The passage was about as good as it could get: the current was in our favour, the wind was a steady 15-23 knots aft of the beam and the sky was clear, giving us a brilliant canopy of stars on our one night of passage. In the night a small squid jumped on the deck, and in its distress it had left blotches of dark ink for us to discover after daylight. As we neared Tabuaeran on the morning of the 31st we were greeted by a large flock of the the ever-curious boobies. Just as BJ went below to get the camera, the fishing line began whirring like crazy. The brake was overpowered and the whole line was pulled out. Just as suddenly, the line went slack and we were left with a stretched out split ring and no lure. Another lure was set out and within 5 minutes we had a bite, but again participated in the catch-and-release program. Inspection of the lure suggests the fish had been a big one since the 3 hooks had been pulled almost straight! Some frigate birds soared overhead, causing Bjarne much excitement when they became interested in the antenna. Most exciting however, was the visit from the large pod of bottlenose dolphins, who zipped around the bow and showed off by arcing their sleek powerful bodies out of the water. I dangled my legs from the bowsprit, half hoping and half afraid that my foot would reach one of these wonderful creatures, but of course, they don't accidentally bump into anything. What a lovely welcome to the “tropical paradise” atoll we had been looking forward to.
The pass into the lagoon can have a strong current so we zig-zagged for a while then tried entering about 2 hours before slack tide. Nope, it was still scary so we did a quick about face and anchored outside the pass. The water was beautifully clear here and we envisioned some fun snorkeling in our near future. Once the current died, and after Bjarne jumped in to free our anchor chain from a coral boulder, we carefully negotiated our way through the opening to the large lagoon, where we were disappointed to discover lots of waves and murky water that had a very weird green colour. The strong current inside the lagoon left us unsure about how well our anchor would hold so I stayed on Freya while Bjarne went ashore to do the paperwork. It was not until he came back and we re-anchored that anyone else took notice of us. We were surprised since yachties are generally very curious about what else is happening in the anchorage. We were hoping that the cruisers here had some life in them because it was New Year's Eve, and we wanted to celebrate!
To our relief, once noticed we were quickly invited to some festivities. There was enough time to rest a little and bake a cake before going ashore, first to Bruno's house for a cocktail, and then to what we thought was a party and beauty contest. Instead we ended up at a church service, an unpopular event for a group of I-Matang who wanted to celebrate the New Year! We made our escape as soon as it seemed inoffensive and went back to Wolfgang and Ana's boat, Argos, where we had splendid food, very strong blender drinks and lots of laughter. Some outdated flares were set off at midnight: the few that worked drew no response from anyone on shore, which in the context is good but demonstrated that flares have a limited usefulness – definitely better to not sink. In addition to our hosts, we were joined by Bruno, a French expatriate who lives on the island with his 12 year old daughter (Magali), and some French-Canadians from Giva, Val and Gigi. The champagne was barely opened when lack of sleep from our passage caught up to us. We bid good night and Happy New Year to our new acquaintances and slept until well into the new year.
Our lazy day was interrupted by an invitation to join Bruno and Magali for lunch. There was plenty of food, some left over from the night before and some, like Bruno's poisson cru, newly prepared. I was struck by how comfortable we felt with this group of folks whom we had only just met, and once again appreciated the easy camaraderie that exists amongst cruisers. At lunch there were two more folks, Robin and Norman, senior citizens who were renting a space from Bruno while here on mission work for the Mormon church. All these different people made for some great conversations.
We left feeling stuffed again and lounged on the boat until our next engagement, which was the beauty contest we had attempted to go to the night before. Sometimes it isn't easy getting clear information around these islands. The event was in honour of Women's Day, which is celebrated on New Year's Day here in Kiribati. The men prepare and serve the supper this one day, and it seems to be the only day that the women eat first. When we arrived, the women were all sitting on the floor around the perimeter of the maneaba, dressed up. We were not permitted to sit behind the row, rather space was made for us to be in front. What's a gathering without food? Despite the start time that evening of 8(ish), there was more food. We all groaned (quietly) because we'd had plenty to eat and didn't want to take the islanders' food when we had no need. Bruno said we needed to eat a bit to not offend. There was fish in a tasty sauce, rice, breadfruit and a large amount of meat. Of the latter there were honey and garlic pork ribs and another type that could have been dog but we were afraid to ask. The milk had vanilla and sugar in it and tasted like melted ice-cream. We felt quite obtrusive because our presence caused the men who were serving to scramble around to find plates for us. Bjarne and I said we would share a cup but one fellow insisted on hunting down another mug. The evening progressed with a sort-of beauty contest, interspersed with dancing by everyone. Only the married women entered the contest, and we weren't entirely sure what all the criteria were for winning. Many contestants entertained the crowd with their parody of fashion models, and all made sure they danced, often asking one of the I-Matang men to join them. It was an interesting evening but I wished I had a translator every time the crowd broke into raucous laughter at one of the contestant's speeches, or their antics.
