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Fishing, toddy and seafood suppers: daily life on Kiribati Island

Days on the atoll became weeks and soon routines were formed. Tiare and Baitiea often took me out fishing after dark. We would set off by the light of moon and stars, gently edging out into the still blackness of the lagoon. Once positioned and nets cast for a few hours, Baitiea would jump in and haul them back to the outrigger where Tiare, poised with his one leg against the side of the canoe, would pull in the catch. It was usually snapper, ikare and the odd octopus. ‘Ikare our favourite fish on Abemama, we love dis fish!’3009141551569_10152161490500729_1307698493_n1-(3)


But one moonless night, while Baitiea and Tiare slept, I slipped into the lagoon and swam away from the boat towards the haunting black horizon. On shore, a glistening dark-green canopy of palm-trees swayed rhythmically, almost hypnotically in silence with the zephyr. The water was peaceful and warm and I eased away from them in silence to marvel at the enormous, vivid night sky on my own. There was neither a breeze nor sound as I floated facing heaven’s hanging galaxies, staring intently into space.

After a motionlessness hour in the watery darkness, my body twitched with restlessness when suddenly a rich luminescent green hue emanated in the water around me – I thought I was hallucinating. Swimming through this surreal lagoon, a billion bright emeralds each glowing as dazzlingly as the next; swirling luminous green embers trailed in my wake. I had agitated the lagoon’s iridescent algae, to spectacular effect.

Life was simple here and I evolved to it with ease. I enjoyed my conversations with Tiare after dinner when we would chat at length about our lives in the flickering lamp-lit darkness. Mosquitoes buzzed in the blackness and coconut fronds clattered gently above. The September 11th attacks in America had happened just six months ago, but Tiare knew little about it. There was no TV here, only radio. With so few points of reference on the island, I resorted to comparing the length of the nearby airstrip with the height of the Twin Towers but Tiare just raised his eyebrows a few times and said nothing. The constant, eerie roar of the ocean reminded me just how far away from the world little Abemama was.

‘My family is sick. The boys have asthma. They cough and sick all da time’ I had noticed the snot-nosed children wrenching out painful sounding coughs through the nights; it often woke me up. Two of them had been vomiting constantly for weeks but there was no hospital for them on Abemama. The nearest and only place to send them was Tarawa and that plane came just twice a week. ‘We only have one nurse on da whole island’

‘How many people live here?’

‘About 4000 – I don’t know exactly.’ Even the hospital on Tarawa was as yet incapable of transplant operations and most major forms of surgery. Little wonder then that people prayed for their health.

‘I have an inhaler with me’

‘What is that?’

‘It helps you breathe. Let me show you’ I put the inhaler to my mouth and exaggerated a large puff. Tiare cradled Bauea looking slightly nervous as I put the inhaler into his, ‘Now tell him to breathe in quickly when I press it.’

‘When does it start working?’

‘Just watch, it will start now’ and sure enough Bauea settled down: Tiare breathed a sigh of relief. I told him to keep the inhaler, which he then prized as something of value in a corner of his buia.

When Tiare wanted to go for a ride on his motorbike first one of the children would prop the machine against the dinner table in front of the main buia, then he would hop on to the saddle with his one good leg. He zipped around the island everyday on his bike trading copra or giving lifts to villagers and as there were very few motorised vehicles on Abemama, this made him pretty special.

But despite only having one leg he lived a remarkably active life fishing, building buias, tending the babai pits or even cutting the toddy. The babai pits are a common sight on the outer islands where locals grow the starchy root crop that is taro, although I hadn’t seen this bizarre method of cultivation anywhere else in the Pacific. The holes were about four to five foot deep and filled with stagnant muddy water that bred mosquitoes and looked disgusting. ‘That is how I lost my leg’ Tiare volunteered calmly, looking down into one of his babai pits, ‘When I was twenty one or twenty two I crashed my motorbike and fell into da babai pit. My leg got broken den infected and dey had to take me to hospidal’

‘Which hospital?’

‘First Tarawa, but den I had to go to Fiji to have my leg amputated’

‘Fiji? How did you afford that?’

‘The government paid my flight. I was going to die’

‘How old are you now?’ ‘Fordy six, I think.’ He was middle aged by western standards, but for Kiribati this was old.

