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Kiribati: Abaiang Atoll

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Abaiang Atoll | Kiribati | Oceania

[Visited: October 2012]

The guy in the blue shirt took some sand in his hands, instructed me to look north, and smeared the sand on my cheeks. He then walked to the shrine, coral stones arranged in a rectangular form, with a coral slab standing upright. There, he took a few green branches from a nearby tree, made them into garlands, and put one on the coral slab, one on his own head, and one on mine. I now officially had the protection of Nei Arauri, a goddess that was born of the sea, for the duration of my stay on the island. We had to take a different way to walk back to Takarano. I was on the northern tip of the island, where I had been dropped by a truck that had taken me from Taburao, roughly in the middle of the eastern island of Abaiang Atoll, where I was staying at the Women's Council. After my travel plans had been totally messed up because of a cancelled flight, I found myself with an extra five days in Kiribati. Weary of possible flight disruptions, I had chosen for the seemingly safe option to visit Abaiang. The day before, a wooden catamaran had taken me from the town of Betio on South Tarawa, and lying on the upperdeck in the sun, I was getting back on travel-track after days of insecurity about the near future. We had not sailed more than fifteen minutes when a large pod of dolphins came swimming towards our boat, and played with the waves at the bow. As we were close to them, we could hear them breathe when they surfaced. The graceful creatures then disappeared into the waters of the lagoon, when we approached the coastline of Abaiang a few hours later, another pod came racing towards us from the island, and darted around in the turquoise waters around our boat. It felt like a welcome to us, and where my mood had been dismal the day before, it helped to make me feel better and look ahead to my stay at Abaiang Atoll. Meanwhile, I had decided not to take the boat all the way to Taburao, but to get off at the first stop of the boat, and walk the distance. It seemed the best thing to do; on these atoll islands, there is only one track, and you always have to take the same way back. When I got off the small boat that took us to the beach, the last remains of my bad mood melted away. I was standing in warm translucent light-green lagoon waters, small waves were gently washing ashore the powdery beach, topped by tall palm trees that stretched out well above the water. I walked the beach for a while, until I tired of my feet sinking deep into the sand, and walked the track instead. I immediately realized that things looked different here from what I had seen before in Kiribati. Thatched huts with open sides were invariably made of natural materials, and arranged in a neatly fashioned way, with gardens, and a clear organization. There was often one sleeping hut, a social hut, a kitchen hut, and sometimes, a family grave as well. I came across a beautiful thatched structure with a portal, and when I looked inside, my assumption proved right: it was a church. On the floor, handwoven mats of palm leaves, and at the far end, a small altar. All the while, people greeted me warmly, children ran after me, calling I-Matang, or white man after me. At one point, the island was so narrow I walked to the ocean side in a few steps, where I discovered to my surprise another sandy beach with the reef a little further out. It was still hot, and time for a swim; the lagoon had a paradisiacal sandy beach and shore. Floating on the mesmerizing water of the lagoon of Abaiang Atoll, looking up at the gently swaying crowns of the palm trees, I was back on travel-track, and felt happy again. The walk was longer than anticipated; I had judged the distance from the only map of the island, and expected to arrive in the village shortly. I started to be hungry, and found a fresh coconut, one half uneaten, on the ground, the flesh was still moist and soft. I could not resist, and scraped the delicious jelly-like substance from the nut. Only a few minutes later, I passed yet another family compound, and was almost begged to come in. Before I knew it, the oldest son was already in the top of a palm tree and came down with another coconut. I happily drank the nut, and chatted with the family. But I was now tight on time: they said Taburao was still an hour's walk. A little further on, a woman was putting coconuts on a floating mat, dragging it along in the shallow water, all the while singing, and laughing at me. The people of Abaiang were starting to touch me, their good mood, their genuine friendliness, their openness, did not fail to leave an effect on me. Sweet kids asking to have their picture taken did make me stop regularly, but I walked faster and faster, as I could now see the sun nearing the horizon, preparing for a great sunset on the lagoon. I started asking how far Taburao was, and invariably got the answer: two villages ahead of here. When an old man on a motorbike stopped, and offered to take me to the Island Council, I did not refuse; fortunately so, because I was still a long way off the largest settlement of the island. I hereby officially question the scale of the map I have: I had walked for four hours, with breaks, and I had not even covered half the islet, which is supposed to be 25k. Anyway, I was at the women's centre, where guests to the islet can sleep. Dinner was good, and after a kava night with a government delegation who stayed on the islet as well, it was time for a deep sleep in a traditional thatched-roof hut.

Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Turquoise lagoon and shining palm trees on the southern tip of Abaiang

The next day, the woman of the centre was adamant I go to a celebration for women, but after waiting of an hour, I saw a truck heading north, and I could not resist the temptation. The guy had a great sense of humour, stopped several times - once, to load the entire pre-fab basement of a traditional house on his truck. When we finally arrived in the north, he insisted I should have a coconut, and was then guided to the shrine of Nei Arauri. I also visited the school that had just celebrated its 9th anniversary, and then walked back to the south. From the truck, it had seemed a very long way, it had taken us more than an hour and a half. I walked the track, and sometimes the beach parallel to it. Every house I passed, the kids came running out at me, waving, smiling, shouting, wanting to play, shake hands, or just a picture. I passed the village of Tebunginako, which is used as a case for climate change; part of it has disappeared in the waters of the lagoon. Bushes and trees were sticking out of the water, and there were abandoned huts; people had moved to higher ground. Once again, it showed the fragility of these lands and their inhabitants: a love-hate relationship with the sea. The walk to the big church of the island proved longer than expected. I gladly stopped for a closer inspection of this over 100 years old, white structure with its rainbow coloured windows. Shells are used for the decoration of the impressive structure that towers above the palm trees canopy. Inside, I found a lone women sitting on the floor with a dog next to her. Shortly after the church, I passed a maneaba from which loud music was coming - my host of the women's centre came out to me, and dragged me in. The celebration was not over, and my timing was perfect: after the inevitable (but not less tasty!) coconut, I was invited to dance with a woman, who was then pushed aside after a while by another women; I ended up dancing with a multitude of women, and from all sides came the laughter of the I-Kiribati who found my movements hilarious. In between dances, I was forced to taste a lot of cakes, and when I walked out when the function was over, I felt upbeat. I also longed for a swim to wash away the sweat that all the walking and dancing had formed a sticky layer on my skin. Sunset was spectacular; the sun turned the islets on the horizon into dark spots, and the sky and sea into orange-red. It had been a great idea to visit Abaiang.

Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Facade of the tallest church of Abaiang

The next day, however, things seemed a little different. It had been raining all night, with thunderstorms, and the weather still seemed quite wild. The son of my host was kind enough to take me to where the catamaran was docked, avoiding all the muddy pools that had formed during the night, and I was the first to step aboard. After waiting for two hours, we started our journey, but after twenty minutes, the engines stopped, a latch was opened, and the guys of the boat were busy with repair works. After two more hours, we continued, but again, the engines stopped soon thereafter. This time around, when I looked down from the upper-deck on which I was lying, I saw people with bags on their back, and feared the worst. Indeed, it had been decided the boat was beyond repair. The small boat that was supposed to take us back to shore, now also didn't work: the guy inside it had to swim back, towing the boat with a rope. I now was stuck on Abaiang: the flight of that morning had left at 3pm with a delay of 6 hours, the boat might not be fixed for the next day, and I had an important flight to catch early Tuesday morning. My backup plan failed, too: the manager of a lodge in Betio had promised to check out the boat, and take me with his yacht, but his phone remained unanswered, and I searched the seas in vain for a sign of his boat. The captain of the boat stated that it had been repaired, but I had my doubts. I had to remain on the islet for yet another night, and after lots of tossing and turning, sat on the back of the same motorbike again very early on Monday morning. As the people had told me when I asked them what to do: "Just pray!". We did leave, and in fact, after a tremendously slow ride, arrived back to Betio eight hours later. The worries of the night have been forgotten, and the memories of an intense stay on Abaiang remain.

Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Walking the seas for a catch at sunset
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): I-Kiribati style church in the south of Abaiang
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): House on stilts jutting out into the lagoon of Abaiang atoll
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): One of the great thatched maneabas of Abaiang
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Nei Arauri has a shrine on the northern tip of Abaiang islet
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Blue and green colours of the lagoon with the islets of the western side of the atoll in the distance
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): One of the houses of the partly disappeared village of Tebunginako
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): One of the thatched houses in the south of Abaiang
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): The maneaba of Takarano in the north of Abaiang islet
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): The sun setting the skies over Abaiang atoll on fire
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Limestone tombstones in a cemetery in the north of Abaiang islet
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Thatched-roof houses in a compound on Abaiang islet
Picture of Abaiang Atoll (Kiribati): Thatched hut with two stories on Abaiang islet

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