Kiritimati, Part II (November 29/30 – December 30, 2005)

Wildlife Encounters

The anchorage was quite lively. For the first week we were visited by dolphins every day; we think they were lured away after that by the large fishing vessels. Nothing puts on a show like a spinner dolphin: it's amazing to watch them leap out of the water, spinning their sleek bodies and infecting us with their apparent joy. One Sunday morning as we were finishing our cereal, a large pod of about a hundred came near the boat. Bjarne wanted to join them so we quickly donned our swimsuits, grabbed the masks/snorkels, and hopped in. In the 20 minutes they played nearby we had several chances to approach to within 10 or 15 feet, enough to get a good underwater look. There's a whole lot more swimming around than ever appear at one time on the surface. They often swam together in groups of 3-6, some groups having a little dolphin with them. Although the adults seemed uninterested in us, one of the young ones seemed curious and started to swim toward me, until, it appeared, its parents called it back. I was imagining what they had said: “Don't touch that thing, you don't know where it's been!” Chuck tells us that bottlenose dolphins are much more curious and playful with humans. When the dolphins swam away, I amused myself by trying to swim after them and noting how quickly they lost me.

Dolphins and tuna often caused large schools of fish to jump simultaneously out of the water attempting to escape becoming dinner. Out of the “fry” pan and into the fire – they were now exposed to the diving seabirds! We discovered that birds of different feathers do not flock together: if a bird caught a fish, another bird would ignore the remaining leaping appetizers and chase the successful bird so that, as often as not, the fish was lost and no one got to eat. Frigate birds seemed to be the worst for this jealous behaviour. The sound of fish skipping across the surface was one of a small concentrated rain storm briefly passing over the water. We would hear the frequent whoosh and be amazed at the size of the schools of these bait fish. At least some of these fish were the skinny needle-nosed ballyhoo, which I mention just because I think it's a great name. Entertainment was also provided by larger fish, jumping and splashing loudly. One night we were happily munching popcorn and watching a movie when we heard some loud thumping. What the heck!? On the deck was a large flying fish flopping around; no one wanted to deal with fish guts right then so we tossed it back. We have often seen these fish skimming across the wave tops for remarkable distances (maybe 100 m); at this anchorage we got a close look at their wings in the water, spread out like translucent fans as they hovered just below the surface in the bright light off Chuck's boat. We were also introduced to milk fish. When these four-foot-long fish with large dorsal fins showed up one morning I initially thought they were small sharks. Closer inspection showed some differences, one being that they swam around with their mouths wide open, scooping up as much plankton as they could. Your average self-respecting shark doesn't eat plankton - those in certain animated films being the exception.

Fish was on the menu more often, mostly thanks to Chuck. Aside from feeding us from his catches, he invited us to join him in fishing off his boat after sunset. The fish were attracted to a bright light shining into the water. He used several hooks spaced along one line, which he would quickly lower to the bottom, slowly bring to the surface and then drop again (jigging). Bjarne caught some Golden Trevally this way.

On some evenings a large turtle swam near Freya. These fascinating creatures are quite shy and it is hard to get more than a brief tantalizing look at them. One day we were taking a bath in the water when our friend arrived, so we swam within about 15 feet of it. Neat! We weren't able to see it well though, as the water was quite churned up from the swell. When our visitor declined any soap or shampoo, Bjarne regretted not having any Turtle Wax to offer. We did get a better look at a couple of large turtles when we were diving – they look so ungainly yet move with grace and, at times, remarkable speed.

