Every time I try and write how much Kiribati means to me, I end up waffling, writing one paragraph that has 500 words and use the word ‘love’ twice in every sentence. Therapeutic for me, crap reading for you.
I left Kiribati almost two weeks ago and as always I feel as if part of me has been left on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific. Growing up in Australia I have been fortunate enough to receive many luxuries of being Australian – education at 2 of the best universities in Australia, I am a coffee snob like all Melbourne-ites, I whinge when the butter is too hard to spread on fresh bread and I hate it when people get toothpaste all over the end of the tube. I like to think that we all try our hardest to appreciate the luxuries in life but sometimes we forget what luxuries are. In Kiribati luxuries were no longer having the latest Mac or having a car, luxuries were basic things. Such little things in the western world that I didn’t even consider them to be so until I was without. So, I wrote a list in my diary.
1. Not boiling the water before everytime you use it, even brushing your teeth
2. Sleeping with a pillow. On a mattress.
3. Toilet paper, well a toilet for that matter but definitely the toilet paper
4. Not worrying whether the puddles on the road are sea-water which would then rust the car
5. A stove. A washing machine. A fridge.
6. Not having to move all the food into the bedroom at night to ensure the rats won’t get to it in the middle of the night.
The funny thing is, is that since these are luxury items in Kiribati, you don’t really notice they are missing. You just deal with it and keep living life as usual. Sure boiling the water is annoying (I ended up taking a gamble and drank the rainwater after filtering it through the kitchen sponge. Boiling water is so tiresome. Woe is me) but you don’t whinge about not having a pillow when the rest of the family are sleeping without. You don’t complain about not feeling clean enough after a cold shower, especially when you realise the rest of the family have never had a shower with hot water. Toilet paper I suppose was a luxury that I did splash out on but I suppose you have to draw a line somewhere.
I try and explain to friends and colleagues that Kiribati people are the happiest people on earth. They are constantly smiling, laughing and telling stories to make each other laugh. All the time. I went to a 1st birthday party of a parliamentary member’s grandchild and I’ve never laughed so much in my life. After the meal we all sat around as guests took turns to try and make the crowd laugh by dancing. This ended up with an old woman flashing her boob at the host/MP with the crowd in absolute hysterics including our host. Though I suppose that would be funny anywhere. A lady flashing to Tony Abbott? I’d laugh. Kiribati people are always telling jokes and are always scrambling to get up in front of a crowd to make everyone else laugh.
One of the most wonderful conversations I had in Kiribati was with a man in the bank in Bairiki. Mum and I were waiting to be served when an old colleague of hers came up to us to say hello. As per usual we were telling each other stories, laughing and in the midst of it all, I teased him about his age and with a huge grin on his face he said ‘Yes, my age is like our rising waters. It keeps going up even though I keep wanting it to get lower’. He then burst into laughter and followed up by saying ‘Isn’t Kiribati wonderful? Aren’t we so lucky to come from the happiest place on earth? Lucky we don’t live in Afghanistan because I don’t think they get to laugh as much as us there’. I’ve never had anyone make me make me appreciate the fortunate life I live than this man. He then proceeded to skip ahead of my Mum in the queue for the bank teller, telling me that he will never be too old to stop being cheeky. Mum then whispered in my ear ‘he may be cheeky but he will never be served before me in a bank‘ before skipping the queue as well to join him at the front. Classic I-Kiribati.
I think anyone who has worked, visited or lived in a third world country would agree with me when I say that its usually the people with the least that are the happiest. Kiribati’s surrounding waters are getting higher with each tide and yet they still focus on others that are less fortunate than them. Life on Kiribati is incredibly hard. For the most part Kiribati looks like the idyllic island that everyone wants to escape to but it’s not really the tropical paradise that places like Vanuatu, Hawaii or Tahiti are known for. Hygeine is appaling, the many dogs are diseased, there are not enough jobs in the country and the average life expectancy is 62. Fresh fish can be bought for 40 cents on the side of the road each night but thats basically all that’s available to eat. That and rice and coconuts. Or packets of stale crisps imported from China.
Our house on Kiribati is situation on the corner of two reefs so you can hear waves crashing on both sides of the house. While playing cards with my Mum, Auntie and Grandma we would listen to the ocean and one of us would always note that it felt like we were living on a boat; the waves crashing on the doorstep, both winds flying through the doors then meeting each other in a swirl of breeze in the middle of the house. These nights in particular were my favourite and I remember sitting in those exact moments thinking it. To sit with these three women who I admire so much; women that are strong, that lead the whole family (my grandfather passed away in 1994, my uncle in 2004), that provide food, money and shelter to the many nieces, nephews, cousins, sons, daughters, uncles, aunties and grandparents within the family network. Everyday the house was full of people and yet they always managed to feed and clothe everyone. These nights however were always filled with laughter as the four of us would tell stories from the day and tease each other. For those that know me, you would most likely know that my thumbs are horrendous looking creatures on my hands; stumpy and look like I have toes where my thumbs should be. I inherited this unfortunate feature from my grandmother and this provided endless fits of laughter night after night as they would try and decide ‘who really had the ugliest thumbs in the family’.
As heated as these discussions were (it was usually decided that ‘yes, our little white child has uglier thumbs than her grandmother’) I really loved these nights. While the waters rose around us we would sit in the middle of the house with the wind swirling above us and we would sit on a mat on the floor, cheat at playing cards, correct my language inadequacies, rub coconut oil on our legs and end the day laughing. For all of it’s hardships, it’s environmental problems, it’s poor standard of living, it’s lack of hygiene and the threat of losing its land to the Pacific ocean, the I-Kiribati people still end the day laughing. Not polite giggling but hysterical, from the gut, teary laughter.
Who can honestly say that that’s how they end each day?
I love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love love Kiribati.