Photos from India

Friday, September 28, 2007

Bats and Bones

“Did you see the skeleton of the white man?” Alexander asks me. “No” I reply, “What White man?” Alexander replies “One of your soldiers from the war. This was one of their bases here.” Sitting on the deck of the boat with the sun passing over the mountain that swallows the end of the bay, Alexander, one of the elders of the nearby village of Mapuia begins his story. A few years ago, some local boys were playing in the bush and discovered a cave on the side of the hill. Discovering a cave here on Cape Nelson is about as significant as finding a rock on the ground. As we would soon find out, the volcanic fingers of land that jut out into the ocean off Cape Nelson are covered with caves as if the land was built out of a block of Swiss cheese. Upon entering the newly discovered cave, the boys discovered a skeleton, complete with military helmet and a few remaining pieces of his clothing. Since arriving in this part of the Pacific, we have heard many stories about local villagers finding bones of a soldier while digging in their gardens. One man even told us about how they found the man’s dog tags and contacted the U.S. government. They were even able to coordinate the return of his remains to his family for a proper burial back home. Hearing that there were remnants of an American Soldier in a nearby cave, we thought it would be a great idea to do some exploring and find out more. We were leaving in the morning, but heading just to the other side of the mountain. Alexander assured us that the people from the village on the opposite side of the bay would know about his bones and could lead us to the cave.
The next day we set sail for Afati bay, just a few miles sail out of one fijord and around the point to another. As usual, we were greeted by every villager who could get his hands on a canoe. After making the rounds of handing out pencils and lollies to all of the children, we started talking to three brothers and their uncle. “Do you know where the cave with the bones of the soldier is?” I said to one of them. “Soldier?” he responded, “What Soldier?” After explaining to him the story that Alexander had told us the evening before, he then realized what we were talking about. His name was John and he told us that he knew where the cave was. After asking how far it was, his only response was “Not far, it is just there.” Hearing this response many times before, the best timeline we could get out of him for the distance of the hike to the cave was that it was less than an hour s walk which sounded great to all of us thinking we could have a nice morning hike before setting sail for our next destination. Before sending everyone away so that we could relax for a few minutes to cook dinner, John agreed to meet us at 8:00 the next morning to take us on the hike.
Awaking at sunrise, Bill and I sat on deck sipping coffee; the canoes began to show up. We could see them on the horizon like an armada of war canoes going into battle. Fortunately that wasn’t the case; they just wanted to see the sailing boat. Amongst our 6:00 a.m. visitors was our tour guide for the day, John who on top of being our guide had assured us that the bay was safe to swim in and that their were not any crocodiles here and that if there were, they of course wouldn’t eat people. In the middle of a sip of coffee, I noticed something nearby moving in the water. I pulled the binoculars out to see a crocodile swimming across the water in a nearby area where some fish had previously been jumping. A few people from the village asked what I was looking at and I said “There is a crocodile over there.” They laughed and said that it was just fish jumping. Having seen plenty of crocodiles swimming in the water on this trip, I assured them that this was a small crocodile. While watching the small crocodile swim one direction, another broke the surface that was about three times the size! At this point, everyone realized that yes there was a crocodile nearby and it was pretty damn big! All of the children went into a panic and started screaming. The parents were yanking them out of the smaller canoes and up onto the big platforms of the larger ones. All kinds of panic and terror fled through them. With terrified looks still upon everyone’s faces, the crocodile disappeared beneath the surface. It was interesting to see that the people here were afraid of crocodiles. Many times while traveling I have noticed local children swimming on one side of the bay while I looked to the other side to see a crocodile basking in the sun. Until that moment, I had decided that they really weren’t afraid of them nor did they believe that they could ever be bitten. With the crocodile still somewhere beneath the surface, I was more concerned for all of their lives than they were. To them, if you can’t see the crocodile, it surely can’t be anywhere nearby, much less dangerous!
With John in the Dinghy and the clock still not having reached eight, we all headed towards the shallow mangroves where we were to tie up the boat while hiking up the hill to see the soldier. John led the way, but not being able to afford his own Machete, he used his hands to break branches and move bush out of the way to clear a path for us. Watching the slow process, I had decided that this could be a long day. Ten minutes passed and we were at the base of a cliff with caves covering it’s side. John pointed up and informed us we were there. The ten minute trip was a lot shorter walk than we were expecting.
