From a distance, Kiribati looks like your typical Pacific paradise. Google ‘Kiribati’ and you’ll see lots of turquoise water and little green islands fringed with sand. It’s interesting how perspective changes once you’re on the ground.
If I had no idea what to expect before visiting Majuro in the Marshall Islands, boy was I unprepared for Kiribati. I had some idea of the issues faced by this atoll nation, the only country in the world to span across all four hemispheres – overcrowding, water contamination issues, dysentery and diarrhoea as a product of both those things, sea level rise, and so on. I was warned that South Tarawa, the island I was to visit and the capital of Kiribati, had terrible roads, far too many people to be sustainable, poor infrastructure, frequent power outages, average food, and that I probably wouldn’t like it.
Little did I expect to be charmed by this poor, dirty, wonderful place.
The first snapshot I got of Kiribati was as soon as I got off the plane, onto the potholed tarmac of Bonriki Airport in South Tarawa. More than 50 children were jostling behind the fence around the runway, trying to get a glimpse of Kiribati’s newest visitors. I found out later that visiting the airport on a day when planes arrive and depart (only a few days per week) is a popular pastime – apparently there’s not a lot to do on South Tarawa.
Kiribati is a challenging place to visit. I’m pretty sure that 99% of people wouldn’t like it. But if you open your mind and give it a chance to grow on you, you’ll fall under its spell.
I’m walking out of my basic hotel onto South Tarawa’s main road: a potholed, dusty strip of crushed up coral with thatched shacks either side. There are stray dogs everywhere and kids running around. A bus rumbles by and I cover my nose and mouth, not wanting to inhale the dust thrown up as the bus passes me. I have my camera on me and I spot a trio of young boys playing a version of marbles. I gesture towards my camera and they jump up from their game and strike some hilarious poses, and squeal with delight when I show them their faces on the camera screen.
A bit further down the road, I meet two teenage girls. One speaks good English and the other not so much. They ask me what I’m doing in South Tarawa, why I am by myself (“Where’s your husband?” “He’s back in New Zealand,” I say. Cue confused looks and more questions). I ask them if they like school (yes) and what they want to do when they are older (“I’m not sure, I’ll wait and see what happens in the future.”). What opportunities are there for young women in Kiribati?
Kiribati has huge problems with disposal of waste – both human-produced and trash. Unfortunately, the beaches end up being repositories for both. You have to be rather careful where you step along the shoreline – you might end up with a very smelly foot otherwise. Among the broken glass, tin cans, shipwrecks, and coconut husks, children play in the sand. If in another part of the world, beaches like these would be lined with resorts and peppered with sun loungers. Here, that’s the furthest thought from anyone’s mind.
While wandering along a beach one day, I come across a group of boys who are playing with an algae-covered mooring rope and a crab. Again, they are delighted when I take their photos and show them, and they proudly display their crab. In the shallows behind them lies a WWII tank that was stranded when the Americans tried to bring it to shore during the Battle of Tarawa. On the beach beyond are a couple of packs of threatening-looking stray dogs and two ships. Yes, ships. Apparently Tarawa is a popular place to leave your ship if it’s not worth scrapping.
Most of South Tarawa’s population lives on the islet of Betio (pronounced Bay-so, as ‘ti’ in the Kiribati language is pronounced ‘ss’ – yes, Kiribati is said ‘Kiri-bass’). More than 50,000 people live on South Tarawa, an island with an area of 15 square kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world. The population is growing so fast that it is set to double by 2030.
100,000 people living on an island five times the size of Central Park, with a maximum elevation of a few metres above sea level. If they have issues now, what’s it going to be like then?
Betio is at the furthest end of South Tarawa atoll, far away from the only source of fresh water (aside from rain that is seldom collected by households) – an aquifer. The water pipes are so old and badly damaged from people cutting into the pipes to steal water, that more than half of the water that is piped from the aquifer is lost before it gets to Betio, and what does get there is badly contaminated. This results in massive numbers of people affected by diarrhoea, dysentery, and other diseases caused by unclean drinking water.
You never hear about drinking water access issues in the Pacific Islands, do you?
Aside from fishing, the major export for Kiribati is copra, or coconut meat. The coconuts get harvested on the outer islands and shipped to Tarawa, where the copra is made into oil and other products, and shipped overseas. The odour where the full boats come in is sickly sweet but also smells slightly of rotting vegetation. The sacks tear open and bits of coconut spill onto the ground, followed by swearing (I assume) by the men loading the sacks onto the already-overloaded truck.
The stories of sights, smells, and sounds from Kiribati could go on and on. This place did something to me – I don’t quite know why or what it was, but I’m so glad I got to visit this country that few others would ever think of travelling to.
Kiribati grabbed hold of me and showed me her soul.
Would you ever visit Kiribati? Have you travelled to a place that left a lasting impact on you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
. . .