SPACES

You know when you walk through a really cool place that is public, dynamic, vibrant, culturally rich, transactionally active, you might think of a public square say in Brussels or in Germany. What I’m referring to in Kiribati terms is ‘the road’. This single stretch of road running up and down the island is a domain that has all elements of a successful public place. It works on the concept of a shared space out of pure necessity but certainly makes for an interesting space. Everything, I mean everything happens on the road. Infact, the fine line between public and private space baffles me. Houses are so close to eachother and to the road that you can see people in their most private settings when walking by. That is when you notice people cooking, cleaning, washing, eating, sleeping, relaxing or simply waiting. Waiting for what I’m not sure but there is always a wait for someone to arrive, food to cook, the tide to recede or to rise, electricity to come back, the bus to arrive, the sun to set or to rise, the rain to stop, the road to improve, a spouse, a son, a brother to come back from the ship, pay day or simply waiting for this day to end and another to arrive. It seems that everyone is waiting for something here.

In amongst all the waiting, they spend a lot of time on the road. People walk on the sides of the road swaying around to avoid big puddles of water, dogs roam the streets as though they are just as much part of this society, kids running around or playing on the edge of the road, people crossing to get to the other side, people pouring water over the dusty road to settle the dust and sometimes combing this act and making it a road shower (killing 2 birds with 1 stone. He he), vendors set up alongside the road selling fish and the meagre vegetables that grow here, seedlings, craft items and clothes. They are never pushy and there is no negotiation of price. Things are just the way they are. Cars travel at slow speeds avoiding the potholes and in a way it is the lower speed that gives the road this character of a public space. It is the lack of segregation between vehicles and pedestrians that allows such free movement. I wonder how the role of the street will change or shape the public life that surrounds it once the potholes are fixed.

If you look and look closely, you notice that the public private boundary is very thin. I think you are meant to keep you gaze away from the private space and simply not look or if you do, just shift your gaze and pretend that you have not seen even though a lot happens outside. Covered space is limited as one can appreciate. You do see concrete, ‘modern’ houses around. There is one that catches my attention every time; a vacant structure with missing walls but an intact roof. The columns bear interesting graffiti art and children play soccer (some version of it and not necessarily with a soccer ball- they are clever and use whatever they can find). You see volleyball nets lined close to the streets with players running to the road to retrieve their beloved volleyball. Every now and then you see a coconut falling off a high tree and you praise your luck for not being under that tree! Often cars will just stop for a conversation with someone on the side of the road or on the wrong side of the road because you can and everyone knows everyone. You see people running to jump on a vehicle that has stopped by to offer a lift. People are always waving to eachother and smiling or giggling at the sight of another doing nothing or perhaps just waiting. Such a smile or giggle is contagious I tell you!

These barefoot, happy people use the road as a true public space. It’s almost like I have stepped back in time when I walk on this dynamic road. Frustrating sometimes when you are trying to get somewhere but if you slow down and just look, it is not hard to notice the role it plays as a ‘social glue’ almost.

The highlight of the day however was a surprise visit from a dear friend as I would call him now. A man in his late fifties, dark skinned, contrasting short white hair and matching beard, heavy build but was called mal-nourished by a relative he told me jokingly, a personality bigger than his size and charm that would fill a room. We talked about matters of a general nature like Kiribati people, religion, funerals, family, work environment and my blog as I was in the middle of writing this entry. So I asked him to read it and give me his opinion which I know he would! He read my words sitting on a chair resting my laptop on his crossed leg and would giggle or nod in approval and then tell me of a story that matched my description. An opportunity like this is rare so I took a photograph of the campaigning candidate for the island of ‘Maiana’ reading my blog. I got his permission of-course and in a typical ‘him’ response he warned me and said “I hope your camera doesn’t break” ha ha ha. Funny though, soon as he left and I started writing about his visit, my computer ‘broke’ (that is my term for an error I do not understand) and got stuck on a blue screen that my computer called a ‘Kernel-inpage-error’. I stared at the odd blue screen and raged in silence and then did what I learnt from the British comedy series ‘the IT crowd’- I switched it on and off and (wallah!) it worked: D.

