Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Look Back at Fanning Island

November 10-November 27, 2013

The wharf at Tabuaeran (Fanning Island)

Fanning Island, like Christmas Island, was much more like what we would have seen if we had continued west to Melanesia and Micronesia, rather than returning home via Polynesia. The culture on the islands of Kiribati was different from what we had experienced so far. As we pulled into the anchorage, a dozen naked boys jumping off the wharf for a swim shouted greetings to us. The kids on Fanning continued to be among the friendliest and most curious about us during our stay there:  and they loved having their pictures taken!

Fast friends

This homemade toy reminded me of a hockey stick

These boys were eager to be photographed...

....and to be shown in manly poses

This entire group of boys walked from their village to the wharf with me, teaching me phrases in Kiribati

A group of youngsters on White Ribbon Day

Most of the people on Fanning Island (Tabuaeran) have relocated from the Gilbert Islands in western Kiribati. Specifically, many of them have emigrated from the overcrowded atoll of Tarawa, which houses over 45% of the entire population of the 33 islands in Kiribati. The population influx on Tarawa is due to two major factors. Many people have moved there to search for jobs, since Tarawa is the government seat of Kiribati. Due to rising sea levels associated with climate change, others from the threatened outer islands have flocked to Tarawa, putting added pressure on the resources of this overpopulated atoll.

Memorial to some of the early Fanning explorers who were not from Kiribati

Detail of the names and dates on the memorial
On Fanning Island, there are about 2,000 people scattered over eight different villages. People who used to live on Tarawa say they are happy here because “there is enough fish to eat.” Fishing is one of the major occupations of the villagers (primarily men), along with copra production and seaweed farming (both men and women). Copra and seaweed are Fanning’s two primary exports. Copra is subsidized by the government and in the words of one of the local entrepreneurs, is “a losing proposition” for Kiribati. The government pays the islanders more than they can get in price on the world market to harvest copra. There is a glut of copra on the world market---where it has largely been out-competed by soy beans---and Kiribati can only get two cents per kilo for it, probably more than it costs to ship it. We learned that the copra we saw sitting on the dock at Christmas Island originally came from Fanning Island and will probably go nowhere. Eventually, it will be bulldozed into the sea. 

Seaweed (on tarp on ground) and copra (on tin across barrel and stump) drying on Fanning island

The seaweed harvesting operation is profitable; however, a bottleneck lies in the distribution process. Fanning islanders can produce more seaweed in their lagoon than they can ship out, due to the few number of cargo ships that visit the atoll. The seaweed is marketed in China but is currently not shipped there directly. During our visit to Fanning, the most industrious people we saw were people either harvesting or processing seaweed. 

Most of the local seaweed harvesters brought their seaweed here
Aquaculture plots were set out on lines. Each family had their own plot. The seaweed was collected in large pandanus baskets or on rafts. After they harvested some of the leaves from the seaweeds, the villagers tied the remaining plant material back onto the lines to continue growing. (The process reminded me of picking the outer leaves of lettuce plants when harvesting a garden, leaving the smaller, inner ones to grow bigger.) 

Aquaculture plots in the background with drying rainbow colored seaweed in foreground

More aquaculture plots in Fanning lagoon

Using a raft to harvest seaweed

 Once harvested, the seaweed was spread in the sun to dry.

I think the rainbow seaweed is a type of red algae

A variety of different species were grown. 

Drying seaweeds on Fanning island

After drying, the seaweed was transported to the local buyer, which processed the seaweed for shipping. The islanders had a unique way of standardizing the amount of seaweed in a block (10 kg) using a seaweed press. They packed the seaweed into a box. They overfilled the box and put a wooden lid on top. Then two men got up on a swing attached to a large metal lever arm. As they stood on the swing, their weight pressed a second, angled lever arm down on top of the wooden box lid. The metal plate at the end of this second arm compressed the seaweed in the box. Extra bits fell off the sides. 

