Hanging out with Jonny Ruka in the Solomon Islands


Monday 15 June 2015

Jonny Ruka welcomes Adina with drinking coconuts decorated with hibiscus flowers

Jonny Ruka welcomes Adina with drinking coconuts decorated with hibiscus flowers

We had not planned on visiting the Florida Islands, a small group of islands that sit just off Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. They’d had some bad press for demanding high anchorage fees from yachts, presenting lists of goodies requested to be brought to the chief and even petty robberies. But again and again, yachties and locals, told us we should visit a local man by the name of Jonny Ruka who lives in one of the bays. Local knowledge is best so we duly altered plans and turned up to be met by one of Jonny’s boys in a canoe holding up a mooring buoy rope for us to secure to, right outside the family village. Jonny, we were told, was in the bush. In the Solomon Islands people seem to be either at home or off ‘working the garden’ meaning tending to fruit and vegetables often up to an hour’s walk away or ‘in the bush’ meaning they are collecting wood or sago palm leaves used for making roofs.

On our sail over from the island of Rya Sura we had landed a whopping 17kg wahoo and two nice small mahi-mahi, a fine day of fishing. Way too much for us, we’d of course share it with the local family. Sitting on the stern of Adina filleting, I chucked the wahoo head overboard. Over rowed Kastom Chief David, elder brother to Jonny, wanting to know why I’d thrown the head and could he please have the bones and tail as it all makes good soup. We duly gave him the many bones and a bunch more flesh to ‘beef’ it up and then rowed ashore to give half of the wahoo and one of the mahi to Jonny’s wife, Lillian. We always like to try and take the first step to make a good impression.

The next morning the famous Jonny arrived armed with two drinking coconuts, bamboo straws sticking out, each flamboyantly decorated with around fifteen bright orange hibiscus flowers. You couldn’t have received a better welcome in a five star resort. We warmed to Jonny instantly as he chatted away about the yacht club he was building, the mooring buoys he had installed, how he and his family would look after our yacht, how he had banned fishing on his reef so sailors could enjoy snorkelling with all the fish, and on and on it went. “Can we get water here, Jonny?” “Oh yes, my two boys Ishmael and Joseph, that is their job. You give them your cans, stay on the boat and they will keep filling them for you until your tanks are full”. “And washing, is there a stream where we can wash our clothes?” “That’s my daughter Beatrice who does that. Please fill your bags, some powder and she will do it, no problem. I’m so sorry but it’s only hand wash”. “What does all this cost, Jonny?” “Oh nothing. You yachts always help us, so don’t worry”. Jonny was ahead of his time, genuine to the core, lived by the philosophy of give and you will receive so much more in return.

Learning how to make bread

Learning how to make bread

Various people came out with fruit and vegetables. We would ask them if they wanted to trade and most would simply say “It’s up to you”. Of course you can’t say no, trading is a way of life here. “What would you like?” invokes the repeated “It’s up to you”. So we would offer up what we have to be chosen from, be it rice, corned beef, fish hooks, matches, clothes and a trade would be done.

Everywhere we go we fall for one of the kids. This time it was to be little Jonathan, Jonny’s grandson, truly a chief in the making. He’d accompany anyone going out to the yacht – so on our first morning here he comes, butt naked, grinning from ear to ear, standing up in a dugout that we’d never be capable of even sitting in, holding a plate of beans and mushrooms sent over by Lillian. He’d always come rushing out to greet us, was always the last to wave us off. His vocabulary extended to hello and yes. “How are you Jonathan?” he’d beam and say “Yes”, but who were we to complain when we struggled with the local language. “Jonathan, where are your clothes?” and once translated he’d run off returning smiling with a set of trousers too big for him.

One thing we have learnt over time is that a shared meal is something that always goes down well and we often suggest it in places we have been made to feel welcome. Lillian jumped at the chance and asked if she could watch Susie cook. In the meantime, Jonny of course had the whole family cooking and preparing. On Adina, Susie demonstrated cooking some minced beef into a light bolognaise, but it was perhaps a little lost as beef is not found on the islands; we wanted to cook it as we knew it would be a treat for the family to eat the meat. And then we showed her how to make flat breads, her eyes lit up and she was soon enjoying cooking them in the frying pan.

