Christmas Island, aka Kiritimati (November 29/30 – December 30, 2005)

The Anchorage

For the first two days after anchoring we were stuck onboard Freya, having arrived on the busiest day of the year: our competition for Customs and Immigration services included a cruise ship, a fishing vessel, and the weekly plane from Honolulu. The next day three more fishing vessels appeared. No doubt they bring in more money or more bribes than us so were seen first. We were a little annoyed by the second day, but you can't really do anything about it: we got Freya cleaned up, and ate the cookies we'd made for the officials. By the time we were cleared, it was too late to get to the Internet, leaving me fretting about people worrying about us for longer than necessary. I was grateful when our boat neighbour, Chuck on Fanning Island Trader, let us announce our safe arrival via radio email. While waiting we at least had nice scenery of lovely clear water, a long sandy beach fringed with coconut trees, and the elegant schooner Astor.

Once allowed off the boat we visited Chuck, a Kiribati citizen who left the states almost 30 years ago, perhaps searching for the perfect wave. He's married to a local woman, Temoaiti, and they along with two of her sisters, Bintonga and Karibwatau, and 3 year old Aaba, son of yet another sister, live on Chuck's big boat. Adoption on the islands is very different than at home and lacks the formal proceedings. It is not uncommon for a child to be moved between family members. Apparently, when Fanning Island Trader was last at Tabuaeran (Fanning Island), Temoaiti and her sisters decided to adopt Aaba but did not tell Chuck. He first learned of the new addition to his family when they were about 6 hours out, en-route to Kiritimati Island. Chuck does some charter-sailing and cargo-running between here and Fanning Is. (160 miles NNW of Kiritimati). Over the weeks, we would learn much about life in Kiribati and enjoy many bowls of Chuck's spicy popcorn while hanging out in his large cockpit. (This popcorn is topped with Tabasco sauce, artificial sweetener, garlic-salt, and lemon-pepper.) His family tended to hide away, and I saw it as an interesting challenge to try and interact with them. I had limited success except for cute little Aaba, with whom we soon had many fun games of beeping noses and tickling toes. Bjarne did spend an afternoon with Temoaiti and Bintonga, teaching them how to make roti, at Chuck's request. He had enjoyed our roti contribution to a meal, happy to have a change from the rice that the islanders never seem to tire of. However, since Temoaiti seemed less than impressed with the time needed to make these things, we think there is still much rice in Chuck's gastronomic future.

Astor was on its way to Hawai'i within a few days of our arrival, but before leaving they hosted a dinner, one week late, to celebrate American Thanksgiving. We joined Richard, Lanny, and their three crew members for a delightful evening. We're very patriotic Canadians but are happy to help our southern neighbours in their celebrations, especially if it involves pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. When they left, one of their crew stayed behind to catch a flight back to Australia. Paul had to wait a few days for the next plane so joined us on Freya one evening, where we discussed various nautical things including the merits of rum mixed with powdered juice.

The anchorage is an open roadstead near a long pier built by the Japanese as a gift to the Kiribati people; the Japanese do a lot of fishing in Kiribati waters and their ships were a significant presence during our first 3 weeks at Kiritimati. A few citizens mentioned to us their concerns about overfishing by these vessels, and we were told that the officials who are to ensure this doesn't happen were well plied with alcohol and free fish. The open anchorage left us exposed to changing conditions, so at times was more rolly than we would like, but at least the wind always blew offshore. We had a few days of quite impressive swell, originating from thousands of miles away and bringing large surf into shore; powerful spray flew through the air, following the shoreline like enthusiastic sports fans doing the wave. Despite the entertainment value, there was some nervousness as Bjarne, who has a great imagination for what can go wrong, envisioned swell breaking under Freya and surfing us onto the reef that lies hidden off the beach. More anchor chain to put the boat in deeper water together with a stern anchor allowed Bjarne to go ashore, worrying only a bit more than usual that Freya wouldn't stay where we left her. Mounting the steps up to the pier was more challenging during this time: the water level changed as much as 9 feet within about 10 seconds so we had to time our exit from the dinghy carefully. Nothing untoward happened during these awkward forays except for dropping the computer into the water one day. Yikes! Thank goodness for dry-bags and air. It floated and was retrieved intact. Phew. The swell eased after a few days and gradually our clear water returned.

We were quite amazed at the weather, which wasn't nearly as hot as we expected. After Samoa, where we were sweating buckets, we were sure we would be wilting here at 2 degrees of latitude above the equator. The pretty much constant easterly wind provided a nice breeze for sleeping, and some upwelling of current meant the ocean temperature was only about 26 degrees Celsius. It can get hot walking around on land in the sun, and the dusty air parches the throat, but back on the boat or on the windward side of the island it was surprisingly comfortable.

