Kiribati. A Country Less Travelled, But Why?
The laughter heard in Kiribati is very frequent and very warm. The latter is not because of the equatorial temperatures. People here are just incredibly friendly, open minded and easy going. And they usually have good stories they are more than willing to share. If you don’t find them funny, their laughter bombs will more than compensate for your lack of humour.
“Welcome to Tarawa. We don’t have much, but enjoy our warmth and hospitality.”
The Twitter message from David Lambourne, a lawyer here, reached me before I managed to check in to my hotel. Lobby Wifi access is always welcome, especially in countries where your telecom operator from home cannot be bothered to arrange for roaming agreements. Shameful, Netcom / Telia Sonera!
The message did naturally not lower my expectations much. Expectations that were already very high after the amazing hospitality I received the last few weeks in the five other Pacific countries I visited. So, just a little warning for you wannabe hermits out there. If you don’t want to meet new people, don’t come to Kiribati. They will make you feel at home through sharing stories, advice and anecdotes. Whether you want to or not. If you prefer feeling sorry for yourself, stay in your hotel room or go snorkelling. The water is pristine and extremelly clear. And there are a bunch of WWII wrecks to see around Tawara, the main island.
The underwater world
For even clearer water and more aquatic life, go to the outer islands. If diving is your passion, you will find yourself in eden, heaven and paradise all at once. Even the water temperature is on your side. There are not a lot of diving companies, though. Ocean Flower Underwater World Sight Seeing was the only one I found. Expect more to pop up if tourism increases. And the locals I spoke to claim it is already happening. That wouldn’t take much though, Kiribati is currently the fourth least visited country in the world. That in itself is an attraction to many, but it doesn’t really help if you don’t even know that the country exists.
Had you heard about Kiribati before? Yes? How do you pronounce its name? I bet you a beer that you do it wrong. ‘Kiribati’ is not correct. Neither is ‘Keereebatee’ or anything similarly creative you might come up with through any over creative brainstorming session.
Who needs S?
The letter ‘s’ does not exist in Kiribati, but the sound ‘s’ does. So, to pronounce ‘s,’ you write ‘ti’ or ‘tu.’ ‘Kiribati’ is therefore pronounced ‘Kiribass.’ ‘T’ followed by any other letter than ‘i’ or ‘u’ is pronounced ‘t’ as normal. Piece of cake.
– Of course, there is no ‘h’ either, Kaure told me.
He is the only registered taxi driver in Kiribati. He sometomes carries individual passengers, but usually operates as a shared taxi. In that case, a trip will set you back between a few Australian cents and a couple of dollars, depending on the distance.
– No ‘h?’ What do you do about hotels, I asked.
– We don’t have any. We have guesthouses, a lodge, an inn, a couple of motels, a pension and some flats.
Of course there is an ‘h’ in guesthouse, but why let a little detail ruin a good story.
The question is why they have excluded certain characters? Legend here has it that Hirham Bingham Jr., the missionary who first came here, lost his typewriter in the ocean. When he eventually got it back up, the ‘s’ was missing. The nearest typewriter repair shop was back in England, so he had to think outside the typewriter box. It sounds like a urban legend story, but I heard it from locals. They wouldn’t bet their house on its accuracy, but it made for a good laugh. Another one.
Are you sinking, too?
– In western media, we always hear that Kiribati is one of the first countries to disappear due to global warming and increased ocean levels. How do you feel about that?
I asked two locals in The Captains Bar, the bar with the best location in Betio (pronounced Besio), the biggest town in the country.
– That is bullshit! We aren’t sinking. Far from it. Nothing has changed here the last 50 to 100 years, it is not going to either. The answer of the guys was clear. Very clear.
They went on to explain that some of the country’s politicians use what they call a myth as a way of getting world publicity and ultimately money. Which can’t be all bad. The infrastructure in Kiribati can do with some improvements. Just remember the cry wolf story, Kiribati. If you really start ‘sinking’ one day, no one will believe you.
Highway from hell
The road between the airport and Betio is appalling. The distance is less than 30 kilometers, but it will take a good hour to cover the distance thanks to uncountable potholes. The road also goes through every village, so drivers must be considerate. Of course, there isn’t much space for alternative routes. Kiribati is huge compared to Tuvalu, but still tiny with its 811 square kilometers. The entire road will be totally redone over the next year or two, something that ought to tie the country better together and open up for more effective business opprtunities and tourism.
The locals are very much looking forward to this, judging by how much it is discussed. Then again, who can blame them. They have been promised the new road for years, but work is apparently finally about to start in April. Or May. This year. Allegedly.
There are plenty of options for accommodation, especially on Tawara. The government’s tourism site gives a good overview, and you can even check availability, comapre prices and book from there. Utirerei Guesthouse is the preferred bed choice for most NGOs, although there are several good options. Betio Lodge is for instance expanding by building 12 new brand new flats and a swimming pool. Expect to pay between 60 and 90 Australian dollars per night in most ‘otels.’
Midtown, Seamen’s and The Captain’s Bar are on top of the list, although do visit Gateway if you’re up for the cheapest beer in town. Just be aware of the state of the joint, though. Do not expect beer mats, clean glasses or much talk that is printable in any semi-civilized form. You’ll fit right in if you are among those adding litter to discussion forums across the internet.
Kiribati is a safe place to visit, just be careful if walking home at night. Street lights are not yet in fashion here. Then again, you can always call Kaure. On ATAXI (28294). Phone numbers here are only 5 digits. Why complicate things in a country with just over 100,000 inhabitants?
There are two possibilities to fly in to Kiribati. Air Pacific (soon to be renamed to Fiji Airways) has flights from Nadi every Monday and Thursday. Do note that they leave Nadi at 05:00. Just don’t blame the receptionist for giving you a poor room after you’ve shown your grumpiest, most sleep deprived face, upon check-in.
Your option is Our Airline of Nauru which flies from Nauru to Kiribati and on to Majuro, Marshall Islands and back. It is cheaper, but supposedly less reliable (they only have one old 737) and it only visits Kiribati every other week. The good thing is that Our Airline provides the only link between the southern Pacific countries with the northern ones (Palau, Federated Sates of Micronesia and Marshall Islands), so you can visit all the countries in the Pacific without having to revisit Fiji between most countries. Just plan well.
Kiribati is yet another place I have to revisit and spend more time in. Being one of very few tourists in paradise certainly makes you feel special. And even if the tourist number will increase when word gets around, there is plenty of space for many more than the 4,800 tourists that currently visit every year.