Ashore we headed to the yacht club and again Jonny was going all out – a table decorated in ferns and flowers, food for everyone. All too often we sit on our own at these type of meals and feel a bit like panda bears but this time the three elder men joined us at the table, Jonny and his two elder bothers. And did Jonny like the flatbread? I think of the 40 odd slices we prepared for everyone he must have had ten, waxing lyrically about how he hoped Lilian could make them. “Oh they are so good. Lillian, I hope you remember how to make”. Lillian, wise old sage, rolls her eyes and keeps on looking after everyone, sharing out the bolognaise. It’s funny, a year ago we’d host friends from other yachts on board for dinner; we haven’t seen a westerner in well over a month and now we eat with the locals and by gum it’s good fun.

Dinner with the Ruka family

Dinner with the Ruka family

The young boys had instruments made from plastic water pipes, designed like very large pan pipes with about 15 tubes of differing lengths tied together in a row. We’d heard the odd bit of music from the boat and asked if the boys could play for us. Jonny explained this was kastom music which in his youth they had played on bamboo sticks using a hard leaf with which to beat them but that his boys had made their own from plastic and hit them with flip-flops! So Ishmael and Joseph started playing. We loved it and asked for more. Enthused that we liked it, they launched into an hour long show made all the better as the kids and mums gathered behind them in the dark, singing away, each person putting in bids for their favourite song as the previous one ended. They had so much energy as they sweated away, putting their hearts and souls into beating the pipes, producing amazing tunes. As for Jonny, he’d even composed his own songs and his sons duly played them. One of those magical little nights in the Pacific.

Little Jonathan continued to amuse us. He loved to paddle but being only four was not allowed further than the village reef, where he paddled round and round religiously every afternoon. All the kids are trained to look out for strangers; we and the whole family sat laughing as Jonathan stood in Jonny’s big canoe all on his own and saw someone paddling in whom he didn’t know. The family translated that he was shouting at the stranger wanting to know who he was and what he wanted. The man only wanted to trade with us but first he had to bypass our little gatekeeper!

The problem with places like this is you want to stay longer and we duly did, taking walks and enjoying our favourite pastime of just sitting with the family talking and learning. One thing you get absorbed by when sailing in the Pacific is coconuts – they are everywhere and every yachtie wants to learn how to deal with a coconut. We’re pretty apt now at identifying good and bad coconuts, coconuts for drinking and dried coconuts for making coconut milk. Husking a coconut, forget it, you need a spike sitting in the ground and it’s not something you can casually do on a yacht. One thing we wanted to learn is how to make coconut milk. Up steps Lillian and shows us how to crack a dried coconut open. They do it first time every time, we’ve got it down to around eight to ten attempts. Empty the coconut water into a bowl. Get your coconut scraper which has a board you sit on and at the other end a little arm with an upturned claw with several sharp teeth. Place the bowl underneath the claw. Take half the coconut and proceed to push it down and against the claw and turn it at a good speed before pushing down again, allowing the ground coconut to drop into the coconut water below. Then mix and squeeze both coconut grindings and coconut water – voila, coconut milk. They make it look easy, we entertained them trying it. The next day we tried to find a coconut scraper in the nearby village shop but to no avail. Later, Jonny being Jonny presents us with the family coconut scraper and sends Lillian to find an older one from his loft for them to continue using. We laugh as Lillian tells us how he works non-stop for the community and yachts yet she needs a new roof for the house but no joy. Susie tells her she has a relative a bit like that – her Dad!

A weaved basket with fresh beans and round snake beans

A woven basket with fresh beans and round snake beans

Naturally we keep an ear open for where we can help or if there is anything we can give like rope material for his new yacht club or a mask and snorkel so they can check the moorings. A priority is to supply Lillian with all the flat bread ingredients she needs to make her husband a happy man.

Our final evening we share dinner, insisting to Jonny it’s more low key and just with his immediate family but we can’t but help make him more flatbread and again he goes off into an excited state. Finally we leave in the morning at 4am. We know Jonny is already awake and running around working on things. Not just a role model to his family and the villagers, a role model to us. Thank you Jonny Ruka.

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