Magellan might have proven the world was round, christening the deep waters of the South Pacific a “peaceful sea” along the way, but looking out at the sparkling ocean that separated me from anything familiar, I felt like I had found the edge of the earth. The OceansWatch crew and I had just dropped anchor off Mola’a, a village in the Reef Islands of the Temotu Province in the Solomon Islands, the South Pacific. Aside from our sailing yacht, the only local transport vessels were dugout canoes, and the occasional banana boat with outboard motor. The cargo boat that delivers mail, passengers, and anything else destined for this little spit of land may come once every couple of weeks. Or four months might pass before there is enough business to justify the trip.
When Chris Bone, the director of OceansWatch, invited me to join his non-profit organisation in the Solomon Islands, it was a childhood dream come true. Growing up on sail boats in the Caribbean, I had dreamt about the South Pacific for as long as I could remember. OceansWatch works with coastal communities around the world to protect their natural resources and develop sustainable livelihoods. I would sail with a small team to work with remote Melanesian villages, helping people there understand and adapt to a changing climate. The trip seemed like a win-win for the little girl I was and the woman I had become. I never have been able to turn down an opportunity to travel, much less an adventure of this magnitude. But, looking out at Mola’a and thinking about the immensity of the ocean boxing me in from every direction, I began to doubt the sanity of coming here.
As the reality of my situation sunk in, I heard the faint sound of light-hearted music floating from the shore. “Come on!” Chris urged us into the sailboat’s dinghy to go on shore, “They’re waiting for us.” On our trip from Lata, the capital of the Temotu Province, we had passed through the rolling seas of the Pacific, by white-capped waves breaking over the reef. But here, in the protection of the bay, a turquoise sea gently caresses a white sand beach. The tropical sun blazed over coconut palms, which sheltered thatched huts. As we neared the shore, I could make out the bass of several drums and another instrument I couldn’t identify. The rhythm danced towards us over the water. My doubts of the moment before transformed into an eager curiosity. “Who’s waiting for us?” I asked. Chris just smiled.
As the dinghy touched the beach, the rhythm changed with two loud beats on a drum. A line of women in grass skirts was waiting for us to join them. A tiny girl grabbed my hand, looked up at me with a laugh in her eyes, and confidently pulled me into line with the women as they danced toward the village. Young men coaxed elaborate rhythms from PVC pipes and drums made of empty water barrels, as over 50 voices started to sing in unison: “We welcome you…” That’s when the tears in my eyes welled up. Mola’a had invited OceansWatch here, but the simple, open-hearted sincerity of this welcome was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Tears streamed over my smiling cheeks as the song gave way to a speech, after which the entire population of the village lined up to shake hands or put their cheek to mine in greeting. I only began to recover after I was delivered to a woven mat and a banquet of fish, sweet potatoes, and coconut cream. Chris passed me a fresh green coconut to help wash it all down. “Welcome to the Reef Islands!”
Melanesians arrived in the Solomon Islands at least tens of thousands of years ago. Anthropologists believe that while the Polynesians continuously sailed farther afield, Melanesians tended to arrive at an island and stay for a while. Melanesian migration occurred in waves; with each departure, people settled on ever-more remote islands, eventually reaching what is now known as the Temotu Province. Daily life here still revolves around farming small plots and fishing the surrounding sea, but of course many things have changed since westerners began to travel here in the 16th century. Now western clothes are the norm and “kastom”, the complex matrix of social rules and traditions that have helped these people thrive for millennia, has blended with elements of Christianity. Many villages are isolated from each other, separated not only by the open ocean on the atolls, but also by deep valleys and rugged ridges on the tall volcanic islands. In an island nation of 6,00,000 people, there are approximately 70 completely distinct languages. Lucky for us, most people in this real-life Tower of Babel also speak Solomon Islands Pijin, an English-based Creole.
By the time we had wrapped up our workshops in Mola’a and sailed to the villages in nearby Mohawk Bay, I had picked up enough Pijin to learn that that if I ever let my thighs show, I would never be able to marry. I had also been regaled with stories of devils and magic. There was one “debbil” that wrecks ships in the bay and another that lives in a twisted ancient tree on Pigeon Island. When I fell sick with a fever, everyone asked me about my dreams. “It’s probably kastom magic. Has she offended anyone? No nightmares? Oh, she’s just sick.” I sighed, relieved that I had managed to avoid unknowingly committing a kastom offense.
Still, every time I went snorkelling, my head spinning from the kaleidoscope of corals and droves of fish, I found myself glancing over my shoulder more often than I would like to admit. I asked Nelson, a local tribesman, “In kastom, are devils necessarily bad?” “No, there are all kinds of debbils.” The twinkle in his eye left no room to doubt that the world he saw was a little more complex than the tranquil island paradise I’d seen on my arrival.
