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.
A lorikeet, one of the
twenty-one species found in and around the Solomons.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I told her what she wanted to
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"Yu go we tude?" Mapo
asked me the next day. "Yu wokabaot Kwila? You laik samting, you laik
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.
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
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
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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