On January 2nd, more eating was in store for us: the cruise ship was in town! Before going ashore, we did our best to look presentable and act like tourists; we thought we were blending in nicely, except for being better tanned, when we suddenly noticed we had forgotten our shoes! Not too many people look down, so we successfully made it through the lunch line and enjoyed our first hamburger in months. The Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) area has a pretty beach, nicely maintained pathways with landscaping, a beach volleyball court, a basketball court and some open huts where the food is served from or drinks can be purchased. Coconut trees are carefully castrated so no tourists get head injuries from falling nuts. When the ship is absent it is a tidy ghost town, except for some activity on the basket ball court. On cruise ship day about two thousand mostly pasty-white people flood into this compound, where they lounge in the beach chairs, rent sailboats, or venture further afield either by bicycle or packed into the back of a passenger truck. A common stop is the primary school that NCL built, and some of the passengers bring donations or games and candy for the children.
Many islanders sell handicrafts, or earn money by posing for photos wearing traditional outfits. Unfortunately, as more folks understandably try to make money, the quality of goods has dropped. For example, there used to be only a few people who knew how to make the traditional shark's teeth knives and high quality items were produced, but now there are many folks selling poorly-made knives for a very low price. Many children stand along the roadside and wave and say “hi” to the visitors. We enjoyed surprising the kids by saying hello in Kiribatese (mauri). When we learned how to ask 'how are you?' (kowata), we really startled them. Different groups around the island take turns at dancing for the tourists; we were present during a debate when a group raising funds to send kids to a soccer competition on another island asked for the spot of the health group that needed to raise money for improved accommodations for the nurses. The request was denied as the spot had already been given up once before, but when bad weather prevented the cruise ship passengers from coming ashore, a few commented (seriously it seemed to me) that it was because they had said no. Studying the impact of the cruise ship on this otherwise isolated island could keep a cultural anthropologist quite enthralled I suspect.
A couple of weeks later there was another beauty contest, this time the occasion was Youth Day, and part of the New Year celebrations. Eight youth entered, three boys and five girls, one of whom was Bruno's daughter Magali. The contestants got points for wearing certain things, including sunglasses and shoes. Many of the shoes fit poorly and it was quite obvious by the awkward walking that wearing shoes was a strange thing indeed. As the event was held in the Catholic maneaba, each contestant had to answer a question of some religious importance. Judging by the laughter, we aren't sure how many correct answers were given. We did learn that Magali named the priest on Kiritimati Island when asked who the Pope was; we aren't sure how much this affected her standing. Again, there was dancing between contestant activities, a respite from sitting cross-legged on the floor. Later, when the prizes were being distributed, Magali (who speaks Kiribati, French, and English) called across the floor to Ana that she was supposed to go up to the front and collect a prize, we think for dancing. When you don't understand the language you are at the mercy of your translators – Ana didn't believe a word of it but lo and behold, a man walked over and presented a handful of candy. I too was called up to the officials; whatever they said in Kiribati I'll never know, but I enjoyed my lollipop anyway, saved one for Bjarne who had stayed on the boat, and gave the rest to some kids. The most perplexing prize was $10 received by Gigi, who didn't dance at all. She found out later it was a gift from an anonymous admirer. We all underwent the Kiribati tradition of being doused with baby-powder and squirted with scent.
We were exposed to one other New Year tradition, this one a French custom of crowning a Bean King or Queen. Val and Gigi explained that whoever finds the bean in the cake gets to be the monarch for the day. After that I found a French story book that Magali had, in which there was a tale about this custom. It involved two siblings fighting over who had the bean, with one sibling of course cheating and hiding beans in his mouth. This reminded me of the Danish custom of hiding an almond in the Christmas rice pudding, except the finder gets a gift. I suspect Bjarne and Britta considered sneaking extra almonds to the table when they were kids, but they won't admit if they actually tried it.
Festivities settled down after that. On Sundays that the cruise ship wasn't in, Bruno and Magali would host a luncheon with the cruisers and some evenings there were impromptu visits between other boats. We passed on our knowledge of cribbage and euchre to Wolfgang and Ana, and were treated to movies, drinks, popcorn, and Oreos in their comfortably large salon. By the way, Victoria area sailors may be interested to know that Argos is on the lower right hand corner of the front cover of the Gulf Islands Cruising Chart book.
