The Republic of Kiribati (again pronounced Kiri-bahs), or "Tungaru" as it is traditionally known, is a nation of 32 atolls and one raised coral island covering more than 1,350,000 square miles of the Pacific and straddling the equator. The nation is divided into three main island groups – the Gilberts (where Tarawa is located and where we are currently anchored), the Phoenix and the Line Islands. The name "Kiribati" means "Gilbert" in the I-Kiribati language. I-Kiribati is what the indigenous peoples call themselves, rather than Kiribatians. The origins of the people are said to be a mix of southeast Asia and Samoa. They are distinctly Micronesian in appearance. This is the first Micronesian area we have been to – as most of our Pacific travels have been with "Polynesian" based peoples. Like many of the islands of the Pacific, Kiribati has a colonial past. Formerly a British Protectorate, Kiribati became an independent nation in July of 1979.
The impact of World War II on Kiribati (then known as the Gilbert and Ellce Islands) can still be seen with many WWII rusting tanks and guns as well as bunkers and cemeteries. The Japanese invaded Tarawa two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. The battles that took place in Tarawa were both historic and very costly in human lives – I-Kiribatis, British, Americans and Japanese.
The islands main source of revenue remains coconuts (copra) and fishing. The licenses to fish the million plus square miles of Kiribati Ocean provide income for the peoples – but they also suffer the loss by the over-fishing of the waters. We saw the many large fishing boats and fish processing boats – the large tuna boats equipped with helicopters to help spot the schools of tunas. The fish don't seem to have a chance. The licenses are bought by Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian and other countries. The Republic of Kiribati has designated the entire Phoenix Island group as a Marine Protected Area and is right now the world's largest marine protected area. It is also a World Heritage Site.
Our first impressions are of an exceptionally friendly people. Tarawa is a very narrow, inverted "L" shaped island with beautiful sandy beaches on the lagoon side. The water is a pretty blue, though certainly not crystal clear. Like many of these small atolls that sit just a few feet above sea level – they seem to struggle with maintaining their cultural heritage and enjoying the benefits of modern living. Plastic and garbage are a problem and each of the islands we've visited are trying to figure out how to rid themselves of trash without adding to the global warming by burning it. Here you can purchase "garbage bags" for twenty cents...but we are still uncertain where the trash goes once collected.
Today, we moved from the port city of Betio to Bairiki and are anchored just in front of the House of Parliament. It is a beautiful building designed after the traditional sailing canoes. There is a nice dinghy dock and we can even go to the Parliament bar after hours for a drink...who knows, perhaps we'll raise a glass with the Prime Minister. The good news is that this anchorage is much calmer than the Betio anchorage so we are much more comfortable.
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