One afternoon, after a morning of climate change workshops followed by a leisurely snorkel, I sat blissfully soaking up sun on the sailboat deck, sipping on a cold coconut. I was jarred out of my daydream about prankster debbils by Chris’s 19 year-old daughter, Sophie, banging her kayak into the side of the boat. “Leslie is taking us surfing!” she called. “Do you want to go in the kayak or with him in the dugout?” Doubtful that there were any surfboards within a hundred kilometers, I opted for the kayak without a clue of what I might be getting myself into. After taking a moment to free a baby octopus that had made a temporary home for itself in the kayak’s cup holder, I followed Leslie’s dugout canoe, with Sophie and a couple of islander boys carefully balanced inside. The water was so clear that it seemed like we were paddling through thin air over the reef below. Even after spending hours in the water that morning, I oohed and aahed like a wide-eyed child at the world beneath me. By the time I reached the surf break, Leslie had already caught a wave. Poised and bracing the paddle off the stern like a rudder, he steered his blue dugout to carve through the water, just in front of the crest. I hollered to him, “So this is what you meant by surfing!” Despite my best efforts and the supposed technical advantage of a lightweight modern kayak, there was no way I could compete. Then again, Leslie’s ancestors may have arrived on these shores in a canoe just like his; I was way out of my league. So when Sophie yelled: “You have to try a ride in the dugout!” I jumped into the seat in front of Leslie and offered up my paddle. True to form, Leslie masterfully caught wave after wave. In the late afternoon sun, giddy from nonstop laughter, I felt like I was flying.
For close to three months, I travelled with the OceansWatch crew spending one to two weeks in each village before moving on to the next. We ran workshops for the communities about managing marine protected areas, planning for climate change, the importance of their traditional practices, and how to sustainably produce coconut oil for local and international markets. All the while, I lived under the happy illusion that I had found a reality completely removed from my world back home. Then, on an afternoon meander through the forest with a village elder named Willy and a troop of teenage boys who were pointing out mango trees, root crops, and the replanting of the mangrove for firewood, I suddenly heard the tinny beats of a reggae song pouring out of somebody’s cell phone. I asked myself, “How is it that reggae rhythms have been adopted by almost every island nation? Are they just naturally born from sun, sea, and sand?”
“Dance?” Willy suggested, as if he were reading my mind. We erupted into a spontaneous dance party in the heat of the midday sun. Finally, sweaty and laughing, we made our way to the shade where Willy asked one of the boys to climb a tree and throw us some coconuts. Sophie, who didn’t grow up climbing the trunks of slick coconut palms, surprised us all by gracefully scampering up right behind him. She posed for photos, defiantly beaming from above. The boys sliced the tops from the coconuts and we passed them around, drinking in the sweet water and the surrounding jungle and mangrove.
By the end of the trip I was still struggling with my Pijin, but I was able to ask the women preparing our farewell feast in the village of Buma if I could help. To thank us for our work, the men had gone out at night and brought back stacks of fish and lobster, while the women had spent the morning harvesting fresh ingredients from their gardens. When I asked Ellen, one of the village women, how I could lend a hand in the cooking, she broke into contagious, light-hearted laughter. She handed me a stack of leaves, some over a meter wide, and patiently showed me how to lay them out over woven mats on the sand. Finally, I laid the last leaf down, completing a giant U-shape in the shade of an ancient breadfruit tree that provided shelter from the scorching sun. With childlike satisfaction for a job well done, I returned to the busy cluster of women looking for my next task. Sara handed me a tray of cooked sweet potatoes and showed me how to space portions evenly across the leaves. With a few rapid-fire words and a motion of her hands, she summoned a small army of kids armed with palm fronds to wave the flies away from the food. My tray empty, Ellen replaced it with another, overflowing with cassava pudding, to distribute in the same way. Tray followed tray, until we had finished “setting the table” and served the meal. Frida blew the conch shell, letting the community of 120 people know it was time to eat.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground with the villagers at a table of leaves, we feasted on lobster, fish, cassava pudding, and heaps of freshly harvested and roasted root vegetables. The juice from succulent bits of fish dripped down my fingers. Emma, the chief ’s wife, sat across from me in the sand. Our eyes met and we both broke into a broad smile. We came from opposite ends of the earth. She had grown up eating whole fish with her fingers and mashing cassava to make traditional pudding while I had grown up buying cleaned fish from supermarkets and eating with a knife and fork. But here, we were nothing more than two women, relishing in the joy of sharing a delicious meal.
Suddenly I understood why I travel. It brings home what’s really important, regardless of where we come from. Whether or not we can see the debbils in the bay, or surf on store-bought surfboards or in a hand-carved canoe, whether our smiles are stained by candy or betel nut, laughter is understood in any language. And a meal always tastes better when it’s shared, and a spontaneous reggae dance party may happen anywhere. As we beamed at each other across the table, I realised that thousands of kilometres from anything familiar might not be that far from home after all.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “Lessons In Laughter”.
The Solomon Islands stretches between Papua New Guinea and Fiji in the South Pacific, and is almost 2,000 km from Australia. It consists of an archipelago of six main and nearly a thousand smaller volcanic islands, extending for almost 1,800 km east to west and 900 km north to south. The capital is Honiara, which is located on the north coast of Guadalcanal, one of the main islands of the country.
It’s a long way to the Solomon Islands from India, requiring at least two flight changes, and approximately 30 hours of travel, including layovers. One option is to fly to Nadi in Fiji, via Hong Kong, and then onward to Honiara. Another is to fly to Brisbane, Australia via Singapore and then onward to Honiara. The latter option requires obtaining an Australian visa to transit the country.
Indians can obtain a visa on arrival in Fiji if required to transit, but need prior approval to be able to land in the Solomon Islands. Details on how to obtain prior approval can be sought from email@example.com by furnishing the Director of Immigration with a copy of the passport (main pages with personal details), a confirmed ticket and itinerary stating the purpose of travel and proof of reservations at a hotel. If transiting Australia, an Australian visa must be obtained before departure.
The Solomon Islands is hot and humid all year round. Average temperatures hover around 27°C. The dry season runs from May to Oct and the wet season from Nov to Apr, with heavy rainfall from Jan to Mar.