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June 29, 2000

Tarawa to Solomon Islands voyage, Update #21

Thu, 29 Jun 2000 15:12:32 -0700
Tulagi Report #2
Vanita's restaurant
Tulagi Island
Central Province, Solomon Islands
Latitude: 09 degs 05' South
Longitude: 160 degs 36' East

Chris and I went for a walk yesterday around the island. Since debarking from Moksha nearly a week ago we've both felt increasingly restless from relative inactivity, combined with a mysterious mid-afternoon sugar low cum lethargy attack that neither have known the likes of before. Tulagi-itus we suspect. Most of the islanders seem to have it already. Add malaria (which nearly everyone has in some form or another) and the mildly narcotic habit of chewing betel nut and its wonder anyone on Tulagi ever gets off the horizontal. We thought Kiribati was bad for apathy. This place takes the biscuit.

So we managed to haul ourselves to our feet at around 11a.m. and point ourselves in the general direction of the island market where we had vague plans to buy some fresh produce grown locally on the island: sweet potato, green coconuts, bananas, and if we were lucky, a pineapple. But by the time we got there nothing was left except betel nuts. A lot of betel nuts in fact - rows and rows of them in every direction. Little green rugger-ball shaped things the size of a plum. So, when in Rome...We each parted with 20 cents (equivalent to 5 cents US/3 pence UK sterling) for one nut, a pinch of lime and handful of green leaves that combined together in the right order make up the fearful blood curdling brew you see dribbling out of people's mouths all over the Solomon's.

"OK, we're betel virgins," I informed the old guy we'd just bought our nuts from - rather preemptively to avoid complete humiliation. "I'm afraid you're going to have to walk us through our first experience." "No problem. Taking betel very easy."

He was right about the first bit at least. This entailed cutting away the green peel to expose a light brown nut which is then divided into two and wedged into the mouth one at a time to be well and truly masticated before the next stage. This next stage - adding a dab of lime on the end of one of the green leaves - required a little more bravery in my opinion, for it is the addition of these second two ingredients that spark the potent chemical reaction the partaker is really after. By now the usual crowd of locals had encircled us and stood gawping at the white men about to make complete arses of themselves doing something they could do in their sleep.

"OK, don't swallow any of the nut," instructed our patient teacher, "next thing to do is...".

But it was already too late. During the mastication stage I'd inadvertently allowed some of the now incredibly bitter mulch filling my mouth leak down my throat. I remember doing something similar the first time I had a tooth out at the dentist and was told to rinse my mouth out with the purple liquid provided. I'd managed to get most of the stuff down my neck before being stopped by the nurse. It had tasted awful, but nothing compared to the experience I was now having. It felt as if a billiard ball had lodged in my throat.

"Jesus", I spluttered, sending a shower of half-chewed betel and saliva over the now thoroughly entertained crowd, "you folks pay money to do this?"

I spat the rest out in the grass and retired thoroughly defeated to the store opposite in search of a drink to remove the billiard ball from my throat. Chris on the other hand seemed to be doing a little better and had the beginnings of a thin line of red lipstick appearing on each lip, a sign that he was doing it correctly.

"Getting a buzz?" I asked. "Sort of. Only lasts for a minute or so though. Helluva hassle for just for a 60 second high" mumbled the reply.

Bidding farewell to our gracious betel nut host and the goldfish bowl crowd we resumed our circumnavigation of the island. To exit the village we had to pass through a concentrated area of very well kept houses surrounded by neat vegetable gardens and the respective owners either sitting on the steps shooting the local breeze or lying comatose in hammocks. The path then turned northwards along the westward shore, past beautiful sandy beaches with dugouts dragged casually up above the tide line and small grass houses roofed with pandanus leaves set back into the bush. After a snorkel, cut short due to Chris nearly bumping in one of the most venomous snakes available in Solomon waters (a 4 foot thing with black and white rings that according to a local who we spoke to later that day, can kill a man in less time than it would take to get him to hospital, which would be a waste of time anyway because there is no known antidote), we hit the path again which wound its way past rather unsightly piles of rusty washing machines and dismembered vehicle parts that people had obviously just driven out here in the middle of the night and dumped. And then it started to rain. The path became a sea of mud and mosquito infested muddles and we laboured on past dark and festering mangroves that looked like five star croc-motels before emerging in the rather rundown community of Sesape marina, the once thriving government-run boat yard, now lying idle. We would have pushed straight on through this rather depressed and run down area had it not been for the sound of music that came to us from one of the cheap, prefab houses that lined the track. Rounding a corner we came face to face with two young boys each banging a pair of old flip flops on a set of panpipes made out of 3/4 inch PVC tubing of varying lengths and tied together in groups of three with coconut fibre. Alan and Randall, both 12 years old, were taking advantage of the current suspension of school (no pay for the teachers due to the conflict) to practice on their older brother's kit. As with all the children we've met here so far here in the Solomon's, they were more than happy to run through a couple of numbers for the video camera and pose for a photograph. We gave them a couple of dollars each for their performance before we left. Having been a musician myself, I know how people who play live music often get stiffed. Audiences are more often than not under the metaphysical miscomprehension that because musicians have smiles on their faces while singing or playing their instruments, the music is itself food enough to keep body and soul enough together.

Finally we came to journey's end - Vanita's restaurant - which to be honest deserves the focus of one update all to itself - its that mad of a place. It's a chaotic mixture of what you'd imagine the Eagles' Hotel California to be like, a home for waifs and strays (both of the animal and human variety) and a knocking shop. And one of its more dependable characteristics, head and shoulders above the promptness or temperature of food when eventually it arrives, is the resident mosquito population. Here's a photo of one that crash-landed in my omelet this evening.

Jason & Chris,
The Moksha motors

Posted on June 29, 2000 12:27 PM