Solomon Islands – 14 countries from home (skulls and blue skies)
Day 2,212 since October 10th 2013: 189 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Beauty, the beast and the very beautiful
I can hardly believe everything which has happened in the past week?!? Solomon Islands is such a treasure trove!! And then there is the stuff behind the curtains. And people continue to be amazing. Basically nothing went as I hoped for this past week and it still all went pretty good. I guess the Rolling Stones were right.
Last week I left the good ship “Shengking” and its brave crew and walked down the gangway to set foot upon country number 189 without flying. I looked back at the ship and waved farewell to the kind Captain who waved back at me. With my heavy bags over my shoulders I made my way towards security so I could exit the port. Nobody stopped me. Nobody checked my documents. Most men I met were chewing betel nut and everyone was super friendly and relaxed. Solomon Islands is the paragon of laidbackness…which isn’t a word but around here that does not matter ;)
Honiara is a rather cool and very historical city and I felt safe wherever I went.
Minutes later I had found an ATM and withdrew some Solomon Dollar. Then I walked across the street to meet Francis and the team at Tradco. Tradco is the agent for Swire Shipping | China Navigation Co in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, and they happen to own 60% of Tradco. Francis is a great guy who is actually from PNG but is now stationed in Honiara and getting to know his way around the new environment. There are more than a few similarities between PNG and Solomon Islands but there are certainly also some distinct differences. Solomon (for short) is home to a rather small population of around 620,000 beating hearts spread out over nearly 1,000 unreasonably beautiful islands. Seriously!! Most of this country could easily be a screensaver. Francis set me up with a desk and some wifi and told me that I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted. I stepped out of the office for a while to go and get a simcard which in itself was rather cheap but mobile data was comparably expensive. For about USD 30 you are set up with around 3GB which generally doesn’t get you very far in a project like this. As someone once said to me: “you must need internet like you need air”. In Singapore you would be getting 100GB for that kind of money. But in all fairness I find that my 3GB in Solomon has already lasted much longer than 3GB in any other country I can remember.
I was invited to deliver a motivational Saga talk and had some fun with the Tradco team in Honiara :)
I returned to the office and got busy with work. I managed to get last week’s blog online for you guys and I sent off the 14th story I’ve written for Tidningen Syre in Sweden. It still cracks me up that Sweden has shown more interest in the Saga than Denmark. And yet the Danes still ring in as the second largest amount of Saga followers behind those mighty US Americans (number 1) and ahead of the UK, India and Canada in that order. Canada is new on the chart! For a long while the fifth largest group of followers were Indonesians. Anyway…I had to work out a plan for Solomon’s. The ride onward to country number 190 had already been secured after Neptune Pacific Line (NPL) accepted to take me onboard. However the ship was not due until mid November leaving me with some time on my hands. It has not been easy setting up meetings with the Red Cross and Red Crescent worldwide. Unfortunately the dissemination of this project has not been very strong and it generally takes forever to make contact and fix a date. Solomon Islands Red Cross Society (SIRCS) had also not responded at the time when I reached the country. However that was less of a dilemma know that I had nearly three weeks on my hands. That same day Secretary General Clement Manuri actually replied that SIRCS would be happy to meet with me while in Honiara. We were close to the weekend though and it seemed better to schedule a meeting for a few weeks later. So what about accommodation?
Surrounded by love in the GDS (Guadalcanal Travel Solomons) office right next to Tradco :)
Well there are plenty of options around Honiara for accommodation. The lowest prices appear to be around USD 37 per night while there are several luxury options too. My friend David from World Adventurer reached out to me as he had stayed at Honiara Hotel and could introduce me to the owner Mr Chan. It didn’t take David more than a minute to send out an email with me in copy. As the afternoon began to sneak up on me Francis suggested that Tradco could give me a lift and help me find a place to stay. I happily accepted and we drove around from guesthouse to guesthouse looking for the best bid. We eventually stopped by Honiara Hotel to meet Mr Chan and see if he would host me against some online promotion. He was a funny guy and the place looked really nice overlooking Chinatown and sporting its own chocolate factory! Mr Chan offered me a 50% discount which was generous but still too much for my budget. So although I did not stay there I feel he deserves to be mentioned because he did give me a good offer. I ended up at a guesthouse paying USD 74 for two nights. Those two nights gave me some time to explore a bit of Honiara before leaving for the Western Province.
