Kiribati For Travelers – An IgNITE Magazine Travel Adventure

By: Gerda Pentinga


Kiribati, Tarawa, Betio, Where?

As our Fiji Airlines plane approached Tarawa, the pilot announced: “We are aborting the landing and will circle until the dogs that are frolicking on the runway are removed”. It was then that I knew this place was for me. Me? I am a Traveler not a tourist and I love the places in our world that bring new experiences, new adventures. Kiribati is just such a place.

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War Relics

Located in the Central Pacific with a population of about 100,000 it is made up of 33 atoll and reef islands and one raised coral island. Nearly one half of the people live on Tarawa Island making it as crowded as Hong Kong or Tokyo. Formerly a member of the British Empire as the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati gained its independence in 1979. Inhabited by Micronesians since 3,000 BC. Occupation by the Japanese during WWII was ended by the Battle of Tarawa when the U.S Marines landed in November, 1943 and fought one of the bloodiest battles in their history. Evidence of the battle remains much as it has for the last 72 years and is a must see. Today Kiribati remains as one of the world’s poorest countries with few natural resources and limited ability to grow food due to poor soil and frequent drought. Tourism, fishing licenses and worker remittances, primarily from work on foreign shipping lines, are the primary sources of income. Kiribati is much in the news today based on the prediction that it will be the first country flooded should ocean levels rise.

As we land I am amazed to see children and adults lining the runway jumping and clapping. What a wonderful welcome to this new land.

I did not choose Kiribati, Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) chose me. Living in Christchurch, NZ the devastating earthquake that destroyed our beautiful city shook my life equally as deeply. 185 people died and my job disappeared overnight. Since arriving in New Zealand after living in many different countries my work as an EFL teacher had been my connection to the world. Students from Arabic countriesJapan, Taiwan, Brazil and China had helped me build bridges to different cultures and I yearned for that feeling. Yet, as I sought another job I joined thousands doing the same thing.

Then I saw and advert for VSA (Volunteer Services Abroad) New Zealand that sounded exactly like me. The next thing I knew I was on the airplane headed for Tarawa (the main island) via Auckland, Fiji and finally to the dog’s playground runway in Tarawa to teach English once again.

Picking up my bags I turned to see my name on a card held by one of the throng of people doing the same. People are pushing, shouting, laughing and crying as they welcome home sailors who have been away for extended periods. The welcoming feeling fills me with warmth every time I return. On later trips I discovered that while there are no taxis here you’ll find many locals happy to give you a lift for free so don’t worry about being stranded at the airport.

There is only one main road on the island and it is between 28 and 32 km in length, depending on whom you ask.  The road is always being fixed; some parts are new, yet others nothing but sand, broken concrete, holes and at times water-filled and very muddy. Kiribati1 - Version 3

Rental cars are few and old. Public transport is on mini buses; most of them look like they are ready for the scrap yard presenting a challenging experience that you won’t want to miss.  It is not unusual to be handed a small child for your lap while young men sit on the laps of their girlfriends and wives. People are squeezed in and often sit on an extra box or plastic bucket on the floor all of this to the sounds of loud music.

On the side of the road are many small shops, selling sugar, rice, flour, canned food and sweets along with a limited selection of frozen food, all imported.

Rice is served with every meal along with lots of stir-fried imported chicken and locally caught fish. Meat is often canned corned beef or spam. Pigs are the only source of local meat and you will see them everywhere.


The Faces of Kiribati

There are 5 or 6 hotels on the island. The rooms are simple but clean and sometimes have air-conditioning. Most of them have hot and cold showers. Checking the water supply should be your first priority as well water here is not safe to drink and rain water while safe needs to be boiled first.

Nature shows itself from its best side when you travel to North Tarawa where few people live.  The beaches and water are clean and spectacularly beautiful. Many kia kia’s  (open huts) have been built above the water where you can lie in a hammock out of the sun and feel the fingers of the breeze which is always present. Fresh fish, coconuts, breadfruit, pawpaw and bananas are plentiful providing true south sea’s delights. Walk or boat to Tabuki in North Tarawa, close to the “Broken Bridge” for a real treat.

Kiribati is very special and more than anything else it’s the people. They are beautiful, kind, very friendly and at the same time will not interfere with you if you do not wish to have company. Even though the island is very poor, people take care of each other and no one suffers from hunger. Children play on the side of the street perfectly happy with sand, water, sticks and stones as their toys in a true contrast to kids in the most parts of the world.Kiribati3

Locals love to invite visitors to their parties usually held in one of the communities many maniabas (local community halls) that are open on all sides with a large roof made of pandanus leaves over a concrete floor. If you are lucky you’ll have the chance to enjoy this delightful experience.  On non-party days maniabas are used by older women for napping away from their noisy family life and to play bingo. . I-Kiribati celebrate 1st birthdays and 21st birthdays with huge parties and an incredible array of delicious food, whole roasted pigs, and “I do mean” the whole pig!  Dancing is a staple of Kiribati parties and requires an I-Matang (white person) to honor every dance invitation, be it from a 14-year-old boy, a 70-year “young” grandmother or a pretty young girl or young man.  The I-Kiribati sing and dance in a way that totally captivates and moves me.

Kiribati is for travelers with a capital T.  Mellow, relaxed, with few of the perks of tourism, a connection to the past and a culture of sharing, helping and loving. Hopefully I’ll see you on the beaches or have a chance to share a dance at one of the island’s parties. Join me!