Having left the comfort of the Florida Islands with Jonny Ruka and his lovely family, we headed 65 miles north-west to the Russell Islands. En-route we landed a good-sized Barracuda. Barracuda have a reputation for carrying the fish poisoning ciguatera, although the Solomon Islands is meant to be ciguatera free. We elected to keep it knowing a large fish would make a village family happy and they’d know if it was good to eat or not.
Weaving between islands, we anchored near a river mouth not far from the island of Sua. As we packed the boat away a banana boat sped towards us and stopped alongside. The man wanted to know our destination which seemed an odd opening question, being more what we expect from uniformed officials. Then he informed us we’d need to make a donation to the community. We said we’d go in and see the chief. No, he’d go find the chief, heading off away from Sua. We smelt a rat. Back he came with the most unlikely looking chief who, conveniently, didn’t speak English. Your average chief is elderly, very welcoming and having seen a thing or two in their time, a fair type. So whilst ‘the chief’ kept his head bowed, we politely elaborated to the banana boat driver that charging yachts for anchoring would result in yachts not visiting and that yachts do actually try to support communities they visit by trading and offering practical help where they can. Most Solomon Island villages know this and go out of their way to welcome yachties. We knew the guy was a scam artist but fearing any repercussions we handed over some rice and a tin of corned beef. He even agreed to a photograph before he departed. Silly man.
We could see a local woman fishing and offered her the big barracuda. Smiles all round, her fishing stopped and we heard whoops from ashore. In due time a village elder called Hugo comes over and we tell him about our reception. He confirms our suspicions and says the chief lives on the island with him and yachts do not have to pay and are always welcome. We put it aside and agree to come ashore in the morning.
The next morning, we see two very cute kids rowing to the boat with coconuts, a welcome. Half way between them and shore is Mum in a canoe clearly keeping an eye on the interaction. We give the girl some hairbands and the boy a ball. More shouts and all is relayed to shore and we laugh as we hear more whoops. We take the dinghy in and much to our amazement the whole village comes to the shore. We disembark and are both adorned with garlands of flowers and everyone in turn shakes our hands. We get presented with two shell necklaces – the one full of beautiful cowries. We are bowled over.
We go to the chief’s house and sit with him and the elders. These meetings are always just friendly chit-chats but the chief asks politely if anybody has been to the boat and so we relay the story. We show them the photo we took and they burst out laughing identifying the men – Sammy, the driver, and Thomas, a man who lives on another island. We know they are being good natured in front of us but that they are not pleased and they reassure us about being welcome and that we will be looked after. Stories are swapped and Susie does a little Susie medical clinic. Father Christmas Tom pulls out soapy blowing bubbles to amuse the kids – it’s all in a skipper’s day’s work. The kids love it. The Solomon Islands people are so soft and lovely yet so desperately poor – it breaks our hearts to hear that there is no teacher and the children learn from their parents. We ask the villagers if there is anything they need and agree to meet back onshore later so they can go tend to their gardens. Good honest folk.
Much to our surprise, a man who looks like the so-called chief from yesterday turns up at the boat shouting ‘Hello’. Can’t be him, he didn’t speak English according to the boat driver. Susie asks him “Are you the man, Thomas, who came to the boat yesterday?” “Yes, I am sorry I am not the chief, I am just a garden man” and proceeds to load us with vegetables. He explains that the boat driver made him come with him and that he is very sorry. Clearly it has hit him hard as he has bought so many vegetables we fear he must have emptied his garden. We can only empathise and we thank him for his honesty and from our side we give him some clothes for his children, explaining they are because we appreciate what he has done in coming to apologise. Good move on his part as the villagers pass him on his way to us and quiz him and tell him no-one is to approach any yacht in the future.
If there is something an islander loves in their world without stoves, it’s a cake or biscuit. So Susie cooks over 50 small cookies laced with sugar and we head in. They don’t last long as all dig in. We hand out some things to help the village and spend a while taking photographs, giving medicine to people Susie had met earlier and talking some more. We return to Adina before dusk, thanking them for their hospitality, real salt of the earth good people.