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Song of Solomons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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