The Mud Men


In the darkened frog croaking hours of pre dawn today, I was tramping ankle deep in the 'land of the muddy tree', Oterama Village, home to the Narasirato Pan Pipers. The thunder and light fireworks of the previous night had accompanied incessant rains and the once crystalline shin deep waters of the river, which ran through downtown Oterama had swollen to chest deep, now tarnished with brown clay silt and large objects of organic debris. We couldn't cross the powerful current to get to the boat shed which housed the canoe for my designated departure.

Yet, now at eight in the evening, I sit eating fine Japanese food, connected wirelessly to the internet, with just the mud baked into the crevices surrounding my toenails allowing any clue as to my previous seven days, and the plethora of Solomon style 'events' which had coloured the palette of my days.

The continual power blackouts as we recorded the next Narasirato CD; questions as to the progress toward the World Festival of Pan Pipe; being asked to write the launch speech for the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands; continuing turbulence, like an upsidedown whirlwind, of Solomon Islands politics and the captain of our ship to Oterama, from Honiara, steering our ship up onto a coral reef. Aye-aye captain, stuck like super glue to an eyelid!

A normal script might read as follow: ship departs Honiara five hours late, encounters huge seas and heavy rain en route, extending what is normally an eight hour traverse into the unfathomable pain of fourteen hours of topsy turvy stomach and mind churning hell, finally arriving in the peaceful confines of the Are'are Lagoon where we would alight at a village port just half an hour away from Oterama Village.

So with great surprise, urged to continually look over ones shoulder looking for the imminent catastrophe looming, our ship departed a little over an hour past the ticketed departure time, skimmed through the calmed seas with hardly a buffet or bump to endure.

Next on the surprise register was that the calm seas stayed with us all night, in perfect accompaniment to the nugget black skies, displaying the finest in diamantes. Lying on my grass mat on the top deck I counted over twenty falling stars before succumbing to the rocking of the cradle, blissfully falling asleep around one in the morning.

No squall of rain interrupted my childlike bliss, not even a droplet interjected. I ruminated at such an anticlimax, having quadruple wrapped everything in my backpack in plastic bags to guard against the expected rains, my raincoat serving a more noble cause as my pillow. The warm tropical breeze washed over me and the grunting of the diesel exhaust amended itself from annoying, to the perfect white noise to whitewash my ever alert hearing.

Alas, this story has a somewhat typical ending. Typical in the unforseen. The unexpected rearing its arms in protest, with a rasping scrape and thud as the ship missed the deepwater channel by twenty meters and careered up and onto the reef. It was 4am and pitch-black skies were suddenly alive with the darting tongues of torchlight and muffled passenger confusion. My own purple patch of beauty sleep had turned into the deep furrowed brow of a concerned citizen. Within an instant we were all experts in satellite navigation and ship salvage. I was but one captain amongst a hundred, each with their own account of what, why and wherefore!

There were tragi-comedy scenes as a whimpy fifteen horse-powered outboard 'tinnie' tried to push the ship back off the reef. Later they tried pulling it off by hand, with a multi-pronged anchor attached to the outer reef and well meaning 'sailors' flexing their biceps. It was fodder for a cartoon. With low tide still a couple of hours away I was considering whether we might just plop on our side, washing me and my well wrapped possessions into the ocean, along with other scenes from great shipwreck movies; the screams, out of date life rafts which had long since perished in the destructive tropical sun, the heroes who would emerge to save five people single handed.

Within an hour, appearing as if pulled from a magician's hat, the first of a number of dugout canoes arrived. They circumnavigated the ship and let their prognosis be known. In tandem with the ship's crew trying to retrieve their roles in this tragi comedy, the Narasirato team had arranged for one of their strongest paddlers to be dropped onshore so that he could then borrow a canoe, paddle to Oterama and raise the alarm bells which would bring forth the motorised dinghy and our eventual rescue.

The Are'are people are known throughout the Solomon Islands as highly organised and hard working, and their display to have me off the ship and onto a small nearby island was pure magic. Add to this the complete Narasirato instrument collection, fifty 20 kilogram bags of rice, twenty luggage bags and suitcases, and an assortment of other ungainly objects. By six am our complete cargo and entourage were upbeat and laughing on that small island, a gold medal feat of high seas cargo and passenger logistics.

Like a professional production team they had metered out tasks with barely a word spoken. Everyone understood what needed to be done. This was simply part of life, spawning a sense of timelessness, an irreverence to time. Time was not a prisoner here.

