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SOLOMON ISLANDS

SAVO VISIT

A large group of gaunt and hollow-eyed Solomon Islanders watched me set up my boat under the palm trees at Honiara. Untypically for Melanesians, they made no move to help me. It was hard to tell whether they were pirates or castaways - they could have been either. At times like this, laboring under the unfriendly gaze of pitiless islanders, I seriously wondered whether my solitary island-hopping was such a great idea. but I knew that if I were home I would be cursing he traffic and wishing I were here, on a sunny day under the palms, preparing to launch myself across the open water. I left my boat in the care of a sympathetic looking old man, and set out to buy a week's provisions in town - the standard items. Afterwards, seeing that I still had spare room, I bought a few extras - two six-packs of beer and some five-pound tins of Australian cookies labeled "Conversation Biscuits."

                   

Outside one of the stores a ragged boy was showing some passers-by a bird squashed into a narrow basket and so I joined the curious group. the bird was green and red, the size of a small thrush, and cheeping miserably.

I said. "Where did you catch this bird?"
The boy did not understand.
I said, "Dispela pisin where you gettim?"
"Inna boos," In the bush.
"Wanem nem bilong dispela pisin?"
"Dispela 'laru.'"

A lorikeet, one of the twenty-one species found in and around the Solomons.

"Is gutpela pisin?"
"Ya, dispela numbawan. Dispela pisin savvy toktok, savvy sing-sing. Everyting numbawan."

But trapped in the basket it certainly was not talking or singing now. I was torn between interfering, buying the bird and liberating it (as I had once done to an edible owl in China), and simply observing the daily life of a Solomon Island poacher - seeing what would happen. Within a few minutes a Melanesian man wearing bangles and carplugs stepped forward and thrust the equivalent of nine American dollars into the poacher's hand and carried the protesting lorikeet away. Back in the shore, the group of fifteen bedraggled men with wild hair, wearing only shorts, still stared at me with hollow eyes but now they were on the deck of a battered sailboat anchored just off the beach. "They are from the weather coast," an islnder named James told me. That explained their piratical faces: they had a weatherbeaten, windward look. I was glad to be heading off the lee shore, in a calm sea, with plenty of time to paddle to Savo. James came from Savo himself, from the village of Monagho, where he urged me to saty. But I told him that I was going to Kemakeza's district. I told him I would visit him.

"That is the north of the island, where the eggs are."
Another gnomic utterance.
"Is there a strong current out there?"
"Not bad."
"Any sharks?"
"During the war, when all those boats were sunk, there were planti tumas sak, because of the bodies," James said. "And for years planti moa. But these days not many."

 

Rather than head straight out from Honiara, paddling across fourteen miles of open water, I kept near to the coast, using an excellent nautical chart showing the while of the Sealark Channel. I paddled west about twelve miles to the village of Visale at Cape Esperance, where I had a rest on the beach, and then struck out north for a six-mile crossing. I was always somewhat wary of these channels, because of the current, or a sudden change in weather, so I paddled hard for an hour and did not ease up until I was near the island. Savo, which from Honiara had seemed like a small hump in the ocean, was on closer inspection a mountain in the sea, a gently rounded volcano, with green slopes. The southern end was rocky, but I could see palms and white beaches along its eastern side. I chose to paddle along it because I was tired, and I knew that I could safely go ashore at any point.

The villages were small, set just inland, and I was reassured by the pretty huts. People who wove huts out of split bamboo and thached them and lashed them as carefully as these Savo islanders had done, had to be hospitable traditionalists. If I had seen tin roofs and cinder blocks, the sort of sheds with swinging doors and padlocks that aid agencies often built for such people - in the innocent belief they were doing them a favour - I would have been very worked. I regarded such dwellings and such violated villages as unpredictable, full of nuisances. Villagers living under tin roofs stenciled A gift from the people of the United States of America, and eating food aid, but there was a certain type of aid that undermined people and made them dangerous.  

In Savo there was no apparent sign that any village had been penetrated by the West. And just offshore men and boys fished from dugout canoes. Seeing a settlement on a great sandy beach, I paddled to one of these canoes.

"Wanem nem bilong dispela ples?" I asked a fisherman, pointing to the huts.
"Displa Pokito," he said.
"Baloa village i stap we?"

He waved his hand to the west and said, "Klostu likilik. Go stret."

He was right. Balola was very near, but when I landed and dragged my kayak up the sand I was surprised by its air of desertion. No one watched me come ashore, no children shrieked at me, no dogs barked at me, no women were dumping trash on the beach, not were any men fishing in the low surf. I passed from the early evening light of the beach to the cool crepuscular darkness of the small village that lay damply beneath the dense foliage of trees. Some chickens hurried and clucked on the path, but it was only after walking from one end of the village to the other that I found a person - a man named Aaron, who had bushy sidewhiskers and gammy leg.

"Hello. You savvy tok Inglis?"
"Pisin," he said.
"Plis you nap halpim?" I asked and showed the letter the minister had given me. "Mi laik toktok Nathaniel Mapooza. Mi givim dispela pas."
"Yumi go," he said, "Mapo i stap long ples" - and he pointed down the muddy path.
"Emi longwe a nogat?" I asked, because if it was far I was much happier simply waiting here.
"Klostu liklik," he said, setting off, and I followed.

It was a forty-five minute walk along a narrow path, it was the only thoroughfare, and it circled the island. I could see at once that it was an island without a road, or a motor vehicle, or electricity. We passed through six or seven small villages and in each one Aaron called out in the local language that he was taking me to see Mapo. Mapopoza was seated under a pawpaw tree, chewing betel and stuffing his mouth with lime, at a village called Bonala. The village presented an odd spectacle. About a hundred people were milling around whispering and examining great stacks of bananas, baskets of potatoes and more coconuts than I had ever seen piled in one place. And three fat pigs, whickering and squealing, because their feet were tightly bound.

