National Day five-day long weekend

National Day five-day long weekend

I should be back at work after a mostly relaxing five days off from three public holidays but instead I am nursing myself back from a persistent headache and stomach ache. Resting at home is slowly and surely helping with the recovery.

But we’re not here to wallow in my infirmity. Last week was a two day work week with Gospel Day on Wednesday 11 July, National Day on Thursday 12 July and Culture Day on Friday 13 July and the weekend.

The Government has organised a week of events and festivities including sporting competitions for soccer, volleyball, weightlifting; and talent competitions for youth dance, traditional dance and singing. Events culminated on the Thursday with the National Day parade and an invitation-only National Day banquet.

Now that my flatmate and I have a car, we were able to check out a few of the festivities.

On Monday night, we went to Bairiki to check out the youth dancing competition at the National Stadium. Hip-hop was the flavour of the times, as was surprisingly high-tempo chipmunky music and dancing.

So tempted to double the tempo!

That’s more like it!

Safety first folks – the competition moved off the stage as the stage carpeting could not be straightened, creating a trip hazard.

On the Wednesday public holiday, my flatmate and I went to the civic centre of South Tarawa, Bairiki, to watch the sports competitions. The I-Kiribati take a lot of pride in their weightlifting prowess, which has helped them secure medals at the Commonwealth Games. Luckily, we got to see the women’s competition as that sadly has a lower profile.

The women got up to lifting 70 kg

There was also a soccer match at the National Stadium which we enjoyed after ice creams from across the road (one gets to recognise and savour the simple pleasures in life here).

The National Stadium is the site for Kiribati’s National Day Parade, which took place the next day (Thursday 12 July) from 6 am. Perhaps we have assimilated a bit too much by thinking the parade would not start punctually and that we would not miss out on it if we went at more sociable hours. Unfortunately no pictures from the parade as it started more or less punctually at 6:10am and the official proceedings finished around 8:00am.

While we failed to rock up to the parade on time, we still made the cut for an invitation by the President to the National Day Banquet at the State House that afternoon.

Much obliged Your Excellency but ‘Island formal’…?

Island formal top โœ…

Island formal bottom ๐Ÿ˜ฅ I actually did not bring any formal shoes so my flatmate kindly lent his. I am of course truly thankful but let’s just say it was a very snug fit!

The National Day banquet was a hallmark of Kiribati botakis. There were:

  • The bookend speeches by the President (who honoured us with his gift of poetry)
  • Dancing with dignitaries, and
  • More formal dance performances – finally some traditional dancing (performed by the winners of the week’s dancing competition)

The food and drink were plentiful – alcohol was on the tab and flowed freely but there was a real melee for the generously stacked buffet tables.

Feeding frenzy under the maneaba. As an aside, I’ve changed my buffet eating strategy here, foregoing the high value seafood and aiming for the even rarer fresh fruit and vegetables!

Festive cakes – the I-Kiribati love their icing

After two failed attempts to meet the President, I finally got to shake the President’s hand twice on arrival and at the end of formal festivities (he was kind enough to let us stay for another two hours afterwards)

But no selfie – that honour goes to another Australian Volunteer

The night was still young and we ended up going to after parties further down South Tarawa

The National Stadium was heaving with activity at night

A bit too early for this (so says the imitang that sang thrice ๐Ÿ˜…)

Dancing at the Otintaai (Sunrise)

After a rather active week, we ended the weekend with a casual get-together in Bairiki with gorgeous sea views and a scenic Sunday drive to Buota in North Tarawa.

Lovely seascape from the eastern tip of Bairiki

Tintin’s trying to catch flies

Buota Lodge – looking out to sea

Sunset from the Betio Causeway

Hopefully I’m on the mend as this weekend my flatmate and I will be flying off to an outer island. But I’ll leave that for my next blog post.

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Freedom and personal challenges on six wheels

Freedom and personal challenges on six wheels


Freedom on four wheels…

A short blog post for a short work week ahead of three consecutive public holidays – or a five-day long weekend – to celebrate 39 years of Kiribati independence. Stay tuned for that on my next blog post.

With exquisite timing, my flatmate and I have a set of wheels to check out the Independence long weekend festivities, culminating on the big parade on the day itself – Thursday 12 July. Beyond that, the car truly is freedom on four wheels. Trips to other parts of South Tarawa won’t be at the mercy of random and patchy minibus services. We can even drive to Buota and explore the southern reaches of North Tarawa to relax and swim.

