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Thursday, June 23, 2011

And now for something completely different…THE BIG DIVE

I return from my Weathercoast adventure completely exhausted. I’ve been away three weeks out of four and I’m tired. Beyond tired. The boat travel, sun burns, insect bites in places that one should not have insect bites, lack of food and water, heat, sleeping on the floor etc…has left me a bit depleted. I feel like I am at the trough of the wave that is the Solomon Islands experience. I know things will get better because a)things always get better and b) things will get better because I am no longer on the Weathercoast.

To make matters worse, I come home full of bad stories and I meet up with my friend Mark. Mark kindly pronounces that he got carjacked in PNG the week before and got chased down by men with shotguns. Mark always outstories me. I have come to hate Mark. Here is his story.

So, I’m taking a bit of a break (plus I am off to Makira tomorrow and I am going to ROCK Makira). My good friend Horatio, my former dive instructor, has kindly agreed to give me a bit of a break and blog on my behalf about his amazing dive of the U.S.S. Atlanta.

Thanks Horatio. I’m going to go take a nap now. Oh and the girls, Priscella and Henrietta are getting along fine; I ate some poached eggs this morning. Delicious!

The Big Dive

“Why don’t you write about your dive on my blog,” asks Sara at breakfast. Me, a guest blogger, I don’t even have Facebook (Editor’s Note: Good, don’t do it. I believe that Facebook is evil...) Nevertheless, I am up for anything and enjoy sharing my love of diving so why not. Maybe Sara will let me pick my own pen name, Horatio has a nice maritime sound to it.

(Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to let Horatio’s pen name stand. I think it sounds nice, hornblowing and all…)

The Ship

It’s huge, really, it’s enormous. The USS Atlanta saw very heavy action during the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War 2 (Editor’s Note: See the Wikipedia article on it here) and after suffering heavy damage was sunk by the Americans between Lunga and Point Cruz when it was unable to go any further. The loss of the Atlanta also represented the loss of 157 men. The Atlanta now lies on its port (left) side in 130 meters of water (Editor’s note: HOLY CRAP! YOU CRAZY B*STARDS ARE GOING TO DIVE THAT????) and presents a very demanding and technical dive.

The Divers (Editor’s comment: aka the Crazy B*stards)

It is a very small and prestigious club of divers that have visited the Atlanta. Current numbers stand at a total of around 20 divers (Editor’s note: More people have climbed Mt. Everest and K2. Just sayin’) that have made the descent down to her watery grave. On this dive, we have myself (now know as Horatio), Gabe (see previous blog) and Bob. We also have 4 dive buddies that are providing safety and backup both in the water and on the boat.

The Dive

Preparations for the dive start four days before when we start to get our gear and the gas we will be breathing ready or blended. On the bottom we will be breathing a mixture of only 8% oxygen, 80% Helium and 12% Nitrogen (Editor’s note: Am tempted to make gas jokes but will restrain myself). There are also other gas mixes that have to be made to complete the whole dive and we need to make sure that our gear is working and in perfect order.

We arrive at the Point Cruz Yacht Club at 8 am on the 13th June and meet our very excited backup team. We all load the boat with all our equipment as we joke with each other and then sit back while Bob briefs everyone on how things are going to happen. As the clock ticks by, the excitement is building very quickly to the point I can’t even sit still anymore and have to stand and pace about.

We board the dive boat and start the 10 minute trip out into Iron Bottom Sound to what is about to be the craziest dive I have ever done. Once over the wreck, we set up the deco station where we will be spending the best part of 2½ hours decompressing on our way back to the surface (EDITOR’S NOTE: HOLY CRAP!!! YOU ARE ALL INSANE!!!!). Each of us starts gearing up while dealing with our apprehension in our own way. Bob has done this dive several time before and seems very calm but for me and Gabe, this is the first time.

We roll off the boat into the water and the lads hand down all our extra dive tanks. We carry 5 in total with 3 more backups. Once the 3 of us are ready, we start what will be my longest descent yet. A little over 2 minutes later I can make out what I think is the bottom. I glance at my dive computer and it is telling me I am at 109 meters. OK I think to myself, I can see the bottom but cannot see the wreck and as I am the first one down, I will have to find it. I see a beam and start to follow it to what I believe will be the Atlanta.

As I swim along I look to my left and notice a ship’s funnel. Now that’s strange I think to myself. It is then that I realise that the “sea floor” that I am following is actually the ship’s hull (EDITOR’S NOTE: WHOA).

I drop over the side of the wreck to see what can only be described as the carnage of battle. This ship is a mess. I swim along the wreckage of the Atlanta and get to a depth of about 115 meters when my regulators start to fail due to the depth. I find I have to fight for each breath I take and the vibrations it is causing is shaking my whole body and the sound is deafening (Editor’s Note: I vaguely remember this from the movie the Abyss, when the Navy Seal guy went totally nutso. That movie, by the way, makes up the sum total of my deep water diving knowledge and about sea aliens thingys). This cannot be good at this depth.

Breathing is becoming more difficult and I have to continue to fight for each breath I take but this dive is just so awesome. I don’t want to leave, it’s only been 13 minutes and I want to stay longer. Everything about this ship is big and I am enjoying the dive and experiencing this very special place. At 103 meters, I make the decision that yes, things can get much worse than what they are and it is time for me to end this dive and start to make the long trip to the surface. I signal Bob and Gabe and move to the line and start moving up it.

The ascent does not bring any relief to my failing gear and I continue to get shaken violently and deafened by the noise it is creating. However, salvation is at hand. After drawing a final laboured breath from my gear, I am now at a depth where I can swap to a different gas, which also means correctly working gear (EDITOR’S NOTE: Phew! I was worried I might have to find someone else to have breakfast with from now on...)

The rest of dive was quite uneventful. The next two hours where spent at progressively shallower depths breathing different gases to try and rid our bodies of the excess nitrogen and helium that we breathed during the dive. Our final stop was at three meters where we spend just shy of 40 minutes. Different divers deal with decompression stops in their own ways, Bob for example went to sleep (EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob is such a bad ass), I removed my mask and let the warm tropical water wash over my face while I zoned out. Gabe sat there watch the world go by (EDITOR’S NOTE: Gabe often does this whether or not he is diving.)

