Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tarawa, Abaiang, & Butaritari, Kiribati

November 24 - December 1, & December 12 - 13, 2005

We had heard quite a few things about Tarawa before our arrival ... most of them not very inspiring.  One cruiser described Tarawa as the "armpit of Kiribati".  As much as I hate to be negative, South Tarawa truly was a dump.  But what can you expect when it houses more than a third of the entire Kiribati population?  We're talking over 33,300 people in a 64 sq km area ... and that's for the entire atoll ... I'd guess about 80% of those 33 thousand live in South Tarawa!  It's dirty, crowded, dusty and hot, but if you want to visit Kiribati, you have to stop because it is the only port of entry.  Our goal was to get in and get out, but nothing happens fast in these remote locations!  (Yes, I realize it doesn't look so bad in the picture!)

If you are of the right frame of mind, the bus rides around Tarawa can be a most entertaining experience.  The buses are really privately owned vans and mini-vans ... stop anywhere along the street, wave one down and hop on -- there are no bus stops per say.  If you are extremely lucky you might get one that has air conditioning, otherwise try to grab a seat next to the window, you'll suffer through gagging dust, but at least you'll get a bit of air flow.  And you'll need it, because they pack these buses FULL.  No matter how many times I'd ridden, I was continuously amazed as I'd think no way can anyone else fit, but then sure enough we'd be pulling over and stuffing in two more people.  There is no such thing as personal space, be prepared to get friendly.

The worst part about bus rides (for me) was my constant fear of head lice.  I was (and still am) terrified of getting those little annoying creatures ... and EVERYONE in Tarawa has them.  We'd be driving down the street, look out the window, and see more than one set of women sitting around, picking through each other's hair.  The worse part?  What do you think they do when they pick a lice out -- we saw a lot of hand to mouth action going on ... no kidding!!!  YUCKIEEEE!!!  So I'd be sitting there just wondering, can lice fly?  Can they jump? How fast do they crawl?  And just thinking about it my head would start to itch.  And finally, if you aren't yet enjoying the ride, just look forward, out the windshield, and watch the crazy maneuvering of the driver - oh and remember you have no seat belt on, your very life is in the hands of this foreign maniac who apparently is in a BIG BIG hurry and doesn't know the meaning of oncoming traffic!  The other thing that gets me (there's more you say), is the laziness of many of the bus riders.  We'd stop, half the bus would pile out to let the guy in the back off, pile back in, the bus would travel, I kid you not, all of 15 feet, and someone else would be yelling to get off.  They could've walked faster than the time it took to pile in and out.  Same thing with the pick ups -- you'd think anyone would walk to an already stopped bus (especially if it was close enough to feel the heat coming off the engine), hell no, they'll just wait and flag it down when it is mere inches from them.  I believe I am one of the laziest people in the world, and even I'm not THAT lazy!

There must be more to Tarawa then crazy buses and trash ... and there is, all the comforts of home; internet, shopping, and dining out.  We actually enjoyed a few tasty meals out (be sure to share with the eight foot roaches beneath you, otherwise they get a bit feisty), and really enjoyed the air-conditioned internet access.  The shopping was good, although hardly weevil free, but there were a few good scores like fruit juice, frozen chickens, ginger ale, ice-cream, and a single cucumber!

The real 'attraction' of Tarawa is for history buffs; as Tarawa is full of World War II relics.  Guns, bunkers, tanks, shells, memorials, and more -- you could spend hours trudging through the streets of  Tarawa exploring its history.  Surprisingly, the locals know very little of the history that surrounds them.  We spent multiple days searching for the American Marine Memorial, asking over twenty locals, most of which didn't even know that a single memorial, let alone three (British Coast Watchers, Japanese, and American) existed.  We never did locate it, but did watch a video showing when it was commemorated.  As the WWII history of Tarawa is quite extraordinary (to me anyway), there is a separate journal piece, including pictures; click here (or link down below) to read.

