Wednesday and Thursday, January 12-13
Flight day ending with the usual long distance let down. Nine am flight to LA was comfortable and smooth. Minor confusion at LAX; no one knew where Air Pacific flights departed from, but easily resolved when I was directed to the International Terminal. Air Pacific couldn’t find the reservation, then booked me in coach. Nicely changed for business class leaving me in the front row of a 747. Reasonable dinner followed by six hours of slight though steady turbulence. “Light meal” then landed in Fiji at 10pm. Deplaned onto open, covered walkways leading into the terminal. Warm and muggy. Smooth passage through immigration and baggage, then taxi to hotel after getting some helpful guidance from a tourist information type. The Mocambo is at the end of a bumpy road beyond security gates. Clean and pleasant, but some signs of tropical wear and tear: rust, etc. Nibbled by a bunch of mosquitoes while I checked in at the open air registration desk. Some CNN, then to bed feeling cranky. Check-in had been accompanied by a cover version of “Living the Vida Loco” booming from the bar. My room (thanks) was in another wing away from the bar scene.
Friday, January 14
Quiet resting day. Woke up around 4:30am for an hour or so of CNN, then went back to sleep until nine. When I first looked out the doors onto my patio I was disappointed. “This could be anywhere!” Green fields, hills in the background, trees. Nothing seemed exotic enough. Walking along the covered paths to the screened café showed off enough lushness and color to prove that this is indeed the tropics. Big dense flowers, perky crowned birds with yellow beaks and red under the tail, and, of course, luminous green everywhere. This isn’t Kansas after all.
I spent the morning reading in the shade by the pool. Nice in the shade, but hot and humid out in the sun. Lunched on chicken curry then lay down for a nap that was rudely interrupted by a noisy thunderstorm and torrents of rain. Off to dinner along walkways blocked by families of frogs, aggressive like NYC pigeons, but hopping off into the grass at the last minute. Thoroughly mediocre dinner on the patio while mosquitoes dined on me. Any spot that’s out without bug juice becomes an entrée.
To bed and slept well, but woke around 4am and only drowsed after that.
Saturday, January 15
Breakfast then a lovely, lazy morning by the pool with the entertainment of a team trimming palm trees, climbing right up the bole and hacking away with machetes to bring down branches, fronds, and coconuts. Quite a bombardment.
Ate a burger for lunch. Big mistake. Napped for a bit, then recycled lunch. Doesn’t seem a big deal, but lazed around half watching TV, half napping until time to go to the airport. Floods of rain all afternoon. Got to the airport the requested two hours ahead … at least the (international) departure lounge is air conditioned! Onto the plane at 11:45pm for a four hour tip to Honiara via Port Vila. Feeling very low, but got a second wind landing in Honiara – it must be daytime in NYC! – at 2am local time after a time zone shift. Maria was there to meet arrivals and introduced Marci and Diane and Mark. Mini bus to Kitano Mendana which I quite like. Third floor walkup, but cozy room, good bath, patio looking at the beach. Fell into bed around 4am and slept until 10. Quite cheered up by seeing Maria and the pleasant hotel.
Sunday, January 16
Met Maria and the folks from last night at 11:30 for lunch. Then out to the airport for a Twin Otter 18-seater flight to Munda via Sega. First hour of flying was over water and little mossy islands and reefs. Quick stop at grass strip at Sega, then back up for another twenty minutes. Landed at slightly paved Munda in an isolated rain shower, then enjoyed the plane splashing through deep puddles before pulling up at the open sided “terminal.” With bags unloaded, we walked across the dirt road to the Agnes Lodge where we me the rest of the group. Mike and Lillian are repeaters from the Turkey trip, Gina’s the other New Yorker, and Nicholas and Barbara are thirty-somethings who apparently were at Amazon.com and have now retired and are setting up and running their own foundation.
