“When the apocalypse happens, this place won’t even feel it,” Brian observed. We were wandering the equatorially-scorched, dusty streets of Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, a place we’d been told to “get in and get out as fast as you can.” No two cruisers are alike and we often love places that other sailors hate, but this was surreal: an atoll mere inches above sea level where the population is bursting over its sandy seams as the land literally disappears from underneath them, where the shoreline is shored up with trash and the public beach is the public toilet, where people are still living on and digging up the remains of thousands of missing Japanese soldiers and US Marines from WWII.
I don’t even have any photos of the place.
“You’ve got three species of feces here: dog, pig, and human,” a fellow American schooled us on our first night in town. We were sitting in the bar of the nicest hotel, pounding cold ones to wash away the strange flavors of a beef curry that hadn’t tasted quite like any cow I’d ever eaten. “It might have been dog,” our new friend confided, before telling us we really shouldn’t be walking around the streets because the dust contained a dangerously high level of shit. A rat skittered along the rafter above us.
It was time to take evasive measures, strictly an in-and-out mission: we’d get the fuel and food needed for our next leg to the Marshall Islands and be gone…if this place didn’t kill us first.
We decamped from Betio, ground zero of the horrors, to Bonriki, where we anchored off what we affectionately came to call, “Poo Point,” after observing locals wandering, one at a time, to lift their lava lavas and crouch among the scanty beach scrub.
Now, about that food mission…in Tuvalu, we’d been assured by the guys at the Taiwan Technical Mission that there would be fresh vegetables in Kiribati. They told me they had an operation going in Tarawa, which was excellent news: I’d heard only terrible things about provisioning in Kiribati. (Rusty cans on the shelf, no eggs, greasy, elderly cheese. Basically, if you want it, they don’t have it.)
So far, the provisioning rumors were true. Every country has its unique challenges and charms when it comes to food and drink, and there’s always something new or different to interest us. Not in Kiribati. There’s food to eat…you just have to ask yourself if you’re willing to risk your health eating it.
Technically, they were correct: there is a TTM farm in Tarawa. After a long, hot walk down rutted, shit-dusty roads and many queries to I-Kiribati who had no idea what we were asking about, we finally found it – an oasis of green in a landscape of dead coral and faded potato chip bags, a lush, fecund acreage with drip-irrigated beds of lettuce, bak choy, scallions, and cabbage. Beans dripped fatly from their stalks. Cherry tomatoes bright as sparks fruited from perfectly tended plants. Plump watermelons hung from trellised vines with the grace of berries. I was dying of heat stroke and it was a gorgeous sight to have as my final one on earth.
But the place was locked up tighter than an embassy. At a tall gate with a barred gatehouse, we spoke to a woman who passed us off to another woman who led us to a neat, Taiwanese man in a broad brimmed hat, plucking bugs off trellised tomato plants. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t sell the vegetables. They are for demonstration only.”
What? There’s nothing fresh on the shelves, no markets like we’ve seen in every other country we’ve visited, from Mexico to Panama to Tahiti to Fiji to New Zealand, where fresh fruits and vegetables are so abundant and cheap it costs more in energy counting out the customer’s change than it does to make them fruit and thrive. The I-Kiribati kids all looked stunted and mealy, with that weird wandering eye disease that descends in the absence of nutrients, and you’re telling me this garden is just for looking, not for eating?
We’re teaching people how to grow for themselves, he explained as he led us to his boss’s office, blissfully air conditioned with icy cold drinking water in a cooler. Maybe the boss would be lenient, warm to the idea of a few bucks for some lettuce and cukes. But no, he was aghast to hear that the Tuvalu farm was selling their vegetables and seemed to take offense at the idea. I wanted to slide a twenty across the table and tell him to just keep his eye on it for us while we took a little wander through the green beans.
They suggested we try to buy food from some of their students and told us roughly where to look along the road to Bairiki, where we were heading anyway. We made a few inquiries, but as we wandered off the main road between the shacks all we found were tidy little plots of lettuce and bak choy, just beginning to sprout, tomatoes flowering but not yet fruiting. Students definitely making the grade, but nothing ready for harvest.
Instead, our search ended when we got to Bairiki and found the woman who often sold stalks of bananas brought down from Butaritari, an atoll to the north with a more substantial base of soil. Today she had pumpkins, enormous, first-prize-at-the-county-fair pumpkins.
“May I have the smallest one?” I asked. She shrugged disdainfully, as if I were foolish to want the runt of the litter. It was the size of pony keg and the only one we could manage to wrestle into our backpack.
Then it was time for fuel. We had two empty canisters of cooking propane that needed filling, but the tank farm was back in Betio. Three crowded “buses” (read: rusty Mitsubishi vans packed beyond capacity, lumbering over the only rutted, ripped up, shit-dusty road, barely functional but stereo blaring) and five hours later we arrived outside the propane tank farm just as they were locking the gate. It was a little after 3 in the afternoon. “You’re closing?” I asked.
The guy nodded.
“No.” I said. My face must have had KILL written all over it, because Brian furrowed his brow and hissed at me, “Don’t be like that.” The guy balked at our scene and gestured toward the office. Brian said he’d go check it out. I wilted into the nearest sliver of shade, my forehead resting against the dirty wall of the guard’s shack, and tried to remember what virtue there is in voyaging. Moments passed. I watched some kids playing in the water of the harbor, sliding down the slippery concrete ramp, taking daring leaps off the pier’s edge toward a raft of washed up Styrofoam. Just like kids everywhere, except here a curious brown cloud bellied out from the ferry tied to the dock beside them and the water had the shimmery, opacity of gasoline.
“Let’s go,” Brian said. “They’re closed.”
“But I thought they were open until…”
“Yeah, not today. The lady in the office said they’re closing early because they’ve already had enough customers and they already made enough money. So they’re all going home.”
This is why we travel: to be confronted by the variety of ways of living in this world.