The 6:00 AM take-off affords a sunrise view. First, cirrus clouds illuminated an iridescent salmon-pink from below, then a quick, tropical ascent of the sun's disk. Some mild turbulence along the way causing a couple of no-smoking/fasten seat belt signs in the front rows to flicker--sign of a loose electrical connection, but, we hope, not of a general lack of maintenance.
When it comes into view, I see that Christmas Island stretches out farther than I thought it would. It curls around a milky lagoon, with a stout tail pointing east-south-east, bristling with coconut palms and shrub. The cracked and patched landing strip paved with crushed coral is just long enough for the 737, and the plane has to make a U turn at the end of the runway to taxi back toward the terminal. Two small adjacent buildings with zinc pan roofs hold the "lobby," immigration control, health inspection, and customs for this only regularly scheduled flight. The bone fishing enthusiasts are herded onto vans by the welcoming local guides (one sports a T-shirt that declares "No Viagra on Christmas Island / You always get a bone"), while the eight of us on a NASA mission wait for the five rented pickup trucks. Our man on the island is John Bryden, a thirty-year resident from Scotland, now a naturalized citizen of Kiribati, who operates a multifaceted business (JMB Enterprises), and who seems to be the local business contact for foreigners.
One drives on the left side on Kiritimati (the local spelling for Christmas), but the cars have steering wheels on the left, a rather confusing situation that seems to happen on small islands that have been under the influence of both the U.S. and the U.K. (as in the Virgin Islands). "The fuel gage doesn't work, so just fill up the tank when you reach 200 miles," advises Bryden. We convoy to the Captain Cook Hotel, through the town of Banana ("Population 957" reads the sign), carefully slowing down to avoid hitting small children playing ("Farewell Banana" reads the exit sign). The hotel is a cinder-block and zinc-pan affair, the sort of place that one would pay about $10 per night for in most developing countries. There's a sign over the front office that reads "Licensed to retail fermented and spirituous liquor." Because of the bone fishermen, some of us are obliged to share rooms, and, unfortunately, I happen to be assigned with a guy who is suffering from the flu as well as a chronic tendency to snore like an SST breaking Mach 1.
Since I have the keys to one of the trucks, I decide to do some first-day exploring. I drive the one main road counterclockwise to the northwest tip, i.e., the upper jaw around the big central lagoon. The island is crisscrossed with paved and unpaved roads that have salt bush encroaching on them from both sides. So many roads and little traffic, like an abandoned military base. All the rusting containers and machinery scattered randomly in the landscape lend a post-apocalyptic feel to the place. Crabs leisurely wait until the vehicle approaches close before completing their crossing. Christmas Island did host a number of offshore Cold War nuclear bomb tests. The first of the current residents arrived only in the late '50s. It became independent from Britain when the Republic of Kiribati was formed in 1979. Such a short history of human residency can be discerned in the temporary nature of many of the buildings--trailers, block houses--even the traditional thatched-roof huts of the Gilbertese blend in with the prefab metal boxes to form the mise en scene of a frontier land. No wonder Captain Cook, when he first landed on this uninhabited atoll (the world's largest) on Christmas Eve 1777, decided it was not worth exploiting.
There are seaweed farms in the milky-jade lagoon. There are many birds in the lagoon. Frigate birds with wing spans of six feet hover in the stiff trade wind. One descended to within two feet of my head, surprising me with its sudden shadow. It floated magically there for several seconds, like a tethered kite; it must have been riding the airflow forced upward by my body. On the ocean side of the spit, there are fishing vessels anchored offshore, and I meet several young Chinese sailors who had come ashore to buy some necessary supplies: cartons of Marlboro, chewing gum, candy. We cannot communicate much, because they do not speak English. But one manages to make a joke about me taking him to America.
After work I spend the late afternoon swimming in the lagoon, where it is protected from the strong easterlies. On the way to the lagoon is a graveyard of British military equipment, rusting heaps of what used to be tanks, trucks, portable buildings, pipes. Again, roads crisscross every which way, with not another vehicle nor person in sight.
Out on the lagoon seabirds are everywhere. The water is rather murky from the silted bottom; vague shadows of fish dart by. Just out of the water there are holes all over the coral sand with crabs flitting in and out of them. The water must be around 80 degs. It's a very comfortable swim.