In Summary

The USS Atlanta will go down as one of those special places in my heart, next to such places as Kranji and Everest (Editor’s Note: Horatio went to base camp…which is harder than anyone who hasn’t done can imagine. Horatio is a freakin’ rockstar). Training and experience helped keep fear turning to panic and I thank Bob for providing me with the training that prepared me for my Atlanta dive (Editor’s Note: I sense that Horatio practices this speech in front of the mirror when preparing to collect the diving Oscar award). Even now, writing this four days later, I am still on a high (Editor’s Note: this could be due to all the drugs that Horatio takes, but whatever, it’s cool).

Was it worth it? Every bone shaking moment. (Editor’s Note: I will NOT be doing it…breathe, Mom and Dad, breathe…)
Would I do it again? Already planning it (Editor’s note: this makes you an even crazier b*stard than I thought…I wonder if there is anyone else in Honiara I can have breakfast with…)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Village of the (Damned) Bogans

“If you are going through hell, keep going.”
-Winston Churchill

Our boat engine has died.  Again.  Now, Solomon Islanders are particularly stoic people; they go with the flow etc…but when something goes wrong…really wrong, they try to settle the score with God so things can go back to normal again. 

 “Confess! Someone needs to confess!!!!!” the Boat Driver yells.

I swallow.Confessing my sins in front of my coworkers is the last thing I want to do...

Before I left on my Temotu/Wogasia/Weathercoast trifecta adventures, my country manager tells me to confess my sins to the smallest child I can find to ensure good luck with boats.  I’m not entirely sure I feel comfortable with revealing my sins to a child, so I pass it off as a joke.  He says it makes sense because the child won’t remember and can’t tell anybody.

It all seemed very superstitious and mystical; to confess one’s sins just to make sure a boat engine works.  Now I begin to wonder if maybe there was something to it…   

A tropical depression hits the Weathercoast hard, while we are still on the boat.  The seas rise and massive waves are generated, slapping the coast and the hull of our boat.  Now would not be an ideal time for our engine to fail.  Which, of course, it does. 

The second boat comes around and it takes the entire crew’s strength to hold the two boats together long enough for Regan and me to safely cross over.  As soon as our bums hit the hard seats, I breathe out a sigh of relief. 

The boys quickly repair the engine (sea water keeps getting into the petrol tanks) and we are all motoring again.  Until the engine on the second boat fails and we have to make the cross again.  As the engine threatens to fail a third time, I am about ready to confess every single bad thing I’ve ever done to some flying fish or maybe my chickens.  I’m a fan of whatever gets the engine started again, silly traditions or not.

We finally make what can only be described as rough and/or suicidal landing on a rocky beach.  More cracks in the boat appear, especially in the hull.  But it doesn’t matter, I am back on dry land.

“That was a little rough,” the boat driver says.  No kidding.  The Solomon Islanders are the kings of understatement.

As soon as we arrive, the tropical depression decides we need some rain.  The rain falls in huge, vicious drops as we hike up to the next village.  By the time we arrive, we are soaked.  The village welcomes us quietly and seems to understand that it has not been an easy voyage for our team.  They give us hot drinks, food and leave us alone to our guesthouse, where we sleep.  The program is supposed to be at night but the tropical depression continues to batter to the coast.  The wind howls outside and the rain sounds like live ordinances hitting the roof.    

We make a break from the rest house in the evening to go and meet with the community at the church.  We sing songs and clap.  Despite the horrible weather, I find this village beautiful and wish I had more time there. The large immaculately kept lawns are circled by tall leaf houses.  The young chief looks after us all night, and ensures we have as pleasant of a stay as possible.    

We leave the village, anxious for the last day to be over.  The tropical depression has died down now and it leaves a lovely sunny day out on the water.  I figure the worst had passed.  I was wrong. 


I should have known that no travel experience is truly complete without running into a pack of bogans.
Now, my experience with bogans has been…checkered.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are bogans.  As individuals, they are lovely, kind, good contributing members of society.  But get them together; add booze and/or drugs, and barbeque…suddenly the bogan tribe turns into an unmanageable group of hooligans crazies that engage in head butting, petty crimes and general mayhem. 

In New Zealand, I witnessed a number of fist fights and a general horrific disregard for other people in general at bogan parties.  I have had so many drunken conversations with at bogan parties where throwing myself at the burning embers of the barbeque seemed a sensible option to continuing any kind of dialogue.  The whole “I hate society and everybody in it” became taxing, especially when the bogans happily take advantage of things like electricity, running water (when there was such a thing in Christchurch) and transportation, without lifting a finger to contribute.  Ah the delusion of entitlement and “I’m going to blame someone else, it’s never my fault, it's all (society, parents, significant others, work, religion, politicians etc...) fault!” runneth strong with the bogans… 

The complete lack of empathy for others and arrogant entitlement really got to me.  It stills does, especially when I live in a developing country where even basic services are completely lacking.  And yet people carry on here and are pretty content with their lot in life…unlike the bogans I knew, who seemed deeply unhappy and angry.  It must be tiring carrying around all that anger all the time; I just couldn’t be bothered with it.

Anyway, bogan parties are not something I ever really want to go through again.  Which is why, of course, I meet the Solomon Island bogans…because that old adage does hold true: whatever you resist persists!

Our little bogan adventure begins on a beach, waiting for our broken down boat to return.  We wait for three hours on the beach during that time guys from the village come down to see us, drink Solbrew (the local beer) and then proceed to ignore us.  I ask for water and/or a coconut…some water comes several hours later; the men are too busy drinking to be bothered to look after the wellbeing of their guests.

Just as the boat finally makes it to the beach, the skies open up and pores down on us.  We hike through the rain to get to the village.

“You are going to be greeted by warriors,” I hear.

Great, I’ve heard that before.  But I enjoyed the experience in Temotu, despite getting grazed in the shoulder by a stray arrow.  I had a bad feeling about this.  

Bushes to the sides of me begin to move and shimmy.  Charcoal blackened faces begin to scream and a pack of wild men/boys jump out from their hiding places.  They are all completely drunk. 

They jump at us, brandishing weapons and wearing charcoal war paint.  The screams grow louder and louder.  There is hopping and screaming.  A club is repeatedly thumped on the ground around me.  Finally, a woman comes out and gives compensation to the warriors and we are promised safe passage.

We get to the village and the women are in full regalia, dancing their greeting.  It’s lovely and I really enjoy watching the dances BUT I’m soaked to the bone and would love to put on some dry clothes.  They wouldn’t let us for about three hours.  The partying had begun and no one could leave.

There was a stage with huge speakers and some mixers.  The speakers looked new, as did the generator that powered the whole set up.  A kind of Solomon Islands polka, with indecipherable words piped through speakers.  A gaggle of awkward looking boys hide behind the mixer, holding an IPOD.

