Insel | Island

Island #2: Solomon Islands – the cultural shock

The Solomon Islands were my cultural shock: Arriving from Australia, it felt like Africa. It took me a moment to detect the positive aspects of this place. And they were similar to Africa, too.
Solomon Islands
Capital: Honiara
Inhabitants: 600.000
Area: 28.400 km2
Inhabited islands: 347
Languages: English (official language), Solomon Pijin (lingua franca), and 70 regional/local languages.
Around the island: ca. 130 km (Guadalcanal North Coast Road – there are no island ring roads)
Distance to Brisbane: 2121 km (Henderson Intl. Airport, Honiara)

Solomon Is. farbig

The Passport Party

Arriving to Honiara’s Henderson International Airport already made me miss the land borders. For a country as special as the Solomon Islands, the “border crossing” was totally unimpressive – it was just the usual airport immigration booth, like everywhere else. I got my passport stamp permitting to stay for three months with no questions asked. The only condition: I needed to show an onward ticket. Unaware of this, I didn’t print it out in preparation for the flight. So the Solomon Airlines ground staff in Brisbane had to help me out… Leaving the Solomons was more special: I was one of only seven passengers being processed by immigration in the middle of the night, for the flight to Nauru.

P1170373Henderson International Airport

What makes the Solomon Islands unique

  • The Solomon Islands are among the least developed Pacific nations, prompting Lonely Planet to praise “Forget what travelling to the Pacific used to be like – around the Solomon Islands, it’s still that way.” Well, I don’t know how it used to be, but it probably means: Rough tracks, remote villages and rusting ships, and the most friendly people of the whole Pacific! There’s certainly a lot to discover, and it’s out of your comfort zone.
  • For a country that size, the Solomon Islands are an impressively rural place. Honiara is the only city. The second biggest town, Gizo, has less than 3.000 inhabitants. The vast majority of Solomon Islanders lives in villages which are usually not accessible by public transport, and in many cases only by foot or boat – roads are rare and in bad condition. Even in Honiara, most people feel strongly attached to their home village. No wonder – it’s hard to feel at home in that depressing city.
  • The Solomon Islands were the most expensive destination of my whole trip. This mainly applies to Western-style comfort. Air-conditioned accommodation costs at least 80 USD per night (125 USD in Honiara), while meals are typically around 20 USD. And having an AC is important: as a measure to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. Also the bicycle rental fee of 20 USD for half a day was quite steep. I heard that Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea is even more expensiv.
  • For a country of 600.000 inhabitants, the number of languages is impressive: Between 60 and 70. Mostly, they are mutually unintelligible. Therefore, the locals use a Pidgin English (Solomon Pijin) as a lingua franca. Do not expect to understand it at first glance, but a bit of phantasy makes it accessible. E.g. tagio tumas is the common form of saying “thanks”, translating literally as “thank you too much”. The expression blong yumi is frequent on billboards, meaning “our” (belong you-me). In the towns, Solomon Islanders speak English well – I had no problems communicating.
  • Of all the eight Pacific nations I travelled to, I found the people of the Solomon Islands the friendliest. The first impression was quite the opposite (see “worst experience” below), the gangster-like men on Honiara’s streets looked more threatening than welcoming. Later I got into conversation with a couple of them and found them most gentle. Even more welcoming were the people of Gizo Island. Many of them would approach me and chat a little, just to show their appreciation that a tourist had made it to their place. Nobody in the Solomon Islands was bothering me or trying to sell something, but most helpful when needed. I highly appreciated it.

P1170781Most village houses in the Solomon islands are built in the traditional way, as opposed to most other places in the Pacific with their concrete bungalows.

My best experience

…was the domestic flight from Gizo to Honiara. It was the most unusual flight I ever took. First of all, Gizo has its own airport island: Nusatupe. So the airport transfer is a motorboat from Gizo wharf over to the airport. The island hosts only the runway, the tower and a pavilion which represents the terminal building of Nusatupe Airstrip – the second biggest airport of the Solomon Islands!

Check-in started only 40 minutes before the plane arrived. I had to weigh my luggage and then put it a carriage myself. At the check-in counter, a hand-written list indicated the names of all passengers booked on that flight. I pointed at my name, and that was it. “No boarding pass?”, I asked. “No – free seating!” After check-in, we still waited at the same place, and some passengers went back to the wharf to say good-bye to their relatives. I walked a bit around the runway, and nobody stopped me doing so. Eventually, the plane landed. The passengers boarded calmly: Nothing reminding the rush of Easyjet’s free seating days in Europe.

