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Solomon Time: An Unlikely Quest in the South Pacific

Solomon Time: An Unlikely Quest in the South Pacific

by Will Randall

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Who hasn't fantasized about dismantling his or her hassled, wired-up life for a simpler existence? Yet who among us has the will and opportunity to do it? The answer, of course, is very few.

Will Randall, a young English schoolmaster, had such a chance -- and took it. He uprooted his conventional First World life and let himself be blown to one of the farthest


Who hasn't fantasized about dismantling his or her hassled, wired-up life for a simpler existence? Yet who among us has the will and opportunity to do it? The answer, of course, is very few.

Will Randall, a young English schoolmaster, had such a chance -- and took it. He uprooted his conventional First World life and let himself be blown to one of the farthest and most beautiful corners of the earth, the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. In the entertaining tradition of Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, this is the story of Solomon Time.

From the first, it's an improbable journey. In a chance encounter on a rugby field, Randall meets a doddering old man known as "the Commander," who has retired to England after running a cocoa plantation in the South Pacific for thirty years. Six months later, the Commander dies and his will is read: he wants someone to travel to his beloved, long-missed island -- where his plantation has fallen into ruin -- and devise a way for the natives to support themselves. If successful, they might avoid poverty, build a new school, and even fend off the greedy developers circling their peaceful waters.

It's a mission of noblesse oblige, yet possibly a fool's errand, too. Randall agrees to go.

Spread across the Tropic of Capricorn, the Solomon Islands are not so much the Pacific archipelago that time forgot as the one that forgets time. Randall's new home is Mendali, a fishing village so remote it can be reached only by motorized canoe. But the people of the village, some with cheeks engraved with a rising sun, are welcoming, for they remember the Commander kindly, and still practice a pagan Anglicanism in a church he built for them in 1956. They sleep in houses made of leaves and live on fish of every sort, mud crabs, yams, ngali nuts, even the honeycomb of termites.

Randall decides that the villagers could raise chickens, and they greet the idea with enthusiasm. But finding live chicken eggs in their watery world proves wildly difficult, and Randall must chase after the eggs over shark-infested seas and through jungles where strange characters reside, including a one-eyed dwarf and a tattooed lady.

One couldn't imagine a better man than Will Randall to help the people of Mendali meet the twenty-first century on their own terms. But will he succeed?

Solomon Time is a moving and witty account of one man's accidental adventure in paradise and is certain to enchant explorers and armchair travelers alike.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Sunday Times (U.K.) Travel Section, Book Of The Week His account of the time he spent on the small island is a belated coming-of-age, brought alive by some vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of the place, and of the people who made his stay so uplifting.

Bill Roorbach Author of Big Bend, The Smallest Color, and the forthcoming Temple Stream Solomon Time is a kind of cheerful, one-man episode of Survivor — and Will Randall is the charming, awkward one you want to see win, though you know he's just not going to: he's too funny, too sweet, too kindly, far too self-aware. The people he meets are winning, too, as Randall battles to do good amid the ghosts of headhunters and the shades of empire.

ABTA Magazine (U.K.) A fascinating read...unforgettable experiences.

The New Yorker
When Hurricane Zoe hit the SOLOMON ISLANDS last December, it took several days before anyone could reach the most remote islands, Tikopia and Anuda, to assess the damage. But isolation this extreme was precisely what the former high-school teacher Will Randall sought on Randuvu, where he taught the islanders to raise chickens. Randall narrates his agrarian adventure in Solomon Time, during which he happily fell into a pace of life that he says makes "schedules and timetables become irrelevancies, arrangements, meetings, deadlines inconsequential."

The romance of the remote also seems to have infected Katherine Routledge, who, in 1914, became one of the first archeologists to investigate Easter Island. Among Stone Giants, Jo Anne Van Tilburg's biography of Routledge, tells how the island's statues provoked her to rapturous imaginings of the rituals that might have taken place there. Back in England, Routledge declined into schizophrenia -- a condition her family blamed on the influence of Angata, a mysterious native visionary.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester focuses on more physical dangers: the seismic events of August 27, 1883, when the Javanese island vanished in a volcanic eruption of almost unimaginable power. The explosion was heard as far away as Australia, and the tidal waves that followed killed some forty thousand people. Winchester, a geologist, looks at both the aftermath of the eruption and its geological inevitability. Apparently, the island over the volatile site, where one tectonic plate slides under another, explodes with relative regularity. Krakatoa's successor, which appeared on the site in 1930, is growing at a rate of twenty feet every year.