So that’s freedom on four wheels, but where’s the challenge?

With the car, my flatmate finally got around to buying a pushbike. With a pushbike one can carry or ride it across the channel at low tide to explore further into North Tarawa. It’s also a good way to exercise outdoors and go explore South Tarawa.

… and my personal challenge on two wheels

This is all easy for many but I an one of the very exceptional people who does not know how to ride a pushbike. I tried as a child and twice as an adult but I gave up too easily and did not persist.

My flatmate has generously offered me use of his bike so I can finally learn – probably because my falling out would also offer great comedic value! A friend of mine will also give me her bike when she leaves in a few weeks, so I have no excuse with a bike of my own. I may bruise easily from falling badly and falling often but I am determined to learn and succeed.

So this year isn’t just about overcoming working challenges but also overcoming life challenges. Sure, pay me out for missing out on one of life’s rite of passages, but I’m hoping this public accountability will give me the extra push to make this third time lucky. Join me for my pushbike personal challenge progress and probably a lot of PKing (ไป†่ก— pook kai in Cantonese) – literally falling in the street and figuratively suffering absolute humiliation! ๐Ÿ˜

Two months in

Two months in

Trying to grow a beard and mo and failing…

This post will be brief as I’ve back all of three days from a week and a half back home.

Nevertheless, time seems to have flown by and I’m already 1/6th done with my assignment here. I don’t feel like I have done much and there is so little time to go, particularly with my unexpected trip home.

Kiribati feels as it is in a world or dimension of its own – like going through the rabbit hole as Alice in Wonderland did. I consciously felt that when seeing Tarawa so small below me as the plane hurtled me away from Kiribati.

The remoteness and lack of connectivity probably exacerbates Kiribati’s ‘other-worldliness’, as well as returning to knowing my flatmate, friends and my boss (the town mayor) are are sick with various ailments such as dengue fever, flu, or diabetes-induced heart problems. Being sick is no fun here – medication is available but limited, you have to rely on your own resources to get to hospital, and once there you’re in a bed outdoors, albeit sheltered, but exposed to the wind and rain. I’ve been relatively lucky in recovering quickly from a welcome back gift of Betio Belly.

I’ve been spending this weekend taking it relatively easy as both my flatmate and I are recovering from our respective illnesses. I reckon the planets aligned as otherwise we were supposed to be spending a weekend on an outer island. But late Thursday afternoon we were informed with less than 12 hours notice that out flight on Friday had been rescheduled from 3pm to 6am.

This is usually not a problem but if you do not have your own means of taking the 1.5 to 2 hour trip to the airport from Betio then you will need to rely to someone with a car to give you a lift. While we have friends and colleagues who might’ve taken us to the airport, I think we would’ve stretched their goodwill by asking for a lift at 3am.

There are only three taxis which run only during business hours and must be pre-booked and not hailed from the street. Otherwise the only public transport is the minibuses that run on the main road from the Betio end of South Tarawa to the Temaiku end of South Tarawa, and occasionally to Buota in North Tarawa. Fares are affordable for imitang (foreigners) with a flagfall of $0.80 to $1.70, but the buses only run from 6:00 am until 10:00pm.

Minibus in Kiribati – luckily it was not completely full with standing room for 3 people

As an aside, the minibuses can get crowded as the only form of public transport as people haul their shopping such as bags of rice or gas stoves, or bring several kids in tow. Nevertheless, they are a fascinating opportunity to people-watch and even zone out as the super-loud boppy Kiribati music overwhelms your ears and sends you into a trance (and helps make going over the many speed humps on the main road, or the bumpy causeway out of Betio somewhat more bearable).

Go for the commute, stay for the ear-splitting music

Luckily we have rescheduled our outer island trip to three weeks’ time – one week after the big five-day Independence Day long weekend (public holidays on the Wednesday to Friday). By that time we’ll also have some help to get us to the airport in the event of another short-notice reschedule. Stay tuned for that in the next blog post.

Also on a positive note, the freighter has called into Tarawa laden with groceries and consumer goods. This means we’ve indulged by splurging on pricey but much needed fresh fruit, which will help my flatmate and I recover.

Until then, while it was great to catch up with loved ones and friends back home, I’m glad to be back through the rabbit hole again. ๐Ÿ˜ I’m thankful for the friends and colleagues that are part of my life and even thankful for the many differences and, yes, frustrations the relaxed life here brings, for without these my experience to date would not be so memorable and engaging.

