Our house in Tulagi, Solomon Islands.
Life Solomon Islands

Tulagi Memories

June 25, 2018

I spent my first year in Honiara, my second in New Zealand, and my third on a random island called Tulagi where Dad had gotten a job at some place called Sasape Marina. Tulagi is my second Solomon home and this is our first trip back to Tulagi in 25 years.

Despite living in the Solomon’s for around 6-9 years, Mum has never been on a banana boat. Dad has, but Mum was always with kids and preferred travelling options less prone to sinking.

We wait at the Point Cruz Yacht Club for our banana boat which putts in nearly an hour late. It’s up there with being one of the smallest and slowest banana boats I’ve ever had the pleasure to travel in. I assure Mum the distance between Tulagi and Honiara is a short one so the rescue will be easy if the boat capsizes.

The trip to Tulagi is record-breakingly slow. The trip takes nearly two hours when it usually takes an hour on a fast boat. Halfway to Tulagi we’re convinced we’re not going to make it. The boat sounds like it’s on the verge of overheating or running out of petrol, maybe both, and the boatman decides the best thing to do is slow down, as if we weren’t going slow enough already.

We finally pull up to Raiders feeling quite seasick and are greeted by Yvie who exclaims, “I was ten minutes off from telling Bob to go out and look for you guys.” We’re impressed. We hadn’t even checked-in yet and Yvie and Bob – Kiwis – come off more like old friends than hosts. They steer us to tea and coffee for rejuvenation before we go up to our rooms.

Typical accommodation in the Solomon Islands is simple: wooden bungalows with foam mattresses that aren’t always on a bed-frame; maybe a mosquito net; maybe a light; maybe a fan; power never guaranteed. Don’t get me wrong – this experience is nice, but I tend to sleep in bungalows with one eye open trying to sleep in a pool of sweat and trying not to think about creepy crawlies.

With very low expectations, we were not prepared for Raider’s spring-form mattresses and fans with multiple settings. Even the bedding matched. And the ultimate amenity of luxury in the Solomon Islands – air-conditioning.

Spirits high, we lunched Solo style on tuna and crackers before walking off our lingering seasickness.

Tulagi’s main road follows the coast around the whole island and a sign from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Development indicates the road is 7.546 km. Turn left and it takes you to the hub of Tulagi where the market operates and where most of the population lives. Apparently, there’s not much to see if you go right but Mum and Dad are adamant.

“We need to find our old house so that means we’re going right.”

Yvie’s scrunches up her face as a warning, “Don’t get your hopes up. There’s not much left.”

What does that mean?

From Raiders we turn right. It’s not a grand road. It’s dirt and only wide enough for one car – you get the feeling that there’s never two cars on it at the same time. There are a few well-kept houses, and a few more unkempt houses the further we walk.

We pass industrial graveyards: abandoned factories, sheds and warehouses. Remnants of a thriving business district that’s been left behind.

We find a jetty that’s cracked into several pieces – a health and safety nightmare: crumbling concrete, tangled loops of barbed wire, rusted half-machines and old conveyor-belt systems, crabs. The perfect setting for Hollywood’s next dystopic, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, thriller.

This is the skeleton of the old Solomon Taiyo tuna cannery and my Dad will tell you it’s the best chilli tuna in the world. It was also here where Mum and Dad caught the daily 6am tuna boats that would take them to Honiara and back. If it weren’t for the tuna boats, Mum would have experienced the thrill of taking a banana boat a long time ago (or never left Tulagi).

Mum and Dad are puzzled, “This place used to be buzzing”.

The only buzz are mosquitoes.

“Where are all the people?”

I was looking forward to buying some banana snacks along the way but we still hadn’t come across even one stall.

“I thought you said there were markets here, Mum?”

“There were! This road used to be bustling and we could buy fruit and vege off the side of the road. There were always people walking down here.”

So far we’d passed a handful of kids and a few people had waved hello from the safety of their houses. Our pale complexions put one baby into a screaming fit and the trail of barking dogs behind us confirmed they didn’t much like the smell of us either.

I pointed at a pile of rubble. “Is that the market mum?”

“Hmmm, I guess it must be.”

It wasn’t selling any bananas so we moved on.

Further down the road we spot a tangled piece of rusted metal, which on closer inspection turned out to be a gate.

“That’s not the gate, is it?”

It was the concrete steps that gave it away. I remember them. Someone has cut the grass all the better to show all the fat frogs that used to hide in there. As a toddler with only very short legs, these steps loomed over me. They were steep, crooked, too many to count, and broken, leaving me a 100% chance of slipping and falling on a frog’s head which would be terrible because I hated frogs’ heads.

But steps look a lot less scary when you’re a metre taller.

Dad says with a grin, “You never walked up these steps. You would stand at the bottom yelling for our house girl to carry you up, ‘REBEKAH! REBEKAH! COME GET ME!!!’”

Well, I might as well give it a crack for old time’s sake, “REBEKAH, COME GET ME!”

