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Song of Solomons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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