click to enlarge

East-West Magazine, Fall/Winter 1986 article:

Kiritimati: A Christmas Visit

Stephen Trussel

    Friday, October 10. This morning I went to London and met Eritaia, the Acting Secretary. He was at his desk, within earshot of the radio room. He was happy for a chance to speak English, and we got along well. As I'd been looking forward to going down to Paris, I asked him about it. "Oh, there's no longer anyone in Paris," he replied matter-of-factly, "they've all been moved to Poland to consolidate the labor force."

    We broke out laughing - The juxtaposition of those grand European names with the tiny Kiribati villages we were speaking of was jarring. The effect was heightened by Eritaia's clear British pronunciation. Had he been speaking Gilbertese, his mother tongue, he would have said Boran for Poland, and it wouldn't have been as noticeable. "Yes," he chuckled, "sometimes it comes out funny when we talk about London or Paris."

    When I'd studied the Christmas Island map before my arrival, I hadn't suspected that those would really be the names of Kiribati villages. I'd read that some 75 years earlier, those sites had been Christened by a French ex-priest, who'd leased the island for a plantation, and named them after the Europe he missed. Much of Christmas history is tied to British and American commercial and military ventures, but since 1979, when the British Gilbert Islands Colony became independent as Kiribati (the native spelling of Gilberts), Christmas has been a part of that nation. Now London is the administrative center for the 'eastern provinces', the Line & Phoenix District, closer to Honolulu than to the capital on Tarawa, 2000 miles to the west.

    I thought of names like Bikenibeu and Teaoraereke, villages where I'd spent my days on Tarawa, seven years ago, of islands that didn't sound at all like "Christmas": Abemama, Tabiteuea, Butaritari. During my stay on Christmas, I was continually being transported to those places, those times. I mentioned them often to people who wanted to know how I came to speak their language, where I had been, and who I knew, people who wanted to know why I was there. It was a reunion with an old love, a chance to speak Gilbertese, to live for a short while again in a place I'd never wanted to leave.

    The one scheduled flight a week to Christmas leaves Honolulu on Wednesday morning at 5:30. It's not the busy season yet for sport fishermen, when sometimes two dozen or more make the flight. Today there are none. Among the half dozen or so passengers on the 737 are a young Gilbertese seaman who'd had an operation in Honolulu, and a couple of FAA inspectors making the round trip. It's like a private charter. Within three hours the island appears below, larger than it should be, much larger than any Kiribati atoll I had seen, with broad sand flats and eerily multi-colored ponds.

    The sudden brightness assails my eyes, but soon I can focus on familiar vehicles, the stuff of airfields everywhere. 'Christmas' has become KIRITIMATI, and the first strains of the language start to drift across the runway. Snatches of a greeting, "Ko na mauri! Ko uara?", and Gilbertese words begin to flow in my mind. Once, arriving in Tarawa during Independence, our Air Nauru jet had been greeted by rows of dancers in traditional costumes. They'd been expecting Nauru's president, but performed enthusiastically. Now, in the heat of the Equatorial sun, there is not much hurried movement. Our passports are stamped "Republic of Kiribati, Xmas Airfield". We've entered, passed from the brilliant glare of the field into the pale green of a bare, sunlit, screened-in room, through customs, where bags receive a cursory inspection on the painted wooden counter, by officers who once a week wear their uniforms and speak English. There are no baggage carousels, no metal detectors. Everyone moves as though the atmosphere were slightly denser. Only two I-Matang, two foreigners are arriving, Americans, a writer and photographer for a magazine, boosting the non-Gilbertese population to 5, gently nudging the island total closer to 1800.

    I asked Eritaia how he liked to living on Christmas, where he'd been for the past two or three years, after coming from the capital. "Tarawa has almost half of the country's 65,000 or so people right now, in a very small area, less than 10 sq. miles of land spread along 22 miles of reef. When I received the workers' complaints or comments, it was usually by mail. We were always very busy, and couldn't go and talk with them, so I had to respond 'by the book', I couldn't be so flexible. Here I can go out and talk directly with the copra workers, discuss their problems with them and hopefully find a solution together. I like that much better, but it's also hard work." He paused and considered, "and the life here is good, it's not crowded and there's plenty of fish. Of course I can only go fishing on weekends," he grinned. "That's the price you pay for having an office job. Even the president has to fight to find time to get away fishing on the weekend."