"Feegs," Aaron said, attempting English. He gave me to understand that a wedding was about to take place, but that this was the fixing of the bride price. No money was involved, there was little money on the island. I handed my letter to Mapo. He shrugged - did not meet my gaze - and looked away. He was bit dazed from the betel nut, but that was not the only reason for his obliqueness. It soon became clear to me that he could not read, but it was not odd that his brother should write him a detailed letter. Mapo simply handed the thing to a boy nearby, who clawed it open, and as people gathered round, the boy read the letter in a superior way, as though he was rather stuck on himself for being so literate. I stood there with salt in my eyes and my arm-muscles screaming from the long kayak trip. My name was mentioned - Mistah Foll - and the listeners turned to me and stared. And then, Amerika.  

Mapo was vague. Not only was he illiterate, he did not speak English. but none of this mattered. I only needed his blessing, I didn't need his hospitality. What I wanted most was his permission to put up my tent, my haus sel, in Balola village.

So I said, "Plis, my lik putim haus sel long Balola na stap long?"

"Orait," he said. "Mi kam bai."

He gestured, showing me that he was being detained. I could see he had a role to play in this betrothal, but still he urged me to sit down and sip some coconut water from a freshly hacked nut. He said nothing. He had a crooked smile. A few feet away the tied-up pigs were quivering with thirst and suffocation. to amuse themselves, some village boys went near and began kicking the poor creatures. Women with streaks of white paint on their cheeks wandered around muttering - part of the betrothal, I guessed - and others were talking and spitting betel juice and slurping lime. I noticed another group of people crowding into an open-fronted hut, and asked Aaron what was going on. He didn't know, but he asked a Bonala man who spoke directly to me.

"There is a man from Africa in there."
"Africa?"
It was a bit like Saro's story of the Ethiopian stowaway who had claimed to be a Solomon Islander. But who could this man be, and what was he doing? I thought he might be a preacher or a healer, granting an audience to these villagers. I sidled up to the hut, wondering how I might introduce myself, and came face to face with a sturdy fellow who greeted me, "Hey, man." This was Bilal Mohammed, an American Peace Corps Volunteer from Brooklyn, New York, shaven-headed, and very black from the Solomon sun, wearing a jolly T-shirt and baggy Bermuda shorts. He was a teacher on another island, Makira, but as he was on vacation he had come here to Savo in a motor-launch to visit some friends. He asked me whether I knew anything about the stand-off in the Gulf.
"Just sabre-rattling so far," I said.
"I've got a bet with a guy in Honiara that there won't be a war," he said. "Because no one is that stupid."
"It looks bad," I said, and yet I had no idea where I would place my bet. It was a period of great uncertainty. "There are more than two hundred thousand troops in Saudi Arabia, waiting for the word."  

Bilal said, "People think they are making plans, but they don't realize that God has his own plan, and we can't outwit God." It was spoken with true Islamic fatalism and a rueful smile. We shook hands, and both of us said that we hoped it would all end peacefully. Then he went back into the hut and I walked three miles back to Balola village with

Aaron and put up my tent in the dusk, at the edge of the beach. Before I had finished making camp, a fat man in a dirty lap-lap stepped out of the bush - clearly a busybody - and told me that I would be much happier camping near his hut. Before I could react, he was scooping up my gear and helping me move.

"I am president of Savo," he said in a lordly way. I had been Melanesia long enough to know that even if this were true it did not mean a great deal. As it turned out, his being president did not mean much more than that his T-shirt was slightly less dirty than other people's. this man was Kemakeza's other brother, but they were not on speaking terms - nor was he speaking terms with Mapo, who he quickly told me was n ignorant villager. His name was Ataban Tonezepo - there were no common surnames here - and he was well-spoken. He said he thought Pidgin was a silly language.

"But it is useful," I said, "because people speak it."
"That is a very wise observation," he said, and I suspected on the basis of this obsequious turn of phrase that he might turn out to be a royal pain.

When we had settled on a place where I might put my tent - it was a freestanding Moss tent, we just swung it fully pitched, twenty feet along the beach - Ataban said, "I am former premier of Central Province, but I lost at the last election. so here I am, back in Balola."

"But your duties as president must keep you busy."
"That is very true."

In the growing darkness people had begun to gather, trying to help me. There were now twenty-eight of them - I counted as I set out my gear, hanging my food from trees, so that the rats wouldn't get it. As we were facing north, there was no dramatic sunset, only a diminishing glow on the water, and the shapes of the distant islands of Nggela, Isabel and Russell.

"We used to sail there," Ataban said.
"You might be sailing there again, if th4e fuel prices rise."
"That is very true."

The twenty-eight men and boys sat down and watched me start my kerosene stove and eat my hurried su8pper of beans and mackerel and fresh bread from the bakery in Honiara. I gave Ataban a beer and some "Conversation Biscuits" to the others. And when I had finished eating, Ataban demanded that four of the boys take my pots to be washed.

"Do you think there will be World War Three after January?" Ataban asked.
"Frankly, no."
"We think it will come here. Everyone is worried."
"Believe me, you are safe there," I said.
"Word War Two came here," he said. "Right here. To this island."
"Yupela bigpela, strongpela," I said. "Yupela nogat pret" - you guys aren't afraid - "Yupela kilim i dai."

They laughed at me, and then Ataban sent everyone away and told them to let me sleep in peace.

