Kiribati - A Disappointing, Potentially Beautiful Place

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August 23rd 2009
Published: October 12th 2009
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Looks Like a ResortLooks Like a ResortLooks Like a Resort

Look a little closer though.
The only way I've heard of any part of Kiribati is that the Navy has an amphibious assault ship called the Tarawa. My grandfather was on one of the Tarawa ships, I think it was a destroyer at that time though.

Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bahs) is an island group in Micronesia straddling the equator and, until 1995, the International Date Line. It is located in the Pacific Ocean along the edges of the Equator and includes the Gilbert, Phoenix and Line island groups. Most are uninhabited and are the protruding tips of undersea volcanoes, extending only a few feet above sea level. Kiribati's 33 atolls are scattered over an area of 3.5 million kmĀ². The waters surrounding Kiribati witnessed intense whaling activities in the 19th century and the islands were an important battlefield during World War II. Kiribati saw some of the worst fighting of the Pacific theatre during the Second World War, including the infamous Battle of Tarawa in November 1943.

During World War II, Tarawa was occupied by the Japanese, and starting on November 20, 1943 it was the scene of the bloody Battle of Tarawa. On that day United States Marines landed on

Such beauty from afar.
Tarawa and suffered heavy losses from Japanese soldiers occupying entrenched positions on the atoll. The Marines secured the island after 76 hours of intense fighting with around 6,000 dead on both sides.

Formerly part of the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Kiribati gained full independence from Britain in 1979, shortly before valuable phosphate deposits on the island of Banaba were depleted. Kiribati was therefore awarded millions for the total exploitation of that major resource in 1981.

Kiribati is most emphatically not Tahiti, Hawaii, or any other resort island where you can go to relax and have nothing to worry about. It has few visitors, there are only a couple of hotels on the island of Tarawa and even the high government officials do not all have bathroom facilities in their homes. Visitors have to be prepared to "rough it." That said, there aren't many countries where the people are more friendly. As you drive down the streets, smiles and waves are abundantly and freely given.

South Tarawa is one of the most densely populated, severely poverty-stricken places in the world. Other islands have far fewer people,
Boyscout IslandBoyscout IslandBoyscout Island

The boyscouts sleep out here and planted the trees.
but getting to them can be difficult, and conditions are even more primitive. Most tourists, especially from the USA, go to Kiritimati (Christmas Island), though we didn't go there.

The local economy now depends on subsistence farming, fishing, and the island's prolific stands of coconut palms, and the subsequent sale of copra (dried coconut meat). Look at my Solomon Islands blog for more details on copra. The isolated location of the Kiribati islands prevents tourism from flourishing and becoming a major business, even though the weather is consistently warm, offshore reefs teem with colorful fish, and WWII shipwrecks are commonplace.

From my own opinion, there are more important reasons for lack of tourism, on Tarawa at least. Allow me to explain... arriving at anchorage, the islands look absolutely breathtaking. The water is light blue and clear, there is greenery everywhere and the weather is hot, but with a lovely breeze. The pleasantness continues as we take a RHIB into the port. There are only a few boats around, mostly fishing vessels, and the water still looks very inviting. The port, as usual with anywhere in the world, isn't the cleanest
Sweet smilesSweet smilesSweet smiles

Kiribati has the most beautiful people, especially children. I mean, look at her!
of places... but nothing really looks out of place. It's not until you walk down the beach or down a road with houses on it that it hits you... the smell, the garbage, the filth... everywhere. I find redeeming qualities about every place I've ever been and Kiribati is no different, but this one hurdle was extremely difficult for even me to overcome.

I skipped the opening ceremony, I was thankful since I was absolutely famished that evening. Culture here dictates that visitors are greeted with drink, dance and song prior to any food being served. So, the festivities began at around 5pm and food wasn't served until around 9pm. At that point, everyone had a nice buzz going on and was just about to eat their arms off! They served kava too apparently, which is supposed to mildly suppress the appetite, but all people complained about was the duration of time they had to wait for food. Spoiled Westerners, what did you expect?

Kava comes from the root of the pepper plant and in the South Pacific, it is largely used as a celebratory drink, much in the same
Father and SonFather and SonFather and Son

Touching... but I wouldn't get in the water.
way that alcohol is used in the West. It marks momentous occasions such as weddings, public festivals, political powwows and holidays, and it is even used in ceremonies honoring the dead. It is also used at the end of the day with friends and family, usually by making a kava circle, seated on the ground (usually on a mat). Kava is said to taste like soapy dishwater. For this mission, it was a bit unclear, but kava isn't considered a drug. Instead, it's a military order that we aren't to drink kava. It was up for debate that if it was ceremonial, it was okay. Most people chose to avoid the drink, not saying what I did, though I missed it that night. Anyway, I'm glad I decided to make my first outing the following day.

