Least Visited, Day 9: Copra, Cannons and Kitties in Kiribati

January 4th, 2019

Kids playing in the park near the water in Kiribati

Today we’re departing Nauru and heading off to Kiribati. Our flight is at 5:30am, which makes our departure from the hotel very early. Luckily we hear our alarm for 2:45am over the pounding of the rain on the roof of the hotel.

It’s been a long five days here in Nauru, stretching out any possibly activity to occupy our time between eating at every single Chinese restaurant this country has to offer. We were all excited to see a new place.

Hanging out in the colorful Nauru airport

Before the "crowds" showed up

At the airport, after we all checked in for our flight and sat in the waiting area, David made a comment about how the waiting area was packed, and how it was easily the most people we have seen in this country thus far.

This time around, I checked out the duty free shop, which was filled with a handful of souvenirs and snacks, all of which were overpriced. A mini flag of Nauru cost 20aud.

Some miscellaneous door decorations in the airport waiting area

Eventually we boarded, and on the flight we were offered breakfast. As Paul noted, it was like an AI bot was told what humans eat for breakfast but got it kind of wrong. The tray had warm cucumbers, spaghetti and slices of some sort of ham, along with a small fruit cup of exactly one grape, one cherry, one cube of watermelon, and one slice of an orange. I passed.

We arrived in Kiribati early in the morning. It was pouring rain, as was the theme for the trip. We disembarked on the tarmac, so we got soaked in the process. Once inside the airport, it was clear to see they were undergoing renovations, just like in the Majuro airport. Here, there was a roped off queue leading us through the process of turning in forms, and each section was simply labeled with a white piece of printer paper and big block letters that said HEALTH FORMS, IMMIGRATION, and CUSTOMS. Immigration was swift, and it was done by a man sitting behind a very beautifully designed booth made of local woods and materials. Customs was located beside a giant tourism sign that read, “Welcome to Kiribati: another option for you.” Once we were out of the airport, it was just a short time before we were in cabs to take us to the hotel.

I always have so many questions about a new place when I travel, so I was a bit bummed that our cab driver happened to be sick and lost her voice. I looked out the window on the 45 minute drive and took in my surroundings.

Local church

Another church

Tarawa is like Majuro in that it is an atoll, or a very thin island. Water was on either side of us during the drive. Due to the rain, there were massive puddles slowing down traffic, but all of the drivers seemed used to the slight inconvenience.

The road connecting the small islands of the Tarawa atoll

Back in Vanuatu, the year 7 and 8 students study Kiribati in their social science class. I find it a little funny because the culture here, at least on the surface, seems very similar to that of Vanuatu. Geography is only different in the way the Kiribati land is receding, but the land is formerly volcanic and it’s in a tropical climate. Some of the houses or bedrooms of the house are raised on three-foot-high stilts, to keep it safe from flooding. I see a lot of the graves are individually located in front of houses instead of one massive graveyard, and while they are decorated similar to those in Vanuatu—upturned bottles as a border and gravel filling in the middle—these are also surrounded by a chicken wire cage and a small roof, making them at first glance appear to be a dog house or a chicken coop of sorts. I will later ask our guide why, and she tells me that it is to ensure no animals or people walk on top of the grave. She also said sometimes loved ones will sleep on them, like if it is a deceased spouse. However she says that isn’t too common and only occasionally happens. Pigs appear to roam freely in the front yards near the road and near where people rest or play, whereas in Vanuatu, or at least on my island, the pigs are caged off up on the hill near the gardens and not anywhere near the homes. I see a few homes with metal fences that have coconut leaves woven into them for privacy, something I haven’t seen in Vanuatu.

Women fishing

Just like in Nauru, tires are painted or cut up to use as decoration along the road or near playgrounds. One playground is even mostly comprised of recycled materials, which is cool. It has tire swings, a seesaw with a tire and scrap wood, some picnic tables with benches made of tires, and various decorations and flower pots made with tires. It’s bordered by a rope made of recycled plastic water bottles.

I also notice several churches, all of which appear to have massively steep roofs but short entrances only about 6 feet tall. They are all open air, with only pillars and no walls on the sides. After Living in Vanuatu, I’ve come to learn that this style of design is cyclone-friendly. Inside, everyone appears to sit on the floor for church, with no benches or chairs visible. In Vanuatu there are pews or long benches, but I don’t see any in Kiribati.