Betio Walkabout

Betio Walkabout

After last week’s bumper update, I’ll keep this one less text-heavy and let the pics do the talking. But before I do, two things to ‘look forward’ to:

  1. My flatmate and I will be off to an outer island at the end of the month – stay tuned for the blog post
  2. Thanks to antibiotics, I am recovering from a staph infection mostly on my legs. I’ll spare you the pictures but it was not pretty.

I’ll also be back in Sydney for a short visit due to family reasons. It’s never easy when issues crop up back home as you feel powerless to help being so far away. Nevertheless, I look forward to this unexpected opportunity to catch up with friends and of course family.

With that aside, let’s learn more about Betio.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I live and work on the islet of Betio in South Tarawa but I haven’t yet shown what my home for the year looks like.

Firstly, a geography recap.

Kiribati is where the red oval is in the Central Pacific:

The circle and the star mark where Tarawa atoll is in Kiribati

Betio is in the far south-west of Tarawa:

… and a closer view of Betio

Let’s start at the far eastern end of Betio (far right of the map above), where the causeway links Betio with Bairiki and the rest of South Tarawa.

Right next to the causeway is Taiwan Park, which I presume was named after 2003 when Kiribati decided to recognise Taipei rather than Beijing.

Taiwan Park is incidentally where there are quite a few remnants of the World War II Battle of Tarawa that put Betio on the map.

Going west along the Main Road is Betio Town Council

Around the next westward bend is the Police Headquarters and its Parade Ground

Just west of the Police Headquarters, the main road splits into two forming a loop around Betio. At this point, it might be easier to take on the local sense of direction which doesn’t refer to left or right but lagoon side or ocean side.

We’ll turn right at the split and head lagoon side (and anti-clockwise), where not far from the junction is the Marine Training Centre, a key enabler for seafaring as one of Kiribati’s key industries.

There’s a nice beach along the lagoon

The beach provides an overview of the long pier at Betio Port, Kiribati’s main freight link to the rest of the world.

Up from the beach is the Betio Mormon temple, built next to an old World War II bunker. Mormon buildings typically stand out because the facilities look brand new and the grounds are immaculate.

We’ll go off the main road to get closer to the lagoon, which takes us to the legal precinct comprising the Magistrates’ Court (not pictured) and the High Court (pictured below)

Further up around the corner from the High Court is the Betio campus of the Kiribati Institute of Technology.

Still hugging the lagoon is the pier for the smaller fishing boats and ferries to the outer islands of Kiribati.

On the other side of the wharf is Betio landfill, the entrance to which plays host to a basketball court with two relics from World War 2.

Heading away from the port, we arrive at the commercial heart of Betio with its pretty roundabout. The major supermarkets are nearby with the advantage of getting the first stocks off the freighter that comes once a month.

It’s around here that you find a pub with a bold claim.

Probably more amazing later into the night

If drinking is not your thing then perhaps you could while some hours away at the Betio Sports Complex

If your needs are more spiritual, then perhaps stop by at the Betio Catholic Church, though be warned that during mass services the gates are locked until the end of the mass.

The main road turns from the lagoon side to the ocean side, where the beautiful Betio cemetery is located by the beach. The cemetery also has a memorial to Australians, British and New Zealanders killed during the Japanese occupation of Tarawa.

Down from the cemetery is one of two Betio Lodges, distinct entities but owned by the same enterprise.

In between the two Betio Lodges is the George Hotel.

Which is conveniently located opposite Betio’s busiest nighttime venue Marina, with an intimate dance floor, lovely chillout area and karaoke. The 2am closedown reminds me of Sydney when all types of inebriated patrons spill out – some happy, some sleepy and some cranky.

Betio hosts another Catholic church which may or may not lock their gates during services.

Round the bend from the church is the other Betio Lodge, which has a more substantial social presence through the Betio Game Fishing Club.

A little down from the other Betio Lodge and we are back at the intersection near the Marine Training Centre.

So that’s the sights of my home island of Betio in a nutshell.

As I noted at the start of the blog post, I’ll be returning to Sydney for the next week and a half for family reasons. I’ll be back at the end of the month with a trip to an outer island.

