At first, I had considered walking the 17-odd kilometres from Auki to Talakali, the gateway of Langa Langa Lagoon, but at second thought, I decided it was better to first visit the lagoon, see how much time I needed to visit it, and then walk back if I still had sufficient time. A full truck pulled up on one of the main streets of Auki, and the driver seemed reluctant to take me. But as soon as I walked over to the back of the truck, a smiling old man re-arranged things a little bit, so I could still fit in. Moments later, we were off, and the banging of my body on the hard metal rim of the truck negotiating the unsealed road soon made me wonder how I would deal with the ride, but soon enough, I got used to it. It turned out to be a pleasant ride: people were chatting, waving at friends in the houses we passed. Inevitably, we ended up taking along more passengers; the pile of bags, fruit, sacks, and boxes in the middle of the truck grew higher. I left the happy bunch of people and jumped off at the Talakali turnoff, and walked down the road to the village, where I found a small group of people sitting in the shade of a tree. One of them called me and, with red-stained teeth, introduced himself as Willy. He walked me to the lagoon, took out a dugout canoe, and paddled off. After passing a shipyard, the lagoon widened, and in front of my eyes, I could see a quite large body of water, ringed with small islands. These are artificial islands: in trying to escape the headhunting bushmen, the people living on the coast of Malaita decided long ago that it was safer to live on islets off the coast, also because they were the more capable seafarers. Built with coral stone on shallow reefs, the islands just barely rise out of the sea.
Willy stopped paddling regularly to give himself a new dose of betel nut, but we still proceeded pretty fast over the tranquil waters of Langa Langa Lagoon. As we got closer to the small islets on the far side of the lagoon, I spotted many houses on them, surrounded by mangrove and palm trees. The water was transparent enough to be able to peek into it and spot many coral heads; some parts were very shallow. We ended up at a building with a large verandah, the community centre of one of the small settlements around the lagoon. I was welcomed by a young guy and his wife; their 5-year old son was running around naked like many kids do here. After chatting to them and enjoying the view for a while, I asked to see a shell-making ceremony. I had been told on other islands in the Solomons I had visited that Malaita is the origin of shell-money, and was curious to see it in the making. Shell-money is still being used around the Solomons, mostly for settling disputes, and for marrying: the father of a son would have to give shell money to the father of the bride. After waiting for a while, and chatting to the father of the guy I had just met, I was summoned to the back of the house. A row of women was sitting on the ground, wearing grass skirts, bending forward, smashing shells with their special stones. The guy explained everything, how only four types of shell can be used, how you have to hack them into pieces (they appeared much harder than I had expected), how they would then be washed, polished, and pierced, before being strung on a nylon cord. Each woman had a different taks, and it was thus possible to see the entire process at once. One old woman was using a wooden instrument with a string: her drill to make a small hole in the shell shard. Another woman used a sizzling hot stone to fry one particular type of shell, to give it a reddish colour. An old man, the only man showing something here, was rubbing the shells on a long piece of wood, to make them almost perfectly circular. At the last stage, two women were stringing the coloured circular shell pieces meticulously onto a long cord in a wooden frame in a traditional pattern.
My host was explaining how the shells of the lagoon had already been exhausted, and how it became always more difficult and expensive to acquire shells; if I were to believe him, the shell-making business was under threat, and therefore also the livelihood of the people living around Langa Langa Lagoon. It was obvious that these artificial islets do not have much to live off; the soil is poor and not many crops can grow on it. While we talked, the women in the grass skirts had started to pack their things, and a "bride" had suddenly shown up - I was surprised, and asked if they could wait a little, to be able to take some photos. I forced myself not to look at the bride yet. When I did a little later, I stared into the young face of a pretty girl, covered in shell money. Her head was covered, she had shell earrings, necklace, decorations around her arms, but most notably: she was carrying a young coconut tree, with a long string of shell money, of the same design I had seen just before. The father of my guide showed up with a small shell with a red liquid; he dipped the part of an ocra fruit into it, and thus decorated the face of the pretty girl. When asked what liquid he used, he smilingly spat into the shell: it was the same betel nut "juice" that you can see everywhere on the streets of the Solomon Islands! A unique sight - she looked at me with a smiling face, and for a second, I imagined her to be my bride. I jokingly said that she should come with me and be my wife, upon which the others smiled. The guide explained that even after marriage, the husband is not supposed to sleep with his wife; she takes off one of the decorations each day, until the very last part covering her. Men from Langa Langa lagoon must be very patient. The guy took me for a short walk in the village, and when we came back, I had another look at the lagoon, above which a deep grey sky was now looming. I greeted the wife of the guy - and as I did so, realized she had circular red dots on her face. At once, I realized the capital blunder I had made by asking her to be my wife: I had been talking to the very wife of my guide, the mother of the naked child... Fortunately, men from Malaita are not as furious and possessive about their women as others in the Solomons had made me believe, and I escaped unharmed. Willy paddled back another way; I saw a taboo site from a distance, where no one could venture, saw quite a few docks were the ships that Langa Langa is also famous for, were being built, and was introduced to the relatives of Willy, until I did not know anymore who was his father, uncle, brother, sister, mother, auntie... I was very lucky: the last truck for Auki was waiting; it was way too late to walk back; besides, it was about to rain heavily. The driver was kind enough to let me into his cabin when it started to pour down; especially nice since the tray of the truck was full of drunken guys.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Langa Langa Lagoon (Solomon Islands). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Langa Langa Lagoon.
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