My Wogasia, my Santa Catalina Reply

By An anona atawa woman

With Wogasia 2016 only a couple of weeks away I thought it was time to share a former participants experience. It is long and detailed but I think you will find it very interesting.

The anonymous participant attended wogasia in 2011 and what follows is an excerpt from her diary and gives a great account of the woman’s experience. Hopefully in a couple of weeks I will have lots to share about the men’s side of things.

– Ed.
2/6/11, Thursday evening at home, and following days

Cathy and I are still using each other for reality checks: yes, the Wogasia really did happen. It’s still pretty incomprehensible though – surreal, alien, hooley-dooley – just … incomprehensible. I know I have to write it out soon or I’ll wake and it’ll vanish, and I so desperately don’t want that to happen. At least I took a few notes. Pity they don’t make much sense any more.

Try for a chronology.

It started on Saturday morning, 28 May. Minor hassles at the airport, fortunately not affecting me, then our little plane (seated maybe 18?) flew us up and over Guadalcanal, over Makira (the large main island of Makira province) and many other smaller islands then down lightly on the grassy dirt airstrip of the small island of Santa Ana. What looked like half the village was there to meet us and carry our bags down the hill and across to the other side of the island. We were assured they really wanted to do this for us (oh yeah!) … I let them. The path was not steep but it was long and non-wheelable, and in any case I learned later that our porters were kin to our Santa Catalina hosts so of course there was the honour to consider. (Besides, I’m used to being spoilt.) Down to the beach where there were two “banana boats” – open runabouts with outboard motors, seating six plus driver plus pilot – ready to ferry us to the even smaller island of Santa Catalina. There was only a gentle swell and it was only about 20 minutes or so but Cathy and I were down the back, low in the water, so we had our first drenching for the weekend. Fair foretaste.

Santa Catalina. We got the traditional scaring-away “welcome” by four screaming warriors, bodies and faces blackened with soot, with spears thrusting overhead in our direction and one-sided coconut fronds tied around their waists and foreheads to stick out like blades. I suppose it could’ve been a bit of a worry – probably would’ve been in past days of hostilities – but a) I was prepared for this, b) so many other people were on the beach applauding, and c) the oldest warrior slipped in the water and started laughing, which sortof gave the game away. Gorgeous good-natured fun.

And then there was the formal welcome by one of the older chiefs in full traditional warrior attire. In the local language, through his pijin interpreter, he assured us that their customs from the past are part of their culture but it’s okay because now they’re all Christians like us (?) so black and white are the same. Hmmm …

And so to us. The MC for the duration of our stay, an older man who’s fluent in pijin and carried a portable louspeaker just about all the time, had us line up in the sand for what felt like a rather odd blind dating game. As he called out each of our names we stepped forward, the head of our host family emerged from the crowd, and everyone applauded as we shook hands.

That’s when I first realised just how deeply immersed in this community we were going to be. I’ve grown quite dependent on Cathy, my VIDA/Pasifiki minders and all the pijin-speaking whitefellas around me. I know I’ve been here for six weeks now but I really don’t know half as much about anything as I should – like how would the warrior greeting have felt if you hadn’t expected it? And then there’s the anxiety of any blind date that’s going to last for several days … I truly did feel like such a sook but I really didn’t want to be separated from my wontok.

Of course I did behave myself appropriately. Four days couldn’t last that long – I could handle it. I scored a young man of 30-odd, Michael. He shouldered my bag and led me away through a few small villages (as I later realised they were) to his home in Manuaro where I met his wife Joyce and their three pikininis: Walter, 24 months, Angelite, 14 months, and Jemelda, 4 months.

And oh such a lovely home! I’m not sure whether Manuaro is the largest of the villages but it certainly has the largest village square – big enough to accommodate a stick-drawn soccer pitch with plenty of room to spare – and all of the houses around the square, including mine (i.e. Michael & Joyce’s), are traditional leaf huts. Some are quite small but (pinch yourself at being so lucky!) my place was spacious and immaculate. Across from the door at the large open entrance level it had a diagonal cut-off corner with shelves for a few plates, cups, water and bananas, and on the far side and on the right there were wide split-bamboo sleeping platforms with cloth screens.

To the left, up a high step that was draped with an old towel (in case you wanted to wipe the downstairs sand off your feet), behind a doorway that was curtained for privacy, there was a very large room with a wooden floor, each floorboard the size of a structural beam by Aus standards. This was clearly the whole family’s usual sleeping area but they’d vacated (Joyce and kids to the living area, Michael to the verandah) and allocated it to me alone. Excessively, embarrassingly generous, but just so …! Woven mats on the floor, my own thin single foam mattress with sheets and a couple of lumpy (rag-filled?) pillows, thick layers of leafing for the roof, natural construction methods on display like in some wanky nouveau architectural project – all storybook charming. Damn shame I tramped so much sand up there. (Would’ve driven Gerald apoplectic but when you live in a sandy beach village you just gotta get over it. It’s just soft clean white gold sand. It’s good.)

Early afternoon. We settled with members of the extended family out the front on the sheltered verandah, me prim on one of the benches made of small even logs, others sprawling on another double bed sized split-bamboo sleeping/lounging/lazing platform, just sussing each other out over a super-sweet fresh coconut, communicating in my unreasonably weak pijin and Michael’s excellent pijin and smattering of English until Cathy and Lonsdale, her host, came by. (Sooooo glad to see her!) They were on a walkabout checking out the environs so I joined them with a gaggle of kids from Michael and Joyce’s place – maybe nieces and nephews, maybe neighbours, definitely cute and curious. I even got to carry one of the little ones and have others hold my hand. (Aw shucks!)Michael was up for a walk by the time Lonsdale brought me back so I went with him to check out the school, way off down the other end, and meet some of the local carvers. Like Lonsdale, Michael was actually very informative. (Was there a bit of better-host competition between them? Lonsdale is the island’s tertiary-educated teacher but Michael used to be a missionary across the Pacific.) It’s from Michael that I learnt that what I’d first seen as one big village was in fact a series of (eight? ten?) small villages, rather like very small suburbs in a very small town. It’s also Michael who informed me that I am now of the Atawa tribe, like him, so that I can be partner/counterpart to Joyce of the Amuea tribe when engaged in women’s business. Of which a lot more later …

Back to our walkabout. Wherever we went, all was clean and tidy: clear, smooth, hard earth paths and open squares dusted with sand; pretty trimmed gardens; grand arcades of coconuts and bananas; and leaf huts in various styles and sizes but just about all in excellent, picturesque condition. All so amazingly nice – so how come? The community association organises cleanups every Tuesday and Friday! House proud; village proud. (I must say it was a bit of a mess by the time we left though – Wogasia is not an event for the anally retentive.)

