The difference between an island and an atoll is basically just a lot of land and soil. While an island can be just as wide as it is long, be covered in green grass, and rise up out of the sea into huge mountain ranges, an atoll is only a narrow bit of raised coral rock, dotted along in strips of land surrounding a big blue lagoon. Just try to imagine a sunken volcano in the sea, with only the ridge around the crater sticking out, with a few resilient palm trees and banana fruits growing strong. The highest point on Tarawa is 3m above sea level, a small rise in the road that you’re over in a second, and the 2.5m high bridge connecting two of the atolls. There were huge stretches of land where it was only as wide as the road, since a series of roads and bridges connect the pieces of land slowly drifting apart from rising sea levels.
There are only 4 atoll nations in the world, countries which live on slivers of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and its amazing what they do with so little land, and how many people they can fit on it. There are around 700 people per square kilometer in Tarawa… plus their pigs and chickens. They had to get rid of goats because they ate all the seedlings of the little vegetation that does grow, and horses or cows never had a chance without grass. The pigs stay tied up by their back foot under people’s houses, and the roosters are free to roam around and cockadoddledoo as they please. The stray dogs and homeless cats squeeze somewhere inbetween the boundaries, and somehow everyone fits, including the regular influx of seamen coming in from fishing boats and cargo vessels.
People had been asking me if I was going to Christmas Island, which I thoughw as weird since its in the Indian Ocean half way between Africa and Australia, but then I learned that ‘ti’ is pronounced ‘s’ in the Kiribati language, making Kiribati’s name ‘Kiribas,’ and Kritimati (the other large island in the island group) ‘Kirismas.’ Even though they’re both part of the same country, they’re hundreds of miles apart, since Kiribati is speckled around the equator from 170`W to 150`E. The date line technically passes through them at 180`, but they’ve all shifted in favour of the west side, making the easternmost islanders the first in the world to see a new day every morning. They renamed this island ‘Millenium’ island (formerly Caroline island) in 2000, but some deserted beach in Antarctica technically saw the millennium first.
Since there’s not much topsoil or any grass, it’s a stony, dusty place. There’s a strange grayness to the colour of the land, as if someone poured an unmixed bag of concrete over Tarawa, making this greyish dust float all over the place when its dry, and turning all the streets into a sticky gray mud and potholes into greywater pools when it rains (and it rained, a whole lot, while I was there). There were atleast one or two dedicated workers in each shop to wipe dust off the products for sale, an endless job that meant starting all over again as soon as you finished, because by that time, more gray dust and mud had crept back in with the wind or tromping feet.
I stayed at a lovely place called George’s, where all the female and fa’afafine men who worked there knew my name and the restaurant made delicious, cheap, food. George’s was also a bar where live bands performed to celebrate the weekend and Valentine’s day, and I met a lot of men from all over the world working on various ships docked in the Betio harbor. I met a Venezuelan helicopter pilot who nearly took me on a helicopter tour of Tarawa (dang…), a 24/7 drunk observer from Tuvalu, and a chief engineer from an American ship who sank the little speed boat his crew uses to go from the fishing boat to shore.
There are more shipwrecks than boats afloat, or so it seemed, with rusted boats from WWII to the speed boat that sank yesterday scattered about the shallow lagoon. The deranged chief engineer didn’t even have a radio to tell the captain he’d sank their speedboat, and he had no way to get back out to the main vessel, so he sat around the bar at our hotel drinking and retelling the story until someone with a marine radio could help him.
I get used to hearing weird stories like his, and other equally strange but wonderful stories like the helicopter pilot who saw a blue whale give birth while scouting for fish. My taxi driver mixed west and east with north and south and told me about how the sun set on the south side of the island. I suspended judgment for a moment to try and see how he could be right, but we’re literally on the equator so there’s no mistaking that. I’ve started to collect my own strange stories too, and my favourite from Tarawa is about the two cockroaches that my air conditioner threw at me. A live one got hurled at my leg when I first turned it on, and during my first night sleeping, a second one got caught up, killed, then launched onto my bed. Just another day in the life in the Pacific.