The chief as drunk.  The M.C. was drunk.  The priests were drunk.  All the men in the village were drunk off their face. 

The evidence was mounting quickly. This village met most of the main criteria for being defined as bogans:
1.       Sound equipment (seriously, there were speakers seven feet tall with mixing boards) well beyond the financial means of any of the village members combined.  These guys would rather have access to an amazing sound system then have access to clean fresh water or toilets.
All males were completely off their face drunk, including the chief and M.C.
3.       Women and children looked moderately frightened the whole time.
4.       Partying until way past daylight.
5.       Fist fights and large amounts of swearing and yelling broke out.
6.       So many beer cans were crushed and laid lying around that we could have built a Toyota Hilux out of the recycled cans.
7.       Large amounts of pot and/or beetlenut were consumed.
8.       Locks on the INSIDE of doors for BEDROOMS.  Most villages don’t have doors for bedrooms let alone locks. 

  Wives and children bear the brunt of the party; kids can’t sleep due to the loud music and when any woman says anything about it, she gets a quick smack and is taken out behind her house for a full on beating.

A fight breaks out over a woman and a hilarious drunken exchange occurs that went something like this:

“Fuk’em ui!”

“No! Fuk’em ui!!!”

“No!!!! Fuk’em ui!!!”

And it goes on and on until I hear some punches being thrown behind a house.  The chief comes out, still drunk, yells at the boys.  Compensation must be paid immediately to the tune of a pig and 200 dollars.  The pig is slaughtered immediately.

I watch from the safety of the balcony and no one notices me until the boys downstairs start talking about hanging up the “misses” (term for white women, which means me) like a pig and taking her.  I’m not sure what they mean by “taking” me but I have suddenly flashbacks of Deliverance. I quickly walk away from the balcony and lock the door from the inside.


The music is so loud that I can still hear it clearly despite the speakers being almost a kilometer away and having ear plugs in. The music is the same ten songs repeated over and over again.  I assume it was ten songs, honestly it sounded so similar to each other that it might have been one song.

While this would be merely annoying in N.Z., you could at least call the cops or noise control for assistance to deal with these guys.  Or send some big fellah next door to threaten to smash heads in.  No such luck here.  My cellphone doesn't work here, there are no cops anywhere.  This place is the definition of lawless.  When one woman publicly announces that before my organisation's project, women were beaten and killed because the lack of a certain resource, I feel...slightly concerned about my safety in this village.  

It is impossible to get any sleep.  Regan and I are freezing because all our clothes are wet and we weren’t offered a blanket of any kind.  Our hostess is trying to get her two year old to sleep and doesn’t have time to look after us.   

I try to be calm.  I try to go through my personal spiritual philosophies.  I go through every spiritual belief I know to try and have empathy and love for the people outside.  I am love and loving.  Everyone is part of the universal subconscious. We are all interconnected spiritual beings. I take deep breathes.  I count to 100.  I think of a stone cottage in winter, calm under a blanket of snow.  I sing “I am a Child of God” to remember that we are all children of God. 

Nothing works.  I still hate this f*cking village with all my heart.  Well specifically the men, the women seem to be okay, the children seem to live in a constant state of fear.

As crates of expensive Solbrew come in, I finally realize that I'm really angry.  I mean, what is the point in doing any kind of development work here if people prioritize getting pissed over having access to clean water?  Or having an education? Or looking after their own kids to make sure they are healthy and make it past the age of five? 


Emotionally, I’m a wreck and I mentally write my own resignation letter out several times.  I question development as a whole and what my part is in it.  I suppose everyone needs that moment, where things are less fun, less novel and just scary or demoralizing. 

With the combination of bad boat rides, tropical cyclones, chickens, little food, sleeping on floors, no electricity or access to a hot shower...I face my first full on meltdown.  This was my "I'm completely disillusioned" moment.

The next morning we are continually delayed by the village elders because they are too hungover to say goodbye and by this time, our last day out in the Weathercoast, I am officially done.  Regan and I put on the only moderate set of dry clothes we posses.  However, as we leave, the chief finds it great fun to splash water all over us from the river, the muddy pond and finally the sea.  I’m about to have a serious freak out but I breathe and know that this too shall pass. 

I am so happy when we clear the bay, I give a shout out for joy.  Regan laughs and shouts with me; she hated the village too. The staff look rough and even they seem a bit shell shocked by the whole experience.  We all look like we have seen better days. 


The water is a lake, calm and smooth.  We have to take rest at a bay some 45 minutes from the last village and at least another three hours in the boat back to Honiara.  I don’t care; I’m out of the bogan village.

 As we round the point, the water seems to look clearer; suddenly, white sandy beaches appear.  The black sands of the Weathercoast are gone.  Reefs populated with fish appear underneath us.  As we stop into a protected inlet, I feel I have arrived in my own personal paradise.  It is quiet.  There are no people, no guest houses.  The sand is a warm golden colour and powdery and I sit down enjoying the sun.  I get a little nap to make up for the lack of sleep from Bogan Village. 

We eat some roast pig and I feed my chickens some greasy pig fat.  I decide not to feed them chicken because it’s just to Silence of the Chickens for me.  I feed some of the fish pig fat as well and we all wait for the second boat to arrive.  For another four hours.  But arrive it eventually does; we climb on board and make our way to Honiara. 

The water is pretty smooth until we see Savo and then it chops up.  I didn’t think I would get off that easy.  There are so many thumps and ups and downs I feel like I need an ass transplant.

When we finally get to Yacht Club, I am ready for a long hot shower and my comfy bed, having slept on woven mats for seven days. 

The program manager says that he hopes I like the Weathercoast because I am going back there in September.  For up to two weeks.

I grab my chicken Pricilla and, gently caressing her head, I begin to confess my sins.

(Editor's Note: I just want to say how grateful I am to the staff for getting me around the Weathercoast in one piece.  The development workers in the Solomons operate in very rough conditions and I appreciate the work they do.  I am eternally honoured for the opportunity to have been to the Weathercoast, despite the many hilarious mishaps and bogan run ins.  Thank you!) 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chicken Run

After going to the three previous villages, I gotta be honest; I wasn’t impressed with anything about the Weathercoast.  The villagers seemed unwelcoming, the seas were rough, the food was poor and I was generally still in a grumpy mood.

