Originally written for a CWRT700 portfolio at AUT in 2019. Second part of swim | swimswim.
In Honiara, on the hill above Town Ground, at the intersection of Lengakiki Road, Hibiscus Avenue and Mud Lane, there is a complex of expat units and apartments, and that is where my dad has lived for nearly five years.
There are two pools in the complex, one a freshly converted container between some of the newer buildings, and the original one below the upper-most apartments. It is vacuumed daily, chlorinated regularly. Even so, every time I go down to the pool, there are freshly fallen leaves, little rocks from the garden gathering at the bottom, a rogue frangipani. The ones here are brilliantly pink and orange, nothing like the bashful white and yellow flowers I’ve been familiar with in the past.
Depending on the time of day, there are discarded skins of five-corner fruit and crushed juiceboxes from the landlord’s kids. He’s a waetman, from Gore originally. Their mami is a Guadalcanal local. The whole family lives in Christchurch now, but summer holidays mean a return to the damp wretched heat of the Solomons.
Each morning, the kids come gallivanting along with their de facto nanny, the woman who oversees the domestic staff of the complex. I drink coffee on the balcony of Dad’s apartment while the girls screech the nanny’s name and natter in a blend of English and Pijin. They sing songs about being friends forever and make giant splashes as they launch themselves into the welcoming water.
Once the sounds die down, I pack for the pool. Bikini, towel, books, bottle of water. Keys. Morning is the best time for swimming, while the water is still refreshing.
The nature of this strange life means that clearing out of the apartment for a while in the morning is necessary. The maids won’t come in if you’re in here, Dad has said, more than once. That my father lives in a place with maids is still strange to get used to. I feel myself constantly internally apologising for it, excusing it, explaining it.
It’s decent work for these women who live in a country with some of the worst sexual violence statistics in the world. It also helps that Dad has a much more positive relationship with the staff than many of the expats do. He actually speaks Pijin to them, something that so few of these one-year-contractors really bother to learn. He gives them fruit when we’ve found ourselves overloaded. He pays for the daughter of one of the maids to attend a good high school. The women grin widely when we greet them. Your Dadi is a good man, they tell me. He jokes with them, they cackle.
I walk to the pool with bare feet on the stone path. I lounge in the shallow end in brightly coloured togs and cheap sunglasses, reading a book about the state of medical care in challenged communities in the Horowhenua. I duck and dive beneath the surface and practise doing eggbeater kicks, cringing slightly at the twinge in my bad ankle. I create my own kind of aquarobics, bobbing up and down as I jog in the spot, trying to open the range of movement in the troubled joint. To the unwitting passer-by, I probably look like I’m on the cusp of noisily drowning.
When I finally pull myself out of the water, I pause and take in the wider surroundings. Here on the hill, we look down to Town Ground, home of sports games and reggae concerts and lots of nothing. We look down to the Papua New Guinea High Commission, to the High Court, to the Treasury building. And beyond, the ocean. The tiny arm of the Pacific that threads between Guadalcanal and Central Province’s clutch of smaller islands. Iron Bottom Sound, for all the Second World War wreckage found in its depths. It is blue and placid and seems a strange place to have seen so much war and disruption in the past century, but so it goes. There, the quiet saline blue of Honiara’s waterfront. Here, the quiet chlorinated blue of the pool.
In the Solomon Islands there are dozens of different local languages spoken. People refer to their wantoks, derived from one-talk – people who speak the same language. It may be just those in their village, or those in the neighbouring region – different languages have different numbers of speakers, and so any one person on the ‘city’ streets of Honiara may have any number of wantoks back home and in town. When the archipelago became one nation under colonial rule, something new was needed in order to connect all of these different people and their different languages: Pijin.
In Pijin, the word swimswim means both to swim and to bathe, because to locals, they are one and the same. Driving along the coastal road, due west out of Honiara, you cross many river estuaries, where people drive their cars down to wash them in the briny water. They go down in far greater numbers on foot simply to wash. The idea of bathing in the sea may seem foreign to our sanitised Western sensibilities, but here, it’s normal. Why would precious fresh water be used for that purpose?
We strip down to togs: bikinis, one-pieces, board shorts. We swim and splash and then hope for access to a shower to rinse the salt away. Further down the beach, locals descend into the water in shorts and shirts, bar of soap in hand, fully dressed while washing in salt water. Recreation versus necessity. My ankle is uncertain on crushed coral sands.
I am coated in the thinnest unwanted armour when I emerge. I feel naked in view of women in oversized t-shirts and knee-length shorts. The ocean has a different meaning to us, it is something to be washed away rather than something that will do the washing away. I wrap myself in a towel and a sarong as quickly as I can. I can’t find the tipping point between my misis waetman holiday experience and my desire to acquiesce to local kastom. The balance of ocean as a toy and as a tool.