I was in the Solomon Islands and on my way to Dolphin View Beach.
After Papua New Guinea, I was looking forward to arriving in the Solomon Islands and my expectations were higher. In PNG (as they call it), I’d stayed in the capital, Port Moresby. As a contrast, in the Solomon Islands I turned my back on the city and chose a remote place to stay, way out along the north coast of the island of Guadalcanal.
Arriving at the small airport in Honiara, I found Colson waiting for me with my name on a sign, ready to take me to my place by the beach. First though, I needed some local cash. Unusually, there were no ATMs at the airport so I had to dig out my emergency reserves of US Dollars. I passed some green notes into a dark kiosk and a hand dispensed the local currency: Solomon Islander Dollars. On the journey from the airport Colson asked if I needed to buy anything, so I thought it wise to purchase at least a few bottles of water and some bananas because I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. There wouldn’t be any shops nearby. After all, I had chosen this place to get away from it all.
I chatted with Colson on the long, dusty, pot-holed road to the, er, hotel? I wasn’t sure what to call it and then I realised that my destination was named simply “Dolphin View Beach”. Dolphin View Beach what? Dolphin View Beach Resort? Dolphin View Beach Backpackers? Dolphin View Beach Hotel? Dolphin View Beach Guest House? Well, it turned out to be none of the above. It was just as described: a beach. A beach where a few families lived in wood and straw huts by the sea. There was one extra hut for guests. A travel agent might describe it as a ‘bungalow’ but let’s talk straight, it was a hut. It was one small room with two beds shrouded by mosquito nets. Outside, there was a small veranda with a couple of chairs and a table, overlooking the sea. Two toilets were in a small block at the end of a path behind the huts. My bathroom was out at the front; one of those cold water showers for washing off sand at the beach.
“Where do I check in?” I asked Colson. There wasn’t anything you could call an office but I thought somebody might want to look at my passport. “No need,” he said, politely dismissing my stupid question. “Is there a key for the door?” I enquired. “No, one of the guests took it,” he replied with a shrug. Then he walked off, but came back with a snorkel, mask and flippers to lend to me.
Breakfast was included in the price but dinner was optional. Well, not really optional, because there was nowhere else to go to eat for miles and there were no shops nearby. Kuvien, the owner’s wife, said that Florrie would cook an evening meal for me. I’d have to order each morning though, because Florrie would need to catch a bus to the market to buy the food. I paid Kuvien for my accommodation, in cash. By now it was obvious that to ask to pay by credit card would be silly.
It was mid-afternoon and blazing hot. I unpacked my rucsac and changed into my swim shorts. It was time for my first swim in the Solomon Sea.
In a magazine on an Air Niugini plane I read that the Solomon Islands were the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, one of the first books I read as a boy. I can believe it. Also, the young John F Kennedy had been shipwrecked here during the Second World War when his torpedo boat was sunk by the Japanese. In some ways I felt like a castaway here too, marooned and cut off from most aspects of what we call civilisation, but in a welcome way and one of my own choosing. I soon settled into the simplicity of my new situation, even though it wasn’t really what I had expected. But the sea was clear and warm and the sun was shining. Anyway, I thought, since there’s nobody around, why do I need a lock on my door? In effect, I was living as the solo guest in a tiny settlement of a few families. My temporary home was no more than a stone’s throw from the vast ocean. The only sounds I could hear from my new residence were of the waves lapping onto the coral beach, children playing and cicadas chirping. Things could be a lot worse.
At the airport there were notices and leaflets warning of the dangers of Dengue Fever. The sun was rapidly losing its intensity and soon it would be time to apply the mosquito repellent I’d bought in Brisbane.
Darkness falls quickly in these latitudes. Florrie prepared my supper of fish spiced with turmeric, green vegetables, rice and sweet potato, followed by fresh pineapple for dessert. One of the huts served as a kitchen and a small table on its veranda was the open-air dining room. For breakfast I’d sit facing the sea. In the evenings, nothing was visible in that direction except silent lightning flashes at an unfathomable distance, in a separate weather system, perhaps over some other islands or just the vast open ocean: so in the evenings Florrie set the table for me to sit the opposite way. Her kitchen and dining room were lit with small LED bulbs connected by a wire to a car battery in my hut about ten metres away. During the day the battery was charged up from a solar panel; in the evening it was disconnected and moved into the corner of my room to power the lights for both buildings. I soon learned to do this myself and it became part of my routine in the evening; then every morning I’d carry the battery outside again and connect it back to the solar panel.
Each evening after dinner, with nothing happening, it seemed like time to go to bed. Like a pilot navigating a ship from a choppy sea into the gentle sway of the harbour, an animal instinct took control of my irregular body-clock, guiding it into a port where it lay anchored to the natural tides of day and night. The daily rhythm of light and dark swung leisurely, like a hammock strung between two palms. In my little hut there wasn’t enough power for a fan, and air conditioning was a world away, but sometimes a distant turbulence would send a cool breeze through the open windows and rafters. Nevertheless, the tropical nights were drenched with a tepid humidity.
On the first morning I had a visitor, a cheeky white parakeet who came to check me out, sitting on my veranda gate, looking at me curiously, as if I were a new foreign animal in the local zoo. Then he sat preening himself, ignoring me as if he owned the place. Later, he decided to join me for breakfast, strutting around on the table and trying to peck at my banana pancakes. I surrendered small pieces to try and keep him away from the rest of my food, until he was chased away by Kuvien, who explained with some annoyance that he was their next door neighbour’s pet.
