I’m always doing a speel about Kiribati. Where it is. What it’s like. How to get there. What they eat. What the currency is. Of course I don’t mind this at all – I’m happy to answer, but it has made me realise that there isn’t really much online on what life is like for a visitor on Kiribati. There is a great tourist website (www.kiribatitourism.gov.ki) but what do you do when you’re invited to be guest of honour at a party? What will make you sick? Is the lagoon safe the swim in?
I have an endless amount of tips for things like this, so here are a few pointers that hopefully you will find helpful should you ever go there one day.
First off the airport is two, large sheds. One is for Departures the other Arrivals. Once you get your passport stamped and you collect your luggage, you head out to the covered area that everyone stands at. If you don’t have anyone waiting for you at the airport, the best way to get to wherever your staying is to catch a bus. The main towns you’re probably heading to is either Bairiki or Betio. These are right up the other end of the island which could take up from 40mins to an hour. Standing underneath the sign of Bonriki Airport, buses (read, mini vans) will zoom up, opening up the door as they screech to a halt. You can tell the buses as they will usually have a sign on the windscreen saying which town they are heading to and also there will be some electronic music blaring out of the speakers. They will most likely see you looking like you need a lift and will pull up in front of you. Even if the bus looks overly full, the locals will shuffle around in the bus to accomodate you, all smiling as they do so. Eventually, you will most likely have someone in the bus ask you where you’re going. This is normal, you’re not a local and they want to know what you’re doing there. My advice is to tell them, because they will more than likely try and help you find where you need to go.
Things are pretty cheap in Kiribati so it shouldn’t cost any more than $2 (they use Australian currency) to get a bus from the airport to the other end of the island. Actually another thing to note about the island is that it’s not expected that you ‘tip’. Kiribati people are very generous and quite proud so you shouldn’t have too many people asking you for money. Kiribati people ask for money within the family quite a bit but they most likely won’t ask you – you are a tourist and it is considered very impolite to ask a visitor for money. Even though I am half I-Kiribati, they still consider me as an ‘imatung’ (i.e. white person) and so they generally don’t want to cross the line of asking for my money. Except of course within my family, then my younger cousins feel very comfortable begging me for a dollar. You will get the odd person trying to beg for money but it is up to you to give a 50c or not.
Don’t swim in the lagoon on South Tarawa. Yes it looks amazing and paradise but it’s full of bacteria and you’ll get sick from it. Stick to the ocean side at high tide. Better yet, jump off the bridge on the causeway and in Buota, where the water is running. Ladies, swim in shorts and singlets/t-shirts. Guys, just shorts is fine. If you’re on an outer island, swim anywhere. The water isn’t polluted like the main island and it’s amazing to swim in.
As a guest:
No doubt that if you end up in Kiribati, you will be invited to be a guest somewhere for some sort of feast/party/wedding/event. Even if you’re there for a holiday, I can guarantee that a local will ask you to be a special guest at their party. Kiribati people love it. Be prepared to go, be fed a ridiculous amount of food and expect to be asked to get up an dance. In Kiribati, they love a party and dancing and they will expect you to get up when asked (someone of the opposite sex will come up to you and gesture with both hands – asking you to dance with them). If you’re lucky enough to be asked, just get up and have a wiggle along with whatever music is playing. If you don’t mind a bit of attention, you can ham it up a little and listen to the large crowd watching you squeal with laughter and delight. I guarantee they will love it.
What to eat:
Pretty much like every other culture, to welcome someone is to heap a bunch of food on them and then to watch them eat. Everyone at the party brings something to share and they’ll all wait while you choose your food. As someone who has had many a horrific night from a bad reaction to food on the islands, here is a list of the things I advise you choose from the hoards of food they offer you – starting from highly recommended to risking it.
1. Vegies and Fruit – there isn’t much fresh produce on the island so you may not be familiar with them – breadfruit, bobai, pandanas, pumpkin, banana and of course coconut
2. Rice and eggs – I know eggs seems a bit weird but these two items are pretty much guaranteed to have been cooked just before the party. You should be pretty right with these.
4. Pork. For a big party, the Kiribati people love signifying the occasion by sacrificing a big pig. They are usually cooking this while the formal part of the party (i.e. speeches, dancers) is going on, so it’s usually served with big chunks of fat on it but go right ahead.
3. Bread – not the healthiest of things to eat since it’s so sweet and the butter on it is served from a can, you shouldn’t get sick with it.
4. Fish. I know you were expecting me to have put this up at number one, but hear me out. Dont eat the salted fish. I repeat – DONT EAT THE SALTED FISH. Salted fish is raw fish that has been covered in salt and then dried in the sun – and most likely flies have landed on them and those flies have just come from the human faeces that have just been deposited on the beach. Yummy. Now, I’m not saying you’ll definitely get sick from it, but it probably poses the biggest threat. The fish in Kiribati is amazing so go right ahead eating fish that has been freshly cooked. Now, tease me all you want but I don’t actually know the actual names of the fish but go for these types of fish; the night fish (I think it’s red snapper?), the boney fish (no idea, but it’s a long fish with lots of bones) or the flying fish (their fins have ‘wings’). These will all be cooked and will be the best fish you’ve ever eaten. Just choose fish that looks like it’s just been cooked.
I’m sure you’ll be fine but my worst never on the islands was when I ignored my families warnings of not eating the salted fish. I arrogantly thought my immune system was amazing and as tough as a local islander. It’s not. I shit my pants. I’m not too arrogant to not admit it.
Oh and the big one – water. You’ll probably know stick to the bottled water which you can pretty much buy from any little shop. Or boil it before you drink it. If you head to an outer island, I would say – sacrifice pretty much everything in your luggage to take a massive (at least 10 litre) container of water. If you are invited to go to someone’s house as a guest, take a bottle of water yourself or always ask for tea. It will be sweetened to all buggery but at least you’re drinking boiled water. Or (and don’t try this at home kids) you could do as I did and filter tank water by buying new kitchen dishcloths, folding them over themselves and pouring the water through that to filter it. It’s not going to filter everything but I was fine – test my theory at your own risk!
And lastly, here are some pointers on the local Kiribati people:
They will laugh at you. Most of the time you won’t know what you’ve done to make them laugh. Just roll with it and don’t take it as a personal insult – they just laughing. You’ll get used to it.
They’ll ask you where you’re going.
They’ll wave at you.
They’re always late. Island time is at least 2 hours later than the rest of the world. Get used to it. Don’t stress, take your time, relax, have a nap and live it up.
If you have any more questions on what to expect when visiting Kiribati – send them through! I’ll try and do another piece with more advice a little later on.
Thanks for reading guys, much appreciated.