I played Helicopter Control Officer frequently on this trip for a number of reasons. The aircraft workload went up dramatically for Pacific Partnership, from transporting medical personnel, engineers and VIPs to vertical replenishments to get materials and equipment ashore. The distance especially to some of the sites made helo ops a more cost efficient alternative to ground transport. The

The central focus of any village... people eat, sleep and live in these.
engineers had a lofty goal of building a bridge between North and South Tarawa to complete. The previous bridge had much of its foundation corrode and collapse into the water and the existing causeway was only uncovered during low tides. This bridge was extremely important to the people of Kiribati. The majority of items flown over were for that site, which was where the engineers slept at. Can you imagine building a bridge in only a week? They completed it early even! My hats off to those guys, they worked their butts off and loved every minute of it... okay, maybe not every minute, but I'm sure they had a great sense of accomplishment.

My first night off the ship, I was invited to the Presidential Reception for Admiral Willard (Commander Pacific Fleet). Yep, little ol' me got to meet the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. Kiribati is a U.N. country by the way. We climbed onto a bus and off we went to his house. So what kind of house might you expect for a President? Well, I dunno... something large and nice, my Westernized mind kept deluding me. It was a small, demure abode
Kava CircleKava CircleKava Circle

Article 92: Disobeying a Lawful Order. No kava for military unless it is ceremonial. If I did it, it WAS ceremonial, I swear.
with a large roofed patio, called a maneaba, that was bigger than the home. Additionally, an open patio area with many tables was located behind the maneaba next to the water, almost similar to a cafe setting.

There were refreshments offered as soon as we arrived, beer and wine being among the most popular for the PP09 crowd. We mostly schmoozed with one another, as we weren't very familiar with the culture or country yet, plus no one wanted to go bother Admiral Willard either. Anyway, eventually (after about 2 glasses of wine for me), it was time to sit down for the speeches and entertainment. First the President spoke, a very nice speech about the frienship between the U.S., partner nations and Kiribati and the appreciation for PP09's visit to their ever expanding country. Of course, Admiral Willard had to reciprocate, nothing too riveting, but he speaks well. Then the festivities began! There were local dancers and singers that were just incredible. I thought to myself, "if this is what Kiribati is all about, I love it" (I got jaded later though). The singers were especially incredible with their harmonies. At this time, the food
Health Fair Yoga StudentHealth Fair Yoga StudentHealth Fair Yoga Student

I demonstrated yoga to a huge crowd and the little girl in green helped me. I gave her my mat afterwards, she is just so beautiful.
was served under the maneaba... a whole pig, yucca, taro, octopus, fish, rice, etc. Very nice food! Of course, after the great food and drink, I have to go to the bathroom (nature calls, you know?) The bathrooms (like public stalls) had no toilet seat covers and didn't even flush! Then, starved stray dogs begin making their way into the area in search of food. Even at this point, I wasn't jaded... just wait.

Somehow I managed to volunteer myself to be a part of the "health fair". Remember the majority of the mission is to provide medical care and engineering capabilities, I just never expected to participate in them, especially after falling in love with the vet work. The local Ministry of Health folks decided to have a health awareness fair for the public. If we were in the U.S. it probably would have been held at a school, hospital, work center, etc. Here it was held in front of the Kiribasi version of Wal-mart... surprisingly the most busy area I saw in Tarawa. They asked for assistance from PP09 personnel to educate on dental care, basic hygiene, proper handwashing, H1N1 flu virus, nutrition and
Hard To Imagine...Hard To Imagine...Hard To Imagine...

that so much violence could happen in such a place.
exercise. Hyrum begged me to do the exercise portion. Me? Are you kidding? Seriously? I do yoga man. So, he told me to give a yoga demonstration. Yeah, I did it and it was ridiculous... how are you supposed to teach people yoga with a demonstration? I managed to get this cute little girl out with me and she and I did head stands and stretches together. Humiliating, but whatever. I gave her the mat that I brought with me, she deserved it. Still not jaded... keep reading.