‘Was that your first time in a plane?’

‘Yes and I was scared too. You know Andee, in Kiribati we don’t have word for plane, so instead we call it the flying wa’ he said informatively. He paused then said, ‘It means flying canoe!’ I burst out laughing at the absurdity of it and then he joined me. The simplicity of I-Kiribati culture was as funny as it was rational. For, what else did they have to compare it to the first time they saw one?

Children on tree, Kiribati

Cutting the toddy was a favourite pastime for the men on Abemama. Coconut sap or toddy is rich in vitamin C and the trees were cut twice daily, carefully bled into small plastic containers. They use this instead of sugar to sweeten drinks but leave the sap to drip for a couple of days and you get the fermented alcoholic version called kakioki, which the boys get really passionate about. Tiare stopped the bike one day by a little hut packed with giddy I-Kiribati men, huddled in the shade under its frond-thatched roof drinking kakioki. Cards lay scattered on the sand and empty coconut shells thrown here and there in the sun. The mood was jovial and at once I was welcomed: ‘Hey imatang, come drink da toddy!’ one laughed.

‘Have you tried dis drink before?’ asked another as a space was cleared for me in front of the village chief.

‘This is da drink of Abemama. The men cut da toddy all da dime and drink together, without da women’ The man talking to me was big, in his fifties or sixties, had straggly white hair and unusually light coloured skin, he almost looked like an imatang. I took him to be the chief as everybody else became subdued when he spoke.

‘Why don’t the women drink with you?’

‘Dey be making da house, looking after da children. Neiko no have time to drink toddy!’ he scoffed. He scooped a halved coconut shell into a bucket full of toddy that lay beside him then passed it to me announcing ‘Dis make you strong like da men of Abemama!’ Salutations over, I gulped the syrupy sweet, tangy drink down in one. I got quite drunk after a few bowls!

Tiare on his bike, Kiribati, tropical pacificTiare took me north on the back of his bike up the only track to the tip of the atoll, where Abemama curled quietly into the ocean. ‘Dis is my favourite beach. I like to come here to think’ he said as he struggled off his bike to lean on the trunk of a fallen coconut tree that sprawled across the sand. But what did islanders have to think about?

I could hardly contain myself for I felt as though I was stepping into the very picture that inspired my trip; the turquoise lagoon, idle palm trees leaning lazily over a long, fine stretch of white sand, the beautiful weather – I had found what I was looking for. Tiare meditated on his tree, leaving me alone to wander the sand until I found the end of the atoll. The bushy green atoll narrowed out into a mere white sandbar that stretched smoothly into bright transparent waters that in turn led into the deep blues of the Pacific. There were only two colours now, white and blue; the white of the sand and the stray dollops of cumulous that puffed their way across the wide blue horizon. Suddenly life seemed simple again, like how a child sees the world; colours, not constraints lay ahead.

We headed home to sleep. As I relaxed on my buia, little Bauea came to lie with me, coughing violently as usual: his breathing was distressing him. I tickled his back, as my mother had done with me when I suffered from asthma as a child. Soon he relaxed and began to breathe more easily. It was part of the unspoken relationship I had with him and many other children across the Pacific, where language lost its importance in the face of smiles and nods.

By sunset, dark clouds built on the horizon, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped: the lagoon lost its characteristic azure shine. Gradually, grey sheets of rain ploughed in off the lagoon, whipping the coconut trees behind us into a frenzy of wind and spray. I retreated to the cosy sanctuary of Tiare and Urairo’s buia and played cards by lantern light listening to the radio.

Then between singing choirboys and occasional prayers, the song from ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ came on and for a few moments I felt pure joy. So little of my world had found this quiet island so the last thing I expected to hear hunkering under a buia amidst a lashing equatorial storm was the triumphant, uplifting score from 2001. Wind and rain howled through the night but it was something else that kept me awake; soon I would be home, the bubble would burst and the dream would be over: back to the real world as Dad would say.

There was a monastery at the other end of the island and my presence on Abemama had attracted the attention of the top priest, a short, stubby man in his late forties with bushy black hair and a boyish smile who insisted I spend some time with him.

