The “tourism” business on Rennell is informal to say the least. Not only was I the only real tourist on the island, but I really didn’t know how I could go about exploring the lake and the island once I was there. There are obviously no cars for rent (or roads to drive them on if you could rent them). I woke up on Saturday not knowing what the day would bring.
My breakfast was as bland as my dinner was good. I was served white bread. Not bread with jam, butter and toasted mind you – just white bread. Plain white bread. Smooshed white bread if I can be more accurate. The loaf must have been brought in on the plane and got smashed on the trip.
I’m trying not to sound like I’m complaining. I’m just trying to be accurate. The people of Rennell are poor. Very poor. So poor, that using the word “poor” to describe it really doesn’t do justice. Its the same word used to describe people in the first world, and the two things are very far apart. I’m not complaining because you need to have very low expectations when traveling. These people don’t have much, and if plain white bread is what they have for breakfast, then so be it. I’m eating bread.
(I’m tempted to use the word penury from now on when describing third world poverty. We define poverty in the US based on a standard which is well above the norm in the rest of the world. Most people under the poverty line in the US still have cars, homes, appliances, televsions, etc. The things found in the average trailer park would make you one of the elite in the Solomon Islands. Using the same word to describe such radically different conditions I think confuses and doesn’t really give a true indication of how bad things really are.)
The communication between the people at the lodge and myself wasn’t the best. The guy who owned the lodge didn’t speak a word to me my entire stay. I don’t think he knew English very well. When there was any communication needed, it was done through this son (who was the one who straightened everything out with the money back at the airport). Eventually, someone came up as asked if I wanted to go to the village. I said, “Sure, my schedule is open today”.
I think the primary purpose of the trip was to get fuel for the outboard motor on the boat, but it was also to show me around the lake. The part of the lake where most of the people live is the lagoon. It is dotted with dozens of very small islands, some so small it can only hold a single tree. There was one species of bird, and I don’t know the name of it, which was all over the lake. It was black and white in color with a long neck and beak. Sort of looked like her heron or something similar.
I really managed to notice the limitations of my camera on the boat ride. So far in my trip, I’ve mostly taken photos of landscapes and people. I haven’t done any wildlife (mostly because there hasn’t been much to photograph). You really need a good zoom lens to do wildlife properly. Especially if you want to photograph birds at a distance. You can see some of the photos I have on Flickr, but they are mostly at max zoom and still turned out sort of fuzzy. The video I shot turned out much better I think.
The village we visited was a haphazard collection of houses. Most of the houses in Rennell appeared to be two story houses and the construction was much better than I expected. I saw cut lumber in all the villages we passed through. When I asked about it, they said they cut all their own lumber. They use a portable sawmill that is fitted with a chainsaw to make the boards. It just holds the chainsaw in place and you run the wood past it.
The biggest source of money for the Solomon Islands is logging. I actually saw a ship full of logs off Honiara on my flight in from Vanuatu. They don’t export lumber mind you, just logs. The actual processing of the logs is done is Malaysia or Japan. Most of the money is made outside of the Solomons. They are cutting down trees at a very rapid rate in the Solomons. Many of the western islands have been cut almost bare. Rennell, however, hasn’t been touched by logging. Why? There are two reasons: First, most of the land in the Solomons is owned by the government and most of the logging deals are made by the them (and kickbacks are made to government officials). On Rennell, the land is under customary land ownership – it’s privately held by the people of Rennell. When I asked why they don’t have logging on Rennell, I was told flat out that few people who own land here would never agree to it. The reason why they have different land ownership goes back to the ethnic differences between Rennell and the rest of the Solomons.
(In fact, Rennell is the only UNESCO World Heritage site which is not owned by a government. East Rennell is not a National Park and has no official, or even unofficial, status by the Solomon Islands or the Province. I was told that one of the reasons why East Rennell was chosen as a World Heritage Site was precisely because it was under customary land ownership and UNESCO wanted to see how well a site could be protected under that system.)
The second reason why there is no logging on Rennell, is because it would be very expensive to get the logs off of the island. Rennell is surrounded by 300-1000 foot cliffs. Getting the logs to the water would be a chore in itself. Getting a large enough boat past the reef to pick up the logs would also be difficult. The landing strip on the western part of the island was made by a Japanese mining company in the 1970s who was looking into setting up a mining operation. They eventually never went through with it due to the costs of operating on Rennell.
Because of those two factors, Rennell has remained mostly untouched by any sort of major logging, mining or fishing.
The Village People
During my entire stay on the island, whenever I walked through a village, the children would stare at me and giggle. To paraphrase Eminem, “They acted like they never seen a white person before”. For all I know, they hadn’t.
While most of the adults knew some English, none of the children did. Rennell and Bellona speak their own form of Polynesian. One man I spoke with that went to study in New Zealand said he could understand Samoans and Tongans if they spoke slowly. I’d like to actually read more about Polynesian languages. They seem to all have some sort of similarity. In Hawaii, one guy I spoke with explained the similarity between Hawaiian and Maori in New Zealand. I’d bet that someone has written a paper on the evolution of Polynesian languages as it spread throughout the Pacific. (When Captain Cook visited Easter Island, he had a native Tahitian with him who was able to communicate with the locals. I think that fact alone would have been enough proof to shoot down Thor Heyerdahl theory that the people of Easter Island came from South America).