The flight to Honiara was just marvellous. In the evening light, I watched the islands of the Western Province pass by: An impressive collar of islands in two parallel rows, the forests of New Georgia (partially destroyed), the harbour of Munda, the double lagoon of Marovo… and even a fish-shaped small island whose name I never found out. A perfect flight.

P1170579Modest and simple: The terminal building of the Solomon’s No. 2 airport

My worst experience

…was my first walk through Honiara. Strolling through the heat and dust of Honiara, I felt all eyes of the locals resting on me. And on a first glance, the locals looked intimidating: Mostly young men with dirty, teared clothing idling on the streets. I had read about the criminality problem of Honiara and planned to get back to the hotel before it got dark, but it already felt insecure at 5 pm. I strolled down to the wharf to check upon the ships for Malaita. Preparatory research had shown that they would leave daily. This was far from true: The next ship was due to depart two days later at 6 pm, arriving around midnight. Schedules were not available, and the appearance of the ships made me rethink my plans about using them. Disappointed, I returned to the hotel and sat down in the lobby. It was dawn, and it took not much time for several mosquitos to bite me. Malaria is common in the Solomon Islands. A quick research confirmed that the risk is high in Honiara. I returned to my room and just wanted to get away from here. It was the most intense cultural shock of the whole trip. (To be honest, now that I write it down it’s doesn’t seem to be that dramatic anymore…)

National symbols

SLB entry    SLB exit
Passport Stamps of the Solomon Islands.

P1180092The parliament of the Solomon Islands. Not a jewel, but a donation by the United States. Concrete brutalism at its best.

Did you know that…

…there is a substantial number of Gilbertese (people from Kiribati) living on Gizo Island? They had migrated a couple of decades ago, but the Kiribati flag is still present in Gizo’s townscape. Apparently, a couple of them were shocked about the poverty of their place of origin, upon a visit back “home”.

…a major sea battle of WWII took place in the Solomon Islands? The battle site between the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita, featuring many shipwrecks, is now a popular scuba diving spot.

…there was a civil war around Honiara between 1998 and 2003? Local Guales (people from Guadalcanal Island) were fighting against immigrants from Malaita. The intervention of an Australian and Pacific Islands police mission (RAMSI) in 2003 finally ended the violence.

…the Solomon Islands made it to the final of the World Cup 2018 qualifiers’ Oceania group? It was the biggest success in the football (soccer) history of the country.

P1170533Football stadium in Honiara: Many fans watch for free from the nearby hills.

Practical Information:
International transport: The Solomon Islands have international air connections to Australia (Brisbane), Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru and Kiribati (the latter two only once per week). Technically, it’s possible to travel by motor dinghy from Papua New Guinea’s Bougainville to Choiseul or Shortland. It is, however, no legal border crossing, so individual arrangements with immigration authorities are necessary. And those dinghies are not famed to live up to international safety standards.
Inland transport: Within Solomon Islands, people often travel by ship. Three or four ferries per week leave Honiara for Auki on Malaita, one or two for the 24-hour-trip to Gizo. Lonely Planet’s higher frequencies are out of date! To reach Tulagi or Savu, the only option seems to be the dinghies that depart early every morning (except Sunday) from the beach next to Honiara’s Yacht Club. Solomon Airlines serves 19 inland destinations.
Accommodation: There are some international-style hotels and budget places in Honiara. Western Province has two resorts on Mbabanga Island and two OK options in Gizo town (Hotel Gizo, Rekona Lodge). Modest accommodation is available in Savu, Tulagi, Auki (Malaita) and Munda (Western Province), while the rest of the country offers next to nothing. All accommodation options are quite overpriced by regional standards.
Food: A local favourite is Kokoda, raw tuna with coconut milk (a Pacific classic). Most restaurants serve Chinese- or Thai-style food, and there are a few Western options in Honiara. I tried the Haydn’s steakhouse, but I wasn’t impressed. There is one Western-style café in Honiara: the Breakwater Café.
SLB Honiara Kokoda
Kokoda: a Pacific classic.
Money: The Solomon Dollar is either overvalued or the price level is simply extremely high due to the long presence of internationals in Honiara – expect approximately double the prices of Fiji. Apart from international hotels a few shops and restaurants in Honiara, transactions are made in cash. ATMs are available in towns (e.g. ANZ and BSP). Changing money is possible at Honiara airport and in many towns, but the queues are long due to the locals receiving remittances from their relatives abroad. Don’t change money in hotels – their rate are up to 15% worse than at exchange offices.
Communication: Neither of my two European SIM cards worked in the Solomon Islands. Free Wifi is very rare – even the expensive King Solomon Hotel in Honiara only provides semi-functional Wifi in the lobby. Buying a local SIM and a data package is a good idea – and for once a cheap deal.

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