After dinner there is a traditional music and dance show. Before it begins, we each receive a flower wreath on our heads. There are nine drummers, all male. Eight of them sit around a hollow wooden box (about 5' x 5' and 6" thick) and beat on it in sync with their bare hands. The box has vent holes on the sides. One of the drummers (white-haired and portly with age) has a police whistle, which is used to signal beginnings and changes; he is obviously the leader and he also calls out the starting lines. The ninth drummer is an old man who beats dotted eighth and triplet rhythms like a military snare drum with wooden sticks on a large aluminum biscuit tin. He plays the rapid, interior rhythm, while the eight play a heavy duple downbeat.
In the back are about thirty dancers--men, women, and children. They wear grass skirts--males with bare tops, females with white blouses. The drummers wear a purple cloth wrap around their waists. Everyone wears a flower wreath on their heads and a leaf sash over one shoulder. The general pattern goes like this: The leader blows his whistle, calls out a line. The dancers sing, mostly in unison, but also in harmony that tend toward open diatonic chords, with melodies that have lots of perfect fourth and fifth intervals. The tempo begins slowly, then accelerates as the drummers also crank up the volume toward an abrupt finish. The dancers make swinging and swaying arm movements as they sing, mimicking the motions of the activity they are singing about, such as sailing, fishing, tree climbing; the songs are about every day activities. Each song hardly ever lasts more than a minute. After a group of songs, the dancers rotate so that a new subgroup stands in the front row. It's quite an energetic show. I ask Polau, the hotel manager, about the group, and he tells me that they are all originally from a western Kiribati island called Nikunau near the equator (hence the name of the group, Aan Nikunau). Most of them were brought to Christmas in the '60s to work on copra (coconut meat) plantations.
I ask Polau about the hotel. It was originally British officers' quarters, which was converted by NASDA (the Japanese counterpart to NASA) into a hotel when they were constructing their satellite tracking station (this explains the shelf full of Japanese books in the dining room, with titles like "English That will be in Exams," "Six Pieces of Tonkatsu (Fried Pork Cutlets)," and "Hemorrhoids can be Cured as Easily as This!"). Now it is owned by the government and caters mainly to bone fishermen and to the occasional scientific campaign. The pine-tree-lined driveway (typical of an English estate) and a stone marker listing the squadrons that constructed it attest to its colonial lineage.
Some things I learn from Jerry: Garbage on the island is simply piled up in a dump area; most people don't have flush toilets--they simply go in the lagoon. The lagoons that look like they are filled with red clay are really algae blooms. Christmas Island is not a typical atoll in that it has so much land mass (the "tail" part) and not just a thin ring. There are poisonous sea snakes ("yellow bellies") here; one was spotted by a child near the hotel yesterday. The delicate lavender shells we find on the beach had floated across the ocean on rafts of self-blown air bubbles.
We stop at a long stretch of beach with coarse coral sand. We are still on the windward side, so the surf is rough and under the water is mostly rock. So much for swimming. But the water is very clear, and some sea life can be seen in the shallows. Lifting a rock, I spook an eel about three feet long. Tiny glow-blue fish dart by.
I learn from the others that the Chinese sailors that I met on the beach two days ago had been arrested for coming on shore without a passport or visa. I recall how they seemed reluctant to return to the ship. Did they go AWOL on purpose? Why would they pick Christmas Island? Perhaps they thought that it would be easy to bribe their way out (although they did not seem to have much money). Without economic "lubrication" Third World bureaucracies can be very tough. Apparently the Christmas Island government guards their waters jealously for fishing rights. I had read an article about a Korean fisherman getting shot for illegally entering their fishing waters.
On the way back to the hotel we stop to get some coconuts. Nobody wants to climb, so we try various other methods: poking with a downed branch, tossing old coconuts like a football at the hanging ones, and shaking the tip of a drooping frond. We manage to get a few down and Jerry chops them open with a pocket knife. The ones we get are fairly ripe already--the meat is firm and the juice is slightly fizzy.
After dinner there is another local musical group: the Banana Village Singers. Polau says they are of mixed origin. They sing religious and love songs. There are fifteen singers, two with guitars, one with ukulele, only one woman. The progression is solidly I-IV-V(-V7) with a single tempo for all the songs. There are some call-and-response passages, mostly unison with some thirds and fifths thrown in. It's a shouting, vibratoless, singing style. They are clad in uniformed T-shirts and printed cloth wraps that have the map of Christmas Island on them. Cloth petal wreaths adorn their heads. Movements are limited to hand clapping. They close with an a capella welcome song in English. A bone fisher, feeling toasty on wine, pounds the table appreciatively in rhythm.
The hotel food has been quite luxurious. There's the daily sashimi with the catch of the day, and for dinner there is usually at least three different kinds of protein. Last night was whole roast pig (very tender), two kinds of octopus (barbecue and curry), and baked lobster tails. Plus a rich dessert of some kind like cheesecake, macademia cream pie, or ice cream. However, anxious to try more typical island fare, I make some inquiries.