Kiribati has a large number of relics and ruins, a confession of the tremendous history. Even driving down the street, one sees gun turrets, old Japanese Headquarters, barracks, bunkers... it's a World War II history junkie's dream. Tammy, Susan and I stop along the side of the road to look at cemeteries and war memorials, ruins of bombed buildings and bunkers. Really profound, but no one maintains any of it. It was really sad to see the graffiti and garbage lining the memorials to the brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice. Even more disturbing was coming across people using the bathroom on these hallowed sites. I'm
WWII RemainsWWII RemainsWWII Remains

Loved the shadows on the inside of this LCU (I think it's an LCU anyway).
not talking urine here either. How can people not know that it's wrong to desecrate the memories of the dead like that? I took photos, tried avoiding walking on "land mines" and was glad to move along.

Jay is a pretty dedicated Marine battleground history lover, so when he invited me and Kyle out (during Kyle's 32 hours off) to do a self-guided Kiribati tour, I accepted. There are no real public beaches there, just people's back yards. We found an entry point and made our way around the East side of S. Tarawa. I thought the trash in the streets was bad... yeah, it was. The beaches, however, have their own copyright on nastiness to the nth degree. Looking out over the water, the view is amazing. Turn around and there are mountains of trash covering the sand and human decrement every foot. I'm not exaggerating... we had to step over human waste the entire length of the beach that we walked (about 4 miles probably). There are no commodes or waste management systems... people just walk out to their back yard (the beach), squat and poop. Okay, sure I can accept that.
Betio MemorialBetio MemorialBetio Memorial

Unarmed slaughter rememberance... maybe one of my ancestors? Ellis...
Why not toss it out into the water or something after you're done though? There are children and people walking into and out of the water, they have no concept of bacteria and parasites (though their waste proves that they certainly have plenty of both).

The VETCAP team partnered up with local agricultural guru, Tabby, a very nice woman in her 30s, married to a Kiribasi Sailor with 4 kids. We had to drive an hour each way to North Tarawa, where we saw mostly dogs, but some pigs and cats too. We even set up at a Mormon high school one day (by the way, the best toilet on the island, possibly the only real one), always doing surgery under tents or maneabas and any shade we could get our hands on. Most of the strays on Kiribati would be better off if hit by a car. Sounds pretty harsh coming from an animal lover like me, but the amount of mange, neglect, general abuse and starvation are much worse in my book. I absolutely finally snapped... here's where I got fed up.

Animals in pain is something
Gun MountsGun MountsGun Mounts

This place has the potential to be a great history buff tourist attraction.
that every person has to see and deal with in the treatment of strays. It's more the norm, unfortunately... especially in countries less developed than the U.S. Caring for a sick or injured animal makes me feel like I'm helping the world, one small bit at a time... like I'm fixing the imbalance in nature. I don't know, it's really difficult to explain. I guess that's why I enjoyed the VETCAPs so much. I do agree that Westerners are beginning to get a bit too ridiculous with their animals... turning them into children to fulfill some perverse need for unconditional love that children don't always reciprocate. Dressing them up in frilly dresses and carrying them in handbags, taking away their natural energy. That's one extreme. The other is the enjoyment of watching animals suffer... something I experienced in Kiribati. They say how appreciative they are of us training them and teaching them ways to make things more efficient, easier, even better. Most didn't want to listen about how pigs shouldn't be tied by their broken foot to a tree with only a foot of rope, with water 3 feet away from them. Most didn't want to listen when we said
Welcome to the Gun ShowWelcome to the Gun ShowWelcome to the Gun Show

Yeah, yeah... not mine.
that animals need to have fresh, clean water all the time... not a bowl of water every other day or so. What do you mean you don't want to spay this female puppy until she has puppies when there are already a thousand other dogs that are starving? You aren't supposed to drag a dog around by its hind legs as it whimpers and whines in pain? I couldn't stand it... I snapped.

Thomae, Roman, Matt and I turned into a pretty efficient team. If one person was doing anesthesia, another was drawing drugs while the others were pre-medicating, shaving or putting in an IV catheter. Underneath one of the maneabas, it was just Thomae and myself as the others were off looking at pigs. We had a beautiful puppy that we were catheterizing (is that a word?) but as with most of the animals there, it was severely dehydrated, probably anemic and just generally weak. As we stuck the needle in, it began to whine and whimper in pain... we were trying to be quick but it was difficult with the little, measly vein. The people standing around watching us began laughing like it

Though no one maintains it, what great shape it's in.
was the most humorous joke they had ever heard. I wasn't the only one who snapped that day... Thomae turned to them all and said, "Why don't you let me stick YOU with a needle and see how funny it is when you are hurting." I wanted to just squeeze him... it was poetic. From that point on, I did my best to ignore the people and focus on the animals. I was just so bitter.

