13.12.11: The first and most important thing you should know about Kiribati is that the people of Kiribati, the I-Kiribati, pronounce ‘ti’ as ‘s’. Therefore, the correct pronunciation of ‘Kiribati’ is ‘Kiribas’. The correct pronunciation of Betio, the port area of Kiribati’s capital atoll Tarawa, is Beso. And ‘Christmas’ is spelt ‘Kiritimati’. And ‘I-Kiribati’ is pronounced ‘E-Kiribas’. DEAL WITH IT PEOPLE!!
Incidentally, Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’, not ‘louse’, Suriname is pronounced ‘Surinam’ and St. Kitts and Nevis is pronounced ‘St. Kitts and Neevis’. Get it right my dear reader: lives may depend on this knowledge, although perhaps not.
And while I’m at it: America, listen up you Shatner-Stealing Mexico-Touchers: Van Gogh is pronounced ‘Van Hoghckkk’ like you’re hacking up a docker’s omelette… NOT ‘VAN GO’. EVER. DUTCH GUY, NOT FRENCH. DUTCH. DIFFERENT COUNTRY, DIFFERENT LANGUAGE (it’s also ‘Mo-wett and Chandon’).
And another thing: ‘niche’ is pronounced ‘neesh’, not ‘nitch’, you do not find nitches in the goddamn market. And it’s ‘Budd-ah’, not ‘Boo-dah’ you lemonheads: take it from the only guy you know who’s actually been to Tibet.
And Australia, ‘debut’ is pronounced ‘dayb-you’ and rhymes with ‘view’. Stop saying ‘day-boo’. You sound like idiots. And so do you moronic cockneys who say ‘caff’ instead of ‘café’. Nobody, not even the French, bother putting accents on silent letters.
And a PEDophile could only mean somebody with an unhealthy fetish for FEET. PEDestrian, PEDal, PEDestal… learn your etymology or invent your own damn language you lazy nerks. Or why don’t you ask somebody who works in paediatrics, like a paediatrician… or look it up on Wiki-peeeeeedia.
Also, can everyone on the internet PLEASE STOP MIXING UP ‘lose’ and ‘loose’. It’s getting beyond a joke now.
Another important thing you should know about Kiribati is that it is simultaneously one of the smallest and biggest countries in the world, depending on how you look at it. Although it’s made up of just 33 equator-straddling islands, all of which you could probably walk around in a day, from Banaba (Ocean Island) in the west to Millennium Island in the east there is over 2,500 nautical miles of that salty brine we like to call the Pacific Ocean… so technically Kiribati is wider than Australia: with an area of over 3.5 million square kilometres to play with, nearly all of which is water.
You may scoff, but once I invent my go-go-gills and shark-repellent deodorant then Kiribati will rise to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!
Well, actually, probably not. 32 of the islands are low-lying coral atolls and, like Tuvalu, are trembling under the same sword of Damocles: rising sea levels. Have we had enough rants about global warming yet? Maybe not… I’d just like to add one thing. WHY THE HELL did Julia Gillard (that’s the Prime Minister of Australia, pop-pickers) choose to call her excellent new carbon tax the ‘Carbon Tax’. What kind of blithering dunderheads work in her marketing department? Call it a ‘Multinational Corporate Pollution Levy’ or a ‘Conglomerate Fat-Cat Poison Air Toll’. Something, anything, just so long as it doesn’t have the word ‘tax’ in the name! Oh, and given that us humans are carbon-based life-forms, they should probably drop the word ‘carbon’ too.
I’m not saying that a good proportion of the Australian voting public are too stupid to understand the difference between ‘Income Tax’ which they have to pay and a ‘Carbon Tax’ which only Multinational Corporate Conglomerate Fat-Cat Air Polluters have to pay, but, well, er…
Oh yes, where was I? Ahh… Kiribati! Kiribati is the only country in the world to straddle all four hemispheres and so at 7am there was a bump as we crossed over the equator back into my native Northern Hemisphere. Around 3pm, we found a gap in the coral ring that makes up Tarawa Atoll, and ploughed straight through it without a care in the world. We then picked our way between the many shallows and sunken ships that populate Tarawa’s large lagoooooon. There was a major battle here in World War II and both the Japanese and American forces left a number of souvenirs behind. And dead bodies.