Later in the afternoon Michael had me watch the second planeload of whitefella visitors arrive – more warriors! – before we had another sit-down and coconut and storying time at the house. That’s when Michael explained to me that the community association and council of chiefs had decided to try and build Wogasia into a tourism event by making sure we had such a good time that we would tell our friends to come next year. (BOOK NOW! Yes I’m serious. You can contact Garedd at Island Connections on facebook, or he’ll be sure to have a website I can send you by this time next year. I’m putting a February reminder in my phone for you – give you time to organise your trips. You just have to do this before the tourism industry thing takes hold.) The whole island is honest-to-goodness in on this. I learned more about it from Garedd later: more than three quarters of our b&b tariff was paid straight into a community association trust account for whole-of-village purposes like the purchase of a communal chain saw. These people are for real.

Okay, actually at first it was a bit OTT – made it difficult to relax until we settled in and learnt a bit more of each other’s ways. Like no I really didn’t need to be taken to the toilet every half hour during the day, even though each couple of villages had acquired a toilet bowl and constructed a special little leaf hut over it just for us, with the people living closest to my dunny always ready to run to the well and bucket flush behind any of us. And no I didn’t really need to keep eating even though hosts had been warned that we had to be fed three robust meals a day. And no I didn’t need to be escorted everywhere all the time even though I did somehow manage to keep getting lost.

In fact, on Santa Catalina my complete lack of directional sense just didn’t matter much at all because everyone knew I belonged to Michael and Joyce. There was always someone around to show me the way home even before I could ask. Joyce didn’t even have to get up and leave the babies during the night so that she could attend to my middle-aged bladder because as soon as my single torchlight strayed too far off course there’d be other torches shining on the right path from all directions. We were to be treated like an extra child in the family: ignorant, incompetent and pampered. People just wouldn’t give me a chance to be a good guest and cause minimum inconvenience.

But that was just Saturday afternoon!

And then Saturday evening. As directed by the MC, who regularly toured all of the villages with his loudspeaker to round us up, at 5:00 Michael delivered me to the village where new friend Suz was staying to witness the mixing of the annual tao-tao pudding.

Now I’m not sure if I’ve got this absolutely right, but it seems they started working on this a couple of months ago. There’s a particular potato-like root called tao-tao that they scrape/grate and leave to soak in a nice big tub of sea water. Then there’s a lot of fresh-scraped coconut cream, maybe something else? By Saturday evening all of the ingredients were ready and they had a bunch of large stones that they’d been heating in a couple of fires for ages.

Time for the mixing. It happened in what looked like a small wooden canoe braced at each end. Women used pairs of sturdy sticks as kitchen tongs to bring across the stones and drop them in; four men used long poles to prod and stir. Much steam, much bubbling, and soon it started to look like a revolting grey batter, thickening to an oily dough. Cooked? Then a couple of other men started picking the hot stones out with their bare hands, dropping them on cool fresh banana leaves, rinsing their fingers in cold water between stones. (Custom says they don’t get burnt so they just don’t.) They pulled lumps of the dough off the stones and threw it back into the mix, which was eventually put aside in another large wooden container to set/rise/dunno over the next few days. Signal to the kids: okay time to scrape and pick at what was left on the stones, just like we used to lick the beaters and bowl when our mother made birthday cakes. Tempting … I probably ended up eating some of the final batch but goodness only knows when.

Then a big dinner for all of the guests together before we were walked home. It was only 8ish so I tried to sit up storying in pijin for a while but it just got too awkward so I gave up and went to bed. I was well asleep by 9:00. Woke briefly at 11ish then slept through to 5:30.

On Sunday morning I quite liked the idea of going down to the beach to watch the sunrise since I was up easily early enough, so Michael got Joyce up to take me. Not negotiable. Her pijin was maybe even more limited than mine though so once we were there it took me forever to explain to her that I really wasn’t wanting to go to the toilet in the women’s stretch of the sand, which is what Michael had sent her to oversee. After goodness only knows how long though she did eventually agree to just leave me down at the water because there were plenty of other women and girls around to look after me if necessary.

This was not quite the relaxing alone time I was looking for but I tried to pretend I felt comfortable stranded among these people I couldn’t communicate with: did a few self-conscious stretches, took a couple of cloud photos, then – what the heck – dropped in the sand and tried to help with the washing up. They must have already finished with the plates (or do they do that somewhere else?) because we were down to the many many pots and pans all blackened from the cooking fires. Scoop some sea water into the pot, wet your paw, grab a handful of sand and rub for all you’re worth. I actually thought I was doing quite well until I saw how fast the kids got their pots shiny. I just handed over my troublesome spots to women who were adept at heavy duty scouring with a big handful of sand ground under a coconut shell. My willing incompetence was indulged. Maybe this was the start of a few of my friendships?

When I was ready to give up (well before the job was finished!) I was escorted back to my home, probably more out of concern that I might wander into a taboo area (e.g. the men’s dunny patch) than because they’d already come to terms with my sense of direction, and Michael brought water for my coffee and a breakfast selection of bread rolls (where on earth did they come from?) and chunks of sweet potato. Suz turned up just as I was finishing, as we’d arranged in a moment of wickedness the previous evening, and dragged me away with her before Joyce could take me to the 8:00am service at church. Poor Michael didn’t even get a chance to secure my commitment to the 9:00am service either – sometimes the communication difficulties did work in my favour. Suz and I collected Cathy from the next village and took off for the beach down the other end of the island without our minders! Embarrassing, but it did feel good to have a bit of wontok time and start processing what was going on around us. Besides, the beach was the full tropical paradise cliché: the gaudy turquoise water of the shallows and a rich royal blue further out, white gold sand, palm trees, wooden canoes pulled up on banks. I’m sure to get used to this one of these days. Cathy and Suz had snorkels; I had my lap-swimming goggles. We found coral; we found pretty fish. We swam and walked and mused and relaxed until all church services were sure to be over.

Home for the first spot of women’s business on the day’s program: gathering goodies up in the bush – “the Faraina”. One of the women in Joyce’s (my) family gave me a nice round woven basket and showed me how to balance it on my head, and I got so good at it that I managed to wear it just about the whole way across my huge village square until I was distracted by some kids, who were unkindly delighted when it fell. (Little buggers!) But I was doing fine again by the time I got to Cathy’s place – certainly well enough for a challenge. Then her host, the ever lovely Lonsdale, cheated by giving her a bigger softer basket that he pushed in at the bottom so that it was much more like a well-worn floppy hat. She would have won a race across her little village square except that I turned my basket upside down to sit on my ridiculous big frisbee sunhat and bolted past her.

