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Song of Solomons

How often do you find a South Pacific island nation with your name on it? And how often does it turn out to be just what Herman Melville said it would?

Aerial view of the Solomon Islands. Photo: Jim Lounsbury. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aerial view of the Solomon Islands. Photo: Jim Lounsbury. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Among the fantasies I have always harbored is one of the South Seas. While some people who dream of this corner of the world want plushy Balinese resorts, I wanted desert islands untouched by the ravages of modernity and sky-blue seas with only an occasional canoe or a school of dolphins to break the surface. I wanted to meet men and women who would be hungry for my news and generous with theirs. I wanted to be something between Captain Cook and Robinson Crusoe. I was very young when I first heard that there were islands out there that had my name, and I was thrilled to discover that the Solomons were about as remote as anywhere on earth. I wanted to go; I can’t remember not wanting to. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote that the Solomons, though charted and explored and visited, remain terra incognita. What I found was a place that is often difficult — and equally thrilling — a place that has indeed proved resistant to charts and to the sweep of modern history.

The Solomons, just east of Papua New Guinea, are a chain of almost a thousand islands, many of them tiny, a few of them quite large, about a third of them populated. The country covers more than 520,000 square miles of sea and receives around 4,000 tourists a year. There are at least 100 local languages and dialects; the lingua franca is pidgin, and, because the islands were a British protectorate, many people speak English. Traditional life and ceremonies are called custom: custom dances, custom bride prices, custom skull caves, and so on. At the turn of the 19th century missionaries Christianized the islands very effectively, and nowadays almost everyone attends church services, but Christianity has not destroyed local beliefs and rituals.

The islands are perhaps best known in the West as the site of a major World War II battle — the Battle of Guadalcanal — in which the native population helped the Americans defeat the Japanese, who were trying to build an air base there. Though the country has remained one of the world’s poorest, it has no overclass. Subsistence affluence is the rule. Economic and power structures in the Solomons are dominated by the Malaita people, and there is ongoing strife between them and other populations, who resent the Malaitan government and sometimes fight against it, but this violence has on no occasion affected visitors.

We flew into Honiara, the capital, and met with our trusty agent Wilson Maelaua, who had made all of our arrangements and was to get us through every difficulty these remote islands could throw our way. We confirmed plans and then set off for adventure. I had chosen to start with the island of Makira because a friend had introduced me to Roger James, who was coordinating Conservation International’s operation there. Makira supports more single-island endemic birds than any other island in the Solomons, and CI is working to protect the interior rain forests there. Local landowners have established a plan for forest management under the guidance of CI and other non-governmental organizations, an effort that involves working with the villagers and showing them how the protection of the land serves their own interest as well as that of the world. Roger married a Makira bushwoman and has made a life there, more local than the locals’. “If you want total immersion,” he promised me, “I’ll give you total immersion.”

Soon after we landed in Makira, the four of us — a friend from high school, her husband, my boyfriend, and I — set off for the highlands, accompanied by Roger, a posse of local guides, carriers for our baggage, and John Waihuru, the”bigman” (pidgin for “man of status”), who was the expedition leader. For some miles, we meandered through the valley, and then we came to the first of 16 river crossings. We walked against the current through water up to our waists while the carriers balanced our rather substantial suitcases on their heads. From there we began the climb upward through the rain forest. As we scrambled along a path invisible to the untrained eye, each of us was helped by our own guide, gentle, benign, steady and, amazingly, barefoot.

One thing you should know about the rain forest: it rains a lot there. We kept for some time under mild skies, but then the storms began — cascades, avalanches of water that drenched us within seconds. Our way grew muddy and slippery, and each of us clung to our personal guide. We seldom fell, because we were in good hands, but we were always on the brink of falling, and the water beat into our faces, at one particularly inopportune moment washing out my contact lens. We ached from the climbing and the slipping and the chaotic feeling that we didn’t know where we were or where we were going; from the river crossings when the current came up to our shoulders; and from the weight of our wet clothes. In the middle of the day, in the middle of the worst rain, John Waihuru announced that we were stopping for lunch. This seemed patently ludicrous. While we stood around getting soaked, he and the other locals dragged sticks from the jungle, pulled down enormous fronds, and erected a shelter with a floor of banana leaves. Palms were quickly woven into plates, and within five minutes we were able to sit down on logs and dry off and eat and recover from the morning’s work.

