"Arctracer" Letters

Tikopia Island, Solomons, Sept 2004

We spent ten days at Tikopia Island. Our friends on "Green Nomad" said "being a Tikopian visitor is a full time job" and that was certainly true for us. The people were very friendly, and we had a very enjoyable busy time. We learned much about their unique culture, a blend of many elements in a Polynesian base.

We took one of the four chiefs, Ariki Tafua, his brother Patteson & brother-in-law Joseph fishing for wahoo early one morning. The chief caught one, and it was put on our dinghy platform with its tail tied. Unfortunately, nobody tied the other end of the rope and we lost both the fish and the rope overboard! So after trolling for a couple of hours we came back without any fish. We tried again with the chief's son John and and his friend Joshua just before we left, and although we had a couple of strikes we again came back without any fish. Oh well, we considered these outings as lessons in how to catch wahoo. We now know to use strong hooks and wire leaders, not slow the boat after a strike, keep the line taut at all times, and secure the fish properly after it is aboard. The wahoo are in these waters for just a few months of the year, and that season is nearly over now. Soon they'll fish for bonito instead.

The Tikopians fish at night for flying fish. They mount a kerosene pressure lamp above their outrigger canoe and when the fish fly towards it they are caught in a long-handled net. We saw several canoes doing this every night. They claim one man can catch over a hundred fish that way in one night. They also use small hooks and line to fish over the coral, and eat every tiny fish they bring up. Two young men used new batteries (from us) to spear several parrotfish one night and got lobsters for us too. They have a few pigs and some chickens, but fish are a very important part of their diet.

We attended four dance performances. Ariki Tafua, our primary host, dressed both of us in traditional tapa (bark cloth) and slathered turmeric in oil on our arms. They also put it on Nina's face and neck. We enjoyed the performance by his "Marotosi" group, which was formed partly to entertain tourists and partly to give the young people something to do. The leader gave us a carved wooden headrest, and we gave the group a donation equal to $30US, which they considered generous. The second performance was by an older, very traditional group under the auspices of Ariki Kafika, one of the other chiefs. Tafua dressed us in tapa and turmeric again, and went with us. They said we were the first Europeans to ever see that group perform, and thought we would not like their slow, traditional style of song and dance, but we enjoyed it. The dancers dressed mostly in tapa and leaves, and used fans and "dancing paddles." We were given traditional necklace "hooks" made from pearl shell, and we made another donation and a little speech of thanks. After the performance we had tea, rice and cassava at Ariki Kafika's house, then another meal at Tafua's daughter Rose's house. The walk back across the island ended after sunset, but Tafua was very considerate and pointed out each rock and root which might stub our toes. The yellow turmeric oil spread over our bodies and clothes, so we scrubbed and washed everything several times without removing all of it. It got onto our sheets even after our showers. It was several days before Nina stopped grumbling after finding out from the locals that the sun was about the only way to eliminate the last traces.

The third performance was by primary school children accompanied by "panpipes." These instruments were made from sections of pvc pipe as they said they don't have the proper size bamboo to make them. The sections of pipe are up to ten feet long (offcuts from their new water supply system) and played by whacking the ends with rubber flip-flops which float up on the beaches. The kids had a lot of fun, and so did we. Nina gave the teachers some school supplies, but they seemed more interested in cash which could be used to hire another teacher. The government cannot afford to pay for enough teachers, so this school only had 4 teachers for 150 students. They had hired locals to assist them for very little pay. So, another donation was in order.

The dedication of a new school took all of one day. The old school was completely destroyed by Cyclone Zoe in December 2002, and disaster relief from abroad enabled new buildings to be built. The church service started at 6:30am, followed by a "bazaar" where everyone donated stuff to be sold for the school's benefit. We arrived just in time for the feast, about 9:30, but brought more things for the bazaar than anybody else. Nina's two loaves of banana bread vanished in a flash as we sat on mats drinking coconuts and eating fish, breadfruit, masi, cassava, yams and kumura with Ariki Tafua and his family. The old school guest book was destroyed by Zoe, so they had us sign the top lines of a new book. (Jerry estimates it will take 200 years to fill the whole book at the rate of 2 lines per yacht.) The master of ceremonies was red-eyed from drinking. Fermented toddy and kava are banned by the chiefs, but they permit beer and whiskey. The dancers included schoolchildren and several adult groups in a sort of informal competition, most doing slow, traditional songs and dances without elaborate costumes. It wasn't a show for tourists, just their form of celebration. We met Ariki Tangarere there, and he pressed his nose to Jerry's in the traditional greeting.