    Christmas Airfield is the "American" doorway to Kiritimati, for another fisherman, the sportsman lured by dreams of trophy bone-fish caught on lightweight fly tackle. Entering through this port, he finds a world with a steady supply of 110v power, air-conditioning, tile bathrooms and hot showers. This is the Captain Cook Hotel, there's ice-water in the fridge, and steak and ice cream are on the dinner menu, a gift shop with post cards. In the world of the hotel, all the Gilbertese speak to him in English, the waiters and cleaning women, maintenance men and fishing guides.

    The head fishing guide, Eddie, had driven us over from the airfield in a small van. At 6'6", 280 pounds, he grinned down at us as we sat together in the hotel dining room, the bright white table cloths reflecting the circling ceiling fans overhead. He seemed older than his 26 years, with the gentle ways some huge men have. "You guys like to fish?" he asked, eyes twinkling. He seemed a little unhappy at our answer. "For me, if I did nothing else I'd be happy as could be. I don't care what kind of fishing, I like to do all kinds, to learn new kinds." Eddie finished a plate which had just been piled high with fish and rice. He shrugged and accepted more. "Broke da mout!" he laughed. Eddie's been to Hawaii. "I was born here on Christmas," he told us, "so that makes me one of the old timers. But my father, Eberi, was here before me," he grinned, "he's been here longer than anyone." Eberi's house was in London, a half hour's drive from the hotel by pickup.

    Taunga, another guide, was the driver. He was 22, also over six feet, friendly and handsome. He had entered Christmas just a few years earlier, through the Kiribati door, the Moana Raoi, the Gilbertese merchant vessel which comes four times a year from Tarawa, 2,000 miles to the west. "My brothers have been all over the world," he told us. "They went to the Marine Training School on Tarawa and became seamen. I've been to Honolulu and Santa Rosa and Boulder, Colorado." He displayed a beautiful snow leopard creeping through bamboo, tattooed on his broad, tan, forearm. "I got this in Santa Rosa, a souvenir of my friend, a guy I met when he came down here fishing. Next time, when I go back, he'll add the colors." His attention returned to the road.

    The road, smooth and beautiful, is a fine two-lane highway with no traffic, no signs, just the faintest trace of what was once a painted stripe down the middle. Salt bush lines the sides, low shrubs up to the nearby palms. Scenery changes slowly. After a while we pass through a broad plain of open fields with coconut trees far off in the distance. It seems like we must be somewhere in Africa, and I wait for an elephant to appear. "There was a big fire here a few years ago," Taunga explains, "and all the trees burned. A little child left alone near a cooking fire started it, but he wasn't hurt." We pass the Japanese satellite tracking station on the ocean side, giant white dish antennas gleaming like alien visitors against the fronds and the deep blue sky. "They have four generators," he says, "and it's all automatic. When one goes off the next one comes on. They have their own fuel supply. Right now there's just a couple of guys there. No Japanese, two Australians. There's one Gilbertese guy that takes care of the generators."

    We drive past row after row of coconut trees now, many with red or yellow leaves, beautiful in their thirst. The road disappears into the horizon. Taunga, still thinking of the tracking station, continues, "but they have the best power on the whole island. Most villages have generators, but they only run a couple of hours at night, 240v power. In Banana, the village near the airport, their generator's been out for 3 months, waiting for a part. It doesn't matter. People do pretty much the same with or without electricity." He answers the unspoken question, "oh yes, they grow some bananas, but the name comes from the American military camp that was there."

    Eritaia had been very concerned about the idea of progress as it applied to Kiribati, the influence of outside things. "You know, today, most everyone eats rice, imported. People don't eat as much bwabwai now, the local taro. It takes much more time to prepare, and so cooking rice frees the women's time up. But what is it they do with their free time? If they just sit around and play cards, I'm not sure I'd want to call that progress." He thought for a while. "And how about living in these houses with walls and rooms. A walk down a Gilbertese lane is a social event, everyone can see you and you can see everyone. Walls are for privacy, an idea that's almost unknown here."

    We come to a mwaneaba on the lagoon side, a Gilbertese meeting house, where people spend much of their time together. This one is large, perhaps 100 feet long, 30 feet high. The roof is of corrugated aluminum, reaching down so low you have to stoop to enter. No walls, the main posts of concrete. Low native huts fan out from it towards the lagoon. Taunga confirms my thoughts. "On most islands, that would have a roof of pandanus thatch, and all the wooden posts would be lashed together with coconut cord. The big supports, slabs of coral rock. But here on Christmas there's hardly any pandanus, and things are built with the imported materials." He nods towards the mwaneaba, "That's the new settlement, Te Riiti. It means 'the Lease'. No one owns land on Christmas yet. Once they do, they'll have to give up their land on the island they come from. That's the Protestant mwaneaba, the next one's the Catholic. Most people are Protestant or Catholic, but I follow the Baha'i faith."