We continued to a halfway house for the night, a lean-to of dry leaves, which felt impossibly luxurious after that long day. Another day of trekking brought us, near nightfall, to Hauta. When we arrived, the villagers who had not been part of our trekking party, some 25 people, lined up to shake our hands. Aside from Roger, we were the first foreigners they had seen in more than two years. Everything about Hauta was wonderful to us. It was situated high in the mountains, with a commanding view, beside a fresh stream. The houses were made of leaves, and opposite the bigman’s hut, where we were to stay, there was an almost equally large hut for the village pig. We went to the stream and washed off days of mud, and then toured the garden plots where villagers grow taro and cassava and sweet potatoes, the staples of local life. We had dinner in the shared kitchen hut by the light of the sunset and a fire that burned in a circle of stones. Here people have metal blades on their knives and there were some glasses and cutlery, but aside from that, life in the bush is much as it must have been a thousand years ago. With one exception — ramen noodles. These seem to have taken the Solomons by storm; for three weeks we had everything with ramen noodles: ferns with ramen noodles, cabbage with ramen noodles, taro root with ramen noodles, sweet potatoes with ramen noodles, green papaya with coconut and ramen noodles, even rice with ramen noodles. Having lived through the trip, I would sooner eat dirt than encounter another flavor packet. But that first night, I had not yet learned to deplore them, and though the food was not good, it had at least the advantage of newness.

After dinner, we sat in a big communal hut with a small lantern on the floor and learned, to the locals’ immense amusement, to chew betel nut, a skill I hope never to use again. Betel is a mild intoxicant to which most Solomon Islanders are very attached; you chew it until it gets soft and then dip a rolled pepper leaf into mineral lime to potentiate the pulp. The nut makes your mouth water, and you spit a lot as you chew it. It also turns your whole mouth a lurid red color; chewed on a regular basis, it makes your gums recede and your teeth fall out. If you’re not used to it, it can also give you a horrendous stomachache. It makes you dizzy. The lime can easily burn the roof of your mouth. It was a late eight o’clock by the time we had stopped spitting and curled up on the floor of our hut and drifted into deep, captivating sleep.

The next morning, we were led across the stream; on the far side, men in loincloths with spears jumped out of the bush yelling savagely, and we nearly jumped out of our skins; this, we learned, was part of the traditional ceremony performed for any guest. Just beyond the spear-bearers, a group of village men were waiting for us, and in double file they led us into the village, playing bamboo panpipes, bent at the waist and swaying with the music. The sound was a cross between a steel drum’s and a bassoon’s; the movement, primal Martha Graham. They led us through an esplanade of ferns, up to the higher part of the village, and when we got there, the women put on each of us a necklace of seeds and a headband of flowers and invited us to sit on a sort of porch attached to the biggest hut. The music went on and got richer and wilder; in the central clearing, there were big pipes, some seven feet tall, propped on wooden stands, and they played these with the soles of rubber flip-flops.

The villagers asked what we wanted to see. We wanted to know how they built a hut, and so they gathered sago palm leaves and showed us how to fold them over rods of wild betel-nut wood and sew them with rattan and layer them to form a roof or wall. They showed us how to rub gahuto sticks to start a fire, how to weave traps from aohe roots, and how to make a pudding by grinding up smoked ngali nuts in a giant mortar and pestle, mixing them with taro, stuffing it all into the central part of a bamboo rod, and roasting it in a fire. Finally, they showed us how they carved the rough but elegant wooden bowls from which we had been eating. We stayed the afternoon learning all these things in the open village, trying to imitate, in our appreciation, what might be local etiquette. If I had come in search of another world, I had found it, I thought.

Back at our hut, hens were trying to lay eggs on our sleeping mats, and when we had straightened that out we ate eels caught that day (with ramen noodles). After dinner, we were preparing to go to bed when we heard the sound of music again. It’s hard to say that any of what we had seen was artificial; greeting ceremonies are so rare that they are partially reinvented on each occasion, and no foreigners had come to Hauta in a long, long time. But this sudden playing at night was completely spontaneous. Someone had felt like music and the mood had spread. The pipers came to our hut with their instruments and played under the full moon, with the women singing at the back in chorus, and we listened for perhaps an hour to this abrupt beauty, so festive, so strange. Then they asked to hear our music, and suddenly we were the exotics. We sang “Oklahoma” and “Jamaica Farewell” and “America the Beautiful.” They asked whether we could do any other performance, maybe dance? And so my high-school friend and I stepped down and, to the eerie music of bamboo pipes in a clearing in the rain forest under a springtime moon, on the uneven ground at the top of a mountain, we did close-in swing dancing; and when we did a dip at the end we got hoots and hollers, and the music ramped up, and the mood lasted, miraculous as loaves and fishes.