The entertainment program has also been great. Last night we had another dance troupe, Keangi ni Marawa (keangi is a kind of brown coral and ni marawa means "of the sea"). About twenty men, women, and girls, dressed in pandanus leaves: a crown woven with points sticking up like the one on the Statue of Liberty and flower wreaths, braided arm bands, the females with cowry shell belt and coconut leaf skirt, the men with a woven mat skirt. The women also wore woven pandanus leaf bras. Most of the singing was in unison, with hand-clapping and foot stomping by the men to provide the rhythmic impetus. There was only one setting on the volume: LOUD. Usually the women danced up front, but the men and the girls also took a turn each. Each number was short, like with the first group we saw, and the material was also similar: singing about love, fishing, fighting, sailing--the everyday activities of Pacific island life. The women's dance was hula-like, with swaying hips, darting eyes, and sinuous arm motions. The men's movements were swift and sure, like martial arts moves, punctuated by clapping, thigh and chest slapping, and foot stomps. I speculate why they rotate rows frequently: they are breathing hard and sweating after a dance number--this is a quite strenuous workout, even for these very muscular men. On a few numbers, the singing became polyphonic a la a church choir, and the sound was reminiscent of Tahitian choirs sans the abrupt tonal modulations. Usually each piece ended with an emphatic shout as if to signal, hey we're done, wasn't that one great? As with the first group, the audience members received a wreath of fresh flowers on the head. For the final number they brought out the same drums as with the first group, but with the wooden box scaled down to about three feet on a side. The style for that number was also similar to those performed by the first group, with acceleration and intensification towards the finish. The men pounding the box drum did so with arms held straight out--not very efficient, I thought, but it sure made for good theater (there were beads of sweat running down their bare backs) and was quite loud.
I had asked Polau a couple days ago about the local alcoholic beverage, the coconut toddy (kaokioki), and tonight the barmaid, Tekabwere, had a bottle of it for me to sample. One whiff of that distinctive aroma and I knew that it was the same as the palm wine of West Africa. Of course, different palm trees produce different flavors of sap; to me this coconut tree sap tasted more like kamakuli rather than poyo (if you ever lived in Sierra Leone you'd know what I mean). It had been fermented for a day, so the slight alcoholic bite was noticeable and there was no sweetness to it. I gave it to one of the NASA guys and he described it as tasting like the fluid that surrounds canned ham. Maybe he had something there in terms of the smell, but the taste is quite different, I think--it's slightly tart and bubbly. Anyway, it's an acquired taste, but for me there is the element of nostalgia, so I drank most of it myself. Tekabwere (who says she only likes the fresh (non-alcoholic) stuff) also let me try the boiled down sap called kamaimai. It looks like maple syrup and tasted a bit like light molasses with a tinge of sourness. This is the local sweetener when refined sugar is not available. It would be quite good on pancakes.
About three miles across, the Manulu Lagoon is used for salt making, but after the British left, its productivity nosedived. Generally the residents do not seem too interested in capitalistic ventures. For the most part they maintain their traditional subsistence lifestyle based on fishing. This morning I had coffee with John and Anna, who is Gilbertese. The term "local" or "native" takes on a slightly different dimension here where the history of permanent settlement only goes back about forty years, with independence only coming in 1979. John is of Scottish descent, but he has lived here for thirty years and has taken on Kiribati citizenship, so he is as local as anyone else. He speaks Gilbertese fluently and has become the natural liaison for foreign groups such as NASA wanting to use Christmas as a base of operations. He may be the largest local private business on the island, with a gas station, garage, and a small general store, which doesn't have much but did stock a color inkjet printer.
Being old-timers, the Brydens are a good source of information. There's been a steady influx of new residents from Tarawa (Kiribati's capital), where there are something like 8000 acres of land for 30,000 people. This year, with La Niña, they are having a severe drought, and are calling for international aid. Christmas Island, on the other hand, is still sparsely populated and the water supply can accommodate more people. However, if the population growth isn't moderated, this place will eventually become intolerably overcrowded also.
There is some mix up in the currency, too. Even though Kiribati uses Australian currency, it has also minted some of its own coinage. I got two 10-year independence commemorative two-dollar coins when I bought a bottle of baby shampoo for six dollars. But perhaps the most confusing thing for foreigners is that "ti" is pronounced like an "s" in Gilbertese; hence, Kiritimati for Christmas and Kiribati for Gilberts. No one I asked could explain why the missionary who originated the writing system came up with this nonsense.