Such dumb minor stuff! In itself it most certainly isn’t worth writing about even if it is an amusing memory but I think it’s this kind of fooling around in public (well face it, everything was in public!) that helped us past the awkwardness that I’d been finding a bit troublesome. I mean, many of these people have as much experience of whitefellas as I have of people from remote Solo villages. They were anxious to make the visit a success just I was anxious not to offend – all in not the easiest setup. Sharing a bit of human silliness, like goofing around with the washing up and losing your basket, just … yeah, well, felt fine.

And so to the Faraina. It’s actually quite a trek into the bush and some parts of the track were really quite rocky and steep. Cool. We stopped for plenty of breather breaks. Once we got to the top we broke into small groups and wandered between clearings where different people (family groups?) kept stores of various root veges in special small leaf huts – leaf warehouses? Into the baskets. Then some men turned up – presumably relatives – and helped out by climbing some tall palm trees to snip and drop the leaves of a particular vine that apparently go well with betel nut, and used poles with sharp hooked ends to harvest what looked like regular green beans except that they were very rough-skinned and hard – another betel nut accompaniment. Into the baskets too.

Once we’d gathered enough we moved back to the big clearing where other groups were already sitting around chatting, and we waited and got hot. Too easy: a boy was sent up into a heavily loaded tall coconut to fetch us a sweet drink. Love the way they do this: they bind their ankles together and sortof spread their feet … no, too hard to explain. It’s pretty impressive though. Eventually our MC turned up to explain, in pijin so I missed too much of it, exactly what it was we’d gathered and when and how all of it would be used. And then he had some blokes scale another tall palm tree to score for us some nice big bunches of the betel nut itself.

Time to go, all in a particular order of course. It’s only a single file track and I think we were organised tribe and tribe about – an Amuea woman followed by an Atawa woman (me!!!) followed by an Amuea woman – but I think there was also some consideration of age and initiation status. Dunno! I pretty much gave up trying to understand a lot of what was going on and just allowed myself to be steered as and when required. It was all just so alien and just so very interesting – comfort zone left many many miles behind – and all so well padded with good will. Just go with it!

The procession down from the Faraina really was quite a special sight – all those marvellous women with their loaded baskets on their heads winding through the bush, with here and there a clutzy novice hanging onto her basket and watching her feet but generally keeping up reasonably well. I was told to hold my basket in my arms when negotiating the steep rocky sections; Cathy was told it was taboo to lower the basket below the shoulders. Who knows! Sara slipped and corked her thigh pretty badly but at least noone dropped anything.

Back down in the village I was told to have a rest because I would need all my energy later, and I really did try but I failed. Instead I snuck out for a walk to the beach without my shoes on, just like the villagers, and stubbed a hunk off my big toe. Bugger. But Michael had specifically warned me about this so I didn’t feel I could say anything when I got back. Instead I enjoyed the coffee he made me and the truly yummy rice that Joyce (or her mum?) had cooked in coconut milk – all to be consumed inside the house, much to my frustration.

That first couple of days I did try taking my meals and coffee on the verandah where I could watch the village but no, inside I was taken. Classic communication failure! I was getting irritated at this ruling that felt to me like a means of keeping me out of the family’s way – it’s only after I’d picked up the courage (and enough pijin) to say that I really would much prefer to sit outside that Michael explained he was just concerned that outside I might be bothered by flies. Sure I was welcome! He’d just wanted to be a good host and make sure I was comfortable. Oh dear. It took a little while to get that relationship working – others were initially so much easier. In fact it’s really only on my last night that we really got into interesting long two-way conversations, which is a pity. Better late than never.

At least lounging around on the bench or the bamboo platform, as I soon enough got into doing, made it much easier to mix in and practise my pijin – a much much better arrangement. It also meant I was more accessible to visitors, e.g. Sara whose home was across the square from mine. (I like her much more in person than in blog.) Big win all round: her “father” was the sheriff so having her choose to visit at my place instead of stay at his was good cred for my family; and at my place Sara got to share the excessive quantity of food they kept putting out for me (expecting enough leftovers for the family?). Apparently the opposite was happening at Sara’s – she said she thought they thought she was too fat.

Back on Sunday though it was much easier for me to hang out over at Cathy’s village, though I resisted the urge to run there too often for fear of causing shame or offence to my own hosts. On Sunday I did because Cathy carries some pretty impressive heavy duty bandaids, gauze and alcohol wipes that I needed to tend to my wounded toe – cleaning out the sand and dirt and covering up without letting on to Michael. Back home in time to be taken by Joyce to the square where women were gathering to go collect coconut fronds. Hmmm …

(The men and boys were already somewhere nearby rinsing and priming their conch shells for the evening. They’re kept the rest of the year in a special off-limits well – tambu – sacred? – well beyond a simple tabu like the men’s beaches.)

Now of course the collection of the coconut fronds was a big deal with its own rules. We lined up single file, Amuea-Atawa-Amuea-Atawa to make the point that by wogasia we had cast aside our tribal differences, and marched off down a bush path beside the beach. They didn’t expect/allow us visitors to carry big sharp bush-slashing knives but all the local women were armed. I was a fair way back in the line but Cathy, who was much closer to the front, reckons that when we reached the designated area the woman in the lead cut the first frond and walked it over to the beach where she gave it a good whack in the sand and told the ocean what we were up to. Neat. Then we were told where to stand and wait out of harm’s way while the other women dispersed to hack off more dry coconut fronds and slice away the edges and ends to make solid bats with easy-grip handles. At least we got to carry them back. We stacked all the fronds together in a special place near the conch men/boys then just wandered off home to be fed by our families again (well at least I was!) before we were rounded up again for another special all-guests dinner down in “the cinema”. There are plenty of chairs and benches there for people to get together and watch the odd video (yes video, as in tape) powered by a solar-charged battery and projected on a make-do screen. It made a great common dining room for us – don’t know whether they ever used it this way themselves.

All sounds pretty dull, eh wot? I suppose it was, but it also wasn’t. Even if you couldn’t really follow what was going you just knew that it was significant and that these were rituals and routines that these people had been refining and storying for years. The very strangeness of it all kept me hyper alert, continually scanning for clues. I felt I was building up a kind of caring trust with quite a few of the women and I knew I was perfectly safe and that all I had to do was have fun, but still … dunno … anticipation, adrenaline … going for a walk and hanging around for a while then walking back is probably quite a tame way to pass an afternoon any other time or place but … no, this was wogasia and it was building around me. The kids were excited. I was excited. Speculating and sharing confusions with Cathy and Suz was short term reassuring but soon after it left me feeling even more hyped.

It was therefore pretty silly of people to tell me to have a sleep after dinner because I would need my energy later but I did at least go to bed and lie down. Maybe I dozed a little? Either way, I was well awake from about 11:30. I am absolutely certain that at dinner they said we’d be kicking off again at midnight – confirmed by Robert, even though some others believed it’d be 1:00am. (Or is that just midnight in “Solomon time”?) Everyone else at my house was sound asleep so I just snuck off to Cathy’s.