Sat over beers in the central pavilion before heading off to our cabins. I love mine. Each cabin feels like a screened hut, but with a bed, chairs and daybed, built-in cupboards, and real toilet and shower. I lay down, exhausted under the fan for an hour or more. Didn’t quite sleep, but the rest felt good. Hot and steamy but I was comfortable enough under the fan. It’s going to be one hot trip. Dag here too, recovered from a bout of malaria. An abject lesson in remembering to stay on one’s Lariam diet.
On arrival Maria awarded me the Lightest Packing Award, but it’s a pretty Spartan bunch.
Beer in a hut overlooking a postcard sunset, then a five minute walk down THE road to the Sunflower restaurant for an excellent dinner. Group was fun, but I was tired and more than ready to head back and to bed by 10:30. (After a blissful shower no less!) Slept well under the fans. Buzzing of crickets announced sunrise at 6am as reliably as a rooster. Otherwise still during the night.
Monday, January 17
We’re into the trip now. Breakfast, then around 9:30 we departed for a jungle walk. Piled into two motorboats and headed to another island to explore a very jungly river – “no crocodiles today” – then a “half hour walk with a local expert to a waterfall.” Probably took 1 ½ hours and involved (one way) ten slippery, rocky crossings of a stream up to hip deep, alternating with hiking through brush and fire ants. All the jungle lore and coconut samples couldn’t make up for a hot, strenuous hike of really no interest to me. Lunch and swim at the waterfall then unwind the whole trip back arriving at Agnes Lodge around 3:30. With much hindsight, I realize that this day was designed as acclimatization, but yuck. Collapsed until five, then we all went out for a wamup paddle. Kayaks, all folding, some sleek, others beamy and clunky looking, but light and fast. Paired with Michael so I could warm-up without pushing too hard. Much better to get out on the water.
Hot hot sun and humidity made worse by afternoon downpours. Rainbows and turquoise water, beautiful colors. Dinner again at Sunflower, good, but slow and stiflingly hot. To bed around 9:45 to be ready for an “early start.”
Tuesday, January 1l8
Packed into the kayaks around 10am. All of my bags and one of Michael’s stowed on board. Paddled – not strenuously – for about an hour to Kunda Kunda Island. Blazing sun and amzing turquoise and emerald water. Fabulous intense colors. Landed on a strip of sandy beach and set up camp under shady trees. The island has a hut and a semi-active “garden,” but is not inhabited full time.
Lunch was Pizza (!) delivered by the support boat. Apparently the local bakery oven was out of order so sandwich breads were not available. So pizza came in, maybe from the Sunflower. Plenty of fruit and frills to make a full meal. Amazing to see competent people – Dag and Maria – turn out a real meal with all the fixings and fittings with no apparent fuss. Just well planned and executed.
Afternoon was spent lazing in the shade and snorkeling off the beach. Glorious cornflower blue fish and star-shaped plants. I have a single tent so will be living in luxury.
Wednesday, January 19
Fun, silly, wet day. Up after fairly good night; good sleep in the tent, but several wakeups to open/close rain flaps as showers came through. Breakfast at eight, then most of the group headed off on a diving run leaving Marci and me to paddle around Kunda Kunda and over to the next island. Came back about noon just ahead of a threatening storm. The others arrived and we had a great lunch of tabouli and then it began to RAIN. A second dive trip headed off all the same and Dag, Marci, Maria, Lillian and I started the silliness with rainstorm shampoos and showers. The we were all into the water to find hot spot Jacuzzis in our impromptu spa.
Masala tea when the others got back after three, then hours of sitting in the dining tent telling stories, drinking run, singing songs, telling jokes. Much fun driven especially by the high spirits of Nicholas, Diane and Mark.
Hours and torrents of rain later, we finished the run and supper and crashed around nine.
Thursday, January 20
Dags 43rd birthday. (1957). Up early to pack and break camp. Everything seemed to be bigger and stickier than when I first packed. Off and paddling by nine which was a feat given the pack-up of the whole group. Farewell Kunda Kunda. Farewell latrine “through the charred stumps, turn left.”
