The Solomon Islands (1 of 4)

"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Solomon Islands

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Water fascinates me.

I’ve been drawn to islands all my life. I was born on an island, but moved when I was just two years-old and raised in a small mining town inland. I presently live in a Colombian city even further inland, but I am drawn to islands and coastal places, and always experience a special sense of freedom when I’m near an ocean or sea. Newfoundland, Fiji, Kyushu, Cuba and Che-ju-do are a few islands I’ve been on, all beautiful and unique in their own ways, but I’d like to tell you about a country that actually uses the word in its name: the Solomon Islands.

Among the smallest countries in the world, the Solomons are made up of hundreds of tiny islands which combined have a mass of just 27,557 sq km. The tropics of the South Pacific are magnificent. Guadalcanal is the largest of the Solomons, and Honiara, the capital of the country, is approximately 9° below the equator. About 30,000 people live in Honiara. The island is known to many because of battles that took place there between the U.S. and Japanese in World War II.

Tropical rain forests, beaches and the underwater world of the Pacific Ocean are usually within a 10-minute walk of where you are, due to the small size of the islands. Formed by volcanic activity long ago, they often rise sharply out of the ocean. Some of these volcanoes are still active; the locals sometimes use their heat for cooking by. The following, from World Book Encyclopedia, is a short description of the Solomons’ topography:

The country’s main islands were formed by volcanoes. They are rugged, mountainous, and covered with tropical plants. The islands range from 90 to 120 miles (140 to 190 kilometers) long and from 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 kilometers) wide. Each island has a central spine of mountains. Some of the mountains are more than 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) high. The land drops sharply to the sea on one side of the island and gently to a narrow coastal strip on the other. Some of the outlying islands are atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs).

The people speak Pidgin English but also have their own local languages, called wantak (from "one-talk"). Wantak varies greatly from island to island, or even from village to village. Thus, all its inhabitants are bilingual. An example of Pidgin English is, "Hemiufalla closup now go long riva fo swim-swim," meaning "Soon we will go to the river to wash, bath or swim."

The islanders have very dark-colored skin in general, and most have black hair. Some have lighter hair and skin, as a result of relations with foreigners during the war. They are an overwhelmingly nice people, the girls are quite shy, and they have a wonderful outlook on life.

Without much in terms of monetary value or material possessions, they are rich in culture, kindness and warmth, a reflection of the climate they live in. The happiest people, they express themselves through their musical nature and melodic voices. Upon entering a town called Kira Kira on Makiria Island, I was greeted by about a dozen school children who simply said "Hello" in unison, but with such beautiful harmony that I can hear it clearly in my mind even now, five years later.

The economy of the Solomons is poor but relatively self-sustained. The people grow or catch their own food (cassava and tropical fruits are common), build their own shelters (people generally live in leaf huts), and purchase or obtain by other means any other necessities such as clothing. Sarongs are commonly worn by both men and women. Sugar can be obtained through sugarcane, which grows abundantly in the region, and there is even a plant that is used directly to obtain soap.

They make their own canoes, by cutting down thick hardwood trees and carving the boat out of its trunk with axes and chisels. The result is a heavy one- or two-man vessel used by the islanders for fishing.

Another form of fishing is with a spear. The spear is simply a metal rod with a sharpened tip, with a rubber band and a bamboo handle attached to the bottom for retrieval. Night is the best time for spear fishing because the fish are sleeping and can be hit easily. A few divers go down with these spears and shoot them at the fish in a slingshot like fashion.

One interesting custom in the Solomons is that people don’t walk or step over another person’s legs or other part of the body when passing by. I was not aware of this when I noticed a friend actually walk out of her way to get around me. She would not even disturb me enough to say, "Excuse me," so I would raise my legs so she could pass.

The unfortunate reality of globalization is causing customs like this to become extinct from many cultures, and this custom is in the process of disappearing from Honiara. There is an overpass for pedestrians to cross a busy road in the city, but residents are consciously or unconsciously not respecting the custom, as cars pass beneath them when they are using the overpass. The safety of pedestrians is improved, but a unique custom is being put aside as a consequence.

"Solomon time" is another cultural phenomenon, but something similar can be found in most warm climates. If you specify a time to meet someone or for something to happen, it could be up to three hours later than planned, or even later.

This is prevalent especially in the Solomons because of the intense heat you have to bear walking around in the sun; thus, no one walks quickly. Things are also delayed because so much depends on the ocean: if it’s windy, or if the seas are rough, people and materials are frequently postponed while waiting for the water to calm down.

Read Part 2