We leave Tuvalu and sail for seven days, until we arrive at Tarawa, Kiribati's main island. Lagoons often have an entrance which is difficult to navigate, with a lot of shallows, but here the route is clearly marked with buoys, the channel is wide and we reach our anchorage without any problems. The wind blows across the lagoon and makes Happy bounce on the waves. We contact customs via marine telephone and we are told that we have to pick up officials from immigration, the health service and customs. So we inflate our Mini and Hans goes ashore to pick up these people. Back on the boat all the paperwork is completed. The customs official asks whether we have a nil list. A what? A nil list turns out to be a list of things we don't have on board, such as weapons, pets, drugs, stowaways, et cetera. We take a blank piece of paper and, following the official's instructions, we make a nice list, complete with our signatures and a Happy Monster stamp.
Dory notices how the girl from the health service is slowly but surely starting to turn green. We quickly move her out of the saloon into the cockpit and she barely manages to keep her lunch down. Fortunately for her, we have completed all formalities, so we can take everyone back to the shore. The customs official is the last one to step into our Mini Monster. He almost ends up in the water, then he sits on our outboard motor and after he almost ends up in Hans' arms on the next wave, he finally manages to sit down on the side of our Mini. After a wet return trip, everyone is safely back on shore.
National sports days
We are allowed to watch everything from the stands at the Bairiki sports field: all the athletes from all of Kiribati's islands parade past us, preceded by a police drum band. Every team wears their own shirts, it is all very colourful. And just like at the Olympics, every team is preceded by an athlete carrying a sign with the name of the island. It takes forever for all thirty islands to parade past us. Then we are treated to a traditional dance. The dancers look magnificent in clothes made of material from the versatile pandanus tree. We were not invited, but we are still allowed to sit on the stands. This is thanks to the colour of our skin. No matter how tanned we are, it is of course obvious that we are foreigners, which makes us very welcome in Kiribati. It is probably also because this country is not flooded by tourists yet. We are even offered drinks and delicious snacks while the dancers are putting their best (bare) foot forward.
After the dance, the sports event, which will last for fourteen days, is officially opened with races for disabled athletes. The wheelchair athletes are up first, there are at least fifteen of them, all with the same type of wheelchair. They are divided in groups and are cheered on enthusiastically, there's a lot of laughter and the finish line is moved depending on the group's abilities. Then the blind athletes run their race, fortunately accompanied by a seeing athlete. Everyone is enjoying themselves, whether they win or lose.
We leave before all the speeches, in order to be back on our boat before it gets dark. We pay 80 Australian dollar cents to take the bus back to Betio, where Mini is dutifully waiting for us. We chug across the turbulent anchorage back to Happy, which is bouncing on the waves, and after having watched a film on our laptop, we are rocked to sleep.
A visit to the police
The anchorage at Betio is so turbulent that we soon decide to sail to another anchorage. At immigration, we report that we want to sail to the Abaiang atoll and they give us a letter stating that we are allowed to stay at Abaiang for a week. As soon as we arrive there, we have to give the letter to the police. We sail for a day and arrive at the heavenly atoll. The island is dominated by a lot of unspoilt nature and an ugly antenna mast. We drop our anchor near the ugly mast and the next day we go on shore, to find the police station. We find out that there is no police station and we are directed to the house of a police officer. He opens the door with a sleepy look, quickly ties a cloth around his waist and invites us to sit on a raised terrace in front of the house. We had noticed before that many houses have a terrace like that, where people often rest during the hottest part of the day. The roof above the terrace provides enough shade and it is a lot cooler than in the burning sun. The police officer looks at the letter for a while; judging by his pronunciation, his English isn't very good, but he manages to recognise our names. That is all he cares about really, we can stay as long as we want to. He wants to show us around his village. He puts on his police uniform and we walk around the small village. There is a new building for the 'council' and it has a hospital with open bungalows, which are currently empty by the looks of it. The traditional houses in the village are made of material from the pandanus tree, an indigenous tree from which almost all parts are used. The leaves are dried and used for roofs and fences. The trunks are used to make poles and slats, and the fruit is eaten like a kind of lollipop. Both children and adults chew on it. We have tried it, but it is tough and not as sweet as it looks. The police officer clearly enjoys being our guide and after we have emptied a coconut at his house, he offers to take us to Tabwiroa the next day. We don't know what exactly this is, but maybe we can use the internet there? Sometimes we find it very difficult to understand his English and we will see where we end up tomorrow.