We spent two days coming back down. While the carriers took the same steep route we’d followed on the way up, to keep our belongings dry, we took a gentler one that involved, however, more river crossings, including one swim across a deep rapid (in our clothes — there was no way to keep them dry). By this time we had become really close to our guides and talked to them about all kinds of things, trying to answer all their questions and explain our lives: what big cities were like, and why we had all spent so many years in school, and the rules of football, and why we didn’t know anything about farming. One of the party had brought along his panpipe and played as we descended, and the birds called to one another through the rain.

When we reached the shore, we went out for a walk without our guides, and along the beach we offered candy to children. “Hi!” we kept saying as we distributed the sweets, only to discover later that hi means “copulate” in the local language (in which the word for “father” is mama). Then we had another brief comedy: in this tropical land, no one thinks of sunbathing, and when one of our party lay down on the beach, villagers assumed he must be fighting the chills of malaria, and came to offer remedies.

Among the many pleasures of this country, none is so striking as the newness of visiting it, the brave feeling of discovery, the freshness of the traveler’s enterprise. The Solomon Islands were long notorious for headhunting and cannibalism, and on my first day in Honiara, I stopped in a shop to ask about some pointy objects and found out that they were nose bones. But there were Gauguin moments as well, with bare-breasted women coming to the shore offering fruit and flowers when we arrived. Following our sojourn on Makira, we chartered the Solomons’ only real yacht, the 35-foot catamaran Lalae, to take us island-hopping. After a week of jungle climbing and muddy feet and sleeping with chickens, the immaculate white of the boat, the gracious crew in their matching shirts, the charming captain, Steve Goodhew, a veteran of the Australian Royal Navy, the homemade chocolate cake and baskets of fresh fruit, were a revelation. It was the best of the West serenely afloat in this alien world. The Lalae is supplied for diving and snorkeling, and it is an excellent fishing vessel in wildly fertile seas: I caught a large barracuda the one time I threw a line overboard, and on the same day Steve caught an eight-foot marlin and a host of smaller fish. The first mate, Mark, and Steve’s wife, Elmah, cleaned them, and we ate them within hours.

We went first to a swimming-with-dolphins resort being built on Gavutu Island under the auspices of a rather tough Canadian named Christopher Porter, an animal behaviorist. We were greeted by some custom dancing. The male performers wore loincloths — the local word is kabilato — and the women, grass skirts and bras made of seashells, and all had armbands with long grasses stuck in them (my boyfriend called them the Scallion Dancers). They were proud of what they were doing and it was all correct, but it felt a little kitsch. And here I ran up against the constant problem of the would-be adventurer, which is that by and large what you discover has been discovered before, and even people doing the same thing they did a thousand years ago are not doing the same thing if a veneer of self-consciousness has been added to the enterprise. Our experience of this as sheer performance was exciting, but after that spontaneous night in the mountains, we were spoiled, and this exhibition tilted too much toward the Hawaiian nightclub show. In the capital, we had gone to the Miss Solomon Islands beauty pageant, featuring gyrating women wearing grass skirts made of shredded pink plastic bags and bras of coconuts and string — which was comical and rather endearing because it had an absurdist element, but it was also a little sad. This was somehow much the same.

So we were all the more delighted when we got to Loisolin, on Pavuvu, where Steve had made arrangements the month before on our behalf. He told us that the islanders had been excited by the prospect of greeting us; though they were known locally for their dancing and, being coastal, had met some foreigners, no tourist had ever come to their village before with the express objective of seeing them.

When we arrived, the entire village was waiting on shore. A few launched canoes and circled our boat; then the spear warriors rushed out into the surf and yelled madly and made the usual friendly threatening gestures. When we came ashore, little girls put garlands of frangipani around our necks, and we were welcomed by the chief, who wore a remarkable headband of densely packed possum teeth. Here again there was a bamboo band, but this time the harmonies were more sophisticated. The women of the village did a welcome dance in which they imitated the motion of the waves. Then each of us got a coconut from which to drink, and a leaf basket with a whole lobster, a slice of taro, coconut pudding, some cassava pudding, fresh fish, two further kinds of taro with slippery cabbage, and hard-boiled megapode bird eggs. As we ate, a few young women fanned us and our food with large leaves to make sure that no flies came our way. This was the custom for special visitors; we felt like kings.

Meanwhile, some 40 villagers, many of them covered in body paint, performed a sequence of terrifically complex dances that ranged from the mesmeric to the passionate, the humorous to the mournful. It was as if the George Balanchine of the South Pacific were working on Pavuvu. The women were dressed in grasses and shells and did a kind of poetic line dancing; the men leaped about like young rams. The rhythms were multilayered, almost syncopated, and then lyrical and sweet. At the end, they asked us to show them something from our culture, and when my friend and I did our swing-dancing number, they cheered and cheered and wouldn’t let us stop until we were completely tired out.