There was noone stirring over in Cathy’s village either but she and Lonsdale woke easily when I called. (For bananas and coconut, of course! Her Lonsdale really was keen on the feeding too.) Soon others there emerged from their beds and we moved together to the square where we’d left the coconut frond bats in the afternoon, linking up with Suz. Men and boys were already there heaving in a tight group blowing the conch shells. It’s a resonant honking sound, slow and repetitive, not particularly attractive by any means. Didn’t matter. Atmosphere. Damned sure it was meaningful too but that’s for someone else to explain.

(There was an obnoxious Korean film crew making a documentary of the whole wogasia, by special arrangement with just one “black sheep” chief, and they had the conch scene lit for their cameras. Not cool, even if it did make it easier for us to see what was going on. Wonder what this would be like in the dark?)

We hovered, listening, doing the tourist thing with the cameras, waiting waiting waiting, misinforming each other and misinterpreting our guides, being there as the day’s preparations started falling into place somewhere, somehow, around us. The program said we were there for the beating of the land but … ummm … this means…? I’d heard a few things – a few warnings, first second and third hand, from Garedd, from some of the locals … a hazardous charge through the villages … To run or not to run? No, don’t: even some of the local women are too scared (but they will if you will). Yes, do of course: this is what you’re here for. The conches kept hooting.

I decided against. It’s the knee thing – sorry, just can’t.

But then we were in the middle of the press shuffling towards the pile of coconut fronds we’d stashed earlier in the day, and then I had one in my hand, and then I was lined up with the other women with fronds in hand, and then the conch blowers fell into a variation that was almost a call and response though I couldn’t understand the call let alone the conch response let alone my own, and then people were having a few warm-up thwacks on the ground with their fronds … Counting. Ten cycles of the conch and then …? Nine – eight – seven – six oh shit five – four – three oh fuck fuck fuck I can’t do this two – one

And we’re off.

Suz grabbed my hand and we turned into the mad night. There were so many people so close in the dark that at first it seemed the greatest risk was being hit by someone else with a frond in a weak wrist, but soon the crowd seemed to thin. (I’m no sprinter at the best of times.) Copy. They’re stooping as they run and thwacking the frond on the ground as they go. Too easy! Follow. My first tentative thwacks might not have had the same power but ya gotta start somewhere … a few more paces and thwack again and you’re passing the first houses leaving the square and and and there’s a sudden spray of embers at your feet. Thwack – missed – jump’n’run – thwack again. More embers. They’re coming from both sides. People are yelping and crying out as they run and I’m far too inhibited for that, then I’m yelping and crying out as I run. And so is Suz, and thank the whatevers she’s not letting go of my hand.

Through that village and on to the next, and as you turn into the square there are embers flying on all sides with screaming runners leaping around and beating them out. And then there’s the arc of a sloshing bucketful of water in slow motion, ember-lit. It’ll be fresh from the fire, and/or it’ll be vile from soaking rotten fish scraps, and/or it’ll be an infusion of something that will sting – missed me! Cheering and screaming and beating the land, Suz and I are running on. Next village, next village, next village, I’m near home but not stopping. We turn and run back and they’re still throwing from the houses but we come through untouched. Not so much as a stubbed toe!

I know what this is about: it’s the casting out of the evil that’s accumulated during the year. Illness and misfortune – a family death! – now’s the time to rid yourself of the lot so you can start the new year in peace and hope. The greater the burdens the spirits have put in your path, the more burning coconut husks you need to throw in the path of the runners. I have no idea how it works but there’s no doubt there’d be rules. (Who decides who’s running and who’s staying home to get on with the spiritual spring cleaning?) They’ve been refining this therapy for a very very long time – sure to have codified it by now.

I do know though that the adrenaline-fuelled running and yelling and beating of the land were profoundly cathartic. Whether or not I actually did anything for anyone else’s demons, mine copped a hiding.

We were back in the square where the run had begun and again we followed towards the sea to take our turn on a small bank protruding over the sand. And there we flung our fronds into the water where all those well-cooked, well-pounded evil spirits will be washed away. The word is that someone might not have got their frond out far enough first go, thereby causing it to rain. There were other rain-maker stories too though so I’m not sure this one’s right. My frond hit the water.

The very land we walked on was energised.

Slowly we wandered back up towards my place, where Michael and Joyce gave me the special small square basket packed with goodies – betel nut, leaves, beans and lumps of tobacco – that they’d put together for me earlier. On to the beach for the next stage of the proceedings. The men and boys were there already with their conch shells. They handed the shells to the women and we walked them into the sea. When we were about waist deep we huddled like the men had done and tried to blow the same rhythmic wail.

Much harder than it sounds! It took me forever to get my first sound – brief but startlingly deep and loud – and then it was just as hard to get my second. I started having more consistent success when I blew a quasi-raspberry into the thing but that didn’t give me the same satisfying depth and clarity. Too bad. It’s the being there and being part of it that mattered.

No idea what happened to the conch shells after that – they kept turning up and I kept losing track – just one more thing to not understand. We settled in the crowd of mostly women and girls on the sand to wait for the moon to rise, and for the moon and the sun and the morning star to be in the sky together. The women and girls started up a chant – a song? – to encourage them and we couldn’t really join in but did start to recognise the pattern so we could add to the Oi! at the end of each round.

Time for the spreading of good cheer: betel nut and tobacco for all! We’d been instructed to offer out all our goodies but couldn’t come at the idea of giving them to children. Others did. It was nothing to see littl’uns of maybe ten or even younger with gory red mouths and dazed eyes, stoned and working hard on an early death from mouth cancer. But what else would you expect when just about everybody around you is chewing and spitting just about all the time? Pretty sad really.

We did find grown ups keen to accept what we had to give, and Cathy cheated by offloading some of hers on me, and Suz and I tried sharing a betel nut ourselves. (No risk of a red mouth. You only get that when you enhance the experience by munching on one of the rough green beans dipped and coated in powdered lime – as in real lime from ground stones and shells, not juice of the citrus fruit.) Suz coped with a hint of dignity. She’d tried it before and knew what to expect. I barely got it in my mouth before I had to spit – it’s completely and utterly vile! It’s soft and bitterly foul-tasting and it grabs hold of your teeth. At least I’ve had a go though, and it was something to do in the dark as the chanting came and went. Just sitting in the sand, wet (of course), salt water sticky and waiting.

Then the rain started. It was quite gentle at first but that was enough for Suz to be taken home. Cathy and I stayed on but moved back to stand at a small coconut tree where some women were holding the fronds together as an umbrella. And then it came down hard and we moved further back again until it passed. (Meanwhile Suz and Margaret, the woman looking after her most of the time, got drenched on their way home.) Back to our front rows on the sand and back to the chanting and singing and storying.