The ferry on my left would take the Saga to Noro.
If you remember my hosts Craig and Theresa in PNG then this ties into them. Mostly Craig though as he went on and on and on about how great the Western Province of Solomon Islands are. There is a port city there called Noro which is a self-proclaimed “Tuna Town”. Noro hosts the countries only Tuna processing facility called SolTuna, which happens to be the country’s largest company. And the refrigerated containers (reefers) that transport all that fish to Japan, Taiwan and where else it goes happens to be Maersk containers loaded onto a Maersk service. So Craig who works for Maersk gets to show up in Noro once in a while. So that is how that works out. In any case a couple of weeks of listening to Craig made me get onboard the ferry from Honiara to Noro.
First class onboard the good ferry "Anjeanette".
I got to choose between regular and first class. Regular cost 460 Solomon Dollar and first class went for 500. So the difference in USD was $5. Those five dollars on the overnight ferry still bought you a place on the floor but much less crowded and with less smell of urine – I treated myself. It’s a rather brilliant experience as the ferry stops at multiple small ports along the way. Some of those villages probably do not even have any cars. And the voyage is unreasonably beautiful! I met some good people onboard and unfortunately suffered from some stomach issues which is never good on a ship. This ship was slightly worse as there was a lack of toilets and the nearest toilet (presumably all the toilets) was quite disgusting. At one point I headed for the toilet and it was occupied. Furthermore a young boy was waiting his turn. I decided that I had it under control but soon realized that I didn’t and needed a toilet ASAP!! The young boy was still waiting his turn so I went for the door that read “FEMALE”. I was soon done but not soon enough because a woman had her chance to ask “is there anyone in there”. Embarrassing. I washed my hands and walked out to a smiling woman who giggled a bit as I smiled and said “sorry, I had no option”.
The ferry stopped at many small places.
I’m not sure what kicked off my stomach issues but it was a 24hr thing. I certainly don’t think it was the food I had while onboard! Every stop along the way to Noro presented a fantastic option to pick up a palm leaf woven basket and go from stall to stall and pick from the fresh fish, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh coconuts and much, much more. Spectacular! It was very cost efficient and it was fun to buy from all the shy smiling women presenting their produce. And it all tasted good. While showing down some watermelon I met a couple of Pastors from some Christian local church called Zarephath. I don’t think I’ve come across that before. But Pastor Frazer Nuapitu invited me to come and stay at his place in Vori Vori near Gizo for just USD 12 including accommodation and meals. He would even take me snorkelling. So that very much became a part of the plan. It was late when the ferry finally reached Noro and I needed a place to sleep. Noro is a tiny very local village with a huge tuna processing facility set in beautiful surroundings. I agreed to a price with a female taxi driver with a gentle voice who drove me from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that had room. The room ran me USD 40.
Arriving at Noro at last.
The next day I asked about for a quiet place where I could rest up for a few weeks near the ocean at low costs. People seemed to direct me to Munda which is a 20 minute drive from Noro. A bit off topic but very relevant to Solomon is that these islands are packed with WWII history of the USA fighting against Japan. The 1998 movie The Thin Red Line was shot and took place in Solomon and the stories are endless. There is a really special story about when John F. Kennedy was a naval lieutenant here but that story will have to wait until next week. Craig had given me a contact (Pierre) at NDF (National Fisheries Development) who operate 11 fishing boats. I walked over to say hello and see what would happen. Pierre is a great guy who is originally South African but now from Australia however living and working in Solomon. He was happy to help me and it just so turned out that he lives in Munda and could give me a ride.
Noro industrial port. Cool to see canoes next to a container ship.
