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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Temotu Part One: Reef (er) Madness

(So starts the three part series regarding my adventures in Temotu.  Read and enjoy!)  

The trip to Temotu starts off with a fantastic false start: at the airport, trying to check in and getting ignored by the ground crew.  The plane takes off without us and I have to wait another five days to go.  Planes only leave for Temotu every five days, so missing one really puts a spanner in your plans.

I was pretty irritated by the turn of events but it all worked out for the best in the end. On Wednesday evening, I got second place in the week’s Solomon Island Poker Association Texas Holdem game.  Tessa turned out to be a much more gifted poker player than myself and takes home the first prize.  I have to admit that I didn’t last long against my housemate and her last hand, a pair of pocket twos which turned into a three of a kind.  My pair of pocket aces, a pretty good hand, did not compete.

Also, I was able to attend Daphne’s Go Finis (farewell) party.  It turned out to be a pretty good night; all of us dressed up like 80s rock gods.  Daphne, of course, looks amazing and I rock my Madonna t-shirt (which I already had in my wardrobe).  There is an 80s fashion show and loads of dancing.  Of course I embarrass myself by sexily trying to crawl across the floor circa 1983 MTV awards with Madonna’s wedding dress performance but fail miserably.  Oh well.

Miguel, a good friend of mine, comes as “Miguel Jackson”.  Miguel is from Spain, has long black hair and looks exactly like a Spanish Michael Jackson.  When I go to him and say that I think he looks amazing as Michael Jackson, he smiles.

“I know.  Yes, I am very good…,” he says in the most beautiful Castilian accent.

We stagger home around 3 a.m. I’m in pretty good nick; I couldn’t drink during the party because I had the 6 a.m. plane to catch to Temotu.  I make sure that my ever- patient counterpart, Tina, and I are the first people to get checked in.  On the air plane ticket, my name is completely incorrect.  I turn out to be Mr. Mark Brian Sara - hilariously incorrect!  Good thing Solomon Air doesn’t even check i.d.s to ensure correct identity.

We board the spacious Dash 8 and I sit and am asleep before the island of Guadalcanal disappears from view.  I wake up some two hours later, only a couple hundred feet above the island of Santa Cruz.  From my window, I can see a volcano, a perfect cone-like structure just plopped there, rising above the sea.

Santa Cruz, from what I can see of it, is a lush volcanic island, surrounded by coral reefs and sandy beaches.  There are little villages around the outside of the island but the inland part looks like no one has been there. Ever. There are few roads that I can see. I can’t see the Reef Islands (known as simply the Reef by locals), our main destination, at all.

We land in Lata, the capital of Temotu Province.  The Dash 8 lands easily on the grassy airstrip.  There are, according to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), 36 airstrips in the Solomon Islands.  Only two are paved.  The rest are grassy or coral or sand or a combination of all three.  Most are leftovers from World War II that have simply been maintained over the years.  I think the Sollies would be an ideal place for a fleet of sea planes.  

As I get out of the plane, I am hit by a wave of humidity and heat.  Apparently Lata is significantly more humid than Honiara.  My hair turns to auburn ringlets as soon as my feet hit the ground.  Its only 10 a.m. and it’s more than 35 degrees.  People surround the plane; mostly locals waiting for wantok.  We have one staff member, Gregory, who is returning to the Reef Islands for the first time in a decade.  When people leave Temotu, they don’t return for a very, very long time. 

Geographically, Temotu is so far away from the main strip of islands that it probably should be in Vanuatu rather than the Solomons.  Its isolation makes it a difficult place to get anything done and most people are lucky if they can get out with any .  It is easy to get marooned in Temotu.  But more on that later…

We are surrounded by Temotu-ians…all scrambling to grab gear; it’s hard to maintain focus and grab my own bags, but I manage.  I meet Jack, the new area manager for the organization I work at.  Jack is from Romania and has been living in Temotu for six months.  He has picked up pidgin quickly, being only one of five expats living in Lata.

We drop off the bags in the nice guest house.  There are no hotels in Lata - population 1,000 (maybe).  There are no restaurants.  There are two bars but I am cautioned to stay away.  We walk around the whole town in a matter of minutes.  To be honest, there ain’t a lot to Lata.

I try to stop and talk to the local RAMSI officers to see if they know where the rumored Lata dive shop is but they are busy napping.

Jack walks around with us and explains to stay away from a few of the more crazy locals.  One attacked a volunteer from N.Z. with a crow bar.  The other likes to stalk people but this is, apparently, only when you have lived there for a little while.  A woman likes to show you her leather belt on her fist in an attempt to be menacing.  Everywhere we go, Jack and I get stares.  When I say hello, people laugh or run away.   

After we stop at a few of the small shops and pick up a few supplies, we head back to the guest house.  I take a nap, just like the RAMSI officers. I, personally, am exhausted and the little nap turns out to be a BIG sleep, waking up early in the morning. 

Roosters surround the guest house and crow and crow and crow until I start reciting the recipe for cock au vin in my mind.  Land hermit crabs as big as my fist crawl around on the gravel.   I go to bed to finish up my rest; we have a long boat ride in the morning.