At Bruno's there was an open hut for sleeping, built mostly in Kiribati-style, with mosquito netting and pandanus mats for privacy. He also had a workshop, over top of which was another sleeping area where his daughter usually slept. However, the missionaries were renting this latter space, which served as a nice little apartment. The kitchen, washroom, and dining building was only partly built, as he had been waiting over a year for his next batch of cement (which was already paid for). The waist high walls were attractively constructed with smooth flat stones collected from the shore. His cement that he had paid for over a year ago finally arrived while we were there and the wall height gradually increased. There were also three picnic tables in a row under a shelter made from pandanus leaves, which is where the Sunday brunches took place. He had a propane stove and outside there was a wood-fired stone oven. To expand the limited selection of vegetables he had recently started a hydroponic garden, but it was struggling for lack of the proper plant food. A lovely fountain graced the yard. Bruno had put a lot of work into his living space.
Bruno's home was always open: sometimes we availed ourselves of his washing machine (no spin cycle though) and shower, and other times we just hung out. There was essentially unlimited water for washing as it was from the ground water supply. Drinking water was collected via his metal roof. He was very generous with his time and skills and always had a project on the go, either for himself, or more often, for someone else. Many of the locals would come to Bruno if they needed something repaired, needed to use his tools, or to ask if he had a particular item they required. Cruisers would give Bruno things they could do without; if Bruno didn't need it, he would keep it until someone else did. Both the locals and cruisers benefited from the odds and ends he had lying around, and the workshop. Bjarne was drawn into helping out with quite a few projects that locals brought in, especially for anything that ran on electricity. One day in March a local boat pulled up alongside Freya (not a usual occurrence) and asked for the guy who knows how to fix electronics. Oops - time to leave, Bjarne concluded: he was getting too well known.
In addition to mosquitoes, Bruno's pets include a dog, a cat, and even a frigate bird. A number of the locals have trained frigate birds up from when they were babies so these birds will return to that house and accept food there. People often mark their birds with some ribbons on their wings. We were amazed one day to see Magali coax the bird onto the ground, and while she fed it, both the dog and the cat sat nearby, inching closer to the food and watching carefully, but not interfering. Magali even teased the bird with the cat's tail, waving it in front of the beak, while the bird tried to snap at it. The cat tolerated this for a lot longer than I expected!
Having Bruno's as a base was great – not only did it allow us to get off the rocky boat, we could socialize more easily with the other cruisers, and it gave us a venue for meeting the locals.
After the arid and garbage-strewn Kiritimati, we enjoyed the green beauty of Tabuaeran. Although it too is a coral atoll and therefore has poor soil, the more plentiful rain provides for taller coconut trees, a greater variety of plants, and more flowers growing. It was still hard to get fresh fruit or veggies here as they aren't sold at the small family-run stores, but once we got to know some of the islanders we had more luck with acquiring bananas, papayas, or pumpkin (we would call it squash). Nonetheless, we were very popular with the other cruisers when we arrived from Kiritimati with a stock of oranges and eggs flown in from Hawai'i.
Tabuaeran has fewer motorized vehicles than Kiritimati and a lot of the bigger ones aren't even used when the gasoline supply runs low. Thus, pedestrian traffic, bicycles, scooters and motorcycles are the most prevalent forms of transportation along these dirt roads peppered with potholes. When the supply ship came in we witnessed a marked increase in the amount of motorized traffic both on land and in the lagoon. Fortunately, many of the locals still use traditional craft and it wasn't uncommon to hear the more pleasant sound of a paddler singing as he made his way home after fishing.
Almost all of the homes were of the traditional style, consisting of a raised platform made from the surprisingly strong centre stems of coconut fronds, no walls except for pandanus mats that could roll down for some privacy and protection from wind and rain, and a roof made either from woven pandanus or from grasses. The houses were held together with sennit (rope made from coconut husk fibers) or whatever scraps of line were available when the house was built. Cooking was done in a separate covered area, usually over an open fire. The traditional maneabas, or meeting houses, were similarly constructed but the floor was simply the ground it was built on, usually covered with mats made from coconut fronds. Other maneabas had cement floors and metal roofs; these were warmer in the sun but the metal roofs do allow for the catchment of rain, although this benefit wasn't always taken advantage of. There was one very large eyesore that was a partially completed church, being made in a Western style - that is, with walls and non-local materials. Construction had begun some years ago when this group thought that another village had a nicer church. Lots of money was raised to buy cement and cinder blocks, the old church was torn down, and the project got underway. At some point money and interest declined and the group now holds their meetings in the maneaba next door. We saw a shed with some ruined bags of unused cement that may have been part of this legacy. Personally, I wonder if the congregation would have been very happy in a stuffy enclosed structure anyway, but what a waste of resources. Buildings made from the easily obtained biodegradable materials may need more maintenance but they are much less expensive, and when they are abandoned or worn out disposing of the materials is of no harm to the environment.
