Daily life on Tarawa atoll
After watching Barack Obama get elected as the next U.S. president from the relative cool of our room (praise the inventor of air conditioning!) it was finally time for us to go on our private tour of Tarawa. It was to be a day neither of us will ever forget… J
Tarawa is extremely hot all day long, but thankfully the female receptionist who took us on the tour had arranged for an air conditioned car including driver. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, so it all came down to the receptionist (her name was Sonia).
The atoll (part of the Gilbert Islands chain) is basically comprised of a lot of very narrow islands surrounding a lagoon in a triangular form.
The northern and eastern parts are difficult to reach, and most of the population is centred in the southern strip of islands. There are over 25,000 people sandwiched on Tarawa!
The government building with an old Japanese canon
What was evident from the moment we drove off from the hotel was the poverty, or what we Westerners conceive to be poverty. You can see garbage almost everywhere by the roadside, the remains of cars are there where their owners left them after breaking down, and people bury their dead loved ones next to the water tanks that have to provide them with clean water. But despite this there never seems to be any unhappiness among the I-Kiribati about their lifestyle. They treasure what they do have, and try to reflect that upon the scarce visitor.
Our first stop was at the Taiwanese funded brand new Kiribati government building. In front of the building there’s some sort of square with a depiction of all 32 islands that combined form the republic of Kiribati. After taking pictures we wanted to get back in the car, but Sonia beckoned us to the back of the building, where we found something amazing.
In what country in 2008 can you just walk around the government building and enter through an open door? The answer is Kiribati…we could just walk in… We ended up in the mail room, but Sonia went and found someone who opened up another door so we could visit the room where parliament and government do their work for their country… J
The causeway connecting Betio islet with the rest of southern Tarawa
After this remarkable experience we drove on to the little village of Bairiki where we could visit a church (donated by Japan) and make a stop at the post office (we wanted a lot of people to know we’d made it to what you could consider as the end of the world…
On the western edge of Tarawa is the town of Betio (pronounced Besso).
It’s on an islet which is connected to Bairiki by a concrete causeway, where toll had to be paid. After getting ripped off (A$ 0,20 each, mind you!!!), we could access the islet.
Japanese gun from World War II
Betio is the sight of one of the bloodiest battles on the Pacific theatre in World War II. In November 1943 the Americans invaded the island to recapture it from the defending Japanese. After fierce fighting (only 17 Japanese defenders survived) the Americans took the island in what was from then on known as the Battle of Tarawa.
Still bearing witness from those times are the remains of Japanese defence bunkers and several rusting big calibre guns. I’m a World War II buff myself, so standing next to these powerful remnants of that terrible period was a unique moment for me…
The town of Betio was very busy, as we happened to arrive in the middle of a sporting tournament featuring all islands of Kiribati, who were competing in several kinds of sports (we saw a football match between two Tarawa towns begin, the winner of which would effectively be the national team).
Sonia explaining to me which chains of islands form Kiribiti
On our way back to the Otintaai Hotel we stopped at a junkyard, where my buddy managed to get a hold of a great souvenir: he asked for (and got) a used number plate… J
After reaching the hotel we said our goodbyes to the driver and Sonia, still reeling over just being in this mysterious place so many people have never even heard of… And that’s a shame, because a visit to the republic of Kiribati can certainly change your outlook on life for the better… J