The morning is hot by six-ish.  Tina fixes a small breakfast for us.  I pack  my two bags; one for Reef and one to stay in Lata.  Pinkie, the ever- adventuresome laptop, stays in Lata in the security of Jack’s house.   
We go down to the wharf.  One of the big boats is docked.  Now, these big boats, which are essentially rusted islands of steel that are kept together with some rope and mechanical tape, carry many people around the province.  It’s only a matter of time before one sinks; clearly maintaince ain’t that important and some of these heaps have been sailing around since the 1940s or even earlier.  This one has come all the way from Honiara; a quick five day boat ride.  Supplies come off in large sacks and people mill about getting their shipments from the capital.

There is a small market under some trees selling beetlenut, nambo (the local Temotu breadfruit biscuit which tastes like molted paper), and some veggies.  We board the little boat in the harbor, which is a typical banana boat, approximately 14 feet in length with one outboard motor.  The five of us pile in and put on our life jackets.  Jack says the weather looks good, if not a little windy and we should be fine to cross over to the Reef Islands.

Did I mention that the Reef Islands were a three hour boat ride away across open water?  This ain’t no channel, it’s the Pacific in all its glory.  I gulp.  Even the Reef Islanders on board look nervous.  And, as I would learn, they had every right to be.

We head off; its warm and the ride is somewhat pleasant.  There is a slight swell and it is choppy.  The front of the boat slaps down as we ride over waves.  The ride around Santa Cruz island is fairly quick and we stop off at a village before making our way across.  I use the facilities, which is pretty much an isolated, covered part of the beach at the village. 

We leave but we start with a prayer before crossing to the Reef. 

The first 20 minutes are awful; it’s basically crossing over a bar and the waves are very high, almost the size of the boat.  I’m nervous, as are all the crew but it passes.  My strategy for not letting fear drive me totally bonkers is music; I clutch onto my little MP3 player with a death grip and listen to the heaviest rock I have. As the White Stripes and the Black Keys serenade me across, I look at the smoldering volcano as my main point.  When we start, it is slightly to the left and in front; half way through we pass the island.  Then it is behind us and out of my view.

We don’t pass a single boat or canoe on our way to the Reefs.  Every year people make the crossing and get lost at sea; last year a huge search effort was put out of a Telecom worker and four other people.  For two weeks, a massive search went out and they think the people lived until then because searchers were getting signals from their satellite phone every afternoon.  The boat eventually drifted to Malaita, and that’s where the story gets weird.  Apparently, from local legend, the people were still alive when they reached Malaita and then were attacked by local pirates.  Their stuff was sold back to the family for a large sum.  What really happened to the people remains a mystery; another group of lost souls the Pacific swallowed up.

I had been told that the Reefs are so low, you can’t see them from the boat.  I found this to be untrue; I was very relieved when I saw a row of trees jutting out from the water.  The swell has calmed down some and is now a nice two to three metres.  

I think about my emergency beacon, tucked safely in my dry bag, out of reach. I decide to think about something else.  Tina clutches onto my leg to keep herself from moving all over the boat.  We took the centre seat and are covered in spray, completely soaked. 

Finally, the water calms as we get closer to the Reefs.  The islands are a series of, you guessed it, old reefs that have emerged from the sea floor.  Most islands rise about three metres above sea level.  High tide covered some islands completely. Changes in the climate and over population in the Reefs have forced some villages to evacuate.

We finally make it to our destination; a guest house on one of the islands.  We unload our gear and everyone looks relieved.  Only later I am told that people go to the Reefs all the time in little boats, never to return.  Of course this was always in rough weather but the boatman says grimly that you never know when the weather will turn.  Weather reports are useless, except to say when cyclones are coming. Temotu is a particularly popular spot for cyclones; they like to holiday there after going to Vanuatu. 

The guest house we stay at is nice but no one has the key to the bedrooms.  They use a spoon to break in because the owner lives in Lata and it would take days to get the key to us.  It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable about the lack of proper security there.

It is the only "permanent" building on the island; every other building is a grass hut of some description.  As I sit on the stairs, after settling in, I watch a pig and chicken compete for a wounded land crab.  The pig is obviously bigger but tied up to the tree.  The rooster, a beautiful one with bushy black feathers, torments the pig, and is able to pick easily at the land crab.  The pig snorts in anger and frustration and finally gives up, sitting in the black earth, depressed.  In the battle of chicken vs. pig, chicken wins.  

There is no shower; we take showers outside through our lava lavas, which we wrap around ourselves.  It’s kind of uncomfortable because the little eyes follow me everywhere, including when I’m bathing myself.  I take to showering at night.

Living in the Reef feels like turning the clock back 100 years or more.  There are no stores, no electricity, no mobiles, no television, no sanitation...only people, grass huts, and the occasional dug out canoe.  The poverty is intense and all consuming; kids with limps, scars, malformed pallets, all kinds of disabilities run around.  It might seem like an environmental paradise to some but here the lack of development is clearly impacting on the lives around us. 

I’m a subject of fascination for the children here; some burst into tears when they see me and others look at me with wide eyes.  I can’t decide if they think I’m a devil or an angel or a ghost.  The little ones follow me around everywhere watching everything I do.

Tina and I go for a swim around the coral reef and the fish life is pretty amazing.  Little yellow and blue fish hug the reef and then it drops off to darker water.

As we settle in for the night, I read by the light of a kerosene lantern and my torch (flashlight).  My body feels beaten from the boat ride over; I feel sore everywhere.  I’m exhausted from the heat, the sun; my nose turns a bright red.

We go to bed early, tomorrow is our first field visit and we want to start early and fresh.