Saturday, 10 September 2011

Weekend in Maiana

We spent last weekend in Maiana, the next island south of Tarawa.  This blog update is about our adventures there.
The plane we thought was ours

We sat in the departure lounge waiting for our plane to arrive from another island. Finally a 28-seater, 2-propellor Air Kiribati plane turned up (above). We could see the luggage (mostly small bags and buckets) in the boot of the plane lightly strapped in. We thought- wow that’s a small plane.  Then along came our plane- an even smaller, 17-seater propeller plane arrived. Once we climbed up the 3 stairs, someone took the steps off and put them in the aisle, next to the back door. So much for keeping the aisles clear in case of an emergency. Noone showed us how to do up seat belts, put on a life jacket or use an oxygen mask. The pilot got on last and walked up the aisle to the open cockpit and off we went.

The plane that was ours

Photo taken from back of plane, showing into cockpit

It was a 10 minute flight. As soon as we were up we could see Maiana. We were met at the other end by the parents of the people we were travelling with, Bobo (Pete’s IT trainee), Rere (his wife) and Bibi (their 3-month old baby). After a 1 hour ride in the tray of a truck we’d hired, we arrived at other end of the island, to Bubutei, the village we stayed in.
Taking in the sights of Maiana from the truck

We had thought we’d be staying in the guest house, but it was too far away from the family without transport to take us in between. We ended up staying with the family instead. It was great to experience how I-Kiribati people really live. It reminded us a bit of camping, but this is permanent arrangement for most.
We slept in a buia, a hut on stilts with no walls made from coconut trees and a thatched coconut-leaf roof. There was no mattress- we were on mats woven from pandanus leaves. Luckily we took our mosquito net with us because they didn’t have a spare. With insect repellent, a mosquito coil and a mosquito net, we still managed to get bitten on our feet. They’re persistent little critters.  

Our sleeping buia

They have a cinder block house, but they don’t sleep in there. That’s where they keep belongings and have a room for a little store. The Dad bakes bread in a funny oven that just looks like a cupboard. He sells buns for 10 cents each and makes about 200-250 every day, so makes $20-$25 a day. That’s a pretty decent amount for a retired seaman on an outer island. The main source of income, if any, for people living on outer islands is from selling copra (coconut), dried fish or pandanus leaves or mats.
The family cook on a 2 burner gas stove. At night they use a torch to see the food, as the kitchen area has no light. They don’t have a fridge or freezer, so everything needs to be fresh or long life (e.g. canned corned beef, rice, canned mackerel- yumo!).

The kitchen
The dining room/living area is another buia. We sat around there a fair bit, looking out over the water, watching kids stare at us, eating, playing cards and taking everything in.

The family we stayed with eating dinner in the 'dining room'

One small concern we had when we found out we’d be staying with them was that we thought there might be no toilet. We’ve seen so many people on Tarawa using the beach as their loo, that we assumed it must be the norm in outer islands too. Thankfully, they had a ‘bathroom’. They have a toilet which gets flushed with water from a bucket. The same room is used for bathing with water from buckets.
The water comes from a well. The Dad made a pretty cool manual water pump that they use to fill the buckets with water for washing, toileting, and boiling for drinking. It is a pretty clever idea. We don’t fully understand the physics, but there is a pipe with a smaller, hollow pip inside it. You pull out the inside pipe, and when you push it back in, it displaces water out the top into the bucket. They should have those on Tarawa. People here use open wells, where animals can get in and small children could fall in. This seems like a much safer option.
Using a manual hand pump to fill the bucket for showering

On Saturday it was pouring with rain all morning. We had planned to go out on the boat to an island where we could go snorkelling. We ended up going out in the rain anyway. The ‘island’ we ended up getting dropped at (while the guys on the boat went fishing off the reef) was a big sand bank in the lagoon. Although it was pretty, there was no shade and nothing to see or do there other than swim. We had a swim, went for a walk up and down and were ready to be picked up by the boat. Bobo, Pete’s work colleague who we went to Maiana with, told us about how his now wife has been planned for some other guy, and they sort of eloped and he sent his parents to tell her parents that she wasn’t coming home. I started to think maybe his father in law was taking revenge by stranding him and his friends on a deserted island to drown. Then we thought the boat’s engine might have konked out. Finally we worked out that the tide was too low for the boat to get back to us. After 3-4 hours of getting sunburnt on the sand bank (the sun had come out by then and, thinking it was raining and we wouldn’t be out long, we didn’t have sun cream on), we grabbed our stuff and waded a couple of hundred metres out to meet the boat that they were pushing along from the water (it was too shallow to use the engine). We finally got to deeper water and got back to land.
In the afternoon we went to see the village chief who gave us permission to go for a walk through the village and take photos. We gave him tobacco as a thank you gift. We weren’t keen on the idea of encouraging smoking, but it seems to be an expected gift. He gave us a head piece made of coconut leaf to wear around. If you are new to Maiana, you need to wear it for the first 3 days until the Maiana ghosts (who I think are ancestors) get to know you. After the 3 days the ghosts will know you, so you can get around like a local.

During our walk we passed plenty of men singing from the top of coconut trees while they cut toddy (sap that they drink- it tastes a bit like new coconut juice). When we passed what used to be a cinderblock house, Bobo pointed it out and said it had been burned down on instructions from the elders. The guys who lived there was a trouble maker who didn’t want to abide by the rules set by the elders in the village, so they punished him by burning down his house. I think that guy now lives in Tarawa. I wouldn’t be too keen to stick around either if that’s what people thought of me. 

 I (Nicky) didn’t notice it, but Pete commented afterwards that on our way back to the airport in the truck, he had noticed the village with only women. I had heard about the village in Maiana that has only women. Apparently they had a trouble-maker man at some point too, who wouldn’t obey the rules set by the elders. The elders decided they wanted to get rid of him, so they ordered all of the men in the village to take part in killing him. They figured that way there wouldn’t be one person to take the blame, and probably thought they would get off more lightly. They were wrong. Now the whole male population from the village (other than a few male kids) are split between 2 gaols on Tarawa. I guess the women must have learnt to fish and get toddy and coconuts, roles which usually belong to the males of the village. Males do the building and roof thatching too. That’s probably why Pete said the buildings looked a bit run down.

The family who welcomed us into their home for the weekend- and a couple of neighbours, who seem to spend a lot of time there.
In the background is the house that they don't sleep in.

Garlanded on our farewell at the airport

Pete on the runway

 Our plane to go home was late, so we waited at the airport for a couple of hours. There isn’t much to do in an empty cinderblock building (as opposed to an airport with overpriced shops and cafes to browse through), so we played cards and wandered around the area and runway. We had the same plane on our way home. The guy sitting near the back door went to put his seat belt on and realised the end of it was stuck in the door (that was closed from the outside), so he flew seatbelt-less. Thankfully there wasn’t much turbulence.

We’re happy to be back in the relative comfort of Tarawa, but glad to have had such a culturally rich weekend.


  1. Enjoying your updates, as always :)
    Sounds like an amazing experience, being totally immersed in a culture that is so different from life in Australia.
    - Maryanne

  2. Pete and Nicky what a wonderful description of your weekend away. I felt I was travelling with you and had a few laughs along the way. Keep the news coming.
    We continue to pray for you both as you do such wonderful work there.
    Love from Peter and Wendy