One month in…

One month in…

I’ve been in South Tarawa, Kiribati, for one month now and time has surprisingly flown by in a part of the world where the pace of life is much more relaxed. It hasn’t been smooth sailing but I’ve been surprised by how resilient I’ve been despite these difficulties that would have been mini-crises back home in Australia…

Apologies for a long random post with grab-bag of what’s happened in the last two weeks but there isn’t much of a stand-out narrative over the past two weeks because of…

New accommodation

Kiribati has not as well blessed as other countries with natural resources – its small sandy atolls yield only coconuts and swamp taros, and an capital atoll struggles to adequately meet the water needs of its booming population.

Being imitangs (foreigners) brings immense privileges, and one of them is housing. I’ve been sharing with three others in a lovely house in Betio wrapped around a verandah with a lovely front garden. Sadly our stay at that house has come to an end as we’ve encountered significant water issues.

Bye bye Betio bunker – I will miss you, just not the constant water economising…

I acknowledge imitangs definitely use a lot more water every day and we take it for granted as water is always on tap and on demand. No one in Kiribati has that luxury. The wealthier get their water from water tanks with water refills delivered by truck by the Public Utilities Board or harvested from rainwater. The not so wealthy rely on well water, which draws on an overused fresh water lens of diminishing quality due to salinity and contamination.

With four of us, we had two 4000L water tanks but only one was operational. That meant we went through 4000L every week and had to order refills every week. It did not help that we had significant plumbing issues (toilet inlet and outlet, and laundry) which squandered a lot of the precious water. Each week was touch and go, limiting ourselves to military-style one minute showers, limited toilet flushing (once the plumbing issues were fixed), and be sparing in doing laundry (which is somewhat harder for a real ‘sweater’ like me in a tropical climate). Even with these economies, we still exhausted our supply.

So the quartet has split and I am sharing with only one other volunteer (the other two are a couple), but boy our new accommodation is a world of difference!

Our new home is a serviced apartment in a hotel with two locations. The air conditioning works so well the living area does not need additional cooling if one keeps the bedroom doors open. There is a little kitchenette area so we can still cook.

Living in the lap of (relative) luxury

We are paying extra but included in that is electricity, water, laundry, wifi and breakfast. There is a common area with satellite TV. It almost feels like we’re not in Kiribati…

Of course we would still like an extra few things to make the apartment more complete but these are relatively minor and can be fixed in time.

Kiribati is definitely a good growth opportunity for being more adaptable and resilient. Nothing comes easily here so ones savours them so much more when things do happen…

Socialising

Living abroad in an unfamiliar environment typically means a pretty vibrant expatriate community. All types come to Kiribati so there are a wealth of activities to cover the breadth of people that end up on these shores.

I chalked up my first Hash with the Tarawa Hash House Harriers when the hash was held on Betio. Luckily the Tarawa chapter is pretty chilled as I struggle to get to a good pace even in more temperate climates, and best yet there are still post-hash drinks. I wouldn’t mind going to more hashes but right now without a car, traipsing the atoll at a top speed of 40 km/h on minivans that serve as public buses is quite restrictive…

I’m not hiding on purpose but we were pretty happy campers after the hash

The Australian High Commission in Tarawa takes its consular responsibilities seriously, and that includes the general wellbeing of Australians in Kiribati. The High Commission opens its pool and tennis/basketball court every Wednesday afternoon for Sports Day (which government ministries and my workplace also have on Wednesday). As one of the few places with a swimming pool (and suitable for the delicate imitang constitutions), being able to take a swim during the weekend has been a treat. On a larger scale, the High Commission also opens the chancery grounds for a monthly sundowner catchup over drinks and a sausage sizzle. Of course, these provides a forum to meet and chat with other Aussies, Kiwis and others who find their way to Kiribati.

Imitang arrivals and departures also provide an opportunity to have a botaki (party). These can be get-togethers at a bar or restaurant, or more often, held at someone’s home on a pot luck and BYO basis. That means each attendee prepares and brings food to share, and bring your own drinks or drinks to share. Despite the lack of variety and convenience in groceries, imitang have gone to great lengths to make a good spread. One botaki where the guest of honour was a vegetarian delivered with pasta, couscous, potato salad, chips (not crisps), fresh baked brownies and biscuits, freshly fried cheese croquettes or takoyaki (Japanese octopus balls), and a lovely cake.

