No, that’s not a spelling error, its a play on words.
Kustom means something very different when you are sailing in the Solomon Islands.
Kustom is ‘paying’ your respects/money/gratitude to the local village that ‘own’ the land AND the sea and everything in between.
You need to obtain permission to anchor, swim, snorkel, dive even fish.
The complicating matter is that the whole system is very vague.
Case in point:
We anchor off a small island that is uninhabited, about 1 km off the mainland. According to the guide, there was a resort here but it was closed down during the ‘tensions’ (read civil war that raged for about 10 years). About 1 hour after we had anchored a group of canoes comes paddling out (through rough waters). This group consists of all children.
Canoe #1 - 2 x 8 year old girls looking to trade drinking coconuts or chillies
Canoe # 2 - 2 x 13 year old girls just looking to say hello
Canoe # 3 - 2 x 10 year old boys with drinking coconuts to trade Canoes #4 and 5 are just visiting and have nothing to trade.
General advice we have received is to trade with the first canoes that arrive, ask if it is ok to anchor and be polite and friendly.
We do so…. buying chilies for $15 SID ($3 AUD) and giving coconut cookies to all the canoes. We then trade a t shirt for 2 drinking coconuts and when asked they say it is ok for us to anchor here.
The canoes all then sort of leave and head over to the island that we are anchored at, shortly after they come back looking for more trading, but we firmly say that we don’t need anything else. We then go inside to conclude the dealings but the kids loiter, start banging into the boat with their canoes and all round start being annoying. After 1 hour of this behaviour we go back out and tell them to leave. At this point they start demanding money (under the guise that the chief has told them to) to allow us to anchor, we reply that we have traded, given cookies and t shirts and don’t have anything else to give.
They leave eventually but we are concerned that others will come over at night and either hassle us or steal from us (quite common here). All in all we are left with a bad taste and ill feeling. We hoist anchor at 6am and depart after a sleepless night.
Moving on requires a lot of research and our guide and info from other cruisers reports a lot of hassling out of boats by locals and aggressive behaviour in many potential anchorages!
Now, we understand that we look conspicuously wealthy cruising in on our big white boat. However, we have come with a lot of items to donate and skills to assist. We just don’t want to do it when we are dealt with aggressively.
In our first anchorage for example, the locals were lovely to deal with and we spent an entire day fixing their water tank and hosing and connections to allow them to wash out their piggery. We donate a soccer ball, kids clothing, rice and tuna. We also donated items to the piggery project valued well over $200 and a day of our time. From our perspective it was great to interact and give back to a welcoming community.
Our most recent anchorage at Mbilli Pass was also a reasonably good interaction. Canoes did indeed visit, but were happy to chat and then trade for carvings. We also enquired about the local schools (there are 2) and we planned visits to them. Jimmy, the first man that visited was very happy to allow us to anchor and happily took our ‘gift’ in to the local chief - a bag of rice and 2 tins of tuna.
Our visit to the 2 schools allowed us to gift pencils and paper and meet students who asked us questions and sang us a song. We also visited the village one afternoon to donate a volleyball and play with the local kids.
Our final trade for 2 wooden head carvings involved the following convoluted payments scheme:
1 solar system with panel and 3 lights
1 queen size sheet
2 sets of fins
2 sheets of sandpaper
3 carving tools
1 bag of rice
1 tin of tuna
$300 SID ($75 AUD)
All parties were happy with the arrangement and it came with 30 minutes of installation of the solar at the happy carvers house.
The difficulties as we see it is the uncertainty of the whole transaction. Which village do you go to? There are so many close to each anchorage. How much should you gift to each chief as a thank you? Is it 1 or 2 bags of rice? Should it be a t shirt as well, maybe a hammer, some kids clothes? Will this village want cash as well? Will we be greeted with aggression and demands or simply a village wanting reasonable restitution for allowing us to enjoy their home. As I try to think of it we are camping in someones front yard, we need to be sensitive to that.
We are learning as we go, but the uncertainty continues….