Solomon Island – The Zela Nightmare

Prepare yourself for a long read.
As a disclaimer, this was the same company I booked Urilolo Lodge with - a place I loved and would recommend to anyone.

In the Solomon Islands, I have learnt to expect the unexpected. I’ve come to expect to pay a fee here or there for parking your boat or to visit an island. I’ve learnt that when you’ve been told they will pick you up at 9 am, they will be there at 10 am. Well, Zela Adventure did not fail to disappoint on the unexpected.

Here’s some background. Zela Adventure is on an island in the Roviana Lagoon. It was set up by a Spanish professor in 2007 –on the website it said it is a hub for conservation research. You were able to pay to learn about the conservation they are undertaking, learn how to basket weave by villagers or just enjoy your surroundings. The price for the 4 nights was expensive, but I thought it would be worth all the knowledge I would gain. I was booked for 4 nights, pre-paid and food/transfers on top of that price. After staying in Munda town, I was excited to get away to an island, enjoy the peaceful nights and relax in my own bungalow.

I was told I would be picked up at 10 am, 10 am came and went, I wasn’t too worried – “Solomon Time”. 11 am came and went. Just after 11 am, a boat pulled up to the jetty, these 2 guys got off and said they were there to take me to Zela, but first they needed to go to the bank and market. I waited, 11:30 am came and went. Finally, they arrived, and we left for Zela at around 11:50 am. After a quick stop for petrol and a stop at a relative’s house to hide from the rain. It was another 30-minute journey to the lodge, on the way the host told me that they were starting maintenance on the bungalows at the end of this month. This got me worried – what condition would these bungalows be in?

After a very wet journey, I arrived at a jetty which was falling apart, the steps were falling apart, the house had half a roof and the floor was a state. Rubbish filled the house, piles of wood and the roof had huge holes in it. At this point, I can say I started to panic slightly – if this was there welcome what could I expect the bungalows to be like. I took the very steep stepped pathway up the hillside, and I could see the bungalows come into view. I thought I would be shown straight to my room, I was soaking wet from the boat ride and wanted to change my clothes. Instead, I was told to carry on walking and ended on the porch of a large wooden bungalow. I put my things down and stood for a moment. Was I going to be shown to my bungalow?

A few moments had passed when I asked where I would be staying, they all said “here, we shall show you”. I was shown to a room in the main house, up a steep set of stairs – no privacy, no door. I asked, and you stay here too? Which they replied, “of course”. A quick assessment of the room was okay, a double mattress on the floor, 2 windows and industrial looking storage boxes – not too bad. I came back down and asked to use the bathroom. I was shown to the shared facilities and was politely told that there is no running water, they used buckets instead.

At this point, a few people may say that I sound ungrateful and that these facilities should not just be expected in the Solomon Islands. But when you pay for something – you expect that – or at least be told the change in the situation prior to your arrival. I had paid a considerable amount of money to be immersed in the marine conservation culture in this part of Solomon.

I was offered tea and sat down with my host, I spoke about my work and said they said was more than welcome to go to the villages to ask them about my research. There was hope, and I was looking forward to this. It was 13:30 pm at this point, I was hungry but did not want to question by hosts about food. I decided on a tour of the bungalows I had previously seen.

The bungalows looked like they had not been stayed in for many years. The floors were rotten, the roofs were practically non-existent, and most were filled with rubbish. The wooden lodge itself was full of wine bottles that were placed in holes in the walls, a room off the kitchen seemed to be full of rubbish too, a few posters on the wall and not much room to stand on the floor. I was very aware that my hosts had seen me investigating the bungalows. I felt very awkward being in the house especially in the presence of the male host. Due to the constant rain, I couldn’t venture off into the lagoon and swim away from my anger, anxiety and annoyance.

The annoyance wasn’t so much the bedroom I was in or the shared facilities. It was the deceit that I felt. I had paid for a private bungalow only in January – these bungalows were clearly not fit for the purpose long before that. So why had I been accepted, why had I been allowed to pay for this experience, why wasn’t I told there was “maintenance”, it might have made me reconsider. There was also no sign of any conservation being undertaken. From the website, it was implied that research was continuously being undertaken and you could if you chose to help with this. The only sign of anything that remotely looked like research had once been undertaken, were 4 maps of the lagoon on the wall.

I ventured back to my room, feeling isolated, alone and unsure about what to do. My phone had run out of data and I needed to top-up it up – that could only be done at another village. I was eager to speak to the company I had booked this through and ask what was going on and whether they had any clue. I had a lot of community with the company owners, so I was sure that they would not have sent me here if they knew the situation.

A quick head through the floor told me that my lunch was severed; a coconut, rice, bananas and tuna with vegetables. The spread of food was delicious, and I was really appreciative of the effort that went into making my lunch. At lunch, I felt more alone than ever, I had 4 nights here. I had come to the decision to stay for dinner and breakfast. I would then venture to the villages for research, stay another night and then head back to Munda 2 days early. At this point, I felt that I couldn’t stay here 4 nights.

I whiled away the hours, reading a book I had found, along with writing up some data from articles I downloaded before I came away. I only wished I thought to include a memory stick full of DVDs in my luggage too. I know it is bad to wish away your life, but that day I had just been waiting for the night to come, to start a new day.

After a very large and delicious dinner – they cooked a whole fish for me – including the insides! I sat and read, I was later asked what my plans were for tomorrow. I asked how much it would be to take a boat to see the villages, the wife’s host threw the price list in my face and walked off. By this point, every little thing has started to get to me and this was the point I decided I would leave the next day.

I had made it to 8 pm, my bedroom was pitch black and I thought this would a great time to go to bed. As I was head upstairs, my hosts told me they were heading out to a village and that I would be alone, “but don’t worry, our dog will attack anyone who tries to break in”. Great.

Once they had left, I relaxed a bit more and sat and read until 10 pm. At this point, my many, many messages to my boyfriend and family were sending. In a frenzy of texts, they all told me to leave ASAP. I read most of the night by torchlight, too worried about being left in an unfamiliar place by myself, with no way of contacting the hosts. It got to 1 am and I still had not slept, should I sleep, or should I just stay awake? I decided to sleep – but with my laptop for light. The first time in my adult life, I’ve needed to use a nightlight.

A restless night followed and at 6:45 am I woke to the sun in my room. No signs of my hosts. Maybe I’ve been abandoned! Alas, at 7:30 am my hosts appear to start their day.

I ate breakfast and then heading onto the patio to talk to my hosts. I said that I wanted to go back to Munda. They were all very cross and angry, demanding to know why I wasn’t happy with this place. I explained that the facilities and conditions were not as I expected, and I was not experiencing what I had paid for. I said that the food was lovely, and I really appreciated the time and effort they had put into making these spreads. I was demanded to get my confirmation letter – I was never sure why. They tried to get me to pay more money for petrol which I refused. I was eventually told “fine you can leave” as if I wasn’t being allowed to before. I got my things and was on the boat within 5 minutes.

Thankfully, I got in touch with the company I booked it through and was so pleased to hear that I would indeed get a full refund. After finding a clean, cheap lodge for the remaining 3 nights, my time at Zela was over.