    We round the bend, passing a duplicate mwaneaba, and soon we are in London, nestled like Te Riiti among the coconut palms, a village of 600 or so, mostly neat rows of military huts, with straight dirt lanes, tapering off into less and less neat rows, curving lanes which blend into the Kiribati landscape. At Eberi's house we pull in next to a thatched cook house adjacent to the main building, a small lean-to, where some older women sit with a young woman and her baby. Everything in the village has a kind of helter-skelter appearance - things seem to have been left lying in mid course, like a permanent camp ground.

    Eberi was inside, sitting on a low wooden platform. Even with flat walls and mesh windows the Gilbertese flavor prevails in the house. We sit on woven pandanus mats spread on the platform; mosquito nets stored above the rafters show that it will be a sleeping place at night. "I first came here in 1957 or '58, as a copra cutter," Eberi told us. Distinguished looking, six and a half feet tall like Eddie, he was thoughtful and softspoken. "That's the way it was with most of us who came to the islands outside of the main group, and even today. You can't just go there to live, you go to work on the coconut plantations, temporary. Now Christmas is open to settlement by anyone, but when I came, there was only the military and the copra workers and their families."

    From 1941 to 1948, American troops occupied the island, and the copra cutters helped them build the airfield. 2500 men were stationed there during the peak time. Christmas was never a battle zone like Tarawa, but remnants of the occupation are everywhere, rusting hulks of tank trucks and generators among the palms. Heaps of metal scrap provide landmarks in the sameness of the view from the road.

    "It was around the time that the British and the Americans were doing their H-bomb tests, in 1956 and 1957, and again in 1962, 3500 troops," Eberi continued. "They set them off over the ocean, maybe 35 miles away, and the first few times they took us off the island on ships, and had us cover our eyes with our hands, real tight so we wouldn't see the flash. But after that it became more normal, and though they asked us if we wanted to go on the ships, most people didn't. Some years later people came here to test if there was any danger, but they found that everything was okay. I'm not sure if it's true or not."

    When Cook found the island on Christmas Eve in 1777, he reported that there was "an abundance of birds and fish, but no visible means of allaying thirst, nor any vegetable that could supply the place of bread..." There seems an even greater abundance today, coconuts proliferate, fishing is said to be the best in Kiribati, sanctuary islands are set aside for innumerable roosting seabirds. One day on the southern end of the island we saw the sky filled black with circling terns, shrieking their annual mating ritual, while not far below flocks of boobies were nesting, guarding their eggs.

    "Whenever they tested their bomb, millions of birds died, Eberi continued. "They didn't know to turn away from the flash and close their eyes, so they were blinded. But after six months or so, they'd be back again." Eberi stopped to work on his cigarette, and my thoughts drifted to another unimwaane, another elder of the community, also talking Gilbertese, also working on a cigarette, on Tarawa, years ago.

    His name was Eneri, almost like Eberi. Yet Eneri is for 'Henry', Eberi for 'April'. Eneri too was tall and strong, and had patiently struggled with my Gilbertese language while trying to teach me about Gilbertese life. We'd lived in the village of Teaoraereke, in a small complex of huts surrounding a small concrete block house, with a corrugated metal roof. A lean-to for cooking, another for storage, one for sleeping and day use. A large tank to collect the rainwater from the roof. There were always groups of people around, but Eneri and his wife, their two daughters, son-in-law, and three grandchildren were the chief residents during my stay. The house belonged to the son-in-law's sister, and her American husband, my friends in Honolulu. Their children had often been my Gilbertese teachers in Hawaii.

    I spent my days with Eneri, who missed the peaceful life of his home island far to the south. "On Arorae, on the outer islands, it's not so crowded, and people live more in the traditional way," he explained. "They don't go to work like on Tarawa, where there are offices and shops." Eneri usually rose with the tide, carried his one-man canoe to the shore and set off to fish alone. His wife might be outside cooking the catch before I awoke, and Eneri would descend from a coconut tree, coconut bottles filled with te karewe, coconut toddy, dangling from their cords. We spend most of the day lying around on the pandanus mats, talking, eating, brushing away flies with woven pandanus fans. "People on Tarawa have money, life is different," he'd say, "people buy fish instead of catching it - they don't have time." We have time, and days pass lazily, calendars and watches losing significance...