"In the morning, you can't go down to the beach," he said. "The women will be using it. Doing shit there - right there. And the men will be over there, doing shit."

The village beach was the toilet in the Solomons, it was where people shat. Even in simple grubby New Guinea people said Mi go haus pek pek, and looked for the privy or the thunderjug. In the Trobriands they had a pavilion on a pier, with a long drop into the sea, and there was a word for toilet in Kiriwina. But in the Solomons thing were different. Mi go nambis - "I'm going to the beach," in Pidgin - meant one thing only, a BM by the sea. It never meant swimming - that was waswas, and anyway only little kiddies did that, frolicking in the excrement and the fruit peels - for the beach was also the village dump, littered with rusty cans and plastic bottles.

It was extraordinary how the islanders fouled their beaches, always expecting the tide to purify it twice a day. But I preferred to camp on the beach. The fact that it was generally regarded as a toilet made it emptier - no intruders -and I disliked the mosquitoes, the human gabbling and the cockcrows in the damp shadowy villages. The beach was also a graveyard. One of the keenest nineteenth-century observers of the Melanesians was R. H. Godrington, a missionary-turned-anthropologist, who wrote, "In Savo ... common also remarked on the fact that the people of Savo were renowned in Melanesia as poisoners. That night while I lay in my tent writing notes, under my swinging flashlight, I heard children just outside whispering. After I switched the flashlight off they went away. For hours after that I heard them singing and strumming, making their way around the village from hut to hut, like carolers at Christmas.

Large crabs gathered against my tent at five in the morning and their scratching woke me - the rising sun gave them distinct silhouettes. Remembering what Ataban had said about the women doing shit I stayed in the tent and listened to my short-wave radio for the Gulf update. The Voice of America, which sounds like a local radio station, had hardly altered its programming schedule to take account of the crisis - it still ran its trivial music and frivolous features, interspersing them with little bursts of solemn news, delivered by credulous-sounding journalists. Radio Australia and the BBC had actually changed their whole news format - they reported news, scoops, rumours and in-depth pieces, and in the mounting suspense gave a plausible commentary on the crisis. Yet I listened to it all feeling that I was a million miles away, on another planet, lost in the galaxy of Oceania. After the news I crawled out and shooed the crabs away, made tea and noodles and sat listening to music and looking at the sea until Mapo came by, to ask me the news. It was hardly past five-thirty in the morning.

"Sapos ol bigpela kaontri pait," he said, "mi tingting ol kam na pait long Solomons."

Which in fact was everyone's fear: if the superpowers went to war they would eventually fight in the Solomons. This lurking fear was evident in the questions of nearly everyone I spoke to in that period, and for some it was an absolute terror - the complete disruption of their way of life and a brutal disorder imposed upon them. they had not felt liberated by World War Two, they felt as though a succession of cyclones had passed through their islands - first the Japanese one, the invasion, the take-over, the occupation; then the allied bombing, the fire-fights, the battle of Guadalcanal, and the destruction of villages, the sinking of scores of ships, the deaths, the arrival of the sharks to feed on the bodies.  The aftermath - the post-war chaos - had been just as bad. American troops attempting to disentangle themselves from the islands and demobilize had been nearly as disruptive. 'During the war, there was little fishing, and very little farming was done - three years' crops were lost. With no harvests the islanders had become dependent upon the foreign soldiers, and had developed a dreary taste for canned food, in particular for the corned beef and pork luncheon meat that persists to this day. I gave him my now standard reassurance in Pidgin: if the war started it would not come here. For emphasis, I said it was Tru tumas.  Mapo smiled. He did not believe me. He said, "Yu laik lukim megapode pisin?"

Savo was not an island that was short of strange features - it had an active steaming volcano, it had hot springs, it apparently had a president - but the megapode birds were the strangest of all. The local word for the birds was ngero, in Pidgin they were called skraeb dak; ornithologists called them "mound-builders;" but most people on Savo, when speaking to strangers, called them by their scientifically correct name, megapodes, from their family, Megapodidae. It was a fairly rare variety of big-footed bird, of which twelve species were known from Indonesia to Vanuatu. Its distinguishing, habit was that it relied entirely on environmental heat to incubate its eggs. The bird laid its eggs in sand that was always warm because of its nearness to the volcano. The megapode had the most precocious hatchlings of any bird - the birds did not sit on the eggs, they did not feed or tend their young. After they had dug a deep hole in this unnaturally warm sand, they laid the egg, covered the hole and flew off. Three weeks later the bird hatched, dug itself out of the hole and, fully fledged in a matter of minutes, started running. Within hours of its birth the baby bird had learned to fly, and - if it had managed to elude the pariah dogs and the bush pigs - it made for the trees. But relatively few of the eggs ever hatched. Map told me in Pidgin that they were disinterred by egg-diggers later in the morning. We walked through the bush, parallel to the beach, for about half a mile and down a narrow path to a stretch of fenced-off beach where, in the dawn light, I could see hundreds of squawking, strutting moorhen-like birds digging holes or kicking sand with feet the size and shape of salad tongs.

