Sunday, 1 July 2012

How to blend in: Kiribati

Unlike the majority of my amazing posts, this advice may not be massively useful as few people seem to visit Kiribati. Kiribati (pronounce the “ti” as “s”), is made up of three island chains sprinkled across the equatorial Pacific. All but one of the islands are coral atolls of the sort adorning screensavers and calendars. If you get the chance to visit Kiribati, here are some tips to help you feel less imbecile-like when you arrive.
Why am I not here right now??? Dammit.
1. You may be tempted to go barefoot, as you will notice almost every I-Kiribati (as the locals are called) forgoes the use of shoes. If you like the idea of spending the rest of your visit nursing your infections, go ahead and lacerate the shit out of your soft soles on the razor-sharp coral rubble of which the islands are comprised. But if you’d like to retain the ability to walk, keep those flip-flops on your feet outside—but take them off when you enter someone’s home or your guesthouse.

2. Dress modestly. Missionaries have had a good go in Kiribati, and thus some islanders are offended by seeing too much exposed skin. It may seem insane to cover up in a country not known for refreshing temperatures; but in addition to fitting in better, wearing more clothing will reduce your chances of sunburn and dengue fever. The attire of choice includes oversized t-shirts and shorts, a long skirt, or wrap-around lava-lava. Of course, no one seems to care what you wear if you are a man. But if you are a woman and you attempt not to die of heat-stroke by changing from your modest clothes into your wetsuit quickly on the boat, you may be chastised for briefly flashing your bikini-clad self. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

3. Speaking of missionaries, be respectful of Sundays. Even if you want to continue collecting coral cores, it’s not very nice to expect your I-Kiribati collaborators to want to do the same (guilty as charged).

4. Be very afraid of the dogs. Carrying a heavy rock or five in your pocket is not a bad idea.
I miss this, too!
5. Be respectful of maneabas (meeting houses)—there are complex rules involved with how to enter, where to sit, and how to behave in a maneaba. Your best bet is to wait until someone asks you to visit their maneaba, instead of just barging in. On Sunday, it’s respectful to turn off your motorbike and push it in front of each maneaba you pass. This is inconvenient if your motorbike is unlikely to start again, but you will work up a good sweat.

6. Apparently getting pooped on by a gecko is good luck (maybe my hosts made that up for my benefit, on second thought).

7. If you are invited to share a meal, be prepared to eat first. In western cultures we often ask guests to serve themselves first, but then we also take food and eat at the same time—a totally offensive way to behave to an I-Kiribati. The I-Kiribati take showing respect for visitors to an extreme, and won’t generally eat a morsel until you are full. Try not to feel totally awkward.
Bummer if you have to eat western food. It leaves something to be desired in these parts.
8. The locals tend to know what I-matang (foreigners) can’t eat without becoming ill—so you probably won’t be served mud crabs or well water. Don’t try so hard to blend in that you die of dysentery by joining in when everyone else dips into a delicious cup of algae-laced water.

9. Try to avoid drinking sour toddy. This local alcoholic drink is made mostly by young boys, who climb coconut trees, make special slices into young flower shoots, and collect the resulting juice, sort of like tapping maple trees for syrup. The juices then ferment in the bottle into the most disgusting-tasting beverage known to mankind. It is much, much worse than kava. And, you have a chance of getting a bad batch, which apparently makes urination very unpleasant (according to a half-pantomimed story I was told by someone who had just consumed half a bucket of toddy).

10. Ask questions cleverly. I-Kiribati tend not to give superfluous information, instead answering exactly the question asked.
Example of a poorly worded question: “Do you have a forklift we can use?”
Answer: “Yes.”
Example of a better-worded question: “Do you have a forklift we can use, that works?”
Answer: “No.”

Don’t be offended when you find that even armed with all of these supreme suggestions, children take one look at you and immediately point and yell “I-matang! I-matang! I-matang!” Really, unless you are an I-Kiribati, you have approximately zero chance of blending in. But sometimes it’s more interesting that way.
I-Kiribati! I-Kiribati! I-Kiribati!


  1. I was wondering Jess, who drank half the bucket of toddy! where was I?

    1. :) Your esteemed colleague whose name begins with a T and who came with us to Butaritari...but I do exaggerate. You helped him a bit!

  2. (Not sure my earlier attempt to post went through.) Did you ever make it to Marakei? How are the reefs doing in Kiribati? Have not been there since 2003, as a Peace Corps volunteer.

  3. Hi Eric, I didn't ever make it to Marakei, darn. The reefs in general are doing well in Kiribati, except those near the larger population centers (for instance off South Tarawa they are in pretty bad shape).

  4. All true, I can testify, except for the bikini flashing, for I am a man and a missionary at that. Enjoyed my time in Kiribati, even though I suffered most of the things this post will help you avoid, including dengue fever and the runs, but certainly not trying to go barefoot in order to blend in...