Government-funded housing, our guide tells us, is much nicer than the usual local accommodations

Women here mostly are wearing longer skirts past the knees to keep it conservative. Yet, as we drive around, I see there are at least a few women who are not shy about wearing a sports bra and skirt as they do their laundry near the busy road. I even see one woman sitting on the sidewalk in such clothes, which for Vanuatu would be uncommon, even in Port Vila.

Across from an abandoned ferris wheel, our accommodations in Bairiki in South Tarawa were Mary’s Motel. Once we checked in, we rested, as many of us didn’t get a proper sleep the night before.

The inside of our hotel room...they later separated the twin beds for us.

Around 11am we headed out to explore in the Betio area. Our guide set up an A&E short documentary for us to watch in the hotel before departing about the Battle of Tarawa, which was fought between the Japanese and Americans in WWII. After the briefing, we headed off in the bus to explore, our first stop being the site of this battle. Here, there were remnants of some bunkers and guns.

Welcome to the Betio district!

Old WWII guns under water

Bunkers and guns


During the roaming around time, I take the chance to chat with our guide, Molly, about some things I’ve observed. However, her English isn’t very good, so it’s hard to get clear answers. There’s a fruit tree nearby that I haven’t seen in Vanuatu (most of the trees here are identical to those in Vanuatu), so I ask her what it’s called, and all she says is that it grows wild. I ask her what the local word for the thatched roofs are, and she tells me they are thatched roofs.

Church on right, bunker on left.

We also stopped at the Japanese command bunker, which is now situated beside a Mormon church and recreation center.

Another stop was near one of the beaches where more cannons were situated beside some basketball courts and a swimming area where some kids were using scraps of wood as boogie boards to ride the waves.

Green Beach

At Green Beach, or Temakin point, we took some more pictures of cannons and there were lots of children wandering around. I go straight up to them and shake their hands, saying hello in the local language (“Mauri”). The tween girls I chat with girls are not too shy, but they don’t know English very well. I manage to introduce myself as an American tourist, and they tell me they are just coming to this part of the beach to use the public toilets, since their homes, which are down the road, don’t have any. Other kids are playing around on the guns or other bunkers nearby, while some are swimming in the water. I ask the girls if they ever come here to the ocean to go fishing, and one of the girls, Arua, giggles hysterically at the thought as they all say no. The more I chat with them, the more kids gather, and when we board the bus I shake all of their hands and smile back at their big grins before heading off.

Memorial outside the Betio Sports Complex

Our bus makes many stops, and some of the things we also check out are the US Navy WWII memorial, the Betio Sports Complex, government-provided housing, the Japanese WWII memorial, and a copra manufacturing facility. The sports complex is funded by Taiwan, and Kiribati is one of the few countries that recognizes Taiwan as a country. The Japanese memorial is caged in by a fence, and it’s looked after by a Japanese expat who lives in Tarawa. It’s guarded because the memorial is often vandalized, and the fence is for protection. The expat is currently not home, so we can’t go inside to get a closer look.

Japanese WWII memorial

Inside the copra factory

Lots and lots of coconut oil

As boring as a manufacturing tour may be, I enjoyed our last-minute decision to take a look at the copra mill. One of Vanuatu’s major exports is copra, but there aren’t manufacturing facilities in Vanuatu so it’s all sent elsewhere. Here in Kiribati, the manufactured copra is sourced from other islands of Kiribati. Copra is the dried flesh of a mature coconut that can then be ground up and used to make coconut oil. Coconut oil that is made from fresh coconuts and not copra produces extra virgin coconut oil. A couple of men who worked in the factory showed us around and turned on the machines so we could see the process from copra to oil. Any brown skin that has been removed from the copra in the processing and is wet with oil is bagged up and sold as an alternative to firewood. Any leftover meat from the process that is dry is packaged up into giant sacks and sold as pig feed, leaving no remaining waste.

This factory also manufactures products with the oil, such as soaps, lotions and more. I purchase five bars of soap for a single Australian dollar. I ask for change in Kiribati coins, which are 1:1 with Australian dollars, but they are rare and despite my asking at every store, no one seems to have any.