Mapo sat on a rock in the shade and smoked a cigarette, while I crept forward on my belly and watched, fascinated, relieved that I did not have a camera. The sight was unphotographable - the birds were too deep in the holes, a camera could not do justice to the noise, and clearly the birds were skittish - they would have run from a photographer. All you heard were squawks, and all you saw were bunches of sand being flung out of the holes. Now and then a nervous bird would emerge from a hole, fill it hurriedly, and flap away, like a startled coot. In the rising heat of early morning - even in the palmy shade I was perspiring heavily - I watched for almost an hour, and by the time I was about to leave many of the birds had finished burying their eggs and flown. I wondered whether they ate the birds, and so on the way back to the village I asked, "Yupela kaikai megapode pisin?" Mapo said, "Sapos dok i gat long tit, mipela kaikai." If a dog gets it in its teeth, we eat it. But it was forbidden to kill the bird, he said, and he said rather obscurely that once tambu ceremonies were held in which the bird was worshipped. Mapo took me to his house and introduced me to his wife, Rebecca, who served us each a megapode egg omelette with rice. And he showed me an egg from his kitchen. It was an extraordinary size - th4e thing was large - about four inches by two, larger than any duck egg I had ever seen, and heavy.

People on Savo really depended on the eggs, he said. They collected them, they ate them, they sold them in Honiara for a Solomon dollar apiece. I began interrogating him, as best I could in Pidgin, about the history of the island,s the worship of the birds, the mythology of the eggs. He answered in a halting way. But then he said that I would have to ask someone else - and he said shyly - it was a try at English, it was not imperfect Pidgin - "I no have education. No school." And he smiled sadly. "Now I too old to go school." One of his children was nearby, and Mapo swept the little boy onto his lap and pushed his half-=eaten megapode omelette aside. "Disipela pikanin savvy toktok Inglis!"

Because of the megapode eggs this half of the island was prosperous and well fed. The eggs were greatly in demand on Guadalcanal. the opposite side of the island was well-off, too - it had a reef and plenty of fish. The whole of Savo was rich in fruit trees - oranges, lemons, guavas. there were betel-nut trees and ngali nuts (which were similar to macadamias) and coconuts. but gardening was basic - cassava, taro, beans - fairly easy crops. the result of this abundance was that life was undemanding, a little sweeping, a little weeding. The villages were very quiet and had little of the harum-scarum that I had grown used to in the Trobriands. Most of the time Savo slumbered. What terrors would the Japanese have had in store for these happy indolent folk of they had won the war? At the very least there would have been a golf course here, and someone like Mapo would have been a caddy, and Rebecca would have had a job in the kitchen of the golf club, rustling up megapode omelettes for the hungry Sons of Nippon. In the first few days I camped on Savo the stillness and inactivity were profoundly apparent, and there was even something lugubrious about it, as though the place were haunted.

I paddled south to Mbonala, a village in a little bay, where children were splashing, and boys were spear-fishing, and women were washing clothes. The men of the village sat under trees, chewing betel nut. A screeching crowd gathered on shore as I asked directions to Monagho. Savo on my chart was a yellow disk, showing topographical lines and a few elevations. Whenever I spoke to someone I added detail, and filled in the blanks, noting the names of villages, and bays, and streams. The village of Managho turned out to greet me. It was - like Balola and Mbonala - a village of topless women, many of them smoking briar pipes. Soon James joined them - he had been thatching the roof of his house. He introduced me to his family. His pretty sister Mary, who was about sixteen, wore a necklace of dolphin's teeth. James said he was looking for a husband for her.

"You marit pinis?" he asked me - but the fact that he spoke in Pidgin meant that he really did not expect an answer.
"It's a long story," I said.

He showed me his house, which was large and well-built like most of the houses and huts on Savo - thickly woven palm leaves on a strong and graceful. While I sat talking with his family he borrowed my kayak and amused the village, as he paddled up and down the shore. I paddled three miles father to Kaonggele, the village which had the right of way to the volcano, and when I came ashore I was helped by twelve boys, who put my kayak on the village canoe rack. I told them I wanted to see the volcano.

"You will have to pay that old man," one boy said. "He is our chief." He was sitting on a log under a tree, listening to an early model transistor radio the size of a Kleenex box. It was bruised and dirty and patched with taipe, but a buzzy voice was murmuring in the speaker. The old man's name was Marcel Devo - this was another Catholic village: St Theresa's Church was on the bluff just above it - and he said he thought he was seventy-seven. He did not speak Pidgin or English, only Savosavo.

"Ask him if he remembers the war," I said to one of the boys.
"I was already married wh4n the war started," he said, and the boy translated.
"What do you remember?"
"Everything," he said, in a croaky voice. "I helped carry the American food and equipment. I worked hard. You see this road?" He gestured to a rutted path that sloped from the beach. "The Americans built it. It was the only road we had in Savo."
"Did you see fighting during the war?"
"There was fighting everywhere." And he raised his red eyes to me. "Smoke and fire. And loud noises. Ships all over the water."
Putting his radio down he nearly dropped it. He was very feeble, but I had reminded him of the nightmarish years of the war.
"It was terrible" - the boy was still translating - "Some bodies washed ashore and other swere eaten by sharks. We were frightened. We did not know what to do."
"What were you listening to on your radio?"
"The news," he said. "The war will start in Iraq and it will come here. Either the Iraq people will come first and then the Americans will drive them away, or else the Americans will come and the Iraq people will fight them here."
"Tell him I don't think that will happen," I said.
When he heard this he muttered to the boy, who said, "You are wrong."
Normally the chief was paid five Solomon dollars by anyone who wanted to use Kaonggele's path to hike up to the volcano, but the old man said I did not have to pay.
"I saw you paddling your canoe here, so you can go for nothing."

Eight of the boys came with me - they had nothing else to do, they said. It took an hour up to the rim of the crater where I looked down and saw the gray steam blowing out of the cracks down below. That to me was a less impressive spectacle than the hot springs here and there on the upward path - little boiling pools, where people gathered to cook their food. I hung around one group which was simultaneously streaming cassava and sweet potatoes and ears of corn - the vegetables were thickly wrapped in leaves. A man offered me an ear of corn, which I ate, and looking for a place to fling the cob after I had finished I stepped into a puddle of sulfurous water and scalded my foot. Cooking on free hot water on the slopes of a volcano! These people had everything! Birds flew in and gave them hundreds of huge eggs a day8, and all they had to do was carry them up the hill and boil them. they had nuts and oranges and lemons and breadfruit and papaya - the trees required no care at all. Their pigs looked after themselves, so did their chickens.