Baskets of seaweed from Napari that will be barged to the buyer on the next motu

Baskets of seaweed awaiting processing

The seaweed press (seaweed in yellow box at rear)
The box containing the compressed seaweed was then transferred to a platform and turned upside down. The box was removed but the wooden lid was placed on top of the cube of seaweed. One of the men quickly stood on the wooden lid to keep the seaweed compressed, as the packet of seaweed was saran-wrapped around his ankles. Only then, when the seaweed was packaged and contained, did the man step off the seaweed and the wooden lid was removed. This operation was repeated countless times throughout the day.  

Wrapping a 10-kg packet of seaweed

Finished product awaiting shipping

Fanning Islanders live in close connection with the sea and are still a very seafaring people. While many Marquesans and Tahitians still take to the sea in outrigger canoes (pirogue), their use is now primarily recreational in French Polynesia. On Fanning Island, the people still use their outrigger canoes (te wa) for transportation and survival; although they are also used recreationally for racing. The design of a te wa is flexible:  it can be used with or without a sail. Patrick and I were both enchanted by the sight of one of these sailing canoes--- which is usually sailed by a solo sailor but can sometimes carry two or three people--- coming towards us. 

A te wa raises a handkerchief sail at dusk

Here, you can clearly see the outrigger
Racing te wa

People frequently travel back and forth across the lagoon from one village to another on the te wa. However, when the wind rises to 20 knots or above, you seldom see te wa on the lagoon. The canoes are fast and very responsive, and the sailor can make slight turns or adjustments in course with small tugs on the sheet. The sail can be reversed for large adjustments in course. If the wind dies, rowing ensues with the paddle that has heretofore been used as the rudder. 

Sailing a te wa
The sailing te wa is turned:  Note the positions of the sailors are the same, but the sail has moved

One of the highlights of my visit to Fanning was when I had the opportunity to try out sailing a te wa. I arranged a trade with Tay-buk (phonetic spelling), the village carpenter:  a ride on his te wa in exchange for some fishing gear. It turned out that the very first te wa I photographed on Fanning Island---on my first day there---was Taybuk's te wa and the one I was to eventually sail. Patrick noted that although the canoes on Tabuaeran appeared to be of traditional construction, and many parts were lashed in the traditional way, modern stitch-and-glue techniques were also used, and some of the lashings were done with wire or fishing line (whatever was available). Taybuk’s canoe was designed for a single sailor; however I was relieved when we took it out loaded with Taybuk, myself, and his daughter, Ta-roo-ya  (phonetic spelling). I didn’t want to be responsible for operating the te wa alone on my first try. 

The first te wa I photographed was Taybuk's

First pass on the te wa with Taybuk handling the sheet

These outrigger canoes are of a proa design; in order to change direction, one literally moves the sail (still attached to the mast) from the bow to the stern, thereby creating a new bow and a new stern. On Taybuk’s te wa, he used a thick wooden dowel as a mast, but a forked branch was lashed to the base of the dowel. The fork in the branch was used to attach the mast to a cross-beam on the canoe, and was tipped one way or the other, depending on which end of the te wa the sail was on. Once you are used to it, moving the mast is probably a simple operation when sailing solo. But with three of us on the te wa, we had to pass the sail along from bow to stern and vice-versa. Even though you luff the sail prior to moving it, there is still some pressure on the sail from the wind, so this can be a tricky operation. 

Turning the boat:  Taybuk passes the sail to me (photo by Uwe Borgmann)
I pass it to Tarooya (photo by Uwe Borgmann)
We steady the mast into its new location (photo by Uwe Borgmann)

After our first trip halfway across the lagoon, Taybuk let me handle the sheet on the return trip. Through trial and error, I learned how to balance keeping the sail full with keeping the outrigger cutting through the surface of the water instead of riding underneath the surface. 

Women on te wa:  Kirsten handles the sheet, while Tarooya handles the rudder

The outrigger is a little too deep here...

....but is looking better here

Since I was in the middle, Taybuk and his daughter (on either end) took turns operating the rudder. We all took turns bailing, since Taybuk’s canoe was a bit leaky. We took several trips back and forth partway across the lagoon, during which I noticed that Taybuk’s sheet was practically chafed through, and his sail was torn at the attachment points to the mast and boom. When I got back to Silhouette, I asked Patrick if we had any spare line we could donate for a new mainsheet and told him I had volunteered to repair the luff of Taybuk’s sail on our sewing machine. I ended up only helping to repair the sail as the project inspired the imagination of our resident canvas worker. Patrick ended up re-stitching the seams all the way around the sail and reinforcing chafed areas on the edges, the attachment points for lines, and the tack, head, and clew of the sail with sail cloth or Sunbrella. He also patched any major tears or holes in the sail. Taybuk was delighted when we returned a much stronger sail to him.       

