Day 1 in Nauru
I arrived around 8am that morning and my immigration process was quick and I was out the door. I was planning on buying a SIM card, but the cost was over 20 AUD for 1Gb of data and it was not worthwhile for 48 hours. I looked for the taxi rank, but there were no taxis. I asked one of the workers about Odn Aiwo Hotel, since it was only one kilometer away.
The direction was to the west, but I had to go east first and go around the airport, since the airport road closes when the flight arrives. It would end up being an additional two kilometres to get to the hotel, but I had no choice at that point. I also needed the exercise so I hulled my 30kg baggage and started walking. About 500 meters into my walk, I decided to hitch hike, but five cars just passed me. The sixth one actually stopped and he gave me a ride to the hotel. Well, there was only one main road along the coast of the island and the other road was into the high grounds. The gentleman that picked me up was named Hussein and he had an Australian accent. He gave me a little tour of the island since we had to pass the police station, fire station, the main government building and a school on my way to the hotel. The ride was around five minutes and was at Odn Aiwo Hotel. I thanked Hussein and got off his four wheel drive Toyota. My first impression of the hotel… it needed a serious face lift. A face lift may not even be sufficient for the condition from outside. I went inside and there was a small reception area with couches.
It was already hot outside and the only thing that pleased me was the aircon. Thanks to Rika from Nauru Airlines, my reservation was there and I paid my 110 AUD per night bill. It was only two nights, but 220 AUD was pretty darn expensive for a room that was equivalent to a $15 USD room in Vietnam. It had an ensuite bathroom, queen bed, mirror, drawer, small refrigerator, kettle and an aircon unit (the most important thing). The price did not even include breakfast, not that I needed it anyway. I felt like I got ripped off again, but this was the only hotel that was available and the Japanese bloke (was in Nauru for the phosphate business) that I met downstairs told me that this was the best in town. Whatever that meant…
I asked the lady downstairs for a map, but there was none. I downloaded maps.me in advance and showed her the map. She blurted, “there is not much to do in Nauru. You can go to the beach near the airport and go up the hill to check out the phosphate mining area. There is also a small lagoon up in the hill.” Hm…I thought. “The last tourist that stayed at our hotel was four years ago.” Huh? I heard that Nauru gets very few tourists, but four years ago is a long time ago.
So that morning, I decided to take a hike up the hill. I walked up the hill towards the phosphate mining area and decided to head for the Buada Lagoon and church on the left side of the road. There was nothing posted really and the road split into two at the fork. On my way up the hill, I really wanted to get a ride, since it was extremely hot already at 9:15 in the morning. I saw a couple small 30 person couch buses coming down and up the hill. I wished I could have jumped into one of those. 30 minutes later, I was by the lake, which was nothing more than a swamp.
There was absolutely nothing there and traces of a bonfire or some kind of event with picnic tables around. The view was nothing to praise about and I headed for the church. The road looked more like a loop around the swamp and I noticed the church at one corner. I wanted to take a look at the church and head back to the hotel, since there was nothing else exciting on the plate.
Oh, I forgot to mention the stray dogs in the country. I was told to watch out with the dogs from a Nauruan I got in touch via Instagram. I carried my little twig to keep myself safe and there definitely were stray dogs barking at me. I walked another 300 meters to the church and there was nothing exciting about it either. I took a few pictures and headed back to the hotel. It was a short 1.5 hour trip, but I was pretty exhausted from the heat. I went back to the hotel to relax and headed out again towards the airport direction this time.
The airport side was Yaren district and it was a short 10 minute walk from the hotel. On my way over, I saw the main supermarket, telelcom company, and stopped to check emails at a computer store, but some applications did not work (eg. Instagram and Facebook). Either the wifi was super slow or something was wrong. It was only 1 AUD for 15 minutes so I did not mind checking Whatsapp and emails. As I was walking towards the Yaren area, it was strange noticing these Indian looking people working at the Chinese shops. I had gone through Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands already and had seen with my own eyes the dominance of Chinese mom and pop businesses. What was weird was seeing this Indian guy working at the counter and he spoke English well. I can tell the Indian accent, if you were wondering how I could tell that. I did not have a conversation with him and proceeded to Yaren holding my diet coke can, passed a swimmable beach with lifeguards, a few small stores (some weird looking guy selling toiletries on the street – strange), the Nauruan court, police station, elementary school, government office, and fire station.