Living in Betio does has an advantage in that it is home to the Betio Game Fishing Club, which hosts monthly fishing competitions that are taken very seriously. If you are lucky enough to snag a ride on one of the fishing boats, then expect an early start (3:00 am), no free-riding (all hands on deck to haul the fish aboard), and a long day with the weighing open to the public starting from 5:30pm.

Check out the 64lb sailfish – which equalled the annual record for sailfish but marginally less than the all-time record of 83 (?) lb.

The Game Fishing Club also holds trivia on the Thursday after the fishing competition. My flatmate and I went along and surprisingly won! Aside from kudos, each participant pays $2 into a kitty. The winning team gets to donate the kitty to a charity of their choice, and the team that comes second gets to write the questions for the next trivia. We donated the kitty to the Kiribati School and Centre for Children with Special Needs.

Otherwise, socialising does not differ greatly from elsewhere with bars and restaurants providing ample opportunities to unwind and catch up with friends old and new.

One big hole in my social circle is the lack of i-Kiribati. These ties will take time to develop and I’ll need to put more effort into it. For now though, joining in extracurricular activities and chatting over breakfast or lunch are helping me to slowly but surely build those local links. Of course local botakis also help, such as…

Betio Day Closing Ceremony

Last weekend, I attended the Betio Day closing ceremony at the Betio Sports Complex, drawing an end to a month of festivities, workshops and competitions (including some mean break dancing) to celebrate 46 years of local government in Betio. The President was invited but once again was unable to attend. But that did not stop the rest of us having fun!

The closing ceremony featured awards for sports competitions, dancing school kids, and my favourite dancer from the opening ceremony.

Luckily I had worked up an appetite from moving to our new accommodation on that day as the catering spread was impressive including a whole roast pig and moist chocolate cake.

Array of home cooked dishes for attendees to feast on

The ‘hero’ of the catering spread – the only thing left was the head…

I no longer take fresh greens and cherry tomatoes for granted – this was a rare and unexpected find at a very i-Kiribati botaki

Nothing from the spread was wasted and the staff, sports competition clubs, schoolkids and spectators helped themselves to dinner and to leftovers.

This botaki wrapped up early which was just as well as I looking forward to finally be…

Wading to North Tarawa

Living in South Tarawa makes one truly appreciate the value of water for its life-giving and cooling properties. Aside from the potable water supply issues, I find that living in South Tarawa is a case of ‘water, water everywhere and not a drop to swim in’ as imitang like myself do not have immunity against what lurks in the waters around South Tarawa.

If one is desperate for a swim aside from a scant hour once a week at the Australian High Commission, imitang have limited options, the more feasible being:

  • swimming on the ocean side of the causeway linking Bairiki and Betio and at high tide

Or

  • Heading to North Tarawa

As a geography nerd, tide charts and timings were a niche or incidental interest back home – it didn’t really matter as I don’t sail/boat and there are pools and beaches a plenty. But like many things in South Tarawa, even swimming needs some planning. Swimming at the causeway is impractical and the sweet spot is at the channel linking the lagoon to the sea in the middle of the causeway. The causeway itself is a mound of dust and gravel as it is currently under reconstruction, so there is nowhere to park unless you don’t mind walking 2-3 km from Bairiki or Betio on a dusty, narrow construction site. As inconvenient as that is, that doesn’t deter an Australian consultant who surfs there when the planets align…

Fancy this way for a swim?

Realistically that leaves North Tarawa…

Fortunately there is on part of North Tarawa that is accessible by car from past the airport. Another Australian Volunteer had a car for the weekend so we were able to wade across to Tabon te Keekee in North Tarawa for a few Sunday afternoon drinks.

This is looking north to Abatao, towards which we waded. I didn’t risk taking my phone across lest I dropped it.

Active life, active work

On the work front, I’ve formalised my assignment plan which is quite ambitious. I will have three main tasks:

  • Support implementation of the local council’s strategic plan by identifying and seeking approval for key implementation activities
  • Update council bye-laws, some of which were drafted from before independence in 1979
  • Create guidelines on current and new bye-laws, and on how to create or update bye-laws and on how to enforce them

So despite all the idyllic pictures and relaxed pace, I won’t exactly be on vacation. I’m looking forward to what work and life has to offer in the 11 months ahead. For now, I think I have managed to achieve what I long missed – work-life balance! Stay tuned to see how well I fare in keeping that up!

