The other volunteers and I have spent the last week orienting and settling in on South Tarawa.
Right now though, I’m setting up home and ironing out some teething problems with our accommodation – plumbing and appliances. In Australia it’ll have been a big drama but here in Kiribati patience, resilience and innovative fixes will get you much further. Slowly but surely they’ve been fixed.
Home sweet home
The house gecko
I’m staying in this place with three other volunteers on Betio atoll, which is close to where we are working and a good immersion for my work with the local town council here.
Home to around 18,000 people, Betio has the main port and much of the industry and private sector work in South Tarawa. It is also where the Battle of Tarawa took place between the US and Japan during the Second World War.
I have a constant reminder of this legacy thanks for our very own bunker in our backyard.
Backyard bunker in Betio
Once I settle in, I get to enjoy seeing gun turrets, a memorial and more bunkers dotted around the western part of the island on runs/walks/strolls.
But there is much more to South Tarawa than just Betio. South Tarawa comprises a long but narrow chain of islets and villages connected by causeways from Betio in the west to Bonriki in the east.
Official topographic map of Tarawa (just the southern part)
My first glimpse of South Tarawa
Perhaps it’s the new environment but it’s been a lot to take in despite taking orientation at a comfortable pace appropriate for the climate.
Our home for the first few days was Mary’s Motel on the main commercial hub of Bairiki, where some of ministries, the diplomatic missions and the bank (ANZ – the only one) are located.
Dining companions at Mary’s Motel
The volunteers and I have also visited the main markets, the cultural centre, and eaten plenty of hearty big portions in our meals. There is a small but friendly community of imitang (foreigners, more specifically white people) who have come from all over to live and work with the I-Kiribati. A bunch of us had a lovely meal at the picturesque seaside Dreamers guest house in Ambo – so idyllic!
Dinner with a view
I’ve also received a warm welcome (and local feast) from the local town council with whom I will soon work. I was greeted with a local feast including a moimoto (coconut juice served in a coconut). Certainly compares favourably to the biscuits and pastries found at work welcome shindigs back home!
Having worked in government in Australia, it will be interesting to see how we can work together to tackle genuinely pressing policy problems with limited material resources.
Over the past few days we got our work permits, driving licences and had many opportunities to drive up and down the one main road. With ocean and lagoon views, I was constantly tempted to dive in but sadly much of the waters alongside South Tarawa are not suited to the more delicate constitutions of non I-Kiribati.
Almost half of I-Kiribati live in this half of the atoll. South Tarawa, and Kiribati more generally, has a especially laid-back, down-home charm that sets it apart from other Pacific islands. Consistently hot and humid days means it make sense to leave the phrenetic pace of the Global North far behind. Geographic remoteness and a limited natural resource base means daily conveniences those in the Global North take for granted are not available or they take time to become available.
I admit this will be a big adjustment for me, but it is one I welcome.