Day M77: It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Kiribati

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.

Day M78: Kiss My Rusty Kiribati

14.12.11: My second day on Kiribati’s main atoll of Tawara started slowly. After having to wait an hour or so for the barge to be ready to go ashore, I (literally) jumped aboard the tug boat and set off for another day of action and adventure.

The war relics here are quite fascinating in a morbid sort of way. When this Japanese command HQ was taken by the Yanks, they found over 300 Japanese soldiers inside, all dead.

A New Selfridges! Dead soldiers optional.

I would, at this juncture, like to point out that reinforced concrete is pretty good for building cheap lousy ugly bunkers, but not good for building anything that you don’t want to look like a cheap lousy ugly bunker. Modern architects would do well to bear this fact in mind.

There’s tanks and guns and possibly unexploded ordinance still knocking around the place. In a way, you’d think the Americans would tidy up after themselves, but then again, it makes for a great little treasure hunt.

Red Beach, on the western tip of the islet, looks like the battle took place last year: I guess since the war, more ships have come here to die. I counted rusting hulks washed up on the sand and many more out in the water. The local kids don’t seem to mind.

It beats talking to a volleyball.

That evening I met with Sara, a CouchSurfer from Montreal. She was hanging out with another CouchSurfer, Martin from Graz in Austria. We all jumped on board one of the many minibuses that run along the east-west road from Batio to the airport and back and headed to the new Chinese Restaurant near Bairiki. Martin is here on holiday but Sara is working with the Kiribati government as part of her post-grad in international development. She’s been here quite long enough now, thank you very much, and is looking forward to moving on before she ends up tearing her hair out. Ah, island life! It’s fun for a few weeks, but I can see how one can get cabin fever after a while.

After dinner, we hopped another bus to the Captain’s Bar. Compared with last night, the place was hopping. We enjoyed a good few beers and FYI, the Aussie beer here is A$3 a can (they use the Aussie Dollar in Kiribati), as opposed to A$7 in Australia, where the beer is made and not shipped 1000 miles over the Pacific Ocean. Go figure.

Martin, like me, is an aficionado of old buildings, and has actually set up a wiki site for endangered edifices in Austria: which is difficult to say with a mouthful of marshmallows. He’s about the same age as me, which is consoling as our generation has a embarrassing knee-jerk habit of celebrating ugly modern buildings, (what do you expect from people who grew up in the 80s? Taste?) instead of protecting the beautiful old ones.

Sara and Martin caught the last drunk home (I hope they put their safety belts on) and I joined Mattsu, the port agent, who was celebrating with his colleagues in the I-Kiribati shipping industry. Apparently, Swire Shipping (oh they of PNG to Australia fame) have got themselves involved with the Scarlett Lucy, the very ship I hope to take to the island nation of Nauru (it’ll be country number 195) next February. This was cause for celebration, not least because of my good relations with Swire (as well as Neptune, Pacific Direct Line, PIL and Reef, who I think are also involved in one way or another), but also because there was a slab of Castlemaine XXXX on the table.

Plus I got to tell my joke: Why do Australians call their beer ‘XXXX’? Because they can’t spell ‘beer’. Wakka Wakka Wakka!

Next stop: The Marshall Islands!!!

Days M156-161: SolBrew For The Soul

Thu 01.03.12 – Tue 06.03.12:

We arrived in Honiara a at 8pm, a little later than expected, and thanks to our proximity to the equator, it was already dark. I headed over to the King Solomon hotel to try and contact my CouchSurf chum Thomas from last time I was here, but my email had no reply and his phone was off or disconnected. There’s a good chance that he’s left The Solomons for green pastures. I had a quick chat with Mandy – she’s trying her best to organise my passage on the Cap Serrat – a Hamburg Sud cargo ship which leaves Brisbane on March 25 bound for Taiwan… arriving just in time for me to (possibly) jump on the Mariana Express Ship that leaves April 8 bound for nations 196 and 197: Micronesia and Palau.

This year, if I manage to get to one nation a month I’m doing well.

Afterwards I settled down at the bar with a glass of SolBrew and my laptop, catching up with one of a zillion things I had planned to finish while on the Scarlett Lucy.

Rusi, the ship’s welder, came to meet me for a swift half. The bar was quiet, it being Thursday, and the big night out I was hoping for seemed unlikely. A shame as the ship wasn’t leaving until 1500 tomorrow – plenty of time to shake off a hangover. We headed back to the ship before midnight (the start of Russi’s shift) and I ended up in the mess watching videos until the wee small hours.

