A Hot Mess

I'm going to let you in on a little secret here. If you are at the equator, it's gonna be hot. That may seem like not much of a secret, but it's something that I don't think I was exactly prepared for. Especially since I am a white boy who grew up in the cooler climate of Seattle. Being that I'm a white boy, you can only guess how red my normally white self gets with a little exposure to the equatorial sun. The other thing that I was not prepared for that goes along with the heat and sun near the equator, is how much it is humanly possible to sweat. I called that massive amount of sweating a glistening, but Brenda called it a hot mess. Whatever you want to call it, we have been pretty disgusting. We have been dripping, literally dripping, from every square inch of skin. I didn't know my shins could sweat, or my ears, or my elbows, but surprisingly, they all can...profusely. Yep, we've definitely been a couple of hot messes.

We are currently at the Tarawa atoll which is just barely north of the equator. I was told by the custom's officer when we checked in that the last tourist he saw was 2 months ago and he doesn't exactly remember the last one before that. This place is remote and it's not visited by tourists. The westerners that do stop here are generally from foreign aid organizations like UNICEF, NGO's, and the Red Cross. And now we are here.

I've been trying to come up with what I wanted to tell you about Kiribati and the Tarawa atoll in particular because it's unlike any other place we've seen, and really, it's unlike any other place on earth. It's also struck me in a way that no other place has. I've been trying to process my thoughts on what we've been experiencing, but to be honest, I've been having a tough time coming to grips with it all. I thought I could give you some of the facts about the place, but then I figured that if you want to know about the country, you go to good old google or wikipedia and get some of the details for yourself (if you have some free time, look up Kiribati and the Tarawa atoll...it's really an interesting place and has some amazing history). Finally, I just decided that I should process all this out in real time and we could go through this together.

First of all, this place is poor. If memory serves me correctly, I remember this being the 2nd poorest country on the planet, but don't quote me on that fact, I just know it's really poor. We were just in Vanuatu, which I remember as being the 19th poorest country on the planet (don't quote me on that either), but there is a huge difference in what it means to go from 19th to 2nd place on the scale of the poorest countries on earth. The biggest thing that I can tell you in that difference is the fact that in Vanuatu, the ground is fertile, so even if you didn't have 2 nickles to rub together, you could still grow food to eat and you could make your house out of the building materials that the jungle provided.

Tarawa is an atoll. You may be thinking an atoll is an island. Like an island is sort of correct, except it's not. It doesn't have any hills, no mountains, and no streams. It's basically a completely flat and narrow strip of coral sand that barely sits above sea level. Most of the land is not much wider than I-5 as it passes through downtown Seattle. You can stand in the middle of the atoll and see ocean on both sides. Since this place is made up of coral sand, not much can grow here, which is a big part of the problem. Almost all of the food that is here has to be brought in. And most of that food is pre-packaged garbage that you really wouldn't want to eat. You can buy bags of rice here (it's a staple) but we haven't seen any fresh fruits or vegetables other than onions and cabbage and who knows where it came from or how long it's been sitting around. We purchased a carton of juice and noticed after we drank it that the expiration date was 18 months ago. After that, we started looking at other food in the stores and noticed that almost everything was expired long ago. My guess is that when food is expired elsewhere, rather than throw it out, it comes here.

This atoll is hugely overpopulated (another big problem). People are living on top of each other in what the majority of the world would consider squalor. Garbage is everywhere. Sanitation is almost unheard of and clean drinking water is not available (other than bottled water). Jobs are non-existent (over 50% unemployment rate). The only industries that we are aware of is copra (dried coconut meat) and fishing and those jobs pay pennies a day. There is more work on the main atoll of Tarawa than the rest of the country, of which it's non-existent, so most young people in the country flock to Tarawa in search of work which leads to more overcrowding and pollution on this tiny atoll. I can't seem to figure out where all the people that live here fit. It's a tiny chunk of land.

