Least Visited, Day 12: Tasting the Street Food, Betelnuts, and Sushi in Honiara

January 7, 2019

Old WW2 Guns outside of the Henderson Field Airport

Today is our one and only full day in Honiara, and we had a local guide named Wellington to show us around. Instantly he proved to be the best guide ever by giving us verbal previews of the next three activities and time stamps on them. “First, we will exchange money at the casino for ten minutes, then take a twenty minute drive to some shops, after which we will go to the war memorial.” Wellington was proving himself to be an amazing guide already, and I don’t even care if he knows nothing about the sights. If he tells me when lunch is happening, I am a happy camper.

The focus of this trip seems to be around WWII. I prefer learning about the local culture rather than our military presence or lack thereof in the region, so most of the information relayed to us about the Japanese and battles and Allies and battles and guns and advances goes in one ear and out the other. We visit the Guadalcanal American Memorial, and after taking a couple pictures, I step outside and chat with some locals at the roadside stands.

Guadalcanal American Memorial

All over Honiara are little roadside stands selling betelnuts, limes, a white powder, and cigarettes. The staff from the hotel who was in our bus yesterday as we rode to the hotel had informed me that betelnut is a local vice, wherein users chew on them and chase it with a local lime plant, which gives them a sort of buzz. The nut causes your teeth and spit to turn bright red, therefore there are signs everywhere in public places saying “no betelnut chewing” or “no spitting betelnut” due to it dyeing the concrete a bloody red color.

I chat in Bislama with a woman beside the roadside stand. I mistakenly thought the betelnut was a navel, which is a sort of almond that grows in Vanuatu. I quickly learn otherwise and decide not to purchase. I’m not ready to make my teeth look like I got in a punching match with Mike Tyson. The woman is friendly and completely understands Vanuatu’s version of pijin. She asks where we’re from and how we got a local guide, since her family runs a local tour company and wants to get in with the international market.

We part ways and off we go to the countryside to see the Bloody Ridge National Peace Park and WWII Battleground Site. I take the opportunity to take in the breathtaking views of the rolling hills and nearby villages with mountains in the background. This country is far larger and more scenic than any we’ve seen thus far, since its altitude varies more than ten meters overall.

The view from Bloody Ridge

I also take the time here to wave at the friendly kids hanging out on the top of the hill. I chat with some teen girls who are pretty shy but not too shy to say some “halos” and shake hands. The younger kids are a lot less shy, and I chat longer with them. Mercy and Annette are sisters, and Benson is their friend. They live down the hill from the monument and just came here to hang out. They most likely also came to gape at the giant bus of 20 tourists. I chat with them using Bislama and find myself rewording some sentences or using more English words than usual to make them understand. They don’t understand the word for food, so I instead use “food,” which they get. When I hop on the bus, Mel asks me what we talked about. “Village stuff,” I tell her. It was like a conversation with kids in my village. What did they do this morning? They swept and did laundry. What did they eat for lunch? What’s their favorite food? Oh, I also like rice and papayas.

Off we head to the international airport, Henderson Field, which is an airfield the Japanese developed to get a leg up on air travel in the Pacific during WWII, and which the allies first targeted during the Pacific campaign. Off to the side of the airport, there is a large park with trees that have been planted in memory of lives lost in the war.

Just off to the side of the airport is this memorial.

Our next stop is the Honiara Downtown Market, a large open air produce and handicraft market. Our guide warns us to watch our bags because pickpocketing can unfortunately be quite common. It is at least three or four times the size of the one in Port Vila, and instead of plastic net bags, everything sold is in neat little piles with prices off to the side. There’s no food in the floor aisles of the market, which makes it seem far less chaotic than the one in Vanuatu, despite its greater size. I also notice there's a good split of men and women working at this market, whereas the Port Vila one is called the "Mama's Market" because only women sell food there.

Honiara Downtown Market

Peppers, Oranges, Nangae nuts.

Bananas for sale

fish, seafood, crabs and more!

such neat little piles of peanuts

I buy nangae to share with the group (that’s the Bislama word, so I am not sure of the Solomon Islands version) and an avocado. A woman walking by, her teeth stained red with betelnut, is selling some sort of cookie out of a plastic tub. I take one, thinking it’s a giant sugar cookie, but it ends up being some sort of cassava biscuit. The flavor grows on me as I nibble on it, exploring the rest of the market. There are fresh fish and fresh crabs, but here they lob off the legs of the living crabs to make sure they don’t scurry off. In Vanuatu they just impale them so they’re immobile. Overall, my snacks of a cookie, nuts and an avocado amount to about $1.50 USD.

Road markets with sausages, fish and rice

Now, as Wellington informs us, it is time for lunch at a road market, after which we will go swimming at the beach. This Wellington is top notch with his schedule! We head to an outer neighborhood, where we pull over beside some roadside stands selling hot food. The options are sausage, parrot fish, white fish or chicken thighs, each served with rice. I get the white fish, since the parrot fish (this is common in Vanuatu and is so named because of its hard, beak-like mouth) has tough scales to dig through with the plastic spoon provided. White fish is also meatier.

