Kiribati, the Forgotten Island

146th Country

Another one of those Pacific islands that nobody knows about. The country is relatively new and won its independence back in 1979 from Britain. The country is known for fishing and exporting coconut meat. It is another destination that costs roughly $700 – 1000 USD round trip from Fiji. Fiji Airways flies on Mondays and Thursdays and Nauru Airlines flies on Friday. I took the Monday morning flight out of Nadi, Fiji and stayed for four nights. I wish I could have stayed longer, but coordinating my Pacific flights was very difficult and costly. When I glanced at the prices a week later, they had already gone up by $300 USD. Tarawa is the capital and the main international airport. The population of the country is roughly 100K and Tarawa occupies around 45K people. There are 33 islands in total and span big distances. I recommend going to Kiribati for around 10 days to go see the outer islands.

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As soon as I landed, I had tuna stir fry at the airport. It tasted amazing!

Arrival in Tarawa

It was a 737 airplane from Nadi to Tarawa and the flight was 80% full. Likewise to Tuvalu, I saw lots of small islands with coconut trees surrounded by beautiful emerald green and turquoise waters. This airport was about twice the size of the one in Tuvalu and was more organized.

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How do you like the water here?

Immigration process was quick, I picked up my bag that was on the ground and headed right out towards customs. I was one of the first ones to get out of the airport and was met by one of the ladies from Fema Lodge that was there to pick me up. We were waiting for two more guests to come out, so I went and got a SIM card. If you have a Vodafone Fiji SIM card, it works in Kiribati and top ups were possible, so bring it with you. After getting my SIM card, I waited in the air conditioned van since it was scorching hot outside. Kiribati was located close to the equator and it can get very hot during the day. I waited patiently for the next guest and a Fijian named Avinesh entered the car. He was there to go see a client, since he sold eggs for over two years. It was an yearly visit. We talked for a good 25 minutes while we waited for the other guest.

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On the way to the lodge from the airport. The lagoon side of the island.

I had gotten out at 11:30 and it was already 12:30. I was getting hungry so I went to the shacks (they were literally shacks, like the ones you see in Southeast Asia) next to the airport to get food. I stumbled upon this outdoor shack and the food was really great. My first meal in Kiribati was tuna stir fry and it was really tasty. I was happy to eat fish again after eating mainly Chinese on Tuvalu. Upon devouring my protein dump with almost no rice, I went back to the van and waited for our last guest to show up at 13:10. Leo from Germany jumped into the van and we went straight to Fema Lodge, where I stayed for four consecutive nights.

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Look how nice the road looks. I imagined dirt roads in the beginning.

There was only one road from the airport to Fema Lodge and I was astonished how developed it was. Well, the only thing that was developed were the roads. They had recently paved the roads about a year ago and they were brand new. I wondered how long the paved roads will last in this sun and heat. As we drove along the road, there were huts, pigs, dogs, wooden shops, churches, community halls and kids walking home from school.

After all, I downgraded my opinion about the development of the country, it was only the roads. It was a two-lane road and at some points, the width was barely 10 meters from the vast ocean to the left and the lagoon to the right. The lagoon looked beautiful with emerald and turquoise water, not a single soul in it. I found out later why.

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The view of the lagoon.

We got to the lodge which looked like a fine guesthouse and the staff were friendly. I checked into my roughly nine square meter room and headed out for a walk.

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That is Fema Lodge.

There was nothing around the lodge so I took a mini-van to Bairiki, which cost only 80 cents. The five kilometer ride was only 15 minutes and I walked around Bairiki, the commercial zone of South Tarawa. Speaking of commercial zone, there was nothing to see or do there. I walked around for a while and there were a few government buildings, supermarkets, small shops, a soccer field, the New Zealand, Australian, and Taiwanese embassies.

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Some of the vans here had music videos playing. I’m in the back. You cannot see me though.

I bought a few coconuts at a small outdoor market and walked back to my lodge. The walk was roughly an hour and I went by two causeways, where the speed limit increased from 40 to 60 kilometers. The causeways were not that long, 400 meters at the maximum. On one of the causeways, there was one of those enormous garbage collection wasteland. As I walked past it, it smelled horrible and I was surprised to see a few locals looking for food. It seemed like they had hit jackpot, since they found a box of noodles that were thrown out. I’m not sure if the noodles had expired, but they were carrying bag loads of them.

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I wonder if they hit jackpot there.

Further past the causeway, there was a small village with locals selling grilled fish. It looked tasty and I got one for $1.5.

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One of the many grilled fish stand.

Without a doubt, there were no utensils and the lady handed me the fish. I took a big bite out of it from my right hand and it was smoked. Not my kind of grilled fish, but I finished the entire thing and threw the bone and skin portion to a stray dog.

