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A welcome botaki on Abemana, Kiribati


A couple of Jack and cokes stemmed my anticipation while gazing upon the emerging bright coral atolls on the equator, 40,000 feet below. They shined like silvery green emeralds scattered across the gentle blue ocean.

My 737 swooped down through puffy white clouds and arched around the big v-shaped atoll of Tarawa, capital of Kiribati. Flaps rose and we decelerated enough to see waves crashing on reefs, people walking along white paths, even seabirds. The lagoon was an unimaginably bright patchwork of blues and greens: barely submerged sandbanks, which discoloured the lagoon in soft golden ovals, gave the only indication we weren’t indeed flying straight into a giant pot of luminescent turquoise paint.

Kiribati, south Pacific
After landing we taxied to a modest wooden terminal called Bonriki International Airport, only the ‘R’ from Bonriki lay elsewhere. The doors prized open and I stepped into a furnace of hot dry air, leaving behind the luxury of air-conditioning. A shimmering mirage obscured the horizon as I walked across the boiling tarmac onto a much, much smaller plane.

I was flying to a remote, seldom-visited atoll called Abemama, a crescent-shaped sliver of an island located at 0 degrees north of the equator and near the 180th meridian. There wasn’t one hotel or guesthouse upon it, and to make things more interesting, I didn’t know anyone there either. The plan was simple; get as far away from home as possible and just drop off the world for a while.

As the little Air Kiribati prop soared into the sky rattling and vibrating furiously, my racing imagination sensed pieces of aircraft breaking off behind us, trailing down to the ocean. Slowly, we levelled out and I loosened my grip on the armrest; more beautiful atolls began appearing. The Pacific was calm and peaceful, reflecting white clouds on its marble-blue surface. In 1521, Magellan coined the name, ‘Pacific’, after noting its passive nature, and things seemed no different today.

We bounced along a grassy, sand blown airstrip then pulled up next to a couple of trucks. I ambled around with my rucksack in circles before figuring out the truck was the only mode of transport on Abemama. So I jumped in and got chatting to a young I-Kiribati girl called Secilia from the flight.
Plane, Kiribati, central tropical Pacific
‘Are you with da Peace Corps?’ she asked.

‘No. I just came to see Abemama and its people.’

‘Ohhh!!’ she laughed unexpectedly. She had a typical Micronesian look; pleasantly dark skin with softly moulded features and unlike most Polynesian girls, wasn’t at all fat. ‘Imatang don’t come to Kiribati to see. Really, this why you come?’

‘Yes. I came to see the islands of Kiribati and meet you!’ The flirt was on.

‘So you really not volunteer?’ she asked again, still in shock.

The truck trundled along a sandy path, passing various small villages, but mostly coconut trees. We got off at Tekatirirake village (pronounced Teka si rirake. In the Gilbertese language there are only sixteen letters and the s sound is made by the letters ti; hence Kiribati is pronounced Kiribas), which was about halfway down the atoll facing a beautiful, still lagoon.

We came to a clearing along a sandy path where two buias and another perched on stilts sat peacefully amongst the palm trees: it was a typical outer-island home. All buias were built entirely from coconut tree; roofed with thatched leafs of the palm. For such a modest people, the I-Kiribati were highly resourceful, wasting nothing from the tree; the fronds were used to make mats and the midribs for building houses; woven coconut-frond mats covered the floors while mats woven from pandanus leaves were used for sleeping on. To the side a decaying pile of brown coconut shells lay out to dry in the sun which would be sold later as copra or for use in cooking, soap or even body oil. Around each hut lay a miniature wall of white coral chunks that neatly separated garden from home.

‘Dis my home’ Secilia announced, ‘my fadder, my mudder and my brudder and sidders’ she offered, as the bemused family rose from slumber to welcome her home. I wasn’t too concerned about startling them for I had heard that the Gilbertese were as much affected by the heat as anyone, and my presence would be accepted as lethargically as anything else in Kiribati.

‘My name is Tiare’ (pronounced Saree) said Secilia’s father, as he hobbled on a crutch from his bed to greet me. He was about 5 foot tall, had bushy black hair, a greying beard and sunglasses pinned above his forehead, not to mention only having one leg.

‘So you speak I-Kiribati?’ he smiled.

Andy McGinley and his hosts, Kiribati, Pacific‘Learning’ I smiled back.

