Smoke spiraled out of a thatched, dirt-floor dwelling. A friendly Melanesian woman poked her head out of the kitchen and invited us in. The cooking pot boiled, steam pouring off. The palm-frond ceiling had been charred black by the stone fire pit. A chicken hungrily pecked at a piece of coconut meat.
Saeraghi Village, a traditional Solomon Islands village that mirrors the museum dioramas, contained 65 homes. In rural areas, where about 75 percent of the people dwell, the residences were made of Sago palm thatching. Most had separate kitchens. The abodes, some on stilts, had windows to take advantage of the sea breeze.
The villager stirred the pot as she talked in pidgin English. Spoken by about half the islanders, it's a simplified language that developed so two groups who didn't share a common language could communicate. She conversed in a rapid manner, stopping occasionally for us to respond. We listened to her, smiled and nodded, not understanding a word she said.
We enjoyed the opportunity to glimpse into the traditional life of Solomon Islanders, but we hadn't seen anything yet. We were about to embark on a journey to one of the eeriest places we'd ever seen, Skull Island.
Chief Eddie flashed a big grin as he waded out to the boat. A slight man, his dignity exceeded his physical stature. The Chieftain of Skull Island (Kundu Hite), he also served as caretaker. He hopped on board, and we were on our way to his peoples' ancient burial grounds.
After a short ride, the assistant head man jumped out of the small motorized boat and pulled it ashore. We followed his lead. On shore we felt a ghostly presence. We scrambled behind Chief Eddie, tripping over the black lava rock in our sandals, until we reached a clearing. A hut brimming with human skulls sat ominously on top of a black lava platform. Hundreds more littered the landscape.
Silence shrouded the island. Chief Eddie spoke, "These are my ancestors."
His aide pulled out a large triton shell. With a powerful breath he blew into a carved hole until a loud, deep sound resonated. "That is how we call our people," he said.
Chief Eddie explained how the Rovaina warriors of Kunda Hite rowed their war canoes to faraway islands to go on head-hunting raids. This went on for hundreds of years, he said.
We were told this practice had only recently come to an end. We were also advised that it was bad karma to pick up a skull or even be photographed with one.
Who were we to question the wisdom of the ancients? We stuck our hands in our pockets and returned to the boat, most likely two of the few ever to have escaped Skull Island.