Because they don’t learn English until later through school, I could only goof around with the kids. What they really seemed to enjoy was seeing photos of themselves on the camera. I’d take a photo, show it to them on the LCD, and they’d go nuts. I took out my video camera and let the kids hold it and it seemed to be a big hit.
All of the children below of age of about three would run around buck naked.
Everywhere I went, I heard music. Groups of older kids had cheap boom boxes with cassette players and play mix tapes they got from Honiara. All of the boom boxes were battery operated. They didn’t have chargers for the batteries and just threw them away when they were done. I saw several littering the ground in the village. I would have assumed that given the difficulty of getting supplies to Rennell, they would have used rechargeable batteries – but no. There didn’t appear to be any sort of consistency to the music to which they listened. I think they listened to whatever music they could get. I heard songs which seemed like they were sung by local groups and I also heard Kenny Rogers. Go figure.
Some of the men in the village would go out of their way to come and greet me. I think they wanted to talk to someone from the outside and were genuinely glad that I had bothered to make the trip to Rennell. None of the women did. In fact, I don’t recall speaking to a female the entire time I was there, save for a British woman who worked for an NGO in Honiara and married a man from Rennell.
The population of Rennell is very young. It seemed that most of the villages were made up of children. I don’t recall seeing anyone who was very old. The oldest person I saw seemed like they were in their 50’s. There are no hospitals in Rennell and the nurse is on the west side of the island. If you are on the east side and get sick, its a very long trip to go and see someone. I’d guess the life expectancy on the island is very low.
I was told by more than one person that they very much wanted to expand the tourism in Rennell. Some of the young people especially were interested in building their own lodge and hosting tourists. There is a lot which Rennell has to offer, but there are some huge obstacles standing in the way of them increasing tourism. First, they are part of the Solomon Islands. The Solomons gets the fewest number of tourist of any country in the Pacific. What few tourists do visit the Solomons tend to go to the few resorts which are on the western islands or just stay in Honiara. The bad reputation the Solomons has is for the most part, well deserved. Honiara is a dirty city, the infrastructure is not well developed, and the recent violence and tsunami didn’t help matters. On top of that, most people aren’t even aware that the Solomon Islands exists.
Assuming people were to come to the Solomons, there are still enormous barriers to visiting Rennell. As I noted in my previous post, a nine hour, 20 mile car trip isn’t very appealing for most people. You can’t build a tourism infrastructure around 3 vehicles and no spare tires.
That being said, there is some hope.
While I was there, there was a lot of construction going on. A conference of the premiers of the provinces in the Solomons was going to be having a conference there in September. That would bring about 200 people to the lake at one time, which I’m guessing is far more than have ever been there at once in the history of the island. For the conference, several new vehicles, owned by the province, will be delivered to the island, which should dramatically decrease the transportation costs on the island.
There has been talk for several years of building a second landing strip on the east side of the island. If they did that, it would change life dramatically for the people who live on the Lake. the need for the car ride would be eliminated totally. People could fly in and immediately be taken to a lodge by boat.
Rennell is a small place. They don’t need a lot of tourism. A ten fold increase would be just 100 people a year. That is very doable, especially if they promote it as an eco-tourist destination (which is really the only thing they can promote it as). I was asked by some people via email if it was worth going to Rennell. My answer is, “wait a year or two”. If they build a landing strip on the west side of the island, I would definitely recommend going there. Until then, its a real pain in the ass.
That night after dinner (coconut crab again), I hung out with some of the guys who were building the expansion to the lodge for the upcoming governors conference. Most of them were guys who were on the drive with me from the landing strip. There were a mix from all the islands of the Solomons. Unemployment in the Solomons is high, so most were probably happy to get the gig, even if it meant traveling to Rennell. In addition to building a new lodge building, they were building a bar, and outhouse and shoring up the landing area with limestone they excavated from the hillside. Digging a hole for an outhouse is really difficult in solid rock. Just like with the tire repair, I was amazed at how well they managed to use what they had to build reasonably good structures.
Within a day, most of the packaged cigarettes had been smoked so the guys that night resorted to cutting up small plugs of tobacco and rolling it in loose leaf paper. Everyone I saw in the island shared these makeshift cigarettes when they met. They’d roll one (literally with blue lined, three hole punched, loose leaf paper) take a few puffs and pass it on. In addition to smoking, the other thing they did was chew betel nut. (Chewing betel nut is the national passtime in the Solomons and the one thing I really had no desire to experience. I have no idea how it tastes, but I find the the blood red spit everyone leaves behind disgusting. That will be another post however. It is also popular in the Philippines and Taiwan.)
After shooting the breeze with the guys for an hour or so, I went to bed ending day two.