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.