Sure enough, as advertised, I could see dolphins from my breakfast table. Each day their routine was different: sometimes I’d see just a few of their curved backs at a distance, on another occasion I watched several of them jumping close to the beach. One morning, during breakfast, Alistair, my host, strolled over to introduce himself with a smile.
My days at Dolphin View Beach passed slowly. I snorkelled in the shallows of the ocean, diving down amongst the colourful fishes in the coral. I spent countless minutes looking out to sea, like a castaway hoping to see a ship. No vessels came to my rescue but occasionally a boy would paddle past in a wooden canoe. From time to time two or three men would appear, fishing from their small boats, bobbing on the waves above their chosen patches of water. I sat in the sun, then in the shade; then I’d wade back into the sea to swim and cool off. And then I’d repeat the routine.
There was nothing to do and no need to do anything. Like most other people, I’m usually always focused on “doing” rather than “being”. Our days are governed by obligations and routines to such an extent that if we find ourselves with a few spare moments without anything specific to do, we fidget with our phones. We are constantly in need of activity to distract us from simply being. We are distressed by inactivity and scared of even momentary boredom because without something to do, all we are left with is to be alone with our selves.
So at first it was uncomfortable to have nothing to do but sit on the sand and look at the sea. Instead of being stressed from having too much to do in too little time, I was under a pressure from an equal but opposite force; that of having too much time with too little to do. Aware of my boredom, and tempted to fix it, I chose instead to embrace it. I pushed away my mental to-do lists and the resisted the restless urge to move. Here, I resolved to cherish my boredom and relish my excessive freedom; to deliberately do nothing, and just be.
I was told that after a long hard day of physical work my grandfather would stare deeply into the coal fire in his hearth back at home. My dad told me he’d say “Sometimes I sit and think; and sometimes I just sit.” For my grandad, that was a kind of meditation, though he would never have used such a fancy word. People went all the way to India and elsewhere in the East to find bearded gurus to teach them more esoteric methods to achieve inner peace and enlightenment. They could have taken a pilgrimage on the bus to Radcliffe to sit with Jim Parrish. He could have silently taught them his technique for profound and restful tranquility. The truth is that wherever we go and to whomever we turn in search of inner calm, the peace we are seeking is already within us. It’s there if we allow our physical and mental busy-ness to slow down and stop, just as the sun is always there, behind the clouds.
To live well, we need to distinguish between quantity and quality; to reject the notion that the purpose of life is to “do more” and instead make deliberate choices to do less, in order to do the important things better. Nowadays, with the help of smartphone apps, we can schedule daily minutes to practice ‘mindfulness’, which is the simple but difficult art of being fully aware of each moment lived. Multi-tasking in order to do more makes mindfulness impossible. Reading whilst eating is supposed to be ‘efficient’ because two things are done in one amount of time, but neither is performed with our whole attention; both are only half-lived: the words not fully chewed over, the flavours not completely savoured.
Of course travelling doesn’t automatically guarantee the opportunity to simply “be” in the present without the distraction of constantly thinking about the past or the future. Even in the most peaceful of landscapes we can be tormented by thoughts, buzzing around us like flies. In fact being on the road can make our minds just as busy as we were back where we came from. Most people on an overseas holiday simply substitute the stress of their professional to-do list for an equally stressful sightseeing to-do list. The city break presents just a different set of tasks to be achieved in a fixed amount of time. Trips are planned to fit in the maximum amount of “doing” as possible in the days available. The scenery around us might change, but inside, the anxiety-fuelled drive to do more is just the same as ever. To counter this urge when wandering abroad, I have gradually learnt to plan less and less, for several reasons: to avoid the self-imposed pressure of ‘checklist travel’; to allow myself time to go with the flow, making it up as I go along; to have the luxury of taking an inquisitive detour; to be ready for the unexpected; or simply to have spare moments to notice things properly, rather than dashing past them on the way to the next stop on the itinerary.
One afternoon, whilst gazing hazily at the horizon under a blue-hot sky, a coconut fell next to me with a thud. Startled, I looked up to see a loaded magazine of heavy green cannon-balls nestling in the quiet leaves above me, hiding their deadly potential in plain sight, camouflaged by their tropical beauty. To avoid their next attack I quickly moved out of the range of fire and took cover in the open air. I recalled that I once read more people are killed by coconuts than by sharks. When I had asked Alistair about sharks, he’d reassured me that the local varieties weren’t dangerous, but I hadn’t thought to enquire about killer coconuts.
I took the fallen nut to Florrie’s kitchen and she showed me how to remove the husk, pressing down to scalp its head using a spike in the ground. Then we punctured a hole in its bare brown skull to drink its water before splitting it open to spoon out the soft white flesh. After that interruption to my slow routine, I drifted back to the beach, again to try simply to sit, and to be.
Each day continued like that until dusk approached, the dimming light triggering an impulse to prepare for the night. It was time to shower, apply insect repellent and dress for dinner (a clean t-shirt). Not long after eating, the drowsy darkness fell down onto me and I lay under the mosquito net through another hot South Pacific night.
Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
“Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.”
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