Sail luff before with attachment to mast

Sail luff after with reinforcement and new line

A te wa without its sail is more often used by Fanning Islanders for paddling outside the pass to fish. The oar that forms the rudder when sailing is used as a paddle when canoeing. The fishermen drift fish in the ocean just outside the entrance to the pass. They form a line with their canoes and each fisherman sends down a baited circle hook into which is inserted a leaf rolled with loose bait. The fishermen use a stone to get the hook and bait as close to the bottom as possible and then jiggle the line to free the stone and unroll the loose bait. The loose bait acts as chum or burley to attract the fish to the baited hook, and since the fishermen are lined up in the water in their canoes, they create a chum line. The fishermen dangle their heavy monofilament lines from their big toes while seated on their canoes, drifting on the open ocean, so that their hands are free to position and stabilize the boat with the paddle/rudder. When they get a bite, they stow the paddle and pull in the line hand-over-hand. Each canoe has multiple compartments in the hull into which the whole fish are placed for storage.   

Top view of a te wa showing the narrow platform used for seating and the compartments where fish are stored

Some villagers also use catamarans to travel back and forth across the lagoon. We saw several Hobie cats in use at Fanning.  

This Hobie cat with an olive sail frequently crossed the lagoon

Aluminum barges and launches are also used:  to transport large numbers of people back and forth across the lagoon from one village to another; to carry cargo; and to troll for fish in rough weather. 

A barge transporting villagers from one motu to the other

The sail cargo vessel Kwai beat us to Fanning island from Christmas island and was in the process of offloading when we arrived. After offloading cargo at Fanning, they made a short trip to Washington island to offload cargo and pick up copra. The Kwai then  returned to Fanning, where it picked up passengers bound for Christmas island. The Kwai ended up delivering more than cargo on that trip, as a female passenger delivered a baby boy on the foredeck en route to Christmas!

The Kwai in Fanning lagoon

The Kwai at anchor off the wharf

Offloading the Kwai

The Kwai offload continues:  We are at anchor in the background

Silhouette at anchor in Fanning lagoon

Just as we saw on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), the houses on Tabuaeran (Fanning) are of traditional Kiribati construction. They consisted of huts and sleeping platforms on risers, built primarily out of lumber from coconut palms, with thatched pandanus roofs. The few buildings in the villages made out of other materials (government offices, seaweed and copra storage sheds, etc.) were left behind from previous copra and cruise ship operations on the island. Pandanus was also woven into sleeping mats. All of the sleeping areas had mosquito nets suspended over them.  The nets were tied out of the way during the day and dropped down at night. After some restless nights in the anchorage, where the breeze usually---but not always---kept the mosquitoes away, Patrick and I can attest to mosquito nets being essential gear for Fanning islanders.

A peek into the village

A few living compounds had woven fences around them

Corrugated tin was used as a building material in some structures

A living compound on Tabuaeran

Some buildings had coverings over the windows
Modernity creeps in:  A thatched roof sporting a solar panel which probably runs an LED light or a boom box
Waterfront village scene

In addition to cisterns for water collection, many of the dwellings on Fanning atoll also had wells. Water from the wells had to be boiled before using for drinking. 

A well laid with stones

They were putting stakes around this well to keep animals (or perhaps children?) away from the well

The can on the stake is used to dip water from the well

There were several large community meeting houses, called maneaba, spread throughout the island. These large spaces house new arrivals from Tarawa until they can build a home, and they are the gathering places for community meetings and festivals. 

