Well, the sun did eventually come out in Santo, but I felt I’d seen what I wanted to see, and didn’t want to spoil my happy impression, so I stayed shipside and toasted my increasingly bulky body up on deck until we left town. Next stop, Honiaram Solomon Islands.
Well. I’ve been to one or two scungy, depressing, just plain horrid places in my travels of the last 40 years, but I regret to say that Honiara beats them all. I know. I know there are reasons, of a sort. The locals seem to have spent an incommensurate part of their recent history blowing each other up or burning each other down for little or no valid reason, so one can hardly expect the man-made parts of the place to be physically beautiful. And it is the tropics, so its going to be more than comfortably hot, with all the problems that brings. But this place isn’t just hot, its dirty-dusty and above all its unkempt, ugly and filthy. Even the greenery, so beautiful in Santo, is a dirty green colour in Honiara. And, alas, even the people have caught the prevailing colour. We have a different race here from smiling Vila and happy Santo. I’m not an expert on Pacific races, but the difference is evident. Here, ninety percent of the faces were a blank scowl. Or a vacant, red-mouthed stare. For this is betel land, and everywhere you look -- from the nearest thing to a pretty young girl (and it wasn’t too near) to a toothless old man -- you see the vampiric red juice dripping from chins, and squirting from between lips.
My abiding memory of Honiara, glimpsed as I tried to negotiate my way along what passes for a main street, past the fouled concrete shops, through the unyielding, unhappy crowds thronging the impossible footpaths, is of a young man crowned by a supersized frizz of Melanesian hair, zonked out in the dirt and rubbish at the foot of a scrawny tree. His eyes were staring angrily like those of a dead man, his mouth was agape, and the red juice stained his chest and his shirt. The journalistic Kurt wanted to take his photograph. The Kurt inside me just wanted to get the Hell out of this place.
I did try. I pushed on and walked to both ends of the town, past the modern grey banks, past the multiple churches (surely God could tell these people to be joyous), past one nice Melanesian arts shop (I want no souvenirs of Honiara), past one out-of-place looking tidy hotel … but I have never been so glad as when, after a little short of an hour, I scrambled up the gangplank to my cool little cabin.
The guide book which said ‘there is little to like in Honiara’ was wrong. There is NOTHING to like in Honiara. It made me feel sad, disgusted and about twenty other negative things all in one time. The guide book also said, don’t judge the Solomons on Honiara. On that one, I reserved judgement.
We were condemned to four whole further days in this burg while our 3000 tons of copra were loaded, but there was no way at all that I was going down that gangway again. While my fellow travellers and ship pals issued forth gamely in search of something worthwhile, I luxuriated on board ship. I’ll chase round in a good port with the best of them, just as I did thirty-five years ago, but I’m darned if I’m going to subject myself to the arsehole of the Pacific just because I’m on the spot.
PS Honiara looks ever so much better from a deckchair on monkey island than it does close up, and my four days of leisure were enlivened by a view of the very active inter-island shipping ferries (people and goods, including one very noisy live pig strapped to a pole). So I’ll illustrate this with pictures of Honiara taken from ta safe distance.
Well, the guide book was right. First thing this morning we sailed into Noro. Ah, mais, oui! Noro is a spot on the map which exists around a factory which cans yellow-fish tuna. There is the factory, the fishing fleet (I counted 11 oldish boats), and the brown, artisanal houses (many on stilts) which house the workers of the factory. Then there is the all-important wharf itself with its tidy road and bright boats, after which a little group of buildings including a general store, the administration buildings and, Lord’s sake, up on the hill, Noro Lodge, hotel and licensed restaurant (currently under much-needed – says the book -- renovation). And that is Noro.
We were only here a short time, picking up 44 containers of scrap metal, but our James (who can give me a decade plus) scrambled down the pilot’s ladder (no gangway here) and checked it out. He says it and its people are as delightful at close quarters as from afar. He also photographed the merry locals and scarpered down the ladder again to give them prints! Next year maybe I shall brave the pilot’s ladder…
So, the Solomon Islands, it seems, are indeed delightful.
If you stay away from Honiara.