Still dark, getting very late – 3:00am, 4:00am? I lay back in the sand for a light snooze and was only vaguely half-aware of my feet and legs being cool. That’s because it was raining again and one of the young men from the village was doing the only thing in the circumstances: holding his umbrella over my face so I wouldn’t be too disturbed while he got wet and cold. Oops. When I did stir and realise what was going on I quickly got up to join the others back under the trees and he disappeared into the crowd before I even recognised him. Sortof takes “hospitality” to a whole new dimension.

Soon the rain got heavy again – too heavy to shelter at the beach any longer – and everyone started splashing back to their homes. We pulled in at one of the first places we reached and were welcomed up onto their large sheltered verandah but I was just too grubby with mud and sand everywhere. It’s bad enough getting it all over Michael and Joyce’s place … I left Cathy and I forget who else there and continued on to my own village where I washed myself down by torchlight, changed into something less sandy and went to bed.

On the subject of showering, now that I think of it … bloody glad I stitched up my lava lava (sarong) and threaded elastic around the top before I went. I just don’t have the coordination (or experience?) you need to do what needs to be done with the soap and scoops of water while using one hand to hold your modesty in place. We did have a nice washroom open to the sky beside the house, with fresh coconut frond walls up to shoulder height, thick planks to stand on out of the sand and a huge tub of water at the ready. It certainly didn’t look or feel private though. I turned my back to the village and wasn’t particularly concerned about pulling my lava-dress down to my waist but I was forever concerned about who I might offend if I accidentally flashed a bit of thigh. I don’t think I did … at least nobody said anything (that I could understand). I’ve heard others tell of curious kids watching through the loosely woven walls (are we really that colour all over?) but in my village at least they were all on their best behaviour all the time.

I never did get the hang of getting from the washroom to my bedroom without picking up another load of sand. Oh well …

On Monday morning Michael woke me before six so that I could have a quick coffee with a chunk of sweet potato (?) before he lent me his big yellow raincoat and took me back to the beach for the first spear fight, just after dawn. The anticipation again … this was what we were here for after all. Cathy was already there; Suz and her women friends came along soon after with banana leaf umbrellas just in case. The drizzle soon stopped

First we saw just a crowd of little boys – cute. (Surely there’s more to it than that?) We wandered and mingled. Don’t remember a time when waiting has felt so intense.

Soon there was a bunch of men gathering on the sand, armed and adorned, and we took up what we thought were excellent positions near and behind them. It was a great vantage point as a couple of them started running out into the wide stretch of shallow water down the beach, yelling and pointing and waving their spears and kicking and generally carrying on in the direction of the low rocky headland in the distance … and then a couple of men ran out into the water from the rocks there and did much the same. Cool – then ohmigawd more of them appeared. Butterflies, tingles up the spine … lots more of them! Menacing, and oh so very exciting. Our mob looked totally outnumbered but they were all getting animated and starting to yell.

Within minutes we were steered to the back of the beach as the men near us – more of them than I’d at first thought – started forming a line down the sand and into the water, and the men from the headland kept coming. No running, just a deliberate march with dance-like threats and insults, kicking, turning to raise a rear end, gesticulating with spears overhead, and coming closer all the while. And yelling out the cry we’d learned through the beating of the land – ooAAAoo – sharp and louder and louder – and the men near us responded.

It’s when they were only about 20 metres apart, two lines down the sand into the water right in front of us, that the spears began flying. They’re just very long sticks with a cut angled point but they flew javelin straight, from one line to the other where they were picked up and hurled back. All the men had shields but they were only slender curves, maybe 15-20cms at their widest point, on metre-long poles of broom-handle diameter. Given the fighters’ years of skill though they served their purpose, deflecting and rejecting as the spears kept coming far far too close.

Goodness only knows how long it went on – 15 minutes? It ended when a couple of older men who’d stood back up the beach near us – the sheriffs who’d been checking for a fair fight – walked down and jabbed their spears into the sand. There were only a few more spears after that, only a couple of young men who were too hyped to stop without assistance. The rest calmly lowered their weapons and came together to make peace.

Only a couple had been injured – one hobbled with quite a seriously banged up knee. No worries: according to one story the drawing of blood is apparently not a particularly bad thing because it’s a sign that there was evil in you and the spear has drawn in out. Nothing to do with a moment’s inattention or a dodgy little shield! Given the rate at which they were firing, it amazes me that the toll wasn’t far higher. Apparently it has been in the past. Then again, I soon learned that this was just the warm-up fight, as much sport as expression of animosity. The serious fight, where the year’s resentments would be resolved, was coming later in the day.

For now though the Atawa and Amuea were reconciled. We made the point by pairing off and holding hands as we walked under a vine rope held aloft along the beach by leaders of our two tribes together.

I suppose we could’ve then gone home for a rest, as people kept suggesting. I did stop home for a coffee and chat but soon enough I was off to find my playmates down at Suz’s place, ready for the next bit of women’s business – another hike up into the Faraina to prepare costumes for the afternoon. It’s when I was stepping down from Suz’s verandah that I realised how very very sore my knee was. Bugger. Not to worry – to be expected after the first Faraina climb and all the running and bending and getting up and down from the ground during the night. Over to Cathy’s place, and she had even more steps, and that hurt a great deal more, and common sense set in.

While Cathy and Suz joined the rest of the women, Cathy’s Lonsdale walked me home so that he could explain my predicament to Michael and Joyce. (Brilliant that he speaks English as well as Pijin and the local language.) Sorted: Joyce wasn’t going because she was too busy with too many babies but she would prepare my costume for me down at the village. Off to lie down, asleep within minutes.

Good decision. According to Suz and Cathy I didn’t really miss all that much. They all took the path at a fearsome pace but mostly just sat around once they got there. The making of the women’s costumes involved most of the women and girls tearing banana leaves down the middle and shredding them into fringes while a few chosen women dug and filled baskets with clay. One woman made up verses about people around them and the rest sang a repetitive chorus that Cathy and Suz started to learn. The verses turned to taunts when the men and boys came past on their way to their own part of the bush where they adorned themselves too: yet more clay and some black, with fresh coconut fronds torn down the middle and tied around the waist, same around the head for a crown.

