I’m skipping the hotel breakfast. I already know what it’s going to be.
Eggs, bacon, fruit, sausages. And fish of course.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sounds delightful actually.
It’s just, we’ve only got one day in Honiara, and I’d prefer to start the day with something…different.
It’s around 8:30. I head out of the hotel, wave good morning to the ladies at reception.
The bellman outside gives me a friendly nod.
“Good morning sir.”
“Morning, my friend. The market is that way, right?”
I point in the distance.
Luckily, the sun’s not too high in the sky yet. It’s barely gotten off the sidelines, yet the air is already hot. And not just normal hot.
Honiara is typical for an island capital. It looks like an island capital, with dusty buildings and crooked palm trees along the streets. It moves like an island capital (slowly). Most of it all, it smells like an island capital. Like humidity and sea salt and brown grass and wet sand. It’s one of those smells your nose doesn’t forget. If you know, you know.
The first store I pass is a supermarket. Of course, I have to go in.
Earlier in the week I’d asked our guide Fiona, “What are some of the traditional dishes here?”
She hesitated, but didn’t really have an answer. So I pointed to the airport workers in front of us.
“Like what will those guys eat for lunch today?”
She didn’t even have to think about it.
“Like fresh tuna?”
“No from the can.”
“And maybe bread.”
I looked at her oddly for a moment.
“You guys live on islands surrounded by fresh seafood and your favourite food is canned tuna?”
She laughed and shrugged her shoulders.
And that’s exactly what I see as soon as I walk in. Rows and rows of Solomon Island tuna.
I have to buy a can. If this is the national dish, I’m trying it.
There’s not a lot of people around today. It’s Saturday.
Shops are open, but empty, buses are running, though empty(ish). One block, two blocks, three blocks. Police station, a few supermarkets, people lining up at the ATM. Everything is rather uneventful.
That is, until I get to the market.
The entrance is so crowded, I can barely get in. To my right, lines of all types of vegetables, laid out on tarpaulin mats. On my left, watermelons.
Rows and rows of watermelons.
As I walk down eyeing them all, the young boys scream out to me, seeing me salivating from my eyes.
“Sir, melon, here!!”
“No here, melon here! Sir!”
“This one this one!”
Selling watermelons is competitive business.
The vegetable ladies are less enthusiastic. Most of them are too busy gossiping to even look up at me.
The market’s huge, and the produce is all beautiful.
Casavas, pumpkins, taros, eggplants, pawpaws, cucumbers. And bananas.
Lots and lots of bananas.
I keep walking, and find more interesting stuff. That’s the great thing about tropical markets. They never end.
Huge pineapples. Oysters, clams. Coconuts.
It’s a tropical food paradise.
Anyway, I don’t have a kitchen, and I’m only here for a day. So I’m not shopping. I’m looking for the cooked stuff.
When I find the rows of cooked food I realise I’ll need to strategise a little. There’s SO MUCH to try.
Now, do I be a good blogger and try all the funky stuff, or just eat the stuff I like?
Easy answer. The stuff I like!
The first lady is selling sausages. The kind you eat at birthday parties when you’re a kid. Haven’t had one of those in forever. I’ll take one.
The next lady has “golden rice” and “vegetable pies”.
“What’s inside that?”
“And what about that?”
Okay. I’ll take both.
Next we’ve got chicken, fish, more chicken. Comes with rice, bananas, some type of pancake. Should I get one? I’ll think about it.
But beside them are some boiled (or steamed?) bananas I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’ll take one, please.
On the opposite side, a group of girls are selling packed meals. It’s chicken, rice and vegetables. If I was living in Honiara, I’d probably eat that for lunch every other day. But surely I can find something more interesting.
Then I come to a smiley grandma, buckets of home cooked food in front of her. I already know this is a winner. Even though there are signs, I ask her what’s in each one. She lifts each lid and lets me peek inside. They all look great.
I’m feeling a little flush. I’ll get the most expensive one.
I wasn’t expecting a big serving, but she grabs a takeaway container and packs in enough beef and rice for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and maybe even a few scoops leftover for tomorrow.
I look at my collection of plastic bags. I think I’ve got enough food for the day. Probably the week.
I make my way to the exit. But I can’t escape. More things catch my eye.
Bananas. Not just any bananas. Green bananas, yellow bananas, orange bananas, red bananas. Question: Are you really going to walk past bright red bananas and not buy them?
I only want one, but they sell them in bunches, and bunches here aren’t small, they’re bunches of fifteen.
I guess I’ll take fifteen.
I finally head out of the market, past the gossiping vege ladies, past the watermelon boys. Just as I’m about to exit, a grandma walks past me carrying a box of something delicious-looking.
“Excuse madam, what are those?”
She turns, looks at me startled. Who is this strange oriental man inquiring about my food?
“Those. What are they?”
Question: Are you really going to walk past homemade casava rolls (never heard of them) and not buy one?
“Can I have one please?”
I smile. She smiles. Puts the box on the ground. Takes a plastic bag. Scoops one up and pops it inside. Hands it to me.
I hand her some cash.
“Keep the change.”
We’re staying at the Heritage Park Hotel, just on the edge of the town centre. I’m dripping in sweat when I finally make it back.
Luckily it’s not just any old hotel, it’s a resort that breeds smiles and oohs and ahhs. My room is air conditioned, there’s a Peanut Slab on the pillow, two cold waters waiting for me in the mini bar. I’ve got a nice balcony too, there’s a pool downstairs. Two actually.
But I’m just thinking about breakfast.
I start with the golden rice. It’s literally fried rice that’s been wrapped in batter and deep fried. Even though I feel like it’s giving me heart disease it’s a solid 7/10.
The vegetable pie is next. It’s lots of pie and not many vegetables. 4/10.