Later that evening Pierre and I met up again and he drove me through the thick jungle to Munda where we went from guesthouse to guesthouse looking for a good price for accommodation. Pierre who is a passionate diver with basically every thinkable licence and more than 5,000 dives was a good sport in taking his time with me. We drove around in Munda (which is a tiny place) while he pointed out shops, cafes, the bank, the market place and stopped at more and more guesthouses. Friendliness and being overwhelmingly helpful really seems to be a trade in Solomon no matter if you are a local or an expat. At one point I was offered a room across the quiet airstrip for 216 Solomon Dollar. What an odd amount? The evening progressed, I met many kind people and I was finally dropped off at Rovihina Home Stay a short ten minute walk from the local market and just across the dirt road from the azure blue ocean. Perfect! I negotiated a price for four nights at USD 25 per night with access to a kitchen. Accommodation appears to be the factor on a budget in Solomon. Good food is rather inexpensive, transport is affordable and I entered visa free as I’m from Denmark. That night I settled in and was about to head out on a search for food when the owner showed up with a plate of food. Hospitality off the hook!
Yum yum!! Cooking is great in Solomon and often involves coconut milk :)
In my mind I had pictured a small bungalow type of accommodation on a white sand beach for next to nothing. I had pictured that I would sleep a lot, read in my book, go for a run, snorkel on a reef and empty my mind from everything. Instead I got a basic little room at a homestay which was slightly above my budget. Beautiful surroundings but no sand beach. And I did not get to do any of all the things I planned for. At least not the first week. However I got something else. The Saga can be immensely stressful!! For more than six years I have been working towards a goal which can always be side railed at any moment. In reality the project is a failure on its fundamental level if there is just a single country in the world which I cannot enter. After six years we are now down to 14 countries and it is tense. Theoretically we should be able to reach them all in the course of the next six months but there are no guarantees. Most people are helpful but quite often people who I rely on do not give their part in the puzzle the required urgency for me to meet deadlines. It frustrates me beyond imagination!!! It happens from time to time that people I rely on fail me miserably and I am unable to share that with you because you generally don’t bite the hand that feeds you. If I was to bite that hand then it could compromise this entire project. So there are often nobody I can shout at when all I want to do is shout my face blue and purple!!
People see this and think I am on a holiday. It is however amazing surroundings to be frustrated in.
A key but low practical example is being stopped at a checkpoint and providing a policeman various documentation. The policeman is unpleasant and unreasonable but I need to stay calm and subservient or else I risk going to prison. This has nothing to do with the frustrations I experience today however I have been in such situations in the past. The fact of the matter is that things might not always seem as bright and happy as they often appear across the Saga’s social media or even here in the blogs which tend to be more honest. Even now I cannot tell you some of the extreme complications I face which anyone who cares the slightest bit about the Saga would find outrageous. And that is basically as much as I can tell you about that. But in this moment of writing something in the near future can go very wrong and set the Saga back a few months. Or everything will go well in which case you are unlikely to know. There are by the way several other reasons to keep the Saga “a happy place”. For one I would not want to be denied access to anything because I was too political or too harsh about someone or something. I however also tend to share the “good news” through the Saga as there isn’t enough of it in the public space. Negative stories rule and they even have the strongest individualists convinced on some fronts. And if you do not know what I’m on about right now then just consider this: most people have not been to North Korea, most people have heard about North Korea, most people would not be able to say a single good thing about North Korea. That is the most extreme example of how information affects us. How is it possible that people only have negativity to spread about a place they have never been? You get to answer that yourself.
Children in Munda are like fish in the water, giggling and doing backflips. I love how this photo turned out.
Malaria. That is a word that instils fear in westerners. For millions of people it’s just part of life sort of like traffic. Fun fact: We have reached every country in the world with Malaria except for one. So Solomon Islands is our second last “malaria country”. Malaria is not as scary as it’s made out to be. Yes: malaria is a big killer but it is tragically mostly among children younger than five years among families that have not received the information I’m about to share with you. And furthermore this information is meant as travel advice. Malaria is a parasitic decease and it can be dealt with. In many cases completely avoided. Consider that I visited every country in Africa (54) and that took 2 years and 3 months. Most African countries have malaria endemic (but not all). Malaria is transmitted by a certain type of mosquito (not all). And most mosquitoes of that specific type do not even carry malaria. Mosquito eggs especially hatch during rain-season and I experienced several of those. And yet I only contracted malaria once!