Paddled today with Lillian. First leg was about and hour and a quarter to an island for a rest break and photo op. Tiny little bit of beach which seems common on these islands. Then on for another bit to Beri Beri our lunch stop. Snorkeled for a while – nice coral and fist – but not extraordinary. Lunch was fruit, tuna sandwiches, fresh caught fish. All served up as a sumptuous picnic.
One more ¾ hour stretch of paddling brought us to Lola Island. The water was phenomenal all day, heavy and clear like molten crystal, turquoise, emeral, sapphire, all sparkling under the blazing sun. Right out of a poster. The resort here on Lola is fascinating. It’s run by an American, Joe, and his Solomons wife Lisa. They’ve run the resort since 1981. Thatched huts, very comfortable, shower and toilet hut, fishing, diving, big bar. Can’t begin to imagine what would cause someone to live here and raise a family here. Kind of an end of the road Hemingway spot.
Still, for the millennium, they served 150 people (“and only one chair broken”) between the resort and visiting yachts. Can’t leave out the coconuts falling (at night) from the trees. All of us wondering whether a nut-bomb would come crashing through the tent and exactly what sort of damage it might inflict.
Party tonight out on the dock for Dag. Sunset on playing children, still water, full moon painting a spotlight on the water. Much silliness with champagne, garlands, cake, sparklers. Good fun, but the crowd was worn out and the early birds departed around 9:30.
Total of six or seven paddling miles with a few stretches of rhythmic harmony that made me think I could paddle forever. (Note: Maria’s birthday is February 26 and she'll turn 48 (1952).)
Friday, January 21
Continued oppressively hot and steamy overnight. Woke early to rain and a welcome bit of breeze. Great day. Traditional slow start getting breakfast. It requires hovering and patience. We set off about 11:30 and paddled for about an hour to visit Gwen, the wife of Rick the cook at Lola. We visited at her home for a tour and traditional lunch. Daughter Jessica was also around. Upscale house, family squabble over land, much much work on her shoulders farming alone. Zillions of dogs and kittens skittering underfoot.
After a leisurely lunch we paddled past a village and on to Skull Island, repository of trophies from headhunting days. Mildly creepy, most especially the Christian graves just a few yards from the cairn of skulls. Back to Lola where we showered, drank beer, and ate dinner on the dock under a brilliant moon. They’d brought in a group of fifteen singers for our entertainment. Every song, while rhythmic and pleasant, sounded exactly the same. We danced in trios: Nicholas, Dag, Tasker, and Michael, under protest.
Finally to bed around eleven. The hut feels hot, but the evening has been lovely. Roughly nine miles of paddling with Lillian.
Saturday, January 22
Slow start as is usual. Getting breakfast out of the kitchen takes awhile. I was greeted by Joe the owner with the message that “Mr. Bear had called.” Larry made a good impression. “I’d have liked to talk with him more.” There’s only one phone in the resort, in the office, so Joe serves as overall switchboard. Then during breakfast Larry called again so I had my treat of hearing my honey’s voice. Snow at home. It seems hard to fathom.
Most of the group went off diving, and Barbara and Nicholas headed back home so Marci, Dag and I hung around, pinned down for the morning by a rousing thunderstorm. After lunch the three of us paddled over, picked up Gwen again, and toured her home village, walking across the island to see the ocean side. Pretty, but hot, uneven walking and SPIDERS. Several blocking the path. When cut back, they hung on their webs looking very large and unappealing.
Finally left around 5:30 and paddled back steadily, trying to beat another shower. Amost made it, but Marci and I were caught by a wall of rain about 200 years from home. Warm rain, so it was all in good fun.
Shower then a pleasant evening of chit chat until bed around 9:30.