Art of the botaki (party Kiribati style) – first impressions

Art of the botaki (party Kiribati style) – first impressions

One of the highlights of the Kiribati lifestyle are the botakis (parties). Botakis offer an opportunity for I-Kiribati to celebrate and show off their absolutely superior dancing moves.

From the few I’ve been in, botakis seem to need the following (in order of importance):

  • Dancing: if there is one standout relatively unknown soft-power tool, it is the I-Kiribati talent for dancing. From cradle to grave, pretty much any I-Kiribati could out-dance any non-professional imitang (foreigner), and could give the professionals a run for their money. You know there is no contest when kids and oldies can out-twerk Miley Cyrus and even make Nicki Minaj blush with their hip work ๐Ÿ˜…. Unlike for the more inhibited imitang, the I-Kiribati don’t necessarily need alcohol as a lubricant or motivator for dancing.

I’d be a happy man if I could dance like that in my old age!

  • Music: with dancing must come the music. The I-Kiribati have a fondness for upbeat, loud and ‘boppy’ music. For the untrained and unappreciative imitang they can meld into one another, but no matter your opinion, these anthems are a constant companion in botakis, on the public buses, and at any public or not so public event.
  • MC: like the music, the master of ceremonies (MC) is there to keep proceedings at a relatively lively and upbeat pace. The MC is not just there to introduce the botaki program segments, but has power to determine what type of dancing should occur, cajole people to participate in the dancing, cue applause, and fill in any possible quiet patch with peppy banter.
  • Food: the emphasis here is on quantity – tasty proteins (fish, chicken, pork and others…) served with rice, breads, bananas, instant noodles, taro or breadfruit. Moimotos (young coconuts) are available for honoured guests. Some botakis are dry (no alcohol), though toddy and beer can be served after the official event.

Last weekend, work kicked off a two-week Betio Day celebrations with an opening ceremony. Staff spent the Friday before decorating the building and the results were quite spiffy.

All the staff had special gear to wear – tailor-made dresses for the ladies and tailor-made shirts for the gents.

Pre-event photo with some of my colleagues

This was topped off with a garland of fresh flowers on top of the head.

All kitted up and ready to botaki (even if I’m sweating buckets)

Formal proceedings may vary but will include a prayer, speeches,dance performances, and dance participation. In somewhat old school style, you go to someone of the opposite sex and and lay your arms out and palms open as an invitation to dance. It is rude not to accept but if you really don’t want to dance, it helps to have a sidekick who can take over after a perfunctory jive or few.

Minister of Fisheries opens proceedings – the President sends his apologies

The Mayor talks about the latest changes in Betio

Traditional dance

Not so traditional dance

Happy dance

‘Don’t think you imitang will get away with not dancing’ dance

This was an official event so people are somewhat more sedate (!) compared to the more raucous enthusiasm at the Mother’s Day botaki we attended in North Tarawa. At that event, we were playfully cajoled into dancing like we were on motorcycles, or carrying a pumpkin, or just general silliness. For example if a lady uses her arms to form a roof over her head, you are to put your head under the roof and plant a kiss on the cheek. Of course, I only found out this was what was to be done after doing the entirely wrong thing ๐Ÿ˜….

Mercifully for potentially sore legs and back, the Betio Day opening ceremony did not turn into a dance-dance marathon. Lunch was soon served with the typically generous lashings of carbohydrates and meat.

With lunch and a quick tour of the council grounds, the official event was over but partying was not. The staff chilled out with coconut toddy for the rest of the afternoon. Luckily I got a taste of the spicy and sour liquor as I was unable to join the crew in an afternoon of toddy-drinking.

Happy Paddy with my toddy…

I was happy to take part in the festivities for the Betio Day opening ceremony. I hear there will be a closing ceremony botaki on a weekend evening, which I suspect will be livelier yet.

If you are ever invited to a botaki, go with the flow and embrace its spirit – you won’t regret it!

A tale of two Tarawas – a cultural weekend in North Tarawa

Last weekend the fellow volunteers and I completed our in-country orientation on North Tarawa. While North and South Tarawa are on the same atoll, the environment and lifestyle between the two are worlds apart. In these two aspects, North Tarawa resembles the Outer Islands on Kiribati more so than its southern neighbour. This difference provided us newbie volunteers a first taste of a more traditional i-Kiribati lifestyle.

We spent our weekend with Kabaneiti and Peter on the island of Nabeina, which is towards the south of the islets making up North Tarawa.