It seemed an almost unimaginably pleasant life.
"Do you have missionaries here?"
"No. But a priest comes once a month for mass."
They showed me the church. It was wooden, and rather roughly put together, and big and musty and empty.
"What about mosquitoes?"
"They don't trouble us."

But they troubled me. The only aspect of this island I did not like was its pestilential insects - fleas and midges and mosquitoes, and most of all its skinny biting flies that never left me alone, in spite of my insect repellent. I gave the boys some chocolate cookies and made a point of saving three or four for the chief, Marcel Devo. In return they climbed the coconut palms and hacked open some nuts. I drank a whole one and filled my water bottle with the sweet water from the others. A few days later I paddled back to Kaonggele, but instead of a somnolent village I found boys and men engaged in furious activity on the beach, setting out piles of yams and bananas on palm leaves. One boy, whom I recognized from my previous visit, was hacking a dead pig to pieces with a bloody machete.

"What is this all about?" I asked.
"For peace," the boy said and smiled knowingly.
"Do you mean there was trouble here?"
There is peace now," a furtive man said.
"This man Phillip make trouble," the boy with a machete said.
Phillip, the furtive fellow, was skinny, about thirty years old. He had a pinched and rather anxious face, and did not look at all like a troublemaker. He squirmed and said, "Sha-sha-sha," trying to shut the boy up.
"That is Phillip's pig," another boy said teasingly, and laughed.
"There was fighting," the first boy said.
"Did you fight?"
"No. Ask Phillip."

Phillip was sorely embarrassed. He said in a low voice, "I made the trouble with that other village. I made a fight. So I do this to stop the trouble."

This feast was a zokule, a peacemaking meal. Phillip had quarrelled with a man from a neighbouring village, and caused bad feeling. to bring peace he had offered his pig and the others had provided vegetables. When the food was all set out the offended village would walk down the beach and eat it and in that way, having shared this food and especially Phillip's pig, would be placated. That day and other days, when I encountered men or boys in canoes - not outriggers, but the slender dugouts they used for fishing and playing - they challenged me to races, and I beat them. Their canoes were sleek enough but their paddles were single-bladed and rather heavy and hard to handle. I had a carbon-fiber double-bladed paddle - the usual for kayaking. When I loaned it to any of them, and I used that person's paddle, I always lost. So I encouraged them to use my paddle and tried to convince them to carve long double-bladed paddles for themselves, using this design. They usually said they would try. Th4ey were certainly open to suggestions. Ataban's schoolgirl sister Agnes, who was a plump and mature fourteen, had a large fresh set of scars on her cheek - a circle radiating wiggly lines.

"Dis da sun," she explained.
Yes, a radiant sun, carved into her cheek.
"Is that a custom here on Savo?"
"No. On Malaita. It is not our custom. I asked the Malaita people to do it to me. They came here to dance. One month ago."
"Did it hurt?" I asked.
"Yes. Very much. They did it with a fork and a knife. Afterwards they put salt water on it."
I thought, How strange. Because another group of people in the Solomons had a tradition of scarring their faces, this Savo schoolgirl had offered hers, and had her cheek painfully knifed open with an obnoxious disfigurement she would carry on her face for the rest of her life.
"You like it?" she asked.

I told her what she wanted to hear.

The nights were so starry they lit the island even before the moon had risen. The children played and sang until midnight. I thought they were bratty, but one day they brought me a chair and I felt ashamed of myself. I could actually sit comfortably under a palm tree, writing or reading, while they swatted flies. I usually waited until the shore was empty of people and I went nambis, feeling like an utter fool, so exposed. You squatted at the tidemark, facing inland. Except for the insects, and the occasional snake, life for me on Savo was idyllic. but I soon realised that I was caught between the feuding of two brothers - Ataban, the fat former politician, who spike English well if a bit pompously, and Mapopoza, the skinny illiterate who did little except stuff his mouth with betel and lime. both men were capable of being jolly. but of course, Mapo, who had no pretensions, who had never left the village, had the most power. Ataban, however, controlled the egg fields - actually owned a quarter mile of beach where the eggs were laid. It was strange that these wild birds were in a sense privately controlled. This was an almost inexhaustible source of wealth, and it was obvious that he was rather resented for it - but what could anyone do? He charged the diggers five eggs a day in order to go on digging for more eggs. On successive days I met Ataban in the egg fields, and what I had thought to be easily-won food turned out to be hot, dirty, tiring work. So as not to risk breaking the eggs, the men began digging with a small flat piece of wood, but after they had dug about eighteen inches they lay on their bellies and used their bare hands. The volcanic sand was heavy and the men labored in the full sun, sometimes digging to three or four feet before they came upon the egg. It amazed me to think of the bird digging that deep, laying the egg and then pushing all the sand back in with its scratching fee. All morning, in the egg fields of Savo, there was the curious spectacle of men stuck in holes, chucking sand out, and all you saw were their sweaty kicking legs smeared with sand grains.

