Something we learned in the Marshall Islands is that weather prediction for the surrounding area can be painfully inaccurate. Being only a few degrees off the equator, the ITCZ (which in itself is annoyingly unpredictable) is never too far away and can turn a glorious day into a panic of dragging anchors in the blink of an eye. Or on the other hand, as in our most recent case, the forecasted winds we were hoping to ride south to Fiji were simply nowhere to be found.
I can’t even begin to describe the frustration of looking at GRIB files that say you’re in 15-20 knots on the beam, while noisily motoring through the glassiest seas imaginable and breathing obnoxious amounts of diesel exhaust. I found the best way to deal with this was just to go hang out on the bow, as far away from the sounds and excrements of the engine as possible, and watch the dolphins. Needless to say we burned through our fuel supply far faster than we would have liked, and the wind forecast was getting more dismal by the day, so we changed course and made for Kiribati where we could refuel and hopefully give the breeze a day or so to fill back in.
We didn’t stop in Kiribati on our way north last year. We sailed through their waters within eyesight of the atolls but had enough fuel and wind to keep moving, and some friends who were in Tarawa emailed saying it was dirty and there was nothing to do, so we didn’t feel a stop was warranted. With that I can’t say either of us were thrilled to stop there now, so we made plans to get clearance, get fuel, and get out all in a day.
Customs and Immigration took 24 hours just to clear us in, so that plan went straight out the window. In that time, though, it started to look like we could get better wind if we stuck around for a few days, and with a build-up of energy from days of motoring and then being confined to the boat while officials took their sweet-ass time, we hatched a new plan. Our finely practised method for expedited cultural immersion is this: get a phone, rent a car (or a scooter if you’re in Tuvalu). So that’s exactly what we did, and I can tell you that Tarawa, outside of the shipping port, is not dirty, and there is plenty to do.
I’m actually a huge advocate for local transit; taking the bus is an experience in itself. But we wanted to go as far as the road could take us and stop for photos, so with a super spiffy (air conditioned) Subaru and Google maps running on the phone, we set off.
Interestingly enough, while Kiribati is only a few hundred miles away from the Marshalls and also comprised primarily of atolls, it’s a completely different environment. I got all jazzed on the acres of mangroves (love me some mangroves), and we noticed pretty much as soon as we set foot on the island that there are surfable waves; from what we learned, there’s an Australian expat who’s been teaching some of the locals to surf and now there’s a small but growing community. So that’s awesome.
While Tarawa is fairly industrialized, it seems not to suffer the same Western infiltration upon its culture that we experienced in the Marshalls (it’s actually under an Australian wing, not American, but you know what I mean). The architecture was immediate evidence of that, with a refreshing preservation of traditional building techniques everywhere we looked, and the locals seemed to have an easier time blending indigenous practices with modern conditions. Taking someone’s photograph without them defaulting to gang signs was, again, refreshing, and while this could be a result of nearly everyone’s remarkable fluency in English, it felt we were welcomed more as “visitors” than “foreigners”. In the short three days we were there we easily had more interactions with locals than in the last five months we spent in Majuro, and between their penchants for song, dance, and witty island humour our plans to keep on moving were nearly revised. Though maybe getting out while things are good is sometimes the trick to an enjoyable experience. Seriously, though, the I-Kiribati are super friendly and seemed pretty stoked that we were around. Even the big-wigs at the Parliament Building where we eventually started tying up the dinghy were laid-back islanders down for a good time, at least off-hours. Which in itself is a funny story…
The Parliament Building has a bar. Our last night in Tarawa we thought maybe we’d check it out and have a drink or two before setting off on another two weeks of sailing. We found ourselves in the company of some PM’s and after an hour or so of raucous conversation they asked us if we’d like to try some local food. It turns out smoked sea worm is delicious. Apparently it’s even better barbequed.