Climbing up the roots of trees growing off the side of the hill, we pulled ourselves up to a small ledge where there lay a skull, part of a shoulder blade and one of the bones from an arm. It was pretty apparent that the bones had fallen down from one of the caves above. After asking John about it, he said that “There are many more bones.” Bill and I are always up for an adventure so we began the climb up while Monica and Michal didn’t like the looks of the crumbling route up to the second cave and thought it a better idea to stay down below. Following John a short ways up the cliffside, we pulled ourselves up over roots and rocks until we reached the next ledge. Peering over the ledge, we could see that just inside the cave was a pile of skulls. As we ventured further in, we discovered a lot of loose dirt with plenty more bones scattered upon the ground. This obviously wasn’t the soldier’s grave that we were looking for. When we asked John whose bones these were, he responded that he had no idea. A local teenage boy had discovered them while playing in the nearby caves. There are apparently hundreds of these skull caves throughout the islands here and no one knows who is buried there or where they came from. It would be an archeologists dream to be able to explore one of these caves and see what lurks beneath the surface.
With the hike to the cave being so short, we asked John if there were any other trails nearby or anywhere else that he could show us to have a look. He told us about a big cave that was not too far away but it was a pretty difficult hike to get there. Being cooped up on a boat and not doing much walking, we were all eager to get a good workout on our legs and press on for a while. With John fighting his way through the bush to make a path, we all followed behind, constantly tripping on the vines covering the ground and the roots of the trees that had criss crossed over most of the exposed rocks. We made a steep climb followed by a small decent to the lip of a gorge covered in tropical forests. John pointed far down below to a large opening in the wall identifying the cave. I think our guide wasn’t really sure about how fit most of us were and had no intention of climbing down the steep and slippery side of the gorge. It was covered in loose rock and when we asked him to take us down he simply responded “Are you sure you can make it?”
After a couple of steps down, Bill and I stepped over an obviously loose rock. Michal didn’t seem to notice and stepping right on it, managed to send it careening down the side of the hill. “Look out!” I yelled to John but the rock was traveling to fast. After a small thud on John’s rear end, the rock made it’s way past and rolled to the bottom of the gorge. John looked up with a big smile and yelled “its ok, no problem!” Thank god it only hit him in the ass! That rock could have easily killed someone landing on their head from that height! Thinking of his wife, Michal decided that he and Monica would wait up top while Bill and I climbed further down.
The climb down turned out to not be too bad once you got past the first bit of loose rock. Alongside John, Bill and I emerged into the bottom of a gorge that was stunningly beautiful. If it were raining, I think it would have been a pretty dangerous place to be. The cliffside was slick from a waterfall that forms when it rains and you could see enormous chunks of rock that had broken off the side of the hill scattering the sides of the stream that led down the hill below. We walked over to the cave and fearlessly went inside. Looking up at the ceiling, I pointed to a round whole in the rock and told John and Bill about how that would have been formed by bats. “Bats?” John asked, “You want to see bats? Hold on, there are many bats in this cave.” Looking in further, Bill and I began to make out the shapes of the bats that were grasping the ceiling. Behind us we heard John shouting and we turned around to see him reentering the cave, carrying a stick and shouting foreign words in his local language.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by bats, confused at who had woken them up during the daylight hours. Bats flew by in every direction and the sound of their wings thundering throughout the cave reminded me of a loose sail flapping in the wind. Some of the bats flew out of the cave immediately while others circled our heads, coming close to slamming into us. Quickly pulling out my camera in hopes of snapping just one good shot, I began firing off photo after photo. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they were all moving way to fast for my little point and shoot digital camera and rather than digging out the slr, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the show. Some bats were small while others had wingspans the height of a man. Many clutched babies beneath them as they flew out of the cave searching for a safer refuge. With Bill and I amazed at the spectacle before us we asked John if he ate the bats. “No, but do you want me to kill one for you?” he asked. Without the chance to respond John leaped to the entrance of the cave and frantically began swinging the stick at the bats as they flew past him. Stunned and confused, Bill and I weren’t sure how to react to the sight before us. Here we are, not even ten in the morning and we are in the middle of a cave with bats rushing out and a man with a stick trying to kill one so that we can eat it. Simultaneously Bill and I ask John to stop and tell him that we don’t require him to kill a bat for us. John just laughs a little and says ok. I think he was a bit dissappointed that he didn’t get the pleasure of impressing the white men by whacking one of the bats down with his stick.