‘Call me Charlie!’ he brimmed, shaking my hand steadily after disembarking from a vehicle that had clearly seen better days.

‘Is that your real name?’ I asked, suspecting an imatang-name.

‘My real name is Tiare, that make two Tiares haha! But everybody call me Charlie. You want to come to my village yes?’ he asked knowingly. I took it as a welcome break from the apparent monotony of lagoon life. ‘Haha, you ready Andee? Lets go!’ he laughed, jumping back into the driver’s seat.

Far from the stereotype white collar and deep contemplative stares, Charlie positively beamed with youth and humour. I saw him as the very embodiment of his culture: innocent, quirky and happy. We trundled slowly along the bumpy track sinking into deep potholes exacerbated by the recent rains.

‘I dink da suspension no working haha! Dis morning I take our truck from the monastery early so da nuns can’t drive it haha! Dey very bad drivers I dell you!’

‘So you share this truck, right?’

‘Ha! Charlie no share da truck! Dey can’t even ride dare bikes!’ he smiled, looking at me instead of the wheel-sucking potholes. ‘Here we are at Buckingham Palace!’ he announced as we rolled into the monastery compound. I dumped my bags then was whisked away to collect Charlie’s boys from their surrounding villages; six in total, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, whom he mentored in the brotherhood five days a week and who were about to help him build a school.

We spent days loading and unloading a truck with rocks, sand and pieces of bleached dead coral to the building-site. None of them spoke any English: either oblivious to my language or too embarrassed to be the one to start a conversation, but as I was finding more and more in Kiribati, that didn’t matter. Charlie barked orders to the boys, ‘collect those stones’, ‘take this sand’ and under his supervision we eventually loaded six truck fulls of stone and three sand.

Then one wet and windy morning, Charlie didn’t show up at the monastery. As I was the only person living there and without food or water, life became very quiet very quickly. There was no beach, just a narrow inlet of reef-water, shallow and calm, protected by a forked rocky outcrop. Rain was coming down in sheets, misty and cool but below the surface it was tranquil and warm. I sat motionless, my eyes barely above water, absorbing the atmospheric beauty of raindrops crashing on a pristine surface. The cold rain drops hit my face almost as hard as the glaring metaphor for my life at that time; when life got a little tough back home, I ran away. The sanctuary of the reef was my travelling, the storm above would someday have to be faced.

Two days later, out the blue, Charlie returned.

Ah! Andee how are you? Long dime no see haha!’ I hadn’t seen anyone or spoken a word of English aloud in all that time. I’d only eaten a tin of cold spaghetti and scraped the fleshy insides of coconuts for food.

‘I’m sorry Andee we have been very busy building da school! I did not wand do wake you. Tonight we make a good feast by the school for you and I make up for yesterday. Hop on, we go full speed to da beach party!’

The boys and I ate cold fish, taro and drank coconut milk and toddy. I curled into a foetal position on the sand and tried to sleep. However gangs of mosquitoes were patrolling the beach.

‘Wake up Andee, come, come. I show you bedder way to sleep’ Charlie said, gently nudging me. I could tell he was very drunk, but he led me over to a body-length hole in the sand above the high-tide mark on the beach and said, ‘You go inside and I tuck you in haha!’ He buried me in the sand face up until I was completely hidden from the flies, before burying himself further along the beach. Great solution!

‘G’night Charlie’ I muffled from my sandy cocoon, but he was already snoring.

On my last morning in the monastery (it had been almost a week) I was supposed to make reconfirm my flight back to Tarawa, however I never quite made it. I awoke to the sound of Charlie vomiting the contents of his stomach up by the monastery entrance. He’drunk far too much kakioki last night and was too sick to drive, so I rode his motorcycle all the way up the atoll to the airstrip.

Andy McGinley, Kiribati, PacificThe pathway was almost a straight line all the way up the island and apart from a few potholes and the odd pig, there was very little else to worry about as I sped along in the morning sunshine, enjoying the cool breeze hitting my topless body. I was in top gear doing around 30mph along the sandy coral floor when I saw the pathway fork and a much smaller, narrower track for the airstrip cut off to the right. That’s when I realised the brakes didn’t work. I released the accelerator and hoped for the best, but it was too late.