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I bought my grilled fish from this lady. Say “cheese!”

I got back to the lodge and I was soaked in my own sweat. I wanted to go for a swim into the lagoon but Leo informed me not to. He told me something really important and everyone visiting Kiribati should know. All the sewage gets shoved into the lagoon and the locals that live along the lagoon side did not have toilets. They went to the lagoon for number one and two. As I walked towards the lagoon in front of the lodge, I could see from a distance that someone was going for a dip, but actually, they were going to the toilet. I was so glad that I did not go into the lagoon but was worried about the fish that I had eaten. The fish was caught in the lagoon by fishermen using mosquito nets. Yes, you read it correctly. They don’t use fishing nets, but use mosquito nets since they can catch anything and they eat everything that moves in the water.

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Do you like fresh octopus? This guy went spear-fishing for three hours only.

 

So my first day ended by eating dinner at Fema Lodge, which was very good and I had a nice chat with Apai from Suva, Fija and Leo from Munich, Germany.

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We went out one night and this lady was offering Jim Beam. Check out the bottle.

Visiting Tebonkeke Farm and North Tarawa

My plan for day two was pretty simple. I wanted to check out North Tarawa and go see the clam farm up there. I took a van from the lodge heading towards the airport and went until the northern most point of South Tarawa.

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Heading to North Tarawa.

The van dropped me off before the bridge that separates the South and North Tarawa. It was only $1.5 for the one hour ride. I got off with two ladies and we took some pictures of the strait there together.

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The two ladies that accompanied me to the island.

After crossing the 50 meters or so bridge, we had to walk until the end of that island for about 4km to get to the next island. This island had very few residents and mainly coconut trees growing everywhere. There was one guesthouse like lodge on the right hand side, but I did not see a single soul in there. Just to remind you, very few tourists visit Kiribati and there were roughly 120 expats (source from a Kiwi expat) working in South Tarawa. It was about a 40-minute walk to the end of the island and there was a channel about 100 meters in length, separating the two islands.

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That is the other island that I had to cross.

I could have swam across or walked across since it was low tide, but did not want to risk getting my phone wet. Hence, I took a small boat which was only 50 cents to cross. The captain saw us waiting at shore and came over in about one minute. The boat had a motor and the crossing took roughly a minute.

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Crossing by boat.

 

After getting to the other side, I went to a small resort which had no guests. FYI, they call it a resort, but it was not a resort that everyone thinks about. It’s more like a 1-star outdoor bungalow type kind of place. They had very simple shacks with no windows and it looked just like the fales I saw in Tonga and Samoa. If you plan on staying with a partner, that means no privacy. That reminds me of a question that I asked one of the female staff at the lodge. When and how do couples get their groove on? Most I-Kiribatis live with their families and extended ones. With no doors or windows in the huts, it must be hard to get privacy. I did not get a proper response from the staff but she told me… “sometimes in the car, at the beach or you have to be very quiet.” It was almost 12 and the resort had food, but as I glanced at the menu, everything was over $12 for a simple tuna fry.

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The view of the lagoon outside of Fema Lodge. Just don’t swim in there!

At the Fema Lodge, the meals started at $4, the stir fry being the cheapest. I ditched the meal and asked for a coconut instead and the lady requested $3.5 for one. I passed on the coconut as well, since coconuts were no more than $1 on the street. That was an astronomical markup! It was not the Marriott or Hyatt. Besides, if I was really desperate, I could have climbed one of the trees and picked one out. I went to a small shop not far from the resort, which was the only shop on that part of the island and asked for a coconut. The lady called one of the gents and he climbed straight up and got me two coconuts for $1. Now, that was a bargain and cool little scene to watch one of these short men climb up a 5-meter tree.

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How would you like living in one of these?

I walked along for another five minutes along the coast to look for the clam farm. I saw a post on Instagram by a German volunteer about a clam farm on that island and it was supposedly in a small village. As I walked along the bush, I came across a group of kids that were playing. I did not know what they were playing, but they kept saying “hi” to me collectively. I took a picture with them and finally found the clam farm.

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The kids were very cute. They wanted attention.

It was a very small set up with about 20 horizontal trays that were around 3 meters in length. A lady was cleaning out one of the trays and I asked her some questions and she showed me around the place.

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The clams were pretty.

I saw the process of growing cultured clams, sea cucumbers and Chinese clams. The clams were really beautiful and colorful, some of them the size of my thumb and the close to harvest ones were very big. They looked just like the ones available when snorkeling and she told me that the Chinese restaurants buy the sea cucumbers and clams.

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One of many churches in Kiribati.

I got back on the boat and went back to Fema Lodge. On the way, I found a lady selling lunch boxes on the street. I contemplated about getting sick, but I went for it. I had two boxed lunches and each were $2.5. It had tuna stir fry, deep fried tuna and rice. I never got sick on my trip to Kiribati so if you do see street side vendors, it is a clear “go” sign.