Welcome to Mapuia!

A short pause to rest on my journey up the hillside reveals our sailboat to be a tiny speck in the harbor far down below. With the mid morning sun heating up the Papuan jungle, steam rises from the treetops while the saturated air feels like a wet blanket has been wrapped around me. Beneath my feat the trail is a combination of slippery rocks, thick volcanic mud and exposed tree roots. A glance at my ankles reveals a family of mosquitoes feasting on the blood that I can feel pumping throughout my entire body. The local people from Mapuia make the journey up and down this path several times daily. Some on their way to school, others making their way to their garden and most coming down to catch fish in order to feed their families.
Emerging from the jungle near the top of the hill, we are surrounded by a field of tall dry grass. This is the first thing that returns in the areas that have been burnt by the Papuans in order to chase the bandicoots, pigs and wallabies out of the bush. Here on the main island, we are told that they burn acres and acres of land attempting to drive the animals from their homes and unfortunately they are rarely successful. Smoke rises from fires in the distance and the scars from previous ones cover the tops of the surrounding mountains. Making our way through the grass, it is sad to see the destruction of the landscape in a hunting technique that rarely yields food and only serves to destroy more of the precious forest that covers the island of New Guinea.
“Oro! Oro! Oro!” comes from the distance. Again, “Oro! Oro! Oro!” Our guide tells us that the village is welcoming us. Greeted by all of the children of the village along with the women whose faces are covered in traditional tattoos, beautiful patterns of blue ink crawling from their cheeks to their foreheads and from their lips to their ears, the shouts of “Oro! Oro!” continue until the four of us have completed the climb. After brief introductions with the women, we are informed that this is their welcome house and we are to rest here as the village is not ready for us yet. Telling us they are not ready is a bit confusing. We have visited many villages here in the islands and usually after securing a guide, they walk us through their village, introduce us to the chief and allow us to talk to whoever is in the area. Not sure what to expect, we wait at the guesthouse, taking photographs of everyone around. The children and the women are equally impressed by each photo being shown to them on the back of the digital camera. This is something I have found to be one of the most pleasurable delights of traveling in places where technology like a digital camera is non-existent. Hearing the laughter of all of the children and seeing the smiles on their faces as they struggle to get the best view of the camera after each picture is taken is an experience of it’s own that doesn’t compare with anything else I have found when traveling. The memories of the smiles and laughter of these people will last a lifetime.
John, our guide, informs us that the village is ready for us to enter and leads the way up the remainder of the hill. As we begin our short walk into the village, the air is filled with the sounds of guitars, drums and singing. The bare breasted women are clothed in grass skirts and shell necklaces. The men wear traditional covers around their waste made of mats of woven palm. Upon the elders heads are enormous head dresses covered in the colorful feathers of the bird of paradise. Pig tusks and the teeth of other animals hang from their necks as they sing, dance and beat upon their drums. While two of the young women hold up a gate of grass woven together, four others present us with necklaces of brightly colored, freshly picked flowers. The song concludes with more shouts of “Oro! Oro! Oro!” and a shower of flowers that are every color of the rainbow falls upon our heads. I feel like I am at my own wedding, making my way out of the church as the assembly tosses the flowers upon me. Passing through the gate that has been made for our arrival, the band of musicians, singers and dancers forms two lines and continues to play as we walk between them. Surrounded on all four sides by song and dance, we make our way into the heart of the village and I can’t even describe the feelings and thoughts rushing through my head as I have never been greeted in such a wonderful fashion anywhere in the world.
John directs us two a sitting house where he asks us to sit so that they may present us with refreshments. We climb up on the raised floor of the open air structure. The roof is made of woven pandanas leaves and the floor is covered in clean, brightly colored mats that have been woven in the most amazing and colorful patterns. Upon the mats are laid hundreds upon hundreds of flowers in a pattern surrounding the perimeter of the entire structure. At the edges of the hut hang freshly cut palm leaves providing a transparent curtain all around. Looking through the palm leaves, the singing and dancing continues while we are served a feast of bananas, freshly cooked yams and thirst quenching green coconuts. To be given so much by people who have so little is a humbling experience. In the modern world that we live in, such generosity is almost unheard of.
Our day continues with more of the incredible singing and dancing by all of the people of Mapuia. When the chief arrives, we present him with a gift for the entire village, a brand new soccer ball! The children are ecstatic as they love sports but do not have a ball of any sort in the village. We are told that they used to have volleyball, but there was never a net. Tossing the soccer ball into the sea of children creates an entertaining array of chaos everywhere. As the children frantically run to kick the ball, the smiles from their faces light up the eyes of everyone around. While the children carry on playing, I continue to show all of the others each of their photos that I have taken throughout the day. I think they may have enjoyed the pictures as much as the children enjoyed the new soccer ball!
As the afternoon rolls on we begin our decent of the hillside. Several of the children our leading the way through the grass that comes up to my shoulders. Playing games, they chase each other down the steep path. As I join in the fun and begin running after them, I find myself running blindly around the winding path surrounded by grass the height of my shoulders. Hearing the laughter of the children up ahead, all I can see is a sea of grass and the occasional glimpse of a little boys face as he looks back to see how far behind I am. Ahead of the rest of the group and now in the jungle, the boys stop at a nearby stream to cool off. While I take their photos splashing water on each other in the stream, I decide it is my turn to lead the chase. Off I dash into the jungle, as the boys take off in pursuit! I manage to stay ahead for several minutes before coming to a point on the path that is too steep for me to keep up speed and race down. As I slow down to avoid a painful fall, the four boys bound down the steep path of slippery tree roots as if it were nothing more than a flat and soft surface. As we finally emerge from the trail near the harbor down below, I am not sure who enjoyed the trip more, these four children, or me!
Back on the boat we are all exhausted from a grueling hike and all of the overwhelming emotions that we have felt throughout the journey. It doesn’t take long before a full army of canoes come out of the mangroves paddling out to the boat. After such incredible treatment from the village, Bill breaks out all of the clothes that we have left from our supply of trade goods. Everyone climbs on board and we distribute clothes to every man, woman and child. The children each receive a lolly, a pencil and fresh snacks from our supplies on board. Their time on the boat is as rewarding as ours was in the village. As the sun sets, we say goodbye to the parents and the children, many of whom in tears because they don’t want to leave the “sailing boat.”
While preparing to leave the following morning, many of the people from the village come back down to say goodbye. Each family comes with a gift for everyone on board. We all receive necklaces made of shells and I am provided with a bowl that a woman has made with an intricate pattern surrounding the edges. Bill receives an enormous tapa cloth, a traditional mat that can be used as part of an outfit during traditional dancing or as a carpet or as a decoration upon a wall. Many canoes bring fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens and we now have more types of banyans on board than I ever knew could exist. I am leaving Mapuia with a different outlook on humanity and all the people in the world. To be surrounded by such giving and welcoming individuals has been an unexpected gift in itself, inspiring me to travel to even more remote places to learn from, share thoughts and interact with the different cultures of the world.

