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Monday, May 23, 2011

Temotu Part Two: Attack of the Crazy Yellow Ants

Before going to the Reef Islands, I did a bit of research on the place.  Now, if any of you have had to do any research on the Solomon Islands, you will be painfully aware that there actually is not a lot out there on the interwebs about these beautiful islands.  There is even less info on the Reefs.

For instance, one of the main source documents I found online about the Reefs was this.  That’s right, the document came from 1908, written by a missionary about his experiences there.  Sadly, it was in the top five search results and the other ones got more and more grim.

There are also some stories about a shipwrecked Englishman who started a family there, a la Swiss Family Robinson and well, the family is still there.  They own a resort on Pigeon Islands…there is a whole other story there that would take far too long to detail in this blog.  

Anyway, we visit our first set of communities on Monday.  I’m excited; I love going out the field, getting away from the office and getting to know people in the community. 

Reef Island communities are…well…kind of like the rest of Melanesia in that nothing is consistent or the same.  There is no consistency in governance structures, custom, social greetings; it all varies village to village.  Languages vary and the only similar thing is the governance structure is based on dominance rather than birth.  This keeps the Reefs an exciting place, dynamic in social and political structure.  Sure people hold on to old grudges but they also have to be very present thinking as well.

My pidgin doesn’t serve me well here either; many people refuse to learn, preferring to stick to their own language.  This makes me totally reliant on my coworkers, who are local Reef Islanders, to make connections for us.

After I take some pictures and get everything set up, I ask to use the facilities.  A lady takes me to a hut that has a toilet, an actual toilet.  Of course it only partially works but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

I get up to wash my hands and notice a burning sensation on my thighs and well, ass.  My mind starts racing about possibilities of what it could be.  I think about detergent, or a spider bite.  Maybe an STI I just got from a toilet seat (which I know is pretty unlikely; however, you mind does jump to pretty odd conclusions when everything stings).

I wait, thinking it will go away.  It doesn’t.  I walk uncomfortably out to the ocean, walking around.  Unfortunately I have to go quite a ways out because the water is so shallow.  The pain stops, slightly. 
I go back to the woman and ask her to use the shower.  I pull down my pants to discover, much to my dismay, red ants aka fire ants…everywhere.  Now there was a time in my life where I was, for various reasons, very fond of ants. I was even thinking about getting a tattoo of one at some point (thank god I didn’t…I still don’t have a tattoo because I can’t think of anything I want on my body for that long).  Now I feel no such loyalty; sure I get their complex underground world, I owned an ant farm like every other eight year old.  I’m over it and I start to hate the little assholes; I’m over ants biting me on the ass.

Anyway, those little bastards bit me pretty much everywhere. However, last night when I was having dinner with my two favorite English Doctors and explaining this story, they got very excited! They pointed out that is the fire ant's urine that causes the stinging.  Now...the irony of the ants peeing on me because I was peeing on them, actually I'm not sure I can go further with that thought other than to say...oh the irony!  And, sadly, that would not be the last time that I got urinated on in Temotu... 

The moral of the story is: when using toilets in a dark building, squat.  Remember kids, I do the stupid stuff so you don’t have to.

We finish our work and head off to the next village.  I walk slightly funny back to the boat but everyone seems cool with it.

The next village that shall forever be known, in my mind, as the Village of the Crazy Yellow Ants.  Yes, the ant adventure continues…

So we go to this village and are warmly received.  We talk to some of the villagers and I notice several large tropical ulcers on their legs.  Open sores are nothing new to most islanders but these look particularly nasty and infected.  The chief points down to his foot.

“Crazy yellow ants.  You will know, you will see. They kill the snakes, the birds, pig pigs (no, that’s not a typo, that’s pidgin for pig), the land crabs and the rats.  They kill everything,” the Chief says grimly.

He had me totally against the bastards until the rats thing came up. I’m all for anything that kills rats; I have a deep and abiding hatred for rats and anytime I see one, I turn from a pretty secure, brave lady in my 30s to a five year old screeching at the top of my lungs, looking for the closest chair to jump on.

We start up towards some gardens the villagers have planted.  We are stopped by another village elder who warns us about the crazy yellow ants.  I’m thinking twice about even going up there.  But I have a job to do, so Tina and I bravely march.

Then, we seem to cross some imaginary ant Maginot  line and they appear everywhere.  Ants as big as my thumb nail begin to crawl all over my legs and feet.  The villagers stomp their feet to keep them off.  I mimic them; the villagers laugh at watching me march into place.

The ants begin their progress up my legs, where their genetic wantok, the small fire ants, had already been earlier that day.  I try to brush them off with my legs, praying to several deities for one not to bite me.  We were warned that when one bites, they all start.  The crazy yellow ants continue their manic swarm all over my legs.  I try to focus, take my shots and get the hell out of there.

We cross the Maginot line again and the ants suddenly disappear.  I look down; no bites. I figure it was a draw; I didn’t kill any of them and they didn’t bite me. 

