Nothing I read about the tiny island nation of Nauru is promising and my expectations are low, even though it was once called Pleasant Island. Alexander Downer (Australian foreign minister) is said to have rated it the most unpleasant country he had visited and I’m told ‘it’s only visited by the very curious’. Nauru was originally settled by people from Micronesia around 1000 BC, It became a German colony in the late nineteenth century. After World War I, it was handed over to Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and gained its independence in 1968,
This is the third smallest country in the world - at 10,000 people (not counting refugees). Nauru is 13 square miles in size and sits just below the Equator It was once the richest country on earth, on a per-capita basis. It made its money from phosphate mining and then it tried its luck as a tax haven. Now, it’s really struggling. The guano has gone and it appears that very few people used their largess wisely. Maybe those who did have left too.
So far, even my low expectations so far have been horribly exceeded, in the wrong direction. The plane from Honiara arrives on time at 4.15 in the morning (I’m going forward an hour again), but there is no-one to meet me. I’m thrilled to arrive in the pitch black, in a strange country, with no discernible means of transport. Eventually, some of the airport staff phone the hotel and after more impatient waiting a car turns up to get me. The lady driver explains that she has already picked up one lot of guests. It seems they forgot about me.
Arrival at the hotel is no more reassuring. How am I going to pay my bill? I'm asked. But it’s already paid I expostulate. The receptionists don’t seem convinced and tell me I can show my voucher and try to persuade whoever checks me out. This is the second choice hotel, government owned. First impressions are that it is overdue refurbishment by about 50 years. Faded, rust streaks and chips and peeling paint. Decrepit sums it up nicely.
At least I can have a long sleep I think, falling into bed at 6 a.m. but no, aforementioned refurbishment has just commenced, in the room next door. A jack hammer is labouring away and splintered wood panels, concrete blocks, cables and cement are all piled up on the landing. I crawl out and protest to the receptionist. She insists the hotel is full and I can’t move. I’m really sceptical. Maybe it’s full of maintenance men. They call off the jackhammer, but the courtyard below is crammed full of men sanding wood (planes screaming), dismantling fridges and air con units (with hammers) and maintaining cars. There are three with open bonnets and it looks for all the world like a scrap metal yard.
I’ve probably been allocated the worst room, well away from the sea, with a balcony that looks onto several air conditioning units and a bit of tin roof. I have a teddy bear blanket on my bed and one huge woollen curtain. The bathroom stinks, the silver on the mirror is spattered with what looks like blood at first glance and the cold tap is cleverly designed to dowse me with water when I turn it on. The step access is also cunning – it ensures that I both fall out and fall in.
I give up and go for a walk outside. It’s incredibly humid, the ocean is grey and wild and the swarms of crabs here are very fast moving, with long thin legs like small HG Wells aliens. There are some remarkable limestone formations further up the muddy beach. But I also spy some dogs lurking and I’ve read about the fierce feral dogs in Nauru.
Headed back to the hotel, I see a swimming pool that is empty of water, the tumble down remains of a bar alongside. There is washing hanging from most of the balconies. There are even children playing games in the corridors. The restaurant is closed and the laconic woman in the shop sells me a bottle of water (there’s no coke – what sort of country is this?) and some chocolate drops, when she can spare the time from her book. That’s breakfast and probably lunch too.
Reception have noted that I’m up and about and want to start the jack hammer again. I had planned my island tour for tomorrow- ‘after I was rested…’ but decide that it is probably better to do it today, as the maintenance men have the weekend off. A driver is summoned.
Driver/guide Shane (pronounced Shaunie) takes one hour to circumnavigate this speck of an island, driving at 30 kmph, and another hour to drive ‘across Topsite’ extremely slowly. We crawl up some precipitous boulder strewn paths that are only just passable in the 4WD. Essentially, the island is one huge open cast mine. The phosphate comes from the frigate bird guano. The rich deposits near the surface, allowed easy strip mining operations for over a century, though at the cost of seriously harming the island's environment, The phosphate was exhausted in the 1990s, and the remaining reserves are not economically viable for extraction. It has left the countryside strewn with, in stretches, striking pinnacles.
There are rusting Japanese guns perched aloft one peak. There’s a lot of rust around full stop. Collapsing cantilever bridges and conveyors jut out of the water (they couldn’t afford the maintenance) and abandoned diggers and CATs sit on the mine workings (they can’t afford the spare parts). Cars and other smaller metal machinery and white goods that no longer function are dumped aloft alongside the road. Shane calls it ‘the mental dump’ – I don’t think he’s being ironic. (That’s an excellent unintentional pun.)
The refugee camps introduced by the Australian government as a holding centre and supposed additional source of revenue are up top too. They have different degrees of security. Some refugees are allowed to take jobs in town, which must put pressure on an already very precarious employment situation. There are 11,000 locals and 9,000 detainees. Shane says, laughing, that the refugees will try and take over the island when there are equal numbers. He says they won’t succeed as they can’t speak English. I don’t entirely follow his logic, but he seems happy enough with the situation and reports that even the people categorised as high security seem friendly to him. He explains that the ex-pats discourage fraternisation though – he has worked in the camps. And as a fisherman, and in the mines.
Shane tells me that the hotel is full of expat workers, whites and Fijians, who work as doctors and teachers in the refugee camps. There’s about one tourist comes to visit Nauru each month. ‘You’re August’, Shane says.