Porlock Bay

On a gray and calm morning, all I can hear is the sound of the rain dripping slowly from the sky onto the wood of the deck above me. Although lying in bed, I feel that I am in a tent in the middle of a tropical forest where the sky is providing the nearby trees with a drink of fresh water to start the day. Through the soft sound of the rain I can hear birds calling out their morning songs as if they are sitting on the mast above. “Hello” a voice calls out, followed by the familiar bump of a dugout canoe alongside of the boat. “Hello” I hear again as I make my way outside to see who is there.
Emerging from the bottom of the boat, I found a woman whose face is covered in traditional Papuan tattoos. Her name is Naomi and we met upon our arrival here the day before. Before we had even set the anchor, she had paddled out to the boat in her dugout canoe with several of her small children on board as well as her sister. Having never seen a sailboat before, they just wanted to come and have a look. As usual, she was followed by an army of canoes of all different varieties, some with outriggers, some with sails, all flooding in from the many different villages around the bay. After handing out lollies and pencils to all of the children, we had a wonderful afternoon talking with the local people of Forlock Bay about their lives, their villages and their schools along with the many different fruits and vegetables they were able to grow here.
Forlock Bay is situated at the base of one of the three enormous volcanoes, the tallest being about 12,000 feet. At the Northeast tip of Cape Nelson on the island of New Guinea, the bay is one of the many fijords that were formed during a past eruption of one of the three nearby volcanoes. Approaching from the sea, it is easy to see the paths of the many different lava flows that left these narrow bays winding back inland toward the base of each volcano. We are surrounded on all sides by steep hillsides mostly covered in grass, mangroves and bits of tropical forest. Where there is no vegetation, there are bulky expanses of black volcanic rock exposed everywhere. The water is calm enough that when down below, you forget that you are on the ocean. It is an incredible place to be, seeing the volcano looming high overhead and the hillsides almost surrounding us leaving only a small passage providing a view to the ocean.
Being as isolated as they are, it is sad to hear the difficulties of the people from Forlock Bay. After dark last night, a man came out apologizing for coming so late. He had his daughter with him and just wanted to say hello and welcome us to his village with a gift of ripe bananas. We gladly accepted and provided him with a bag of rice in return. Talking to him, he noticed several fires burning throughout the hillside. We asked what they were doing and he just replied “Burning the bush”. We asked why they were burning the bush, and he responded as if we weren’t very intelligent, “For light”. As isolated as they are here, it goes without saying that there is not electricity, but even in the villages without generators, most have access to kerosene for their lanterns. Here, it is very rare that a motorboat makes the journey to one of the nearby towns, both about forty miles away by sea. Kerosene and anything similar are very precious commodities and everyone has learned to deal with it in their own fashion. All of the canoes that arrived at the boat kept a bit of sand on board with a few burning husks of coconut. Some were using them to light there cigarettes made from fresh tobacco grown in their gardens while others just kept them to keep the fire going. That way, they did not have a hard time making some form of a torch whenever it became dark.
After one woman who was probably a lot younger than she looked provided us with some local vegetables, we asked her and her husband what they might need. They didn’t have anything in particular they wanted, but after I dug out some fishing hooks for them, the man asked me if I had a newspaper. Strangely enough, we had picked up a few newspapers while in Buka and I said that he could gladly have it. Assuming they wanted to catch up on what was going on in the outside world, I went below to get the newspaper while thinking that it had never occurred to me that these people here would have no way of knowing what was going on throughout the rest of their country much less the rest of the world. Upon bringing out the newspaper, the eyes of the men in the dugout canoes surrounding the boat lit up like I was carrying fifty dollar bills. All of them began waving their arms and pointing to their chests signaling that they wanted some newspaper as well. I couldn’t believe the excitement that news from the outside world was bringing to everyone. Realizing that something was a bit strange, I asked one man what they wanted the newspaper for, was it to read? He responded “Roll Cigarettes.” Ahh! Now it makes perfect sense. After equally distributing pages from the Buka News, everyone quickly pulled out a little pouch of tobacco and began rolling a cigarette. The newspaper must taste a lot better or burn a lot better than the dried leaves that they normally are forced to use here.
When Naomi knocked on the boat, she was on her way to the market that several villages have every Thursday on the point of a nearby Peninsula. She had been out fishing through most of last night and had a small bucket of squid along a few other reef fish that she wanted to offer us before heading to the market to sell the rest. Normally, we don’t eat the small reef fish, hoping to promote a healthier reef system here, but touched by the woman’s generosity and understanding the hardships that they face here, we gladly accepted all of the fish she had brought. While the rain still fell upon her face, the only thing she wanted to keep dry was some produce and other items she had stashed away beneath a small piece of plastic. We asked her what she would like in return for the fish. She responded with the standard generous answer we get here in Papua New Guinea “Whatever you think”. We offered money or clothes or rice, or whatever she might need. The thing that made her smile the biggest was the offering of clothes. She said it is difficult for everyone here to obtain any kind of clothing and would gladly accept anything that we had. After being at sea for the past week, we had stored away all of our trade goods beneath one of the bunks and told her that if she would stop by after her day at the market that we would dig out some clothes for her and her family that she could pick up on her way back home. With a beautiful smile, she thanked us and paddled off in the rain towards the market. Lying back down to read a few more pages in my book, it didn’t take long before I heard another familiar thump on the side of the boat followed by an always friendly “Hello.”