The casava roll is slightly bland but the texture is very unusual and satisfying. Be amazing with ice cream. 6/10. Maybe 6.5.
Then it’s time for grandma’s beef stew. The box is so full it spills out on the table when I open it. I only plan to eat half, but it’s so darn good I destroy that thing like it’s trying to run away. Paired with the boiled bananas I picked up, it’s one of the best things I’ve eaten all trip.
I lounge on my balcony, my stomach swollen from too much food. I’ve still got red bananas, and a can of tuna. Tomorrow’s breakfast, I say.
A few hours later, once the girls have woken up and done a morning wander, I go to meet them at Breakwater Cafe, just around the corner. Sun is at full mast now, the town is baking. I find the girls there halfway through their brunch. It’s a cosy place, lots of goodies on the menu.
I’m still full from my little market adventure earlier. But, question: Are you really going to walk past such a delicious menu and not try something?
“I’ll have the coconut smoothie please.”
I shake my head, then take a quick look in the cabinet.
“Well, maybe a piece of that strawberry slice.”
While picking at our food, the four of us chat about what to do with our day. It’s a free day for us, our last day in the country, our only day in Honiara. They’ve already been to the National Museum, which “didn’t take long”, in their words. I’ve done my market haul. To be honest, we’re just kind of exhausted from a week of whizzing around so many islands.
We make a little pit stop at the crafts market next door but after that, it’s back to the hotel. The girls head for a day of sunbathing at the pool. I head to my room and fall into a food coma.
That’s our day in Honiara.
That night the four of us have dinner in the hotel restaurant. We’ve been spoiled with good meals this trip, but it doesn’t stop here. The Heritage Park menu is top notch. I go with one of the traditional dishes – fish cooked in banana leaf.
Afterwards we sit and talk about the only thing travellers know how to talk about: Where we’re going next. Freya’s going back to Aussie before taking off on another big trip. Sam’s heading off to tour Europe. Sarah’s going to Bali. We swap stories and tips, like telling Sarah how to finesse the taxi system in Bali, and giving Sam advice on surviving Europe’s hostels. And then we talk about dessert. It feels like I spend an hour deciding between the apple pie and the cherry tart. I even consult the girls several times.
“Seriously, apple pie or cherry tart?”
I get the apple pie.
Should’ve got the cherry tart.
The following morning we get picked up for the airport. As it’s on the opposite end of town, so we get to enjoy one last drive through Honiara’s centre. Our driver’s name is Andrew. Young guy. Hip. Groovy hairstyle.
“Are we going to pass Chinatown?” I ask him.
“Yeah, it’s just coming up here.”
He points up ahead, to the right.
“I was going to walk there yesterday,” I say. “But it was too far. Is there anything interesting there?”
“But there’s a lot of Chinese here? I noticed people don’t really look at me too funny.”
“Yeah, lots. For example this hotel here.”
He points out the window next to me.
“It was started by this Chinese man. He had lots of kids with different Solomon women. And now all those kids run the hotel together.”
“This one right here?”
We both look at it, and then he laughs, and then I laugh, and then we both look at the hotel again. And keep on laughing.
We pull into the airport and unload our bags. I still have about eight red bananas left. Even after giving two to Sarah, I barely got through half of them. I hand them to Andrew.
“A gift for you,” I say, grinning.
We say goodbye, shake hands, give each other a bro hug. Probably be a while before we see each other again.
Or so we thought.
A few hours later, we’re back at the airport entrance. Andrew comes to pick us up. Our eyes are tired, faces glum.
We were the first ones off. No more flights today. Back to the hotel.
As we load our bags back in the van, I crack a smile.
“Well. At least I’ll get to try the cherry tart.”
They all laugh. “And the tiramisu!”
That night, I find out what I’d known in my heart all along: The cherry tart was so much better than the apple pie.
Maybe one more night in Honiara isn’t so bad.
The following afternoon, Andrew picks us up again, ready for round two.
“What you been doing today?” I ask him.
“Just in my house, watching movies.”
“Did you eat the bananas?”
“Yeah,” he grins.
“Did you know,” he goes on, “we have an island here that has one hundred different types of bananas! One hundred!”
“Really? What’s it called?”
“Yeah Makira. They even have a banana festival. A festival just for eating bananas!”
Now that sounds like a party worth going to.
It’s a Sunday today. The roads are empty. I figure everyone in Honiara is at home, watching movies and eating bananas, like Andrew.
Then we pass the local soccer pitch.
I was wrong. The field is packed on all four sides. Nobody is watching movies. Everyone in Honiara is here, watching soccer.
Another few minutes along, we pass by a few fruit stalls. I remember I still have some spare change jingling in my pocket.
“Andrew can we stop here. I got some coins to burn.”
He nods and pulls over.
“Who wants coconuts?!”
We pool our spare change, hand it to the lady out the window. She pulls half a dozen coconuts off her stall, drills a hole in each one, drops a straw in, hands them to us one by one.
One last coconut for the road.
As we pull into the airport, we all say bye to Andrew, again. We unload our bags from the van, again. Check in, again. Go through customs. Then as we head through security, the guy slaps my bag gently as it comes through the belt.
“Yours?” he asks.
“You got tuna?”
I laugh and pull out the tiny can of tuna I’d forgotten about. What a nice surprise. I’ll have it on the plane.
He looks at it for a minute, then puts it on the desk behind him.
“I can’t take tuna?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
Fiona was right, they really do love their tuna. Won’t even let it out of the country.
It’s not long before we’re buckled in, and the flight takes off. We all look at each other and grin, nervously, and then with relief. We’re really leaving. But as we watch the islands pass beneath us in the window, something tells us, we’ll be back.
Or at least I will be. I’ve got a banana festival to go to.
Until then, Solomon Islands.