Getting to know Tarawa

It was exciting to finally step foot in Tarawa, the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, after hearing about it for so long — my advisor has worked here for a decade or so, and I’ve spent my last three years as his student hearing about his work and its accompanying adventures. I’ve also spoken with other folks who have worked and visited Tarawa, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve read Maartin J. Troost’s, The Sex Lives of Cannibals (I could write a whole blog post about why this is not a good book, but its exploitative and he is neither fair nor charitable with his descriptions of life here). All that goes to say that I had very clear images of what Kiribati would be like, both for better and for worse, before stepping off the plane on Thursday.

To be fair, you won’t be greeted at the Kiribati airport with a lei like in some of the more touristy destinations of the Pacific. The beaches have white sand and turquoise water, but are often littered with both trash and the relics left behind by the bloody battles that took place here during World War II. It’s stunningly beautiful, but it’s not exactly paradise the way it would be defined in romanticized Western narratives (although I don’t think such a place really exists).

Having context is paramount to understanding what the Pacific Islands are like. The same countries that tend to judge Kiribati harshly have caused the problems facing the people here (such as climate change and the poverty that was left in the wake of colonization). It is unfair for westerners to criticize Kiribati for the ways they’re using their limited resources to surviving challenges that were forced upon them through no fault of their own.

The people in Kiribati are nothing if not resilient. We had a lot of logistics to organize when we first arrived, which meant that we spent most of our first day driving up and down the one paved road connecting the islands in South Tarawa. It’s immediately evident, even from the plane, that Tarawa is battling against climate change; land is limited, sand bags and sea walls line the coastlines, and road construction projects to fortify the main road have been happening for years. We also saw the products of a mangrove planting project, which will help to protect the coastline from erosion caused by rising sea levels and waves. There is even a recycling program in Tarawa, no small feat for a small island that has to ship their trash elsewhere, andĀ Erietera, who works for Kiribati’s fisheries program and is joining us on our dives, told us about an initiative in his village to ban all plastics. I’ve not heard of any programs like this elsewhere in the Pacific, and the Kiribati people are rightfully proud of their hard work.

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Young mangroves growing near the airport in Tarawa. These will help to protect the shoreline from erosion.

My advisor is fond of talking about how much people in Kiribati love to laugh, and I’ve found that to be true in the most delightful ways. As a woman, it can be challenging to do fieldwork in the Pacific Islands, some of which are very conservative (here, we need to keep our legs covered above the knees and have to wear shirts that cover our shoulders, even while on the boat and in the water). While it doesn’t erase or minimize the difficulties, being able to joke with the people we are working with (all of whom are men, although there have been women doing diving work for the fisheries department in the past) helps to break the ice.

 

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A sleeping hut on the ocean side of South Tarawa. The ocean breeze keeps it cool and also discourages mosquitos.

 

I’ve only been here for a few days and I’m still getting my bearings, but it’s been a lot of fun so far. We did our first day of diving yesterday, and it went relatively smoothly, despite a few minor mishaps (but it always takes a day or two to get the swing of things). I’ll post more about the science we’re doing soon, if you’re curious — there’s a lot more going on this trip than what we did in the Marshall Islands, and I’m pretty excited about what we’ll learn. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the opportunity to explore and get to know Tarawa and all the wonderful people we’re having the chance to meet!

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