While teachers are supposed to teach all lessons in English, since their language of pijin is only used here and doesn’t even have an official spelling, this rarely happens, meaning that even most teachers struggle to have a conversation in English. Text books have many mistakes in them, children’s work is copied straight from them, and many teachers don’t even notice a majority of the mistakes in children’s work. Therefore we have been brought in not only to teach the students English, but to try to help the teachers by forcing them to practice their English too. This can hardly be seen as work though as the teachers are just the sweetest people ever, especially the kindy teachers, who turn into children themselves the moment the bell rings.

We normally spend our time in the kindy trying to help only teacher in a room control a class of 50+ incredibly cute but not very well behaved kids. This generally consists of singing songs, praying and allowing them to pretty much pull your hair out in their attempts to make plaits. In primary, we normally take their English lessons, teaching them poems, spelling, songs and reading, again to classes of 50+ with one teacher – probably even more difficult to control than the kindy. The secondary has classes of up to 60 and we are usually put in a class with no warning, meaning we are left for an hour and a half with kids who look at least 5 years older than us and we have to make up a lesson on the spot. The first time this happened Jet was off ill so I was left completely by myself which was… interesting and definitely the biggest challenge of the year so far. However, the children are actually really good at getting on with work, probably because their teachers skip so many classes that if they didn’t work when the teachers weren’t there then they wouldn’t get an education at all. Teachers quite often don’t come into school: this is sometimes because they are ill, because they are looking after a family member or just simply can’t be bothered to leave the staff room because they never made a lesson plan. Despite the unpredictability of our days and the many challenges we face due to the lack of organisation, we are loving working in the school: both the students and the teachers are so sweet and the work is great fun.

We have also been to quite a few special events through the school already. Just a couple of days into teaching we went with the kindy to a two day ECE (Early Childhood Education) event to celebrate this school group’s anniversary, which was the first time we saw any traditional dancing. The kids competed in arts and crafts, singing, dancing and sports competitions, and St Nicholas got a lot of prizes which was great. At the end of the first day, we were also made to perform a traditional dance and sing in front of the crowd with the other kindy teachers. We have just done this again at the World Teachers Day celebrations, where we performed a traditional dance in traditional dress in front of a crowd of over 3000 teachers from across the country.

But we are not just busy getting involved at the school. While we knew that this was quite a religious country before we came, we had not anticipated it to be quite as religious as it is. We go to church most Sundays, not just because it gets us in everyone’s good books but also because this means we can get involved in so many activities that the church runs. This has led to us going to our first traditional feast (where we sat on the floor and religious leaders laughed at me as I attempted to eat rice with my fingers), going to a sports day (where I played three half-hour games of netball in over 30 degree heat) and going to a saints day celebration where a bible was carried into church in a canoe and traditional dancing featured a cross dressing monk. The church services themselves are a minimum of two and a half hours long which would be completely intolerable if it wasn’t for the fact that the entire population are fantastic singers, turning the hymns into something incredible to witness. When we are not busy with the church activities, we either travel up to visit the boys at their project about an hour and a half outside town and which conveniently sits right on a beach with the most incredible sunsets and a canoe to use whenever we want. We have also been farming a few times in a small village in the countryside, where we spent two days planting papaya, watermelon, oranges, corn and much more.

So that covers the basics of what we’ve done so far. All that’s left to do is try to put into to words how lovely the people are and how much we are loving here. From the kindy kids who get offended if you don’t eat their packed lunch; to the endless adults who have offered to take us home to their different islands for a holiday; to the fact that it takes 10 minutes to get from the steps to our accommodation to our room because of how much everyone wants to talk to us, everyone we meet surpasses our expectations of kindness. While, of course, we love the beauty of this country and can’t wait to travel around it, it really is the people we have met who have made the year so far. We are absolutely loving our time here and I really can’t thank everyone who helped get me here enough! Can’t wait to see what else this year holds for us.