In the long afternoon light, when we and they could dance no more, we set sail, and passed great schools of flying fish that soared above the water for 500 feet; a pod of about 200 dolphins that came and played all around us, in such numbers that they seemed to be waves, suffusing the air with exuberance; terns and frigate birds and brown boobies; and perfect little islands like the ones in children’s books, dome-shaped, living-room-sized, uninhabited, and covered in five perfect coconut palms. Occasionally we saw fishermen in dugout canoes waiting to spear fish. We were caught in an endless postcard, a Pacific arcadia, and we sang and talked and drank local beer on the front deck.

Many of the smaller islands in the Solomons are coral atolls, and these are concentrated around the Marovo Lagoon, the world’s largest island-enclosed lagoon, which may soon be protected by UNESCO. Marovo was described by James Michener as the eighth wonder of the world and was the object of our sailing trip. Over the course of four days, we stopped at various isolated spots in the lagoon for snorkeling, including Uepi, where the variety and density of species famously outclasses that of the Great Barrier Reef. I saw huge schools of chromides, black-tipped reef sharks and gray whale sharks, a dozen kinds of parrot fish, various wrasses, including the endangered Maori wrasse, angelfish, squirrelfish, clown fish, hawksbill turtles, eels, butterfish, a manta ray, foul-looking groupers, giant clams with fluorescent pink and lavender mouths that closed when you approached, needle-nosed gars, many-spotted sweetlips, mudskippers, lionfish, black-and-blue sea snakes, electric-blue starfish. It was an underwater safari.

To me, though, the fish were almost secondary, because the coral of the living reef looked as though Brancusi and Buckminster Fuller and Max Ernst and Dr. Seuss had collaborated on it. There were long pink- and blue-tipped asparagus, a thin damask-rose lace that a Spanish lady might have worn to church, expanses of olive-colored stiff scrub brushes, gorgonian fans, lurid striped erections, vaulting mauve domes, voluptuous yellow hydrangeas, orange dreadlocks, and fields of embossed purple grosgrain. Strange things rotated like lava lamps on turntables, and the mimosa of the sea seemed to recoil at our approach. By the time we got out, we were dizzy with color and sheer variety. Every day we sailed; every day we dived into the water; every day we saw wonders beyond all imagining.

After our immersion in the Melanesian culture of the Solomons, the nation’s primary culture, we wanted to see some of its Polynesian life. We left our beloved Lalae in Honiara and flew to Rennell, the largest of the Solomons’ Polynesian islands. Our guide, Joseph Puia, packed us into a private car, and we headed for Lake Tegano, the biggest freshwater lake in the South Pacific and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We stopped from time to time so that Joseph could machete through fallen trees, which he did with astonishing speed and assurance.

The lake is dotted with islets of giant mangrove and pandanus and is home to a number of unique birds and orchids, as well as several varieties of endemic flora and fauna, and also contains nine U.S. planes downed during World War II (two of which we could see when snorkeling). There was a U.S. military base by the lake during the war, and locals still welcome Americans. Despite the best efforts of obtrusive missionaries, the lake people continue to believe that the spirits of the dead travel as shooting stars to meet God beyond the eastern shore.

In our large motorized canoe, we saw the famous sunrises over the water, and visited the cave where the legendary lake octopus was said to have lived, and saw another cave that Joseph described as “formerly a residential accommodation” — villages have not existed very long on Rennell. We encountered flocks of glossy swiftlets, frigate birds, terns, cormorants, and ibis; as you approached their island rookeries they took to the skies by the hundreds, wheeling like a beautiful reworking of Hitchcock. We visited Circumcision Island, inhabited by the only South Pacific tribe to endorse the practice. We were thirsty, so our boatman shimmied up a tree and threw down fresh coconuts, and brought us limes, with green skins and bright orange flesh, a 1960’s fashion from the kingdom of fruit. We saw flying foxes, fruit bats, in the air and hanging in trees like the devil’s Christmas ornaments. We both saw and ate coconut crab, a local delicacy that takes 35 years to mature.

We stopped for our last afternoon at a dream of Polynesia: the secluded white beach beneath high cliffs, the wonderful snorkeling, the one family living by the sea and preparing us lunch. The Solomon Islands were full of what felt like set-piece clichés, but they were also eternally surprising, and put together, these multifarious experiences formed for us a wild and gentle new reality.