Once the clarity improved, we spent more time in the water. The coral at the anchorage is not very exciting but we saw some neat fish. Puffer fish were fairly common here, and we saw a type we hadn't yet encountered in real life, the porcupine fish. The chubby cheeks and big eyes make this shy fish quite cute. There were a lot of flounders as well. These pancakes with eyeballs can flee incredibly fast when threatened, but otherwise glide gently along the sea bottom, propelling themselves with rippling edges. We watched with fascination as one moved over the white sand and then onto some dark brown and green coral, changing colours dramatically to blend in well with the background. Just for some variety we went for a night snorkel with some folks who were doing a SCUBA dive off the pier. They had set up powerful lights to shine down from the 60 foot wharf which attracted two groups of fish – long skinny ones (ballyhoo) that stayed near the surface and round ones with long split tails that swam about a metre below. The lights attracted more fishers as well and we had to make sure we avoided their many hooks. A few days later, looking down from the same pier we had a great view of a young Manta ray, doing graceful somersaults just below the surface. The two dives we had were quite enjoyable except for the unfortunate quality of the bottled air: early into the dive we experienced scratchy throats and by the second dive, we were coughing a lot in a most distracting manner. Turned out the filters on the air compressor were overdue for a change. It was good to be under the water because it was quite windy and cool on the surface, especially when the boat moved between dive sites. There was lots of variety of coral and other sea life, including things we hadn't seen before such as black lionfish (aka turkey fish – hmm, Christmas dinner?) and huge Napoleon fish (aka humphead wrasse). One of these wide Napoleon fish was as long as me! We also saw an angry octopus, sending out billows of ink at the diver who was holding it.

The water wasn't always clear and we weren't well protected from swell, but we enjoyed many things about this anchorage: watching and listening to the fish jump; hearing bits of songs drift across from the women on Fanning Island Trader; observing the boobies, frigate birds, and white-tailed tropic birds soaring, hunting and squabbling; listening to the surf roll onto the beach; receiving unexpected dolphin and turtle visitors; and lounging in the cockpit while the sun sank into the ocean, wondering if we'd see the green flash.

Wildlife on Freya

At times we find unwelcome passengers on Freya. We've found bugs in our rice, oats and flour. Although we look at the packages in the store, the little critters are sometimes well hidden until we pull the sealed package out a month later only to find parts wriggling around. Some of the stuff is salvageable by baking it to kill the interlopers, but one has to set aside western squeamishness and not think about your oats having dead bodies in it. One day we had a bumper crop of discoveries. First, I found that we had had unauthorized salt water entry, which had made the crossword puzzle book I was seeking thoroughly soggy with a nice crop of mildew. In cleaning the compartment out, in addition to other rotting items, Bjarne discovered a forgotten package of cumin seeds full of small beetle-like insects, and other tiny bugs munching holes into a small piece of Tongan tapa cloth.

Much lower on the “eewwww-factor” are the hitch-hiking gooseneck barnacles, weeny crabs, and slimy green and black stuff that grows on the hull. No problem really, and it can be a good workout to clean this stuff off. On our last night at Kiritimati, I found the cutest octopus, the body no more than a centimetre long, living in the seaweed that adhered to the bottom rung of our swim ladder. The small critter clung tenaciously to Bjarne's thumb when we tried to evict it, each little tentacle suctioning on for dear life.

Christmas Festivities

While we lazed around our boat, doing the odd chore here and there, we did not miss the pre-Christmas rush that we assumed was happening back home. However, the conversational entertainment that began with “I wonder what (insert name of relative or friend here) is doing right now” came up more often as we drew nearer to December 25th. Some of the answers included speculation about what they were eating as we envisioned the Christmas parties we were missing. Our preparations were pretty minimal but we did make our traditional fudge and some shortbread cookies. We thought we could save a pineapple top for a tree, but it was pretty scraggly by Christmas day so we just hung up our little ornaments around Freya's cabin. I also had some fun making a couple of batches ginger beer. It has to sit for at least a day before being bottled and then is supposed to sit for another few days to get fizzy. For the second batch I think we had too much sugar as the plastic bottles started to distend, and when I opened one too quickly we had ginger beer all over me and the ceiling. Still, it was a nice change from powdered juice.

On Christmas Eve day we went into town with Bill, from Seafire, the latest addition to the Kiritmati Island Fleet. Other than showing him around, our big task was picking up our “turkey” from Kim, the dive operator. Although he has a variety of businesses he's involved in, poultry distribution is not usually one of them. He just kindly let us use his freezer to store a box of chicken we'd bought the previous week, and even gave us some ice cream when we stopped by. Clearly he rates high in our books! We left him with a bit of thank-you fudge as we departed with our box of chicken thighs. We then joined Bill, Karen, their 2 kids Naomi and Jackson, and the Fanning Island Trader gang for chocolate birthday cake; Bill had aged a whole year during the last passage!