Location of Nabeina (red circle) on Tarawa atoll. North Tarawa comprises the islets north of Bonriki. The white-bordered blue circle is Betio, where I live.

Day 1

We left work early and headed across the lagoon by boat. The breeze on the boat provided welcome relief from the heat.

En route to North Tarawa

Our accommodation for the weekend was a little camp on the outskirts of the village. We slept in kiakias (raised huts with beds) surrounding a maneaba (meeting house) where we had our meals, lessons and cultural activities.

Our camp for the weekend

We were welcomed with moimotos (young coconuts), which was a welcome refresher with its sweet coconut juice and coconut flesh.

Moimoto

We then had a stroll around the village. Unlike South Tarawa, there were no cars, no real blaring music, just the occasional dog bark, pig oink, or rooster crow.

Babai (swamp taro) pit – we’ll meet again soon :s

This should be self-explanatory, right?The huts are made of coconut and pandanus leavesLocal schoolThe main drag

#pigsofnabeina #postandpresucklings

We were treated to a lovely sunset – I don’t think I’ll get tired of the sunsets here.

You get the picture ๐Ÿ™‚

Sleeping on the kiakias was lovely as it was a breezy night – felt cooler even than with the aircon in my room at my accommodation! Just as well, as the next day was action packed…

Day 2

First order of business after breakfast was learning how to make string out of coconut husks.

You begin with individual strands of coconut husks, which you roll together to make a thicker strands.

The expert at workMy meagre efforts

The harder part (which I totally failed) was to twirl these in thicker strands into a braid-like rope.

Raw material above to final product below

After feebly attempting to make string, it was our turn to muck in the mud to cultivate swamp taro (babai) which grows in sunken pits.

We meet again… :s

Preparing the babai plant is a messy and painful process. Not only is there ‘frolicking in the mud’, but the babai plants have sharp prickles on the stems and branches. I have many a small cut to show I mucked in.

You get tied up pandanus leaves (with prickles) to wrap around the babai plant.

Layering the babai cake

This forms a natural pot within which you fill with leaves as mulch, then cover with mud. Then one repeats the process with another wheel of pandanus leaves, fill with mulch and then cover with mud – just like layering a cake. Finally you cover the top with dried pandanus or babai branches.

Luckily the next activity was much more relaxing – cooking our own fish.

The crew at lunch (minus one taking the photo)

After lunch, we had a lesson in the Kiribati language taetae ni Kiribati. Following which, the ladies got to experience the intricacies of weaving mats out of coconut tree leaves.

The results after many hours and attempts at getting the weave right…

We finally had the chance to swim – the waters around North Tarawa are better suited to the delicate constitutions of the imitang (non i-Kiribati).

No rest for the wicked though as tonight was the night for a big botaki (party) for Mother’s Day. Similar to parties in Spain and Argentina, botakis in Kiribati start late – at 9pm…

Luckily we were able to while the time away watching the sunset at low tide and see toddy being cut.

Another lovely sunset

We were supposed to try cutting toddy ourselves. While the coconut trees have notches, seems I would have been too inflexible and would’ve made a lovely contribution to Kiribati’s Funniest Home Videos :p

We were privileged to join in the Nabeina celebrations for Mother’s Day, which was held in the maneaba (meeting hall) in the village. The maneaba has a tall roof supported by low supporting beams. Anyone entering the maneaba must crouch or bow to show respect to the umwiane (community leaders, mostly men). There is a certain etiquette one must follow when inside a maneaba but I might leave that for another time…

Example of a maneaba from the outside

Inside the maneaba

Botakis are quite lively events with an emphasis on dancing pretty much non-stop for 90 minutes (with 30 minutes to eat). Our group of imitang ended up being entertainment ask we were asked dance after dance after dance to join in. Nabeina is a dry (no alcohol) island and yet the Nabeinans had enthusiasm on tap.

Each family also brought their own feasts to enjoy – we supped on roast pork, fish, babai, rice, breadfruit, cake and ice cream.

Sadly us imitang were danced out and no match for the Duracell Bunny of an MC and were mercifully granted permission to leave early.

Day 3 ended up being pretty cruisy with breakfast, a final stroll and lunch before boarding the boat back to South Tarawa.

All in all, the weekend in North Tarawa was a lovely break from the bustle of South Tarawa and good introduction into the traditional i-Kiribati lifestyle. I hope I get to visit Nabeina again.