A young man named Walter told me he was saving up his eggs. He had eighty-five at the moment. He wanted to take a hundred eggs to market in Honiara. It would cost him twenty-four Solomon dollars for the round trip on the motor-boat, and a few dollars to heir4e a table at the market. His profit for fourteen days of laborious egg-digging would be less than thirty American dollars. Peter from the village of Alialia presented a strange sight. He had been to London in the 1970s on a parliamentary delegation. He had met the British foreign secretary and the Queen, and had worn a borrowed suit, and here he was lying on his belly in his Foster's Beer T-shirt, sand in his springy hair, his arms filthy, his face gleaming with sweat, scrabbling in the sand with his bare hands, searching for a megapode egg. The egg fields were sort of a men's club - women were not allowed to dig or even to set foot in the place. The diggers joshed each other and gassed with me, while Ataban sat plumply in the shade of a tree, accepting his tribute of five eggs from each man - he collected between twenty and a hundred eggs a day in his cloth bag. When he had three hundred or so - a week's accumulation - he sent his son to Honiara to sell them at the market. 

"Everyone wants them," Ataban said.
One day I said, "Do you have the same number of megapode birds as years ago?"
"No. We have less."
It was predictable enough. "So why don't you give the eggs a chance to hatch? That way you'd end up with more birds and more eggs."
"The young people would never accept it, although that was done in olden times, when the bird was worshiped with sacrifices."

That day he showed me the grave of his man who was the last person to carry out sacrifices. The man, Kigata, had died in 1965. The usual sacrifice was the burning of a pig to ashes in a tabu-grove on the cliff behind the village. But Ataban explained a sort of Manichaean idea that the bird was also associated with a certain snake, its "devil" or spirit.

On the way back to the village, I said, "What month do you harvest the yams?"
"Usually in June."
"You have plenty of food that month. Why not forbid the digging of eggs then? Set June aside for hatching. A few weeks later you'd have megapodes hatching all over the place, and you'd have more eggs."
"That is a very wise observation.," Ataban said.
It was hard to tell whether he was satirizing me.
"I will put that idea to the council," he said. "We will make it a bylaw."
It was in the egg fields, in the breather between eggs, that they became very chatty. They asked about the price of oil on other countries, about the power of the Soviet Union and Japan, about the greenhouse effect (this question raised by a very old man who said, "A man in Honiara told me_"), the cost of living elsewhere, and how much you would have to pay for a house in various countries. Invariably the talk in the egg fields turned to the stand-off in the Gulf, and after Ataban demanded my assurance that in the event of a war the Americans would win )"No problem," Is aid. "But men will die"), he began teasing me.
"Put away your guns!" he said. "Put away bombs and planes and bullets. Fight with your hands. We Melanesian can beat you - with our hands!" 
"Rabis, bullseet," I said, and the other tittered. "That is all nambaten. You don't have a chance We are bigpela, strongpela."
"No! We are Melanesian!" Ataban said. "We are warriors, and we have magic."
"Ya, ya," the men said, and began jeering at me.
"Where was your Melanesian magic in 1942?" I asked.
"Oh, dear," Ataban said in a squeaky voice. "We no have no magic at that time. We just ran into the bush and let the Americans fight the Japanese. Ha-ha."

After that particular discussion a twenty-year-old named Edward sidled up to me and said, "But Rambo is very strong. He can fight without guns."

Rambo is one of the folk-heroes of the Solomons - indeed, his fame pervades Oceania. Anyone hastily condemning this credulity as simple savagery must recall the utterance of the American President Ronald Reagan in which he mentioned how he had seen a Rambo movie at he White House, and how the witless brute in this worthless movie had inspired him. Over dinner at his hut one night (megapode eggs, the Spam they called "Ma Ling," and kumara, sweet potatoes), Mapo asked me. "Mi laik lukim Rambo video tumas. You lukim Commando? Nambawan man long Commando."

"Yu lukim video long ples Balola?"
"Ta Mi kros. Dispela generator bagarap."

The one generator on the island had no use except as a source of energy to show videos here. Pidgin was in fact rarely spoken on Savo, except to outsiders. The island language, called Savosavo, was said by linguists to be Papuan - not Melanesian at all. Ataban denied this, but there were many Polynesian-sounding words in the language. For example, the Savosavo word for "island" was molumolu, undoubtedly a cognate with Polynesian forms (motu in Tahiti, moku in Hawaiian, and so forth).

Where did Savo people originally come from?" I asked Ataban.

Before he could answer, Peter the egg-digger said, "Asia."

"I don't think so," Ataban said. "We believe that we were always here. That we come from a bird or a snake. The bird - maybe it was a frigate bird - laid an egg, and a woman came out. That is what I think."

"What about the people on other islands? What about those people who live on Ontong Java?"

They were Polynesians on this small atoll in the north of the Solomon group.

"Maybe they sailed there," Ataban said. "But we came from birds and sharks and snakes."

And, he explained, after death they turned back into sharks. It was a belief on Savo that sharks were the ghosts of dead people. For this reason sharks were often spoken to and given food. there was no fear of sharks in the Solomons, but then there was no fear of sharks anywhere I went in the Pacific. This was not so strange. It is a statistical fact that only twenty-five people a year are killed by sharks. Many more people are killed by pigs. 

Most of the time, paddling around Savo, I wore earphones and listened to my Walkman, the same tape - because I only had one at the time - which was of Puccini and Verdi arias sung by Kiri Te Kanawa: Vissi darte from Tosca, O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi, Un bel di, sedremo from Butterfly, Fors'e lui from La Traviata, and others. It is almost impossible to describe the peculiar poignancy of being close to a small, lovely island, passing under the high cliffs surmounted by slender palms, the strange lumpy hills and calderas created by the vulcanism of the fairly recent past (the rocky beaches, and the children with sunburned hair running from the bamboo huts and playing in the waves, all of them - the people, their huts, their canoes, their little gardens, the women gaping up at me from their washing - dwarfed by the active volcano just behind them, as I listened to the rich soprano voice singing Quel'amor with piercing sweetness as I paddled on. Or, more appropriately, Se come voi, the aria of the pretty flowers - because the flowers were visible from where I paddled. If I were as pretty as they, then I could always stay close to my love, and would say "Don't forget me"-  

Se come voi piccina io fossi,

O vaghi fior, stempre sempre

Vicina potrei stare al mio amor ...

