Once Around The Sun

61140 km

KIRITIMATI

Kiribati is geographically in a very interesting place. The only country that resides in all four hemispheres simultaneously. Spreads out on more than 3 million square kilometres while it's land area clocks in at barely 800 sq.km. Formed by three groups of atoll islands from which only the Tarawa and Line Islands (formerly Gilbert Islands) are inhabited by an estimated two hundred thousand souls. These atolls are flat, hot and covered in white sand. Quite picturesque and wildly debated whether the islands will survive rising sea levels caused by global warming. For that reason the government bought 23 square kilometres of land on the main island of Fiji, which is a volcanic island with higher elevations. I've never heard of similar thing nor I've seen any news headlines about this, so it was fascinating to hear about it from Kiribati's. And this fact alone sort of proves the concern about global warming. True or not, Kiribati's are ready to move.

Our plan was to fly to Tarawa, the capital and most densely inhabited part of Kiribati and then hitchhike a supply boat or charter a plane to Line Islands. Unfortunately the remoteness of the islands and our budget did not mix so I have settled for the safer version and checked us in on a flight from Nandi to Honolulu which makes a stop at Kiritimati (in Gilbertese dialect pronounced as Kirismas), or better known as Christmas Islands once a week on Wednesday. I didn't even know this nation exists until about 3 years ago when a digital friend from Slovenia, Jure, mentioned it to me in one of our conversations. Or was it for his profile I was writing for one of the street photography groups on Deviant Art? God knows. What I know is that Jure is responsible for my foot landing on one of Kiribati's islands. The prior research didn't bring any fruits, so I was winging it until the last moment on Fiji, hoping that I'll find out something as we get closer. As it turns out the reason I couldn't find anything about it is that these islands are so incredibly inaccessible that many just give up, skip. Well, as it turns out is not that difficult, only super expensive in flights and accommodation costs alike. What the heck, we were so close and these islands may be gone in a couple of decades, it must be worth I've decided.

After an over night flight we have landed on Cassidy International Airport on Kiritimati. The small Boeing 787-700 has been towering over the building of the airport, which one could've easily mistake for a shed. It was surreal. Concrete runway, wooden shed of the terminal, coconut trees and a round number of 4 tourist (including us) left the plane for our 2 week adventure. Not many visit the island. If my math is right it may be somewhere between 2 and 3 hundred people a year from which 95 percent are fishermen from The States, Australia or New Zealand. Those odd few are travellers, backpackers, crazies just like us. Our host, whom I've managed to contact via an email that Majka miraculously found somewhere on the web, has been waiting for us on the airport and we took off to his venture, 'Lagoon View Resort'. A couple of bamboo huts, 2 or 3 rooms with air con, a kitchen, spacious palm tree garden, crabs everywhere and a beach in the lagoon. The place has an excellent landmark in the form of a capsized yacht that the owners have moved to the front of their land, just by the side of the high road that circles the island. Can't miss the place! I've suggested that Timi, the owner, should turn it into an extra room. He laughed about the idea but later he confessed that I wasn't the first suggesting it and he's seriously considering doing so.

The 'resort' is in the village of Tabwakea and is not a resort as you may expect. I would say it is a fancy hostel where you get to dine on lobster 3-4 times a week. It is the best however the island has to offer and the one where the owners will reply to your emails in a reasonable time. At the time of our visit we were the only guests, so Timi his wife Timei and their 3 daughters along with a staff of another 3-4 people were almost ready to jump on our requests and enquiries. Within the limitation of the scorching heat, of course. The island of Kiritimati is the largest atoll on the world and travelling between the villages of London, Paris, Poland, Banana and Tabwakea may be challenging. Yes, those names are for real. We have tried hitchhiking a few times which was easy and cool on the back of a truck just like other locals. If our trip was taking us only to the nearby London, we used push bikes. I would recommend however, take a walk. The roads are punishing. Or hitchhike. Is usually free and you get to know some locals at its best. If you're lucky you can even get invited to church, a dinner or a game of bingo in the afternoon. I didn't, been probably too annoying, sticking my camera to everybody's face. But to be honest, we've found all activities on our morning and evening walks anyway. The island looks pretty deserted when the sun is high up, but mornings and late afternoons are quite busy with many activities stretching late into the night.

