Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

Author: Sarah
Date: Nov 25, 2016, 7am Solomon Islands
Location: 10 12 S - 166 18 E
Conditions: 8-10kts ENE, calm anchorage with overcast skies and a bar of 1006

Our Thanksgiving this year left us all feeling full. The morning was spent cleaning the boat and cooking. Turns out all those young coconuts that the locals gift us for drinking leave a nasty sap stain on the gelcoat that is a bugger to get off. We also spent some time digging out treasured items from the bilge that I'd hidden away for just this holiday - a jar of cranberry sauce and a packet of traditional stuffing mix that I'd bought in Port Vila, Vanuatu months ago.

The rest of the meal came together beautifully, and completely coincidentally. It happens that the Solomon Islanders' gardens are plentiful with green beans, and we have eaten green beans in curry, stir fry, vegetable soup, goulash, or as a side dish almost every day since we've been here. So, naturally, the washed beans in the fridge were paired with a can of Campbell's condensed Cream of Mushroom soup (handed down from a fellow cruising American family when they sold their boat - thanks Family Circus!!) to make the ever-traditional Green Bean Casserole (without the crunchy French's onions - I know, I know, Believe me, they were missed as the crunchy topping!) The gardens here are also overflowing with pumpkins - pumpkin pie, CHECK! Although we have been given some sweet potatoes, I decided to save that menu item for next time because I absolutely couldn't make sweet potatoes without those massive marshmallows, all crispy and browned on top! I do have my standards, you know. There are loads of pigs around here, but not a turkey to be found, so Mark pulled our last chicken breasts from New Zealand out of the freezer and thawed them in the sink while we went ashore to visit the village.

We are still in the Reef Islands of the Solomon Islands, one of the most remote, least-visited places we've dropped the hook so far. The people here are genuinely curious about the boat, and many just paddle around in their canoes trying to take in every detail. Because few boats have been here, they aren't aware of the proper etiquette. So we've had to gently tell folks that they cannot simply climb aboard uninvited and we are careful to not be ostentatious with our trading in order to set reasonable expectations for any future yachts that may venture here.

Alice and her family came out to visit in their canoe, and made sure we knew that we were welcome to come ashore to see the village and let the kids play. When we arrived, they were there to greet us, grabbing the children to squeeze them and lay wet kisses on their cheeks much to their embarrassment. One young girl held a bird resembling a pigeon in her hand, obviously a pet, as it's leg was tethered to a strand of fabric. She hid behind a tree, shy and giggly, when I asked her her name. I wondered if she'd seen white children before.

The ladies guided us to a place where they'd laid down woven mats and set a table with drinking coconuts and a tray of snacks - banana chips, sweet potato fries, and plantain strips all fried in coconut oil - delicious! Mark set to work on diagnosing a radio that needed fixing while the kids kicked the soccer ball back and forth that we'd brought for the village children. I sat on the mat for a while asking the ladies about their families and the local school. The students must walk nearly 2 hours to the school, which means many of them don't attend at all or only for a short time. They asked about living on the boat and about where we came from. One woman, Ellen, Father David's wife, spoke and understood English quite well, having left school after 6th grade. She said she has learned by talking with any English-speaking people she meets, and asked if I'd like to take a walk with her to see the rest of the village. It turned out to be a wonderful conversation, swapping information about our lives, cultures, and beliefs.

As we came back to the boat to heat up and enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner, the connections between our experience ashore and that of the Pilgrims back in the 1600's struck me. Here we are, having sailed to an unknown land, seeing people so unlike us in their appearance and lifestyle. Yet sharing what we have with each other and learning from them how to prepare local foods. There was no football, no turkey, no sweet potato casserole, but this was a Thanksgiving more like that first Thanksgiving than any other we've celebrated. And we were all full of thankfulness for new friendships, for our family, for a beautiful new place to learn about, and for deep-fried banana chips and the taste of cranberry sauce to remind us of home.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reef Islands - Solomons

Author: Sarah & Mark
Date: Nov 21, 2016, 6am Solomon Islands
Location: 10 18 S - 166 18 E
Conditions: 0-5kts ENE, calm anchorage with overcast skies and a bar of 1005

We've anchored at a place with no write-ups in the few available cruising guides, no recommendations from friends, and no information at all except for the satellite images that showed a plausible anchorage here. The images from space were exactly what brought us here. It looked too beautiful to miss.

Reef Islands… the little group of islands surrounded by reefs just east of Santa Cruz is reminiscent of the Tuomotus with the bright turquoise shallow water inside the lagoon. Yet also similar to Fulaga, Fiji where we saw our first mushroom-shaped coral islets capped with shrubs poking up from the sea. I am captivated by the view from the bow as we drop anchor in 20 meters of water. The water is every shade of blue and green imaginable as the depth changes from extremely deep to barely covering the sand near the shore.

The canoes begin to surround us quickly- all of them full of smiling, curious, naked children wielding paddles. After introductions I hand each child a pumpkin cookie. They are so careful not to bump the boat with the dugout wooden canoes, and can steer skillfully close enough to reach out a hand and politely take the cookie from me with a shy giggle.

Our time here has been amazing. The guys have been kept very busy fixing outboard engines and sewing machines. While the gals have helped with cooking and an adult literacy program. The kids have befriended a playful calico kitten, but can't seem to break through the shyness of the local children yet. We brought a ball to shore, which resulted in a big game of keep away involving the cruising kids and the local kids, but as soon as the game was over the shyness returned and the kids just stood back and watched our kids from afar. Hopefully, more time will allow for some friendships to form among them.

To give you an idea of how off the beaten path these islands are from fellow sailors, there have only been four yachts here all year. Three of the four are here now - our friends s/v Perry from Chicago with two kids, s/v Rehua from Europe on another Antares 44i with two kids and Field Trip. Some of the children in the villages have never seen a white man before. It was funny to see the sheer look of terror on the small kids face as we walked through the village. Literally this one little boy was screaming bloody loud and running away as we walked towards him. The chief laughed and said the boy had never seen a white guy before. Truly an amazing experience to be in remote areas like this, meeting new people, learning about their customs and traditions as they have been passed down through generations.

One particularly interesting tradition that has not changed in the reef islands is how a man finds a wife. Here in the reef islands, the father of the son picks out the bride. He scours local villages, asks lots of questions and identifies the right lady whom his son will marry. Then he negotiates a price for the bride - about 8,000 - 10,000 solomon dollars (1,000 to 1,200 USD) and seals the deal with the father of the bride. We asked the chief, who just found a suitable wife for his son this week, if he got a 'good deal'. He smiled and said he hopes so, as a wife is "very expensive". Yup, that about sums it up!

We plan to spend the next five months in the Solomon Islands, exploring the reefs, learning about its WWII history, lending a helping hand, and finding ways to stay cool in this sauna of a country! So far we are enjoying our time here, and are heading (unfortunately) quickly to the Western province (north west of Guadalcanal) to avoid cyclones.

That's it for now. We only have slow satellite connections in this remote area so no pictures or video....

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Standing on the Rim!

We’d heard all the hype from other cruisers.  We’d seen the overwhelming 5-star ratings on Trip Advisor.  We’d read about this tour in guidebooks and novels.  Now it was our turn.  Us versus the volcano.  This tour has been on our bucket list since we first learned of it’s existence.

We anchored in Port Resolution, with the red glow of the volcano visible in the night sky just over the mountains surrounding the bay.  Steam vents billowed along the rocky walls lining the shore.  All of these signs were small preludes to a sight I will never forget.

Arrangements were made in typical island telegraph fashion - Stanley sent a messenger out in a dugout outrigger canoe to confirm our plans, then sister of so-and-so told brother of Stanley that two more folks would be joining us.  Go here, pay there, cash only, meet up here.  Back and forth went the relayed messages and instructions until finally, an hour after our planned departure, we piled into a pick up truck and were off.

Darren, our driver, was careful and slow over the huge boulders that jutted out of the dirt road.  And I shuttered, imagining how the stones had landed here in the first place.  The ride was short, though, only about 20 minutes.  We reached the volcano park entrance where a thatched roofed ticket booth stood, reminiscent of the booths marking the entrance to the US National Parks.  We paid our small fortune - $75000 Vatu pp (approx $75 US) and were led to an outdoor seating area where probably 60-70 tourists from all over the world were waiting.  The crowd was a huge surprise for all of us, as we were expecting a more personal tour in such a remote spot.  I guess the chiefs have realized the economic opportunities that Mt. Yasur offers!  Men, women, and children in custom attire stomped and chanted in the way of the Ni-Vanuatu ‘kastom’.  A chief was presented with a gift of kava on behalf of the group, and in turn he gave us his blessing to ascend the mountain.

Before setting off, the guides strongly emphasized two points.  First, that our safety was their **top priority**.  And second, if you see magma come over the rim, don’t run.  Keep your eyes on it, so you can watch where it falls.  No helmets or fireproof umbrellas were handed out.  No waivers were signed.  Just that little tidbit of life-saving advice.  Watch the magma.  Ah, feeling safer already.  C’mon kids, let’s go stand on the rim of an active volcano!!

Back in the trucks, this time with  as many people squeezed into the truck bed as would allow (and then a few more), we headed up to the main attraction.   In some places, the road consisted of two tire-width lines of concrete laid on top of the jutted road that seemed to have been washed away beneath it.

Darren skidded up the ash plain that lay at the base of the walkway and we piled out.  Single file, we walked up a steep concrete path all the way to the rim.  I pointed out the volcanic ring plain of tephra (solid material of all sizes ejected explosively from a volcano)  reminding the kids of what we’d studied earlier that week.

As we got to the top, I was amazed at the size of the crater - nearly a thousand feet across.  And 300 feet below us a cauldron of fiery steam and smoke swirled and spat, the lively red glow a stark contrast to the dark, desolate walls rising around it.

My mind couldn’t take it all in.   The wind whistled across the barren, black terrain, competing with the hot, heaving breaths of the brewing volcano beneath us.  The sun was still setting over the opposite rim, offering light enough to see the layered, rugged geology along the crater walls and the fumaroles (plumes of steam escaping from vents along the sides).  We’d learned about Stratovolcanoes in our homeschooling, and this up close and personal view allowed our learning to come to life in a crazy -’am I really here doing this?’- sort of way.

When researching Vanuatu, I’d read an account of this exact experience in J. Marteen Troost’s book Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu.  In the book he compares the sounds of the volcano to a “sloshing ocean encased within a chamber of stone” - a perfect analogy.  Even Mark’s mom said it sounded like waves crashing on shore.

The volcano sighed and sputtered, releasing even more steam.  Like teetering on the edge of the magma-filled pressure cooker.  Just as Michael was explaining to me how the center glow intensified when it was getting ready to erupt, a rumbling blast shot from the depths that shook my body from the inside out.  I seriously think my heart skipped a few beats.  It was like being blasted by a hundred bass speakers turned up to full volume.  I’m sure our hair was blown back with the force, and a few eyelashes singed.

After that, Elizabeth was D-O-N-E done.  She pulled her bandana up over her nose and mouth, put on her sunglasses and hood, and insisted that she was going back to the truck.  I couldn’t blame her for being freaked out, this was as terrifying as it was awesome.  But I didn’t want her to miss out on this either.  I wrestled a water bottle and snack from our backpack and somehow convinced her to stay.  (This is not a conversation I ever imagined I’d have with my 10-year old, mind you.  “Please, overcome your fears of glowing magma landing on your head so that we can experience this together as a family!  I don’t want to do this without you!  Goonies never say ‘die’!)  Yeah, shining parenting moment, for sure.  And just to be totally clear, the balls of fiery magma were falling a good ways away from us, not getting near the rim at all.  I know, volcanoes are unpredictable canons of fury, but let’s just not think about that right now, okay?  This was once in a lifetime!

I couldn’t get enough of it.  To feel firsthand the raw power of the earth’s core and wonder at how these volcanoes have literally spewed out islands of the Pacific on which we’ve tread.  I envisioned tribes of grass-skirted, body-painted natives stomping and chanting to their gods of local legend.  Stories came to mind of Captain Cook being beckoned by the red glow of Mt. Yasur years ago and anchoring his boat in the very bay where our boat now sat, naming it Port Resolution, after his own ship.  While here,  he wrote, “The volcano threw up vast quantities of fire and Smoak, the flames were seen to ascend above the hill between us and it, the night before it did the same and made a noise like thunder or the blowing up of mines at every eruption which happened every four or five minutes.”  

We were allowed an hour or two to take it all in before I heard the whir of the tour guides’ wind-up flashlights and the call of their five-minute warnings.  The scene was so unbelievable, that I hadn’t stopped snapping photos the entire time.  Finally, though, I put down my camera in order to relish the last few moments in this magical place.  I  reached for Mark’s hand, and we stood there gazing into the fiery depths, both of us transfixed.  It was amazing to be here, on the rim of an erupting volcano, together.  Once in a lifetime.