The travel is adventurous in the banana boat.  Our engine dies multiple times mid journey and we have to push the two small boats together and move to the boat that has a working engine.  In high seas.  It is loads of fun.  Also, in the morning, the boat driver tells me that there is a large crack in the hull, right down the centre part of keel.  But don’t worry, it was patched up last night and should work fine.  I ask if we should wait for the patch to set longer and if it will work.  He shrugs and says we should just give it go.  The prospect of the boat cracking in half is not a fun for me and I cringe as we start slapping the waves heavily.  But the patch holds.

One of our crew members gets terribly sick; I think this is the first time I’ve even heard of a Solomon Islander getting sea sick.  The whole trip starts to have very much a “three hour” tour to it and I wonder if I can build a coconut phone.

By the time we Iand on the beach at village four, I was ready to march across the mountains back to Honiara.  But then the pleasant sway of the palm trees and the tranquility of the fourth village took hold and I felt oddly…peaceful.  The village was set up about 500 metres from the sea, on black rock cliffs.  The settlement was neat, clean and the people were friendly.

I turn to Regan and say,

“I think this is my favorite village.”

She laughs.  We are greeted by a local woman who takes up back to her house.  Her leaf house hugs nicely near the cliffs and is tall.  We climb the half hazardly nailed together ladder/stair case up to her home.  The floor is made up of flexible wooden slats painted black.  There are large spaces between the slats where I can see the rocks, some 3 metres below. The house is clean, with large tropical print pieces of fabric to give privacy.   

Jenny, the owner of the house, has become our village girlfriend.  I always ask for a female caretaker in the village because each village has its own unique set of kastom or laws.  There are tabu (forbidden) areas to women and to men, certain clothes or modesty must be observed.  Melanisia is a land of diversity so even locals won’t know all the customs in every village.  It would take many, many lifetimes to understand fully each and every village’s customs.

Jenny turns out to be a superb girlfriend.  She takes us down to the large river for a bath.   Regan jumps into 
the water from a large rock, fully clothed.  I take off my clothes and wrap myself in a lava lava.  For the first time in awhile, I bath completely in fresh, cool water of a river.  The swimming hole is large and filled with colourful river fish. 

I feel reborn in the crystal clear waters of the river and swim around the rocks and deep pools.  I open my mouth to drink the water and stop just in time to see a large black pig covered in mud crossing the river 300 metres upstream.  He stops and watches us for a second, plops down in the water, gives himself a good dousing to clear off the mud and then trots off. 

“See, we all share the river,” laughs Jenny. 

Great.  I probably will end up with pig itch or something.

The villagers give us plenty of time to rest and relax.  I sit up and talk story with everyone; the projects we have put in have made a real difference to their lives, they say.  But this is a village divided; there are two large churches on opposite sides of the village, of the same denomination no less.   A new young chief has just been chosen and everyone is trying to work together. 

The chief system in the Solomons is based on dominance rather than by birthright, like in Polynesia.  A “big man” rises every generation and is chosen by his village through a variety of methods.  This makes for a dynamic changing environment in villages and the Big Man set up can just as often lead to violence as it leads to peace.

Village politics are rife with petty jealousies, rivalry, manipulation and deception.  Not unlike politics everywhere else on earth.  In a way, the Melanesian political structure reflects modern democracy; villagers empower chiefs and, in turn, chiefs must be responsive to the needs of the village.  If he is not, typically he is removed quickly.  There is usually a council of elderly men and women to assist with governance. 

One unexpected aspect of churches is the rise of bureaucracy in villages.  Every village visit we go to has a programme with official speakers, including chiefs but also heads of community committees, like literacy or education committees or water committees.  Minutes are taken and given to us.  It strikes me as being incredibly official and probably very inefficient.  Because this type of bureaucracy was put upon the people, the people speak the words and have the structure but have no idea what it actually means.  The original village set up, with the council of elders both women and men, seem much more logical than modern committees.

There is a noticeable lack of garbage in this village.  Disposable packaging is the bane of island life; there is no recycling programs to get rid of cans or bottles or plastics.  Plastics and rubbish litter Honiara streets.  I can understand where the mentality regarding rubbish comes from here.  Most people are used to purely organic food; when you finish a coconut, you throw it over your shoulder and it rots happily away.  Now with the invention of tinned foods, packaged biscuits and all other manner of plastic crap, the islands here are starting to get rubbish filled.  Then the difference strikes me; this village has no store so people can’t purchase needless crap. 

As the day wears on, we are well fed and looked after.  For the first night in four days, I sleep peacefully in the little hut on high stilts. 

I wake up, as usual, to the sound of chickens.  I go outside on the balcony and watch the women dutifully pick up all the errant leaves from the ground.  I notice this in the Weathercoast; the women pick up the leaves by hand to ensure their village is a tidy place.

After another quick dip in the river, which is thankfully pig free, the village starts with their handover program.  The women line up and begin to sing us songs about the project and about God.  Now, Solomon Islands are born with naturally beautiful voices. Give them any song and they will have it arranged in four part harmony within a matter of minutes.

It’s a beautiful and idyllic island scene: flowers are strewn everywhere and we are given flower wreaths to wear.  The village chief presents us with a gift, an offering from the village.     Heaps of sweet potato, taro and other root veggies were piled high around a pole.  And then there were the chickens…to be precise four young chickens were tied up to the side of the pole, lying calmly.  Two young roosters and two small hens. 
Chickens.  As gifts.  Who knew?

We also receive some shell money, which are strings of tied up shells used as, well, money.  Shell money is typically used only for ceremonial purposes now; mostly for bride prices, cases of compensation (when an individual has wronged someone else and needs to make a payment) and as gifts. 

Afterwards, a huge feast is laid out before us.  We sit and munch on a cake made of rice and fried onions (which is surprisingly good), fish curry and other local delicacies. 

As I drink a fresh coconut and sit on some large rounded stones used as seats, I find myself completely relaxed.  I could stay here forever, hanging with the friendly villagers and swimming in the river.  But we can’t; it’s time to go. I grab the chickens, who aren’t terribly impressed.  I talk to them and quickly give them the name of Pricilla and Henrietta. 

Pretty soon, it becomes clear that the chickens and I have bonded and I decide to keep them as pets.  I figure this kills two birds with one stone, literally; I have a poached egg addiction that must be fed several times a week.  Eggs are expensive in Honiara, and, as a volunteer, I am always looking for ways to save money. 

I think to myself what all prospective parents tell themselves: what can be so hard about this? 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wild Weathercoast

(Editor's Note: I'd like to give a big shout out to all my mates in Christchurch.  Sorry you guys are still shakin but KNOCK IT OFF!  All my love and will see you soon...)

