Solomon Islands and Kiribati

I have so much to write I don’t even know where to begin.  I arrived into the Solomon Islands refreshed from my stay in Vanuatu.  I was going to be in the Solomon Islands for three nights – mostly because it’s the only way I could get my flight patterns to work with all of the islands I wanted to visit.

I found a taxi outside and told him where I was going – King Solomon Hotel.  Off we went.  Benedick was name, or just Ben.  We chatted the 40 minutes or so to the hotel, driving through a city – Honiara – that was crowded and smelled of pollution.  There are no traffic rules in the Solomon Islands, or at least if there are, no one follows them.  The main road, there’s really only one road, was under construction.  “The Japanese are paying for it to be done,” Benedick told me.  The 2023 Pacific games (I assume soccer) were going to be held in the Solomon Islands, so a brand-new stadium had been constructed (by the Chinese, as I understood it) and the road construction was underway for the influx of guests expected next year.  All that being said, the road we took was a dirt road, full of very, very large potholes and obstructs.  Hence, there are no traffic rules.

He dropped me off at the hotel where I attempted to pay him with US dollars, and then Australian dollars.  I had failed to get out the local currency at the airport; it just completely slipped my mind.  Of course, I didn’t have the proper change, and neither did he, so I gave him $50 Australian dollars and he left, explaining that he would be back with change.  I checked into my room, had completely forgotten that he was bringing me change, and came down for lunch where I found him waiting in the lobby for me, change in hand.

I knew I would have limited WiFi on this part of my journey.  My international data plan doesn’t include the Solomon Islands or Kiribati, so I was completely at the mercy of WiFi within these countries.  The hotel in the Solomon Islands provided WiFi, but only in the lobby, and even then, it was questionable at best.  At one point I attempted to upload three photos, which took an hour.  Not having a connection to the outside world – and mostly my loved ones back home – is the hardest part of my travels.  But I made due, coming down to the lobby early in the morning and right before bed to make my daily calls home.

I had been trying to find a tour company to help me explore the island I was on.  For reference, and hindsight is always 20/20, the Solomon Islands is made up of multiple islands, and I should have planned to stay on another one, but that would have involved additional flights, expense, planning, and so on.  It would have likely been even that more difficult for me to get around, knowing that these were islands with sand paths and the infrastructure is hardly there for tourists, more or less a wheelchair traveler.  And for me, it’s more about the people than the views.  It’s the culture that feeds my soul more than anything.

The women at the hotel helped arrange for a taxi driver to show me around, also having no luck in finding a tour company.  Most of the Pacific islands are just re-opening from the pandemic, so the tourist business is also just re-opening, and they are pretty slow to respond almost everywhere.

We drove through the city, stopping at both the American and Japanese World War II Memorials.  We don’t often a talk about the impact of the war on the Pacific islands, or at least it was never brought up in my history classes, but it is very real for all of them, and every island has a memorial and war sites.  Ironically, both sites, constructed by the Americans and Japanese were the nicest areas of the city.

My taxi driver didn’t speak much English, but we were able to get by.  I wanted to get into the countryside, and we did just that, seeing the villages where the Solomon Islanders lived.  I can’t say much about these other than they live very differently than Westerners.  It was evident that there was much poverty, most of the buildings and homes barely standing.  People walked through the streets, barefoot, carrying produce and goods on their heads, and trucks filled with more than a dozen children passed by us, heading to the main city market to sell goods.  I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t heading to school, but also knowing that they had to forgo an education simply to feed their families.

Once we got far enough into the rural parts of the island and I felt like I had seen enough, I asked the driver to bring me back.  As we headed towards the city, he stopped at a road side stand.  He had been wanting to get a betel nut.  Now, I had no idea what a betel nut is until I started planning for this trip, but my research has given me good insight.  A betel nut is very, very common for the Solomon Islanders as it’s grown locally.  It’s actually the nut from the fruit that is chewed on.  It gives a euphoric feeling, a high basically, but allegedly doesn’t impact the ability to think clearly.  Oh, and they are very hard when bitten, so losing a tooth isn’t uncommon.  It also leaves a red residue on the teeth while it’s being gnawed at, so it looks like the mouth is bleeding.  All of that being said, many of the people are missing teeth and commonly have what looks like blood inside their mouths.  But I always remind myself when I they smile with missing teeth and blood-like substance that they are feeling pretty good!

Anyway, we stopped, he got his betel nut, and we were on our way.  I was a little skeptical of having a driver ‘under the influence,’ but it’s difficult to argue with someone on their culture, and besides, we were going so incredibly slow as we dodged the potholes lining every street, that I just let it be.  Embrace the culture, I suppose.  I do have to say, though, he was pretty chatty after he got his nut!

The rest of my time in Solomon was pretty uneventful.  I had a stumble going up an incline with my big bag and landed right on my frontside.  Two women rushed to my rescue, and I just laughed, telling them I was more embarrassed than anything.  They laughed too and we went on our way, not making a big deal about it.  It was quite liberating compared to how these things have unfolded in some other parts of the world, with flocks of people coming to my rescue and insisting on helping me to my next place after the incident.

On my second night at the hotel, having stayed in the lobby restaurant until after dark and waiting out a giant rainstorm, I headed to my room.  As I waited for the lift to arrive, I saw a giant bug searching for something right outside the door.  I waited, watched it, and slept with my lights on that night.  Now I can’t say exactly what kind of bug this was, but I think we all know.  It was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, and I just count my blessings it was by the lift and not my room. 