The curve turned out to be a sharp right hander surrounded by knee-high grass on either side; overshooting into the scrub was the only outcome. I remember saying ‘oh shit’, then next thing I knew I was lying crippled amongst the reeds about fifteen feet ahead of a smoking engine in the foetal position. The bike smashed head on into a fallen coconut tree and I was thrown clean off it, lucky to escape with only cuts and bruises.

I picked up the buckled bike and wheeled it back along the track towards Tekatirirake but it had jammed in fifth gear on impact, making it incredibly sluggish under the stiflingly hot sun. And there was a particularly sore, bleeding hole on top of my left foot, a badly bruised left knee plus lacerations all up and down my left side. .

It took forever. The air was oven-like and I had broken into one of those awful full-body sweats. Eventually I came upon a local family resting in their stilted buia by the roadside. I lay down, drunk with fatigue and still sweating, as if I had just run a marathon. Nobody spoke English, which was fine as I wasn’t particularly chatty either. They fussed around me making sure I had something to eat as well as drink, and poured fresh water on my wounds. It was quite touching considering I was in the company of total strangers.

I left the bike and limped on to Tekatirirake to find Tiare and tell him the bad news, ‘Oh you had a crash eh? Don’t worry about it, let me see’. I felt extremely guilty, what if the bike was broken beyond repair? How would my measly fifty dollars fix this? I felt like such an idiot, but Tiare reassured me everything was ok.

Fortunately Tiare fixed the bike and soon we were driving off to the ticket agent to reconfirm my flight. Once there the three of us sat down to drink kakioki, which magically alleviated the pain! That night I was back with Tiare’s family, back where I felt safest. I was tired of being alone.

That night was my last on Abemama and I couldn’t sleep. Mosquitoes eventually drove me onto the lagoon beach where I sat thinking for hours. Meteorites streaked across the sky. Where the hell was I? This was the most beautiful place on earth and somehow I had become part of it.

Urairo had also busied herself that morning knotting together a traditional red and yellow frangipani flower necklace, given to departing guests by I-Kiribati families. It was worn just above the temple like a colourful headband and smelled lovely and fresh. ‘We love you, Andee. Wear this present from us please’ she said, handing me the garment. ‘Come back one day, I make more of da ikare for you.’ I posed for a quick photograph with the family by the picnic bench then grabbed my bags.

The children assembled in a line for me and I said tiabo (pronounced ‘sabo’, goodbye) to them individually. Karitia looked solemn and I felt I would miss his company, we had splashed around playfully in his lagoon many times. ‘Tiabo Andee, come back’ was all he could say. Bauea sobbed a little. Tiare and I hopped on the bike and off we went, waving the last of my happy villagers goodbye, until I could no longer see them for the endless groves of palm trees.

‘Write to us sometime Andee. We really will miss you a lot. We never see imatang, but you have been a friend to my children and a pleasure to know. Send me picture of da snow in Scokilangy! Take care on your long journey home’ he said as I stepped onto the flying wa. ‘Tiabo!’

Plane, Kiribati, central tropical PacificI wore my flowery headband with pride inside the aircraft. As the propellers sputtered into life and the plane charged along the grass, I peered through the vibrating window for a fleeting last glance of Tiare leaning against the motorcycle on his one good leg, waving.

I had found Abemama peaceable, independent and friendly at every turn. I had also arrived with fifty dollars in my pocket and amazingly found myself flying back to civilisation with forty-eight of them still intact.

Tarawa was at once busy and repelling. A collection of minibuses at Bonriki Airport pumped filthy smoke into the air and locals discarded empty crisp packets and ice-cream cones freely onto the ground. The elusive ‘R’ from Bonriki, still missing. The characteristic smiles of Abemama replaced in the space of a half hour flight with the slightly hurried, anxious look of city-dwellers. Even on the minibus into town, my flowery headband was the source of much amusement to the sorely less traditional locals.

But it didn’t matter. I had already got what I came for, to find a kind of paradise, off the map, away from the world, and then left with so much more. As I write this now, some 12 years later, memories of my island family remain as warm and clear as the lagoon they happened around. For Abemama was the seminal trip in this serial traveller’s life-long journey.

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