In the picture the yellow pills are against malaria. The red ones are for motion sickness. We’ve got a lot of ocean to cover so it’s good to be prepared.
Precautions!! Mosquitoes are attracted to dark places so wear light clothes. Use mosquito repellent. Sleep under a mosquito net. A chemically treated net is even better. Mosquitos don’t like the cold or a draft so switch on the air-conditioning or a fan if available. Choose a room with mosquito nets on the windows if you can. And if it’s really bad or simply to be extra safe you can take malaria pills (for short periods at least). I’m currently taking doxycycline here in Solomon Islands. It’s a prophylaxis (preventive) and rather inexpensive. Speak to your doctor but don’t let malaria scare you off. Know what you’re dealing with and take precautions. Besides, malaria mosquitoes are usually only out around dusk and dawn. Solomon Islands have crocodiles too. You can’t take pills against them but you can ask locals if there are any in the area. If malaria and crocodiles scares you from visiting a wonderful, exciting, adventurous, relaxing, delightful, beautiful and friendly country such as Solomon Islands then perhaps you will see truth in one of my favourite quotes: Helen Keller (1880-1968) once wrote: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”.
Breakfast - island style.
Let’s get back to Munda. The homestay was built for the purpose by Lonsi who’s a pretty cool guy, husband and father to three. He married into another family so he lives a small walk from the homestay. All the surrounding houses are family. Solomon is a family kind of place. Anyway…on my first morning the owner who made dinner for me the night before woke me up because she had half of a cool, fresh papaya for me on a plate. Enjoy. I can’t remember her name but she is a sweet old lady. I got on my feet after breakfast and walked around town to have a look. Then I did some shopping before returning and dealing with some of all the administrative matters of this perennial journey. It’s funny. I don’t even think of Once Upon A Saga as a travel project. Travel is simply a necessity for the overall completion. Anyway…again…Munda is a really laidback town and about the size of the place I grew up. A few thousand people at most. Everybody knows everybody. People are helpful and considerate. The quiet atmosphere rubs off and I have actually been feeling pretty good apart from some of the administrative frustrations. I still do my push-ups and here towards the end of the month I’m always getting closer and closer to the maximum which is forty. And lately I’ve been taking them without a problem at all. I finished the month doing forty in one set without slowing down. The doxycycline comes with a few side effects. One of them is the skins sensibility to sunlight and I’m already a target with a mother from Finland and a father from Denmark. So I quickly managed to get my shins and neck burned. I should probably buy some sunscreen one of these days ;)
The ladies coconut competition.
The Laguna Festival opened. It’s an annual event which celebrates its 10th year and runs for a few days. The regional beauty pageant arrived on a decorated boat to give a speck and open the festival. Mornings and early afternoons seem to have blue sky and sun while afternoons and evenings are dark with rain. It didn’t stop the festival. Food, games, music, dancing and good times. While people in PNG fly everywhere people in Solomon like to sail…and swim. There are small motor boats in the water all over the place and lots of wooden canoes too. Children laugh and do backflips into the ocean. The children are like dolphins in the water. Wickham is a prominent family name around these parts. Aleck Wickham was born in nearby Gizo and pioneered the crawl, or freestyle swimming stroke, which he introduced to Australia and from there it spread to the world. It is fun to think that there was a time when people didn’t know about crawl? But then it also took the Fosbury Flop before people realized that it was more efficient to jump backwards instead of forwards in the athletics event of high jump. Aleck Wickham did not invent the crawl stroke, because it was already a common thing at least in Solomon. However he did introduce it to the western world which even today is dominant in terms of global culture.
Lonsi in the back and Tokoro next to me :)
Approaching Scull Island.
I heard about Scull Island and thought it would be a good idea to head out there. So one morning I spoke to Lonsi who was happy to mobilise a boat. He ended up boating me out there himself and he brought Tokoro along with us. Good company. I screwed up a bit as I thought Lola Island was the same as Scull Island so we agreed on a price to Lola Island and headed out there. Lola Island is great by the way and has a small resort which I would recommend anyone who has time and money. Fortunately Scull Island was just another five minutes away so we left Lola Island after just five minutes. Neither Lonsi nor Tokoro had been to Scull Island which made it even more interesting. To my surprise Scull Island was a tiny thing but shrouded in mystery. I knew that it was were a tribe of head hunters used to bring the sculls for sacred rituals and witchcraft. And then I loosely knew that the surrounding tribes at some point got together and killed everyone from the head hunter tribe.