After I get my fish with “chili sauce” (it ends up being BBQ sauce), I wander over to chat with a local family who is sitting at their stand and not selling food. They tell me they sold food yesterday, and today they rest. I learn there are lots of different local languages spoken in the Solomon Islands, and the woman estimates nearly fifty are spoken on this island alone. She’s unsure how many are spoken all around all the islands. She tells me there’s a cultural tour we can take of the village nearby, but I tell her our local guide has a strict itinerary. Her children have blonde hair, which is a gene unique to this country, wherein locals can have dark skin and light hair. I tell her that in Vanuatu, there are many people from Tanna island who also have this gene. I wonder if there’s some sort of relation.

It's just the tip of the ship on Bonegi Beach

We head off to Bonegi beach, where there’s a WWII shipwreck that makes it ideal for snorkeling. I borrow Melissa’s snorkel and head off into the water, which is murky, and I’m unsure if it’s just from recent storming or the rusty sediment surrounding the wreck. It’s a great snorkeling spot with loads of fish and sea life, and it isn’t too far from the shore. I ask Shawn to come out with me, because the murkiness is a bit scary at times, since you’re out in brown water and unable to see what’s in front of you until BAM there’s a thing jutting out from the wreck. Just like in Vanuatu waters, tiny microscopic jellyfish prick us here and there, almost like electric mosquitoes under water. They don’t cause us any harm.

We head off to parliament next, but since this country is a little more strict, we are only able to get a picture from down the hill. Wellington informs us that this year is election year, so all new members will be voted on soon.

What a view!

That was our last stop, and we part ways with Wellington when we return to the hotel. It was a long day, now nearing 6pm. The plan is to meet in the hotel for dinner, but I am keen on venturing out, and so is Mel. I also want to try fresh kava, because I learn that this country grinds it fresh instead of importing Vanuatu powder. However, upon speaking with the front desk, I learn that you can only get local kava in the villages, and everything in town is the powdered kind, imported from Fiji. Booooo. The hotel staff, though, are very friendly and willing to make a few phone calls for us. But with island time, this takes quite a while (“can you make the call, like, now? It’s getting dark”).

We ask if there’s a good restaurant nearby, and they suggest Kokonut Kafe, a short bus ride away. They call to arrange the hotel bus to drop us there, which also is an ordeal, since they can’t get a hold of the driver and have no idea where he could be. She says we can take a local bus, which we can catch nearby. Then, the instructions come. “You’ll step outside and go right, and when you come to an intersection to go up or down, you go down. That takes you to the main road. You’ll see an overpass, a pedestrian overpass. Walk to that, but don’t climb up. Below it is a bus stop. It’s three Solomon dollars, and they will drop you off at a centre, and after that you’ll walk to the road where the restaurant is, and it’s on the water.” I'm used to such roundabout and flourished directions after living in Vanuatu, but thank god I have a map, compass and a good sense of direction. Since I’m with Mel, I’m less nervous. It ends up being a very clear path, and fortunately a bus is waiting when ẃe arrive.

The bus is similar but slightly different than in Vanuatu, which appears to be like a lot of things in this country. There is a passenger who works for the bus who collects your money at the beginning send opens/shuts the door for you. There is a light inside that keeps the bus illuminated and safer.

We get out at our stop, a brief six minute ride. We walk down some industrial looking driveways until we hit the wharf, where it dead ends and there’s an outdoor bar with pool tables. The hotel staff told us this was a place that served kava, and due to the lack of information the hotel provided, I just wanted to double check that it was powdered kava only. It was. We crossed the small path over to the restaurant, which they informed us was no longer Kokonut Café but instead a sushi restaurant called Tenkai Sushi Cafe. We were totally fine with that.

I ordered two tuna Maki with a specialty dragon roll Maki and a bottled water, and the total was under $20usd, far cheaper than any sushi I would be offered in Port Vila. I was thrilled. After a nice friend date, Mel and I headed back to the hotel.

I wanted to see if the rest of the group was still hanging out, so I headed up to the hotel restaurant where most were still awaiting food. Bok and Mikhail were sitting in a giant circle of empty chairs from the groups pre-dinner drinks. I joined them and while we were hanging out, we, from afar, observed some drama at the dinner table. The downstairs bar messed up some drinks, and someone from our group didn’t want to pay for them, which set the French downstairs bar owner into a fit of rage. He was now on the phone calling the cops on us, and while on hold, was spewing hateful comments about Americans, Aussies, Mexicans (to the Spaniards in the group 😑) and more. Finally Gareth talked him down. Also, he was on the phone for at least ten minutes and never reached someone. I’ve never ever heard of someone calling the police over a two drink mistake.

After the drama settled down, I retired to the room. Justin and I recapped our days to each other (he went off shooting some drone footage) and then it was time for bed.

That hotel was a chunk of change for the 20 of us.

Today has been the final day of this trip, and tomorrow we depart for Port Vila, Vanuatu, where I’ll be acting as their “local” guide.

Farewell, Honiara!