On Land

Kiritimati, which became part of Kiribati in 1979, has a rapidly growing population of about 7000 people, many of whom have moved here from the overcrowded capital, Tarawa. Kiritimati lacks the impressive hills of the Marquesas, the lush greens of Samoa, and the brilliant colours of Fiji, but has more space and, despite the poor soil, more food than Tarawa. Much of the food, however, is imported: corned-beef and rice being high on the list of popular foods. Real rain happens about once/year, slightly more often in El Nino years, although we were teased with smatterings of ineffective showers. When this island was discovered it was quite barren of edible plants, and Captain Cook had nothing much good to say about this then-uninhabited atoll. Since then, many coconut trees have been planted, along with a few papayas, and breadfruit, but the plants have a hard time of it. Even the tough coconut trees are shorter here and sometimes produce nuts that are mere hollow husks. At some homes one can see where the inhabitants have obviously worked hard at developing gardens, and there are papaya trees, shrubs, and lovely pockets of bright flowers. Locally obtained food consists mainly of fish, coconuts, and coconut toddy, which is coconut tree sap. One often sees plastic bottles hanging high in the trees to collect this apparently nutritious drink, which can also be boiled down into a tasty syrup, or fermented to create the alcoholic sour toddy.

We wondered about drinking water, given the limited rain, and learned that there is a large supply of ground water which is pumped out for the islanders by windmills. However, the water is contaminated by the lack of human-waste management and so is unsafe, especially for foreigners, to drink. This may explain the popularity of Victoria Lager. We used the well water for things like laundry, and the harder-to-obtain rain water for consumption. Bjarne wondered if the groundwater supply will be able to keep up with the growing population.

Now here are some aspects of Pacific Island culture that make little sense to Western thinking: we'll use the chicken and eggs situation as an example. As in many other islands, despite numerous chickens running around loose, eggs are either unavailable or imported. One reason is that islanders tend not to plan for the future. If there's food today they'll eat it, if not they'll go fishing. As a backup plan, they count on their extended family to feed them. Farming takes longer for results and so is seen less often. The lack of eggs also reflects the way in which everyone is kept equal - via a custom where one does not deny requests from relatives. If a person was to build a coop and harvest the eggs, they would derive little benefit as relatives would come and ask for the eggs and they would be obliged to give them away. This seems to be a strong aspect of the culture, which discourages people from excelling. This custom has also meant that many leaders and business people are not of Pacific Island heritage, since requests for favours interfere with the pursuit of individual interests and individual success. Paradoxically, the leaders assume they have special rights and privileges, so all is not truly equal in this society. Many I-Matang describe the I-Kiribati as content. I can't comment on the I-Kiribati state of mind or sense of well being, but I have observed that variety and change are definitely less valued than in Western culture. For example, the I-Kiribati do not tend to try or like new foods. If fish, rice, and corned beef are fine, I suppose there is no point to throwing eggs into the mix. So on Kiribati, it is the chicken that comes first and the egg doesn't seem to matter.

Interspersed amongst the palm trees lie large hulks of rusting machinery, the remnants of the British military presence here in the 1950s, when atmospheric nuclear bomb testing was conducted. These eyesores are finally being cleaned up by the British government in response to a lost court case. Before starting the job, SEC, the company doing the work, had to first establish some infrastructure. They spent three months building air-conditioned cinder-block rooms, installing a water purification system, and protecting their digestive health by training the hotel kitchen staff in safe food-handling practices. Dominick, the company Safety Officer, says there's a tiny bit of measurable residual radioactivity in some spots but the main issue they have is with asbestos. They also must cut all of the metal into squares about 4x4 feet. In the spring, the scrap metal and garbage will be shipped off to Hawai'i for recycling/disposal.

Of course, SEC can't clean up the damage done to the wildlife. Kiritimati once had so many birds that the dense flocks were mistaken by approaching sailors to be the island itself. The nuclear testing killed off millions. Nonetheless, other sailors who have visited here in more recent years have still commented on the numerous birds, but Bjarne and I saw little evidence of these hordes. On our first day on land, we stopped in at the Wildlife Conservation Information office, which was partly funded by the 'Canada Fund', curious to see how our tax dollars are being spent. There are quite a few areas of Kiritimati that are set aside as sanctuaries, and there is a Christmas Island Warbler that is found only on this island. Sadly, the three men lounging around the office couldn't tell us anything about the conservation efforts, although we may not have asked the right questions. Later we heard that the locals poach the eggs and that the conservation officials are the worst. Thus, whatever was left after the nuclear testing seems to be further challenged by the locals.