I am going to not dwell, there were some good times in Kiribati... just don't see myself going back there. Most meals during the day consisted of MREs, local bananas and ice cold coconuts that Tabby got for us (OMG, they were so yummy!). Usually working past normal dinner hours, we'd settle for going into a local spot, Mary's, for a beer and food. The food took forever to cook, but it was worth it. The grilled lobster and curry lobster became a favorite. Their lobsters are huge! Between the 6 or 7 of us, we'd make a small pyramid of beer and stuff our faces for a couple of hours before taking all the stuff back to the
Engine BlockEngine BlockEngine Block

Yep, that's not the only thing there. The human waste and trash was everywhere... we constantly had to make sure we weren't stepping in anything.

I didn't include myself in the local nightlife, just wasn't very appealing to me. I did go to "Captain's Bar" a couple of times, let me tell you about the fruits of my labor there... this was a great find. 😊 I went there for a birthday party for the Australian PAO, the PP09 Supply Officer, Sarah (the Cargo Mate) and Andrew (Asst. Cargo Mate). Anyway, I wasn't really enjoying the drunkfest, so when I say some folks from the ship, I sat down with them. They were sitting with this really nice lady who turned out to be the Captain of a tuna boat, so she and I talked for a couple of hours. I told her how much I loved tuna and she offered to bring some to the ship. Okay, twist my arm, right? Well, the next day, she brings about $3000 worth of yellowfin tuna to the BYRD. Holy crap, I was just expecting enough for a meal and now I have about 500 lbs of tuna. What am I going to do with that? Looks like we need to throw a party for sure! Kyle gave me major props,
Helo OpsHelo OpsHelo Ops

Dropping off all the supplies at the itty bitty airport strip. They say it's an international airport, but it's not what you think.
asked what I had "done" for this Captain to get so much food. The Captain was a lady! "Uh huh." Anyway, the guys in Deck hauled them up via pulley and stowed them, some in the freeze and one in the chillbox. Sashimi time my friends. Oh, it was mana from heaven that melted in my mouth with soy sauce and wasabi.

Somehow I kept getting invited to special receptions and parties with the Commodore, Deputy and Captain. I'm not usually the political scene "type", though in a place like this, even the presidential reception wasn't fancy. The best night of these outings was at the home of the Special Envoy to the President of Kiribati, Tessie Lambourne. She is a very sweet and outgoing lady, in her mid-thirties, married to an Australian man. She invited us to her home on the beach, where we drank lots of beer while they grilled chicken and prepared a meal with taro, coleslaw and other local favorites. It was interesting to see that even her relatives lived in small open maneabas in her yard, such an interesting part of their culture. The extended family all live with the
Hottie EngineersHottie EngineersHottie Engineers

These guys slaved away in the sun every day for hours and still look great. They're certainly inspirational, wish I could have been a Seabee.
wealthiest component and share in the work of the family.

After a few hours of drinking, eating and watching their beautiful little daughter dance, the relatives brought out the kava. All the military folks look around at one another, especially at the Commodore... uh, what do we do? Of course, my friends of the Civilian Mariner persuasion don't hesitate... they get right in there are start drinking it. I had to remind the Captain not to point his feet at anyone when sitting... It's considered rude. So very tempting, but all the military lived vicariously through the Captain, Sarah and Andrew... as usual.

All in all, I just wish that someone would realize that with a couple of infrastructure projects, like water treatment and sanitation services, this place could be much healthier and have a higher percentage of jobs available to those who want to work. I hope that things continue to improve and maybe we left a little food for thought. Hopefully they chew on it and swallow instead of spitting it back out.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Engineer HandiworkEngineer Handiwork
Engineer Handiwork

They built this bridge in about 4 days, about a week ahead of schedule. It connects North and South Tarawa... that's impact.
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Dog Spay

I played anesthesiologist quite a bit.
Pandanus treePandanus tree
Pandanus tree

Almost like a cross between a banana and mango (in terms of taste). They keys are chewed on to get the starchy juice out of it. Very yummy, but watch out for the strings sticking between your teeth!

We ate here many times after VETCAP work... the meals took forever, but they had cold beers. :) You know where our priorities were.