(view Tikopia Dancing & Music photos)

The four hereditary chiefs are at the heart of their complex social system. They head four clans, but the clans intermingle in all the villages and intermarry. There are only about 1300 Tikopians, even counting those living in "Tikopian villages" on four other islands throughout the Solomon Islands. People living near the chiefs prepare food and run errands for them, even if they are from different clans. The chiefs and the church get the first of every crop, and we saw a woman bring Ariki Tafua her garden's first tobacco leaves, still on their stalks. Visitors must bring food, and we saw Ariki Tafua's daughter bring fish and masi when she visited her father's house. The houses have doorways so low that crawling is the only method of entry, and protocol demands crawling backwards to exit. The chiefs set examples by attending Anglican church services mornings and evenings and wearing crosses around their necks. Just before leaving we gave a donation to the chief's "Tikopia Fund" which they use primarily for capital improvements such as their water system.

We were invited to visit and eat in several houses. All had stout posts, sago palm thatch roofs and sides, and dirt floors covered with coconut palm leaf mats. Storage was on the rafters, or in "food safes" which kept the little rats out. Most had mosquito netting over the beds, but we were not bothered by mosquitoes and they said they did not have the malaria-carrying type. Cooking was usually done in a separate house. Nobody wore shoes except us, and many of the older women wore no tops. We were given gifts of wooden headrests, turmeric bowls, and dancing clubs but were not impressed with the carving. We were given several pearl shell necklace pendants, and consider them fairly rough too. The best quality handicrafts we received were a woven fan and hat made by schoolteacher Wilfred's wife Ethyl. The tapa was either plain off-white or saturated with yellow turmeric. None was painted in elaborate designs like in Tonga. Nina picked up a few words of their language, and they complimented her pronunciation.

Masi was a new food for us. It is usually just cassava, mashed and fermented into a cheese-like mass and then stored in a pit in the ground. Each household makes its own emergency supply to live on after a cyclone destroys their other food and plants producing their food. That's what they ate after Zoe, until rice arrived from New Zealand and their gardens recovered. It is also enjoyed as part of their normal diet, and we had it several times. Nina especially liked it, and may try making some on the boat.

We did considerable trading. The men wanted tools, batteries, tobacco and fishing gear. The women wanted clothes, sewing equipment, perfume and soaps. The kids wanted Ramen-type noodles (which they eat dry) and notebooks, pens and pencils. Many wanted tape copies of our Kiribati and Marshall Islands music CDs. We entertained with lots of banana bread, popcorn, coffee, and Tang. We acquired heaps of vegetables, coconuts, bananas, papayas, cut-nuts, lobsters, shells, and necklaces.

Jerry repaired bolt cutters, a radio/tape player, and (most important) the radio setup at the clinic. At the time of Zoe the island had no working transmitter, so nobody outside could find out if the islanders survived and the press was full of speculation. Solar panels and a SSB radio were donated after the cyclone, but it wasn't working when we arrived. Nobody on the island understands enough about electricity to diagnose or fix problems. Jerry determined that the solar panel was not working, and installed a spare. The regulator didn't work either, but he got the battery charging and gave instructions to avoid overcharging. The radio was working when we left, and we hope this single connection to the outside world continues to function.

(view Tikopia photos)

The schooner "Scotsman" arrived just before we left. This was the boat which brought the first relief supplies after Zoe, and is sailed single-handed by American Don Campbell. We met him in Havelock, NZ in 2000 and enjoyed a brief reunion here. Like most visiting boats he had not checked in with the officials. We were unusual in that respect. The Tikopians would like to see the official procedures changed to increase their flow of visitors, and are happy to accommodate "illegal" visitors now.

We finally left on September 15. Our friends on "Pegasus III" who have circumnavigated twice and visited Tikopia several times rate this as their favorite island in the world. It ranks highly with us too, and our visit was unforgettable. We sailed westward in pleasant conditions. Soon after the island was lost from sight we landed a beautiful 44-inch long wahoo.