‘My wife, she is called Urairo’ and she stepped forward, curtseying slightly, nearly losing her balance in the process. The children were introduced one by one; Tabia who was a cheeky six year old, Tekarara who was eight and the only daughter, Bauea who was the youngest at five and suffered a chesty asthmatic cough and constantly snotty nose, Baitiea (Bayseea) who was twelve and a keen fisherman and lastly Karitia (Karisa) who was the eldest at fourteen. ‘And you already know my eldest daughter I think!’ he laughed.

Tiare showed me to the hut on stilts that was to be my new home. ‘You can sleep here unda da moskito nets or wid us unda da big hut. We have well ova dare for wash.’ Tiare pointed out before turning to help his wife realign the fish they were drying out on a pole. With that I sensed an unusual but much appreciated lack of fuss over my arrival.

Secilia offered me fresh coconut from a batch Karitia and Baitiea were piercing open against a sharpened wooden stick.

‘We never meet an imatang in Tekatirirake village before, you da first!’

‘Don’t you meet the Peace Corps and VSO volunteers?’

‘There are very few. They only stay next to the school and they prefer imatang company to I-Kiribati people’ she frowned.

‘Do you see any imatang travellers on Abemama?’

She thought for a moment, pausing to run soft brown fingers through her straight black hair, ‘There is one man, from Germany. He come many years ago. He spend time in odder villages, give da children presents and help da men fish. Da children love his hair – white hair!’

Karitia led the children across the shaded sandy path, past their canoe and onto the lagoon’s beach. Past the protective breezy arms of palm trees lay a devastatingly bright, beautifully deserted shoreline that baked in the afternoon sun. It was far too hot for the adults: they largely spent their days dozing in buias and fishing at night. It was also low tide and the lagoon was shoal; its pale azure waters shimmered all the way to the horizon where it met an immense blue sky. A fellow Scot (who came to live here), Robert L. Stevenson, summed it up;

‘The lee side of an island after noon is indeed a breathless place; on the ocean beach the trade will still be blowing, boisterous and cool; out in the lagoon it will be blowing also, speeding the canoes; but the screen of bush completely intercepts it from the shore and sleep and silence and companies of mosquitoes brood upon the towns.’

We splashed in the warm waist deep shallows for a couple of hours. Karitia struggled with his English. ‘We see good sky everyday’ he nodded westwards at the reddening sun as it dipped below a line of purple cumulous. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Scokilangy’

‘Ah, it is so far away. My brudder and sidders no see imatang before. You numba one imatang in my family!’ Bauea and his sister Tekarara muttered excitedly in Gilbertese and took turns at touching me as best they could without my noticing it, then withdrawing quickly, as if trying to rouse a tiger with a sneaky prod. ‘But I see American imatang one dime, in da school’

‘What do you learn in school?’

‘English and mads’

‘What will you do when you are older?’

‘Fish, sell da copra, or cut da toddy!’ he laughed, in turn setting the children off in fits of laughter too.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘Nudding. The toddy jus make da man happy.’ He stood up and began to imitate drinking something and staggered around drunk on the sand much to everyone’s amusement.

After dinner, which we ate by lamp light on a picnic table, I played some simple magic tricks on the family. Utter silence ensued. Tiare had never seen magic before, let alone his youngest children, who’d never even seen a white man before today. What a first day.

Next morning, Bauea, the youngest of the children led me quietly across the narrow atoll to the sea for a refreshing morning swim. He wore a raggedy old blue t-shirt that read, Dyslexics of the World Untie most days. The gentle roar of the Pacific being buffered by reefs grew louder as we walked through a sandy grove of coconut trees until we stumbled onto a long empty white beach. We splashed around, just bonding: the five year old and the twenty year old, from opposite ends of the earth making friends without language.

I bobbed with the surf like some stereotypical shipwrecked sailor, limp with exhaustion, until it gradually nudged me up against the shoreline, then once beached, I sank my head into the sand and let the waves wash over me. Ahead of me was a dark wall of palm trees. The island’s gorgeously rich tapestry of emerald green undergrowth glistening in the breeze: that was my home. Bauea must have thought I’d drowned – I lay there happily, flat on my stomach for about fifteen minutes, just absorbing the view. Talk about washing away all your troubles: Abemama was where the old me had come to die.