( Leo Carey)
The Washington Post
It is, all in all, a charming story, and mostly Randall tells it in a charming way. At times he works a little too hard to turn on the charm, and he isn't always able to avoid the pitfalls of paternalism that await the Western traveler who ventures to faraway places with strange-sounding names, but he is rescued by a nice inclination toward self-mockery and, even more, by the fundamental decency and humanity of the people of the Solomons. His account of his time with them may or may not make you want to go out and see for yourself, but then good travel writing is supposed to make you feel you've been there anyway, and Solomon Time most agreeably does. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
Schoolteacher Randall was in such a rut he barely noticed it. He'd spent 10 years trying to teach French to unwilling British schoolboys. All his 30-something buddies were pairing off in respectable marriages, while his occasional girlfriends were becoming increasingly rare. Suddenly, after a slightly inebriated evening, he found himself involved in a bizarre mission: to fulfill the last wishes of an old man affiliated with his school, he agreed to go to the Solomon Islands and help organize a community project. Armed only with supreme ignorance-and a certain boredom with the life he'd been leading-Randall set off. In spite of his anxieties, he found everyone on the islands delightfully friendly, unhurried and unworried. Randall quickly relaxed into "Solomon Time," i.e., manana, whenever. His attempts to call a meeting to discuss what sort of self-help enterprise the islanders would like were ignored, so he decided they'd raise chickens, since no one else seemed to have thought of it. A capital idea-except they needed starter chicks. Randall treats readers to a picaresque adventure through the Solomons in search of elusive chicken dealers. Eventually, Randall's village not only got their chickens, but were so successful they started a Chicken Willy fast food joint. After about a year, with terrible reluctance, Randall decided it was time to return to England and see what the rest of the world was doing. Randall's account is great fun, perfect for, as the dedication suggests, "anyone who thinks it might be time for a change." Map. Agent, Kate Hordern. (Mar.) FYI: The book was published in the U.K. last year by Abacus. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This humorous travelog recounts the story of a thirtysomething provincial school teacher from England who abandons his job in London for a sunny island in the South Pacific that can only be reached by canoe. His mission is to develop some means of sustainable business for the native people. Adapting quickly and easily to the slower pace of island life, Randall learns Pijin and settles into becoming part of the community. As he explores possible business enterprises, settling finally on a variety of chicken-related ventures, the reader is introduced to the strange and amusing people who inhabit the world of the Solomon Islands, or "Happy Islands," as they are known. Randall portrays an island life full of quirky new friends and foes, strange customs, and a set of priorities completely different from that of the "civilized" world. Along the way, he strands himself naked on a deserted island, keeps cattle interests from exploiting his new friends, and compares his experiences with authors Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Grimble. The narrative is witty and in no way demeans or patronizes the people and their culture. This debut will make a good addition to travel collections in all public libraries.-Sheila Kasperek, Mansfield Univ. Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An English schoolteacher describes his year in the Solomon Islands on a development project. After ten years of teaching French and German to unmotivated students in the West Country, Randall was handed an adventure. A man known as "the Commander" had died; the executors of his estate were looking for someone to travel to his former coconut and cocoa plantation on the Solomon Islands. It had fallen into disrepair, and Randall was hired to come up with a project that would provide income for the villagers to use on community improvements. When he arrives on Mendali, a fishing village reachable only by canoe, he is immediately exposed to "Solomon time . . . a fluid that cannot be contained, that has no master, that sloshes backward and forward and even from side to side . . . schedules and timetables become irrelevancies." What follows is that welcome rarity, a travelogue that does not mock or belittle the locals. Randall is painfully aware that his "mission" is paternalistic and that the Commander was a remnant of the Colonial past. No matter: he sets about learning how to speak Pijin ("Goodfella mornen long yu. Yu oraet?" means "Good morning. Are you well?"), how to paddle a canoe (with disastrous results), and how to fit into his new home. For the development project, Randall and the villagers decide to raise chickens. Several amusing episodes later, the residents open a fast-food stand in the local market and eventually an outlet in town ("Chicken Willy’s—Nambawan Nice One"). The resulting funds allow repairs to the church and the installation of a new rainwater tank, among other things. Along the way, the talented Randall writes compellingly of the landscape and the culture,throwing in excerpts from Robinson Crusoe and Robert Louis Stevenson’s In the South Seas. A wonderful story and a rare treat for the armchair traveler.