Crossing the Solomon Sea

Six days ago, we departed Buka, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, heading South in hopes of reaching Woodlark Island, a short 250 miles away. We were trying to spend a few days visiting some of the Southerly Islands of the Papau New Guinea archipelago on our way to the main island where we would once again trade out our crew. After a day of light wind blowing from the wrong direction, we decided to follow the winds for the afternoon and drop anchor behind a nearby island. Knowing that we were going to be at sea for a few days, everyone was glad to have another night of rest before getting underway. While anchored, we were, as always, visited by locals wanting to trade fruit, fish and other various things. The first guy to the boat had a couple of beautiful lobster that we gladly accepted in exchange for six Kina, or about two U.S. dollars. The next morning, in exchange for some sugar, we secured several green coconuts and for a small bag of rice, we acquired about a dozen lemons the size of grapefruits! Most of the people who visited us during our short stay here said they had never seen a sailboat and just wanted to have a look. They pretty much just paddled around the boat in circles, looking up at the mast and asking us questions about it. I think it was as much an incredible experience for them as it was (as always) for us.
After our brief stay at Hatsigan Island, we departed once again for Woodlark. The morning brought with it a nice breeze that looked like it was going to start us off in a good direction and with good speed as well. Our luck changed shortly after and the rest of the afternoon was spent with the current actually pushing us faster than the wind. Thank God for a two knot current flowing southward! Night fell and with a full moon approaching, the sky was always illuminated. Our two hour watches were quite uneventful that first night with just a bit of wind to barely keep the boat moving; unfortunately it was in the wrong direction.
We awoke the next day to more light winds barely pushing us Westward. From here, we all realized that there would most likely be a few extra days at sea than we had originally planned. While the wind continued to slowly push us further and further away from our destination, we decided (not that we had much choice) to just go where ever the wind took us. A day later, and with the wind finally picking up, it began to look like we were heading to a different group of islands know as the Trobriands. It is an area that is supposed to be know for it’s incredible wood carvings and loose sexual standards. While we had planned on visiting this group of islands after changing out our crew, we weren’t opposed to stopping by on the way down. As the day went on and the winds continued to grow stronger, they began blowing us more towards the west again and thus even further away from our second destination.
On our fifth day out, we finally could see on the map where it was that we would make landfall. We were heading for the North Eastern coast of New Guinea, about 100 miles north of any spot that we had considered stopping. As we worked hard to get in by sunset, we had traveled about 450 miles over the past five days, 200 more than originally planned. With the sun on the horizon, we approached our first choice of anchorages only to realize that something about our position and the chart were not lining up and we couldn’t tell where reefs or shallow spots were. Without knowing our exact position, we decided to run back up the coast to another anchorage and try out luck there. As the sun dropped below the horizon, we pulled in with just enough light to find shallow enough water to drop the anchor. While we were bombarded throughout the entire night with waves causing the boat to stay in a long fluid rolling motion, it was still a bit smoother than the ocean had been for the past few nights while underway. Anchored now at this spot that we know nothing about, nor see any people around, who knows what the next few days will bring. I think we have about a week to make our way further south and directly into the wind in order to make it to a town with any sort of airport where our new Russian crew can join us and our Polish crew can depart to enjoy the rest of their honeymoon without us!