Today I decided to take a drive out to the other end of the island, where the town of Poland is situated. I recruited a couple others to go along. Christmas Island is shaped like a fat crescent wrench with its open mouth pointed west and the handle sloping southeast. The Captain Cook is located on the northeast side of the head and Poland is on the lower (southwest) side of the jaw. Because there are lagoons in between one has to make an excursion down into the handle part and then back up the other side. The one-way trip is no more than 30 miles, but it takes almost 1.5 hours. Along the way we pass through picture-postcard lagoons--that combination of palm trees, milky blue-green water, chalk-white ground, and puffy cumulus with a greenish tinge on their undersides, which appear in tropical paradise posters. On close inspection, though, there is foam at the edge of some lagoons, and others are red and sludgy with algae. We are searching for a swimming beach that is supposedly near Poland. All the ocean beaches that we've been to have coral in the water and is either too shallow or too rough to swim in. There is a decent swimming lagoon near the hotel, but we want to swim in the ocean. When we finally get to Poland, we can't manage to find the mythical beach. So making the best of things, we walk around a bit in Poland, which has an area for drying coconut meat (copra) and a Catholic Church. The islanders are either Catholic, Protestant, or Bahai. Houses have wooden sides with open windows and corrugated metal roofs. Laundry and fish hang out to dry in the sun. There is a roofless structure with palm frond fencing and a pit inside that we guess is used for cooking. As in every village there is the large, peaked-roof structure with no walls (mwaneaba) that serves as the community gathering place. We try the few words of Gilbertese we know on the kids: "Mauri " (hi), "ko uara" (how are you), "te merumerung" (fine), and "ko raba" (thank you). Even though this is a materially very poor place, I've noticed the total absence of begging that is a problem in many developing areas of the world. The government is worried about the Western material world insinuating itself on its residents, and there are wage controls to keep the living standard fairly even throughout the islands. There is no TV on Christmas (although some people own VCRs), and it was only a few months ago that a local radio station opened. (It seems to broadcast rather sporadically during the day.) The music is an eclectic mix of local (Kiribati) pop, other tropical flavors like reggae, and American music like country-and-western.
Driving back, we turn onto what we think is a short cut through the lagoons. The road becomes narrow and rutted, and we scrape between the salt bush encroaching from both sides. Suddenly we come out into a clearing where a family is taking an afternoon break on a woven pandanus mat spread in the shade of a grove of palm trees. Nearby, there is coconut meat spread out to dry on the ground. They look rather amused as we bump along, eventually coming out onto the same road that we took on the way out.
Lobster continues to be featured on the dinner menu, and I'm starting to get a little sick of it. But the kalua pork (shredded pork with cabbage) is good. After dinner we have the final (for the fishermen who are here for a one-week package) entertainment program: a mixed choir singing four-part harmony accompanied by two guitars. They sing in both Gilbertese and English. Of the four groups we've seen, their singing is the closest to the classical bel canto style that is the standard of "good singing" in Western music, although the vibrato is still suppressed. The music is what one might expect of a Hawaiian church choir. They are also attired more in the Western mode.
This morning my boss and I drove in to London, because we heard that a priest there was selling postcards. London, situated across the channel from Paris, is the administrative center of Christmas Island. Along the way we stopped to look more closely at the seaweed farms. A sign on a building reads "Atoll Seaweed Company" and it has the EU logo on it. It is partly an European aid effort and the produce is shipped to Denmark for processing into carrageenan, which is often an ingredient in commercial ice cream.
In the shallows of the lagoon are dark rectangular patches demarcated by wooden posts. I wade in to see how they are set up. Each seaweed is tied onto strings that are stretched out in neat rows between the posts. In this way the seaweed is kept from being swept around by the wind and waves. These farming plots stretch out for a good 100 yards into the lagoon. A man wades out with a wooden stick sharpened to a point on both ends, and we first think that he is going spear fishing. It turns out that he is making a maintenance round of the plots, using the stick to dig out faulty posts and replanting them. Two other men are harvesting the crop using a floating "barge," a basket equipped with buoys on the bottom for floatation. They bring the filled basket to shore, then spread the seaweed out on nets laid on the ground. After drying for a while, women then come out to sort out the seaweed in some fashion (maybe by color?). The seaweed is about as thick as a round extension cord with stubby branches growing off of the main trunk. It is smooth and rubbery, and comes in colors ranging from lime green to dark brown. It is solid and slimy inside when you break it.