13th October 2009

Hey honey, i got a little of your distaste from your earlier pictures and discussions, but nothing to the level of this blog. That was very informative and heartfelt. I can just see you cradling this little puppy while those people were laughing, man it makes my blood boil! Glad you are who you are my love. -Jer
6th February 2010

broken bridge of buota
we've been thre may 2009 and the bridge was still broken.when we asked the people when the bridge will repaired they told us:in the future.we think,without foreign help the would have been fixed"in the future",because the people of buota had no hope that the government would arrange something because buota is not really "south tarawa"and the government only serves items of the south. Hans from germany
13th February 2010

Broken Bridge
Yeah, I got the impression that the government mostly catered to South Tarawa where the population is most dense. I'm glad we had a team check out the island as a whole, it was wonderful to see the bridge completed finally. Now I'm reading "The Sex Lives of Cannibals", all about Kiribati as well and it reminds me so much of the time we spent there. A must read if you're interested in Kiribati!
20th May 2010

very impressive!!
hey...just want to say thanks so much to u and yre team mates if yre one of the team who visited my country for the construction of Bouta bridge....i really appreciate what u've done for us, I-Kiribati people and THE LORD will pay back what u've done to us...IT'S A GREAT AND BIG HELP I CANNOT FORGET.. am also impressed from what u wrote about Kiribati in yr article....all u've mentioned about the foods, people and so forth in yr artilce including all the diagrams u included...they are all beautiful and impressive to me... again just want to say that i'm grateful and thankful for what u've done to my poor loving country, KIRIBATI..if not for all yr help and contributions, we, as I-Kiribati people, will still find it hard and difficult to reach and approach the village of Buota.. THANK YOU ALL-a friend from Kiribati
14th July 2010

Great evaluation! Thanks ++ USA!
I do not know how the Tourism Department does collect the information that will help transforming Tarawa into a better and more beautiful place. This is one excellent opinion expressed honestly without prejudice by one of our great volunteers. From 1979, no government has so far and ever seriously considered tourism as a potential economic driver. I wish I am a President. I can just spend some time every week visiting these backyards and do something about them asap. Some are pretty straight forward and do not need big formulas. Visit regularly a targeted community and ask for their support in protecting the special sites (foreign cemeteries & war sites). Then regulate the use of those special areas for tourist attraction. Revenue generated from the tourists' visit to these sites over time will contribute to the improvement of the chronic sanitation problem no government has ever been able to address. And the list of measures goes on. If sanitation is a stubborn health problem, then perhaps it is time for the Kiribati people to elect a President who knows better how to deal with this health phenomenon. Sincere thanks to the article author and the U.S people.
11th February 2011

so grateful
umm theres nothinq to say...but just a word of thanks for u and your team by helping my people for their need which they benn suffered a lonq time aqoo.And yeah this cannot happen if you guys not show up but theres youu.that all and god bless.
9th February 2013
Betio Memorial

How did you go about getting to betio. In regards to this photo. B Cleary is ,y great grandfather.
24th December 2013
Betio Memorial

I went there for Pacific Partnership on a US Navy Supply Ship. I hope this photo was nice for you then.
10th June 2015

Remember the tuna?
Hi there! Amazing coincidence to see your blog tonight. I was writing an article and trying to remember if there was any local Kiribati beer and google came up with your blog. I saw your comments about me and my tuna boat and couldn't keep the smile from my face. I'm glad you all enjoyed it. My fishmaster and I enjoyed our tour of the Byrd too. I always had a great time on Tarawa. I guess I didn't notice the trash and crap as much as you did, tho I probably didn't spend as much time on the island as you did. I miss those days now. I haven't been on the tuna boats for a while. Lately I've been drilling off the coast of Africa. I have a blog now too. It's called Capt Jills Journeys. Check it out, I know I've written about fishing and Kiribati before. Its at
11th June 2015

Ahhhh!!!! Your story is one of my fave moments in Kiribati!
Jill, So excited you found this! I haven't been on here in ages and have been running around other parts of the world. Now I'm about to move from Cali to DC. I still tell that tuna story, we loved it so so much, you don't even know! I was just so shocked by the sheer amount you gave us and had no way to properly thank you. So... Thank you so much. I'm glad they gave you a tour while I was on the island. It's a least a small reciprocity. How's Africa treating you? That sounds so exciting. Cheers, Krysten
11th June 2015

pictures from Tarawa
I thought you might like to see a picture of my tuna boat. I don't know how to upload it here.
11th June 2015

Byrd tour
Hey Krysten, Glad to have found this too! It was a real surprise. I'm glad you enjoyed it. For us it was not too much. We had a good catch and hadn't finished unloading yet. My fishmaster REALLY enjoyed the tour of the Byrd. He was very impressed. Good for Korean- American relations! I'm working out of Angola but spending all my time offshore. I haven't really seen anything but the road between the international and domestic airports! Hope to get a chance to see more one of these days. If you're interested in keeping up with my adventures, check out my blog Captain Jills Journeys at

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