December 25. The approaching dawn found us paddling over to Fanning Island Trader where we stealthily climbed aboard to deliver a few small parcels; Santa had requested our assistance when the reindeer became overheated in the tropical climate. The sun was barely up so back to sleep we went, getting our day off to a leisurely start. A pile of gooey green stuff (a result of accumulated spills) in the bottom of one of our baskets led to a busy morning of cleaning: while the basket was out of the cupboard, a cockroach scurried across the shelf, so I pulled everything out and cleaned the whole compartment. I never did find the little beast but we sprayed the cupboard walls liberally. Bjarne dressed Freya up by hoisting all of her flags up. Just before noon, we sat down and both had a cup of “Christmas Morning Tea” which doesn't have anything particularly Christmasy about it but is a nice tea nonetheless. Neither of us had been organized enough at previous islands to get Christmas presents for the other (which are hard to hide on the boat anyway), but I made Bjarne a card based on one of our favourite boat games (Boggle), and during the day he carved me a beautiful dolphin out of coconut shell, which will be a perfect tree ornament to remind us of this unusual Christmas.

Our plan to snorkel was thwarted by the murky water, so Freya got her bottom scraped instead: everybody needs a bath on Christmas day. Not to be outdone by the clean and dressed up Freya, we donned festively flowered outfits and retired to the cockpit to watch the sunset. As usual whenever the sky was clear, we waited hopefully for the elusive Green Flash, but tonight was different: we actually saw it! We then settled down to our not-quite-usual but pretty-darned-good Christmas dinner, followed by traditional Danish rice pudding (risengrød) made with a tasty but very runny edible oil product (not a lot of whipping cream around here) and topped with strawberry jam. We made the most of our tropical Christmas by treating ourselves to an after dinner rum concoction, complete with umbrellas (found when cleaning out the cupboard), and reminding ourselves what the weather was like back home. Our thoughts and talk once again strayed to everyone back home, and to all our cruising friends who are scattered all over the world. Later we joined the Seafire folks on Fanning Island Trader for the relaxed hanging around that the Trinidadians call limin', and listened to Christmas music, including an old song called Christmas on Christmas Island.

Dance Competition.

Christmas Day seemed very similar to every other day on this island. The church service, we were told, was the same and families don't gather for any celebrations. However, on the days following, the Catholics and the Protestants each held a dance competition. The Catholics were reputed to be the better dancers so that is the one we went to. About an hour after the supposed start time we arrived at the large maneaba, a community meeting place with a metal roof over the concrete floor and no walls; of course it hadn't started yet. Kids began following us around and once I stopped to interact with them we were swarmed. We had fun playing hand games, and took a few photos until some parents came around told them to stop bugging the I-Matang. A man whom we called “The Enforcer” directed us to sit with the judges, which gave us a good view but removed our option of leaving early. The Enforcer, employing his coconut frond switch as needed, made announcements between dances, and kept the floor clear of encroaching spectators, escaping kids and stray dogs. Sitting with the judges apparently brought responsibility, and so we too provided learned opinion about the quality of dancing. Our military experience and hours of drill practice did allow us to evaluate how well they moved together, but we may have missed some of the finer stylistic points. One of the judging perqs was a lunch of sandwiches and coffee with sweetened condensed milk in it (the island had a good supply of this milk, but not that much regular milk).