Still, I go back to the guest house, sore, sunburnt, covered in fire ant bites on my ass.  Good first day.

Tina and I take our showers and eat some tinned tuna (taiyo) before going off to sleep.    

The next day would prove to be less challenging in terms of local bug life and more interesting overall.  The morning starts early with a lovely boat ride through a large bay of mangroves.  I see some man made islands, which are essentially stone or coral platforms with a small hut on top.  It looks ancient.  It probably is. You can see where new reef stones have had to put in to meet the rising tides and keep the island intact.

Our boat goes up to the village and I am told quickly that warriors are awaiting me.  Great.   

So let me break it down for you.

We walk up to the village pathway and an old woman sits on the ground as we are walking and start to cry and scream.  She shrieks and tries to push us away.  Several men and young boys scream at us, threatening us with bows and arrows and an axe.  I get nicked with one ceremonial arrow by a guy getting too into his part.  I maintain a calm exterior (I think) but secretly I’m a bit thrown; the woman and the warriors are very good actors! 

The screams from the woman continue as she tries and stops the warriors.  Finally, she gives them a parcel on our behalf and the singing starts.  Rows of woman dressed in tropical lava lavas greet us; they bang coconuts together rhythmically (note: the author is very tempted to make a Monty Python and the Holy Grail comment here but is 
showing some restraint. For once. ).

Warriors covered in white war paint dance and sing.  Children greet us at the end of a clearing with pipe instruments.  The bass is quite extraordinary; a storage drum was cut up and a series of four large bamboo pipes are lashed together.  One boy pounds on the end of the drum and the other breathes through the pipes, creating a wonderful bass sound.

The rest of the kids play amazing music and everyone sings.  The greeting has left me breathless; sure, I’ve had my share of warrior greetings but this one was pretty amazing.

We sit down and are handed drinking coconuts.  Drinking coconuts are large and usually white or creamy coloured.  These are filled with a clearish liquid that is filled with good stuff like sugars and salts that rehydrate for the body.  Coconuts are my main drinking source on the island, which suits me just fine.  Did I mention there aren’t any shops in the Reef Islands? No?  Yeah.  Anyway, we sit down and eat a lovely meal prepared by the villages; they seem happy to share their food with us.

We talk story and Tina and I get the work done.  We leave and people follow us through the village.  This time we have to walk to the next village which takes about an hour.  The walk is pretty enjoyable; I’m glad to not be in the boat for awhile and I get to stretch my legs a bit. I notice pigs tied up by their legs around the trees. 

The path, which the boys call the “Reef Island Highway”, acts as a major route across the island.  Paths in the bush disappear into unknown locations.  The bush is lovely and thick; we are shielded from the sun during the hottest part of the day.  The route is well warn so all the sharp rocks have been rounded out over time.  Brightly coloured parrots flit around up top and large blue butterflys wing around lazily.

The next village greets us with drinking coconuts and no warriors.  The staff and I introduce ourselves in front 
of the whole village.  One can’t be too shy in this job; public speaking is a part of it.

We talk for awhile and a local parrot falls in love with me, hanging out on my shoulder for the better part of my visit.  When me and Elsie (the parrot) get separated, it squawks and howls in protest.   It’s a good thing that I’m not allowed birds on the plane or else Elsie would be going home to Honiara with me.

We end the day with a boat ride through a series of mangrove canals.  People have cut into the mangroves to make for safe passage through; the water is very shallow and boats often get stuck there.  We duck down to avoid mangrove branches that have grown too long.  The water is very clear and you can see the grassy walkways underneath the water that are used by the villagers during low tide to reach their bathrooms (the mangrove trees).

The water is calm as we head into our last day in the Reef Islands.

In the evening, the new telephone booth, which was put up during the day outside the guest house, glows.  The pikininis (children) come to look at it and somehow interpret that I am responsible.  My manna in the village grows.

We go to bed early to leave the Reefs at 5 a.m.  Waking up at 4, we decide to leave as early as possible.  The full moon illuminates our way across the water.  The water is completely flat, like a lake with a slight one metre swell that rhythmically hits the boat.  It feels like we are escaping from the Reefs, under the cover of darkness.  The water is black, except where the moon light glistens off of the swells. 

Eventually the sun rises and we witness a most beautiful sight: sunrise over the Pacific.  The volcano puffs slightly away in the distance and we see Santa Cruz, getting closer and closer.

“As soon as the sun rises, the wind picks up,” the driver muses.  He is slightly correct but the water remains 

A huge storm lies over the island and the driver moderates our path to miss it.  Boats often fill with rain water and sink.  Plus the few raindrops I felt are like little pellets snipping at my skin; our speed and the speed of the rain make for a slightly stinging combination.

We reach Lata early and go back to our rooms.  Tina and I are both very tired and we decide to postpone the 12 hour day planned for us until the next day. 

I step in the shower, happy even though it’s cold.  I secretly rejoice at the little flush toilet (even though it lacks a toilet seat). 

But I still remember to squat.  Just in case.