A day in the life of Numa Numa

Upon our arrival yesterday afternoon, we were greeted by a kind woman named Maggie and her sister who offered to bring us some fruits and vegetables the next morning. We asked a few questions and found out that Maggie’s husband was the headmaster of the primary school so we asked her to invite him out since we had some school supplies we wanted to give to them. Shortly after awakening from a wild storm the night before, we were greeted by Maggie and her husband John, headmaster of the primary school in Numa Numa. They showed up in time to join us for a morning cup of coffee as well as a bite of hot milk cake that I had baked the day before. Maggie brought us plenty of fruits and vegetables along with a fish that her sister caught during the night. She also had some of her weavings that she wanted us to have. It’s always amazing to see the generosity of a group of people that have so little, but want to give so much to their new visitors.
John asked us lots of questions and told us a lot about the island. With the island being 95% Catholic, he was excited to find three Catholics on board the boat. When he learned that Michal and Monica were Polish, all he could do was give praise to the recently deceased Polish Pope. After telling us about his school, we decided that rather than giving John the books and school supplies, we would like to visit the school and see all of the children to distribute the supplies in person. To John, this was an incredible idea. He told us that no other white men had ever been to visit his school and he would love for us each to tell the children a little bit about life back home and where we were from. We all were excited to share what we could with the children and have a look into the educational system of this island nation.
With Maggie as our tour guide, we began walking through the village and plantation of Numa Numa. As we walked down the old road that was built for the abandoned copper mine, we were surprised to be passed by a truck. Apparently there were a few vehicles still around that managed to survive all of the recent civil war or as the islanders called it “the crisis.” From the road, we were led down a path that took us through coconut and cocoa plantations, the main source of income here on Bougainville Island. Maggie’s sister plucked a ripe cocoa pod from the tree so that we could taste it’s fruit. To get the cocoa part, you have to dry the beans and then crush them. Fresh off the tree, you suck on the milky white coating of the beam for the sweet juices it has. Not a bad little treat to keep you going on a sweltering day in the jungles of PNG.
After making a stop at the elementary school along the way, we finally arrived at the primary school. We were greeted by a loud welcome blaring surprisingly from the headmasters megaphone. The children all welcomed us in and were excited to have all of their photos taken. Each of us was presented with a lei of fresh flowers that the children made for us that morning. John brought us all in and gave introductions, allowing us each time to point to a map and talk about where we were from and how we wound up on their island. It was pretty amazing to see the look in each of their eyes and the smiles on their faces as each of us told our stories and thanked them for having us into their school. From there, the children all sung us a couple of national anthems and songs about PNG. Even though the words were in Pigeon, it reminded me of being a child back in school and saying the pledge of allegiance every day, or even being at a football game and singing the American national anthem. It’s inspiring to see such a different culture taking equally as much pride in their nation as we do in ours.
An event called carnival is coming up soon so after all of the singing and a couple more photos, all of the children ran out into the field where they began practicing for the games to be played at carnival. While the headmaster yelled for them to be faster and faster, they all seemed to enjoy the completion of the games they played. Among them was a game involving six lemons and six sticks. You basically had a relay of people in a line where one person would run out carrying one lemon at a time and set it beside each stick. After placing the six lemons, the next person’s job was to run out and retrieve them one at a time. We noticed that the lines were segregated into boys vs. girls, strange coming from a nation where this would be seen as some form of discrimination. This only seemed a bit peculiar until we realized that the girls were actually winning! They proceeded to win at a couple of other relay races as well as the final event, my favorite, the potato sack race! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed watching and photographing the children leaping through the air in their potato sacks. With a smile from ear to ear, they hopped their way across the field to the finish line in time for the next one in line to follow smiling just as big!
We left the school and were given fresh coconuts to drink before making the hike back to the boat. Maggie again joined us on the boat with her youngest daughter. As the afternoon lingered on, it began to rain. We decided to invite our guests in for dinner and the six of us sat down to a dinner of fresh fish given to us by Maggie’s sister, some corn on the cob Maggie had grown in her garden, a can of baked beans we picked up in Australia as well as some rice we bought in the Solomon islands. Daisy, Maggie’s daughter was very shy and embarrassed to be in the company of men. Apparently here, the men sleep in their own houses and never ever eat with the women. It was her first meal to ever have around men and she was so embarrassed that she hardly ate anything.
Following our wonderful dinner with our guests, we realized that the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon. The water tanks on the boat had already filled up and it was still coming down hard. We made the two benches in the saloon into beds for Maggie and her daughter and they were both excited to have the opportunity to spend the night on board. This would be their first and probably last chance to do anything like that. Both gladly accepted the invitation and after cleaning up our mess from dinner, everyone laid down to a nice quiet evening of sleep with the sound of the rain on the deck above putting us all to sleep.

Dragging Anchor!!!

Lying in bed late at night in Numa Numa harbor, I was awoken by the sound of the boat twisting around the anchor chain and strong winds blowing through the mast and rigging. It wasn’t anything more than a small blast of rain and wind, pretty typical of life on the boat. As the wind increased and the whirring of the wind generator became louder, the only worry I had was that my towel or swimsuit drying up top might be blown away. Lying in a comfortable, dry bed, I decided not to venture out into the wind and rain to retrieve them; after all they had survived worse storms than this on board.
“Dan, I think we’re dragging!” captain Bill called out. Immediately, I tore my mosquito net from under my mattress, jumped out of bed and followed by Michal, we joined Bill on deck. The wind was howling and the rain was coming down so hard that after only a few seconds, I was drenched. I took the helm while Michal and Bill studied the depth meter and realized that we were now much closer to shore than when we dropped the anchor. It kept getting shallower and shallower, but we couldn’t tell which direction the land was! With no lights readily available and our computer shut down for the night, we all knew this was a bad situation. While Bill started the computer, I fired up the engine. Michal again emerged from the cockpit and I shoved a torch toward him. He asked “What do I do with it?” Attempting to be heard over the sound of the wind and the rain, I yelled “Look for land!” I felt like I was in a bad scene in a movie where the boat sinks leaving all of it‘s passengers and crew in a chaotic frenzy swimming around in a churning sea. The worst thing that could have happened would have been for us to run aground and even though we weren’t far from shore, it was so dark that I wouldn’t have known what direction to swim to get there!
With Monica down below in her cabin saying prayers, Michal frantically waved the torch around but still none of us were able to see land. Using the computer and gps, Bill and I tried to figure out which way we could motor to avoid running aground or into one of the many nearby coral reefs. After digging out the 800,000 candle power searchlight, we realized that we were only a couple of hundred feet away from the crescent shaped beach, a whole lot closer than when we had gone to sleep! With only about four feet of water below our keel in a boiling sea, we needed to get the hell out of there! As I motored out into deeper water, unable to see Michal and Bill who were pulling in the anchor, we new that heading north would bring us to safer and deeper water. Shivering cold from the rain and the wind, I gently eased the boat into the wind battered darkness. By now, the gps, radar and depth sounder were all up and running. We made a couple of passes while the onslaught of the storm continued, hoping to find a deeper spot that was further from the nearby beach. We again dropped the hook, this time with a lot more chain to make sure we wouldn’t again be pulled ashore.
By the time the boat again settled and Monica had brought us all towels, everyone retired to their cabins all still with a bit too much adrenaline still pumping through our bodies. While the freshwater shower was definitely needed, I would prefer to do it when under a whole lot less stress next time. I think it took me a good hour to come down from the rush I had from the excitement on deck before I could even think about falling asleep again. Sleep finally came, and I awoke to a cup of coffee followed by gifts of weavings, fruit and fresh fish from the local people of Numa Numa.

