Friday, November 04, 2005

Onotoa, Kiribati Journal

October 20 - November 4, 2005

As we approached Onotoa, I thought something was wrong with my vision; some of the clouds were a brilliant shade of green. I took off my sunglasses and rubbed my eyes, and when that didn't work, I cleaned my sunglasses, still green!!! I thought I was losing my mind and showed KT just to prove to myself that I wasn’t nuts, but I guess that can happen after too many days at sea. It turns out the large area of shallow water in the lagoon was reflecting off the bottom of the clouds; and it was just a preview of the water colors that would dazzle us during our stay. The I-Kiribati and other atoll dwellers actually uses these reflections to navigate back to the atoll once they leave site of land, which doesn’t take long when the tallest object is a palm-tree. I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed it before but most of the other cruisers I showed hadn’t seen it before either.

One of the main reasons we traveled to Suva was to get our Visa for Kiribati. We also asked for permission to stop at other atolls in Kiribati prior to our arrival in Tarawa. Since Tarawa is further north, a trip back to Onotoa would require a pretty significant beat against the current and wind, therefore they rarely get yachts and it is an unspoiled spot (it’s the only place we’ve visited that isn’t in the Lonely Planet). NOTE: We found out later that the Fijian Consulate does NOT have the authority to give this permission and some other boats that came up later in the season had some serious problems… DON’T DO IT!!

The lagoon is shaped like two backwards C’s stacked diagonally on top of each other, angled to the east. The outer anchorage in the north-west corner and a large reef extends to the west in the middle. If you look at the chart there are very few depth soundings in the outer anchorage, NONE in the lagoon, and the calibration I did with our Satellite photos showed that the atoll was mischarted by 2 miles to the north and 1 mile to the west. I wasn’t very keen on stopping but Island Sonata suggested we should give it a try; we did and I’m VERY glad. After a couple of tries we finally got our anchor to hold in front of a large rusty ship that was delivering supplies into the lagoon. A swell was wrapping into the anchorage from the North West and we were getting some wind chop from the South East but it was better than the open sea and KT was happy that we were no longer sailing. John decided he wanted to try and get into the inner lagoon so we got out our hand held depth sounder (purchased just for this purpose) and GPS and slogged our way into the chop in the dinghy to find a path through the reefs and bommies. It would be a tight fit for both of us; Island Sonata because it was not very wide and they are 26 feet wide, and Billabong because we would only have three feet under our keel at the shallowest spot. It turned out to be much easier than it looked, but only because KT and I have worked together a lot in tight spots before … others who tried later had a few “words” and suggested their marriage might not survive another entrance like that. The local police force who came to check us in was very friendly and we were treated somewhat like celebrities because we were the first boats of the season (some seasons they get none).

We were somewhat familiar with the Kiribati hospitality from our visit to Rabi Island, Fiji (where the displaced islanders from Ocean Island now live), but we hadn’t met any children or enjoyed the full village atmosphere. Once we set foot on shore we were immediately greeted by children with their faces lit up like Christmas trees. They loved to hear our attempts to greet them with Mauri (hello), and laughed at us like we were famous comedians at anything we said. The first village in front of the “Wharf” is the government “compound”. The buildings are all naturally built with an open plan from native trees with thatched roofs and fold down wall screens (no doors, windows or walls). The beams are all tied together with homemade rope twisted from the fiber of a coconut husk, and the floors are bamboo slats raised and covered with different mats depending on the occasion. Each family's compound consists of three separate buildings; a sleeping building with privacy screens, a socializing building (just a platform with a roof), and a kitchen (with vented bamboo walls and an outdoor cleaning area). "Building" is too big of a word, as they are really only single rooms about the size of a typical American bathroom. Some of the buildings use main support beams cut from the coral of the reef and all attempts to “modernize” their housing with donated concrete buildings etc have failed because of the cooling effects their current houses provide. The I-Kiribati people are VERY proud and don’t take well to outside assistance and feel they are now dependant on the outside world because they use Flour, Rice and Sugar. Also available in the “store” are some canned goods and payment can still be made in coconuts in some places.

As we walked around EVERYONE invited us in for muimoto (green drinking coconuts) and asked “Where are you going?” because they don’t understand why people would walk somewhere without a defined purpose. We spent most of the day moving from shady spot to shady spot, it was sooo hot, and we ended up meeting a lot of locals and playing with lots of kids. One of the local characters we met was “The Bread Lady” (Tatinia) . She makes and sells great bread from her house and despite being very shy and embarrassed about speaking English, we had a great time getting to know her. She was a main destination on many of our visits to “town” and ended up making us some beautiful baskets and local Kiribati fishing hats. The police chief (Teitiniman) suggested we tour the island on motorbikes and arranged for us to rent them the next day. We decided to start early to beat the heat but it didn’t make much of a difference (at least we could make our own breeze on the bikes). We rode two to a bike with KT and MJ sitting on the back metal grated luggage rack (unfortunately MJ forgot her type IV cushion). The “road” was more like a single lane dirt off-road track which became slightly interesting when the “Love from Taiwan” truck/bus comes the opposite direction (Taiwan donates lots of “gifts” in favor for fishing rights) and your not sure which rules of the road they follow (NZ or US) and how those rules apply on single lane roads. Did I mention we felt like rock stars? Everywhere we went people were waving, smiling, laughing and inviting us in.

