DAY ONE, Solomon Islands
I’m on a flight from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, to Brisbane, going home after a week long shoot for the World Health Organization. I’m finishing James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which my mother gave me just before I left. It’s a surprisingly good companion, and I return to it every night in my hotel room. On the nightstand next to me is an industrial sized can of Raid bug-spray that comes complimentary with every room in the hotel. They’ve just had elections here, and downstairs by the hotel pool, local pols are as plentiful as the bugs, drinking SolBeer and plotting the political future of the country.
A storm came through the night before, and when I stepped out on my balcony in the morning, I could see, for the first time, an island in the distance. It’s Tulaghi. And the body of water that separates us is called Iron Bottom Sound. It’s the gravesite of a huge number of American and Japanese warships. My wife’s grandfather was in the First Marine Division when they fought here, on Guadalcanal, in 1943. So I feel a strange and distant personal connection to the place.
Filming in the jungle, I see a man with a machete on a forty-foot pole. Jesus Christ. He’s cutting Betel Nut, and chewing it. He smiles at me, a mouthful of stained red teeth. I’m reminded of Michener’s Bloody Mary. I stand under the tree with my camera and pray a betel nut doesn’t fall on my head.
Michener’s book was the basis for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which I’ve never seen. I ask my colleague Elsie, a native islander, where Bali H’ai is and she gives me a blank look. I feel like a fool for asking. I stare at the map of the island chain in her office, hoping it will materialize magically, like Tulaghi, while a mechanic tries to repair our rental car. Later, while photographing the boat harbor in Honiara, I suppress a strong urge to book one-way passage on a local freighter to the remote islands of the Western Province. Read More