Before the mid morning sun had its chance to deliver some body blows, we were ferried through the serenely beautiful Are'are Lagoon, finally traversing carefully through the mangrove swamp river to the muddy landing pad near Oterama. It was nearing low tide and a recent flood had lodged numerous new trees as submersible obstacles, which could cause damage to outboard motor propellers, so one man sat at the front of the dinghy and waved evasive directions to the Captain Mike.

My sandals became skis in the fine mud as we transported goods back and forth, the fifteen minute walk to the village. Astute eyes, attached to a well rested and slept body, would notice the mud crabs, huge spiders, massive sago palms and swamp taro. There was the spectacular rosewood tree, beetle nut, huge butterflies, brilliantly coloured parrots and the endless mud.

I remembered the first time I set foot in Oterama, and the vast canyon of unknowing which lurked in my mind, yet now it felt familiar and relaxed. I distinctly remember losing my feet and crashing to an awkward landing along that muddy path.

I was greeted by familiar faces along the track, finally offloading the backpack in the men's only house belonging to Willie, and breathing a relaxed sigh to signify 'ordeal over'. Familiar sounds, the roosters, children washing and having fun in the river, cicadas and parrots, and a welcoming song by Donation's one hundred and four year old father Rohimae. I breathed deeply the thick moist air and inwardly thanked all those unseen faces who had worked so hard during the blackened morning hours to relieve us from that ship. As lowest tide was still an hour away, the ships vertical fate was still to be decided, and it definitely felt good to be a landlubber, with the early morning sight of the marooned ship still at the forefront of my mental picture book.

A snippet of conversation came back to me, from days before at a planning meeting for the Honiara launch, with me questioning their allowance of one and a half hours for speeches. Another cultural difference, as I would have programmed a maximum of twenty minutes for speeches, and had even extracted my own name from the speeches list in pursuit of less speech time. It was finally agreed that the speeches would be no more than half an hour, yet on the night they ballooned, festered, proliferated into an obscene seventy minutes of backslap-lip-tickling merriment.

I mused on the PA and lights arriving four hours late; the stage being hauled in by the Narasirato team... a single five metre by three metre slab of heavy timbers bound together to form one single massif, causing a removal and installation logistic of gargantuan proportions. Like an army of 'ririsi', or black ants, they inched the stage into position; finally the grandiose entrance of the Prime Minister, and his almost comical departure after five Narasirato songs, when it seemed that time stopped, all froze motionless, and a mood of royalty and the sublime had momentarily washed over us all.

The CD launch in Honiara was an overwhelming success; full house, lots of "big wigs", and a tour to Japan touted by some excited Japanese Embassy officials, as denoted by much bowing and head snapping quickfire 'yes' motions, followed by more bowing and much use of the word 'hai'.

Solomon Islanders had never seen a performance by one of their own groups at this level, and everyone was abuzz after the performance, as if the village cicadas had descended in our midst.

Before long we were given an official Oterama welcome, with the drumming of a throng of sergeant majors backed by the all pervasive paradiddles on high hats, as the first of the rainstorms moved menacingly toward us. The simple arithmetic said rain plus mud equals deeper mud. I lay under my mosquito net and fell into a 'death sleep' with the rain drowning the ambient excitement of the villagers, if only momentarily.

Almost immediately upon arrival the village swayed from sleepy to overdrive, as preparations for the village CD launch commenced. The clapperboard snapped shut to announce the opening scene.

Preparations for a huge village feast start with the long walk to the garden, where for months your bare handed tilling of the soil, and planting a rotation of crops, nurtures yam, taro, beans, corn and bush spinach. The men have fostered pigs and caught mud crabs and fish, while the women and children arrive back in the village bearing the dead weight of sacks of yam, cassava and taro. Fourty kilogram bags for the women and small children carrying ungainly ten kilo hauls.

Charles arrives after a two hour paddle in his wooden dugout canoe, with a huge fifty kilogram pig slumped over one shoulder. He looks at me and says, "This is my real life"!

The season of gnali nut collecting is upon us and children swarm from tree to tree collecting, cracking open and finally delivering to everyone a neat banana leaf package of nuts ready to eat. It reminds me of how village life is almost perfect for its children, yet in later years and without a good education, they will find hardship waiting.

One morning I awake to the distant sound of panpipe music and feel a deep sense of pleasure to be in Oterama. It also serves to remind me of the reason I am here and hence pull out pencils and borrowed paper and spend two days drawing a design for their Culture House project. The Culture House Building Project has a number of legs, and it feels like we are up and sprinting, as somewhere in between the end of their Australian Tour and going to Malaysia, the Narasirato musicians and village members had slipped into overdrive, to build what I had been told in Malaysia was a 'training shelter'. An interim Culture House as I understood it.

