Lost and Happy

By Michael Kew

All photos: Kew.

NO POSTAL CODES. Five-digit phone numbers. Solar power. The cornstalk rustle of palm fronds overhead. The soft whoosh of surf outside a thatched buia. The sublime ambiance of this atoll where North and South Pacific meet makes the term “modern conveniences” laughable.

I KNOW AMERICA is light-years distant when I meet Tebau, the mayor of Marakei. He’s wearing only a smile and a dark purple sarong. We’re standing on a muddy dirt road in the village of Rawannawi, and in my pocket I’m jingling a clutch of Australian coins, the currency used here. It was useful back on Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati’s 33 coral atolls. But in the outer isles, cash is fairly useless. “Here on Marakei, we can survive without money,” Tebau says with a wink and a nod. “We can live off the sea and land — fish and coconut palm. Everything else is just luxury.” This is when I recall that Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahs) is on the United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” list. Which makes it simple. Which makes it special. Which makes it the perfect place to dismiss the modern world.

Tebau.

POWER OF SUN Solar panels can be found on the 21 inhabited atolls. No wonder. Kiribati crosses the equator and has a mean annual temperature of 81°F. The nation of islands is the only one in the world to straddle all four hemispheres.

SIP SAP When listening to stories from locals you’ll probably have a glass of fresh toddy in hand. It’s made from coconut palm sap, and the sweet variety may be the best you’ll ever taste.

ON YOUR SKIN For a lasting and true scent of the islands, grab a few bars of Atoll K33 coconut soap, sold only on Tarawa. It’s one of the few goods actually produced in Kiribati.

CARRY Kiribati uses the Australian dollar, but on the remote outer islands, you’ll find that smiles and conversation with the locals are more practical when it comes to obtaining a fresh coconut or succulent fish.

DO Smile and say hello (mauri) to everyone you meet, unless an i-Kiribati beats you to it (and they probably will).

DO NOT When sitting, avoid pointing your feet directly at anyone. It’s a sign of disrespect and uncleanliness.