There was another village where the remains of a cable station linger. Here old cinder-block walls protrude from the grasses and brush, while the more intact buildings provide walls for current homes. Some large wooden houses have become dormitories for the students of the nearby high school. The cable station, which provided a relay for telecommunications across the Pacific became unnecessary with the development of fibre optics. Nature is making the nearby airfield almost unrecognizable.
The main sources of income for the island are the cruise ship, copra and seaweed farming. Harvesting copra is back-breaking work. Producing seaweed is less strenuous, and the whole family gets involved in the work. I think more harvesting of seaweed is done when the children are on their 2-month Christmas break. This child labour didn't seem too onerous judging by the splash fight and other playing around in the water that we observed as some children dragged a load of seaweed to shore. The mother then helped haul it in and spread it out on tarps to dry in the sun, while the father used small line to tie individual sprigs of seaweed evenly spaced along a thin rope as starters for the next batch of seaweed. These ropes are strung between posts in the shallow lagoon, where the seaweed grows quickly in the tropical sun. Dried seaweed is stuffed into a sack, and brought to the seaweed agent who weighs the sack and gives a chit for the amount of produce. The family can't cash the chit until the cargo ship arrives (maybe 4 times a year) to pay the agent and collect the seaweed. The chits take on a life of their own as some stores will accept them instead of cash. The seaweed is sent somewhere in Europe to be processed into carageenan and agar.
The weather and sea conditions in the anchorage were often disappointing: the water was a murky, toxic-looking green, the high wind kept the water choppy and the strong current provided a final discouragement for swimming. We became quite frustrated with the constantly rough weather, which disrupted our sleep, left us salt-covered when we travelled ashore, put enough salt spray in the air to make drying clothes difficult, and interfered with our ability to catch needed rain water. One strong squall that came through just before dawn, after a remarkably peaceful night, had us dashing out on deck without our clothes to take control of our dinghy that was flailing around; we had it hanging alongside Freya's gun'l, out of the water to reduce the growth on the bottom. The wind and the now large waves were bouncing it around quite fiercely. Regretfully we had left Evinrude on the transom and he got a bit of a dousing. While we wrestled with that, we were startled by a very loud CRACK!! Phew, it wasn't our boat. Argos' snubber on the anchor line had broken – it didn't take long before we saw Wolfgang up on deck. Later, we learned that the pole holding up Argos' wind generator had also broken in the gusts that were well over 40 kts. Figures appeared on Giva as well, taking care of whatever was blowing loose over there. An exciting start to the day. The bouncy anchorage even led us to give up making yogurt – it was turning into cottage cheese! Well, that wasn't so bad – I turned it into a cheese cake.
The rough water meant we used the dinghy engine more often as the current and wind combined were too much to paddle against. One time when EvinRUDE cut out on us (he was rather poorly behaved while at this island) Bjarne was so annoyed with me for not paddling as hard as he was (so we couldn't go straight), that he took over both paddles and started rowing with great ferocity. He was making headway until one of the aluminum shafts snapped. He then had to paddle like crazy with a very stubby paddle, which meant I was now able to keep up with him so that ONS moved along in a straight, albeit slow, line.
I'll blame the wind for this next bit of unnecessary excitement as well, never mind that it was me who let the cap to the gas jerry can blow overboard. This is what Bjarne wrote:
I was in the dinghy, up at Freya's bow removing the anchor locker plug when Barb exclaimed from the stern. She noticed that the gasoline jerry can cap had blown overboard and was headed out the pass on to Japan. I let go of Freya and gave chase in ONS, using oars as that's all that was on board. The wind driven waves were annoying in that one of them doused me every ten seconds. Barb directed me to the cap which by now was a good 100m away. After picking it up I tried rowing against wind and current but to no avail, so instead I turned for shore. At the beach I got out and waded ONS through the surf about 200m upstream of Freya. As I paddled through the near shore breakers I saw Wolfgang fast approaching in his dinghy, in response to Barb's VHF call for help. W. towed me back to Freya.
While I watched Bjarne struggling against the waves I stood helplessly on Freya and debated whether to ask for help. I let Wolfgang and Ana know that maybe we needed help, which set things in motion that I couldn't undo, even though by the time Wolfgang was in his dinghy I could see that BJ probably had things under control. I called out that I thought he'd be OK now but I doubt Wolfgang could hear over the wind and the engine. Bjarne doesn't like to ask for help anyway, but especially if it isn't necessary; Wolfgang arrived just as Bjarne had finished the hard work of dragging the dinghy upwind and was starting now manageable row back to Freya. Sometimes I wish we had communicators like in Star Trek – “This is Freya to shuttle craft One: you appear to be having difficulty with propulsion. Please state if you require assistance and we'll send the men in red shirts to rescue you.”
