Can you imagine a chunk of rock sticking out of the Pacific Ocean, only 20 square km in size, 300 km away from the nearest island, with 10,000 people living on it? Then imagine that this little island and all its Micronesian/Polynesian peoples changed hands from Germany until WWI, to the UK until WWII, then the Japanese invaded, and finally Nauru became a recognized, independent state in the 60’s. Now this is when it gets crazy – then Nauru became one of the richest countries in the world during the 70’s, with millionaires flying on the country’s regional airline all over the world and buying Lamborghinis for their president (who was too fat to fit in it, rumor says). By the late 80’s, the source of their billions, phosphate mines, began to dwindle, and they started to shut down. Many of them were built by the Australians, who just left them as they were, and they’re still there – tall, rusted buildings and half standing cantilever arms stranded on a dock-less beach. By the 90’s, unemployment was everywhere and a new generation of Nauruans were born into poverty.
After making the Australians a few million too, they now depend on Aus Aid to function. They The Chinese run all their small businesses and Japan helps them build roads. One of the most significant financial inputs to their economy comes from the Australian run detention center holding refugees seeking asylum in Australia. It was opened from 2001-2007, and reopened in 2012 and now holds nearly 1000 people from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. Australia pays 8 figures to Nauru for the center, and even more money for each refugee’s transport when and if they leave this middle-of-nowhere island. While they’re still there, they get amnesty from the local law, and police won’t even help a Nauruan if a conflict arises with a refugee since each one is worth so much money.
The President’s beautiful mountain-top house was torched in a 2001 riot by local people who had lived through the country’s downward spiral. Alot of the blame fell on the government, who managed public funds through international investment projects gone bad. They basically gambled away their millions, lost all their airplanes except one (still functioning Our Airline was nationalized and the government has gone into debt to keep it afloat), and one of the grandest hotels ever built in this part of the Pacific has become a spooky concrete structure resembling something like an imcomplete construction project from the 80’s. It probably has 50+ rooms, but ours was the only one occupied for our one night stay, and the owner keeps her prices just $10 cheaper than Menen Resort, the only other hotel on the island at $150/night for a dirty room in a dying building. The prices of things, in Australian dollars, is ludicrous, since only political or NGO related people travel here, and what you get for what you pay for isn’t even worth a tenth of the price.
When I got off the plane, I had the feeling Nauru would be a unique place in the Pacific, but it was a weird and eerie kind of unique. I’m certainly glad I went, just to try and understand a bit how such a tiny country and its history could truly be real… but I don’t know if I’d go again. It’s a sad little place, and I just kept wishing I could time travel and visit it back in the 80’s when the place was booming and all the hotels were filled with foreigners that could have enjoyed Nauru with me.