In preparing my visit to Nauru, I had read a lot of facts which raised my interest in the country. Apparently, it has the highest rate of both obesity and unemployment in the world. Moreover, when I started meeting people while travelling in the region, some said it was a depressing place; in one account, I heard that after the deep crisis the country went through, and that was partly caused by outsiders who had greatly helped the mismanagement of the enormous profits of the phosphate industry and deepening of the crisis, Nauruans would be mischievous about foreigners. Added to that the endless struggle I had to obtain a visa, which did not help me to feel welcome, and I was prepared for a stay without much interaction. But travelling is also about approaching places with an open mind, instead of seeking the confirmation of preconceptions you might have before even setting foot in a place. Within a few days, I found I had to completely reshape my notions about Nauru; once it was time to leave, I had rather stayed more time in a country that had conquered a weak spot in me, also because of its inhabitants.
The first surprise I got, was when I walked out of the airport building and a woman approached me, mentioned my name, and before I knew it, she drove me around the runway to my hotel in Aiwo. I returned to the runway, and waited until the plane take off. I noticed that traffic was stopped on both sides; then, after take-off, I was approached by a security guy who told me I was not supposed to be where I had been during any take-off in such a kind way, that I really felt sorry. A little later, at the post office, the guy behind the counter told me he did not have change, and offered to give the stamps I wanted to buy for free. The image of Nauruans I had had before leaving, was rapidly changing. They appeared very different to the people I had seen in other Pacific countries: I was not greeted anywhere while walking the streets, people seemed to mind their own business, and let me be. Sure enough, if I would greet them, they would often return a big smile. Nauru was the first country in the Pacific where I did not immediately pick up the basic words for small talk. Something that amazed me, was how small the community really is. Everyone seemed to know each other, if you would mention a name to a local, he or she would directly say, ah, yes, that's my auntie, or daughter, or father - everyone seemed to be related in this small island community. In any case, the more people I met in Nauru, the more I felt that instead of them being depressive, most were actually very friendly, helpful, and full of energy - perhaps also because the deep crisis has been left behind.
Not much is known about the origin of the Nauruans, most of whom have a mix of Polynesian and Micronesian blood running through their veins. The Nauruan language: to my ears, it sounded very unlike any of the other languages I had heard in the region, and I loved to just listen to it. There are twelve matrilineal tribes in the country, which are represented in the national flag by a twelve-pointed star. In its history, the small island community has suffered near-wipeouts because of health issues, civil war, and deportations, but the population has always bounced back. In the glory days of the Nauruan phosphate frenzy, young Nauruans were sent overseas for education; as a result, English is widely spoken. Some of the young Nauruans I met, regretted the fact that in the last century, much of the traditional lifestyle had been virtually wiped out by the drastic changes in Nauru in the 20th century. Unlike other Pacific countries, you won't find traditional houses in Nauru, or dances, or clothes; instead, the country has a modern feel in many ways, and a very visible industry that you won't find in most other places. Apparently, there are efforts to revive the traditions, and strengthen the national identity of the country that reached in dependence in 1968. It would be very interesting to study the psychological effects of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the minds of the inhabitants of this small island nation, and how they have adapted to new circumstances as they developed. One trait was hard to get used to for me: the notorious unreliability of people, perhaps best summed up by one of them in this joke: "If in Fiji you have an appointment at 4, someone might show up at 5; in Nauru, he might not show up at all". It happened several times to me: thinking I had a clear agreement about meeting, no one showed up - even on the day of my departure where several people had said to say goodbye. People laugh about it, and you learn to do the same. At the same time, Nauruans surprised me by showing up when we did not have an appointment, and going out of the way to show their island. It were surprises like these that touched me, and secure a soft spot for the inhabitants of this tiny speck of land in the vast Pacific.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Nauruan people (Nauru). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Nauruan people. Read more about this site.