On my final morning, as I was having coffee, something the staff always knew I would want and had prepared and waiting for me, a few women approached me and said they had heard about me at a party the night before.  Two women had signed my Guinness Witness Statements, and it sounds like the word was spreading.  Through this, I was able to get a connection to someone in Kiribati, who could hopefully help me to see the island and listen to their stories about the impacts of climate change.

As I left the Solomon Islands, the only place where there are people with dark skin and naturally blonde hair, about half actually, I found myself being welcomed by the same flight crew that had been flying me around the various islands for the last week or so.  I want to specifically call out Arnold who was just fantastic, always carried my very heavy bag up the steps while I crawled behind, and really set the standard for what an airline can and should be.  But really, the entire flight crew was so great, and when they heard about my story in the Kiribati airport, there were some wanted photos and a promise to follow along.  I’ve had so many horror stories with airlines on this trip – losing my wheelchair, not allowing me to get to my seat the way that I’m comfortable, insisting on pushing me and handling my paperwork – that this group of people reminded me how it is possible for an airline to treat disabled passengers.  For them and for me, it was quite simple.  They treated me like a human being.

It was a short flight to Kiribati, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  Everyone that I met told me it would be different, so I was, of course, super intrigued.  Kiribati is an island atoll where the highest point is 3 meters above sea level.  They are the only country to sit in all four hemispheres and there’s one road that drives the entire length of the island that I was staying, South Tarawa.  The country itself is covered in litter and is projected to be underwater in 20 to 50 years with the current pace of rising sea waters.  The Kiribati people have become quite creative and have learned to pile their rubbish along the coastline, retrieve sand from the ocean, cover the rubbish with it, and build homes on top of it.  This is a temporary solution, of course, and isn’t going to prevent the waters from rising, but it’s a solution for the time being.  Everyone I met joked about the next tsunami, saying that when it came along they would all be ‘wiped out.’  They know their fate, and yet somehow, they manage to smile every day and enjoy life for what it is.

It was at least a 30-minute drive to my hotel, right as the sun was setting.  I watched out the window as we drove down the single road, seeing locals taking an evening swim in the waters.  Dozens, probably hundreds, of people were just leisurely going in and out of the water.  Kids would jump from ledges and splash, and others would just float around.  There were families preparing for bedtime, parents hosing off their children in the front of their homes as traffic drove by, completely naked and carefree.

The ambiance of the place was surreal.  There was an immediate sense of community and the temperature was perfect, not hot and humid like the Solomon Islands were.  I knew immediately that I was going to like Kiribati, and stared out that window, telling my brain to engrain every feeling, sound, smell, and site into my memory bank.  This was a moment I didn’t want to forget.

I wasn’t expecting much from my hotel room in Kiribati.  Most people live in tiny shacks along the beach, electricity being a special treat.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  Once I got into my room, I headed out to the courtyard for a snack and a drink.  It was dark at this point so I didn’t want to wander out alone.  A young woman sat down next to me and said, “You are so pretty,” and pointed at my eyes.  We chatted for quite some time, her female colleagues joining us when they were free.  I learned that the hotel had 12 female employees and only two male employees.  I asked this group of young women if they were married, had children, etc.  They all smiled and said, “No, we don’t want that lifestyle.  We want to have fun and live our lives.”  I knew immediately I was going to like them.

It didn’t take more than an hour or so before they had me at the karaoke bar next door.  Now, I don’t karaoke.  I’m not good, I hate attention, and I just don’t do it.  But I guess in Kiribati…

The next day, they promised to take me out exploring.  We walked the streets along the water and they suggested that we get a rental car to drive to a nicer beach.  Very few people have cars in Kiribati; there’s just not a need given how small the island is.  I was all about making the most of this island though so I agreed.  The rental car place, which was essentially someone’s home with a few extra cars, wrote down some information from my Georgia license, took $25 from me, and handed me the keys.  I assumed that one of the locals would drive but they said ‘they wanted to see me drive.’  And so I did, on the left side of the single road in Kiribati.  We laughed and they shared stories about life in Kiribati, and when we got to the beach, about 15 minutes away, they insisted that I get in the water.  Of course I was wearing my clothes, as were they, but I told myself I would never say no to an opportunity on this trip, so I jumped in, well, mostly crawled ungracefully, into the Pacific Ocean with a new group of friends.

Earlier that day, I had by total happenstance ran into a fellow traveler friend.  We had been following each other’s journeys for months but had not had the chance to meet.  He was staying in the same hotel in Kiribati, and we both knew it was total luck, so we had dinner at one of the few restaurants on the island that evening, sharing our stories.  It’s not my place to tell his story, but it is very special and I’m learning that so many people who are hard core travelers are doing it for a much bigger reason.  He hopes to write a book in a few years when he turns 65, and I’ll be his biggest fan.  For the time being though, it’s refreshing to know that there are others out there with a mission, and fun to support each other along the way.

Kiribati is a place so special.  The people are, hands down, the nicest people I have ever met.  The women I spent my time with me told me they would miss me when I left, and that they always miss their guests once they are gone.  It’s part of their culture to become so easily attached.  There’s a sense of community and freedom all at the same time.  The Kiribati government provides a free education to all the children, and it’s evident in a strange sort of way that I can’t really put into words.

Kiribati is exactly what I needed on this Pacific Island journey.  I was able to let my frustrations and anger go, and really just have fun, being totally carefree and with the people.  I didn’t even care that on the morning I was leaving, I was woken by a very large rat making a nest in the wall next to my bed.  Kiribati, you have warmed my heart!

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