The competition was between three villages, with each large group sitting in its own area clad in matching lavalava (wraparound skirts worn throughout the tropics). Judges from each village, as evidenced from their lavalava, were equally represented on the panel. Most of the village group provided the music for the 5 or so dancers by singing, clapping, and drumming on what looked like a big bookcase lying face down, with holes on the sides. There were five sets of dances, with different costumes for each one. We found it was easiest to judge the last dance of a set because by then we had an idea of what the dance was supposed to look like. The backup groups were loud and enthusiastic, but the dancers usually maintained serious expressions, unless something went wrong, and then they smiled. Most of the costumes included sashes, glitter on the skin, and flowers on forearms and heads. The first dance consisted mainly of graceful arm movements by the standing women. For the 2nd dance, the women wore stiff skirts made out of grass or pandanas, which greatly accentuated any hip movement. This was a more lively dance with lots of fast hip action, but none of the sensual swaying that Tahiti is famous for. On the 3rd round, the dancers sat with mats over their legs (Bjarne called it lap dancing but I pointed out that was something else entirely) and moved their upper bodies. Two of the villages had men and women in this line up, instead of only women, which the judge beside me did not approve of. For number 4, the dancers were back to standing, but this time the backup singers lined up nicely and joined in by clapping and moving together as well. The skirts were made of old video tape cut into 100s of strips. The 5th dance was a lively one with a lot of precise movements, done by men and boys wearing stiff woven “mats” wrapped around their waists.

Before a dance started, audience members would walk up and spritz the dancers with perfume, aiming at about their underarms, and would put baby powder down their backs or on the tops of their feet. We judges all got squirted too and at the conclusion of the competition we all got talc put down our backs. During the dancing, one woman had a seizure of some sort, but based on what we've read this is not uncommon and is about being overcome by either the excitement or the dancing spirits. A couple of people rushed in and carried the collapsed woman off the floor, where a crowd of people gathered around. A younger woman, wailing loudly and waving her arms around, followed behind as the fallen woman was transported. The rest of the performers kept dancing, which is just like when someone passes out on the parade square, except for the wailing person.

Once the winning village was announced and the nice speeches done, that group gathered themselves up and sang a victory song. The actions of both the winning group, and the audience members who ran into what soon became a melee, got wilder and more bawdy as they went along. Men ran in and picked up screeching women, threw them over their shoulders and ran away, sometimes with another woman chasing them to rescue her friend. Everyone laughed at these antics including the women who were carried away. Some people ran in with frying pans and were playfully hitting people. Cooking implements were in abundant supply because some families were living around the edges of the maneaba. When a large bucket of water was tossed onto the victors, people began rolling around in the water, especially some of the really large folks, or dragging others into the water. Excitement was further heightened when a bottle of baby powder was thrown on the floor – the children gleefully ran in to slide in the powder, just like kids skidding on an ice patch. Soon there were kids running around with white powder smeared all over their faces. Basically, there was lots of clowning around and we wondered if it was the job of the winners to make everyone else laugh. It seemed like a good idea to leave before anyone got any ideas about entertaining things to do with the I-Matang The half-hour walk back felt good after sitting cross- legged on the floor for 5 hours.

After one month at Kiritimati, it was time to leave. On the 29th of December we did most of the final tasks (get diesel, go to the Internet, see Immigration, pay the harbour and Customs fees, top up the water, eat one more cone of ice cream...), but put the final stowing and preparations for sea on hold so we could join Seafire for dinner. We enjoyed the evening but were tired when we returned to Freya, so only did a few tasks before calling it a night. Facing the remaining tasks seemed easier in the early morning light. We headed out on December 30th at 0630h, just after sunrise. Our departure time was an hour and a half earlier than it was supposed to be. When checking out with the Customs officer the previous afternoon we had been quoted a $20 customs fee but when we said we were leaving at 0600h he told us the fee was $25. I then asked what time we had to leave to keep it at $20 and he wrote down 0800h on our form, which is when they open. The absurdity of this overtime charge is that, once we checked out that afternoon (during working hours), we had no need to have any further contact with them, working hours or not. We saw this warped application of overtime fees in Tonga and Fiji as well, where if you arrived on a Saturday you were charged extra, even if you stayed on your boat and didn't see the Customs officers until Monday. Of course, being closed, no one noticed our early departure...forgiveness is easier to ask for than permission. As we motored offshore to set sail for Tabuaeran Island a dolphin came by briefly as if to say farewell.

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