With a crack of dawn start, I arrived at the airport by 7. A wee bit early just to be on the safe side. You never know, they could have just left without me. They didn’t, and four and a half hours later I arrived in the capital, Honiara. There had been a few email exchanges, so I had some numbers stored in my phone in case I couldn’t find anyone, but I was safely scooped up by some red T-shirt’s emblazoned with Solomon Island Discovery Cruises. They’d manage to scoop up the others too. We were herded into a minivan, transferred to a pickup spot with lots of iced water, champagne and a few beers. We were then relocated to our new departure, our bags delivered, a short leap from shore to the deck, and we were off on our adventure.
Welcome to the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands is a sovereign state with a GDP of $1.3 billion in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The islands are located east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu. ‘Islands’ are plural because there are six main islands and more than 900 small islands covering 28,000 square kilometres. The islands house just over 600,000 people.
This place is amazing. We start off by steaming up the Molle passage accompanied by a tropical shower. Steaming sounds like a paddle boat going along the Mississippi but it’s a good description nonetheless. A big diesel engine, soft vibrations underfoot, a little bit of motion, rolls of water being displaced against the steel sides. Soothing. A whole-of-body, take-me-away sort of soothing. An endless sort of soothing.
There are no signs of life until a little turquoise blue and yellow dugout appears from around the corner. They are crewed by two boys, about 15. They wave and disappear quickly. It’s pristine until, starkly and offensively, a road emerges, winding its way to the water’s edge to meet a sawmill and timber yard. A logging business?
And then, from political to comical in less than a Nano-second, an 88-gallon drum advertises ‘petrol on sale’ scrawled in yellow house paint. I wonder if there is a price cycle, like when it goes up by 30 cents a litre at Easter. We steam on.
Once we are up and out the other side of the passage, the anchor is dropped, rubber duckies are lowered, and drinks and snacks are ferried across to Ghoruti island. The pictures tell the story of course, and my written scrawl might be redundant — white sand. Not sand coloured sand, white sand.
White, blue water, not blue, blue water or green-blue water, white, blue water. It was a slightly balmy evening, with a slightly gentle breeze, a gin and tonic in hand and some friendly banter made it Peeerrr-fect.
The people are even more amazing. The bush telegraph (that’s retro Wi-Fi) is pretty good here. Within about 40 minutes of dropping anchor, a lone canoe arrives with a solo skipper, about 20 years’ old. Not distracted by bailing water at what seems like a losing battle, the solo skipper, now chief sales executive, loiters at the pontoon. The door to door sales reps turns up offering tomatoes, pineapples, yellow potato, spinach and an array of chillies. A few more canoes arrive and suddenly it’s a community village social function. It was hard to know who was more excited – us or them.
The main point of difference seems to be around the purchase of fresh produce. I already bought a sarong which I don’t really want, and I am pretty sure the tomatoes aren’t going to travel well. It turns out they aren’t retailers, they are wholesalers selling in bulk to the kitchen. Either way, the children have the most prominent smiling faces you can imagine. They are shy, tucking their faces into an adult’s legs, but cheekily peeping out to see what’s going on at opportune moments. A few elders wait calmly in the background of the cacophony, keeping an eye on things — warm eyes, with gentle soles. The crowd trickles away as the social event comes to a natural end.
Today’s journey starts with a pod of dolphins breaching alongside the boat. Good for the soul. Hard to put into words, it’s a magical sight. Everyone wants to whisper. There’s a collective endeavour to establish some sort of connection by interpreting their behaviour as a human emotion. In this case, happy. They are so, so happy. Eventually, they round the bend and we depart ways.
We arrive at a small village to be escorted to an amphitheatre to watch a traditional dance. The local boy band is playing the panpipes. Add traditional songs, the beat of ankle bells, the whistle of grass skirts. The whole village is here. It is the essence of the community.
We embark on a village tour by the chief, Raymond. Apparently, the village was hit by a king tide in 1951. Most of the land remains submerged, and the remaining unflooded land was redistributed equally. We go past the one teacher kindergarten with twenty students, past the church where everyone goes twice a week. We have a gentle meander around the footpaths. We met Hilda (pictured) and her son George. We pass a solar panel and a rainwater tank. I bet they didn’t need a government incentive scheme to conserve natural resources like sun and water.
At the next village there were more panpipe players, but the conductor warns us they hadn’t practised enough. Made from polystyrene pipes and played with a cut-down rubber thong, the sound is sweet, harmonious and acoustic. The last two performances are saved for audience participation. Well, there’s no point in sitting on the sideline of life, is there? And the crowd loves it.
Kat’s moonwalking displayed excellence despite being hindered by huge crab holes. The crowd went wild. She was soon upstaged by Bee who burst into a hip-hop dance. The crowd went wild again. They loved it. This for our chance to return their hospitality and respect their culture. For me, this is altruism at its best. The exchange of goodwill and fun.
There’s struggle here, humming away in the background and staring me in the face. We’re in the water wilderness surrounded by islands densely vegetated with coconut palms and thick undergrowth. There are no houses, no boats, no pontoons, no jetties, nothing. An occasional grass hut, a pod of dolphins or a canoe paddled by a 5-year-old. They know we’re here and it’s an event. Out of nowhere, they arrive. So, this is where my dilemma confronts me. It’s all innocent and genuine and fun for now but is this the precursor to a baksheesh industry?
Read the full article in Outer Edge Edition 55 here.
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