No one came to get me so I climbed the steps myself possibly for the first time.

Still standing after 25 years but looking very tired is our old house. The only thing that looks familiar to me is the dirt area under the house where my friend and I used to go fishing for worms (is that an actual thing, or a warped childhood belief where I was convinced worms can be fished out of the ground).

Mum sees more than me: “I can see the deck where our blue plastic pool sat. The door to our downstairs school room is open. The windows to our lounge where you could watch people walking up the stairs. The steps up to the deck are broken and there are missing pieces in the side wall.”

Time bifoa, the compound had four houses for Sasape Marina staff. Mum and Dad’s neighbours were a bunch of New Zealanders and Australians and the wives gathered most afternoons to play Bridge, gossip over coffee and cake, make shopping lists for the next trip to Honiara, and complain about management. They could all wave to each other chummy-like from their kitchen windows and yell out, “Come over for a cuppa!”.

But I can’t see any of the other houses. Mum and Dad are spinning around trying to see which bushes houses could be hiding under.

We later learn that the mismanagement the Tulagi wives’ club were always complaining about finally came to a head. The shipyard was abandoned and the workers left. Their houses were dismantled bit by bit and the materials were used to build parts of other peoples’ houses. Our house is the only one left in the compound and although it looked like someone had moved in no one came out when we called.

We meet a man on the road who has come out to investigate our trespassing. Turns out he used to be (still is?) Chief Engineer and was working at the same time as Dad. Solomon Islanders have this uncanny ability to remember the names and faces of every human they ever meet. Even when they’ve lost a head of hair.

He looks at my dad, “I remember you. When you were young.”

The implication that my dad is now not young hangs in the air.

He storis with us about all the expats that were here and how they all eventually left.

We bombard him with questions. “What happened?”, “Where are the houses?”, “What happened to our boss?”, “Do you know Rebekah?”

“Rebekah? Yes, hem live nara side lo island,” and he points over the ridge. Well, we weren’t expecting that reply and Mum has accepted a new mission.

A two-minute walk from the house are a bunch of concrete posts sticking out of the water. Dad squinted at them like they were very interesting.

“I’m pretty sure that’s my office.”

Hard to recognise without any walls or floors or rooves but it is in exactly the right spot. It seems to be the only thing left of the small wharf and office that was once headquarters for Sasape Marina (and a good spot for catching small squid if you were keen). 

“That’s where we set up a home-made (rope) tennis court, those are the office steps where we waited for Dad to finish work, and people ate their lunch there, and we’d meet our neighbours for a catch-up over there.”

Next door was the ship repairer’s dock which still had ships tied up to it looking like they’d been waiting since Dad left to be repaired (and two old men who look like they’ve been waiting just as long). Ships would pull up alongside the wharf for engines to be pulled apart and repaired, things to be attached and detached, cargo to be unloaded and loaded.

Looked like they had a few years of backlog to catch up on.

Once we pass Dad’s old office there’s not much to see but overgrown bush, more buildings on their last legs and a few American bunkers and other miscellaneous WWII junk. I’m surprised no one has moved into the bunkers as they look a lot sturdier than our old house.

We reach the point of the island which is marked by a ridge of rubbish. Someone tells us that the rubbish trucks can’t be bothered to go the extra distance inland to the designated rubbish tip so they just dump it on the side of the road.

At this point, Nid and I leave Mum and Dad to sotcut over the ridge through the middle of the island. We’re trying to make it in time to catch Bob for a dive. The short-cut is steep and muddy, and we’re skiing down the slope in our jandals. It’s so muddy we eventually just give up and let two strong boys hold our hands the whole way down.

Raiders is one smooth operation when it comes to diving. We arrive and our gear is already set up for us. We jump into our togs and board Bob’s boat for the ten-minute ride to the Twin Tunnels. Twin tunnels is a reef dive with two diveable lava tubes. The tunnels are too deep for us at 40 metres but there is still a lot to see on the reef on top at a depth that’s more our style (a cool 15-20 metres). The coral is spectacular, the fish are huge, and a shark came out to play chicken with Nid (it veered left at the last second).

It’s that niggly time between afternoon nap and dinner so we’re chilling out on the hammocks. Raider’s has an excellent deck at the bar to take in the sunset, an outdoor area with some hammocks, and a small sandy beach to wade in… to wade in with your eyes wide open because I did happen to notice the croc trap 100m up the road. We call crocs the “C word” now because you’re a Debbie downer if you say it out loud while you’re on holiday. The “C word” is a light, gentle reminder and you only say it in a soft and quiet tone like you’re talking about kittens and other things less teethy.

Dinner is Thai beef curry, or pan-fried kingfish with chippies. It’s very good. For wanky foreigners like us at least. Nid’s colleague had warned us, “Raiders is good, but the food is terrible”. If you’re expecting a local style plate of heaped kumara, rice and a hunk of protein then Raiders is not your kind of dining. If you’re wanky like us, you can expect what you’d expect from an Australian/New Zealand beachside restaurant.

