Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 1 - Guadalcanal

The trip started simply enough, with the six of us standing on the packed wharf in Honiara, the Solomon Islands' capital city. Honiara is nestled on the Northern face of Guadalcanal Island, a throw-back from the GI's fight against the Japs in WWII. It consists of a cluster of concrete block buildings that line a dusty main road, sidewalks that are stained red from betel nut spit, and piles of the inevitable assorted garbage and rotting brush inherent to all third-world cities. People from villages all over the Solomons live there, in the sprawling slums that spread backwards through the hills. These grass and jungle covered hills are peppered with old fox holes, rusty bullet cartridges, and even the occasional grenade, pin still intact. Every other Saturday, you can hear explosions as the government explodes two weeks worth of still-active bombs, grenades, and other live munitions left over from the War.

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The group we served with, SITAG (short for Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group), had a couple of houses strung out along the first big hill that rose against the harbor. I remember one day, Matthew and some other SITAG kids were playing down in the valley behind the houses. They had found a heavy, rusty orb in the soft soil beneath a cassava plant, and were playing a game of hot-potato with it, throwing it back and forth over increasingly wider distances. They were standing about five yards apart when my mom caught them. "MATTHEW!!!" she yelled in the panicked, sharp voice instinctive to mothers across the world. It is the voice that says, 'you are doing something potentially life threatening, and you'd better ... stop ... NOW!'

"What is that? Bring it to me!" They all trooped up to her, and relinquished their plaything. Turns out, it was a still-active grenade. I don't have to tell you about the lecture we all got over the dinner table that night. You can probably imagine it.

We came in to Honiara for group conferences, and to have a respite from the harshness of village living every six months or so. We would enjoy the modern comforts of electricity, bakery made bread, flushable toilets, and (wonder of all wonders!) television. SITAG formed our little family away from home. We were all aliens in a foreign land, and bonded together into a sort of extended family. The other parents were my aunts and uncles, and the kids my cousins.

My family had been in Honiara for a few months, and it was time to return to the village. Mom had spent the past weeks stocking up for supplies to last us over the next six months. We loaded cases of canned food, buckets of rice and flour, Christmas and birthday presents to cover everyone, enough hygiene products to cover a family of six for half a year, dish soap, laundry soap, school supplies ... all these went into the hold of the rusty old cargo ship, the Baruku.

The Baruku, recipient of our hope and faith for the next three days, was an old freighter put out to pasture by the Japanese, but regarded by the Solomon Islands government as having many good voyages yet in her. The term 'rust bucket' could have been coined specifically for her. The decks turned your feet and hands orange from the rust. The engine had an odd knocking rhythm, and had to be kept continually going in order to pump out the water that constantly gushed through the many gaps in the hold. If you stood at railing and looked over the side, you could see the stream of water shooting out from the pump into the ocean. It was as round as the opening of a fire hydrant, and ran full force, constantly.

The cargo hold was filled with everything from our stuff (which probably took up half of it), to supplies for the village trade stores, bags of dried fish, coconuts, chickens, bolts of cloth, and anything else the villagers wanted to transport to or from the outer islands. Passengers on the Baruku slept under a tarp on the raised roof of the hold. My dad went out to the wharf hours before the rest of us got there in order to secure a spot for us to sleep on that coveted, elevated place. If you didn't get a place on the cargo hold, you were relegated to sleeping at the bow of the ship, which had no cover and you could get rained on, or on the deck itself. This was not optimum, because on the deck you were a target for any wave that splashed over the side, and in danger of being assaulted by the slosh of refuse that sought the lowest point; salt water, vomit, pee, pig poop, and engine oil, to name a few. There was one trip that I spent curled up across two barrels, because the cargo hatch was full. But on this time, we were lucky.

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