Tiare spoke softly, so softly in fact that if he said the world was about to end you’d probably still miss it, so subtle was his tone. So when he said, ‘Andee we have a Botaki tonight for you. You must make special dance for da village’, I gave him the obligatory double look. Dance for the village? What?

The Botaki is a quirky I-Kiribati custom to welcome, or as I saw it, embarrass the guest by dancing in front of an entire village, not least the chief.
Kiribati, Botaki ceremony, tropical pacific
Around sixty men and women sat cross-legged around the maneaba (large meeting house) in anticipation of my hastily arranged Botaki. Some puffed on hand made cigars, passing them around like joints in clandestine huddles while women groomed hair for lice. Children and stragglers gathered from the darkness, peering in above their parent’s shoulders. A column of unimane (elder men) sat in the middle of the floor, manifesting the austere social hierarchy of the maneaba. Even the architecture of the maneaba demanded respect; the low-based pointed roof began below a normal person’s height, thus forcing them to stoop on entry.

A generator hummed away in the darkness outside, faithfully supplying electricity to a single dangling tube light. A large woman in the corner fiddled with a big, black tape cassette player. Apparently everyone and the village dog had been invited to celebrate my arrival. A cortege of women filed in with bowls of chicken, fish, rice, taro, pork, bread and popo (an assortment of fruit, mostly banana). In fact I’d never seen such a feast in all my life; it was so vast it stretched from one end of the maneaba to the other. The chiefs and I ate first while the woman stood to one end singing folk songs and clapping. I offered the unimane some tobacco as a kind of bribe; it was ostensibly an offer of thanks, but I had hoped it might excuse me from having to prance around their sacred, centuries old meeting house like an idiot. It didn’t.

Then, after the meal when everybody was happily locked in conversation with someone else, I felt an excruciating stomach cramp. I darted out the maneaba into total darkness to explode with diarrhea. ‘Why now?’ I pleaded with a coconut tree – I was due on stage next.

I slunk meekly back in to my place, feeling half the man I was. A hush descended, a heart-sinking hush that signalled all eyes were on me. I was summoned to the floor, the fat DJ inserted a tape then abruptly, European techno began blaring from the speakers: it was my queue to let go. I was of course slightly terrified, but then I went a little crazy in the spotlight and began to hop, jump and shriek my way around the floor, screaming the high-pitched Samoan war-cry (which I think the locals recognised as such) and generally made a total ass of myself. The locals loved it and soon joined in, turning it into quite a fun party. If there was any doubt before about being accepted on this new Pacific island, my Botaki extinguished it.

The party continued until the generator finally gave in around 4am. We rested under the stars with just the distant rumble of waves crashing on a reef, plus the odd snorer for company. I hardly slept for mosquitoes, but that didn’t matter; I was still far too excited from my baptism into this far-flung Pacific village.

At sunrise I split off from the group and headed straight into the lagoon. It was barely seven in the morning; a light breeze swept around the beach and the water rippled with refreshing coolness. The sun wasn’t too high yet either so I floated out for about a quarter mile completely alone with neither a cloud nor a canoe in sight for miles around. I only meant to go for a quick wash but soon found myself totally absorbed in the tranquillity of the early morning lagoon, drifting a good half-mile from the beach into its bright white basin. The colours, like the island itself were simple and dazzling; bright blue skies, deep green jungles and crystal clear waters. If anywhere on earth could truly honour the word paradise this was surely it: here was my heaven.

By going to Kiribati I had slipped off the beaten track; by coming to Abemama I was further still, but as I drifted deeper into the middle of that lagoon, away from the beach, the village and my family, I considered my greatest moment of isolation. I had been drifting for years, screwed-up opportunities back home and simply given in to my urge to travel again.

Whatever I’d been running from back home ended here in the tranquil ebb and flow of Abemama’s magical clear warm waters. I’d come to the right place to figure things out.

Karitia emerged from the trees onto the sand hooting, breaking the boundless silence I had taken for granted in the shallows. ‘Andee! Brakefasd!’ he waved, waiting patiently for me to swim the half mile back to shore. I left the lagoon resembling a prune, but a clean, more focussed prune at that. That afternoon I slept like a baby for my mind was clear; I had been accepted into Abemama through the torment of a Botaki and now, with that valuable experience under the belt, set about preparing my acceptance back home: my very own Botaki.Kiribati, tropical pacific

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