Tabwiroa is not a village, but a school which has a very good reputation in Kiribati. Each year, students from this catholic school go to universities in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. "Our" police officer introduces us to the school's headmaster, whose English turns out to be surprisingly good. He was born in Kiribati, but has travelled around the world on huge container ships. We are made very welcome at the school and the next day they even organise a welcome party with food and dance for us and a couple of other visitors. At the party, we show a short slide show of our trip. The children here have only ever seen flat atolls, so when they see the slides of Europe there is a lot of oohing and aahing. Later that evening we are honoured with a coronation dance, during which a group of children put floral wreaths on our heads. At the end of the evening some pounding music is put on and we are expected to dance as well. It is a real party and even Hans gives in to the temptation to dance.
In the next few days, we regularly visit the school and are surprised at how disorganised everything is. The students don't have their own books. You rarely see a classroom full of well-behaved, interested students. No matter what time we come on shore, we always see children all over the place. When you make an appointment, nobody keeps it, not even the teachers.
Their hospitality is overwhelming; if we happen to be there around noon, the nuns always invite us in for lunch.
Never before in our life have we seen so many washing-up bowls. They are all filled with food and are displayed on a long, low table in the enormous maneaba where we are sitting. We made a long walk in the morning and have arrived in the village of Koinawa. Today the village celebrates a festival of the catholic church. The women of the church are raising money and people from all the villages on all the islands of Abaiang have been invited. Every community was asked to bring nine washing-up bowls of food, including the sisters of the Tabwiroa school. There are at least ten groups, so we count at least ninety bowls. We feast on chicken, fish, tarot, rice, noodles and lots more and our drinks are served out of buckets. You never know how it is going to taste, usually it's a sweet drink with coconut juice and milo, a kind of cocoa that is invariably diluted far too much; it only remotely tastes of chocolate.
Sometimes you also find toddy, a sweet extract that is collected from the flower of a coconut palm. An incision is made in the heart of the palm, in which a leaf is inserted. The other end of the leaf is inserted in a bottle, which is hung from the tree on a piece of string. It takes 24 hours to collect half a litre. When diluted with water, this results in a tasty sweet drink. You can also let the extract ferment to create an alcoholic beverage, which, by the way, is not served on festivals like these.
After the meal all sorts of crafts products are brought out. Products such as baskets, cloths and fans are offered at bargain prices and the proceeds are donated to the church. We spend ten dollar on a cloth woven of pandanus leaves. It took a week to make.
After this more official part, the music is turned on and everyone starts dancing. Almost everybody here is not only a good singer, but also a good dancer. But it's not about how good you can dance, but how crazy you can dance. That is what Hans is really good at, he makes everybody laugh and receives much applause for his antics on the dance floor.
All in all we enjoy a great party and it was worth spending all this time sitting on a concrete floor. Tomorrow our bottoms will be treated to soft cushions again.
We make all the preparations to sail back to Tarawa, where we clear customs so we can continue on to the Marshall Islands. We take two students with us who are studying navigation and our day trip from Abaiang to Tarawa is a very special experience for them. They both spend some time at the helm, they learn how to tie knots and for the first time they can experience GPS theory in practice.
Kiribati was a fantastic experience for us and we hope to be able to return some day.
(Translated from dutch to english by Percy Balemans)