Sunday, January 23
Day of rain events. We were packed and set to leave Zipolo Habu, but Marcy and I were called back in and we all sat out an emphatic rain squall. Finally set out over an hour later around 11:30 and paddled steadily for 1 ½ hours. We pulled up for lunch at the home of a retired nurse. Two small houses, wooden, raised, simple surrounded by “garden.” I still have to get my head around the idea of (sufficient) self-subsistence farming. No jobs, no need for significant cash income, independent. Simple life, but not degraded. The city types – where Western standards have brought t-shirts, videos, and cash, but not global brands or discretionary cash – are less appealing. Interesting set of dilemmas.
More showers. Then another hour or more of paddling through swampy mangroves reeking of crocodiles. Cloudy sky and showery, thank goodness, or I would have been totally cooked. We landed around 4pm at the orchid garden home of Tony, the British former head of the Solomon Islands Development Bank and his local wife. Deluxe accommodations. Gina, Mike and I have rooms – or at least floor space – in the guesthouse, while the others are tenting on the volleyball court. (Crucial upgrade item: we had an indoor bathroom.) Showers, reading, drinks on the porch, a great dinner, then I went to bed while the others went out hoping to find crocodiles. No luck, but they were all gone for 45 minutes or so of quiet. I set up in the living room, rigged my mosquito net from the ceiling, and nodded off happily. Rain during the night, absolutely deafening, but mixed clouds and bird songs at morning.
Monday, January 24
A good day. We left our jungle-y camp (Guide Basia said, “It’s just like the Garden of Eden in the Bible.” To each his own.) around 10:30 and I paddled with Marcy for two hours steady, feeling much stronger and more cheerful than yesterday. Sun, somewhat shaded by clouds, but only minor showers as we went along. About seven miles total.
We camped on Double Island, two islands connected by a sand bridge. Very handy. We camped on one island and the latrine was dug out on the smaller. A bathroom with a view! Lunch on the beach, camp set-up, then snorkeling to see a wrecked U.S. WWII plane (downed by friendly fire) in 25 or 30 feet of water just offshore. Cool. Awesome Michael was able to free dive down and touch the wreck. I settled for just looking and then boating back to the island. I came back in and borrowed Lillian’s fins for some close-in snorkeling along the reef with Gina. Much easier and more comfortable with good fins. Great colors in the coral: green ferns and cabbage, purple spikes, blue and orange brain shapes. Loads of small fish in electric blue and green, flat shaped yellow, and some cute tiger stripes.
Late afternoon was spent chatting on the beach followed by a wicked rum concoction stirred up by Mark, hot and sour soup, fried rice, and fresh speared fish all cooked up by Dag. After dinner I sat on the beach looking up at a smear of stars, so many that the sky looks smudgy white. Lightening in the distance, but still and hot. It’s been quite comfortable all evening, but is hot and sticky hot as I go to bed.
Tuesday, January 25
Up and on the water after a restless hot night. Paddling by 9:15 paired with Maria in the “banana boat” sit-atop. Very exposed under a brilliant sun – no showers today – but I covered up with hat, T-shirt, and pareo, and off we went. Did about 5 miles with one stop to Manta Ray Island. Landed around 11am and went out for 1 ½ hour snorkel along a reef that drops right off parallel to the share. Lots of green fern shapes, purple shrooms, white icicles, all fabulous coral with schools of smallish bright colored fish zipping in and out.
I cut my instep against some coral – coming up to tread water and chat with folks in water that turned out to be less than 5’8” deep! – not deep, but several good long scratches. Dag peroxided and iodined thoroughly which stung, but looked and sounded worse than it really was. Lunch on the beach, then the others went back out snorkeling while I stayed dry and shady on the island.
Dinnertime brought Manta Ray Mamas (vodka and fruit) to rival last night’s Vona Vona Dive Bombers. Dag topped off the repast with bananas flambé – all created over a little camp cooker burner. Fire starting demonstrations by Tusker, Dag (successful) and Mike (close), then star watching while the guys went out night snorkeling. Not appealing to me at all, but cool to see the little puddles of light swimming around in the dark water. Naturally they all went off in different directions which was nerve-wracking, but Basia was out in the boat keeping on eye on things.