A maneaba of modern materials under construction

A lonely grave outside the new maneaba appeared to be left out of the blessing of the graves
We took the dinghy across the lagoon to another motu, where there was a village consisting of only traditional huts. The village name was pronounced “A-wa.” Ironically, this was one of the villages which had a less traditional water craft:  a Hobie cat. We had seen the cat on our side of the lagoon several times before, visiting the village. Only a handful of families lived in “A-wa,” and they made their living by fishing and harvesting copra. It was a very sparse existence. 

Approaching the village on the other side of the lagoon

A closer view of "A wa"

Collecting coconut sap on A wa

A te wa on A wa

Traditional lashings contrasted with modern "stitch and glue" technique

A wa's  motu was very pretty because it had an inland estuary where the lagoon poured over the atoll. This estuary was a milkfish nursery, and the villagers hauled in scads of three to four-inch milkfish in their seine nets for eating. There were also a lot of pigs and piglets in the village, and it was the only village we saw where all of the swine were allowed to run free. We met a very outgoing woman at this village, who had just moved from Christmas Island to Fanning in July. She toured us around the village and also led us on a walk to the ocean side of the motu. It was on this walk that I almost met my demise, as a green coconut fell inches from my face, landing with a thud that even startled our guide! 

A coconut palm arch

Mother and child enjoying a mud facial at the swamp spa

Part of A wa's estuary

Our new friend Taris (phonetic spelling)

Taris and me enjoying the cooling sea breeze

We also took the dinghy to a more nearby motu, which housed the village of Napari (including the island’s secondary school) and an anchorage on the outside (ocean side) of the atoll, Whaler Anchorage. Whaler Anchorage looked a little rough for anchoring, although there were definitely shallow areas. Perhaps ships used to tie up along an old wharf, only the remains of which can be seen today. We were surprised to see surfers on the ocean side:  a bit of modernity on an island that otherwise seemed like a step back in time.

We saw this shipwreck in the lagoon after crossing the north side of the pass

Fuel containers recently offloaded from Christmas Island
A long hike brought us to the outskirts of Napari village

A living compound in Napari village

Remains of the wharf at Whaler Anchorage

A surfer on the ocean near Whaler Anchorage

Another surf shot

He rode the wave all the way in

The road over the lagoon had a wooden bridge with missing planks

There is a lot of fetch in Fanning’s lagoon, and a strong current often rips through the anchorage and the pass. I didn’t snorkel here as much as in some other places, but I did have a couple of memorable snorkeling experiences. After the Cook Islands, snorkeling in Kiribati waters was a relief for their notable absence of sharks. I went on a drift snorkel through the pass with Pete and Rae from SV Saliander. We didn’t see a lot of large animals like manta rays or turtles in the pass, but there were hundreds of fish, both in the pass and in the lagoon. All of us saw a couple of species of fish we hadn’t seen before. We did see one manta ray in the lagoon, and I think Pete and Rae saw an eagle ray in the pass. It is a lot of fun drift snorkeling at Fanning, because you shoot through the pass pretty rapidly and continue to drift at a rapid pace across the lagoon floor. 

The entrance to the pass at Fanning Island

The pass with some current running in it

I also snorkeled my first shipwreck on Fanning. I had been eyeing the small wreck near the anchorage since we arrived, waiting for a calm day when I could snorkel it without being pushed away by the current. My day finally arrived, a calm one with no wind, and I donned my flippers, mask, and snorkel and swam over to the wreck from Silhouette.  When I got to the wreck, I peered through portholes and into hatch tops and saw rooms full of fish! The cabins and holds were occupied by pisceans; while a couple of old salts (crabs) had control of the permanently exposed topside. I could definitely understand divers’ fascination with wrecks, as many more fish were around the wreck than in other areas of the lagoon. I was snorkeling alone, so I didn’t have the courage to free dive into the holds or through the doorways of the sunken ship. There were large clouds of rust coming off the ship, which made the interior cloudy. Also, I suspected that diving inside the ship would startle the fish and make them scatter.      

The shipwreck near the anchorage
Fanning housed both Protestant and Catholic churches. I attended a service at the Catholic church, and it was quite lively. Like churches throughout Tonga and the Cook Islands, the congregation is very tolerant of childrens’ behavior in church. In those countries, children are free to roam around the church, and they often change their seats during the service to sit next to a preferred adult. (Children are usually seated together in one area of the church.) On Penrhyn (where villagers attend three church services a day on Sunady), the children are even free to walk out of the church during the service and go home. But in church, the children are always whisper-quiet, even while moving around.

