"Arctracer" Letters

Nonouti Atoll, Kiribati, Dec 2003

We have made some very good friends here in Nonouti. We toured some of the atoll on bicycles, and took two families on overnight trips within the lagoon. We enjoyed most things, but there were a few unpleasant occurrences too. We found the locals a little easier to meet than those at our previous atoll stops here in Kiribati. A few invited us to sit in their open-sided houses and have tea. Those people introduced us to others, so now we have met quite a number of folks in the village of Matang and a few in other villages.

Uakeia is a typical islander who makes copra when he needs cash ($20 per big sack of dried coconut meat that takes a day to prepare). He has a few pigs, a breadfruit tree, catches fish and grows babai (their only root crop - a sort of coarse taro). His English is not great, but we can converse fairly well. He took us on two bicycle rides, using borrowed bikes, none of which had any brakes. There is just one unpaved road along the narrow strip of land, and most vehicles are bicycles or motorbikes. There are a few trucks, but kids can play in the road without worries. All the villages we saw were small, and consisted of traditional houses except for a few cement block storehouses, churches, and priest's houses. Uakeia had friends and relatives all over, of course, so we had tea and drinking nuts in several houses. There is an airstrip with two flights per week to Tarawa, and boats come with passengers and cargo about once per month. There are no telephones, and only a few electricity generators, so nights are dark and quiet. There is a short-wave radio at the post office to communicate with Tarawa. There is a bakery in Matang but all the shops are small and have little besides rice, sugar, flour and a few canned goods.

Tamatau, Uakeia's neighbor, teaches third grade. His wife Agnes is a retired schoolteacher who now runs a store. This family is exceptionally educated, entrepreneurial and affluent by local standards. They have a generator, and let kids play video games for a fee of four coconuts per game. The coconuts feed their pigs. Each pig eats two coconuts per day on average - four for big pigs. They also have an aluminum boat with 15 hp outboard which they often rent out. He has a ham radio with which they talk regularly with sons and daughters in Tarawa. He gave us a huge pumpkin, and Nina has made great soups with it. We converse easily with Agnes and Tamatau, and they are helping us expand our meager vocabulary of Kiribati words. We visited the primary school and took photos of all six classes. Four of the teachers visited our boat, and we gave them all prints showing their pupils.

We took Uakeia, his wife Atitia, son Karoti (1) and daughters Kanongnga (14) and Kammari (6) on a seven-mile trip to the atoll's northernmost island. We motored cautiously for two hours because the lagoon is full of uncharted reefs, but visibility was excellent and we found a route with very little difficulty. As we were anchoring Jerry saw smoke coming from inside the boat! We had an electrical fire which melted the insulation off several wires and nearly set the boat alight. Fortunately, we avoided a major conflagration. Jerry spent a couple of hours that afternoon getting some of the electrical systems working again, so we were able to cook and have a few lights that night. The island was a marvelous place without any houses. It is a rookery for Dusky Terns, Brown Noddies, Frigatebirds, and probably other birds. We wandered around looking at the birds, while Uakeia got drinking nuts and eggs. The islanders collect many eggs every year, which we do not encourage or assist, but the birds seem to be doing fine and the eggs are probably important nutrition for the islanders.

Outrigger canoes are often sailed around the lagoon pretty much as they have been for centuries. A beautiful canoe brought three fishermen to visit our boat, and we received a live Moray Eel they had caught in a trap. We were grateful to have Uakeia aboard to kill it, and Kanongnga to clean it. Uakeia caught many fish using a hand line off the boat, so we had a refrigerator full of meat before we started back to Matang.

By noon the next day the wires were repaired enough to use one engine. Jerry went up on top of the boat to take off our sun shade cloths, and promptly stepped into an open hatch, bruising his ribs badly. Ouch! It still limits his activities a little, but is getting better. We raised anchor and started motoring back to Matang, but after only a few minutes the engine overheated! We raised sails and tacked slowly into the wind. Uakeia learned from Nina to help handle sails and winches while Jerry could only handle the wheel. We were only halfway back when the sun got too low to see the reefs and we had to anchor. Oh well, it was another nice night and we had plenty to eat. The islanders didn't seem to like sleeping in our beds. Perhaps it was too hot inside the boat. They slept outside on the cockpit floor on thin pandanus mats that we were given in Vanuatu last year. Uakeia caught more fish. Jerry fixed the water pump the next morning, and we motored back to Matang without further problems. That night we ate at Uakeia's house: boiled eel, boiled pumpkin, fried fish, rice, bread, tea, and coconut. Quite a feast! It was our first time eating eel, and we found the meat delicious but were less keen on the slimy-textured skin and fat. Tamatau loves eel skin, and Agnes said it had a lot of Vitamin A. Then we went to Tamatau's house where Agnes had prepared kamaimai (grated coconut, coconut water, and boiled coconut toddy syrup) for dessert. Yum! Nina had to row because Jerry was hurting.

Tamateau's family arrived at our boat the following morning at 7:00. Yikes! Jerry was barely awake and Nina was still sound asleep. They came earlier than we expected because the tide was dropping and they would have had trouble later getting across the shallow sand flats. We got organized and waited until 8:45 when the sun was high enough in the sky for good visibility, and then set out for a sand island in the middle of the lagoon. We sailed most of the way with a light breeze behind us. Once anchored next to the reef and sandpile, Tamatau rowed off to set a net with Uakeia's teenage son. Nina and Agnes had a lively chat session, and Nina made a pineapple upsidedown cake and kamaimai. (Agnes gave us a bottle of her toddy syrup!) Their son Benata, another teenager and Jerry fished with bait off the boat and caught many reef fish, up to 16 inches. There is no ciguatera in Nonouti, so we were able to keep all but the tiny ones. The islanders eat everything, no matter how small, and we have seen boys fishing with tiny hooks for 4 inch fish. The teenagers were very helpful, and not only cleaned all the fish but also took fish off Jerry's hook for him. He wasn't used to such service! Unfortunately, they weren't always careful, and dropped two of our good knives into deep water. The net fishermen returned about 5:30 with only two fish, but there was already a bagful in the refrigerator. The sun was too low to see reefs, so we spent the night there. Nina served curried chicken and rice. It was a lovely night with a big moon, and we caught more reef fish right off the boat. We finally got to bed about 9:00. While Tamatau & Agnes liked the bed inside, the boys all slept outside. The next morning was cloudy, so we could not see the reefs very well and had to rely significantly on following back the track drawn on our GPS. When we reanchored at Matang and our guests left, we were ready to relax.

(view Nonouti photos)

We'll probably stay here for another few days. We're hoping for rain to refill our tanks, since it hasn't rained for a month now. Jerry wants to get both engines working again, even if only one charges the batteries. We are printing pictures and selecting gifts for our friends.