I did not have the energy to go all the way to the end since it was hot already and noticed that the airport road was open since the planes were gone. I wanted to hitchhike back to the hotel, but ended up walking in the afternoon sun. I got back to the hotel room around three in the afternoon and decided to take a nap.
I woke up around five in the afternoon and took a nice stroll towards the left of the hotel. My original plan was to walk around the entire island, which was only 18km, but if you do so, my advice is to do it in the early morning. I did not have the energy to do that and walked about two kilometres along the main road, passing by random houses, kids playing rugby and a group of grownups playing soccer. I wanted to join and show off my decent skills, but I was wearing flip flops and there was no way I was going to play bare foot. The last time I played bare foot was in the Maldives with a few Italians and locals and my feet were torn apart. I was not going to do that. I watched them play for a bit and headed back to the hotel for dinner. I heard that the Chinese food at Odn Aiwo was excellent so I planned on eating there and looked forward to hanging out at the bar downstairs of the hotel, since it was a Friday.
I went down around 7:30pm and did not see anyone at the bar except for a few locals playing slots. I went to the restaurant and ordered my chicken with broccoli, which was great. The Chinese place was very busy with most tables full. I saw a few Westerners there eating salty fish (it was really popular) and started talking randomly to this Kiwi guy Scott and a Nepalese guy.
We were having a beer and I wanted to know where the nightlife was on Friday evening and they told me it was towards the beach. I told Scott about my trip and he told me that I was the first tourist that he has met in four years. Wow! I guess this country really does not get any tourist. Besides, why would you ever visit Nauru anyway? Scott was working at the detention center and the Nepalese guy was a refugee. At that point, I had no idea what was going on. I did not read up on Nauru before my trip, since I had very little information. I have summed it up for you at the bottom.
Scott and I decided to go to the Bondi Beach Bar, which was run by a Lebanese refugee Adnan and his Australian wife Zoe. They met at the detention center when he was an asylum seeker and she was a volunteer. As of now, they were somewhat (because they are in Nauru) happily married. Scott mentioned something about a free bus, which was the bus that I have been seeing all day. He told me that the bus was free and anyone can get on. I wished someone told me that information earlier! We got to Bondi Beach Bar and met the owners and the staff (asylum seekers and refugees) working there. It was a cute little bar, the type of bar that you see in Thailand by the beach.
There were expats eating dinner and was told that the Lebanese cuisine was excellent. We hung out there for about an hour with the owners, until Scott had to leave early, since his shift started early in the morning. I stayed and was introduced to a wide range of people. There was a group of translators working at the detention center and the place was pretty lively for Nauru. Nobody really believed that I was a tourist and questioned if I was a reporter. Some of the translators made up fake names and told me they were from Mongolia, but in reality, they were Afghani translators.
It was all good though. I had a good time drinking, talking about Nauru, their lives back at home, and smoked shisha. The owners really made me feel comfortable there and it could be a great case study for a refugee running a business in Nauru. I stayed until closing, we had to literally kick out some of the Nauruans and the couple drove me back to my hotel. It was a fun night and I got even more interested about the detention center.
The Nauru Detention Center
From the collective information I got from speaking to Nauruans, refugees, asylum seekers, and others working for the center, here is a brief overview. The Australian government placed a detention center in Nauru to process the asylum seekers coming from various countries. Most of them get to Christmas Island first and then they get sent to various places in the Pacific such as Papua New Guinea or Nauru or Australia to be processed as a refugee. One first arrives as an asylum seeker and one has to be processed or admitted in order to become a refugee. This process can take several years since the government needs to cross check the information. I met an asylum seeker that has not changed status for 3.5 years. I met many different nationals, some of them coming from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iraq and Myanmar.