Not so in Kiribati. Not only the children---but the adult congregation---talked, laughed, and cried throughout the entire service. In response to this, the minister did not raise his voice; he just kept on talking. People came and went from the church during the service; children wandered around and played; people threw things to each other across the aisle or from the doorway into the church:  throughout it all, the minister remained unfazed.  The only time it was quiet was when the entire congregation was singing. Such an atmosphere makes church a less boring and more inviting place---particularly for children---but it must be a challenge for the minister!

There were no pews in the Kiribati church. The congregation sat on the floor and, at specific times during the service, kneeled or stood. Kneeling on the floor was hard on the knees, but with typical tolerance, no one viewed you askance if you couldn’t do it. Some elders would kneel for about 30 seconds before reclining back into a seated position, often leaning against one of the posts holding up the church. 

Interior of Catholic church when church was not in session

On Fanning, we also visited our first kava bar. Kava is a drink made from the root of a species of pepper plant. Drinking kava is not traditionally a part of the culture of Kiribati; it is commonly drunk by the men of Fiji and Vanuatu during a ritualized kava ceremony. Drinking kava is a habit Fanning islanders have recently adopted due to their no alcohol policy. (Apparently, there were too many fights on the island when beer was allowed. Since kava tends not to make people aggressive like alcohol, its use engenders fewer problems.) True kava is chewed (which enhances its potency), then spit into a bowl and mixed with water. Vanuatu is one of the only places where this is still done. Depending on its strength, kava can cause a tingling or numbness in your lips and face, right up to what seems like a temporary paralysis of your limbs. Most parts of Fiji, as well as Kiribati, now mix powdered kava root with water instead of chewing it. In addition to being more sanitary, this makes a weaker form of kava. The kava on Kiribati was so weak that I noticed no side effects at all; however, if you drink a lot of it at one sitting, there are reportedly some mild effects. (I only tried a couple of cups.) Kava tasted better than I expected, as I’d heard it described as being like drinking “mud” or “dirty water.” The kava was earthy, yes, but it tasted like a root, not like dirt. It reminded me of licorice root without the sweet, throat-soothing smoothness of that root.

The kava bars were a center of social activity on the island. The one we visited was only open two days a week and was frequented mostly by the men. (A handful of women were also present.) The kava bar hosted pool and dart tournaments, and the entry fees for the tournaments went to the winner. Unfortunately, most of the patrons of the kava bar were smoking the long, pandanus-rolled cigarettes common in Kiribati, and we made it a short night because of the overpowering smoke.

Another center of social activity for foreign visitors was Bruno and Tabeta’s place. Bruno is a French ex-pat who met Tabeta on her home island, Washington island, while he was sailing. (Washington is also part of Kiribati.) Now they live on Fanning island with two of their children. Bruno and Tabeta have created a magical courtyard on the atoll. You enter through a metal archway, whose ironwork spells out “Le Belle Etouille” (beautiful star), and from which dangle iridescent black pearl shells. As you walk through the courtyard, lain from rounded stones of white coral, you are reminded of the cobblestones on the narrow streets of European cities. The courtyard is shaded with tropical trees, however:  breadfruit, hibiscus, lime. Bruno’s large, hand-crafted toys for the children are scattered around the property:  a teeter-totter, a wooden train, a wooden hobby-horse.

The entrance to "Le Belle Etouille"

Bruno and Tabeta rent sleeping platforms to crews and visitors from cargo and other ships. They also cook homemade meals in a “restaurant” on their living compound. We shared a couple of enjoyable meals there with other yachties:  first, with our buddy boats from Penrhyn---Saliander, Irie II, and Texas Silhouette---and a second time with some new friends on SV Stone Fire. The visit of Bruno’s sister and brother-in-law, Helene and Jean Philippe, coincided with our visit, and we enjoyed meeting them and seeing them when we went to Bruno’s. Helene and Jean Philippe had flown to Hawaii from Bordeaux, France and made passage on the sail cargo ship Kwai from Hawaii, to Christmas Island, and finally, to Fanning Island in order to visit Bruno and Tabeta. Their journey took them three weeks.  