My perception was at one hundred and eighty degrees to reality.

A small shelter so that they could prepare themselves for Malaysia, out of the rain and mud, materialised as a beautifully made twenty five metre long, by fifteen metres wide, traditional long house. A mammoth effort in construction, gargantuan compared to any other single piece of construction in the village, or anything I had ever seen anywhere in the lagoon. A Monty Python-like 'stunned parrot' is how I must have looked, as I arrived at the site, to be confronted this huge structure.

The four and a half thousand aussie dollars worth of building tools and equipment we had arrived with would allow a new level of building prowess. Instead of hacking at logs with bush knives (machetes) they now possessed one of the beasts of the chainsaw world, along with two carpenter's saws. Gone would be the excavations using rudimentary wooden 'spears' with the injection of two shovels and a spirit level; tape measures and hammers arriving as the new technologies of Oterama.

There had been commotion around the chainsaw purchase back in Honiara.

The day before we had been to the Stihl shop, confirmed the model, price and accessories. Were all in stock? Yes was the assurance. Yet the very next day when we strode in with our fistful of dollars, they attempted to sell us a chainsaw without a chain. Sort of like a hamburger without ham... errrr... hammer without ham! Okey, a ham sandwich without ham!!!? After I calmly said that we could not buy a chainsaw without a chain, and turned to walk out of the shop, suddenly a chain materialized. An odd way to do business thought I! I had to keep my sense of humour at bay as I considered buying just the chain and leaving the saw!

Specialising in the world's worst destinations for malaria over the years, I had developed a non-patentable fidgeting twitch as part of my overall armoury, constantly presenting a shaky landing pad for mosquitos. The David Helfgott of anti-mosquito mannerisms. Even though I wore a long sleeved shirt, long pants, smeared anti-bug cream on my bare bits, and took five milligrams daily of a herbal mixture which had served me well on other trips, I was acutely aware of mosquitos and the trouble they could cause me.

A large and open community gathering was held to discuss the Narasirato plans, the building of the Culture House, which I had understood to be a multi purpose space, yet was to hold much deeper cultural significance. It would be divided into a women's only and men's only section, an archive and a mini museum, including some human skulls and other "tambu" pieces. During that meeting the heavens opened up with yet another intrusive display of thunder and driving rains. We observed complete dryness under the pandanas layers of the new training shelter and knew the tremendous difference this would make to Narasirato preparations in the future.

We commissioned a village craftsman to make a prototype table and two chairs with the understanding that a contract would follow when the Narasirato account allowed, perhaps after the 2008 touring plan.

Village life was potent, especially as my house on stilts was almost dead centre in the village. No single man would get away with any secret love life living in this place, I thought to myself, and confirmed this with the continual peppering of Jimmy 'Lips' Hoasi, the blown bassist from the Australian tour, who had decided to get married while we were in Malaysia. I couldn't quite understand what this meant, but could see that it was something which would be 'milked' with cheer and good humour by one and all in the village. After all this time, and many affable conversations with Jimmy, his "wife", brother, father and numerous friends, I have no real confirmation as to whether he was 'really' married or not! My guess was that he may not have paid the bride price yet, but was living with the lady in question. It was not uncommon for a couple to live together as if married, and if attaining the bride price was a difficult task for the man (ie. purchasing a certain number of strands of their valuable shell money) then it could be twenty or thirty years before they were married as traditional custom practice demanded.

As the evening drifts towards the horizon I am visited by Albert, to discuss our contract with him to build a prototype table and two chairs. If of good quality and durability, we would then commission him to build a number of tables and chairs for the culture house and two accommodations, as part of the overall Narasirato master plan - the brown sea scrolls as we called them.

Albert has heard the Prime Minister on radio the past three nights, talking at the Narasirato CD launch in Honiara, and mentions in passing that he thought the speech a little lame, insipid if you like. I take great pleasure in letting him know that it was I, Peter Keelan, speechwriter for the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, who had penned such power packed words. Or perhaps this new career, as speechwriter to Prime Ministers would be short lived, and accreditation to my work CV but one line.

On another day I took up my now customary role as village doctor, specialising in puss-encrusted sores, tropical ulcers and other distasteful looking skin infections. These easy to treat sores had killed children over the years, with the nearest medical clinic a four hour canoe paddle from Oterama. The hardship of living in such an isolated paradise clarifying one day, when Michael had paddled to the clinic to have his two year old daughter vaccinated with chloroquine, to help her over the worst of her first bout of malaria, only to return without success as the clinic had run 'dry'.

