Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Goodbye Choppers. I'm not going to miss you, but Thank you.

(The hotel my fellow volunteer was staying in when the riots in Honiara started. No lives were lost - but scary stuff.) 

In the early hours of the morning, my beloved and the kids still sleeping, I frowned as I noticed that something was different.
It took me awhile to puzzle it out, and then I realised that I couldn't hear the helicopters over head. 
Apart from the odd bird song, there was quiet. 
And there had been quiet for hours and hours.
It's been a long time since we haven't heard the choppers flying to and fro overhead. 
While they've never been as constant as the first day of the fires back in February, when there was literally one overhead every five minutes, they've been a steady presence in the weeks since as the firefighters have struggled to put out the fire in the coal mine.
Now the helicopters are gone and, like the rain that steadily falls, I take it as a good sign that we're finally nearly done with our weeks of fire and smoke. Last night we drove to a neighbouring town and travelled through mile after mile of burnt forest - pine plantations and eucalypts were equally ravished.The burning came right into our town, crossing the highway for mile upon mile, stopping metres from some houses.  
Remembering back to that torrid day, the heat so intense that I'd been desperate to escape to the beach - down that road that was clearly an inferno back then, I am so thankful my beloved's wiser council prevailed. 
I don't think we would have been at risk - thankfully no lives were lost in that fire, but we would have been terrified realising we couldn't get home and that our dog was on one side of the fire, and we were on the other, and the only way to retrieve her would be to go through roads of dubious safety - not something we'd risk with the kids.
That day the helicopters, the smoke, the constant updates, the desperate internet search to try to find out how close the fires were, how real the danger was, if we should evacuate or not, and if so where, seeing as most of the roads were cut off by fire, all combined to the feeling of being in a strange nightmare.
I came to see the helicopters, both those that were just checking the area and those with water slung below them, as both a symbol that we were in danger, and a symbol that there were people working hard to keep us safe, both a symptom and a reassuarance.
And it brought back memories. 
It wasn't the first time my beloved and I were caught in a town on fire.
A month after we met (although well before we got together,) a month after I arrived in the Solomon Islands for my volunteer placement, discontented youth burnt down the China town district of Honiara, and for days we were in lockdown, and then evacuated by hercules. 
During that time, also, helicopters were a constant. 
I remember my housemate and I running out onto the verandah in our sarongs to wave at the Australian army people overhead when they arrived on about day three of the rioting. 
Once the army was called in we knew it would be over fairly soon. I was particularly keen on the rioting being brought under control as the weekend previously I'd gone on a village stay on a nearby island and returned with an acute bout of something involving fever and diarrhea. I desperately wanted the roads cleared so I could get to a doctor. We could see the smoke and flames down below us - the house we were house-sitting was on a hill side -and hear the shouting. Once again, we relied on the internet for news, along with the occasional brief phone call from other volunteers. 
A girl from our volunteer intake was staying at one of the major hotels not too far from us, but where a lot of the noise and smoke was coming from, and we phoned her frequently to see if she wanted us to come and pick her up and bring her to the relative safety of our house, as we'd heard hotels were being targeted. (They were mainly owned by Chinese people, who were the particular target of the rioters.) She declined, but regretted it; the hotel was attacked by scores of men wielding machetes and people only just got out in time. The hotel was burnt to the ground, along with the two (yes two, don't ask) work trucks she'd parked outside it. 
My dislike of the majority of ausaid personnel probably began cementing there - I'd asked at my pre-departure briefing if we should be wary about the upcoming elections. The man had pretty much scoffed in my face and said something along the lines of 'don't you worry your head, little girly, we have it all under control.' A-ha. About that. 
I'd also asked about the condition of the National Library that I'd be working in - his response "It has about two books and one of them's a colouring book" seemed unneccesarily flippant. 
After a few days of not leaving the house, a truck came for us and took us to the airport. Unlike earlier intakes (like my Beloved's,) none of whom saw the point, as it was property, rather than people who were being targeted, we didn't mind leaving so much. 
I was still really only focused on getting to a doctor. Unfortunately, our evacuation coincided with the arrival of the vomiting. I managed to throw up in four separate airports. And for anyone who wants to know, a hercules is one of the very worst places in the world to have diarrhea, as the toilet sort of folds out of the wall and is then surrounded by just a little curtain. By then I was so sick I really didn't care.  (It probably wasn't such a bad preparation for my firstborns birth. Complete lack of control, body functions gone haywire, no privacy - and being to sick to care. Take two.) 
Eventually, I arrived back at my parents, going straight from the airport to the doctors and a strange limbo world of recovery and then wondering if, and when, we'd return. 
It seems strange to have so many parallels so many years later. 
The deliberately lit fire, the town in flames, the helicopters, the evacuation, the long period in limbo, not knowing if we could return or not. 
And yet in both cases we've been incredibly lucky - no lives have been lost, although buisnesses have gone under and in the Solomons many families from Chinatown fled, not intending to return. 
Both times we've been able to return safely. Both times I have felt incredibly grateful to the people who came to stabilise the situation. (Although in the Solomons as soon as the Australian army arrived it was pretty much all over, the soldiers appeared to see it as a brief holiday before they headed off to places that were truly dangerous. Putting the fire out in the mine was not a holiday.)  

Goodbye choppers, I'm not going to miss you. 
But I am incredibly grateful that in times of danger you turn up. 

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