Shane's phone rings; his boss, the concierge who picked me up at the airport - eventually- is ringing at two pm to tell him that there is a guest who wants a tour (me) and that she, herself, has just got up. Well I’m glad she, at least, got some sleep.
There isn’t a capital town in Nauru. The government administrative buildings, parliament building and the president’s house line the runway of the airport in Yaren District. There’s one supermarket, one post office, a minuscule harbour and the odd Chinese store or restaurant. There’s a new prison, surrounded by barbed wire. There are no inmates yet. Shane says that locals don’t steal from each other, but they do steal from the Chinese.
As with Topsite, there are odd moments when things look almost scenic. There's a lake, lined with car tyres. The pinnacles on the beaches draw the eye. One section of beach would be lovely, if it was cleaned up. Shane says I shouldn’t swim in most places, there are dangerous currents. So much for snorkelling. I check with him about the dogs, thinking I might go for a walk instead. ‘You’ll be okay if you take a stick’ he encourages. ‘Wave it about so they can see you have a weapon’. It’s now three o’clock on Day 1 and I’ve used up all the island’s attractions. I do have a mobile signal (at £1.65 a minute), but no Wi-Fi, so I shall just have sit this out till Sunday lunchtime – two and a half days. The drill is still whining incessantly next door.
At five I go back down to reception who promise me that the workers will wrap up for the weekend very soon. I discover that the restaurant opens at five (Chinese of course) so I decide to eat early, as I haven’t had lunch (I’m the only person in the restaurant). Then there will be peace and I can go to bed really early. Except that it’s Friday night, and as the maintenance men depart the guys downstairs are setting up huge outdoor speakers for karaoke at the Reef Bar on the terrace. This, unfortunately is still in operation. There’s a board outside advertising cocktails, which means that the hotel is potentially picking up service wise, but I’m too tired to care.
The restaurant is packed at 10 a.m. with people wolfing down egg and bacon. I can’t face a fry up (or chocolate drops) after last night’s huge portion of battered sweet and sour. I’ve still got half of it in my fridge. (The population has also earned the accolade of fattest people in the world.) The waitress says she will microwave it for my lunch. The lady in the shop is quite friendly today, whilst still taking lassitude to the ultimate degree. ‘How ya likin’ Nauru?’ smirk, smirk. The shops are mostly stocked with canned goods, fish and spam, and biscuits. Today, I select a can of lychees for my breakfast and ask my waitress to open it for me. She, at least, smiles.
I’ve tried reading on the wooden benches by the ocean, but they are too hard to endure for long and the flies won’t leave me alone. There’s also no shade, but there is a pervading whiff of hydrogen sulphide. Back to the teddy bears. I’m still trying to catch up on sleep, but there are children shrieking outside. That’s followed by the whirr of drills, even though I was assured there would be no work today. I trot down to reception and the manager sends the builders home again. I don’t feel guilty, especially as karaoke commences at 5 o’clock today.
As there's no sleep to be had I decide I will go and see the fun for myself. I’ve only been downstairs for five minutes when somehow I find myself in a bus full of Indian Bollywood dancers on their way to a performance in the the outdoor Centennial Hall. The largest democracy in the world is performing for the smallest democracy. It’s part of a programme set up to celebrate Nauru’s fiftieth year of independence. It will culminate in 'The Big One’ in January 2018, the tourism officer tells me. A tourism officer? Here?
‘So what have I missed?’
‘Have you done the tour of the island?’
‘Well that’s it then. Nothing else. ‘
‘Well, you could try some activities, go fishing, or learn to catch birds with nets, in the dark.’
Back to the concert, which is scheduled to start at seven, but the hall is totally empty at this point. I seem to have been co-opted as second official photographer, which is fine as I can take pictures of the dancers and musicians in all their gorgeous silk finery and then snap all the local bigwigs, mainly M.P.s and high commissioners of this and that, with impunity as they arrive.
The show doesn’t actually start till eight, when the hall is bursting at the seams and then there’s a hiccough as the acting president sidles in and it all has to start again. At least, the speeches begin. These are interminable and mostly utterly incomprehensible. I think it’s all in English, but I can’t tell because everything that’s said is mumbled and consists almost entirely of thanks to people with names the speakers can’t pronounce. The dancing finally begins at 8.30. I’m told this is normal, ‘everything operates on island time.’
On returning to the hotel I find the reception staff have set me up a bed in ‘a quieter area’, on the top floor, so I can sleep better. This is an apartment with institution pink doors and hospital green tiles. The bathroom features the same spattered mirror and water deflecting sink. There’s no furniture, except for the bed, and unfortunately, the noise is just as loud.
I have to check in three hours before departure back to Nadi and on to Tuvalu. There’s a corner café, where I go in search of late breakfast. But it’s no more appetising than anywhere else on the island, reeking of grease. There are a couple of massage chairs in one corner but the staff are sitting in them. I don’t fancy my chances with the sad looking sandwiches in the cabinet, even if I can get the staff’s attention, so decide I will wait for the airline offering. Nauru Airlines have three (or is it two?) planes and their motto (sorry strap line) is More Service, More Food, More Smiles. I remember the mammoth feast on the journey from Majuro. (I slept through the one served on the way here). I’m quite looking forward to the doughnut.
I’m not sorry at all to leave this all-pervading aura of post-industrial ennui. Perhaps this will cure me of being very curious.
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