Strange bird lands with a thud
ISHOULD have known from the start that Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) was going to be a challenge when I dropped in there a few years ago. I was no further than the arrivals shed (hall would be way too grand a term) when I hit trouble.
While islander passengers in lavalavas (sarongs) swept by, clutching wriggling sacks, baskets of taro and dubious brown-paper parcels, I was the one singled out for close attention. Talk about 20 questions. Then my suitcase was emptied. Followed by another 20 questions.
Finally my passport was begrudgingly stamped and I was left alone to repack.
At least the hotel held promise. It was by far the best structure on the island (built to host a big conference in former prime minister Bob Hawke’s time). The flagpoles still stood to attention but, unfortunately, little else worked. As things had broken, they obviously hadn’t been fixed. My first shower was cold; but that turned out to be a good day. The next time nothing but air came out of the tap.
Dinner, an omelette, was on the plain side. But when I saw the staff preparing breakfast for the next morning— including pouring milk on to cornflakes — I realised it would be a long week.
My guide was easy to understand, until it came to making arrangements. See you by the phone at eight, he had told me the night before. At 10am there was a hammering on my door: he’d been waiting by the phone (which didn’t work) in reception for two hours.
Never mind; now I could enjoy my private taxi tour of the island (located about 1500km north of Fiji). I was surprised to see the car’s windscreen was shattered on the driver’s side. He neatly solved this problem by leaning across me for the entire trip.
At least he avoided wandering pedestrians (paths were nonexistent) and assorted cats, dogs and chickens. Hitting a pedestrian would have been bad enough, but wiping out a chicken would have had whole villages chasing us demanding blood and compensation. Curiously, the driver seemed to see nothing strange about the situation. I gave him a hefty tip, reasoning he needed the money for a new windscreen. On reflection, it was probably nowhere near the top of his shopping list.
Things looked up on a boat trip to a nearby island for a spot of snorkelling. Nowhere on the islands was snorkelling gear to be found, but I congratulated myself on bringing my own. (I’d been caught out before in Vanuatu.) My smiling boatman promised the best coral in the Pacific, then promptly dozed off at the controls. I didn’t like to wake him unless we were on a collision course and there were no other boats to be seen on the horizon. When he eventually woke with a start — probably having nightmares about visiting journalists — I gently reminded him about the snorkelling.
He looked disdainfully at the blue fins flapping on my feet as if I were a strange bird that had just landed on the boat. The motor died, all went eerily quiet and he was instantly back in the land of nod.
Was it safe? Were there sharks? Was this a good spot? How would I get back in the boat? My questions weren’t about to be answered, so I plopped overboard and went in search of coral.
Of course, I didn’t find any. Well, one broken piece and a few fish. By that time the boat had drifted well away. After a long, long swim, I just managed to climb aboard, landing with a thump at my guide’s feet. He opened his eyes, stared at me in disbelief for a few seconds, then gave the motor full throttle.
He didn’t ask me about the coral and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. It had been a long day for us both.