Receiving the gifts of a subsistence economy
By Fran Slingerland
In the wandering way of sailors, bleary-eyed after a long passage, we walked down the main street of Gizo, the backwater capital of the Solomon Islands Western Province. Dust flew up around the closed false fronts of Chinese stores. Giant nut trees, limbs glittering with green epiphytes, lined the waterfront and towered over empty market stalls. It was Christmas Eve. The blinding glare off the water soon drove us back to our bunks for a 12-hour nap.
My partner, John Scholberg, and I had made our way north from Sydney, Australia, through Vanuatu to spend the November–March cyclone season in the western Solomons as part of an extended circumnavigation aboard our 38-foot Newick Native trimaran, Ninth Charm. By mid-January, Gizo was again abuzz. The town is the medical, commercial, and political center for the western end of the Solomons and is usually full of people who have come to town to sell vegetables, fruit, fish, or betel nuts at the large market. As the season progressed, we were to find the Solomons truly spectacular. The abundance of marine life, the natural beauty of virgin hardwood forests, and the islands’ rich volcanic topography are without equal in the South Pacific. The history of the Solomons opened our eyes to the complexity of pre-European-contact culture. Best of all were the people, always ready for a good conversation about what constitutes a good fish—or a good life.
Before that first day was over, we heard giggling and splashing around the boat. We tottered out, rubbing our eyes, to find two boys, about seven and eight, paddling tiny dugouts around Ninth Charm, peeking slyly at us. I called them over, and one boy said, “Theess a strange bot!” The other quickly added, “Very nasse! Very bewteeful!” How could we not like these kids? They asked for beer bottles, for the deposits to be had from Solomons Breweries. While we had none that day, these two boys kept visiting us and collected our bottles whenever we came to town, sometimes bringing paw-paw or bananas to sell to us.
The boys took off at speed when a man in his thirties paddled up. He asked where we’d sailed from and welcomed us to Gizo. John and I sat out on the ama and, in typical Melanesian greeting, we shook hands and exchanged names. “Mark,” he said, looking over our low-slung tri. “I neva seen a yot like this one. It a—watew call it?—caTAmaran?” Soon we were drinking tea in the cockpit and forging a new friendship.
The Solomons have a subsistence economy. The soil is fertile and is knowledgeably and persistently worked. The reefs teem with every conceivable edible marine creature. Pigs and chickens are raised for food, and wild boars roam the forests. There is not much that is artificial here, and there are few glittering images of global pop culture to distract or warp the inhabitants’ sense of self (though videos are changing that). Solomon Islanders rarely make any money per hour, and we found their sense of time to be far more elastic than ours. We saw wood carvers spend days working on one carving, only to sell it to a tourist for US$10 because the person was friendly. We often found ourselves urging carvers to take more than they were asking for their work.
Most people have no choice but to do what their parents did. Many islanders long to go to a place where, they think, they’d be more rich and more free, and where they could get an education. “You’re so lucky to travel,” people often said. And, of course, that’s true. We have learned that what people are looking for when they come out to our boat to chat—if it isn’t to extract money from us in some ingenious way—is a window on another life, which is precisely what we seek ourselves.
No schooling—not even primary education—is provided for free in the Solomons, and the school fees (which must be paid in cash) are unaffordable for most. For this reason, Mark left school at age 11, as do well over 70 percent of Solomon Islanders. Without exception, the people we met longed for free basic schooling and tertiary education.
Mark’s visits on Ninth Charm gave us a chance to learn about his world, while he thoughtfully watched everything we did and asked many questions. As we’ve noticed elsewhere, people raised in oral-tradition cultures observe things far more acutely than we do. Watching Mark learn to tie a bowline—perfectly, on the first try—was humbling.
Mark dropped by most evenings. We laughed together at our sievelike learning abilities. “Naw, naw!” he’d giggle, looking at the cockpit floor, “say, ‘KolomBANGara! No ‘g’ sound!” We talked about book learning and the encyclopedic memories of village officers who learned the oral history in “time pass.” Stories that have been recorded in the Solomons pass down first-hand accounts of the arrival of Mendaa in 1568—the color of his shirt, the way his eyes looked, where he sat down to eat.
Mark made pearl-and-tortoiseshell fishhooks for us, and John has one of his smooth ebony shark carvings. He told us about Kezoko, the traditional god of the western Solomons. He said easily, “Oh yes. If you see Kezoko with a fish’s head, well then, you will catch ‘plante feesse.’” “Really!” we chorused. John asked, “And how many times have you seen Kezoko?” Mark laughed, “Oh so many times!” I said, “But hang on, Mark! When do you see him? How do you see him?” and he replied, “Well, you know, when you going sleep, and between being waking and sleeping, I see him like that.” There was just no question about it. But Kezoko never came to either of us, though we fancied we caught more fish when our Kezoko carving carried its sharp ebony spear.
When we sailed out of Gizo, we took our new friend with us, navigated the reef systems east of the town, and set off at speed—fishing lures in tow—for Kolombangara, a spectacular volcanic island 12 miles to the east. Mark had never sailed an oceangoing sailboat. When we turned off the engine and were still scooting along at 12 knots, his mouth went tight, his eyes went round, he trotted up to the bow, turned around, and sat down. For a good ten minutes he watched the water speed by the hulls. On return to the cockpit he exclaimed, “Eet’s saw nice! They’s naw smell and naw awil [oil]—you-know—gawing out awver the wata.” He tipped his head quickly to one side, bobbed his eyebrows up and down, and smiled: the Melanesian gesture for “Cool!”