About to enjoy a bottle of red at Bruno's:  Photo courtesy of Uwe Borgmann

Patrick and I on the veranda at Bruno's:  Photo courtesy of Uwe Borgmann

The week before we left Fanning, I attended the island’s “White Ribbon Day” festivities with Helene. I had come ashore that morning not knowing it was a holiday and stumbled onto the event, which was part of an international day for the elimination of violence against women. The event opened with a parade in which battalions of women representing different villages each performed a march. Most of the women were dressed in black, some wearing white ribbons in honor of the day’s theme. One battalion wore dance regalia over their black dress and performed some opening dances in front of the village elders and officiaries, who were seated in a special pavilion outside the maneaba. Because we were guests to the island, Helene and I had been invited to sit there too.

Each battalion of women had a banner

This group all had white ribbons on their heads

Exhibiting their marching form

A second group of marchers

This battalion put a little humor into their march

The Mistress of Ceremonies for White Ribbon Day

Some of the young men turned out to support the last battalion of women marchers

This group of dancers had the honor of opening the ceremony

I loved the colorful costumes and the attitude

Kiribati dancers with flair

After the opening ceremony, everyone moved to the maneaba, where the rest of the festivities took place. They consisted of dances performed by different villages, a feast, and a skit surrounding the theme of the elimination of violence against women. I’m not sure how clearly the women performing the skit got their message across, as some improvisational participation from some of the men in the audience completely undermined their theme; however, the impromptu participation had all the villagers---male and female alike---screaming with laughter.    
I especially enjoyed seeing all the dances performed by the women, our first exposure to dance in Kiribati.

After their dance, these women passed their flower crowns on to the spectators

The dancers all wore a circlet of green leaves around their waists

One of the largest dancing groups

Fanning islanders had their own twist on the community feast. Each family brought whatever they were contributing---rice, fish, breadfruit, papaya---even bags of Doritos!---all heaped together in a big Sterite-style plastic tub. Similar to the covered dishes we had seen on Penrhyn, the lids served to keep the flies off the food until people were ready to eat. Then, they were quickly replaced after everyone dished up their plate. Once all the dishes were laid out, people got up and served themselves. (Tabeta had kindly sent along plates and utensils for Helene and I with one of her neighbors, knowing that the feast would be part of the event.) This was the first feast we had participated in, in which we we saw people eating the jungle fowl or chickens that run all over the Pacific islands. I also finally got to try one of their eggs, which are laid in the bush and very difficult to find. They are smaller than a hen’s egg but tasted just like one (at least when hard-boiled.)

Contributions to the feast

It takes a feed a village

Helping ourselves

A man passes his flower crown to a young guest

This woman requested that our picture be taken together, saying, "It will be your memory."

I think because the people on Fanning island have fewer food resources, we saw them utilizing foods that people didn’t eat on the other atolls. Coconut and breadfruit are plentiful on Fanning, but they have fewer papaya and banana trees than other atolls. Another thing we saw for the first time was people eating the fruits of the pandanus tree, which I hadn’t known until then were edible. People also cultivate a variety of swamp taro for its starchy root. The leaves of this plant are bigger and tougher than the common taro. 

Healthy pandanus plants on Tabuaeran

A head of unripe pandanus fruit

Ripe pandanus fruit on the ground

Swamp taro under cultivation
After two and a half weeks on Fanning atoll, the weather conditions for our passage to Hilo presented themselves, and it was time to weigh anchor. No one was at the Customs or Immigration offices, but I knew where the Custom’s officer lived, so we went to his house. Rousting the Custom’s officer out of bed in the middle of the afternoon, we completed our paperwork for clearing out. By then, the Immigration officer had returned to the office, and we got our passports stamped. We were on our way, but we will always remember Tabuaeran’s gift to us:   a window into another world

Although it appears empty here, the wharf is as much a center of community life as the maneaba

Tyrone's shed in fading light

A surf fisherman sets his net at the entrance to the pass at sunset

Sunset over Fanning Island