The asylum seekers all live in the detention center but they are free to leave the compound during daylight hours. Previously, they were not even allowed to leave the compound, but things have relaxed. They have to take a bus to get out of the compound and go to the various places on the island. Of course, this is all free and supported by the Aussie government. They get free food, lodging, psychologist assistance, medical care and more. It is Australia and they do their best to do things right compared to other third world countries.
Refugees are allowed to continue living in the detention center or opt to live in town. There are make shift compounds along the beach where refugees live together. As a refugee, one has to wait until a country accepts them. This could be a few years to a maximum of five years (nobody knows the actual number, but this was the number that I was told from several refugees) in Nauru. I heard that the US is supposed to accept a large number of refugees in the coming months, but with all the restrictions created for Iraqis, Somalis, and Iranians by Trump’s government, I wonder how that will pan out. It could be a disaster if the US deports the refugees back to their respective countries. The refugees get a stipend (I think it was 450 AUD) each month and can opt to eat for free at the detention center if they want.
Some of the nationals work at the Chinese shops, bars, restaurants, sell handcrafts, sell imported products, work as a taxi driver, and more. It sounds like it works and it probably does, but I definitely would not want to be stuck for five years in Nauru. There was very little going on, but hey, it may be better than being in their respective countries trying to hide from authorities, living each day in danger, but that is just my opinion. I cannot really comment more on the politics involved with this detention center.
The entrance to the Japanese prison.
Day 2 in Nauru
First thing in the morning, I went to the Saturday market down the road from the hotel.
The hotel was great because it was very central next to everything. It was very busy with locals selling food, refugees selling clothes and random items. It was interesting to see a lot of different kinds of nationalities living in harmony. I did not speak to any of the refugees this time, instead, I bought a bowl of tuna with coconut cream and sat next to one of the Nauruan vendors.
Her name was Julie and she was selling chicken with breadfruit. I sat there talking to her for a while about different topics pertaining to Nauru. Of course, we spoke about the phosphate business and she gave me further insight on the detention center. I learned a lot talking to her, thanked her for a time and decided to go on a trip around the island.
I caught the free bus which was heading towards the airport direction and there was a Somali woman and an Iranian girl sitting inside the bus already. It was a scenic drive along the coast, a familiar route that I had walked the day before, but sitting in the breezy bus was much better than walking in the heat. We passed Bondi Beach Bar area and continued along until the Iranian girl got off at one of the stops. This was actually one of the stops that I wanted to get off and noticed the girl heading towards a small compound on the left hand side. I saw a Somali woman coming out of the compound and surely it was there, the compound for refugees outside the detention center.
It looked like motor homes from outside and was fenced off, but I did not bother going in. There were no chickens, live animals, kids playing around, etc. I decided to move on and went to the beach and checked out the pinnacles and waited for the bus to come back. It was so hot that I had to get out of there, since there was barely any shade and there was nothing close by within 500 meters from both directions. It was around 11:30am already and the sun was glaring. The first bus that approached was heading towards the airport, which meant that it was going to my hotel. I did not want to wait for the other bus and was so happy to be on the bus. This one had air conditioning! The covered Somali girl that was waiting by the sidewalk got on with me. We continued back the same way until the bus took a right turn towards the hill at the corner of Odn Aiwo Hotel. I decided to stay on and wanted to check out the detention area.
The road split at the top of the hill and the bus took a right turn. It went through a rocky road towards the center of the island, passing by construction and mining sites. The sites seemed to be busy, but I could not see the mining process from the road level. We finally got to a bus stop and everyone was getting off and I also saw around five people waiting on the bench.
This was the so-called First Camp, which had some refugees, but mainly housed the Australians working for the detention center. It looked modern and clean, but the buildings were temporary. I did not try going into the compound, since there was a military personnel checking identification. All the refugees and workers had an ID swipe card with their name and photo. I sat there waiting for a while and another bus came. This bus had a sign Camp 2 and 3. I got on the bus with a few others (two Iranian girls and the same Somali woman) and we proceeded further into the island. The road pretty much looked exactly the same as the first phase and took roughly 10 minutes to get there.
