A Trip to White Island

After an incredibly busy start to our week, Ali and I were glad to have the opportunity to rest a bit over the weekend. However, rather than your typical downtime, weekends here are a little more like enforced bedrest because: 1) we have a lot of trouble accessing the Internet from the guest house, so it is difficult to work remotely or check email over the weekend; 2) stores close by noon on Fridays and don’t open again until Monday, so all errands must be done during the week; and 3) locals party hard on the weekend, which means that there are a lot of drunk people hanging around and it isn’t safe to venture beyond the guest house walls for more than brief periods of time and in daylight.

Ali and I had been looking at the beautiful, clear water outside of our guest house with a lot of longing, particularly during the long hot days. While a lot of the town residents walk down the jetty and swim nearby, it has been deemed unsafe for us to do that ourselves. Plus, there are a lot of boats that speed up and down Buka Passage that seem to follow very few “road rules” and a lot of pollution in the water from boat fuel and garbage. So, while we knew we it was unlikely to be fulfilled, we had expressed a longing to go swimming.

Luckily for us, the owner of our guest house was willing to help us out! We had been advised by another expat working on the island that Carol, the owner of Destiny Guest House, could arrange an outing for us to “White Island,” a place where we could safely swim. After we inquired, Carol not only set up a boat to the island, but she arranged for two of the ladies who work at Destiny to go with us and act as chaperones, to make us “feel more secure.” I double- and triple-checked about this arrangement, because I didn’t want us to add to their work or inconvenience anyone, but Carol assured me that one of them wanted to go out to the island and try to improve her fishing skills, and I think that the other was glad to get a break.

On Saturday morning, we had arranged to go to the island at 11am, but as typical around here, things didn’t go according to plan. We discovered that the boat was double-booked, so they worked out a complex series of hops where the boat would pick up a group of men who had hired it to take them to a neighboring island to play sports, drop them at White Island, return for us, drop us at White Island, pick up the men and take them to their final destination, and return to White Island to wait there for us until we were ready to come back to Buka! Whew! (“Make it work”?!?!)

Around 11:45am, a small outboard boat picked Ali and I up along with the two women from Destiny – Maria and Apollonia. It took us to an island about 15 minutes away. It was a tiny island with white sand – hence the name, White Island – coconut trees, and, I think, mangroves. As we pulled up to it, I thought it looked like something out of a pirate movie, where someone gets marooned with a single-shot gun and a bottle of whiskey! The island was no more than a quarter of an acre, although when the tide went out, the mangroves were left dry on a sandbar, increasing the size of the island to about an acre. The water around it was Caribbean blue, with underwater seagrass in some places.

As we arrived, we saw that another small boat had landed, carrying about 8 young men. Apparently, they were also there to enjoy the island. They moved inland, under the shade of some of the coconut trees, where they sat drinking, playing music, and laughing. Maria assured us that they were “good boys” and would leave us alone, so we didn’t need to worry about them. Besides, she informed us, one of them was Carol’s son, Charlie, so he better behave! Although Apollonia decided she’d rather nap than swim, Ali, Maria, and I waded into the water and swam in the shallows near the island – it was heavenly! The bottom was mostly white sand, and the water was perfectly clear and blue. I had brought my goggles hoping that there might be some interesting coral or plants to check out, but when I looked under the water, all I saw was more white sand and blue water – no coral or anything – just blue! But that’s okay – we enjoyed just relaxing in the water. After we swam for a while, Maria got her fishing gear and went in search of a good place to put her line while Ali and I walked along the beach and collected shells with Apollonia.

We found some beautiful shells that look like conch shells with spines – Apollonia called them “five fingers.” We found thick, puffy sand dollars that ranged in size between a dime and a quarter – they are much fatter with rounded edges than the ones I used to dig up in South Carolina. I found a beautiful clam shell that looks like an elaborate butterfly. We also waded into the shallows to look at fish and other water creatures. After a while, I realized that some “plants” on the bottom were actually anemones because one suddenly closed up after I walked close to it. Eventually, Maria came over and showed us that she had caught one fish – I have no idea what kind it was, but it was about 8 inches long, resembled a trout, and she looked very satisfied.

Apollonia semed to have fun helping us find shells that were intact and didn’t still have “residents” inside. She is very shy, and her English is also limited — it clearly took a lot of effort to speak with us. But she was intensely curious, and she was very admiring of our bathing suits, my goggles, my necklace… she wanted to learn about us, so we carried on a broken conversation as much as we could. She laughed a lot and was really sweet.

While we were hunting for shells, a huge storm with lots of lightning blew up over a neighboring island. I asked Maria if it would cause trouble for us, and she said not to worry – it wouldn’t affect us. I decided to trust her since a storm like that at home would mean big trouble, but she would know better than I would, and she was absolutely correct. Ali and I found it a little disconcerting to see the dark, foreboding sky hovering in the not-so-distance with occasional streaks of lightning. But it never made its way over to us. It was quite beautiful to watch. After another swim to cool off once more, we headed back to Buka.  Ali and I were grateful for the chance to swim and get out for a bit, and it was fun to spend a couple of hours playing on the beach with Maria and Apollonia. And even better — we made it back without sunburns!


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