The strong wind that was so annoying in the anchorage, however, provided a cooling breeze to those on shore and helped keep the mosquitoes and flies away. The Doldrums, which move around, brought unsettled, squally weather to the area fairly often, but this diminished as we moved closer to spring. When we got especially grumpy, say after a newly-cleaned shirt had been a-salted by a large wave, we put it into perspective by reminding ourselves about the winter weather in Canada; we knew we would never get any sympathy from anyone back home. Even when the winds were high, the sun shone frequently and the temperature was warm. Sunsets    were often beautiful and sometimes absolutely gorgeous, followed by many clear nights where we had no trouble watching Orion chasing Taurus across the sky.
Shortly after arriving at Tabuaeran we met Bwaraatu when he stopped by Bruno's. Bruno, who lives much closer to the NCL grounds, had been storing Bwaraatu's sharks' teeth knives for him. He didn't have much time for making knives anymore: since his wife had recently passed away he was busy caring for his 9 children. We admired his handiwork and thought that maybe later we would purchase one. A few days later we were chatting with him and discovered he had an outrigger sailing canoe that was grounded because it had a “small hole” in it. We offered our help with the repair and arranged a time to meet where the canoe was stored. Like any good boat project, this one turned out to be much bigger than first thought!
There were, of course, more than a few holes: some were dings and some were because of the wood was old and rotted in those spots. It had been some time since the canoe had felt salt water on its hull. Bwaraatu wasn't very familiar with it as he had inherited it from his uncle. Bwaraatu's wife's lingering illness and subsequent death meant that the canoe became a very low priority. Bjarne worked together with our new friend doing fibreglass repairs as needed. I had some other unrelated tasks I was focused on so didn't assist until a few steps later. Once these 9 holes were repaired, it was apparent that much of the lashing on the thwarts and braces for the ama (the outrigger part) needed to be redone. For this Bwaraatu enlisted the help of a local man for his know-how, but we provided some of the line and labour for the procedure. Painting was the next step, and here is where I joined in the fun. Bruno provided some partially used paint pails that NCL had not needed anymore. Unfortunately we found some more small holes hiding under the peeling paint, thus extending the project further. To provide extra entertainment for Bjarne and I (the locals seemed fairly immune to their charms), there were some newborn puppies under the same shelter as the canoe.
One afternoon Bwaraatu disappeared while we continued painting and we wondered where he had gone. He came back and we were told to stop working because it was lunch time, and we were fed rice and canned corn beef. We found out a few days later that Bwaraatu had left to borrow money from Bruno, to buy the corned beef to be able to provide us with some lunch. We felt badly about this, as it was a hardship to both Bwaraatu and Bruno, but couldn't really undo it by that time. After that we made it clear that we had brought our own lunch. One day Bjarne lost out in this regard though: he was working on the canoe, while I was at Bruno's, where I ate my sandwich when the rest of the folks there were having their lunch. I left BJ's lunch in a bag on the ground, forgetting about Simba. The next thing I knew, the last of the cheddar cheese for 170 miles was down his throat – bad dog! BJ was unimpressed all around.
The final touch of the painting was putting the name on the boat: Freya! Hey, it was Bwaraatu's idea, not ours, but we were touched that he wanted to remember us this way. We actually had a spare vinyl appliqué saying “Freya” in our chosen font, courtesy of Bjarne's coworker Stacey. Bwaraatu's outrigger was the perfect place for it. We even painted on a silhouette of a frigate bird (the bird that is so prevalent at this island, and which is on the Kiribati flag), making the whole thing look pretty spiffy. Bwaraatu thanked us for our help by giving us the the shark-tooth knife we had admired when we first met him.
Once the painting was done, we learned that there was no mast, boom or sail; we didn't get involved in those projects except to contribute some spare line and blocks. Bwaraatu was very proud of his canoe and was keen to take us out in it. He was able to borrow the rigging from a friend, but then we learned that he didn't really know how to sail it either! Luckily the friend was also willing to provide lessons and to take us out with Bwaraatu. On the arranged afternoon only Bjarne went; I was waiting to borrow Norman's sat phone as I hadn't gotten any email yet about when my Dad's heart surgery was going to be (he'd accidentally sent the info to the wrong email address). Bwaraatu's friend was available then so I said go ahead. I met up with a rather damp Bjarne at the beach as he waded ashore after a short sail. It wasn't a dry ride, but Bjarne was impressed with the speed. The tacking is interesting: to turn around, the mast is taken down and then put up at the opposite end of the boat. It looked like fun and I thought Bwaraatu's idea to take both Bjarne and me across the lagoon one day for a picnic, was a great plan. It was put on hold, however, until I returned from my trip to Victoria (I was away for a month - see Barb's Detour for more on that adventure).