There are a couple of main settlement villages scattered around the atoll. The two lagoons are separated by a sandbar/reef and only a very thin strip of land connects the two main islands. The far southern village is on a separate motu which you can get to only at low tide by wading across a sand bar (but they have better access to the fishing to the south). The southern lagoon was a stunning turquoise color, with the most beautiful horseshoe beach. We met a local who was building his house at the end of the beach, with stunning views out into the lagoon and across the cut in the reef to the open ocean. If this was in the states it would be a multi-multi-million dollar piece of land, and he was building his house by hand, by himself. We got to see the intricate knots used to connect the roof supports with the coconut fiber rope and noticed that all the beam cutting was done by machete. It was amazing to see the progress, he figured he would be done in a week or two. We back tracked a bit and continued onto the northern most end where the “airport” was. I guess they only get one flight a week, so the grass is a little overgrown on the runway … but of course we had to race up and down it. Our exhausting day ended early as the heat got the best of us. The gentleman we rented the bikes from gave us some fish which we turned into a great fish curry before falling into bed.

The next day John and I helped Freebird and Camira into the lagoon. The goal was to provide “local” help and guidance but NOT be in charge. Somehow we ended up being responsible for directing the boats through the reef, which I refuse to do again … luckily everyone made it through fine. We had a couple of lazy days alternating between village visits, playing cards and working on some boat/web projects, before John and I decided to go do some serious fishing. We tooled around the outer anchorage and played with a pod a dolphins that seemed to have taken up residence there. We didn’t have much luck until we decided to head to the outside reef, where some of the locals were fishing. I hooked into a pretty big fish on the way out, and when it came to the surface it was nothing but mouth, I couldn’t believe the size of it. It turned out to be a very tasty grouper.

The locals use hand stitched outrigger canoes with upside down triangle patchwork sails, made with everything from old inverted Hobie cat sails to blue tarps, to go out beyond the lagoons to catch fish. The canoes are very basic but the skippers are all master sailors, who have been taught by the generations of sailors before them. They always keep the outrigger to windward and move the base of the lateen sail back and forth to change directions. Most of the time the steering oar is untouched moving slightly as if steered by an invisible force, as the skippers steer the boat using mostly sail trim and weight position on the outrigger. It was always a treat to watch them leave the lagoon on the morning high tide and sail out of sight in search of tuna and sharks. Some of the canoes would sail by in the afternoon to show us their catch, often times covering the entire outrigger support struts with huge seven foot sharks. They use huge baited hooks attached to chain to catch the sharks; I would have loved to see how they do battle in their lightweight canoes once they are actually hooked ... I can imagine some Moby Dick like scenes in my head as I picture the struggle! The tides are critical for them to get the boats on the beaches so they always return a little before high tide and have a impromptu regatta amongst the 10-30 canoes. It’s fun to watch them hoot and laugh as they race back and forth across the lagoon, enjoying the pure fun of sailing after a long hard days work of fishing in the sun.

We spent the following early afternoon filming and playing with the dolphins in the outer anchorage. They were a little bit skittish if you actually got in the water but they LOVED to chase the dinghy. At full throttle they raced and jumped in front of the dingy, dashing in and out with incredible speed. I was amazed that they didn’t crash into each other. We spent a lot of time playing with our aquatic friends during our visit, and got some great underwater footage by holding the video camera underwater off the bow of the dingy while we followed them. It was a little wet for the camera operator, but well worth the resulting footage.

Interlude had arrived in the outer anchorage the day before, with a freshly caught tuna onboard. We scheduled a sushi fest aboard Freebird for the late afternoon (catamarans are such great party boats), prior to our scheduled music jam with the village. The Sushi party was a blast as we gorged ourselves full of fresh tuna only to find out the music jam turned into a HUGE welcome party complete with MORE food. This was our first a many Kiribati social events, and are they ever EVENTS. What started out a jam sessions ended up as a fully MC’d (by Maya) event with a program. I know it sounds a little too formal but it was nothing of the sort. We were welcomed with special introductions and head wreaths of beautiful fragrant flowers. It is custom in the Kiribati culture to describe yourself through your home island and your parents so I had to stand up and introduce myself as “Chris from the island of Ventura California … This is my wife KT and My father is Arthur, my Mother is Sara”. It felt rather strange but that’s how they define themselves. Then they presented us with tons of traditional food, including the joy of fried spam (yuck but considered a delicacy because they have to buy it), and watched us all as we ate (they didn’t eat until after we left). Of course I tried everything and felt like I was going to explode if anyone touched me. Then they had a local do a welcome dance in full local costume, followed by a dance fest where we were responsible for picking a local (by slightly bowing and extending two palms up) to dance with. It was lots of fun and we even danced with some of the smaller children who were laughing the entire night!! KT wasn’t sure if she should be jealous of my 8 year old dance partner that followed us back to the dinghy, staring at me the entire time!!