As I face down a five metre wave in our three metre boat, I sincerely begin to think that I have made a drastic error in my career path somewhere.  We bob up and down the huge, turquoise waves like a carriage on a rollercoaster.  Our boat engine has failed.  I’m in the middle of nowhere, miles away from an airfield, road or telephone.  I think of many things; most of them are unprintable.

Standing on the shore are villagers and one of our local staff refuses to board our boat because of the rough seas.  I think about my life with much nostalgia before I signed up for the crazy adventure.  Chickens in hand made baskets lodge their complaints regarding the rough seas nosily.  A tied up adult pig pig squeals loudly, obviously not enjoying his trip.  Bags of beetlenut roll around the boat and pieces of taro fly everywhere.  Even the boat driver looks slightly nervous.

Yep.  In the Weathercoast, I think that my Solomon Island adventure has definitely jumped the shark.   


Now, the Weathercoast is the name of the other side of Guadalcanal.  At some point it was called the Rough Coast but someone changed the name because they thought it would scare off tourists.  It’s called the Weathercoast because, well, the weather is crap that side of the island.  When cyclones pay the occasional conjugal visit to the Solomons, the southern sides of Makira and Guadalcanal bear the brunt.  Temotu and Rennel/Bolona are where cyclones get really excited and decide, instead of a passing fling, they want to stay and really give the islands a good going over.  So I’m grateful that my luck had been good in Temotu.  I would be somewhat less lucky in the weather coast.

Even without a tropical weather something going on, the Weathercoast is famous for nautical misadventures.  Almost every story the locals talk about ends with “and then they capsized around the point…”

Despite being on the same island as the capital Honiara, the Weathercoast is remote and completely undeveloped.  Whatever development that took place prior to the Tension was destroyed. The Weathercoast people bore the brunt of the ethnic conflict. Entire villages were razed to the ground from 1997-2003; murder, sexual violence and random destruction were constant visitors to the Weathercoast.  The scars of the tension are clear in people’s attitudes; people are still clearly obsessed with survival, living day to day.  Drinking, drugs and violence permeate the area; self medicating and living in a fantasy of entitlement are pretty common.

You can’t take a plane there, unless you are with RAMSI and have access to a helicopter.  You can’t drive a truck over unless you own a gold mine.  The bigger boats do poorly in the Weathercoast because their high centre of gravity makes the unsteady to the constant barrage of high, choppy waves.  That leaves the only option: the banana boat.

The banana boat is about three metres in length and usually painted red or orange on the bottom with blue on top.  The base is wide, which makes it steady over waves.  The boats are affordable, sturdy and people usually can get about five to ten years use out of the boats. The fiber glass hulls are cheap and easy to patch up. Essentially, the banana boats are the workhorses of the Solomon Islands.

It takes a lot to capsize a banana boat but it has been known to happen on the Weathercoast.   

On Monday morning, my local woman companion Regan and I set off by plane to Marau Lagoon; a picturesque postcard vision of white sandy beaches and unexplored reefs with great surf breaks framing the scene.

Or it would be a postcard if it wasn’t cloudy, windy and rainy.  Our local hosts have gotten the wrong message so nothing is prepared for us. A guest house is quickly opened and aired out.  It’s a fairly uneventful day however my back decides in that moment to go into spasm responding to the abuse of Wogasia.  Regan massages the spasm down and I fall asleep early wrapped under a pink mosquito net.  One thing that is great about the Sollies: everyone here knows how to massage and massage well.  It’s a part of the culture.

The next morning I am already grumpy.  I started the trip grumpy because I got very little time to prepare and I still didn’t have my dry bags/luggage back from Makira.  I try to cheer myself but give up after a little while; sometimes you just can’t turn a grump around.

We all climb into the colourful banana boat and it’s windy already.  I realize it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride and that my back will not be thanking me.  As we skirt around the reef, the waves begin to roll in, a nice one to two metres.

“It’s a very fine day on the Weathercoast,” Sid, our boatdriver, smiles. 

He is right; despite the occasional big wave, the swells are easily navigated.  We head to the first village, where I experience my first proper Weathercoast landing.  So let me break it down for you. The banana boat circles in the high waves near the shore until a “big wave” comes in.  The banana boat rides just above the crest of wave, over rocks and sand until it’s partially ashore.  Then the locals and stronger boat crew members pull the boat fully up on to the black sandy beach, near some coconut trees.  I am told not to get out until the boat has come to a complete stop.

By the time I exit the boat, I’m typically soaked with spray from the waves.  The villagers grab my arms to ensure a safe landing but after my second landing, I’m jumping in and out of the boats like a pro.  I even jump out early to help pull the boat ashore.

The weather holds the first day and we tramp/bushwalk/hike up to the second village, where we will stay the night.  The whole village has a somewhat eerie feel to it; a fully fledged custom house sits peacefully in the middle of the village.  Now, a custom house is a place where old customs are observed and gifts are given to the spirits of the dead and spirit totems to ensure support.  The whole village has a sense of the old custom life to it and I’m not surprised when I here there is a village up the valley that has gone completely back to custom ways, wearing only grass skirts and shunning any modern development.

Here I am told by Regan that the village chief has asked that I do not walk alone at night anywhere; the Vela 
people are watching and my white skin can attract them.  Regan explains that the Vela people are like bushmen or witch doctors or wild men.  They look like normal people but you can tell who they are by a scrunched up pinkie.  They carry baskets of charms around their necks and can assist you with whatever curse you wish to call on people.  Apparently, they can fly around the island nine times around in one flight (why someone knows this, I have no idea) and are generally feared by almost everybody.

The thing is, these people can see you but often, you can’t see them.  They can kill you or give you a disease without even knowing about it.  People say that you can go walkabout and they will kill you without you knowing it.  You go home and BAM! You drop dead on the floor.

I will definitely NOT be walking around the village alone.

The three little girls we are staying with drag out their English books, looking at me expectently. They ask me all kinds of questions in English; my pidgin doesn’t seem to help much on the Weathercoast as most people speak “language” (the local dialect).  However, I try my best to communicate with the girls and we seem to get along just fine.