    Eberi's voice cut into my thoughts as he echoed Eneri's ideas.. "People on Christmas have jobs, money, life is different, more things are bought." He offered me the cigarette. I had expected te rauara, a long smoke of sweet black tobacco rolled in pandanus leaf 'paper', which Eneri had taught me to make. This one was the same length but rolled in two white cigarette papers. I asked why, and Eberi explained that "on Kiritimati there aren't so many pandanus trees, maybe because there's not enough water. Would you like to drink some karewe?"

    He called through the doorway to one of the women in the lean-to, and after a while we were sipping the sweet coconut sap from blue and red plastic cups, like the tops of thermos bottles. A rural silence permeated the room, the murmur of the women's voices, distant children's laughter, the crowing of a rooster muffled by the trees. Through the coarse metal screening of the window a small motorbike could be seen, parts lying nearby, some repair temporarily suspended. Tiny piglets played with kittens among the remnants of afternoon fish.

    Eberi was temporarily housebound as he was suffering from gout and his joints were swollen and painful. "I just got this medicine which came over on the plane from Honolulu," he said, holding up the vial of capsules." He extended his leg and displayed his puffed ankle. "On this one someone came and practiced a little local medicine," pointing to the small row of marks. "Those are cigarette burns. This guy came who knew about that kind of thing, and he just held it close to the skin until it hurt, and then he moved it away. I'll see which one gets better first," he laughed, and applied his own cigarette tip to a spot, but he pulled it away quickly, laughing again.

    Local medicine, the stories of miracle cures I had heard and read buzzed in my head. I asked Eritaia it Friday. "Oh, there's no question about it," he answered. "I know a man who was run through with a kind of pitchfork in his chest. A doctor came, but he said there was nothing he could do, there was no surgery and the internal injuries were too bad: the man had no chance. Someone who knew the local medicine was called, a famous man, and he stayed with the patient, pressing on his wounds and talking to him. Eventually the bleeding stopped and the man got well. You can see the scars on his chest today. It doesn't always work, of course, but there are no doctors in most places, and there's always someone falling from a coconut tree and breaking some bones, and these people can set them."

    I said it sounded like stories I'd heard, of Gilbertese magic and ghosts, and Eritaia responded, "well, there's magic, perhaps real magic, which very few people know today, but there's also what we call 'the way', te kawai, and that's something everyone knows about. For example, if you wanted a girl to fall in love with you, you would follow te kawai. It might go something like this: walk 33 paces directly south from your door just at sunset, holding your breath. When you reach a certain tree, circle it three times to the left, and then take three blossoms. Return in the same number of paces, and let out your breath. Then she'll love you."

    Outside Eritaia's office, magical trees swayed along the road, along te kawai. I walked with Taunga over to the boboti, the government Co-op buildings nearby. We were always in view of the waterfront, and we passed in front of workshops for carpentry and engines, stopping at each door for a small conversation. We reached the Co-op and met Robati, Robert, the director. "Hi Mr. Boboti-man," said Taunga jokingly to the older man. Robert showed us through stacks of rice and flour from Australia, sugar from Fiji, tinned salmon and corned beef, the staples and not-so-staples of a Gilbertese store. "I've been enjoying my work here." he said, "we've been building things up over the past few years, learning to run it as a business. I'm interested in hearing how you do it in Hawaii, in America, how can we improve things." He walked us over to a small, adjacent screened-in room with a table down the center and half a dozen chairs on each side. "This is the 'cafeteria'," he explained. "It's a new idea I had and it's been popular. Guys on a break from work can come over and get a cup of coffee or a plate lunch. We're doing quite well with it." We sat down and a woman smiled and brought over some cups of coffee, sweet and milky. Taunga was hungry and had a plate of rice and fish stew, 80 cents Australian. "Outside of the hotel, this is the only 'restaurant' on the island, " Robert was explaining. "There are a couple of them on Tarawa, but almost no where else in the country. 'Eating out' has no meaning in Kiribati. People are usually at home. Only where people work, here, or in Tarawa, can people find a use for this kind of thing." We finished our coffee, while outside the magical trees continued to sway.

    Later, driving back. I asked Taunga about what Eritaia had told me earlier, about te kawai. "I went to a friend of mine to get a charm like that once," he said, "but she told me it wasn't necessary for me, all I had to do was to go over and talk to the girl!" We laughed, and spoke of the mysteries of love, speaking candidly, trading stories of the things that mattered most.