I know it’s not popular or cool to support Truman’s decision to drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it’s worth bearing in mind that US military chiefs, who had no idea what the top-secret Manhattan Project was about to unleash on the world, had ordered half a million Purple Hearts to be made in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Is it right to kill a hundred thousand people if you believe it will save millions of lives in the long run?
Pray you never have to make that kind of decision. Or have to live with yourself afterwards.
Here in Tarawa the detritus of war has been co-opted into everyday life. Concrete bunkers now used as squash courts, 75mm guns used to tie clotheslines, rusting hulks that once ferried marines to their doom now used as diving platforms for the local kids. The remains of a mighty Sherman Tank sits out in the water, visible at low tide: slowly being eaten away by the sea, soon to be destroyed not by overwhelming firepower, but by nothing more than time, tide and the second law of thermodynamics.
The Southern Pearl is too big a beast (sorry, old girl) to enter the port without scraping along the floor of the lagoooooon, so we sat out at anchor and had tugboats bring barges over for unloading and loading the containers. Getting to shore therefore required a bit of gymnastics as I’d invariably have to hop, skip or jump onto one of these barges, or even one of the rusty old tugs, one of which was a good 70 years old: it had been left behind by the Japanese. You could tell.
Once on dry land and after having officially ticked Kiribati off my list of nations (that’s 190 down, 11 to gooooo!), I was given a lift by the port agent, Mattsu, along the one road that runs all the way to the airport to the east of the atoll. Most coral atolls are circular, but in the case of Tarawa the atoll is shaped like a triangle with the left side missing. The southern islets are linked by causeways. At the bottom left corner you find our seaport at Batio (pronounced ‘Baso’) and in the bottom right corner sits Tawara’s international airport. Going up along the right hand side you’ll need a canoe as there are plenty more islets but no causeway.
We stopped off at the parliament house, set out in the lagoooooon on an artificial island. It’s a rather pedestrian affair. Outside sits a chunky concrete rendering of the Kiribati flag: a frigate bird flying over a sun rising from the waves. The rising sun is particularly apt here, as each day Kiribati is the first country to see the dawn. They achieved this by a bit of a cheat: on January 1st 1995, they pushed the date line, which used to cut the country in two (when it was Saturday in the west it was Friday in the east), all the way over to the east… making it all the same day all over the country. This also gave the eastern Line Islands a novel new time zone of GMT+14: something that is so far in the future it doesn’t even appear as an option on your iPhone or your clever little TARDIS, Doctor.
That means that when it’s noon Saturday on Christmas Island (east Kiribati), it’s simultaneously noon Friday in Hawaii. Even more bananas, when it’s half past midnight on Monday morning on Christmas Island, it’s half past eleven on Saturday night in American Samoa.
One other glorious fact I learned at the parliament house is that Kiribati declared its independence in July 1979, so I would have been in the same year as it in school. I would be a year below Garfield, in the year above Harry Potter and two years above Lisbeth Salander. True story.
In the evening I headed over to the Captain’s Bar, seemingly the only pub in town. I met with lots of friendly I-Kiribati and learnt that the Kiribati word for ‘cheers’ is ‘tiggeroy’. Although, knowing the I-Kiribati, they probably spell it ‘poohay’. We played darts and then I was coerced into puncturing everybody’s eardrums with the worst karaoke you’ll (hopefully) never have to hear.
Waltzing back home at 1am presented its own difficulties. Mattsu picked me up from the bar, and the barges were running out to the Southern Pearl all night, but they took their sweet time to be ready to go. I had to take a running jump off the quayside onto the roof of the tug boat, which was fun in a kind of suicidal way. The trip over to the ship, although it doesn’t look much from the shore, takes an age and this is no peaceful little lagoooooon: the tugs get knocked around a fair bit. There was nothing for it but to lie on my back until we reached the mothership, look up at the encircling stars and hope for the best.