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Song of Solomons

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

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

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

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

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


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