The next day I hurriedly threw a couple of blog entries up online and then headed over to the yacht club to see what (if anything) was going down. There I met a lady from Formby (Scousers! Everywhere!), a guy from Sydney and a couple who had motorbiked all the way from Australia to the UK, only to get their motorbike stolen in Wales. Oops!

On the other side of the wharf, the Scarlett Lucy blew her horn to say ALL ABOARD! I had to down my last glass of beer and race off, once again, from Honiara, a place that wish I could have spent a great deal more time in – really exploring the island of Guadalcanal would be a real treat.

And so within the hour the gangway was pulled up and once again we were at the mercy of the constant swaying and vibration that constantly reminds you that you’re sea. For the next four days we plotted a course North East to Tawara and I lost myself in a world of books and writing, confident that the outside world would not interfere.

As I write this we’re scheduled to arrive in the capital of Kiribati at 1500 tomorrow. If I had known now what I didn’t know then (I didn’t know that the Scarlett Lucy even called in on The Solomons or Kiribati), I could have jumped ship from the Papuan Chief last time I was in Honiara, clambered on board the Scarlett Lucy, knocked Nauru off the list back in October and be well on my way from Taiwan to Palau and Micronesia by now.

Then again, if I knew back at the beginning what I know now I would have:

1. Not tried to get into Libya and Algeria without a visa
2. Not taken a leaky wooden boat to Cape Verde (I should have waited for a yacht)
3. Not got ratty with the police at the checkpoint in Brazzaville
4. At least tried to get to The Seychelles from Nosy Be in Madagascar
5. Visited South Sudan while I was in the area
6. Got my Saudi Visa sorted before I got to Kuwait
7. Got my Indian Visa sorted before I got to Dubai
8. Tried harder to get to Sri Lanka from India
9. Visited Palau and Micronesia the first time I was in Taiwan
10. Definitely not wasted nine months in Melbourne waiting for a magical yacht that probably didn’t ever exist to take me around the Pacific.

But hey, thems the breaks, kid. If I thought this was going to be easy, I would have had a mental breakdown years ago.

Here we go: the final seven, the magnificent seven, the seven samurai, lucky number seven, the seven nation army… the end of this rather epic quest starts with nation 195, Nauru – the smallest UN member state in the world. With any luck, I’ll be there before the week is out… and then there’ll be SIX!

Days M162-166 The Kings of Kiribati

Wed 07.03.12 – Sun 11.03.12:

We arrived in Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati on Wednesday morning. Some infernal fishing vessel had stolen the one and only parking speck (don’t you hate it when that happens?) so we were forced to drop anchor in the lagoon and use the two barges to ferry the containers back and forth. This also provided the means for getting ashore (presuming you didn’t want to get wet). But I wanted to get ashore as soon as possible, so I hitched a ride with the customs team who had their own speedboat.

Re-familiarising myself with Betio, the port area of Tarawa, didn’t take long: on a coral atoll such as this, there’s really only one road. I mooched around in the old haunts before wandering down to the Captain’s Bar to met (funnily enough) the Captain of the Scarlett Lucy. After a couple of cans of more-reasonably-priced-than-in-Australia Victoria Bitter, I was given a lift back to the port by the Pilot in order to find the rest of the crew. In the Seaman’s Club I found the cook, the chief mate (whose family are actually from Tarawa) and crewmen Rusi. They were already working through a slab of beer when I got there.

I was only then I realised that I hadn’t picked up my change from the bloody Captain’s Bar. I jumped on a passing minibus, rushed back, but the girl in the bar shrugged and said that she left the change on the bar and didn’t know who took it. I was a little suss about this explanation, mostly because there was only about ten people in the entire bar. Well there’s $40 up in smoke I thought: I may as well head back to the ship.

But calling back in at Seaman’s Club on the way proved a great move. Every couple of minutes another beer was shoved into my hand by one of the crew. Before too long I was feeling rather inebriated and almost willing to dance to the utter garbage they were spewing out over the PA. Bad music is one thing, but these guys had a playlist that quite literally consisted of five songs. The seventh time I heard ‘Summer of 69’ by Bryan “F—ing” Adams I was more than ready to leave.

So we stumbled over to Gateway, a club across the road. There I embarrassed myself at pool before finding a not-very-attractive local girl had me in her sights. I tried to shake her, much in the way you shake off a TIE fighter when you’re destroying a Death Star, but it was no use. At the end of the night, she followed me back to the barge, so I was explained in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t come back to the ship as it was against company policy (or some such excuse). Unfortunately for me, some of the crew who were coming back on the barge said it was fine if I wanted to bring a girl back. I loudly protested out the corner of my mouth, but it was no use. She was now on the barge.