The one thing Chris and I were extremely happy to see as we walked about Tarawa, is that even in this over crowded city tradition is still alive.  In the early evening we could hear men singing as they gathered Toddy from the tops of coconut tress. Most of the people are still beyond friendly and very willing to lend a hand.  Smiles still radiated whenever we said hello.  We'll still never understand why so many people we meet in the outer atolls want to move to Tarawa.  I suppose it is equivalent to wanting to move to a big city (where all the money and opportunity is); however I wonder if they understand what they are giving up?

As we had arrived in Tarawa on Thanksgiving Day, we decided to postpone our celebrations until the weekend, where we'd be more relaxed and have more time to prepare.  On Sunday Island Sonata joined us for a HUGE feast, consisting of a cranberry sauce basted whole chicken (which we called a turkey), stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, home-made rolls, and  individual apple pies served with emergency ice-cream.  Emergency ice-cream was introduced to us by John & MJ; you put your ice-cream base (flavoring, etc) inside a Ziploc bag, you place that bag along with ice and salt into a larger bag ... shake vigorously or 10-15 minutes ... until ice-cream solidifies.  In our case, something happened and we ended up with ice-milk, but it was still cold and tasty.

On Tuesday (Nov 19th), we moved out from the Betio Anchorage, to an outer island (still within the Majuro Atoll).  It was lovely to get away from the city and have some peace and quiet again.  We spent three days doing various chores, and playing games with Island Sonata.  On Friday a nasty little day sail (beating in 20-30 knots) took us over to Abaiang)

December 2 - December 12, 2005

Although Abaiang is only 30 miles from Tarawa, it feels like a world away.  Once again we found ourselves in blue and turquoise waters.  The air felt cleaner, the sky looked bluer, everything just seemed more at peace. We spent four nights at the 'main anchorage' near the village, alternating between village visits and boat time (varying between chores and games).

On Tuesday (Dec 6th) the winds calmed, so we moved over to a small island near the pass entrance, where we celebrated John's birthday.  Here we were dazzled by the blue blue waters.  We explored the local area; a small settlement consisting of less than 15 people, and snorkeled outside the pass.  Chris & John did a bit of fishing, while I enjoyed a number of relaxing swims; usually just floating around in our blow-up water tube.

We moved again, back towards the main part of atoll, anchoring in front of a different village.  We had a terrific pizza party aboard Billabong, somehow managing to seat and feed eight people.  Ashore we met John Thurston, a white man who lives in Abaiang, helping the locals build their large transportation catamarans.  We were invited to another Kiribati party on the evening of Saturday Dec 10th.  The party seemed to be like the other Kiribati parties we had attended, with beautiful welcome head wreaths and Kiribati performances, until in one performance the women dancing ended her gig with a swift lift of her shirt, exposing her rather large and saggy boobs!  We were flabbergasted.  The entire Maneaba exploded with laughter.  To this day we aren't sure exactly what the deal was; whether just good humor, an attempt to see how the I-Matongs would react, or some kind of inside joke.

We had to return to Tarawa in order to check out and get permission to stop in Butaritari on our way north, so on Monday we had an easy day sail back to Tarawa, where we quickly restocked on groceries, checked-out, and departed on Wednesday.

December 14 - 18, 2005

Butaritari is unique in the Kiribati chain, as they get more rain then the other atolls; making their lands much more lush and green.  It was like entering a tropical rain forest.  We had noticed an increase in parties (or meetings) as it got closer and closer to Christmas ... Butaritari seemed to be in full party mode, with music and dancing heard all along the streets as we explored.  We spent four nights in Butaritari, but the weather was mostly crap, with lots and lots of rain.  A bit tired of atoll exploring (they do all start to look the same after awhile), I spent most of the time on the boat, while Chris went in with John to walk around.

We departed on Sunday December 18th, finally on our last leg for Majuro, Marshall Islands, where we planned to sit out the remaining months of the cyclone season.

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