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Opening one eye, I snapped it closed hurriedly against the white glare of the sand. I tried again. A small hermit crab was making its way up the beach with deliberate determination. Stopping, it turned its two black-tipped antennae to glare at me disdainfully.

I managed to raise myself onto one elbow, leaning, to my surprise, on my inflated, yellow life jacket. With my free hand I brushed the grit from my eyes, cheeks, and forehead, out of my ears and nose, the fine grains stinging against my skin.

Gently lap-lapping, the water around my ankles was calm blue, the light breeze of an early morning just frosting its surface. The sun, casting shadows through the coconut leaves high above me, was already preparing for its daily offensive and, as a vanguard, a squadron of brightly colored parrots zoomed from its furnace center. They flew in small swoops directly overhead. Aiming with pinpoint accuracy, their leader released his payload. A direct hit, it landed with a wet splash on my salt-stiffened T-shirt. The bird flew off, waggling his wings. The rest followed, screeching their congratulations as they banked away toward the cover of the trees.

I discovered that my tongue had been mysteriously glued to the roof of my mouth. Squeezing my finger between cracked lips, I dislodged it, but when I did so thirst thundered through me. Every joint crackled as I heaved myself to a sitting position and unsuccessfully tried to run my fingers through my hair. It had set saltily solid. Parted just above the right ear, it stood out at an angle, a lopsided crest.

Staggering to my bare feet, and shading my eyes with both hands, I peered up and down the shoreline. White beach. More white beach. I looked up at the deep green, impenetrable jungle. It stared back implacably.

Trudging to the next point, I squinted further on round the island.

No leaf huts, no children throwing themselves into the water with great screeches of delight -- fortunately, because now my head was beginning to throb like a big bass drum -- no wisps of smoke from the kitchens signaling kettles and tea, no fishermen in wooden canoes waving their paddles in greeting. In fact, none of the familiar sights and sounds of the small village that I was, by now, so used to waking to. Nothing, just the quiet stillness, the untouched haphazardness of a desert island.

Along the length of the water's edge, shells, leaves, twigs had all been discarded by the risen tide as it slunk back out to rejoin its parent ocean. White-capped noddies, those beady, bargain-hunting birds, picked the tangled mass over, scavenging for any useful junk or tasty leftovers. Nowhere, though, among all this flotsam was there the cheering sight of a beached canoe or even a wet footprint in the sand. No, absolutely nothing, just miles of sand, acres of jungle, and several billion gallons of bloody sea.

My thirst, now fearsome, had me by the throat. Poking a coconut out from the fringes of the bush, I tried light-headedly, halfheartedly really, to break it apart on a washed-up giant clamshell. In frustration, I hurled it into the sea, where it bobbed and winked in a self-satisfied fashion. I turned in disgust and headed for the shade of some small sago palms.

No need to worry, said a small, slightly high-pitched voice in my head, someone is bound to turn up soon enough, you'll see.

Hang on a minute, interjected another, considerably deeper and gloomier voice, doesn't that leave just a few unanswered questions? You know, just for example...Where am I? How did I get here? And why is someone bound to turn up?

Try as I might, I could not piece together the events leading up to my mysterious presence here. I did, however, succeed in deducing, from various elementary clues, two near certainties. First, from the nature of the scenery, I was pretty sure that I was on one of the Solomon Islands. Which one of course was still open to debate -- with myself. Second, the tranquillity of the morning led me to conclude that I was now this particular island's only occupant.

Copyright © 2002 by Will Randall

Meet the Author

Will Randall is writing a new book about working in an Indian orphanage. He divides his time between London and Bombay.

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