Theme of the day: color, color, color. Turquoise, emerald, deep blue. Sublime. Startling colors and demarcation lines: green, lush tropical vegetation, dark volcanic rock, white beach, sand, turquoise reefs, emerald over a sandy bottom, blue deep water, enormous bowl of sky, huge isolated tropical cloud formations with gray hazy rain hanging beneath.
Wednesday, January 26
Up at 5am – yes really – with Dag blowing a conch shell, and on the water by 6:45 in order to catch calm currents, tides, and weather crossing Ferguson Passage, a two-mile paddle. Totally uneventful, though you could see parts where swells were coming in from two different directions, neither related to the wind. Would be gnarly if weather or problem started up at all.
Made camp on Nusa Aghana Island then boated over to Kennedy Island for an hour or more of great snorkeling along a reef drop-off. Great coral, lotsa fish. I loved it, especially the way the world drops off, maybe a hundred feet, showing off this glorious coral cliff. Yes, this is the island where JFK washed up when PT 109 was rammed and sunk.
Beer at lunch, plus tuna, followed by a funny scene of Dag tending to all our miscellaneous cuts and wounds while we drank beer and at on coolers. Gentle, firmly capable hands. You can see that he must be a great vet.
Lazy afternoon, not too hot with a nice breeze. Everyone sacked out on the beach sleeping and reading. Some went out snorkeling again in the last afternoon, but I opted for a bath and fresh water rinse and felt wonderful.
The islands are fabulous. No visible lights, no houses, no boats, just gently lapping water and birdcalls. Dinner of fried chicken, salad, cassava chips, Candied Torpedoes (vodka, lime, coconut and hard candies), red wine, good talk and a bonfire.
Thursday, January 27
Clean hair, clean skin, clean clothes. Bliss. Off the water though which is sad. We were roused this morning around 6 am by Tusker’s unauthorized conch call. Packed up camp, ate breakfast, then sat tight. Storm squall approaching, so we hunkered down under a tarp until it passed safely.
Paired with Marcy, we paddled 40 minutes over to Kennedy Island and again went snorkeling. The others felt it was “not remarkable,” but I really enjoyed it. Like swimming in an aquarium. I spent some time wondering what life as a fish would be like.
Lunched on the island, then, at 1:45, headed for Gizo, a short run, but with a crosswind and swells. Marcy and I worked hard and the whole formation eventually trundled into Gizo. Truly a backwater. The hotel is great with a/c, private Western baths, sufficient water. The town is one unpaved road by the waterfront with one-story concrete buildings featuring garage door storefronts. Town electricity is out, but the hotel generator is first rate.
First stop was hand laundry and shower. Wonderful to feel clean and dry again. Amazing how much sand and crud washed out of both hair and clothes. In the mirror I see some color, reddish, but not lobster, and butt rash. Teva tan. Dry clothes will do wonders.
Dinner at the hotel with bamboo band entertainment. Lots of fun. Then we all trooped down to PT 109, woke up the bartender (10pm), opened the bar and celebrated the Studleys’ anniversary of their first date. Bob Marley in the background. They are the most attached and affectionate couple you could ask for. Would have loved to do some dancing, but had to settle for groovin’ in place over a beer. Bar was a terrace on the water at the back of a commercial building. People seemed to live in the loft under the grass roof; that’s where we roused the bartender.
Friday, January 28
Great day, but I hate to be wrapping up the trip. Up for a leisurely breakfast in the hotel’s leaf restaurant. Then I strolled around Gizo, pretty basic. I did particularly enjoy the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, a bare-bones concrete church with shells for holy water fonts. Also saw the primitive hospital and resolved to stay healthy.