Before long, we spotted schools of small bonito, with packs of terns screeching and dipping frantically above them. We altered course and followed their fast-moving shapes, tacking and gybing through them. But we were hit by a torrential downpour as we approached Koombangara; we pulled the lines in, took the sails down, and motored into Ringgi Cove, a quiet jungle-clad multi-branched harbor with crocs lurking in the shadows.
When a cyclone called Jim passed by 400 miles south of us at the end of January, whipping its tail over the archipelago, we took our 6,600-pound trimaran into a hole in the forest called Bat Harbour, on the leeward side of Kolombangara. Bat, about 150 feet wide, is a tiny crocodile-infested mangrove swamp. We tied Ninth Charm off with four lines and sat there in the rain. There was no wind. We stuck up our mosquito screens and made ourselves busy doing odd jobs and studying Indonesian. Pairs of loudly squawking sulfur-crested cockatoos sped by in the deluge, and at night the jungle was alive with cooing and shrieking. Now and then a great splash signaled something menacing might be lurking beneath the water’s surface. We emerged, a day too soon, into a wild gale outside the harbor. We reefed down and tried to sail current-ridden Blackett Strait between Kolombangara and Kohinggo Island, but when we saw our progress over the ground was a steady 0.00 knots on the GPS, we sped back to Bat.
During the downpours, three kids from a family living in a tiny leaf-house (made entirely of local materials, including a frame of the sawn lumber the island is famous for) paddled around the harbor in wee dugouts, swamping each other’s canoes, shrieking, and jumping into the water. I kept thinking about crocodiles. Their mother, Annie, gave us a big winter squash one day and three 8-inch bonito the next. The next day it was huge guavas, Malay apples, and sweet potato. I rummaged in our supply of trading goods and gave her colored pencils, some cloth, plastic containers, and T-shirts in exchange. I wondered what kind of person would live in a tiny leaf-house in an isolated harbor without any visible means of escape; it turned out that Annie and her family were spending their Christmas and summer holiday with a sister who lives at Bat Harbour part-time and works at the neighboring lumber camp at Ringgi. After more visiting, we discovered that Annie is a fully qualified pharmacist, trained in New Zealand and at the Fiji School of Medicine.
We asked Annie if there were crocodiles in the swamp. She said that occasionally a croc would swim over from the neighboring bay and poke around for a day or two, but she hadn’t seen one that summer. We took the dinghy out and went for a spin in the mangrove swamp. The mangroves in eastern Kolombangara are 30 to 40 feet high. Aerial roots dangled from above, and everything was tinged in luminous green. Groups of red parrots zipped back and forth in the canopy. John and I later confessed to looking for eyes on half-submerged logs as we floated under the dripping branches, pointing out epiphytes, trying to catch sight of bright plumage, and whispering. In my more imaginative moments, I pictured the heads of former head-hunting victims glaring up at me from the muddy shallows.
After Jim settled down, Annie and her family caught a ride on Ninth Charm to a ferry check-in port on the other side of Kolombangara. It was still rough out in the strait, but the children kept busy happily threading beads. When they left, they presented John and me with charming bead-rings.
Gazing on those small rings over the next few days, I thought about how the generosity of the people and the landscape of the Solomons left me feeling humbled and blessed. In my mind, the small colored beads represented the children’s open hearts and their resilience in the rough sea we crossed that day. Our wealth and education, I realized, do not necessarily provide us with what we need to be happy and generous. The Solomon Islands may struggle in a world that is more advanced technologically, but their people have a great deal to teach us. I added the small rings to a growing collection of charms given to us over the course of our voyage. I like to think they’ve granted us a bit of magic from the Solomons.
We stayed for a few days at the magical Mbimata Inlet anchorage near Poro Island in Choiseul Province. We would sit of an evening listening to the abundance of birdsong and pointing out the ebony trees among the hardwoods around us. Choiseul has some of the only ebony forest still standing in the Solomons, and we wondered how much longer it would survive.
Logging in the Solomon Islands is caught in a tangle of politics and greed. Small replanting farms are meticulously maintained for appearance’s sake, while hundreds of wild logs are taken each month. Eighty kilometers of road have been built on Kolombangara alone (a circular island only 15 miles wide), and government officials are paid by Korean and Japanese logging companies to keep quiet about it. It doesn’t take long for once-clear rivers and lagoons to turn murky with eroded soil and runoff that kills coral and fish.
Forest ecosystems, with their hardwood trees and endemic plant species, are being decimated. The proposed World Heritage status of Marovo Lagoon, off New Georgia Island, is seriously in doubt because of the logging on adjacent islands. Kolombangara is currently suffering the loss of thousands of tree, plant, bird, and animal species, due to soil erosion caused by logging.
The World Wildlife Fund (www.wwfpacific.org.fj) states that “the Bismarck and Solomon Seas ecoregion boasts the highest diversity of saltwater fish and coral species in the world.” Our improvised itinerary took us to two of the most spectacular dive sites in the world: the Arnavon Community Marine Conservation Area (ACMCA), in Isabel Province, and Uepi Island, on Marovo Lagoon. Our experience was that the diversity and health of the corals, sponges, starfish, and fans, along with thousands of darting fish, were out of this world. When we snorkeled at Vonavona Lagoon and at Choiseul Island, we came up jabbering. We saw elaborate stonefish and a wide variety of sea anemones, giant parrotfish in schools a hundred strong, freakish juvenile batfish, plate corals 10 feet across, and every imaginable color of sponge and soft coral. The World War II wrecks we saw also gave us an intense experience of the war and the upheaval it brought to the Solomons.
Fran Slingerland and John Scholberg are studying Indonesian for their next stop.