The largest town is London and is where the essential administrative things are found: bank, post office, Immigration, and Telecom building (Internet and phone). We were warned not to use our credit cards, even at the bank, as others have had their numbers skimmed. Good thing we had travellers' cheques. The Internet was quite reasonably priced at $6 per hour, quite a bit better than the phone which was $6 per minute (in case anyone was wondering why they hadn't been called). I wonder how long their computers will last though: the town is so dusty from blowing sand that the computers often have a thick layer over them. On an Internet day we would usually catch one of the privately-owned red minivan buses scooting around the island, where we could listen to loud lively music (of which you can hear a sample here), and observe local dress on the way to town. If the bus didn't come soon enough we'd save our 50 cent fare and walk the 35 minutes, or accept a ride from a passing truck. Often we would wander by the library, which has an eclectic mix of books ranging from old university texts to Harry Potter. We had discovered it on our first day exploring London, and learned then that it was started about 10 years ago by an ex-serviceman who had been part of the nuclear testing. The books were poorly sorted and the cobwebs made us wonder about how much use it was getting, but we were impressed with range of books and the effort that went into creating the library. Disappointingly, other than that first day, it was closed every time we went by. London also has one restaurant and a number of small shops, most with just a few things for sale. We thought this an odd arrangement until we learned that running a store allows a family to renew their leases without difficulty, and perhaps get some discount on the rent. All of the land on Kiritimati Island is owned by the government.

On the way to town we could observe the mix of ugly and charming sights. The ugly centres around the garbage strewn about, particularly crushed beer cans. We learned that in Tarawa, where there is a similar problem, an enterprising person began successfully sending aluminum cans off to Australia for recycling. Jealousy seems to rear its ugly head in a number of Kiribati decisions: the government felt it wasn't getting its share so a high export tax was imposed which made the recycling uneconomical. Now no one's getting any money and the cans stay on the islands. Perhaps there is hope, because in front of the schools there were bins for aluminum cans and we never did find out what was to happen with them. Looking beyond the rubbish toward the lagoon, one could catch glimpses of beautiful blue-green colours between the short palm trees, that quintessential tropical look. Stark gray cinder-block houses contrast with attractive traditionally made homes which enhance rather than blot out the scenery. They don't, however, offer much privacy, consisting of a raised platform with a roof, and sometimes mats that are dropped down to create a screen. Now and again a patch of bright flowers would create a pleasant burst of colour, all the more noticeable for its infrequency on this dry island.

It was entertaining to observe the traffic as we made our way along the road, particularly the ways in which vehicles were adapted to carry people in ways the designers never intended. Pick-up style trucks were common, some with plywood roofs over the cargo box and wooden benches around the perimeter; whether or not the trucks were modified for passengers, the vehicles often had people crammed into the back. Any safety-conscious Canadian would be aghast to see people riding motorcycles and scooters with bare feet or, perhaps worse, flip-flops; helmets are unheard of. Even more shocking is seeing a toddler standing on the back of a passing motorcycle, clinging to his or her parent's neck. In all fairness, there is much less traffic here, very few intersections, and the folks are usually driving more slowly, but we regretted not being able to capture these obviously foreign sights on our camera. Bicycles were not immune, and we often saw two kids on a wobbly bike, or a small child perched on the handle bars while their parent pedaled. Even the minivan buses had an extra wooden bench added, running the length of the passenger area, allowing for maximum “stuffage”. I don't know when it would be considered too full, but we saw at least 15 passengers onboard at one time.

We had expected nothing in the way of availability of provisions and so were surprised to find what we did, although prices reflect the fact that everything is imported. However, Astor and Seafire almost went into shock at the limited supply of goods. What's available depends on how recently the monthly cargo plane has been in, or the even less frequent cargo ship. The weekly passenger flight probably brings in a few perishables as well. There were shortages of staples such as rice, flour, and laundry soap soon after we arrived, and even a rumour that the island was going to run out of beer! This tragedy seems to have been avoided, however. Obtaining diesel or gasoline was no problem; interestingly the latter was dispensed by a hand cranked pump, which the poor attendant worked up a sweat using until I took over for her. When we first arrived we easily found oranges, apples and eggs but after a week or so these were in short supply. In one small store, Bjarne hunted through the 7 or 8 large flats for intact eggs. Each tray of 36 had already been well picked over so that all that remained were a few lonely broken or glued-in eggs per flat. For his troubles he found two intact eggs. Afterwards the trays went back into the fridge as is, leaving Bjarne shaking his head and wondering why the bad eggs weren't sorted and tossed out. Baking powder, onions, corned-beef, canned tomatoes, canned mackerel in tomato sauce, and margarine were all readily available. Since the plane comes down from Hawai'i, we also saw American products like Tang, SPAM, Doritos, and Coke. The stores also carried an unpredictable array of non-food items like fabrics, CDs, souvenir t-shirts, flip flops, etc. The JMB store had the best selection but it paid to hunt around because every store was different and you just might find something interesting. As we had provisioned well in Fiji and Samoa, we were not in need of anything, but were happy when the much-delayed cargo plane finally brought fresh produce.