This is him!

            This is him!

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EASTER WEEKEND

Over Easter, six of us decided to go away as I realised (rather late) that we had a 5 day weekend. The journey however began long before the holiday began. A number of visits to the flights information office made for an interesting distraction to a normal working day. I am sure the staff have an alert button every time I walk in. ha ha ha. I was hoping to go away to an outer island but the organisation of the trip proved to be somewhat complex. So, after considerations of many possibilities and chasing many options, on Thursday afternoon at 3:55pm, we finally got ourselves booked to go to Abaiang by boat on Friday afternoon. The boat ride was nice and calm until we hit some choppy waters for a few minutes. On arrival, our boat driver told us that we are not at the right village as the owners of the accommodation were to arrive by boat before us and would have parked their boat as a landmark. Perplexed, we finally found our way to the right village where our items were off-loaded and put on a hand cart and we walked perhaps a 100 metres from the lagoon side to the ocean side of the island. Before us was a mesmerising scene; 10 ‘kia-kias’ (small open walled wooden structure on stumps just big enough for sleeping), a communal larger ‘manneaba’ (wooden shed like structure), a hammock, coconut trees, frangipane trees and the ocean. In awww we looked around and nodded in approval only to be told that the boat with the bedding, food and staff had not arrived yet even though they had left much earlier than us. Pretending not to worry too much, we jumped into the ocean for a swim in relatively cool waters blessed by the relatively cool weather we have had lately. It was a little stormy but fine nonetheless. To be fair, we were all a little worried about the other boat not arriving and then we saw men walking towards our kia-kias with matresses and oh boy, the relief! There was a communal toilet/shower block which was a treat. That night we were pampered with food that was completely out of our imagination! Let me tell you the most unbelievable one was beautifully roasted potatoes. Our eyes popped when we saw that. The local community got word that there were foreigners in their terrain and we were invited to a welcoming party where we were honoured with garlands, local dancing and music and then they asked us to join them. Oh these people know how to party! It was raining hard so we hung around for a bit longer and danced a bit more. We were ecstatic after that only to be more excited over breakfast which included dishes we had forgotten the taste of. Very happy after breakfast, some of us ventured out for a wet walk on the island. The villages seemed so well planned and nicely spaced out. There were patches of vegetation and flowers. A rare sight on Tarawa.

I indulged in a long nap after the walk with my mind relaxing to the sound of the waves. I must admit, my eyes had never witnessed as many shades of blue until I moved to this part of the world. That evening, we got another invitation from the locals for a farewell feast. The locals indulged us in a feast and as guests we got to eat first. Sea shells were the highlight of my dinner and a sweet dish made of ‘pero’, a small berry which I have never seen but asked my colleagues for the description. This time we rehearsed two songs for their entertainment too. “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, Brother John, Brother John” and “If you happy and you know it”. We got a few laughs and giggles as our singing talents do not even come close to theirs. In dancing however, I’ve got a few steps up my sleeve too :D. This was followed by a hilarious ‘bicycle dance’. One to remember. We had to pretend to ride a bicycle and then chose the next person to do it. Great ice breaker and people broke into all sorts of moves. Hilarious. It is common for people to dance and often the men get up and ask the women to dance with them. So I danced with a few and then one of the cheeky local boys said to me “you’re an awful dancer”. Well, no one tells me I’m an awful dancer so I challenged him and the two of us got up and I showed off my newly learned local moves mixed with some bollywood. They weren’t expecting that! Ha ha. What fun :). We were so humbled by their hospitality and unconditional love and respect that it makes me want to go back again. Then again, all the people I meet are more humble than the last.

In between this, one of our group members was wearing sunglasses with only one lense as he broke them on the way. The other was wearing underpants on top of his shorts and his shirt tied in the front ‘showcasing the Kay Rd look’ he claimed. I too had a funny encounter. Very enthusiastically and with great force I pulled open the bathroom door and it almost feel on me. It wasn’t hinged you see. Lucky a friend was right there to click a photo! I showered in the darkness without a door on the bathroom. On the first night, I must admit that the loudness of the ocean and the brightness of the moon kept me awake but the second day was bliss. I slept like a log.