Arrival in Papua New Guinea

Six days, several lost lures, one big shark, and zero fish! Our fishing luck has disappeared on our journey to Papua New Guinea. What could be causing this? We are currently threatening to cast our fishing god that we acquired in the Solomons overboard as he must be the problem! There were four straight days without a single bite and then on the fifth, they finally started biting. Biting alright, biting right through the wire leaders on the line and going home with a pretty new fish shaped lip ring. The closest we came to pulling one on board was after hearing the zip of the line going out followed by my grabbing the rod to begin an enormous fight. As the fight began, the line snapped and immediately the culprit showed his face at the surface. It was about a ten foot long shark, of what species I cannot be sure, but I must assume some form of bull shark, based on his shape. All we saw was a huge dorsal fin break the surface followed by the back of the body as it made one final pass by the boat before departing for the deep. Our luck really needs to change. There is only so much you can do with canned tuna and corned beef!
Minus the lack of fish brought on board lately, the trip has been filled with sunny days, great snorkeling and visits to plenty of incredible places. Our last stop before crossing a line that someone long ago and very far away put on a map to designate a different country, took us to an incredible lagoon situated between two islands that were surrounded by coral reefs. The islands were the last of the most westerly group of the Solomons known as the Shorltands. The boat was anchored in a channel of deep blue water surrounded on three sides by the clearest emerald green water the eye can imagine. In order to have time to explore both nearby islands as well as the magnificent reef surrounding us, we decided to spend two nights there. The islands nearby had no permanent residents, but there was a group that spent the night fishing around the island and departed early the next morning. From there, we thought we had seen our last Solomon islanders and had the entire area to ourselves. That changed at about three’ o clock in the morning. As I heard the sounds of people outside the boat, Bill awoke and came outside to see who was there. He greeted an approaching aluminum boat by saying hello and seeing what it was they were up to. Michal and I climbed out onto the deck thinking it better to show our visitors that there were other people on board just in case they were out looking for any kind of trouble. They told us they were just saying hello and were out fishing, and not having any luck either. We said goodbye and thanked them for stopping by, not to mention waking us up at an ungodly hour. It’s really strange to have a group of guys just come by the boat to see who we were and where we came from in the middle of the night! I guess to us this is strange but when you spend a great deal of time awake out fishing on the reefs at night, you must assume that everyone stays awake all night.
Today, we made our first landfall in Papua New Guinea. It was a long hot day without wind until finally feeling a breeze in the afternoon. Making our way the forty miles up the coast of Bougainville island, the furthest reaches of the country of Papua New Guinea, we now find ourselves about three hundred miles off the equator. The sun in now approaching it’s closest point to the earth during the year and the days here keep getting hotter and hotter. Coming from Alabama, it’s definitely nothing I can’t deal with, but the Polish couple seem to be a little less tolerable. As we sailed into PNG waters, we were greeted by a vast pod of dolphins. After seeing them surround the boat, finally about thirty or so came up and surfed on the bow for a while. I think they must have spent a half hour cruising with us. It’s always an extraordinary experience to sit on the bow sprit and be surrounded by dolphins keeping pace with the boat, jumping out of the water and shooting to the surface for a breath of fresh air. You can even hear their squeaks and sonar sounds as they communicate just below the surface. I never tire of our encounters on board with these dolphins.
Upon our arrival to our first island in PNG, we were greeted by multitudes of people from a nearby local village. The village is near what used to be an old copper mine that shut down about fifteen years ago. They said that since closing, the town has completely shut down. No customs, no yacht club and no stores anymore. We asked if they ever saw other boats like ours come there and they said “Of course, we have seen plenty of yachts here.” When we asked when the last boat was there, the replied, “Before the crisis, when the white man was around.” Well, the crisis that they speak of refers to a recent civil war and apparently since the mine shut down and all the white people left, no boats have visited this area. Probably the civil war that has been going on over the last fifteen years as well deterred some of those boats from stopping by.
It is pretty exciting to see the differences between the two island nations that are so close together. I mean, we traveled only twenty miles between the border of the two countries and suddenly all of their canoes have changed. The ones in the Solomons were not very refined but were efficient and well crafted. Here, all of the canoes our sleeker and have an outrigger on the side to add to the stability. Apparently, they have developed pretty sophisticated sailing canoes here in PNG as well which we will see more of as we make our way through the islands. I am excited about the opportunity to see this new culture and learn more about all of the unique people who make up these islands!