The day before the village launch it was decided to build a 'stage' at one end of the training shelter. Almost in the same instant as the decision was made, the new chainsaw sprung into action, a tree toppled, milled into planks and floorboards using the deft eye of the chainsaw operators, and erected in a day, complete with traditional decorations. As sunset arrive that evening the children mimicked Narasirato atop the new stage.

The whole hill had been abuzz with activity; the levelling of the training shelter floor, removal of any remaining stumps or root systems to stub the toe on in the dark of the launch night, digging gutters to direct the roof runoff away from the shelter and stage, and a quick beautification of the overall site. I noted that next time we should arrive with a new rake and a wheelbarrow.

I checked in with Clara, the lady I had set up to be the village librarian on my previous visit, with books donated by Cooktown Library from Australia. That mini project needed more books for the really young children, especially those in English, and I added this to my burgeoning mental notebook list marked "needed".

An ominous sound entered my subliminal thoughts. The distant sound of a thousand people running through the forest, scraping against pandanus and palms. The sound grew louder, as if the hundred people had multiplied into a thousand, and seconds later into ten thousand, and before I knew it another tropical storm had hit, with droplets as big as fifty cent pieces pelting hard against the leafy roof, battering the sides of the house.

With the rains constant on a daily basis, the mud had taken on a new level of intimacy with my body. It had long since filled every pore of my feet, heading up my legs toward the knees, and all of my clothes had splatters dotting them. My bed and clothes were now eternally damp, and I soon neglected washing and personal hygiene as a waste of time. I didn't shave and realised that after three weeks in the Solomon Islands I had only washed my hair once.

Village musicians or international musicians? It was a question which hung over me, and the complex questions, both philosophical and practical surrounding "development" left us with a project which had to be managed carefully, and with continual reference to cultural protocols. I had already observed the Narasirato musicians use of their personal performance fees, having talked with them at length about the 'possibilities' to use money for the good of the community, their families, Narasirato the collective, only to have seven of them head into Brisbane and purchase a pair of soccer boots each. Neon decorated Nikes for men who had never owned any pair of shoes before.

Late one evening a group from the East Are'are lands arrives, all thirty of them, carrying all their instruments on shoulders or heads. In the pouring rains they had walked six hours up an over the mountain range which separates East and West Are'are, arriving energetic and ready to perform at the CD launch the next night. They were immediately given shelter and food. I felt overwhelmed by their efforts to join us and the burden which the village would embrace, to house and feed such a large, and totally unexpected group.

You see, such is the strength of the Are'are tradition, that it asserts that as soon as a stranger enters their traditional boundaries, regardless of tribe or religion, they will look after them, feed them, help them, as if one of their own. Even when thirty unexpected guests arrive at the dinner table, you and your family will be the last to eat.

Food preparation for the forthcoming feast became the complete focus on the day of the launch. Pigs were slaughtered in full view, the rhythmic scraping of coconuts to gain the delicious coconut milk, peeling yams, preparing the traditional hot stone fired ovens, fetching more wild banana leaves (traditional tin foil) and the preparation of huge pots of rice and noodles. An old Solomon's man had once said to me that I would ingest more vitamins and minerals by eating a piece of cardboard then those two minute noodles, yet food of any description seemed almost sacred in these remote lands.

Formal launch proceedings started with music from Narasirato, the sound of which would let people know that the launch had started. Speeches were next, including my own which I had translated into Are'are, and had challenged myself to memorize. Then more Narasirato, the feast, the East Are'are band, the fifty minute film I had made for this exact occasion, and finally a fully throttle, full costume, international standard performance by Narasirato. I observed both shock and pride on the faces of the three hundred people huddled under the training shelter roof.

The launch night was a short story unto itself, with the music and dance, the tribulations of borrowing the generator, gaining a white piece of calico to use as the projection screen, logistics of feeding equitably each of three hundred people and the energy needed by the Narasirato members to sustain the length and breadth of tasks needed to be done even before giving their long awaited for village performance. Even the task of transporting a huge cooker full of rice from down in the village, crossing two knee deep rivers and up a slimy mud path to the top of the Culture House hill required major effort.

The morning after the launch the village seemed as if everyone and everything had been delivered a surge of a thousand volts. The children sang and played with wild devotion, general conversations elevated and animated, staccato punctuations of laughter and the sounds of live music everywhere. I felt as if special magic had permeated us all.

Deep in my psyche I recognised that the Ôreality' of my Australian life was little more than a shadow in the rainforest, yet I felt alive and inspired as never before. Perhaps it would be as one learned Are'are elder had said to me, "one day not tilling the soil, is one day in the future when you will be hungry". The future, time, reality, education, perception, wealth, development - these were all words which circled like hungry sea eagles above me.