As one of the main reasons of my visit I consider the environmental influence of the rising sea level caused by global warming. I was curious to see that with my own eyes, hear stories from first hand. Frankly? The islands is barely a sandbox sitting above the ocean. I could imagine a larger storm or wave wiping it off the face of the planet. Luckily, the locals tell me, the cyclones, tsunamis and other representations of Gods anger missed Kiribatis in the past. Except maybe the one disaster that's closing in slow motion. Global warming. Researchers claim that the islands may not last longer than couple of decades. The islanders however does not seem to stress themselves with such scarecrow predictions. ...or the nuclear bomb tests running in the area from late sixties. But that's over now too and all that's left is a few concrete bunkers and a couple of airports. A lot of concrete basically. Until about few years ago there were shipwrecks and planes, buildings, vehicles sprinkled around the island as a reminder of people playing God with powers beyond their control. All the junk has been removed by now, well most of it. Before these 'mushroom' tests, during the WW2 it was the place where one of the most fierce and bloody battles took place. The islands proved strategically too important for both sides. As soon I've started to inquire further away into the past no one really knew where Kiribatis came from. One thing is certain, that these islands only came inhabited about 150-200 years ago. Some claim that the roots point to South America, others see ancestors in Hawaii or Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, even Southeast Asia. For me Kiribatis (or Girbertese) look not quite like any of the mentioned. It's a mystery just like the one that people can't trace their history for 150 years. But that's happened and there is no way back. Other than the slight carelessness there is not much I have against the islanders. There is not much to do. Nothing else but coconut tree grows here. So it's either cutting the 'copra' or catching the fish. And then there is the waiting for aid. Help from Japan, US of A, Australia, New Zealand or Europe. Solar panels from Poland to Poland. Water towers and pumps from Queensland, generators from California, heavy machinery from Japan. After a while all this goes to waste and rust eats it away. Maintenance is just too expensive, parts too far away, people too relaxed. Don't get me wrong. If you don't miss electricity, TV, internet, mobile phones or cars it is the best place to go 'back to the basics'. The sea and coconut trees and yourself can provide most necessities for life. Food, building material, family. Trouble starts when those, in the eyes of the islanders, super rich line fishing tourists arrive at the island. Those few hundred Americans and Australians will need electricity for the mobiles they can't use, air conditioning, and TV. Yeah, some do choose to come here. Some for the fish, some like me for the adventure. For those who come for the fish it is paradise, cause fish are plenty. For those who adventure it is paradise for the number of tourists equals you plus whoever you drag along. I haven't been to Antarctica so can't really speak about remoteness. But this place is as far off the tourist map as I did get. Maybe in the whole of my life. And I've enjoyed it. I've enjoyed the people, the white sand and the heat, the coconuts and the ocean, the fact that there is literally nothing to do and joy when I've found something to do.

Timi, our 'landlord',owns a business aside his lodging venture. He's got a pet fish business. His divers catch 'Red Flames' and other rare fish, he ships them to Hawaii. One of the lucky ones on the island, he's an employer. Due to the lack of any legit dive shops, any legit divers really, I took the offer of mister Timi and decided to dive with one of his divers. Divers are cool, stand up man ready to take care of themselves, not sure about the recreational diver going under with them. Well, I took the risk. I felt alive. ...and dead. I wasn't sure. I couldn't be. Weird shit, feeling unsafe but safe enough... not quite safe. One... ...actually 2 of my best dives in my life. Yes. Seriously. Deep dives too. Deeper than I'm certified to. But I've broke that routine on Fiji already, so who cares. Fiji took my virginity for emergency resurfacing too. So bring it on... I though. And it was one of the (two actually) best of my dives. The being alive factor, the unknown, so many factors out of ordinary I wasn't ready to admit to myself... But it was real. My regulator was leaking air, my BCD was flakey and unreliable... and I wasn't afraid. For some reason. I knew it will all be alright. And so it was. Nothing has failed for so many dives and it hasn't failed for 2 more. Not too much. But I got to watch Timi's pet fish divers. Seemed so easy! Just find a Flame hiding in the coral, surround it with a net and scare it out of its hiding into the net and then to a bucket with a lid. Easy! The divers caught one every 2 minutes or so. We even had time to hunt down some octopus for dinner. That was even more fascinating. Made more sense too, catching something for living rather than business.

On the last night of our stay I got to watch the divers bag the Flames for the plane. They are shipped to Hawaii as regular cargo. Each fish in its own bag a little seawater and some oxygen. Not many businesses thrive on the island. Many cut the copra (coconut) and sell it dried by the kilo to Australia. I think that's the most common way to make a buck. The lucky ones work for one of the 2 pet fish hunter companies or one of the fresh lobster shipping companies. Some are lucky even more and work as guides for those few overseas fishermen tourists... We were lucky too. Our visit fell into the celebrations of Independence Day, that made the otherwise deserted island a bit more lively. It was certainly fun to watch the parade and the gathering of some fraction out of Kiritimati's 6000 souls. It was certainly one of those few special days when the island feels alive.