There is a ton of aid that comes from other countries in the form of infrastructure, shelter, food, schools, sanitation, and clothing. The aid is needed because there is nothing here that would make this a self sufficient society. Because of the overcrowding and lack of land, there just aren't the resources available to sustain the people. And the population keeps growing. It's actually exploding. Over 50% of the country's population is under the age of 15 years old.

Another huge problem, quite possibly the biggest problem they face, is the fact that the entire country is expected to be underwater within the next century due to climate change and rising ocean levels. That means the country will cease to exist. All of these people will be displaced and where do they go? The Kiribati government has been arranging with other countries to take in refugees as their land disappears and Fiji has a chunk of land set aside just for that purpose.

Even if you are lucky enough to have an education and can find a job here, what does that really mean? Where can you advance in a country where an advancement may only mean you can afford a pair of flip flops or a second shirt or even corrugated tin for the walls on your home. A lot of the aid organizations are focusing on education as a way to get people out of poverty, and just so we are clear here, I'm all for education, but there still isn't opportunity once that education has been attained. What are you supposed to do with that education when there aren't jobs to be had? And the jobs that are to be had, still only pay pennies a day.

It's overcrowded, polluted, and soon to be covered by the ocean and lost forever. There are no opportunities for a better life, no jobs, and it's only being sustained by the help of other countries. It's a country with a feel of desperation. It's almost depressing to think about how little hope there is for the place. So, what's the point?

Even with all of it's problems, Kiribati and the Tarawa atoll are incredibly beautiful. There is an almost magical quality about the place. It's unique. And the people here are friendly, hopeful, proud, and seem to be happy. They are trying for a better life even though that better life is practically unattainable. We get smiles and waves from people with nothing, we've had invites to visit people's homes, and we've had conversations with people who are thrilled to tell us about their country. We've felt pretty lucky to be able to visit this place, even if it is only briefly. We also hope that aid continues to pour in, if for nothing else, because we love it here.

Kiribati has been an exciting place for us. We've seen real life that is unimaginable to a boy from the mean streets of Seattle. I've always had an appreciation for how I was brought up and for the opportunities that were available to me having grown up in the States, but nothing reinforces those appreciations more than being in a place like this. And at the same time, we have a huge appreciation and admiration for this place and the people who live here. It's unlike any other. We love it here.

Some of our favorite things to do in new places are bus rides and the local food. This place has been no different in that regard. We've taken a handful of bus rides, each of them have been different, and each of them have been memorable. Not only do you get a quick tour of the atoll, but you get to have a thrill ride for the bargain price of about 55 cents US. On one of our rides, Brenda looked at me and said “this is great!”. And it was. We were going about mach 4 down a rough dirt road, the stereo was blaring loud enough to make my ears bleed, people were crammed in so tightly that laps were piled 3 high, and our driver was swerving around other cars, buses, motorcycles, and pedestrians like he was Mario Andretti. It was quite a ride. After we got out, we both said, “did that just happen?” It sure did and we lived to tell about it.

The street food here is some of the best we've had anywhere. You can get this food at what I am going to call their version of 7-11. It's a shack on the side of the road and it's loaded with a pretty good variety of odds and ends. For about 75 cents US, a freshly made, incredibly delicious blend of rice, chicken, cabbage, and onions, in a somewhat curry-ish sauce can be had. Don't expect utensils or napkins with your meal, they don't exist. This is finger food and it's messy. But it's great. Don't worry about the diarrhea, because at most street food vendors all over the world, they throw that in for free (a word of advice for any travel in a third world country, carry lots of toilet paper...you'll be glad you did...trust me). And for desert, an ice cream cone goes great...for about 30 cents. Yeah, we love this place.

One of the locals heading out for a day of fishing

Sunset in Tarawa.  If you look closely on the left, you can see one of the traditional sailing canoes coming back in from a day of fishing.

Kids being kids outside a Catholic school.

This is the Tarawa version of 7-11.  They have everything.  Street food, soft serve ice cream, rice, sugar, cups, shovels, even old tires to hold your roof down....yep, everything.


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