You Can Go Back
With that matter settled, we sailed right past the enticingly remote Vanikolo, heading directly for Lata. We threaded Roger Henry through the western reef into Graciosa Bay, which was named by Alvaro de Mendana in 1568. Twenty-six years after first visiting the island group, he returned, only to die of disease and be buried here.
Coincidentally, it'd been 26 years since my own first visit to the Solomon Islands, and I knew all too well the dangers of disease. On that trip, I'd been ravaged by malaria and forced to limp south to Australia for treatment.
Graciosa Bay is too exposed and deep to anchor in. Diana hovered offshore as I rowed in with the ship's papers. Lata was utterly unattractive. The mud streets were strewn with trash, and every building was festooned with barbed wire. Although Lata was once an official port of entry, empty government coffers have left it without customs or immigration services.
The local police hadn't a clue as to what to do with me. I was told there was a quarantine officer, but he was sick and had gone into the bush to find his witch doctor. No one knew when he might return.
As the local bank had no money of any kind, I had to ferret out the secretary of the Anglican Diocese and negotiate an exchange of U.S. dollars for four jerricans of diesel. Fortunately, I met Ben and Fisher, two friendly men who agreed to help me hump the fuel down the slippery trail to the jetty and out to the waiting boat.
Diana went to the local market but found only betel nuts for sale. Every man, woman, and child old enough to bite through the hard inner fruit of what resembles a miniature coconut spends a good deal of his or her day, psychic energy, and money pursuing what most outsiders consider to be a disgusting habit.
The extremely bitter nut is chewed to a pulp. To more efficiently extract its natural narcotic, a special leaf is licked, dipped into a carved vial of lime powder, and sucked on. A fountain of blood-red saliva then explodes from the chewer's mouth, dribbles down the chin, and stains teeth black and lips flame red. Over the years, the lime corrodes teeth to such an extent that the few left hanging in the mouths of old men veritably sway in the breeze of their everyday conversation.
Ben and Fisher agreed to search out some fruits and vegetables and paddle them out to us in the morning. With that organized, Diana and I crossed the bay to Shaw's Cove in search of a tenable depth in which to anchor. We hunkered down in front of a dilapidated but still functioning vocational school to await our quarantine inspection.
A gaggle of excited children swam out to see us, and I just couldn't explain why they were officially not allowed on the boat until our yellow flag was struck. Finally, I dropped the lifelines and let them aboard.
Two days later, the quarantine officer showed up and, by the book, confiscated our remaining vegetables. He borrowed our insect spray to fumigate the empty bins.