It’s a bumpy journey from Majuro to Kiribati; there’s a lot of cloud up here today. Nauru Airlines obviously want to keep me occupied. They’ve given me a bag of corn chips, (cheese flavoured), a Choco Mucho bar, a jammy iced doughnut and a little tub of melon. The journey only lasts an hour. I won’t tell you which bits I’m eating.
I’m sitting next to a lady from Kiribati (say it Kiribas) who lives in the States, but is going back to see her family. She thinks I should stay for two weeks, not four nights. I’m not telling her that the guide books say there is little to do and I’m only staying for four nights because there isn’t another plane till then. She also wants to know how old I am. She says that age is venerated here, not like America. Good.
Immigration is very quick and I’m met by an untidy woman holding up a piece of torn corrugated card, with my name scrawled on it. She seems agitated and explains that ‘her old man’ has disappeared. He needs a lift back, as he hasn’t any money. She is driving up and down the lagoon causeway, trying to spot him. I don’t mind. I’ve already decided that Kiribati is surprisingly gorgeous and I’m happy to take photos of the lines of mangroves planted to prevent coastal erosion and looking stunning against the turquoise of the lagoon.
‘What does he look like?’
The husband is eventually located on the third pass of the airport car park. I think he probably looks younger than me. Gap toothed, grizzled and unkempt with a warm smile. ‘You look smart’ he says. Well I probably do, by comparison, in my tee shirt and just above the knee pink skirt. He’s wearing a tatty lava lava sarong.
This Polynesian archipelago of 32 atolls and one remote raised coral island straddles both the Equator and the 180th meridian, although the International Date Line goes around Kiribati and swings far to the east, almost reaching the 150° W meridian. It was moved at Kiribati's' request, so that it could be the first country to greet the new millennium. (This places Kiribati's easternmost islands, the southern Line Islands, in the most advanced time zone on Earth: GMT+14.) It’s so spread out and international travel so difficult that you have to go via Fiji, to travel the 200 miles from Tarawa to the Line Islands, including Christmas Island (Kirimati).
Kiribati was once known as the Gilbert Islands, conjoined as a British Colony with the Gilbert Islands. Following a referendum in 1974 the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were officially separated, into two separate British colonies, Kiribati and Tuvalu. In 1979, Kiribati became fully independent as a sovereign state
Kiribati gained its independence from the United Kingdom, becoming a sovereign state in 1979.. Prior to its independence, like Nauru, the country had exported phosphate; however, those mines are no longer viable. Fishing and coconuts are the mainstay of the economy now, leaving Kiribati one of the least developed countries in the world.
Tarawa, in Kiribati, is a string of islands on the east edge of a huge shimmering lagoon. Some of the islands are strips and some of them a little wider. I’m heading to South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. Most of the raised thatched hut dwellings, like the people, (referred to as the I-kiribati) are unkempt, if not plain scruffy. There are burnt out cars and pick-ups on their sides at the verges of the road.
I’ve already been warned not to expect too much of my accommodation, but even my very low expectations are dashed. It's basic, basic. The toilet hasn’t seen bleach for a very long time and the formica on the door is peeling off. No hot water - faint hope. There is air conditioning, but the power isn't on. I can see the lagoon, ‘Don’t swim in this, it’s polluted’ , through the trees and barbed wire in front of my balcony.
I’m resigning myself to my fate, when the local tour operator arrives. He is concerned that I have insisted on staying in this hotel, which is the worst in town and dangerous to boot. There’s a nightclub, and loud music till four every morning and it is thought to run as a brothel to boot. Insist? News to me. And there are better places in town? Amazing.
So here I am in an idyllic (if basic) overwater bungalow (known as a kiakia), now at the north end of Tarawa, which is where the old style village life is and the coral beaches and the, so I’m told, unpolluted lagoon. I’m not entirely convinced, as there are still bits of paper and tin cans floating around, but the breeze flows balmily through my little hut and it’s wonderfully tranquil. I’m on a tiny island off the main island (which isn’t so huge) and I have had to wade across a channel to get here. At least I wasn’t the one carrying my suitcase. There’s no phone signal and no Wi-Fi. This really does feel like the edge of the world.
I feel a little guilty about my original hotel owners. They were so pleased to see me. Apparently, they were going all round town celebrating, telling everyone, ’We’ve got a guest. We’ve got a guest’. We sneaked in, to get my case.
I have dedicated today to rest, which is just as well, as there is torrential rain at times. In between showers, the local fauna as usual, seek me out. Dragonflies hover outside the window, eagerly watched from the walkway by terns, who bob along the pale green water and then swoop in to take them unawares. There are some very odd crab like creatures down below. Their claws look to be an integral part of their carapace, which in turn, seems to have separate legs supporting the whole thing, like a table. I shall have to look them up. Meanwhile, the walkway itself is alive with hermit crabs dragging marble like shells. Two of them are having a spat outside the door. Heaven knows why they’ve crawled all the way up here.
Breakfast is enough for six and incudes a heap of fluffy delicious pancakes and some fruit. I’ve taken an orange back to my bungalow and it’s being shared by a microscopic lizard who is exceptionally well camouflaged by the pandanus matting... and I thought lizards only ate flies. His tiny pink tongue flicks over the remains for at least an hour.
