TARAWA, KIRIBATI (TR) – The view of Tarawa from the window seat of an Air Pacific plane doesn’t properly convey its incredible fragility. Shaped like a fishhook with a turquoise-blue lagoon in its center, the coral landmass, which forms the capital of the central Pacific nation of Kiribati, appears through the clouds as a narrow, curved strip that extends for over 50 kilometers.
Not long after landing at Bonriki International Airport, however, the true scale comes into focus: the average stretch separating lagoon from ocean can be reached with a golf putter (ok, maybe a nine-iron), and its highest topographical features rise to around knee height on an adult.
Kiribati (pronounced KIH-rih-bahss) has been a member of the United Nations since 1999. It spreads its collection of 33 islands and around 100,000 people over a staggering 1,351,000 square miles of ocean spaced between Fiji and Hawaii.
Tarawa, which is split between north and south, is a common point of entry. At Bonriki, visitors proceed through immigration and customs (a mere two desks apiece) and then board one of the many waiting buses, island rhythms thumping through the speakers. With only two flights arriving and departing a week, each jet engine roar takes on the feel of a rock concert spectacle, and dozens of locals cling to the chain-link security fencing, watching all the newcomers.
A drive along the bumpy main road running through South Tarawa’s center — North Tarawa is only reachable by boat — reveals thatch huts perched at the edge of beaches of white sand. Fishermen can be seen tossing nets into the lagoon, and coconut trees provide shade from the blistering sun as women seated at the edge of the road swat flies away from fish resting on scales and shout, “Yellowtail!”
The population, one third of which is located on South Tarawa, is primarily engaged in a subsistence lifestyle. In addition to fishing, foragers collect shellfish in buckets at low tide, while coconuts and breadfruit are harvested and woven crafts are made from tree leaves. The merchants peddling imported canned goods and drinks from roadside stands generally don’t speak English, but a simple greeting of “Mauri” will likely be returned with a smile.
The sea is obviously crucial here, yet it might eventually prove to be the country’s undoing. Numerous scientific studies, perhaps most notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2007, have indicated that global warming might cause sea levels to rise by around half a meter before the end of the century. The potential for calamity is readily apparent when passing over the causeways that link the various islets making up South Tarawa: waves from the lagoon and sea lap up near the tires of passing cars at high tide.
The longest causeway is located at the southern end and breaches the span between the islets of Bairiki, a government administrative district, and Betio, the center of trade. Before crossing, many visitors check in at Mary’s Motel for the best accommodation available on South Tarawa. The air conditioned rooms include a small refrigerator and access (usually) to wireless internet. The grilled fish in garlic served in the motel restaurant is perhaps the best dish on the atoll.
Betio is most famous for its role in World War II, when Allied and Japanese forces tore across the landscape for three days of intense fighting in 1943. By the end, only a charred chunk of earth remained and over 6,000 lives had been lost, making it one of the most brutal battles in US military history.
This gruesome event has created one of Tarawa’s more interesting activities. A stroll at low tide reveals pieces of a U.S. B-24 Liberator bomber and rusting tanks lying in the lagoon. Towards the sea, dumped munitions and random airplane parts are scattered upon the rocks, and some of the Japanese coastal guns are still in position along the shore.
Though it resembles a stereotypical Pacific Island paradise, Tarawa is no idyll. Frills are nonexistent, and space is at a premium, making garbage disposal a huge problem. Furthermore, the high population density — especially on Betio — and inadequate sanitation systems have rendered the waters off South Tarawa generally unsuitable for swimming.
For those seeking that tropical treatment, though, there is North Tarawa. Boats make the one-hour journey from Bairiki multiple times each week, and snorkeling, fishing and picnicking possibilities abound. It’s the best place to experience, as the locals say, “Te mauri, te raoi, ao te tabemoa” (Health, peace and prosperity).