I woke in the early afternoon to yet more coffee and a family conference. Joyce really wasn’t up to much – a combination of triple motherhood, quite likely (given the diet) a severe case of iron deficiency and most definitely way too much betel nut – so a couple of other women were enlisted to look after me for the afternoon. Cousins? Dunno – good women from the village, and they knew what to do. With them I went to near the end of the path that the others would be taking down from the Faraina so that I could join the other women …

as we were chased into the sea by the warriors. Classic! The young boys were close on our heels but the men weren’t all that far behind – and so much hooting and hollering! This is apparently the traditional payback for the women’s taunting songs in the bush. Ho hum. The women holding the costumes joined us at the seaside and suddenly we were in a hurry to strip, thankfully only to board shorts and bra in my case. I think maybe in the past they all got everything off but I think also that most of the local women kept a little something on underneath this time too – though I was soon beyond seeing.First I was painted in clay and earned approval by smearing the stuff even through my hair. Then my two busy women friends began trussing me in my banana leaf costume – the “mwakomwako”. They began by tying fringed banana leaves diagonally around my chest, then around my wrists forearms elbows upperarms, then around my head, covering my eyes. More around the ankles calves knees lower thigh upper thigh. Waist, hips, chest again, and still the banana leaves kept coming. We got a whole unshredded leaf around the head to stand up like a tiara, topped by a second fringed layer over the eyes. The finishing touch was a smooth round stone in the right hand and a special small stick from the Faraina in the left.

Once we were all ready we were assembled in a solid green line where more helpers – maybe senior women, supervisors? – kept tweaking and tightening as we shuffled along in a traditional short parade. All I knew was that boys were blowing the conch shells just over to my right (I parted my fringe for a quick look) and I had to copy and follow the woman in front of me, as directed.

Suddenly, on some signal that I failed to detect, we were off. We threw our stones in the direction of the conches, turned, and started running again. I did the best I could with banana leaves from my hips working their way down to restrain my thighs. It was actually hard going because I had to keep grabbing at bits that kept coming loose, all while trying not to get tangled in the bits that kept dropping off the other runners. Thankfully it wasn’t far before we turned in to another beach where the women who’d dressed us were standing by to strip what was left of our greenery and launch us into the sea one more time, there to throw our sticks and start washing off the clay. Quickly though, because the men were after us (again!). Our women handed us our clothes and we dressed in time to be given the conch shells one more time. It’s the women who had the last blow before the conches were set finally aside for the next festival.

It’s about then that I learned that dressing up (which I most definitely wouldn’t have missed) meant missing the second spear fight because that’s what the men were doing while we were being trussed. From what I heard from whitefella women who didn’t go the mwakomwako, as a spectacle it was no match for the morning fight even though this was meant to be the serious one. They were closer together and fully painted but it was smaller and the tide was up so some were in deeper water that muted the action. Apparently this is a deliberate arrangement: it’s the hottest heads that get sent into the deepest cool water so they’re less likely to do too much damage.

Both my Michael and Cathy’s Lonsdale had spoken to me about this second fight. Lonsdale’s explanation: if someone does something dastardly like sleeping with your wife you demand compensation at the time but you still carry it in your heart until you get this annual chance to fling it out of your system. I pressed Michael on the rules: what if you don’t want to fight, maybe because you don’t think you did anything wrong – do you have to go in it? No of course not, because your brother or father or uncle will take your place. So someone does have to …? Oh well, the older men were on hand to keep things under some kind of control and a couple of police officers had been brought across just in case.

But that was apparently the official end of the Wogasia for 2011. By throwing the stone from sea on the land and the stick from the bush on the sea we’d united them, ensuring harmony between the elements. By doing so many things in Amuea-Atawa pairs we’d demonstrated a commitment to harmony between the tribes. By passing the conch shells – not to mention all the chasing and taunts – we’d reconciled male and female. All that was left to do was to feast.

Back at my house Joyce and her mother had prepared a big deep plate for me with some kind of solid pudding (tao-tao? I thought they said cassava …) filling the base and a cooked fish across the top. I was to take this as my contribution down to where the women would be eating together, Amuea sitting across from Atawa, and I thought this would be down at Suz’s village. Off I went, collecting Cathy with a similar contribution on the way.

Nothing doing down at Suz’s end – we were directed back the way I’d come. Cool, another lovely night for a walk. The three of us set off together, passing groups of children all sharing meals with others of their age in the villages along the way. As it turns out, our own gathering was at Sara’s place, just past mine. Banana leaves were spread on the ground in a big square and all the contributions were set together, then people sat together to eat. Except I pulled out and instead sat back on the house bench with two other old guests who were also having trouble with all the getting up and down. (One of them’s actually waiting for a hip replacement – poor sod missed out on heaps!)

Felt really really good. These women … And I even quite liked my pudding, though it was a little oily, and had a fair pick at my fish. Other people’s puddings were okay too – just grab a couple of fingerfuls to taste. It probably wasn’t the most elegant dinner I’ve had (no utensils, of course) but it was particularly special. So was the coconut juice and banana back at Michael and Joyce’s afterwards was too. I was getting much more comfortable there, lounging around on the bamboo platform and starting to keep up with a bit of the storying. They’re so sorry I don’t have any children (!) and so pleased that I do have a lovely husband. Would they ever love to meet him next year!

Bed at last, buggered, exhilarated, profoundly satisfied. It rained again during the night – one of those lovely comforting sounds like rain on a low tin roof but gentler, richer.

All clear by the time I was up on Tuesday, early again for my last full day of Santa Catalina, to check out the mess in the village square from the night before. All around there was a litter of fallen leaves plus food scraps that had just been discarded in place by the men who’d been holding their own feast not too far from us women. (Grots!) While I was having my breakfast coffee and sweet potato out on the verandah I watched a woman from across the way – one who had helped me with the mwakomwako – begin to sweep the place clean using a tied bunch of long thin canes as a broom. Looked good. Looked easy?

What the heck … I couldn’t find Joyce back in the kitchen hut but her mother was there with an old man I’d sat around with a few times (an uncle?). When I asked to borrow their broom he looked quite perplexed but of course he handed it over, then pulled up a seat on the verandah to watch as I tried to join in the sweeping. It most certainly isn’t as easy as the village women made it look! I couldn’t get the hang of keeping my back perfectly flat but did manage to brace reasonably well with one hand on knee. As for picking up the litter – well, I cheated from time to time and used my hands but did manage to put together a few respectable piles.

The woman I was supposedly helping indicated when we’d done enough (thankfully just moments before I gave up of my own will) by bringing me a couple of large loose baskets made of fresh woven coconut fronds, showed me how to fill them and close them then led me down to the beach to empty them.

Chores done. Another sweet coconut and a couple more bananas then I was off to find Cathy and Suz and with them find the craft market the villagers were setting up for us. Woven baskets, of course, and distinctive black carvings set with shell. Whatever the wood actually is, they stain it with the burnt resin of a particular tree. They do masks and shields and wonderful floating things that you hang fishing lines off, and pedestal bowls that are usually narrow ovals with ornate ends representing various spirits and sea creatures that they’re more than happy to explain to anyone who speaks pijin.