When the time finally came for our picnic trip, Bjarne was feeling really sick. We figure he got food poisoning from eating raw fish the previous day, after one of the eyeglass clinics we had helped out with (see Meeting Up With the Good-Deed Doers). Being the caring spouse that I am, I went sailing without him. The trip had been planned for some time and Bwaraatu had had to arrange for both himself and his friend to have the time for the trip. I wasn't sure how it would go over as “good” Kiribati women don't go off with men they aren't married to, but Bwaraatu has had enough exposure to I-Matang that he adapted quickly. He did comment later on how different our customs were. The skipper was quite a good sailor, although he hardly said a word. It was fun riding on this quite stable craft, although rather splashy. At the other side of the lagoon it was so shallow that we had to walk the canoe for a ways. I was told to stay on the boat whenever it was deep enough that we weren't scraping, while the 2 men walked over the coral lagoon bottom with bare feet and not a glance for what they might be stepping on (I wore my dive boots). There wasn't a lot of sharp coral at least but Bwaraatu did get something in his foot. On shore he took a large knife, sliced off a good millimeter or more of skin and then dug around to get the bit out. He didn't even flinch.
There is no village on this side, but there was a young couple with whom we visited, who were living there for 3 months to collect copra. Bwaraatu directed me to stay behind with the woman, while he joined the other 2 men to catch coconut crabs for our lunch. Neither the woman nor her husband spoke much English and it wasn't long before I'd used up my Kiribati vocabulary and was feeling a bit awkward. I managed to convey with gestures that I would like to be shown how to make a coconut frond mat. This provided some entertainment for both myself and my host, but I enjoyed seeing how it was done and trying my hand at it. I was quite slow at it so she finished it off while I was having lunch with the men. A smaller item like a little basket might have been easier but she didn't have any around for me to point to. Lunch consisted of breadfruit which was cooked right in the fire and the outside then scraped off, coconut crabs, shark meat, and some mature coconut pieces. I had to be shown how to get into the crabs and I only braved the legs as the main body looked like it had all sorts of body parts I wasn't interested in. We'd had a discussion about different customs with respect to men and women eating together, and I may have been able to insist she join us as the Kiribati people are very polite to their guests. However, when I was asked I just repeated that our custom was to eat together but that I was at their home so they should do whatever they felt comfortable with. I did bring her a piece of the pumpkin chocolate cake I had baked that morning, which seemed to bring on a flurry of comments but I don't know if it was about the cake, my insistence on feeding women, or something else entirely.
We left after 1700h (I had called BJ on the hand-held and he was still alive) and had to walk the outrigger a fair distance since the tide was out. We also stopped along the way to retrieve the fishing net (and the fish) that had been set out while I was on shore. The smaller fish that were caught were picked up with the net around them; the men would bite the fish heads to kill them and then remove them from the net. The larger fish were just taken out and left to gasp on the bottom of the canoe.
The ride back was in a better direction for the waves so we stayed drier. There was a nice breeze and I was wishing I could try my hand at the helm, just to feel how it handled. I tried to convey this to the skipper but he either didn't understand, or chose not to understand. I wasn't sure how outrageous a request it was so didn't try very hard to convey the idea. It looked like there was a lot of weather helm anyway so I might have had trouble with the steering; although the mast location is quite flexible and an adjustment may have corrected the helm problem, it would have been awkward to shift it out in the middle of the lagoon. As we neared Freya we yelled and whistled to get Bjarne's attention; he popped outside and took a grainy photo in the twilight as we zipped by. I was deposited on the beach at about 1915h, where I thanked Bwaraatu and the skipper for a very enjoyable day. It was a shame Bjarne had to miss it.
Bjarne was feeling much better after a day of rest and pepto-pink-stuff, which is a good thing because at 0100h that night things got exciting. We awoke to Val trying to tell Bruno via radio that his boat, Ilobaby, had escaped! Bruno couldn't hear so we were asked to dinghy ashore to deliver the message as Val's foot had a bad infection at that time. Gigi and I were dropped off to make the 15 minute walk to Bruno's while Bjarne carried on to the wayward vessel. He got on board, checked for water gushing in (none), and then started to get Ilobaby's anchor ready in case it was needed to pull the boat out of the shallows.
Bruno was remarkably calm about the whole thing. I thought maybe I would learn some new French swear words but he just hopped on his bicycle and headed off to his dinghy. Gigi and I walked down to the point to watch the rescue procedure. The NCL security guard and his friend rounded out the audience. Along the way, we carried stones with us in case some dogs decided we looked tasty but fortunately we didn't need our projectiles. Amazingly, the boat had come to rest in a shallow area near shore so never reached the pass, nor had it hit any rocks. Bruno arrived, started the engine, and with little fuss motored back to where he had been anchored. All's well that ends well. We found out that this wasn't the first, nor the second time that Ilobaby had drifted off its mooring.