The head hunters of Roviana Lavata were the most notorious.
I was the first one to set foot on the island which was covered in coconuts a green plants. As I made my way forward I encountered some Christian tombs and had to step around some additional graves on my way to the sculls which were becoming visible in the distance. It was a strange place to be. Some bottles had been arranged around some of the graves as if rituals were still being carried out. There were also some man made stone formations which I couldn’t quite make any sense of. It was not a place I would like to be after nightfall. But in daylight and together with Lonsi and Tokoro I was just curious. I have since read that Scull Island is one of the most sacred sites in the area. We probably should not have been there without the guidance of a prominent villager as a guide. Rituals should have been performed before entering and the spirits may now be upset and come to harm me. So…let’s hope not ;) Nah, Lonsi and Tokoro knew that and said a few words before we stepped onto the island. In any case if you go then I recommend you do it through an organized tour and pay admission. I will not be expensive and you should definitely show some respect. The latest sculls appear to date back about a hundred years. Some are of the warrior’s enemies and others are of the warriors respected chieftains. And Scull Island is in fact also a direct link to the past for the villagers I the area. While there I couldn’t help wondering if some of the sculls might have been related to some of the families back in Munda. Probably?! The boat ride there took about forty minutes.
Breathtaking views await those who venture to Solomon Islands.
On the way back Tokoro and I were looking across the ridiculous beauty of Roviana Lagoon. We spotted a flock of birds circling above a spot of the ocean and diving down to catch their pray. Tokoro explained that there was a school of yellowtail fish beneath. I always find it interesting how we all have local knowledge depending on where we grow up. Looking across the ocean, the birds, the clouds…I couldn’t help feel like what I was looking at should be narrated by David Attenborough. He’s by the way 93 years old now and still kicking. I asked Lonsi to drop me off at the Lagoon Festival where I sat down and had some fish which I ate with my hands. I love eating fish like that. Then I met a young guy named Nelson and we ended up talking. Then we began walking and had a look around town. On my list of things to do I had “walk on the runway”. When arriving to Munda I noticed that there was a gate in the fence which surrounds the airstrip. And there were dirt trails in the grass where people had walked in order to cross the runway. So I wanted to go there. It is not everywhere you get to walk out onto a runway at free will. An airplane just so happened to be coming in when we reached the gate so we waited a few minutes before crossing the fence into the secure area. Funny thing. It was more like a railway in the sense that people look before they cross. Good stuff.
Hanging out with Nelson on the runway :)
Later on I was back at the Festival to witness the coconut competition. First the women and then the men. In teams they would peal the husk off in record speed, crack the coconuts and then clean out the coconut meat into a woven basket. Each team had to do five coconuts and it was clearly hard work. Earlier on I missed the “start a fire by rubbing sticks” competition but I’m okay with that hearing that it took TWO HOURS before they got a fire going!! They also held a palm leaf basket weaving competition which I would have liked to see and a triathlon with swimming, canoeing and running. The festival encompasses all sorts of stuff. It is good fun but I’ve already missed out on most of it and will be on a ferry heading towards Gizo during the final competitions Friday.
There are some seriously cool hairdos in circulation around here.
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you find you get what you need”. That has certainly been my week…more or less. I treasure the many conversations with random people. People such as Wickham’s granddaughter. I’m grateful for the random acts of kindness. You know…when a stranger like me needs something, then all too often it becomes an opportunity for the environment to make some extra money. Often people will drop what they have in their hands and rush over to see how they can twists some money out of me. I do not feel that at all here in Solomon. Here it feels like people will drop whatever they have in their hands and rush over to see how they can help – because they want to see a stranger succeed.
This blog came online thanks to the curtsy of Pierre as I sat in his office at NFD in Noro for a few hours, as wifi was scarce anywhere else :)
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - to be continued next Friday!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga