Monday, July 24, 2017

Scuba Diving WW2 Shipwrecks Off Guadalcanal

In the night I could hear an ominous scratching sound on the roof of my little shack by the ocean. Maybe that Vanuatu fruit bat I ate had friends.




When morning came and I awoke uneaten by angry, fruitly fragrant bats the plan was to get to the local dive shop and do my first oceanic scuba dive. How exciting.

It was rush hour and there were plenty of cars so I figured it wouldn't be a problem to get a cab ride. Well, it was a problem. I couldn't get a cab no matter what I tried. It felt like I was hitchhiking. I walked along the road, waving at every car that remotely looked like a cab. It's funny in most developing nations cabs swarm around me like gnats but here no one was interested.

After walking along the road for a time I finally just accosted one filling up at a gas station. I believe I was born to say "driver take me to the yacht club and if you make it snappy there's $100 in it for you!" $100 Solomon Islands Dollars is like $13 US.




I really really like the signs around here written in pidgin. I wouldn't have thought a language like that would have a written form.




Tulagi Dive seemed legit enough to trust my life to. I guess? Luckily they didn't ask to see my dive certification because I definitely did not think to bring it with me on this trip. I hadn't even considered going diving until I landed in the country.


Solomon Islands is the sight of a lot of WW2 fighting on Guadalcanal. I chose the dives of a couple of sunken Japanese ships known as Bonegi I & II.


The drive there went through some countryside that I enjoyed gazing at.






















The water was warm enough that they didn't provide me with a wetsuit. So the harness with the airtanks and the rest of the equipment just went straight on my back.


I started with over an hour of underwater footage and editing it down was painful. Give it a look and let me know what you think of my first dive video.




There was a bit of a drive in between the two dive locations.




One of the wrecks was so close to the beach that some of it still stuck out above the water.


My mouth hurt for days after this. You have to really make a seal with your lips or, you know, you'll die.












The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) recently left the Solomon Islands. The country was having some domestic strife and so Australia and New Zealand sent peacekeepers.


Had some food at a local Indian place.


I thought I'd stumbled onto a mysterious new Fanta flavor but it was just cream soda.


Afterwards I headed to the Heritage Park Hotel for a second time to eat some much needed internet.


The menus they brought out after sunset were backlit.


There was a store at the hotel that sold flamboyant flower print shirts so I picked one up. If you recall "nice bola" means handsome.


I got a cab back to the hostel. "What? You're from the US?" Cue country music.


I've spent so much time under this net that I feel like a bubble boy.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Vanuatu to a Solomon Islands Retirement Party

My little room in Port Vila, Vanuatu was nice enough and did its job. Enough weird things had happened to me here though that I was ready to leave. Onward!






The bathroom here was interesting. It was essentially an outhouse that was connected to the building. You had to open the door to the outside in order to go to the bathroom.


It's funny how much more the cab TO the Airbnb is worth to me than the cab FROM the Airbnb. Everybody knows where the airport is so getting there is whatever. But finding my little hole in the wall to sleep in is a specialized skill. Plus there are enough foreign rubes at the airport that even if you are smart enough not to get fleeced they can simply wait for the next idiot. Now I'm out in the world and everybody's a cab driver. The Airbnb arranged ride cost me $20 and the opposite way cost me $5. The CD in this guy's car stereo kept skipping but I can live with that.


You know what type of airport decor really puts me in the mood to fly? The wreckage of previous flights! Hurray. To be fair this is from World War 2 so I guess enough time has passed. The sign said this was from a Scout Bomber Douglas (SBD 4).




I wandered around a bit and found the Harry Bauer Club Lounge. The sign said "members and invited guests only" and I figured that must mean me so I just walked in.


My complete lack of shame or sense of private space paid off because I immediately noticed a couple Priority Pass signs inside. Hurray for me! The lady who works here I think must also work at a nearby shop, because she entered after me, ran my card, then left again. They were rolling so old school that she put my pass card in one of those antique credit card facsimile machine things.


This definitely wasn't the lounge in Fiji but it was nice enough. There was a whole wall of windows and a great view of the planes on the tarmac.


What the place lacked in fanciness it made up for in unlimited free beers and cookies.





These Lapita brand cookies had some exotic ingredients. One was "manioc flour" which I understand is cassava root flour and the other was "nagae" which are nuts from the canarium tree. Tasted like a delicious hard cookie to me.


The front page story on a recent Vanuatu Daily Post was that an exporter was now offering a higher price for kava than the local market price in order to export to Europe and North America. One friend who visited Colorado and another who lives in Chicago have both reported the existence of kava bars. Soon everybody who's anybody is going to be enjoying that mouth numbing dishwater flavor.




Rather than the vapid plastic surgery ads that fill US inflight magazines Solomon Airlines' magazine was full of cool war history articles.


Had me at "bush lime".


John F. Kennedy was a ship captain in the US Navy during WW2 and his ship was destroyed, stranding him and his crew on an island in the Solomons. A couple of locals rescued him.


There's so many sunken ships left from WW2 north of Honiara that it's called Iron Bottom Sound.




When it was time for landing my seatbelt somehow got lodged under the butt of the local lady seated next to me so I just covered my lap so no one would know I wasn't buckled. How naughty of me. Life in the fast lane indeed.


There were a whole lot of people in flower print shirts on the flight and they must have been Fijian because of all the bula's and vinaka's they said when we landed. It was cute. Vinaka means thank you. Those were the only two words I learned in Fiji and it seems that I made good choices. 


The airport in Honiara, Solomon Islands had an unnerving chain link fence viewing area on the second floor. It felt a little like I was landing at a prison. The airport was formerly known as Henderson Field, and control of this airfield was the focus of the Guadalcanal campaign between the US and Japan in WW2. Guadalcanal is the name of the principal island of the Solomons. It's funny I'd definitely heard of Guadalcanal due to the battles fought here but I don't think I'd ever heard of the Solomon Islands before I turned into a travel maniac.




















My Airbnb had some definite character. Sleeping on these was sort of like sleeping in a spiderweb.


I seriously thought that that door was a closet. I went back outside and asked one of the workers where the bathroom was because I figured there was a shared facility. He looked at me like I was a lunatic while he explained that the toilet was in the room. The room's toilet seat came pre-peed on which was nice because now if I wanted it peed on I didn't have to go to the trouble of peeing on it myself. Ah, island life. No worries.


There was one of these mosquito coils burning in the bathroom but there was also one under one of the beds. The bed with the netting that hangs down. I didn't want to wake up on fire so I slept on the other bed the first night.


The bathroom was open with only netting keeping the critters at bay. It was failing at this job and the bathroom was full of mosquitos the whole time I stayed here. I brushed my teeth real fast while doing jumping jacks to keep them off of my precious precious blood.




There was a complimentary fruit plate waiting for me in the fridge. That was a nice touch. I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought I had discovered a new fruit to sample when I bit into one of those red things and realized it was just balled watermelon.


It's funny this place is pretty basic but it's still way better than the Boy Scout camp I worked at when I was 16. Really I don't know if I've ever stayed in a worse environment than that and I lived there for weeks. A particularly horrid detail I can remember is that ants must have liked the warmth of my alarm clock because they would crawl up the power cord into the insides of the clock and live in there. I could see them walking around behind the glass when I checked the time.


The ocean isn't as magical as travel brochures try to make it seem. It's often smelly, dirty, and cold. But I'll give it one thing: the sound of it is amazing. Even just while sitting in my room reading I could enjoy that sound in the background. It's like a constant soothing white noise soundtrack.


My Airbnb was notable because it sort of was a real bed and breakfast. There were maybe 6 rooms total that I seemed to be the only person who hated themself enough to stay at, but the restaurant was solid and there were other foreigners eating there every time I visited.




The capital city of Honiara is essentially two roads that run parallel to the ocean.


It's Sunday so everything is closed so I can just relax and not feel guilty that I'm missing out on the cultural majesty of some museum somewhere. Even the market is closed.

I decided to check out some of the hotel bars in the city. The hotel was in White River, a suburb of Honiara, but the road to Honiara was totally walkable. I read in the guidebook that the neighborhood surrounding my room was sketchy and not to go out at night and I was like whatever I keep it real. I got maybe a block before I turned around and asked the staff to call me a cab.

I never felt directly threatened it was just really creepy. There were lots of little stands selling things and lots of people out but there was very little light on anywhere. I figured the chances of getting hit by a car alone were pretty high. I saw a dog limping around in the shadows. When a passing car's headlights met the creature it turned skeletal. I could probably see the thing's heart beating if I got close enough.


While I waited for my cab I overheard a big group of English speakers at the hotel restaurant. I asked about that and the guy said they were health aid workers of some sort. They sounded Australian.


Well I planned to sort of hop from hotel to hotel and see the sights but I only ended up going to the Heritage Park Hotel. For one thing the place was big and had multiple bars which fulfilled my hopping hopes but the streets were pretty lightless even here in the capital. Wandering around at night alone in the dark isn't usually recommended anywhere so... I did not do it. Heritage is the nicest hotel probably in the country as well so that didn't hurt. I want to say it was the governor's mansion dating back to when the country was a British colony. At time the area was known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

Tell you what, if you asked me what I've learned so far from visiting nearly 75 countries, a big thing I've realized is the scope of colonialism. Most countries on this earth are either European or were ruled by Europeans. There are still corners of Africa speaking Dutch right now. Dutch! Who the hell speaks Dutch? Sure the Dutch seem pretty chill today but a couple hundred years ago they'd happily stab you and burn your house down for a handful of nutmeg. To summarize and really distill my travel wisdom down to one bit of advice it would be to never ever turn your back on a European. They will colonize you so hard.


I walked up to the first bar at Heritage Park Hotel I encountered and immediately hit it off with Alfa the bartender. He liked me so much he was getting yelled at by the other staff because he wasn't doing all of his chores. Everyone here is nice but I don't know what to talk to people about. Locals here do think it's cool that I'm from the US because white people around these parts are usually from Australia or New Zealand. When I heard about the colonial past importance of this hotel I was expecting the opulence of that place in Sri Lanka but it's really not like that here. The bar area was pretty deserted.

I kept telling people in the South Pacific that I wished I could stay longer and see their island, family, dog, or museum but I have to tell you it was always a lie. I'm feeling pretty good about the couple of days I've allotted to each country.

In these countries there are just ants everywhere. They were hanging out on the ceiling of the shower in Fiji, all over the cabinets of my room in Vanuatu, and all over the bar here in Solomon. I keep leaning on the bar out of habit and in short order I'm flicking ants off my arm.

I asked Alfa what he's heard about Vanuatu and he said that it's cleaner and there's more tourists. Yeah that's pretty much exactly right. Sigh. Eventually Alfa and I ran out of things to talk about and I figured it was time to bid him a goodbye and seek out another bar.


The bar by the pool was a little more lively. I liked how everything was lit up.


I ordered the local pale lager SolBrew and they handed it to me in this hilarious coozy. It was essentially a plastic cup filled with styrofoam. The can coozy has already been invented people. Don't fix it if it ain't broke.


I paid my tab and was about ready to roll to the next place when a lady came by and asked if I wanted any of the food or booze left over from her party. Suddenly I was overcome by an undeniable feeling I'll describe as hungerthirst.

The party I'd been invited to was a retirement/going away party for an expat Australian who was leaving his job at the national electric company. There was a whole group of Aussies and Kiwis and they were all very welcoming. It was nice to have someone to have a real conversation with after a few days on my own. They asked what I was doing bouncing around the world and I joked that I was running from the law. Well one of the guys was a judge so they laughed extra hard at that. Another one or two worked at the local water utility. It was quite the who's-who of Honiara expat society.

And boy did they know their diving. I mentioned a couple of spots nearby that I'd read might be cool to dive and they knew the meter depths of the places by heart. They were going on and on about meters for a while before I had to admit I have no friggin' clue what a meter is. We don't do science in my country, how many forearms down is that?

The Aussies and the New Zealanders had an amusing rivalry going on at the cocktail table. They went on and on playfully jabbing each other about history and which country won which water polo tournament in 1933. I had trouble remembering who was from where and I asked if there was a way that I should be able to tell from their accents. They pretty much admitted that there wasn't much of a difference.

One of the ladies was talking trash about my quest saying a few days in each country isn't enough. Haters out there hatin'. Gotta stay woke.

I must not have seemed like a total dirtbag because Ian the Kiwi said he'd give me a ride back to my hotel afterwards. Hurray! Everyone else went home and we were about to bounce as well but somehow we ended up chatting with a table of locals. They too offered me some beers. One of the women was sort of hanging on Ian a little and afterwards he said to steer clear of the local women because they all have AIDs. Noted. "You a nice bola" in the local parlance means that you're handsome.

He also said to avoid the nightclubs because they are full of pickpockets. I felt pretty good about my choice to stick to the hotel bars.

Ian was quite the wealth of Honiara wisdom. He even drove an indirect route back to my hotel so he could point out stuff along the way. He said the reason that there were so many stalls selling stuff in my neighborhood was that they were illegal in Honiara proper but I lived just outside the city limits. Most of them were selling the crimson teeth staining betel nuts but some were also selling this orange colored liquid in water bottles. I figured that it was some sort of drink and I asked him what it was. He replied: gasoline. Some of the cab drivers have so little cash on hand that they buy gas $2.50 at a time from roadside stalls.

Ian dropped me off and I wished him a goodnight. I needed to go to bed and wake up early for some scuba diving!