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The biggest building in Tarawa, which is the government building. There was even an ATM machine outside.

Visiting Betio

On day 3, I visited Betio, which was 13km from the Fema Lodge. It was a straight road that passed through Bairiki and another 7km later, I was in Betio. The bus cost only $1.2. Betio is an interesting place if you are a war geek. There were several Japanese guns, bunkers, and sunk ships in the lagoon and the surrounding area. The Japanese had roughly 4500 men stationed here and almost every single one of them died. The peninsula was not very big and it took roughly one and a half hour to walk around. There was not much to do other than seeing the WWII obstacles and checking out the small port.

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Japanese WWII guns.

That evening, I went to play soccer at the Australian High Commission. I got this information via Jasmine, whom I met in Tonga. Her friend Matt was a volunteer in Kiribati and it was fun playing soccer with the expats living there. I befriended a German volunteer Anne, Pat, and Monica, who was Ms. Kiribati in 2016. We played futsal on the tennis court and jumped into the only swimming pool on the island, which was in the High Commission compound. I played soccer in Tuvalu about two weeks ago, so I was not as bad, but I got tired very quickly after sprinting two or three times down the pitch. Overall, the expats there were very friendly and it seemed like a tight knit community. That evening, we went back to the Fema Lodge for dinner and I got the usual stir fry tuna. It was delicious as always.

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The Japanese headquarter was a big bunker.

 

I left the next day for Kosrae.

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The sunset was beautiful.

General Information

  • Currency – Australian Dollars
  • Money Exchange – There is no exchange at the airport, but the main banks in Bairiki exchange currencies. There is an ATM at the airport and several ATMs along Tarawa. The withdrawal fee started from $7. Some of the hotels offer credit card, but the rate is an additional 5.5%. Cash is king.
  • Internet – There was Wifi at most tourist hotels and restaurants. The Wifi can be expensive. The other option is to buy a SIM card for $5 and add $5 of data for 450Mb, valid for one week.
  • Language – Kiribati is the main language and surprisingly, a lot of people do not speak English.
  • Food – Fish is plenty, but chicken and other meats that are imported are also available. Vegetable is scarce and most of it is the frozen kind.
  • Sports – Soccer is the national sport and volleyball is popular.
  • Swimming – I advise not to swim in the lagoon. If you plan on swimming, go to North Tarawa or the outer islands.
  • Getting around – most lodges will pick up and drop you off at the airport for free. There are plenty of public mini vans ranging from 80 cents to $1.50 at most.
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Another church.

 

Where to stay

I stayed at Fema Lodge, which was located around 5km to Bairiki. The rooms were comfortable with aircon, a lounge for common use, a kitchen and the restaurant had the best meals. It cost around $67 AUD per night including taxes and food was not expensive. There were plenty of other guesthouses, a few in each village. The most popular housing in each city was as follows: Betio had the Betio Lodge and the King George Hotel. Bairiki had Mary’s Motel, which was always full, but the food was decent. Around the Fema area was the Fema Lodge and the Dreamers Guesthouse.

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The speed limit is normally 40, but the causeway is 60. Drinking seems to be a huge problem on the islands.

There was only one road within Tarawa and the mini vans run everywhere. It was easy to get around. There is no need to rent a car.

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More churches.

Where to eat

The island had very few choices, but to name a few.

  1. Fema Lodge – it was my favorite and I loved the stir fry tuna.
  2. Mary’s Motel – it was more on the expensive side, but it was decent. I had the tuna steak.
  3. Koa Koa restaurant – it was a beach front restaurant facing the lagoon and across from the Fema Lodge. I had the tuna steak and it was alright.
  4. There were a few Chinese restaurants in each village, but I stayed away after eating a lot of Chinese in Tuvalu.
  5. There were several street vendors selling packed lunch for $2.5 – 3. These lunch boxes were pretty basic with 75% rice with tuna and chicken toppings. I ended up eating two boxes every time.
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I ate here one day. It was right across the Fema Lodge.

Tips

  • If you can, bring snacks like nuts, chocolate and other sweets from Fiji.
  • If you want to drink, there was beer available, but very little hard liquor. It will be best to purchase in Fiji before your arrival.
  • Cars can be rented at the airport or in town, but it was unnecessary. There were very few moto bikes. The roads were nice and they had just upgraded from gravel in 2016.
  • Try to bring Australian cash in advance, since credit card fees were expensive, so was the withdrawal charge from the ATM.
  • If possible, stay for around 10 days and visit the outer islands. Two or three days is more than enough for Tarawa.
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Kids piling up on the bus after school.

I visited in March 2017.

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