Bugger – wish I’d expected this. I’d come away with only enough cash for the airport taxi, thinking that security might be an issue. (D’oh! Michael was very proud of the fact that they have no such problems in Santa Catalina. He’d been particularly pleased to note that at one point I’d just left my bag lying around outside – camera, goggles etc, maybe wallet for all anyone knows – and noone had touched it until nightfall, when Michael had brought it in and popped it inside my door away from the dew.) But the craft market was an opportunity for us to collect souvenirs and make a cash contribution to the island … glad I could borrow a few hundred. I did buy a bowl and I do like it though goodness only knows what I’m going to do with it.

As I was leaving I passed another of our group, a man of my age named Robert, just lying on his verandah missing it all. Stop and chat. He’d cut his leg on some coral and the wound had got infected. Coral’s like that – it’s alive so it can cause a pretty serious problem if it gets under your skin, as it had in his case. He was already into the fever stage and was feeling weak and miserable. Not good. I scooted up to Cathy’s place and got her magic antibiotic cream for him and covered his wound with an ultra bandaid but this clearly wasn’t enough. His leg was red.

One of the women in our group was a doctor so next I went off to find her in her village on the other side of my village’s dunny hut, where I also found Sara who offered up some of her med kit supplies too. Then I had to go back down the other way, past Suz’d place, to find Garedd so that Robert could talk to him about coming back with us the following day. (He’d originally intended to stay for a few weeks as an Aus Business Volunteer to help the council of chiefs with their tourism strategy.) But Garedd was down at the craft market … so much walking!

Needless to say I’d been watched – there weren’t so many of us and we really did stand out. By the time I got back to Michael & Joyce’s there was much concern that I’d done so much roaming alone. I’m unhappy? There’s something I need, something they’re not doing for me? Oh dear … had to have coconut and coffee and bananas ­and some kind of potato to reassure them that I was just doing a mate a favour and really all was well in the world I shared with them. Things got even better in their eyes when Sara came visiting and I was so obviously comfortable in their home that I took her inside to massage her corked thigh in private.

Suz and Cathy came by too late morning, ready for the beach. We’d been told that the best coral reefs were at either end of the island and we’d been offered guides but this didn’t really seem necessary. The whole island’s probably only two or three hours around and we were now quite familiar with the taboo zones. So we walked and we walked, recklessly barefoot but my stubbed toe was securely wrapped in rip-proof, perma-stick bandaids. Soon enough we were past the headland that had hidden the warriors on Monday morning, and the beach got stony so some of the time we walked on the expanse of flat rock and shallow water between the shore and the ocean. We must have turned a significant corner or got past a channel blocked by another island, because here there was a great surf breaking just out past our path.

When it started getting seriously rough underfoot Cathy and Suz pulled out the water-wear shoes that they’d had the sense to pack, but I started hobbling and thinking about Robert’s leg and getting worried. Then lo and behold a few boys from Cathy’s village turned up and showed us the path in the bush – much easier. (Sure we didn’t need guides – this was a coincidence?) There was still no sign of a place to go snorkelling though. There was no point asking the boys because to them it really wasn’t far at all and for them any distance was quick. Then we finally twigged to the fact that we were already in the coral reef zone but would have to swim out to it past the surf. Gave up and turned back.

Coconuts and bananas at my place then we walked on to find the snorkelling beach at the other end of the island. Robert was still in situ as we passed his village but he had the doctor with him. She’d started him on antibiotics that she’d got from the village clinic but was strongly advising him come back to Honiara, firstly because he’d otherwise be stranded if he took a turn for the worse (flights to Santa Ana only twice a week) but more importantly because treating him properly would mean wiping out the clinic’s drug supplies, which wouldn’t be replenished for the villagers until July.

By the time we got to the last village we’d picked up another beach-goer and a guide who took us through the bush to a stretch of sand where others had already been dropped by boat. Great to have a swim – easy because we got away with just board shorts rather than wearing dresses or skirts or lavalavas – but really not as special snorkelling-wise as the area we’d found for ourselves on Sunday. We saw some people diving near a boat quite far out and tried to join them, hitching a lift with some young boys in a canoe, only to find that further out they were actually fishing. Oh well – back to shore. Good to get some exercise other than endless walking.

Home for lunch and a rest on the verandah, storying a little with family and folks who dropped past, glad that my pijin was picking up. (I think I learnt more in a few days on Santa Catalina than in the whole rest of my time in the Solomons so far.) It’s the way of the village and at last I really was quite comfortable with it, and my obvious ease enabled my hosts to relax too. Think of it though: if I’d had my way and been housed with my wontok I probably wouldn’t have reached this stage at all – so very very glad it worked out so well. It still amazes me that these wonderful people were so ready to take a stranger in as one of their own but I’ll always be hugely grateful that they did.

But there was one more item on our agenda – a kastom (custom, traditional) dancing display that we knew the women had been practising during the day without us – so I really did have to stir myself and head back to the beachside square of a village a few along, meeting up with Cathy and Suz. In the square they’d set up a large semi-circle – maybe more U-shape – of honest-to-goodness upright chairs from all over, and there we were to sit while the throngs of villagers gathered at the other end.

Soon a small group of older men at the village end began singing a rhythm, leading a flock of our new women-friends into the square. They then moved off to the side to continue their accompaniment while the women, all decked in flowers and shell/stone beads (probably in most cases their bride-price wedding ornaments), danced in formation while our pijin-speaking MC with his ever-present loudspeaker explained that this was their dance of farewell.

Sure it was all joyous and fun but somehow it brought me very close to tears. These women we knew, who’d led us through so many overwhelming experiences, from whom we’d learnt so much (but still so little!) … they weren’t really part of our lives at all. The separation – them immersed in their culture and us on our chairs – felt right, of course it did, at the same time as it felt so very wrong. Kidding myself that we mattered to them as they mattered to me! Young and old, they swayed and clapped and turned and ground their hips sensuously at each other, at times singing back to the men, laughing together and obviously having a great deal of fun, and we were just the audience on the outside.

When they finished and danced their way back out of the square, Suz and Cathy and I chased after them for quick hugs and photos but had to get back to our seats quickly because it was the men’s turn to dance. The old men’s chorus sang for them too but they also got pan pipes – both the small sets that young men held in their hands and blew and the really big mounted ones that they play by slapping the ends with rubber thongs. The dances were different too. Still in formation like the women, they acted out some of the prey they hunt, from swooping birds to hilarious egg-laying turtles. Excellent fun, and we’d had little to do with the men so for me there was no separation issue to spoil things.