The priest is a Frenchman, who has lived in Kiribati for over thirty-five years. He is voluble and tells us various stories as we wait to get our packs of postcards stamped with his special new Kiribati millennium stamp. He shows us a February article about how the first mass of the millennium will be celebrated in Fiji, then counters triumphantly with a faxed precis of a New York Times piece stating that Kiribati has "won" the race to the first dawn of the millennium. His office has bookshelves full of religious texts, French novels, and quite dated French magazines. An open cabinet holds medicine and first aid material, framed photos of local and French scenery adorn the walls (he took all the pictures on the postcards), and, for some unknown reason, a doll of Disney's Pocahontas is perched inside a sconce. In the adjoining kitchen, a woman and a girl giggle, apparently at the visitors. I ask the priest how long it takes by boat from Tarawa. He says that normally it is about two weeks, but that the last one took five weeks because it ran out of fuel on the way. They had to wait for a Korean fishing vessel to come along and provide them with fuel.
After dinner and the flight briefing, I hang out over a beer with Tekabwere. I bombard her with questions about Kiribati. Although her family is from Nikunau, she was born and raised on Christmas. Because there is no high school here, she went with the rest of her schoolmates to Tarawa for three years. At that time there was no telephone service, so she kept in touch by letter and by ham radio. She said she was very homesick. She came back and has been working at the hotel for ten years. Even though she plans to live on Christmas the rest of her life, she still thinks of herself as being from Nikunau. This is kind of what I had suspected, that there would not be strong identification of Christmas as "home" for many residents, simply because of the brevity of its settlement history. I asked her about the ubiquitous crabs: do they eat them? They are so numerous that it's impossible to drive anywhere without squashing a few. Even just walking around the hotel I manage to kick one or two by mistake. She replied that they are not good for eating because they scavenge garbage and are too small. When they want to eat crab, they trap them and feed them lots of coconuts for a while before cooking them.
Down on the south end is also the site of the atomic bomb tests. It's hard to glean exactly what took place here--I've heard different stories from different people. The best that I can make out is that balloons were launched from here, which contained atomic triggering bombs. They were detonated in the air. We toured the remains of bunkers and the launching pads. Full-scale hydrogen bombs were exploded off shore, also in the air. The story goes that millions of sea birds on the island were killed, not instantaneously by the blast but more slowly because of the blinding flash. Our guide, Bill, does not know much about the history. He says he did not pass the exam for secondary school and did not go to Tarawa. At the time (in the early '80s), he says there was only one teacher on the island. Now there are several.
Next we go out toward the northeast coast to look at the sooty tern nesting grounds. The density of birds flying overhead is astonishing. One is reminded of Hitchcock's The Birds. However, even though we come within a few yards of the young still unable to fly, they do not swoop down too close to us. They just make a raucous racket of squawking.
Back on the road we spot a young booby trying out its wings. But no go. The wind is not strong enough.
We cut back inland through rutted roads that sometimes look like asphalt, although Bill assures us that it is a natural formation. The color of the lagoons is a fantastic milky jade. Once in the inland lagoon region, the scenery becomes very hard to distinguish from one spot to the next--on such a flat island with minimal vegetation (out here there are no coconut trees), there are no landmarks. It reminds me, in this respect, of the coast of Greenland in the summer, where there is a lake in every hollow of the rolling, tundra terrain and each climbing of a ridge reveals a vista similar to the one before. After a while, though, we come to a place where stubby, little trees about four feet high with waxy leaves dot the landscape. In nearly every tree is a frigate bird nest. It is now mating season and the males inflate their crimson necks into volleyball sized balloons to attract the females' attention. We see some of them fighting over a roost. A female rests impassively nearby. She does not flutter a wing as we approach close to her. Those balloons must affect the aerodynamics of flight, providing much more drag. The mating game can be quite an ordeal in this part of the biosphere, too.
On the way back I stop to look at a cemetery. A plot of land extending from the edge of the road toward the ocean, it is a small clearing claimed from the surrounding salt bush. Most of the graves are simply rectangular pits covered with coral sand and framed by rocks; typically the headstones are unmarked. Some have concrete sarcophagi, a few have wooden sticks posted around the plots, and a couple have a zinc pan canopy overhead with names and their vital dates listed on plaques. I remember seeing gravediggers a couple days ago at the southwestern edge of the cemetery, and, sure enough, a new grave is there with flowers still unwilted. I estimate about 150 graves in total. For a mostly Christian population, the familiar iconography like crosses and angels are notably absent. One dies on Christmas without much of a visible trace.
Copyright 1999, John Nagamichi Cho