When we first arrived there were only three other white people on the entire atoll; two Peace Core teachers, and a man from England who just moved back after a 30 year absence. I knew we were a strange site when he almost crashed his motor bike into a tree staring at John and I as he past by. Later on he came by again and asked “what are you doing here?”. His parents were responsible for documenting the land ownership titles and he grew up on Onotoa learning to speak the Kiribati language fluently. He had just married a local consul woman and returned to the island only a couple of weeks before we arrived. The whole exchange was rather entertaining and he was a wealth of Onotoa and I-Kiribati knowledge both past and present. His legs were all bandaged up; which explained his expedition into the bush with shorts on after 30 years of “wearing nothing but trousers in London”, now that’s quite a change.

Saturday we were invited to a woman’s group anniversary celebration at the big tin Maneaba in the northern village. We weren’t sure what we were getting into but it turned out to be an ALL day EVENT. There were lots of people packed under the huge tin roof which felt like a solar oven as the equatorial sun beat down on us. It was a fun event but about twice as long as either of us could handle. Once again there was an MC with introductions, and each of the members of the other local groups and villages made very long speeches to celebrate the woman’s group successes (I think, because I couldn’t understand a bloody word). Luckily the local Peace Core teachers would give us a little play by play and explained things as we went along. We had a huge spread of food that filled the center of the Maneaba and it was funny to watch as the locals picked through the various baskets looking for any treats like spam or bags of chips. The only problem with the local cuisine (and I use the word very loosely) is they have no refrigeration so most fish is preserved by salting and smoking it until it basically all tastes like ashes wrapped in salt. I grabbed some crab thinking that would be great but there was no meat in the legs and they basically suck the juices out of the bodies, which again tastes like smoke and salt (imagine that).

We then entered the dreaded (for me) dancing portion of the day where the locals laughed the entire time. They have a form of dirty dancing that a local woman was trying on the unsuspecting cruisers. They raise their arms above their heads like a roof and try to move the roof over their partners head as in “Come into my house.. wink wink”. It was funny watching Dave from Freebird do it back to one woman when he didn’t have a clue what he was doing … they loved it and laughed hysterically. I got chased around the dance floor by one woman who kept trying to grab my ankles (still don’t know what that was about) and ended up doing a sort of high stepping run that also had them rolling. As you dance, they have a person who walks around dumping (and I mean dumping) baby powder on your neck and spraying your armpits and back with perfume, must have something to with dancing in a sauna. I had a lot of fun playing around with KT’s Digital SLR camera and the telephoto lens. You could smile at someone and they would smile back without thinking they were being caught on film, plus they were so intrigued by what you are doing they actually look right at you. It sure makes a difference because all the kids want to do is see themselves … “photo me.. photo me!!”. Typically they try to pose in very unnatural ways and in a group all try and be THE one in front of the lens. I think it’s the best set of people photos we’ve taken, so were going to keep trying. We finally limped out after they kept extending the party because we looked like we were having so much fun.

KT spent the next day recovering and working on a thank you DVD for the first village. It came out great and we told everyone who was in it that they were now movie stars. We did some more island touring and tried to come up with other ways to distract the rowdy kids so we could get a photograph without just a bunch of scrunched up noses. We tried shooting from our waists, pointing somewhere else but these kids were on it … they wanted to see every picture we took. We also went back to the Catholic Priests (Tetaake) house so we could take a photo of all of us along with he and his wife (Temaroo) in his “church”. He wanted full body shots, and said “no good” after I took what I thought was a pretty good face shot of everyone. I guess he wanted to show off their nice dressy clothes. Then we had a Halloween party aboard Island Sonata, with Freebird and Camira. KT and I were Jack and Nina from 24 (we got EVERYONE hooked on it), John and MJ were little red riding hood and the big bad wolf (yes once again they had full on costumes for the occasion), Mike and Dana were a badly dressed beach bum geek and a sea creature (the funny thing was that Mike had picked out his costume as an honest to God outfit during a males only shopping spree in Fiji), and Dave and Judy were a pirate and Dr Feel Good. It was a fun evening celebrating a very US holiday in the middle of nowhere, with fresh popcorn balls and a carved local squash with candle to mimic a Jack-o-lantern.

We spent a couple of days playing in the lagoon with the dolphins, and attempting to catch more fish. I finally realized that I was spending about $10 on dinghy fuel and wasn’t catching anything, so I found a local fisherman I could buy some pretty good size tuna (yellowtail and albacore) for $3 to $5 each. We went in to do a farewell tour, taking more pictures of the locals and handing out some printed pictures we took during our stay. As we prepared to say goodbye our friend Tetaake, the local catholic priest, said … “this is not good, can’t you just stay”. It was sad to leave but it was time to move on, so we headed out to the outer anchorage during the morning high tide and prepared for our over night trip to Tabiteuea. Dolphins played around the boat all day until we left just as the sun was setting.

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