It was dark by the time the men finished and the women came back, and this time the kids and all of us were invited to join them. Woohoo – up to swing those hips in the rhythm of Santa Catalina! We danced with each other and with our reclaimed friends, and best of all I got a huge hug at last from the very special girl who’d kept turning up at my elbow throughout our stay. (What’s to become of her? What’s her chance of an education beyond the island’s primary school? How long before she too goes the way of the betel nut? I don’t even know her name …)

When the music ended and the crowd finally thinned, our last supper was served to us in our chairs.

And then we separated from our wontok for our last nights in our new homes. So right! I had just one more coconut then went to my room and shoved all my things in my bag. Didn’t take long. Soon I was back on the verandah, lazing on the split bamboo and chatting with the various family members who dropped by. As it turned out, I hadn’t been such a bad houseguest at all – sand in the bedroom notwithstanding. (No worries, perfectly normal and easy to sweep out, and no I couldn’t borrow the broom and help – ha ha!)

Michael even told me he’d been glad that I’d gone off to the beating of the land on my own, presumably semi-safe with my wontoks and their families, because it meant he could stay home with his little children when the night exploded around them. So much for my guilt! Plus he wanted to talk about Australia and how come the Aborigines have such a hard time. (So how the hell did he know about that, and what the hell could I say?) Felt great to be able to communicate with him at last. I didn’t really want to go to bed – didn’t really want it to end – but I really was tired and we supposedly had an early start in the morning.


Down at the first spear fight my camera had started saying its memory card was full – cool, should’ve deleted the old downloaded photos already anyway, quickly sorted – but by the time I was in the mwakomwako it was simply refusing to do anything. It told me to dry the card with a soft cloth, and I did try later with the (dry!) cloth from my glasses but it didn’t seem to help. Even the hinge on the battery flap felt stiff. I still don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to recover my own photos at all.

There were plenty of other cameras recording much of the wogasia so I will be able to get hold of some pics, but noone else was at the washing up in the sand or with Cathy as she squatted to show kids images of themselves (does anyone have a mirror?), and noone else cared so much about my home and my verandah and my family. My last breakfast coffee and sweet potato on the verandah was my last chance to study all I could see and talk myself through the details (I don’t have a visual brain) in the hope of fixing the scene in mind. I tried. It’s working so far.

Still the confusion about time … oh well. I didn’t think we had to be down at the beach until after 7:00 but we got a bit worried when we saw another mob heading off so we prepared to follow. First though Michael gave me a small bag that Joyce’s mother had woven for me. That lovely crumpled old woman who mostly kept to herself in the small hut that Michael had made for her beside the kitchen hut when she was widowed? Oh … (how come I’ve grown so emotional?)

And then the old man I took to be an uncle wanted to give me a carving that he had made for me. Michael apologised for it (!!!) because it’s nothing like the well-finished decorative carvings of the skilful younger men, but then duly translated its meaning to cover any gaps between the old man’s hesitant pijin and mine: In the olden days when people first came to Santa Catalina the place was inhabited by spirits which the people trapped inside a stone with some kind of axe-head (coconut shell?) to lock them down, then peace reigned forever more. This is what the old man had carved for me – a trap for any evil spirits that might ever want to do me harm. It’s just a clunky lump of blackened wood but there’ll never be one more special. Maybe Missionary Michael was embarrassed but I was … so hard not to cry …

But it really was time to go. Michael hoisted my bag and headed for the beach with me, Joyce and the babies on his heels, and others saw us passing and figured they’d better move too. (Cathy even had to leave uneaten a large part of the lobster that Lonsdale had sent someone to catch for her breakfast. It’s not as if she was ever going to be able to eat it all anyway!) And at the beach we waited. The banana boats were already there but there was no sign of Garedd until 8ish. Last chance to mingle and take photos – so many goodbyes.

Eventually my bag and I were put in the first of the boats, which was crowded with everyone’s souvenirs, and we watched and waved as we puttered off for Santa Ana. One of the blokes sitting just behind me and Cathy had scored a conch shell and he managed to a few loud farewell hoots (after a few wet-fart splutters, but let’s not be too picky) – excellent! – and the crowd on the beach seemed delighted, and then all those new friends slipped from view.

A quarter hour later we landed on Santa Ana and were welcomed into a large beachside home as the rain started. More waiting, but I was getting much better at enjoying just sitting around doing little … a bit of storying, a bit of silent musing … The downpour turned so heavy that the banana boats had to wait a while but soon enough it stopped and they took off and collected the last of our crew. And Suz’s guide Margaret! She reckoned she’d missed saying her own goodbye to me on the beach so when there was one seat left in the last banana boat she’d taken the chance to jump in and come across. (Oh no – how dreadful of me to miss her! Oh yes – how wonderful of her to be so bothered!) we were all together some of the villagers carried our things over to the airline agent’s house for the Santa Ana version of a check-in: they pulled out a large set of scales, weighed our luggage, weighed our carry-on hand luggage, then weighed each of us. For maximum embarrassment they called the results out loud for someone up in the office to record – bastards! (But I’d lost a couple ofkilos, or maybe their scales were out?)

There was a two-hour wait for the plane so some of us – including Margaret, who was most definitely sticking with me (and Suz and Cathy) – went off with a local guide to check out a lake in the top of an old volcano up in the bush. The path would probably be a bit up’n’down at any time but after the rain it was slippery and seriously boggy in parts, which is obviously not a problem for the sure-footed locals. Margaret held my hand over tricky rough slopes and hauled me out when I slipped calf-deep in mud – didn’t even lose a sandal! And the lake was indeed lage and lovely when we got there. I didn’t swim because I wasn’t wearing board shorts under my dress and I didn’t have any semi-dry dresses even in my luggage, but it was good to sit on the edge storying with Garedd and Sara and others while Suz and Cathy splashed. One day I’ll have to come back and get into it. The path back was on higher dry ground but Margaret still held my hand. So glad!

We returned to the village in plenty of time for the people booked on the first plane to start the long walk up to the airstrip. Those of us booked on the second plane mill around for a while then Garedd took us across to an open-sided leaf hut with a large table and benches where lunch was set out. That’s when Margaret finally left me, moving off to join the villagers and wait, which felt wrong but seemed to be the right thing to do. Unfortunately.Lunch. The food was great but the news that came with it wasn’t. It seems the first of our planes had arrived late because it had stopped for other passengers on the way to Santa Ana – not good, because that meant it would be even later coming back for us. Worse: there’d been no seats for two of our mob, who’d have to come with us instead. (Solomon Airlines!) And then it got worse still! There was another plane on the way, but it was small and low on fuel so it could carry only a minimum load, i.e. no luggage. And it was on time, if not early, so rather than taking an easy long wander up to the airstrip to wait for the first plane to return we had to make a quick dash up a goat track. The only good thing in all this is that Margaret turned up to hold my hand and help me on the steep slippery stretches again. (Bless her and her other loved ones forever more!)

And so home.


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