The Papuan Chief ploughed a course through Iron Bottom Sound: the watery graveyard of hundreds – if not thousands – of ships, aircrafts and soldiers killed in the Pacific War between Japan and America. Our target was Guadalcanal – the main island of the Solomons. On the bridge the shipping chart marked off all of the wreck sites… and there were many.
There’s a bit in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which the American troops, armed to the teeth, are marching through long grass and a native Solomon Islander glides past them as if they were never there. That image has stuck in my head for years.
We arrived in Honiara on Saturday afternoon. By the time the ship had been pulled alongside and the usual formalities had been worked out, it was 4pm. Captain Santos had given me a Papuan Chief ID to get me in and out of the port and – with no mobile phone reception on my UK, PNG or Oz SIMs – asked me to check in with the ship tomorrow at noon, but doubted whether we’d be underway before 6pm tomorrow. So under a heavy sky I tip-toed down the gangplank and finally – FINALLY – set foot in my 185th nation, The Solomon Islands.
The Solomons, along with PNG, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, make up the island group of Melanesia – if you’re suspecting that’s got something to do with melanin, then you’d be right: ‘Melanesia’ loosely means ‘Islands of the Black-Skinned’ – essentially to differentiate the people here from Polynesia (Many Islands) and Micronesia (Small Islands) – islands we now know are populated primarily by sea-farers originally hailing from what we now call Taiwan, while Melanesians are more closely related to the Australian Aboriginals.
I made my own way out of the port, with a couple of the guys from the side of the Papuan Chief shouting out which way to go in the maze of cargo containers, a bit like the TV show Knightmare. After a quick chat with Luciano, the security guy on the main gate, he gave me a port pass and I strode out, a little unsure of what to expect, onto the streets of Honiara.
Poor old Honiara. A dirty, dejected port town – although ‘village’ might be more apt a word – which, I’m told does not reflect the rest of the Solomons one iota. The street (there’s only really one) was filled with people milling about, sitting, staring, waiting for godknows what. Like PNG and plenty of other countries I’ve visited, the mood was one that you could call hostile until you crack a smile and then it’s all smiles back.
The town has quite a dramatic setting, with green hills surrounding the wharf in a pleasant arc around Kua Bay, but the concrete catastrophes that constitute buildings these days do little to alleviate the air of squalor and wretchedness about the place. Another country trampled in the stampede for the poison chalice we call independence. The security here is provided by Australia and New Zealand – a group called Ramsi: the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. The last couple of decades have not been kind to the Solomons – ethic tensions between islands never before brought together as a nation resulted in brutal acts of violence and threatened to destabilise the region – even plunge it into civil war. Just a few years ago, an unfavourable election result brought about the burning down of Chinatown and days of rioting. Honiara is a tense place. I held my camcorder and laptop close to my body as I walked.
The first thing I wanted to do was to buy a Solomon’s SIM card so I could call Thomas – my CouchSurf host (one of two in the country) for the night. I walked all the way up Mendana Avenue, stopping into every store on the way asking to buy a SIM and getting a frosty reception from the Chinese owners who invariably fobbed me off somewhere else. As the minutes ticked by towards 5pm I realised my task would be in vain – the two phone shops were closed and wouldn’t be open again until Monday.
As a result of the mobile phone revolution, public phoneboxes are increasingly difficult to find, and in places like Honiara at 5pm on a Saturday it’s harder than trying to find a person who hasn’t seen Star Wars and doesn’t brag about it at parties. So I figured I’d pull my tourist card and headed over to the nearest hotel.
The Merdana Hotel is a lovely place, done out in traditional wooden style; a breath of fresh air after plodding up and down that hideous main street for the past hour. I went to the reception desk and asked if I may use the phone to make a local call. The guy behind the desk said okay and dialled the number for me. Thomas was at another bar and said he’d pick me up in ten minutes.
One of the things that made Lae a tricky place to like (aside from the ‘never walk alone, even during the day’ rule) was the lack of young ex-pats living there. As the ‘never walk alone’ rule made it difficult to ingratiate myself with the locals, ex-pats were my only source of entertainment. While Lae’s yacht club and the golf club more than satisfied my needs in the two weeks I was there, if I was staying longterm I would probably prefer to see more of my age group knocking around. Honiara has no such problems – thanks to Ramsi, the EU, the UN, NATO, SPECTRE and The Man From UNCLE, there’s plenty of young guns willing to grab a beer and spend a night on the tiles.
Thomas’ first act was to take me to another bar where a girl called Katie was celebrating her 39th birthday. So far so good. There were a good thirty-odd young ex-pats there from Australia, New Zealand, the UK and other assorted countries that feel a pang of responsibility when it comes to how wretchedly the last fifty years have treated the undeveloping world. Thomas introduced me to Patti, his delectable ladyfriend from Barcelona, as well as a team of his mates who would take me under their wing for the night.
There was a slap-up feast in the offing, but as I would have to pay Captain Santos back the 100 Solomon Dollars (10GBP) he lent me, I elected to stay at the bar and meet Thomas later on… at a house party, no less.
So the one night I spent in The Solomon Islands revolved around a house party. Some might say that was just good timing on my behalf, and they would be right. Thomas’ mates drove me to the party after the pub and I got to stamp my foot on the ground when I exclaimed that this was the 185th country of The Odyssey Expedition: the gears in my brain-counter a little rusty from months of being stuck on 184. I got chatting, the way you do, putting the world to rights and generally walking the thin line between being knowledgeable, interesting and funny all at the same time – the walk that we all expect alcohol to facilitate, when we all know it probably doesn’t. The trick is to ensure that everybody else is equally as squiffy.
The end of the night morphs into a melty mess of mushy memories – I seem to recall a club called Club Extreme, a dancefloor and some tunes. I don’t remember what they played or what havoc I may or may not have caused… I just remember feeling happy and drunk and wondering if I’d still have my hat on in the morning.