While I was in Victoria shopping, it seems Bjarne was partying it up with the NCL staff, drinking beer and shooting pool. There is a small core of 4 or 5 full-time staff, most of whom are foreigners and live in the NCL compound, and various additional locals who are employed for varying hours. The NCL compound is like a separate country within the island – here one can find all kinds of things that are often unavailable on the rest of Tabuaeran. The cruise line provides the supplies for those employees who are living there because of the cruise ship, and because they are not islanders they are given I-Matang food. It was a treat for us to be invited to partake in some of this now and again. One night we invited our friend Bjørnar, a Norwegian engineer, out to Freya for supper. He raided his fridge and ended up providing all of the meal, which included steak (not seen by us for at least four months) and potato (only a month since we'd had these), while we provided the rum and the ambiance. Everyone was happy with the arrangement. NCL tends to only bring their staff beer; getting spirits was a little tougher. These folks were quite helpful, and we had fun hanging out with them. Bjørnar even made sure we were well provisioned on our way to Hawai'i, and included a special treat of bacon(!) in our care package (New Zealand was probably the last time we'd had that on Freya)!
Bjarne had already explored some of the island while I was counting cherry blossoms in Victoria but he was certainly willing to see more. Roland, the NCL Canuck, again provided us with bikes, so we took the ferry across the pass to explore the other side of the island. The road was about the same as on our side of the island, full of potholes and puddles, with coconut fronds and nuts providing even more obstacles. We reached an open area where the vegetation was much less dense and the road was relatively smooth; we found out later that was where the airfield once was. We cycled through a couple of villages, one which was at the site of the abandoned cable station, until we reached a narrow trail through the woods that was fit for travel only by foot or pedal. The trail ended at a very shallow part of the lagoon. Much of it was above water so we parked the bikes and sloshed the 0.5 nautical miles across the sand flats, carefully avoiding stepping on sea cucumbers (sea slugs). We know the distance because Bjarne had the hand-held GPS. My sandals were falling apart at this point such that the sole was separated from the heel so every step sent a scoop of water flinging up my backside unless I stepped very carefully. There weren't a whole lot of shoe stores at Tabuaeran; later I stitched the sole back on with a sail maker's needle and whipping twine. We came to a small island where there were a few more shells and a narrow sandy beach. A conveniently slanted and short coconut tree allowed Bjarne to climb up and knock down a couple of nuts, which we then spent a good deal of time trying to get into. The annoying part about this is that we now know how to get into a coconut, but we never have the right tools. A pen knife isn't the best option. Back at the bikes, as we sat to eat our lunch, a fellow dismounted from his bike and headed to the sand flats, bucket in hand. We hoped he was busy foraging and not watching our rather amateurish attempt to get into the coconut! We decided to leave a book and some crayons in a bag on his handlebars. We had these items with us but hadn't found someone to give them to yet. We had little doubt that he was connected in some way to children and would find a recipient for these items; if he didn't have his own kids some family member would. He no doubt thought it strange to find these things on his bike though.
On the way back we stopped when someone greeted us. He invited us to join him and his family for a visit. Conversation had the usual difficulties when there's a limited amount of shared language but they were very friendly and hospitable. It was here that I tried kokio (Bjarne had tried this drink of fermented sap from the coconut tree previously), which reminded me a little of cider. We learned a few more Kiribati words from our hosts, and left them with crayons and a scrap book for the little ones. The photo we took of the family was delivered later by Carlton when he went to this side of the island. He brought the picture to the nurse, and at the clinic that day there happened to be a relative who said they would deliver the photo.
It was great to be cycling again. We could cover more distance but still not go so fast that we missed the scenery. We could also stop whenever we saw anything that caught our interest, such as a great view of the lagoon, little crabs with bright red shells (alive), or interesting shore birds that usually stayed still only when the camera was put away. It was, however, a hot day and we covered a good distance; given the condition of the roads and how long it had been since we'd cycled regularly, I thought it was good that the bicycles had large padded seats. We appreciated the use of the NCL bikes, which were in much better shape than most of the bicycles on the island. When I borrowed a bike from Bruno, I ended up walking it most of the way when the hub at the rear became disconnected from the wheel so the chain wouldn't turn the wheel. Another bike lost a pedal, leaving Bjarne to cycle one legged. Bicycles and spare parts were not easy to come by here.