Back for lunch, then boat transfer to the grass strip airport. Said farewell to Dag (who’s been looking pretty good these days … I miss my bear!) while Maria escorted us back to Honiara. The plane ride again included a stop at the grass strip at Seghe where two passengers were bumped from the plane to meet weight limits. Not a spot I’d like to layover in. Flight was fun again with the Twin Otter co-piloted by a female who aced the landing in Honiara. She beamed when I told her, “You go girl!”
Into the seeming luxury of the Kitano Mendana. Was up, then gin and tonics, then on to an excellent dinner at the King Solomon Hotel. Fun, comfortable dinner conversation over more G&Ts and red wine. The group took a while to settle into the trip, then looked as though it wouldn’t gel, but now we seem quite a cozy, happy gang. Back to the hotel to find I’d just missed a call from Larry. I splurged and called him back. So good to hear his voice and get a long distance hug.
I took a long time to settle into this trip myself, but now I feel strong, competent, even brown and would love to go on for another week. It’s been a fun ride.
Saturday, January 29
I spent a hot morning exploring the market and shops of Honiara. The market was simple, but neat and tidy. The shops are all “general stores” with gaudy t-shirts and sulus=pareos=sarongs=lava lavas, and housewares out of Chinatown. Thermoses, tupperware, aluminum pots. The shops all feature “bale sales” of “gently used” clothes from the States and elsewhere. Now I know where the Salvation Army sends the overflow!
We had a fun group lunch back at the King Solomon where two from the next trip joined us. Ann and John, Brits, he a retired headmaster of an urban school, she just wrapped up from eight years of running the Arts and Ed program for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. (John, “Her going away party was bigger than Simon Battle’s.”) They’ve signed up for the British Peace Corps and are expecting to head off for Gambia in August for two years to set up school programs and educational radio. Nice couple.
Back at the hotel, Sarah Pearson and Katie Dodd had arrived and we had a quick twenty minute catch-up. Wish there’d been more time. Sarah’s back in Hong Kong after stints in Singapore and Tokyo. Katie’s still in London.
Said farewell to Maria at the hotel – ‘til the next time – and bused off to the airport for a long sticky wait for the plane. As Lillian said, “I just want to be there already.” Smooth flight to Nadi with a half hour stop in Port Vila, Varanatu. More farewells at Nadi as the Studleys, Michael, and Marcy headed straight on for LAX. Left Lillian also who’s going on to New Zealand in the morning. Will see Gina on the flight back home.
Taxi’d to the Mocambo which looks better than it did first time around. Startling how a couple of weeks of jet lag recover and acclimatization will clear up your senses again. Got to bed around midnight after a two hour time change from Honiara.
Sunday, January 30
This will be a 48-hour day, so I slept in and didn’t go down to breakfast until 9:15. Even the flies and “mossies” seem to have been banished. Came back to find I’d missed a missing you message from Larry. Sent a quick fax off to my bear. Hit the shops for baby powder – better than sex, a hat and pareos. Will go back to browse for trinkets later, but if the Solomons were hopeless for acquiring stuff, Fiji is only marginally better. Coral beads, “pearls,” and cheap gold jewelry look appealing here, but I know will dingy at home.
The waiter at breakfast was complaining, “Too hot. Fiji too hot.” After the last two weeks, it seems very comfortable, less humid and a nice breeze. Spent the day toasting by the pool watching folks arrive for an International Bar Association conference. Looked more like a law school five year reunion that anything serious.
Napped and showered when the afternoon rains began, then dinner in the “fine dining” Alcove restaurant. The bugs at the outdoor bar/terrace were unpleasant before, so I’m opting for air conditioned splendor in a glass hut with dark wood armchairs, pink table linens, and fishbowl wine glasses.
Midnight departure to fly back to yesterday so I can arrive tomorrow which will still be today. Comfy in empty business class cabin. Slept eight hours then breakfast. Smooth entry and customs at LAX, then did standby for the 3 pm American flight rather than wait for my scheduled 4:30. Safely on, though crowded in business. Enjoyed filet, pinot noir, and ice cream. It’s supposed to be snowing at home. Odd.
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