The house we sleep in is amazing.  A fully constructed leaf house in the Solomons is pretty water tight (as I would learn later), and easy to keep clean.  This house looks like it was taken out of Swiss Family Robinson.  There is a basic deck around the house for “outdoor living” with a series of well organized shelf systems with pulleys.  The house is built on stilts, as are most leaf homes in the Sollies.  There are two large rooms divided by a leaf wall (for kids and adults) and then a nice enclosed space that looks out at the village for storage.   
 I am careful as I walk around; Solomon Islands are a skinny lot and I’m worried that my expat weight will 
break on of the flexible but scarily fragile looking slats that make up the floor of the house. 

We eat a simply meal of taiyo (tinned tuna) with pumpkin and some rice.  I go to bed early but the men stay up into the wee hours chatting away on the deck.  We sleep on the floor, with the three little children sleeping next to Regan and me. It’s slightly cooler than Honiara; the winds keep the Weathercoast a much more comfortable temperature.  I need a small blanket and curl up for a night’s sleep. 

The sun rises around 6:00 a.m. and a bell is sounded to invite all the villagers to church.  It’s impossible to sleep in; the whole village is awake around me.  I would come to realize that like Santa Catalina, village life begins early and ends late.  I wonder when Solomon Islanders actually sleep; it seems to me the women go to bed at around 11 p.m. and get up about 4 a.m…

We hike back down to the beach, where a RAMSI officer is holding a pair of binoculars looking at a pair of boats in the distance.  I chat with him awhile; he appears to be a nice kiwi bloke marooned on this part of the island for better part of two months.  Then off we go to go back the way we came.

Now entering the ocean from the shore follows similar principles as beaching the boat.  You have a group of villagers and passengers around the boat, holding it steady as it faces the crashing waves. 

“We must wait for a big one,” the boatman says.

Waves must be big because we are carrying a heavy load and we need to have enough height and space in the water to take us far away enough to be out of the surf break.

The waves are pretty large but we go.  Without the engine, we have very little power to the boat and are at the mercy of the waves.  The first big wave takes us up and all I can see is sky.  My stomach is still two metres below me.  However, what goes up must come down.  And down we went sharply into the trench of the wave.  Then up again…then down…then the engine roars to life and we circle close to shore, waiting for the other boat to clear the waves.  The waves seem to be less big when you can power over them.

Well that was one finished.  Now just another seven more villages to go…

 (NOTE: To Mom and Dad, yes I was wearing a life jacket, had a satellite beacon with me and was pretty close to shore during the Weathercoast visit, unlike the Reef Island trip.  And I was wearing sunscreen too.) 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Speartacular Part Three: Escape from Santa Ana

The next day, I began to process the whole crazy event that is Wogosia.  I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research about the whole event prior to attending, other than some friends of friends said it was the amazing thing they had ever been to.

I spoke at some length with my kind adopted father, Will, about the whole process.  Will is one of the best spear fighters in the whole spear fighting event, hence why he is the sheriff.  He explains that Wogosia has been going on for a very long time in various forms but the main reason now is to settle differences (with spears) and to celebrate the new year/harvest time.

There is a sense of renewal about the whole festival; a time of letting go of old grudges and turning over new leafs (or wearing them, as the case with the banana burkas).  Will explains further that it is illegal to hurt anyone; spilling blood means payment of compensation to the victim.  This is why, Will explains, the worst fighters fight in the sea so they limit their chances of hurting anyone.  And here I thought they were actually just a bunch of badasses fighting the surf long enough to throw a spear.

While we munch on bananas, Will says that the fights used to be clan versus clan: Amwah vs. Atawah.  But now only same clans fight to avoid too much ethnic tension.  Will explains further the history of his island; Santa Catalina has only been inhabited for a short while, compared to Santa Ana and the mainland of Makira.  Its newness and isolation led to the preservation of older beliefs and traditions, like Wogasia.

The whole festival is very sacred to the people of Santa Catalina and despite my opinions about its strangeness, I feel honoured to be an attendee and to be adopted into the tribe.  A man with a portable load speaker comes around, as he has almost every hour or so and informs us what is next on the programme.  Yes, there is a printed out programme, apparently us ex-pats need a timeline/schedule at all times… 

As the day wears on, some friends hop into a boat and are paddled to the northern part of the island, where the water is very clear and bright blue. We swim and then dry ourselves off and then play a rousing game of Uno.  Then back to the village for a final goodbye (actually there would be a lot of goodbyes).

The families escort us to the main village ground where pipe instruments have been set up.  We are going to be honoured to view some local dancing.  The women dance troupe assembles and I am slightly surprised at the age of the dancers.  In Polynesia, the women are typically young and beautiful.  But here, on the sun blessed island of Santa Catalina, the dancers are all over the age of 50 and missing most of their teeth due to rampant beetlenut chewing.

As the older women sway their hips and laugh, the older men of the village sing to them.  There is a call and caller relationship with the older men and women.  The women dance with abandon and joy and it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  When I ask my adopted mother later why older women are chosen, she says it’s because they are the best; they have the most experience with dancing. 

The older men take position and dance as well.  The men dance with the same joy but much more humour as the old father of the village gyrates sexually at my wantok (my fellow American), Calista.  Calista looks completely unimpressed with the turn of events and I can tell that she would rather be somewhere else.

The finale is when all of us are invited to dance.  The kids get up and dance with us, screaming with delight.  I sway my hips with my mother, in a motion which appears to be somewhat like husking a coconut.  Or something.

The Wogosia dance party continues for quite some time; it feels great to dance with my new family.  We finish with more speeches, more food and then time to go back to the house.

I meet my grandmother, who takes one look at me and says “ui fat tomas” or you fat too much.  Great, I just got vetoed by my Melanesian grandmother.  Anyway, they name me after her, which I think is wonderful, despite her obvious distain for me.  Perhaps being fat tomas was why I only got hard navy biscuits for breakfast.

My father presents me with a wonderful shark carving, to remind me of my tribe.  I present a shell necklace to my mother and my underwater torch to my father.  He took a liking to it when he saw that it glowed red for emergencies and has a whistle on the end.  I gave it to him in the hopes that he will always be safe at night on the ocean.

It’s my last night sleeping on a woven mat and my body has gotten used to sleeping on hard surfaces.  I seem to be able to tune out the noises from the village and fall to sleep easily.  It always seems the way; as soon as I get used to a place, it is time to move on.

The next morning we have an early start to catch the boat across.  My mother hugs me goodbye and she cries.  I’m sad but can’t muster any tears which I feel guilty about; it takes a lot for me to cry.
My father shakes my hand and off I go on the first boat across to Santa Ana.  The ride over is easy and the water is smooth.  When we get out of the boat, an almost Italian woman is on the beach, waiting for us to arrive.