There was only one thing for it: when we got back to the Scarlett Lucy I made sure I was first up the rope ladder and bolted for my cabin, locking the door behind me.

Phew! Haven’t had to fend off a demented filly like that for a long time. A cup of tea down in the mess before bed would have been nice, but to be honest with you, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The next day we were gearing up to be out of here by nightfall, but Kiribati had other plans. One of the two barges had stopped working for a few hours in the morning, which had the knock-on effect of meaning we wouldn’t finish the cargo operation until 7pm, just a tiny bit too late to leave the lagoon before nightfall. As the lights on most of the shipping buoys in the lagoon are broken, to boogie on out of here in the dark would be something so idiotic, only a manic (or the captain of the Costa Concordia) would attempt it. We would have to stay in Kiribati an extra night. The plan was to leave the next day at 1pm.

Drinkies chaps?

Once again I found myself out on the lash with Rusi, Labe, Cookie and Chief Tarawa: only this time getting back to the ship was going to be a lot more difficult. With her at anchor and the cargo operation complete, the only way back would be to find a little speedboat at some ungodly hour of the night. Best see what happens eh? We started the night as always in the Captain’s Bar, Rusi and Labe coming with me to get some shots of the big Japanese guns nearby – relics from The Battle of Tarawa. After a round of pool in the driving rain, us Three Musketeers headed back to Batio, cadging a cheeky lift with a jolly nice Japanese guy and his wife.

After one too many cans of SolBrew with the locals (that stuff is 5.7%! Rocket fuel! Woooooo!) it came time to somehow find our way back onto the ship. Miraculously, after Labe swearing blind that there was no chance we’d get a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am, we got a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am.

However, jumping off a barge and climbing up the good ship Scarlett’s rope ladder when you’re relatively sober is one thing. Clambering up from a tiny tin speedboat when you’re totally blotto is another entirely. Especially when the damn boat is bobbing up and down like a hyperactive merecat causing the first rung of the ladder to oscillate wildly between 2 inches and 6 feet up in the air. Oh, and you’re carrying your bag containing your laptop, your video camera and your rather bulky copy of Lonely Planet.

Foolishly, I took hold of the two ropes that hang either side of the ladder, rather than the rungs of the ladder itself. I lost my balance, swung hard to the left and lost my grip on the right-hand rope. If the speedboat hadn’t miraculously sprung up under me at that precise moment, I would have surely gone into the drink. The second attempt was a lot more successful. It took a good twenty minutes to get my heartbeat back to normal.

The next day I woke up (feeling rather worse for wear) around noon. I had a shower and wandered down to the mess to grab a bite to eat – only to be greeted by the second mate, Douglas. He told me that the ship wouldn’t be leaving today either. Why not? Because the captain just got word that the Nauruan dock workers are no longer prepared to work on Sundays, or scheduled day of arrival. Considering Nauru has an unemployment rate of 90% and the fact that the Lucy is the only container ship that calls in to Nauru, and it only does that once a month… ah, sod it, welcome to Island Time.

Not that I’m complaining: one more night on the sauce in Tarawa! Yay!

A speedboat had been arranged to collect us at 6pm. It didn’t show up, so after much whistling, shouting and waving (we’re high-tech on the Scarlett Lucy) we finally – after an hour and a half – managed to get back onto the island. Tonight was Friday, so half of Tawara was out on the tiles. After a pit-stop at the internet café, I met up with Rusi and we headed over to the Captain’s Bar, and thus the night went down. All I knew was that there was a speedboat had been arranged for four o’clock and there was nothing to worry about.

I was woken up at 4.30am. I found myself laying on my back on the quayside having fallen asleep waiting for the others to turn up. Groggy and bewildered, I tried to get my waker-upperer to leave me the hell alone, when I realised it was the captain – accompanied by the local police in a car. Eek! I jumped to my feet, coughed and straightened my non-existent tie. Sorry about that, capt. The police nodded and drove off, job well done and damn did I feel sheepish.

After collecting the cook (he had found a fishing boat to snooze on) we jumped into a tin boat, waited for the outboard motor to be lowered into place and set off across the black lagoon. Someone from the crew had helpfully lowered the Lucy’s rope ladder so yesterday’s little, er, mishap did not re-occur. Opium addicts don’t sleep this soundly.

At 12.30pm on Saturday I felt the distinct low rumble of the engines turning on. Soon after, I watched the shadows move across my cabin. By the time I managed to pull myself kicking and screaming (mentally) out of bed we had already left the lagoon and Kiribati was but a distant dream. A rather intoxicated one. Tomorrow we’d shut off the engines and drift for 7 hours – there’s no point arriving in Nauru at night.

Nauru. Monday morning. 6am. Set.