During my trip home to Victoria to be with my father for his surgery, I began to get a case of shingles, which I think of as chicken pox for grown-ups. The symptoms didn't show up clearly until I was well away from any medical facilities, stuck on an ill-equipped and overloaded Kiribati passenger ship. Although unhappy about my ailment, I was impressed with my ability to self-diagnose: our Merck Medical Manual supported my hypothesis and the nurse from the cruise ship which came in a couple of days later confirmed it. There is no physician on Tabuaeran, nor do they have much medicine so I was very lucky the cruise ship was in that week, allowing me to get some medication from them to prevent permanent nerve damage. I have never experienced such an awful headache: I could barely move for fear of jarring my brain around. I now have extra sympathy for migraine sufferers. It didn't help that I misread the medical manual and thought it said I couldn't take codeine. In fact, it said other drugs might not be strong enough. Bjarne re-read it and then quickly got me out some of the stronger stuff: it was either out of sympathy or self-defense, as he was being kept awake by my moaning. I was out of commission for a few days, in which I hung around Freya, took drugs, slept a lot, and generally tried to take care of myself. Perhaps it's my cold climate conditioning, but I find that even in the tropics a hot drink can be comforting, most of the time: I was just about to take a soothing sip of herbal tea when I suddenly became quite disgusted - a boiled cockroach was floating in my cup! Life in the tropics provides mixed blessings.
The side of our newly acquired dinghy reads “Argos”. However, it is no longer with its mothership Argos and so I said we should re-paint it to read “Argos, Not”. This transmogrified to Argosnot, usually with a little more emphasis on the last four letters, said with the utmost fondness of course. After trying various options for fixing this new member of Freya's crew (see BJ's Tabuaeran Tidings), Bjarne was able to get the proper glue (PVC pipe cement) for reattaching the floor to the hull. It took four days of labour, some of those days with the two of us working on it, but we finally got it to stick. (I was still recovering from shingles so wasn't able to help for the first two days.) The NCL boys helped immensely by providing the glue and lending us a dinghy while Argosnot was out of commission.
We were pleased with the repair job but still nervous about putting too much weight on the floor. Our dinner guest, Carlton, took care of that problem. He gave both of us a shock when he jumped (!) down into the dinghy from Freya's ladder. Good thing it was dark and he couldn't see the horrified looks on our faces. I thought for sure we'd be fishing him out of the drink, but the floor held. Nothing like a field test. Thanks Carlton!
Although the water inside the lagoon wasn't clear most of the time, outside it was often quite nice. The pass was best at tide change or when the tide was coming in. It was also important to be aware of the tides because the current could become quite strong; after one dive, our little engine wasn't able to make it back through the pass. We had to land outside the pass and pull the dinghy along the shore. We did some underwater exploring with Wolfgang and Ana, who are veteran divers with over 500 dives. I thought breaking 50 wasn't bad. We availed ourselves of their dive compressor. The coral was never fantastic but we did see some good sea life at times, including manta rays, turtles, eels, and a clown trigger fish. A fun trick was to motor out the pass near the end of the outgoing current and snorkel back in when the current changed direction (while towing the dinghy). We saw some large Napolean Wrasse (3-5 feet) this way, and other large fish. It was fun to zoom by, but we couldn't stop easily if we wanted a closer look at something.
Wolfgang was a particularly keen fisher and would look for any opportunity to put a hook in the water. He was always searching for a better lure, improved technique, or a more promising location. He got Bjarne to come along on a number of expeditions. They would wade into the pass near the tide change time, and cast their lines into the channel current. Sometimes they caught more coral than fish and would have to duck under water to disentangle their lures, but other times they came back with dinner. I had a different fishing technique: don't do anything and have fish jump into you. One time a ballyhoo, with a long needle nose, leaped into my thigh, drawing a bit of blood and leaving a bruise – it also broke its nose. Another time, I was sitting on Chuck's boat (at Kiritimati Island) when I suddenly felt a huge whack on my behind. The Kiribati women on Chuck's boat made quick work of filleting my catch: a large flying fish.
Bjarne also went fishing with the NCL crew one day. I was suffering from shingles then so stayed home to recuperate. They took one of the big tenders for ferrying cruise ship passengers ashore, outside the pass and maybe a half mile off shore, where they sought out fish by observing where the birds were congregating. Three lines were towed behind the boat, with bicycle inner tubes acting as snubbers. There were no reels and the large fish were hauled in hand over hand - 31 in all! Bjarne brought home some Wahoo and yellow fin tuna. Fish and birds weren't the only wildlife around: they also were visited by a pod of dolphins.
After almost three months at this most interesting of places it was time to mosey along. We'd had a chance to get involved in some great projects, develop a better understanding of this culture, do a little good, have fun, meet a really diverse range of folks, and make some friends. On March 25 we said our goodbyes, hauled up the anchor, and headed out of the pass. So long and thanks for all the fish!