There I meet a very special person for a very special family…

The Kuper family holds iconic status in the Solomons.  The grandfather, from Germany, married a local woman from Santa Ana.  Their children went on to play pivotal roles in World War 2 as coast watchers; a group of locals who reported the movements of the Japanese to the Americans.  The Coast Watchers saved thousands of allied lives by signaling when Japanese warships and subs sailed down through the Slot (the water between most of the major islands in the Solomons).

Standing before me is Greta, the daughter of one of the most famous coast watchers and the granddaughter of Mr. Kuper.  She invites all of us into her home to take shelter from the heavy rain and begins to happily tell us the story of her famous family.

Her mother, Linda, comes out from the back room.  Linda is easily in her 80s and talks about her role briefly during the war.  Linda was a Coast Watcher, with her husband, in Isobel.  IShe tells me that it was a very scary time and no one knew for sure whether they would be alive day to day.  She tells me about hiding out in the jungle and fleeing the Japanese.  Linda, born of an English father and Marshalese mother, can hardly hear anymore but graciously bears my questions about the war.

The rain breaks and we are off again to the airport.  Santa Ana is a lovely little pocket of the Solomons; many expats have settled there, so supplies are plentiful and French sailboat lazily sits in the protected reef filled harbor.

We walk up to the Solomon Air counter where we are all publically weighed (oh the humiliation!).  The first flight leaves but leaves behind two passengers due to a mix up.  We wait and are told that some of us may have to stay until Saturday (it is Wednesday). 

While we wait, we trek inland to a large freshwater lake where there are “probably” no crocodiles.  The ground is very saturated and there is thick gushy mud everywhere we walk.  After a dirty slog we make it to the lake, which is the picturesque but hardly filled with clear water.  I sink in from the bank and quickly go over my head.  The locals laugh with us and probably laugh at me especially.  I knew I shouldn’t have worn my white tank top with my grey bra…anyway, I stand on a submerged tree branch and chat easily with the other women about life on Santa Ana.

Paul, the all star army fellah, swims into the middle of the lake and past it until his bobbing head appears to only be a mirage on the surface of the water. 

After he returns, we climb out of the water and dry off.  We take another path back to the village which seems strangely dry and mud free.  We happily tread through the village, leaving bewildered pig pigs and chickens in our wake. 

Dinner is at “Auntie Greta’s” where she lets me rest on her couch as she tells me some of her secrets.  We laugh together and I realize that this warm soul is truly the jewel of Santa Ana.  She lets me lay down for awhile and I fall asleep, thinking she has left me to do some cleaning up.  When I awake 45 minutes later, she is still there, patiently waiting.  I feel sad leaving her house; it’s a place that anyone would feel comfortable spending a day or lifetime in her nurturing presence.

We are given the bad news when we return to the airport office.  Our entire compliment of luggage must remain in Santa Ana due to the plane being overweight.  I look at my bags, not wanting to leave behind my trusty dry bag back pack that my mother bought me in the States.  Besides, I purchased some lovely carvings in Santa Catalina, including a horrific pig man head (which Tessa would later christen his ugliness). But 19 of us leaved all our possessions behind, unsure if we would see them again (we would, more than a week later.  Thanks Solomon Airlines for stinky, moldy clothes and me not being able to take my gear to the 

We walk to the airport and then we are off on the plane.  I sit next to a good hearted volunteer who had developed a bad case of septicemia.  My now rusty emergency response medic skills tell me he needs antibiotics quickly.  I realize there isn’t much I can do but wrap my skirt around his shoulders and rub his back as gently as I can.   Once we get off the plane, we rush the volunteer to the Number Nine clinic.  The attending nurse takes one look at him and gives him an injection of antibiotics.  Hopeful that I had served the volunteer well, I taxi back home for some sleep.

Life back home resumes quickly back to normal but, with leaving for the Weathercoast the next Monday, I don’t have much time to relax.  Thursday night I go to aerobics at the local schools.  About 60 women are there, all punching and kicking up a storm.

Despite participating in the three weirdest fun runs of my life during Wogasia, I find I respond in kind, enjoying every kick and punch thoroughly.  It’s as if Wogasia had left a primal legacy inside of me and I happily grunt and scream with Elsa beside me, kicking the air.  I feel pretty good until she does a full ten minutes of sit-ups.  After 90 minutes of physical brutality, we take off back home in taxi. 

Covered in sweat and full of rage, the spear festival spirit has taken up a space in my soul.  I feel ready for 

Indeed, the spirit of Wogasia would serve me well on what was to be my most challenging adventure in the Solomons: the wild Weathercoast…

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Speartacular Part Two: SPEAR FIGHT!

“When I say run, you run,” my newly adopted mother says.


“Yes. Run.”

“Run again?”

“Yes, run again.  Now!”



I run.  Again.  I’m being chased by little boys (and not so little boys) covered in red mud holding spears, screaming at the top of their lungs. I’m one of the few remaining women who stayed behind to take photographs.  I run as fast as I can to catch up to the other women and I lose my new mother quickly in the crowd.

It’s hour 26 of the Wogosia festival and I’ve slapped the ground, had flaming coconut husks thrown at me, stayed up all night in the rain and the wind on the beach, sung songs in a language I can’t understand, shared beetlenut, cuddled up for warmth with my friends, climbed up and down and up and down a hill with 20 kilos of pana on my head…

So let me give you a bit of background re: adoption into the Santa Catalina villages. In order for us expats to be included in this year’s Wogosia’s festival had been adopted into the Amwea tribe, in the Aigatatari line.   As my new Melanesian mom explained, the Aigatatari comes from a legend about a large, old shark that fell in love with a woman who was fishing.  The woman was deeply scared of the shark, so the shark (having mystical powers) turned himself into a stripy reef fish, the Aigatatari.  The woman caught the fish and brought it home, where the fish became a man.  The man made her his wife and swam with her from Kira Kira (the capital of Makira) to Santa Catalina; a small island south of the big island of Makira.  

They made a life there together, starting a family until one day; the shark was called back to the deep blue ocean.  He was never seen again, but is said to always keep an eye on his family.

Now the shark’s protective eye would always be watching me out on the ocean. Awesome.

I have to admit, I feel pretty honoured to be adopted into the tribe and I was very well looked after during my stay.  The family clearly can’t afford a lot for food (many of my breakfasts consisted of a packet of hard navy biscuits and bananas) and lunch isn’t something that is common.  But it made me think about the luxury and variety of food that aren’t available to my host family.