When we finish dinner Mum mentions in passing to Yvie that she’s on a mission to find Rebekah. Yvie disappears into her office and after a few minutes she comes out and says, “I think we’ve found her. She’s coming over now.”

Tulagi’s a small place.  

Within half an hour Rebekah and her husband Noah arrive at Raiders. They are equally as shocked to see Mum and Dad as Mum and Dad are to see them. We didn’t actually think it would be the same Rebekah.

Rebekah looks at Mum and Dad and blurts, “Me ting iu too old for visitem. So me ting maybe Dan and Ana kam fo visit.” Rebekah was 16 when she was with our family and is now 43 and married with her own four pikinini.

Rebekah storis, “Daughter pick up phone and ask me ‘Were you housemere for Whiteman family? Me say ‘No, but me housemere for Māori family long time ago. Nuku Jones.’”

It grates on me getting lumped into the “Whiteman” category which happens here all the time as a foreigner, so hearing Rebekah make the distinction of us as Māori makes me know this woman is my WANTOK.

She has brought her photo album and we flick through her photobook at old photos of my siblings and I when we were kids. I try to show her some updated pictures on my phone but realise she can’t see them and needs reading glasses. She just knows her photobook so well the blurs are recognisable.

Rebekah came with us when we went back to New Zealand for a holiday and brought some photos back “for memory”. Even people she only met once or twice, she knows exactly who they are. She shows us an 80s photo of our family, “This is your Uncle Wai and Aunty Gin at your friend’s wedding and this is Nanny Tui and Grandpa Roger. How is your brother and Auntie Dora?”  Mum can’t remember anything about that wedding but we are dumbstruck at Rebekah’s ability to remember all of these people thirty years later. I can barely remember the people I met yesterday at that really important meeting I was supposed to make a memorable impression at. Mum has to tell Rebekah that a lot of those people she is talking about have since passed on.

It’s a very emotional evening.

Part II: Turning Left

Nid and I are up early for a 7am dive with Bob to the Kawanashi ‘Mavis’ Seaplane. The Kawanashi is a Japanese WWII plane that lurks around the 25-30 metre mark making it perfect for diving noobs like us. The vis isn’t great so I get a bit of a surprise when it materialises out of the murk in front of me. There are old bits and pieces of WWII paraphernalia scattered on the hood including an old-timey video camera. Bob leads us to where the sharks sleep but they’ve already started the day and are nowhere to be found.

After breakfast, we get ready to walk the other side of the island. Mum has made arrangements to meet Rebekah and Noah for morning tea at their house by the market.

“Get to church Nama!” Bob yells.

Nama is a dog and Raider’s Chief Island Guide. On Sundays, Nama goes to church.

Seeing as we’re going in the same direction Nama decides to join us and trots out to the gate to wait for us.

Today, we turn left.

This time we see lots of houses: houses, community centres, canteens, carefully manicured gardens, street graffiti, and the first telephone booth I’ve ever seen in the Solomon Islands. The phone looks like it was pulled out a long time ago but the fact that a booth exists is still something to write home about. Nama follows alongside making sure we don’t get lost occasionally stopping to roll olabaot in a dead frog, which is her absolute favourite.  

We passed through the “cut pass”. There is a good local lore about this. The gap was carved out by local prisoners and a bridge went from either side to allow people to cross it. The wife of the Island’s Big Man was crossing the bridge when it broke. She fell through and would have cracked her head if it weren’t for one heroic prisoner who caught her and saved her life. This prisoner lived happily ever after because Big Man pardoned him and set him free.

We reach the market which is closed because it’s Sunday and everyone is at church. We did this the wrong way – should have turned left on Saturday, and right on Sunday.

“Jones!” This is Noah’s way of addressing Dad but naturally we all turn around.

We are ushered into Rebekah and Noah’s house for snacks and Rebekah serves up Dad’s favourite: coconut biscuits and tuna. This is what he’s been sustaining himself on since he got here (the other third is bananas). Then it is more stori about life in Tulagi. Rebekah tells us she sometimes makes food for the market and had we come on market day we would have been treated to her fish and chips and ring cakes. Noah has his own boat and says next time Nid and I come to Tulagi, it’s going to be on his fast boat and it’s not going to take two hours.

We start heading back to Raiders to catch our boat back to Honiara and we stop at the church where Rebekah got married. Since the new church was built up the road (Nama’s church), the old church is empty on Sundays. When Rebekah got married, our family was living in Honiara at the time and travelled back to Tulagi for the wedding with a full boat: decorations for the church, presents for the happy couple, dresses for the flower girls (me and my sister), and last but not least, Mum’s wedding dress for the Bride. The reception was held at the abandoned boat repairer’s shed we passed through yesterday and half the island had come to the party.

When it’s time to say goodbye there’s a few tears shed and promises to come back.

Rebekah says to me, “Enitime iu like fo kam visitem, iu callem me an me straitem room.”  

We’ll be baik.