Under the pink and purple sky of early evening, paddling in a sea the colour of rose-water, while the cockatoos flashed from tree to tree and the frigate birds soared, I felt lucky. I had found this island by chance, and it seemed to me that if the people were not interfered with by t9ourists or bureaucrats, the island would remain intact and the people would be able to manage well on their own. It daunted me to think of the permanence  of that strange simple life, but it must have been a fruitful life or else the people would not have been so generous and unsuspicious. When I perceived this place as sad, as I sometimes did, listening to those arias and watching this green island revolve past my boat, I realized that the sadness was mine. I had brought it here. It was part of my mood in the day. It affected my dreams, which were of gray chaotic London and steep stairs leading to thick locked doors - no doors there, no locks, no stairs even - and dreams of delay and missed appointments, almost meeting my wife and then bamboozled by a sudden orgy of naked people on a street corner or a bolted back door, and arriving and whimpering Too late, and waking up in a sweat, bearing he sloshing surf and remembering I was in Savo, in the Solomon Islands, alone in a tent on the beach.  

I paddled because it was a way of being alone. I paddled because I liked listening to music. I paddled because the water was too filthy for swimming in. I also paddled to give the day a shape, because I usually wrote my notes in the morning, exerted myself in the afternoon - only eight or ten miles, but in that equatorial heat the sun shone from a cloudless sky. I paddled because it was often the only way of getting from one place to another. If Mapo was not with me at sunset, Ataban (who hated him) stopped by for a chat. One day he asked whether I thought it was odd that he should regard his brother as an enemy. I said I found it much more understandable that he should dislike or pity his brother than feel that way towards a vague acquaintance.

"In a way, you can only really dislike a member of your family or someone you know well," I said. "But I think Mapo is a good fellow."
"That is because you do not know him," Ataban said. "Ha!"
He usually greeted me with, "You had a good pandle?"
"A very good paddle."
"You like to pandle," he said. "And I am so busy!"
"You mean busy sleeping under a tree while people bring you megapode eggs?"
He took this mockery well, and even seemed to regard it as a gesture of friendliness. "No, I am a poor Melanesian. I have to work. I am not lazy like you Americans. I have to feed my feegs."
Then he would sit down and talk until it was dark. Usually I pestered him to show me the tabu-groves, where the megapode birds were worshipped, but he said it was too tambu, and that it would be very bad for me to go there. After a week, I stopped asking him.
"Tomorrow I will show you the place where we sacrifice to the megapode birds," he said one night. "And I will tell you the story of the bird and the devil."
"Tell me now, Ataban."
He made a face. "It is too long. And my feegs are waiting." 

"Yu go we tude?" Mapo asked me the next day. "Yu wokabaot Kwila? You laik samting, you laik kaikai?"

It was a charade, but so as not to make the brothers' feud any worse I said I was simply going for a walk and did not need any food. Ataban met me at the edge of the village and introduced me to an old man - he said he was seventy-four - who had brought him some eggs. Whenever I met someone that old I asked them about the war. The man had lived on Savo his whole life. He said that nothing had changed, and the only interruption had been the war. Ataban acted as translator.

"The Japanese came here. One Japanese man said, "We are powerful and we are staying here - in Tulaghi*. We will never leave. Go to your fields. Pick coconuts, make copra, grow bananas. Cultivate vegetables. go fishing. We will buy everything you have to sell."
"Did they mention the Americans?"
"They said, 'The Americans are very strong. They will come and try to fight. But we will beat them.' We were frightened of them."
"But why?" I said. "The Japanese are little bowlegged people who can't see without glasses. They are smaller than you. Why were you afraid?"
The old man laughed and spoke again, and Ataban translated. "It's true, they looked strange to us. But some were tall. And they had guns. A little while later the Americans came and it was all different. There was fighting. Many people died. I was afraid. And I still think about it."
"But this was a long time ago."
"No! It was recent. It was just a little while ago. I was already married and had children." the old man said.
After the old man left us, Ataban changed his mind and said that it wasn't such a good idea for him to take me to the place of sacrifice, because it was too tambu, But I urged him and when he still seemed reluctant, I asked him why.
"Because I believe in kastom. I am not a Christian. this place is tambu."
"I won't step on it. I won't touch it. I won't even go near. I just want to look."
"That's better," he said. "Look at a distance."

We set off on a steep overgrown path and immediately saw a brown snake, the thickness of a garden hose - a four-footer - and, according to my handbook, Reptiles of the Solomon Islands, probably a venomous land snake of the genus Salomonelaps (it flattened itself when provoked, and hissed, and made a chewing movement with its jaws; "The toxicity of its venom is unknown but could be regarded as potentially dangerous to humans ..."). Farther on, there was a big clumsy crashing in the bush, and I had a glimpse of a creature I took to be a dog.

"No. It is a lizard," Ataban said.

A lizard as big as a cocker spaniel? The reptile handbook suggested monitor lizard. How different it was just a half a mile inland from the breezy beach! here it was still and hot and steamy, and the air stank of wet and rotten leaves. There was a spider on every  bough, and even in the daytime the air was thick with mosquitoes. Merely by grazing a tree trunk with your elbow you picked up a mass of biting ants. We had not gone fifty yards when the ants had worked their way to my neck. Fat Ataban walked ahead, slapping his arms. We came to a rectangle of stones.

