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September 10, 2004

Waterfall Bay, Trading with the Natives


Chief Curley and Jimmy have just left the boat with Tee shirts, playing cards and money. They left behind five two pound lobsters, vegetables and a kilo of fresh water shrimp. It is difficult for one who is used to trading for cash to convert that to the equivalent in goods. The trading ritual is the most difficult part.

First and easy is placing the order which we did yesterday when we arrived. Chief Curley paddled up in his canoe and asked if we wanted lobsters. The down payment was four D cell batteries. The lobster hunter dives the reef at night and batteries must come from town that is a full day walk "if you are a fast walker".

Jimmy's canoe soon arrived and asked if we wanted vegetables and prawns. Jimmy and the Chief said they would be back at 8:30 next morning.

At 8:30 sharp the chief arrived with the lobsters. I invited him on for a cool drink and a visit. Ten minutes later Jimmy arrived with the produce. After a tour and an hour of small talk I was going nuts. How do we get this done? We had shown them the goods-eight tee shirts, a Chicago Bulls hat, and a bar of soap. Finally Jeannie added a deck of cards to the pile and the chief suddenly came alive. That was for him. Jimmy asked if we had another which we produced and they were very pleased with themselves. Another ten minutes of small talk and the Chief finally suggested that I distribute the rest.

I suggested that he choose- did he want money or tee shirts. He said some of each and Jimmy and the Chief talked in Bislama. I made out "three" "four" and finally "five" hundred VT, the local currency. This was a small problem-I did not have that much in small money so we settled on 449VT plus the soap, two tee shirts (for ladies) and the deck of cards.

I now turned to Jimmy and suggested that he get the cards and two tee shirts. He said ok but a cloud centered over his head. He looked back and fourth and finally choose two (for the ladies). After further thought he offered his cards back and asked if he could have three tee shirts-I said yes and offered him the cards as a gift. The cloud cleared and the sun came out. With a big grin he thanked me and told me we would be friends forever.

Three days later we were in Sola was our check out. We were met on shore by Sara who led us to the "yacht club" where we met Luke, her father. Over coffee Luke told us of the trade school he had started that he later turned over to the church and his dream for a hospital. He also had established a guest house on Mota Lava which his son now ran and he was in the process of expanding the "guest house" that consisted of a dozen one room palm leaf huts that surrounded the one room yacht club. Luke offered us coffee and fried yams at the "Yacht Club".

As we were leaving, Luke asked if we had any rice. There was none on the island and the festival was coming up at the end of the month. The Prime Minister and a number ministers and their staffs, six dance troupes, the water music ensemble, six magicians and three "jet flights" of visitors would be here for the five days of festival. In a land of no refrigeration running out of rice was a problem. We had already given our extra rice away two islands ago and so gave him a bag of flour.

Two days later we arrived in Lata in the Solomon Islands. Lata had two highlights, rain and Willy. We had last filled water a month earlier in New Caledonia and Jeannie was stressed. We had used about 200 of our 300 gallons. A tropical downpour started in the middle of the night. After a half hour to wash the decks before we closed the drains and let the water flow into our tanks. It was like parking under a waterfall. We were full in less than an hour and busy doing laundry. Still it poured.

I launched the dinghy in the downpour and found the town and Willy, a quiet slight efficient black government official who handled customs, immigration and health for entry into the Solomon Islands. I must say this was the first time we have encountered one person handling what normally takes three. Willy had to come to the boat to perform his functions and had no umbrella so I lent him my handheld radio and arranged that he would call and I would fetch him from the beach when the rain stopped.

Three hours later Willy was aboard. We were the seventeenth boat his year and probably the last with the cyclone season fast approaching. For the prior three years there were none because of the "political problems". Willy explained that everyone was corrupt and the Police with their guns were the worst. Willy was not been paid for two years and he and his wife had to go to his village to grow vegetables to feed their three children.

Finally, the Australian and New Zealand military arrived and restored order. They established a commission that arrested the worst politicians and most of the police who had fled back to their villages. Things were much better now. Willy was getting paid and the police had stopped robbing but the same Prime Minister still ruled.

St Ann's Bay must be the happiest place on earth. We got a Captain Cook reception-dozens of dug outs filled mostly with children surrounded us as we looked for a patch of sand on which to anchor.

The dug outs followed our inflatable into shore to pay our respects to the chief. Amos met us on the beach and became our guide. We found the chief working inside of the new church. He welcomed us, gave us permission to visit, anchor and swim in his lagoon.

"Can you fix my drill?" I offered to take a look. "Come back tomorrow but now you must look at the carvings we have for sale".

Amos took us to four carvers before he disappeared. We were left wandering around the village followed by scores of children. Everyone smiled and waved. Most men came up and introduced themselves. All had Christian names.

The next day we selected three carvings including the fish with the man in the nose for which we probably paid the highest price on record. Lonely Planet reports that inflation has hit this village since the cruise ships started stopping here. It has been three years since the last stop but one is due in November and everyone is busy carving.

We dropped off the chief's drill, fixed, but, with a worn chuck, not "as good as new". The chief was out.

Amos reappeared and offered to take us to the Custom House. We followed him through the jungle and two villages. In the second village we met the chief, signed the guest book and made a small donation. A red gummed elder appeared to give me the guided tour of the two "Custom Houses"-primitive one room buildings with thatched roofs and woven palm leaf walls open at each end. The carved posts that held the roof were of spirits. Inside, men only, were skulls and large wooden fish and canoes

I knew from reading that the elders red gums were from chewing "beetle nuts". We had visited the coca chewing Indians of Peru and had kava with the village chiefs in Fiji but this was my first encounter with the "beetle nuts". I then noticed that the soccer players and every man in town had red gums.

The elder explained in a low voice that these were the remains of "heroes of the hidden times" and a few important people since.

He explained one carving that had the front half of a shark and back a human. He told me that long ago two brothers from this island had a fight and one killed the other and threw him into the sea. Later the living brother went swimming and the other brother, now a shark, came and bit him.

"What are the Hidden Times?"

"That was over a hundred years ago before the missionaries came and we did not believe in the right things." The heroes were great warriors who would go to the mainland and kill the enemies or sometimes would be killed and the remains would be brought back.

Of course, the remains of the losers would be returned minus the flesh.

When we got back to St. Ann's village it was obvious that things were different here. No red gums. Children were all laughing and playing and everyone smiled and introduced themselves. We went back to the boat and did a few chores. Three sisters, Brigit, Annie and Lisa aged ten, nine and five serenaded us from their dugout as we started to get our boat ready for the early morning passage.

Amos stopped by to collect some fishing line and hooks we had promised him for his guide service. He invited us to come into the village that night for the singing. We already had the dinghy stowed and declined.

That evening we heard the whole village gather around the set of PVC tubes that David had fashioned into a Blue Man Group percussion instrument. The signing was glorious.

Dawn on Sunday found us raising the anchor. A lone dug out canoe left shore and came out to us. It was the Chief.

"I am sorry that I was not there to thank you yesterday for fixing my drill and did not want you to leave with out saying goodbye. Thank you for coming to our village."

He gave me a traditional spoon made from a coconut shell and bid us a safe voyage and a quick return.




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