For lunch we head to the George Hotel, which has a nice outdoor patio area and is NOT Chinese food, as our guide, Molly, originally led us to, and which Gareth vehemently protested. Before ordering, I chat with the woman at the front desk of the hotel. The lobby is decorated with some Kiribati flags and traditional baskets, and I take the chance to ask her about kava, because I know that some people drink it here. I quickly discover that all kava in Kiribati is the powdered kind and not freshly ground like it is in Vanuatu. In fact, the dried powder she unveils as the source for the hotel kava is, in fact, made in Vanuatu. Ha. Some people in the group mention wanting to try kava here to compare, but I convince them it’s not worth it. Why, when you can get fresh-squeezed orange juice, would you want to try the orange-flavored Tang powder mixed in water?

The outdoor seating at the George Hotel restaurant

The George hotel restaurant menu offers some different options, and due to my chitchat with the front desk, I squeeze in my order of chicken curry last. When the food arrives, mine comes first, and after messed up, delayed or completely absent food orders, we eventually wrap up and head out from lunch at around 4pm. I understand that we’re a large group, but we’re all ordering straight off the menu without alterations, and our presence in these restaurants is never close to half of what the restaurant can handle, if the number of seats available are to be any indicator.

The stray cat finishes off Paul's plate

Some decide to take the bus back, but since I am getting antsy and don’t wish to wait around any longer, I decide to walk back with a few of the group. Thankfully, it doesn’t rain the entire time, and it ends up being an enjoyable walk, where I got to bond with the other Melissa in the group, an Australian kindergarten teacher. It was fun to walk the whole way back, especially on the causeway which connect the small islands of this atoll. We walked along the concrete edge like on a balance beam to avoid the massive puddles on the road, since there weren’t any sidewalks. We fit right in with the occasional I-Kiribati who passed us by. Pickup trucks and vans overflowing with passengers would often honk to ask if we wanted a ride (I believe they are much like the buses in Vanuatu that you can hail to take you anywhere), but we just smiled and waved and said “Mauri” which made everyone smile and wave back at us. It was a very friendly country, and even though Vanuatu is also friendly, the lack of the shyness barrier made it even more prevalent here.

Lots of recycling. Lots.

As we walk, we see a sign promoting reusable bags to reduce plastic waste. There is nothing in place currently to prevent this kind of waste, as many of us have been receiving plastic bags with our purchases. Unfortunately here in Kiribati, the waste is much more visible than in Vanuatu. Yes, there is trash here and there in my village, but I don’t feel like it’s in these quantities, especially near the water, where it is washed up on the shore.

Walking back takes a couple hours, and we see a beautiful sunset over the water before we arrive back at the hotel. Once I return, I noticed there was no free shampoo. Calvin and I noticed the fridge was smaller, there was no washer, and we joked how we missed Nauru and wished we could return.

I go to the lobby to check for shampoo and end up having an hour-long conversation with Teresa, the front desk staff. Her English is superb and she’s much easier to chat with than Molly our tour guide for the day, so I can ask tons of questions and get clear answers. Teresa is younger, probably in her mid-twenties, and I ask her about the holidays and the everyday culture. She says she celebrated Christmas with her immediate family only, which is typical, although she did see a little bit of extended family just before the holidays began. I told her I read that people here are like nivans in that they have great pride in their home islands, and she is the same, telling me that her parents are from different islands and she, too, considers herself to be parts of those places, despite being born and raised in Tarawa. She said she still has family in those islands, but she hasn’t been to them in a long time. She said she would feel weird about going to see that family because she doesn’t know them too well. It makes me laugh because in Vanuatu, people call their third, fourth, and fifth cousins “cousins” or even just “brother/sister” because everyone is so close. I feel like no one in Vanuatu would bat an eye at the idea of staying with a great-aunt from another island. I know there are two international airports in Kiribati, and I ask if there are other airports throughout the country. She starts to describe how they have small grass field airports for 12-seater planes to land on in the outer islands, with a small shack as a check in desk, and I laugh and tell her how it’s exactly like Vanuatu.

Teresa is very chatty, and I talk to her about the local food, of which she said water taro is the most popular. I describe island cabbage to her, which apparently isn’t as common here, but she does know what it is when I describe it as “the big leaves that are slimy when you cut them.” Breadfruit is also very popular, and she says the typical way to serve it is by roasting it, mashing it, and then covering it with coconut milk, which in Vanuatu is called nalot. I really enjoyed her company, but my feet were aching from walking all day, so I parted ways and promised to catch up tomorrow.

Some of the group head out to a nearby bar, but I stay in to get some rest before our first and last full day here in Tarawa.