Prehistoric Morning

After a night of constant rain and the duty of tending to the rain catcher in order to fill our tanks on board, I awoke to a soft warm and rosy colored light pouring into my cabin. Standing up, I could see out the back of the boat that the sky all around was glowing as if the sun had become a blanket of gold and covered the entire sky. Emerging from the bottom of the boat, the day welcomed me with a glorious sunrise that could take anyone’s breath away. Having not seen Bill in his bed, I walked outside on deck to find him at the bow, staring up in the opposite direction of the sunset to a complete rainbow overhead. What an incredible way to start the day!
After a few sunrise photos, I put away my camera and pulled up a cushion on deck while Bill went down below to get some water boiling for a few cups of coffee. I took a deck cushion out and propped it up on my hatch and sat back to enjoy another beautiful start to day. While lying there, I began to wonder about the bats I had seen the night before. At sunset, they gradually emerged from the nearby trees until the sky in all directions was covered in a swarm of what must have been more than a thousand giant fruit bats. I figured they would return around sunrise, I just wasn’t sure exactly when. Maybe it was before the sun actually rose and I had already missed them. Maybe they came a bit later, as the day began to warm up. While pondering these questions, wondering if these enormous bats with wingspans greater than the furthest reaches of my fingers had already returned to their trees, one by one the first few began to appear. At first I wondered if these were stragglers coming in a bit late, but within a few minutes, the sky, as the night before, was again filled with thousands of bats, each flapping their wings and swooping down around the boat before departing for the safety of the treetops. To be anchored in a small bay without other people around and to have seen this entire colony of bats depart at sunset the night before and now return at sunrise was miraculous. Bill and I just sat there sipping coffee and watched them circle the bay until one by one they disappeared into the trees.
An hour or so later with Monica and Michal still sleeping, Bill and I were watching the shoreline for any sign of crocodiles. After unsuccessfully locating any, our morning coffee discussion began to drift to other random things. I had just finished telling Bill of a dream I had the night before where I was in my backyard at home and it was covered in crocodiles. I was looking at them, trying to figure out how to get around them when I noticed a bunch of my carvings I acquired in the Solomons sitting on a log near one of the crocodiles. I yelled to my carvings to look out and suddenly, the giraffe (I haven’t actually purchased a giraffe carving, he was just in my dream) sprung to life and rapidly consumed the small crocodile. Having locked down on the crocodiles jaw by surprise, the giraffe easily began to swallow him until the crocodile began flailing about. At that moment I saw panic in the giraffe’s eyes, and suddenly awoke! With Bill laughing out loud at the story of my dream, I looked over his shoulder and noticed something moving across the bay. It was hard to tell if it was a crocodile or not, but a quick glance with the binoculars would reveal the true form of one of our prehistoric friends slowly making his way across the bay to the opposite shore. I can never get enough of seeing these animals in the wild. They look so different from any other animals that are alive today. When moving through the water, you can see their head just barely above the surface followed by a gap in the water where their body is followed by a long and spiny tail creating a small wake that follows them gently through the water. After such a colorful sunrise, seeing a colony of bats overhead and watching a crocodile swim past the boat would make anyone feel like they were lost in time.

Departing the Solomons

Well, it has finally come time to leave the Solomon Islands. After a couple of long nights of partying, great fish prepared by our captain and saying goodbye to all of our new friends, we departed Ghizo Harbor for the last time. Having cleared customs, we are going to take our time making our way up to Papua New Guinea. A series of day sails, fifty miles or so being the longest, we will travel through some even more remote and rarely visited islands, particuarly the Shortlands, the most remote islands in the Solomon Archipelago.
Last night, we stopped in Ranonga. This was the island I previously visited that had been lifted out of the water after the big earthquake earlier in the year. It was on our route to PNG, and everyone else on board who had not yet seen Ranonga, wanted to not only see the way it has been lifted out of the sea, but also visit our friend Waldie and meet the owners of the guesthouse where I stayed. Once there, Bill and I thought it would be a good idea to invite them all on board for dinner. Having purchased a couple of beautiful fish in the market before leaving Ghizo, I was able to prepare some tuna, mahi mhai, and blue fin trevali for everyone. Gilly and Gladis, the owners of the guest house showed up first with some of there freshly squeezed lemonade and two plates full of yams, papayas and cucumbers all picked fresh from their garden. As I was finishing preparing dinner, Waldie and his family showed up with another plate of fish and some kasavas Waldie had baked in a traditional oven, using hot stones buried beneath the ground.
I think other than Waldie, none of the others had ever set foot onto a yacht before. They had all seen a few of them come to their harbor each year, but none had ever been invited on board, especially not for dinner. As everyone arrived, it began to rain which cancelled our plans for a typical dinner on deck. Somehow, we managed to stuff our four crew and six guests down below, complete with the heat being generated from the small oven and stove on board as well as kerosene lanterns on the walls. The generosity and manners of our visitors was overwhelming. I never expected them to show up with as much food as we were preparing to serve them. Not to mention the fact that all of us who live on board were probably the worst dressed ones on the boat! All our visitors had made an effort to look nice as if they were on their way to a Sunday morning church service.
After thinking there was room for nothing more, Monica brought out a wonderful surprise for our guests, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I don’t know that they had ever eaten anything like this before, especially not homemade cookies. Maybe they had tried something similar that they found on another island in a small store, but this was a real treat for them. It was fantastic to see their reactions at the taste of so sweet a snack. They ate all of the cookies until there was nothing more than a plate of crumbs left on the table. The entire night was an experience that has created a memory that will last a life time. To share a meal with such a wonderful group of people while exchanging stories about the places we have been and their experience with the tsunami and earthquake was in itself worth the visit to the Solomon Islands.