"This is the grave of the man who first welcomed the birds to Savo," Ataban said. "He was on the hill. The bird came and wanted to stay. But the devil - the snake - would not allow it. Then the bird laid an egg. The man ate the egg and said, 'This is good.' So the bird was allowed to stay, as long as it promised to go on laying the eggs."

We walked farther, all the while Ataban was muttering in a complaining way. "This is tambu," and waving his arms. "No trees may be cut here," he said. "No ropes" - he meant vines - "may be cut."

And because the bush had never been cut, and was seldom visited, it was vast and green and dark - very dense and tall. The megapodes were squawking like chickens in the tree branches. This was their haunt. A large black spider hung in a web just in front of the tabu-grove. The spider's body was about the size of a silver dollar and the legs were each bout three inches long. Passing it, Ataban punched the web. "Did you see the spider?"
"Yes. It will not hurt you."

We did not go very far into the grove. There was no path, for one thing. The whole place was overgrown, and the trees were thick - their trunks averaging about two feet in diameter. It was so strange to see such old trees on a small island: normally they would have been cut for firewood or for houses. The bamboos which grew everywhere here in dense clusters, were deep green and fat, the thickness of a drainpipe. Ataban was nervous. He said, "It is just there. And I tell you it is very tambu. Look at it, but do not go near." I saw a pile of boulders.

"That is where they burn the feegs to ashes in the sacrifice."
"I can't see very well. There are too many trees."
"We believe that if anyone cuts down a tree here he will get sick. He will probably die."

The word tambu - taboo - had a definite meaning in this creepy place. The sunlight hardly penetrated the trees, and because there was no path we had to push the bamboos aside in order to move - and the whole place hummed with insects and the kuk kuk kuk of the roosting megapodes. And as we moved slowly through the grove a pig blundered out of the sacred place and Ataban kicked at the startled creature and yelled "Yu gettim bek!" - as though the only proper way to address a pig was in Pidgin. We crashed through the bush a bit more, he showed me another sacred hill, and I asked, "Why don't you have ceremonies these days?" "If a person carries out a sacrifice and burns a pig to ashes he can't go to church. But I could do it, because I believe in kastom."

Back on the path, badly bitten, after two hours of that tangle of spiders and vines - we were both drenched from the wet leaves and the heat - Ataban said protestingly. "I tell you I have shown many people the megapode fields, but I have never taken anyone to the tambu place. You are the first one, ever."

I told him that I appreciated the trouble he had taken. "Now you will go back to your camp and write about it in your notebook."

"How do you know?"
"I see you sitting and writing all the time."

I thought I was alone on the beach, but I should have known better. There is no privacy in a village. "Don't be silly, Ataban. I can keep a secret. Of course I'm not going to write this down."

But as soon as he was out of sight it was exactly what I did.

I stayed on Savo longer than I intended, and after I ran out of food I simply ate yams and megapode eggs, which were the yolkiest eggs I had ever seen. One day James came by in his motor-boat and after a little bargaining - I gave him my fish spear and a full tank of gas - we went fifteen miles across The Slot to Nggela, to look at Tulaghi. The town had been captured by the Japanese in January 1942. It was retaken by the Americans in August, and because of its deep harbour, this was the heaqdquarters for the invasion of Guadalcanal. There were rock walls at the harbour entrance. Once they had been painted with American war cries, on the instructions of Admiral "Bu8ll" Halsey.

"... we steamed into Tulaghi Harbour," an American sailor wrote, remembering his first sight of the place in 1944. "There were great tall bluffs, palisades towering out of the sea on both sides of the entrance, and there painted on the bare rock in letters that were maybe a hundred and fifty feet high was a message. The top line read KILL ... KILL ... KILL, second line, KILL MORE JAPS, third line signed, HALSEY. We all cheered, because we were all trained killers, parts of a powerful killing machine. But later, it made me think about the ways we had been settling differences with the Japanese." Now the town of Tulaghi was even more deserted and de4relict than it had been in the war - beer cans everywhere, paper blowing, broken bottles, empty houses.

As we walked around, James told me stories of his days on a Japanese long-line tuna boat, earning forty dollars a month. The boat brought the fish directly to Japan, where in Yokohama, James had fallen in with American blacks, who asked him whether he was from the States. "They didn't know here the Solomon Islands is. But they took me to bars and bought me beer." He found Japan expensive. He swapped cuts of tuna with bartenders for bottles of whisky. Japan bewildered him. "It is all Japanese people. There was no one like me there." Eventually I loaded my boat and said goodbye to the people at Balola. I gave the men fish-hooks and the women some silk scarves. It was a perfunctory goodbye. Only the children came to the beach, and when I saw Rebecca hurrying towards the beach I greeted her, but she didn't look up. She chucked a basket full of garbage into the water and walked away. 

Back in Honiara, I visited Bloody Ridge, where thousands of men died in 1942. I paddled up the gray-green Lungga River for five miles, but it was a much more noxious sewer than the sea, because it ran more slowly, and wherever I looked there was trash, or shit, or dead animals. The people looked wild, yet they were unfailingly courteous, and everyone I greeted said hello. The town was dreadful. I wanted to get out of it, but not leave the Solomons. And remembering how I had circled the green volcano in my boat, paddling slowly, and listening to Puccini, I had a strong desire to return to Savo. The night before I left Guadalcanal I fell into conversation with a Solomon Islander named Kipply and told him I was off to Vanuatu. "You will enjoy it. They are like us there," he said, and I felt better.

*Tulaghi is Tulagi

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