The day we were to leave, we woke up to a very stormy, windy morning. One of the guys tried to sleep through the gusty wind and with his mattress being blown from underneath him. Commendable effort! This was followed by yet another amazing breakfast, a swim and a snooze. We weren’t so sure if we’d go back given the weather condition but it eased off and the boatman hailed a go-ahead. So we hopped on the boat and within minutes of being on-board, we were drenched. It was rocky and we hadn’t even left yet. The ocean seemed bigger, swollen, darker and almost angry. It felt as if we were climbing water mountains when the boat went up with the wave and then we would crash so hard that my organs would rattle. Wearing life jackets, we raced on. On one of the hard landings, the wooden roof of the boat gave away a crack and on another, one of our big companion broke through the wooden board that he was sitting on. With water being splashed on us continuously, we weren’t sure to laugh or to brace ourselves for the next bang. I was arm in arm with my friend who was keeping me from flying away. It was certainly a bonding session.

It must have been 2 hours which felt like 6 when we arrived back on South Tarawa. The Otintaai Hotel staff were kind enough to offer us a room so we could shower and put on some dry clothes. We were immensely thankful for that and made the most of the opportunity and then they also offered us a ride home at the back of a refrigeration truck. Happy with this offer, we hopped on. Half way through, the driver a lovely young guy barely 17 I would say suggested we stop for fuel. The pumps are fully serviced here so the pump worker fuelled us up and away we went hopping along all the pot holes, avoiding the big ones and then ‘grrrrr-grrr-grrr’, the truck came to a halt. We started again and away we went but minutes later, ‘grrrr-grrrrr-grrrr’. This happened about 7 times and then we gave up. The guys left the truck on the side of the road and helped us hail down a lift. We got picked up by none other than the police. The police ute could fit 2 inside and 4 of us went in the open back. 2 of us chose to stand avoiding braches of trees. It was yet another adventure. Arriving back home in the police car worried the watchman at my apartment. He shyly asked if everything was ok as I entered the gate. I was knackered and slept for 12 hours straight.

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The next day I spent recovering from the boat ride and dinning with my fellow travellers (2 couples about the age of my parents) on the Abaiang adventure. They insisted I say grace before we broke bread so that was a first but a spiritual one. Certainly made me feel like a part of the ‘Whanau’ 🙂

Last day of the public holidays needed to be one of relaxation so we discovered a health retreat close to the airport. I hired a car and drove for an hour to pick up a friend from Betio (eastern end of the Island) and then drove us west. On the way we stopped off to buy some veggies from the road vendors and had a ‘banana-paw-paw smoothie and a cheese sandwich’ at Chatterbox (the only place in town which replicates a café experience like home). We then journeyed further west till we reached our destination of our unsuspecting masseuse. We tossed a coin to decide who would go first and fate chose me to go second. He he. So I sat on their couch and read a novel (a romantic, chick flick which would not be my choice in any other situation) and relaxed. An hour and a half later, it was my turn to lie naked on the outdoor massage bench with my head towards the ocean. My masseuse was a lively local girl who trained in Fiji and gave me a much needed deep tissue treatment with nice smelling coconut oil. Once finished with the massage, we were treated to a coconut and a meal as we just happened to be in the right place at the right time! It was then time to farewell and be on our way only to be thinking about when we would go back next. Not sure if you can appreciate this but it took me an hour to pick up my friend and nearly 1.5 hours to drive to the retreat and then 2 hours back to drop her in Betio and then and hour back to where I hired the car from followed by a 10 minute walk through huge puddles navigating only with the moon light and the bicycle light on my forehead. To add to the injury, the road is only about 30 km end to end.

The road saga continued and yesterday after work, 25 of us squeezed into the 18 seater blue van. I sat in the lap of one who sat in the lap of another- a triple sandwich :). Certainly an experience of a kind and with the road so bad, the journey that normally takes 15 minutes took 45. I just wish I had my camera handy!

On a completely different note- I am sitting here in the possession of 2.5 kilos of sweet pumpkin!!! Ah what’ll I make? The possibilities! I haven’t seen these babies in a while.