Doritos were not the only evidence of Hawai'i's proximity. At night we were often able to receive some Hawaiian AM radio stations. Radio Kiribati also had an English program each day, in which they relayed about 20 minutes of BBC news. You never knew, however, just when the program would return to the I-Kiribati program. It didn't seem to be specific to a time and certainly wasn't related to whether or not the BBC news was done. It could just cut out in the middle of a sentence. Good thing we weren't really too worried about knowing what was happening in the world.

One Sunday we piled into the back of Dominick's pickup with the crew of Fanning Island Trader and a couple of their relatives. There were 6 adults and 2 kids in the back and we merrily headed off for a picnic in Paris. Little did we realize we were embarking on a butt-bouncing 2 hour drive (each way) along this very large atoll (over 300 sq miles). Kiritimati is shaped like a backwards lumpy 'C'; London is at the tip of the top curve, Paris is at the bottom curve. In fact, Father Roget, the man who once owned Kiritimati Island, named Paris and London as such because they were across the “channel” from each other. As there is no Chunnel here, we were obliged to take the long way. The paving soon gave way to dirt so we were well-coated in dust by the end of the day. Our tour gave us a good eyeful of the island, which is very flat and mostly shrub covered except for patches of coconut plantations, the occasional brackish pond, and mud-flats coloured with red algae. We came upon the town of Poland, which looked like the other villages except there was a large copra drying structure, where carts of the drying coconut can slide along rails in and out of cover. Our track then became very narrow as we made our way through bushes and trees that were encroaching onto the road and reaching over the truck. The side of the truck looked very bad after this expedition and I was afraid my eye would get poked out by a stray branch. Of course, if that had happened I could have looked very nautical with a cool eye patch. Finally we reached Paris which, oddly enough, looks nothing like its namesake. In fact, there was no town whatsoever, but there was a beautiful white sand beach, with a pocket of coconut trees to provide shade for our little picnic. Large waves of clear turquoise water rolled in, breaking on the reef just offshore and sending plumes of spray into the air: our reward for the uncomfortable trip.

On the Sunday before Christmas we made ourselves presentable and joined the women from Fanning Island Trader, little Aaba, and Dominick for the Catholic church service. We entered the large one-room building and sat cross-legged on the linoleum-tiled floor. Dominick told us that the men sat separately from the women, so I went over to the left side of the room to join most of the women and the many children. The division was not rigidly adhered to, but even when women sat on the men's side it never appeared that people were sitting as couples. Not understanding the sermon as it was in Kiribati, and not being interested in the content of it anyway, gave me plenty of time to look around. The cinder block walls were a tidy white with blue trim, but the ceiling was marked with water damage, especially around the florescent light fixtures. This stuck me as odd since it only rains here a few times or less a year, but I guess that's why it wasn't built with rain in mind. The singing of the congregation was well coordinated by the choir master who had a rich voice. The men's singing was smooth and mellifluous, while the women's voices harmonized nicely with the men's but sounded somewhat harsher. As we've seen everywhere in our travels, the islanders are much less shy about singing than North Americans. Aaba got a bit restless after a while, wanting to be on the move. An older boy, probably a relative as they seemed to know each other, played with him and held him in a remarkably gentle way and seemed to be instructing Aaba about how to behave in church. Overall, compared to kids in Canada, I think that Kiribati children have more patience with and demonstrate more affection for their younger siblings and cousins. Near the end of the service, the priest spoke briefly in English, commenting about us being away from our families during Christmas and blessing us.

Violence Against Women

Women experience violence worldwide and so it is no surprise that it occurs in Kiribati society as well. What can be even more indicative of a culture is the response to those women who have been injured: with respect to that, Kiribati has some work to do. Many years ago, our neighbour Chuck intervened to stop the beating of a young woman by some older men. When Chuck brought her home to her parents they informed him that she was now his responsibility, and that is how he came to marry his first wife. Similarly, we learned of a 13 year old girl who was raped by her father; unusually, the case went to court and the man is now spending a few years in jail so the entire community is aware of his crime. We were shocked to learn that the girl is no longer allowed to go to school, virginity being an important criterion for education. There are some positive changes taking place, however. A woman who is active in the Catholic Women's League told me she had attended a conference about domestic violence, and now teaches women about their rights. It seems that it is the abused woman's responsibility to go to the police but the women are at least learning that they have a right to do so and, I was told, that the police response has been favourable.

Continued in part II...

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