There’s a primary school compound next door. I can hear the bell pealing regularly, so I amble in there to have a look. The buildings are neat huts, surrounded by pretty flowerbeds and there aren’t any seats, just heaps of brown matting and some tyres. There’s the usual blackboard and some posters, and they do seem to have pencils and paper. The headteacher is hot and harassed.
The children are happy to show me round and to pose for pictures, shoving each other to get into the shots. Most of them are barefoot, as are some of the adults. The school caretaker introduces me to his ‘sweetie’, who is the cook. The headteacher tells me that this is the next session of the day, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of teaching going on. Most of the children are frolicking happily outside. The boys have discarded their red and white uniforms and are playing football in their underwear.
Back at the ranch I’m snoozing most of the day. I have a lot of jet lag to catch up on and some reading. Last week’s tenant has left their paperwork stuck under the eaves. It was a retreat and meditation on the treatment of STI. When it comes to food there are two items on the restaurant menu - fish or chicken. Last night I had the fish, so I order chicken for lunch. It turns up so late that I decide it will serve as dinner instead. Next, a rat arrives, scampering into the roof of my room, a large well-fed tabby cat in hot pursuit. He makes a circuit of the rafters and they disappear off down the walkway again. A version of Tom and Jerry, but not one I wish to replay – I’m hoping that’s the last I’ve seen of rats.
I’m learning patience as I visit Kiribati. Breakfast doesn’t arrive till 9.30 and I’m told that my requested boat trip will be leaving shortly. That’s another hour and a half, while they find fuel. Much of the food and other consumer items have to be imported. The locals try to keep their fuel tanks topped up, in case the ships are delayed.
It’s a very gentle potter round a whole series of small islands, on the edge of the lagoon. They are linked by broken bridges over mangrove lined channels. The beaches are white, backed by the ubiquitous palms and the water is crystal clear and enticingly warm. The jade of the lagoon stretches away into the distance.
Blissful yes, but not entirely designed for home comforts. The bathroom is a long way from my overwater home and the walkway is precarious at night, when I can’t see the gaps in the planking. There are rather too many mosquitoes and nothing is hugely tidy. Most of the people here have never travelled beyond their local islands. They don’t see many Caucasians and have little concept of western civilisation, let alone tourism. Perhaps that’s a good thing? Anyway, I’m going back to the mainland, in search of air con and hot water for my last two nights.
The capital, South Tarawa, the most populated area of Kiribati, consists of a number of islets, connected by a series of causeways. These comprise about half the area of Tarawa atoll. It feels like an urban jungle after my recent retreat. I’m woken at 6.30 by the church bell clanging today. The road is busy, lined with buildings and crammed with children wearing a variety of school uniforms. The smartest schools are run by the Mormons. You get a free education if you convert. And I’m sitting in a café drinking lemon and ginger tea. The lagoon (polluted bit, complete with wreck) is behind me. Today, I ask a lady tour guide from the café to take me on a Visit Kiribati Tour to the south end of Tarawa. I call her tour guide with reservation. There were 400 tourists last year and that was a bumper year.
It’s an interesting drive along the strip road, along causeways and past endless beaches. There are a multitude of churches, a parliament building and various government enterprises and projects. Many of these are sponsored by Taiwan, on condition that Taipei was recognised, much to the chagrin of Beijing.
It's one of the lowest lying countries in the world, vulnerable to climate change and the natural disasters. A sports stadium is the high point in the event of a tsunami. The highest altitude here is 81 metres. My guide tells me that they had a warning a couple of years ago and everyone scrambled up the tallest buildings, but nothing happened. So next time there was a warning sounded nobody took any notice.
There’s some Japanese guns and defences left from World War II. Apparently, this was the scene of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific. Right at the southern end of the islands is a colourful little port with fish stalls and the country’s one coastal defence vessel.
It’s been a lovely scenic day and everywhere the people so overwhelmingly friendly, good natured and smiling for photographs. Kiribati has been done a disservice. It’s definitely worth a visit. It may well be one of the highlights of my trip. And if it was cleaned up, it could be amazing.
I eat dinner with two Aussies, Paul and Ben, who seem to have entrepreneurial fingers in many pies, one of which is developing schools here. They opened a new school yesterday and Paul takes me to see it. It’s a pleasing, well-designed and relatively well equipped building, much better than many I’ve seen in developing countries. Some of the teachers are still working at 6.30 in the evening. Garrulous Ben’s now off to Japan, Laos and Myanmar. Professor Paul’s got another project going on in Vanuatu. Interesting guys. It’s a mainly Chinese menu, like all the other places I’ve eaten here. This signals fish or meat and lashings of soy sauce. The restaurant is nicely situated next to the water. None of the eating places offer alcohol other than canned beer. Paul’s managed to track down some Smirnoff and bitter lemon for later.
I’m running out of superlatives to describe increasingly awful airport experiences. Today, the baggage tags are all written out by hand and attached with string, so the queue is even slower than snails’ pace. Thank God the boarding passes seem to have been sent from Fiji already. And when I do finally think I’ve only got one person in front of me his family of thirteen arrives. They take half an hour to process. The airport is tiny, with a few ineffective wall fans. The outside cooler areas are bedlam. The concrete benches are filled with excited locals waiting for relatives coming in on the plane. One gnarled little man presides over it all with a transistor radio at full blast. Wallis and Futuna next.
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