Anyway, the ground slapathon, we walked to the beach.  We stay up through the night, singing at the beach.  The kids are singing to bring the dawn and start the spear fighting.  It begins to pour down raining.  And then the wind picked up. 

I try to snuggle on a blanket with my friends when my Melanesian mum orders me to “give beetlenut to olketa”.  I tell her I want to sleep but she insists.  Clearly, I come from a strict Melanesian family.  I get up, bleary eyed and open the basket she gave me.  The basket contains beetlenut, fruit tree leaves, a kind of mustard leaf and ground lyme.  The process of chewing beetlenut is a time honoured tradition in the Solomons.  Beetlenut acts as a stimulant and an appetite suppressant, which is why it is used during festival times.  Everyone walks around with red lips and red beetlenut spit bleeds all over the ground.

The men come forward and eat the beetlenut I offer them.  Hunks of tobacco are also rolled up in white lined paper, like candy. The whole process takes about five or ten minutes, after which I grumpily make it back to my lava lava on the beach.  I tell my friends about my pushy Melanesian mum and they can’t stop laughing.  Clearly, I can go without food but sleep is another matter entirely.

Around 4 a.m., it begins to rain again and most of my adventurous friends leave for bed.  I almost leave after my bottom starts itching and I find what I suspect to be a sand shrimp in the back of my underwear.

I stay, until my friend Paul (who used to be in army and is, possibly, one of the craziest bastards I know), said he was over it.   I leave the beach, soaking wet, cold, grumpy, and feeling angry about the beetlenut at around 6 a.m.

Just in time to go to bed.  Long enough to miss the first spear fight.  Bugger.

I find this out because on my way back from the loo, thinking that the spear fighting lasted until noon, only to see a group of people coming back from the spear fighting.  Now, I’m grumpy but I have no one but myself to blame.

The rest of the day is spent, well, resting.  I hang out at the beach, and help my mother prepare a costume of banana leaves.  I am bound and determined to not miss the last, big finale spear fight. 

My Melanesian dad tells me that the last one is the most impressive; everyone dresses up in the full regalia and it’s all on.

As we wander down to the meeting place, I see a bunch of small boys covered in ochre coloured mud, screaming with spears. 

“Now we run,” my mother says.

And we do; into the ocean.  I meet the Greek Doctor at the ocean, who is dressed in what one woman described as a “banana leaf burka”.  From head to toe, the girls are dressed and wrapped in banana leaves.  You can’t figure out who is who, except by the accents.  Elsa’s (my Italian neighbor) red glasses identify her slightly.  The whole process is that you have to have mud slathered on your body and then “packaged” into banana leaves.  Unfortunately, I can’t do it; those who dress up miss the last spear fight.  I run over to view the spear fun.

The men are indeed dressed up with banana leaves and fronds, with the appropriate war paint.  Two separate sides of about fifty men face each other, looking fiercer by the moment.   There are so many men that about twenty are ready to fight in the ocean because there is not enough space. 

Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a spear festival.  Maybe I thought there might be some workshops on the pros and cons of different spear heads e.g. spiked verses smooth or maybe a spear plenary speaker.  But here I was, about ready to view a traditional older than television, older than nylon stockings or assembly lines.  This tradition is how conflicts were settled for many, many years.  For one year, grudges had been compiled and now were the time to let it all go.

The field becomes silent as the warriors take their places, approximately 20 metres from each other.  A conch shell blows and its game on.  I watch my dad, the Amwea sheriff; hurl the spear the whole distance between him and his foe.  I guess it looks like the most dangerous game of dodge ball anyone can imagine.

The fight continues as people shout and scream at each other.  Even in the foreign language, I can tell a lot of smack talk is going down on the field.  Spears fly, warriors lose their leaves and one man gets a bashed up knee.  Before I know it, the fight is over; a police officer walks casually on the ground and the two sheriffs meet indicating it’s over. 

I feel exhilarated but slightly disappointed. I wanted the fight to go on longer; I was just getting used to the visual and auditory assault.   I run away to be with my banana burka crew.  The women stand is a line and look like a bunch of black magic lawn clippings.  Seriously, Disney could not have animated a weirder sight than 40 women in a row dressed entirely in banana leaves.

Elsa looks nervous as her mother stands next to her, holding her hand.  I help with last minute alterations to the banana burka.  I promise to run with her and the Greek Doctor, should anything go wrong.

“Now, Sara, when I say run…” my mom begins.

“Yes, I know, I run!” I say.

She nods.

The women throw a stone at the men and then run in the direction of the sea.  The Greek Doctor gets a good early start on Elsa.  But suddenly, the Greek Doctor’s banana leaf pants are completely missing; I’m chasing a half naked/half banana frond covered greek lady into an ocean.  The scene is absurd as Elsa screams loudly with her mother while they are holding hands.  I take photos, really blurry photos.

Suddenly we are at the sea and the girls hop into the water.  My friends are pinned down and helped out of the banana leaf burkas and suddenly I realize that they are actually fairly naked under the burkas.

Now modesty is really important in the village; one cannot show thighs.  Skirts are a must.  But now my friends are mostly naked, in the ocean, covered in banana leaves.  So I attempt to search for their clothes, which they find eventually.

The men, who have taken their sweet time to get to the ocean (I see no point in running now, the boys weren’t chasing us).  They blow their conch shells and then hand the women the shells.  The women get in a group and blow the shells.  I decided to join them, not wanting to miss out.  I hope into the water and blow.  A sound like a wet fart comes out the conch shell. The women laugh at me.  Then I realize that you have to make a sound with your lips and suddenly the shell sings for me. 

My Melanesian mother looks on, proud.  When it is over, she takes my hand and leads me out of the water. 

Wogasia is over.  The feasts can begin.


Women and men feast separately.  Plates of fried fish of different shapes and sizes appear.  Under the fish is the traditional pudding made of coconut cream and nuts.  We sit and eat.  Speeches are made. 

My friends and I make it to the beach afterwards, happy to sit and share.  A little crew of kids follow us.  They sing songs and laugh before their mothers come out and tell us to go to bed.

Paul produces a bottle of red wine, which we all drink from.  Alcohol is forbidden during Wogosia but we figure that the festival was now over, there was no hard in a few gulps of Australia’s finest red blend.
When we go back to our house, the village is completely silent.  The houses are dark; people are tired from the festival. 

My head hits the pillow and I go to sleep instantly, dreaming of banana leaf burkas, sand shrimp and spears.