As we got closer to the camps, I noticed the fences and rectangular homes. There were lots of metal parts and home furnishings stacked up in piles as well. Camp 2 had rectangular shaped temporary homes and a big tent close to the entry point. The refugee from the bar told me that he lived in this tent for a while and consisted mainly of asylum seekers. The tent did not look that big, but he told me it was cramped and during bad times, there were more than 40 people sleeping there. That must have been cramped!
A few people got of Camp 2 and then the bus proceeded to Camp 3, which was roughly another 50 meters away. It looked better than Camp 2 and this was where families and single women were stationed. The two Iranian girls got off, but I did not. The bus driver asked me, “Are you not getting off?” I kind of wanted to get off and wander around, but I was already inside the fenced area and I did not want to face any problems. There were security guards sitting at the bus stop and at the entrance. I told him, “I am going back into town.” The bus turned around and we drove right pass the security guards again. They were looking at me and checking me out, but they probably thought I was from Laos or Afghanistan. Either way, I got out of Camp 3 and proceeded back to Camp 1. I don’t think anything would have happened to me, since I was not doing anything wrong, but I did not want to be in a foreign territory when I was not supposed to be. I had to get off at Camp 1 again. Getting out of Camp 2 and 3 was cumbersome, since I had to change lines to the bus that goes from Camp 1 to the city. I waited another 15 minutes for the bus but started chatting with two translators that were sitting there. I could tell from the clothing and their English that they were clearly translators and they confirmed as well.
I had heard about the Japanese guns and wanted to visit the place, but it was a hike and did not want to do it alone. Faisal and Sanzida both had not been there, so we decided to go together. We decided to meet up at 5pm to go there as a group. Cool. I wanted some company since hiking alone in the heat in an unknown territory was never a good idea.
I went back towards the hotel and caught a bus going away from the airport to check out the remaining part of the island and try the fish and chips at one of the restaurants. The bus driver dropped me off at a café and told me to try the fish and chips. It was in a shopping center like complex and there was a supermarket and the only liquor store in town. I looked at the fish and chips at the café and it did not appeal to me. The batter was very yellow and I decided to stay away from the fried stuff. I got a beef barbeque plate instead.
It was tasty and got the job done for around 7 AUD. That was a pretty cheap meal. While I was eating, I ran into Adnan and Zoe, the owners of Bondi Beach Bar. They were heading towards their bar and I got a ride with them. We zoomed past many small villages on the coast, but they all looked the same. In less than 15 minutes, we were in front of Bondi Beach Bar. I hung out there for an hour talking to the staff and since the couple was hungry, they decided to go to my hotel for Chinese.
I got a ride back with them to the hotel, relaxed a bit and met up with Faisal and Sanzida to go checkout the guns. Before going to the guns, we dropped by a Japanese prison, which was near the main road but the area was covered with trees and the temperature was much cooler.
There were metal doors and walls with graffiti, it must have been hell being locked up there. We then proceeded towards the guns by walking up a small hill for around 10 minutes and it surely was there. Supposedly, there were two routes to get to the guns, but the one we took was easy and even a five year old would not have a problem climbing. We enjoyed great views of the nearby landscape (lots of pinnacles and weird shapes) and the beaches around 500 meters away. The sun was starting to set slowly so the view was magnificent. The gun was very rusty but was still intact despite sitting there for over 70 years. It was a big gun that most probably shot down a handful of Allied planes. We could not find the debris of the fighter jets, but supposedly there were some hidden in between the pinnacles. I exchanged facebook contact information with my two new friends and bid farewell.
That evening, I had my last meal in Nauru. I ate at the usual Chinese restaurant downstairs. This time, I had the salty fish plate, which was terrific. The night before, I saw a lot of expats ordering this dish and had to go for it. I found out from the Chinese lady that this was the best-selling item at her restaurant. I already miss that taste. I did not go out that evening despite being a Saturday. There was supposed to be a party at Bondi Beach Bar, but I was too tired to go out and socialize again. I went to bed early to catch my morning flight to Fiji where I would meet my buddy Ali and his girlfriend Maria in Fiji the following day.
Visited in February 2017