Fanning Island – Drinking Kava with the Locals and Riding Out Squalls

This is a crazy place. I’m not sure what I was expecting but this is definitely not it. I was picturing a protected lagoon to anchor in with a nice breeze coming through the cabin, friendly locals sailing past in their dugout canoes, a rich culture to absorb and possibly a bit of infrastructure. What we have found is a lee shore to anchor in with big squalls every day and night, there ARE in fact friendly locals sailing past us in canoes, we absorbed some local culture last night at the kava bar where we were served a bowl of intoxicating dirt water and were subjected to some of the worst sounding electric keyboard and accompanying karaoke we have ever heard.

What’s cool is that we have definitely found a place that has yet to be inundated with western culture, which is pretty amazing to find in the year 2015. MTV has yet to corrupt the youth and turn them gangster like in Tahiti. It’s still a subsistence-based economy and everyone fishes to provide for basic food needs. To describe the island a bit so you can get an idea of the place. Picture an 8-mile long by 3-mile wide coral atoll with a lagoon in the middle. The land is densely wooded – more densely wooded than any other atoll we have ever seen. There are 2,500 people living on the island but you wouldn’t know it. There is not a single paved road, or telephone, TV or toilet to be found. There is not a single store. At night there are no lights around the lagoon, or even fires for that matter. The “roads” are tire tracks through the grass, and the main one cuts right through the soccer field. The 2,500 residents live in palm-thatch huts and are completely oblivious to what is going on in the rest of the world. There could be a world war going on and unless someone is near the only radio on the island to listen in from Tarawa, the capital, they wouldn’t even know about it until the nuclear fallout.

We went to land yesterday to visit with the only foreigner (I-Matang in I-Kiribati) on the island. His name is Bruno and he is a Frenchman who has been here for 25 years. He was a sailor and married a local woman and they now have three children together. To get to his home we had to follow a single-track game trail through the jungle, leaping over mud puddles and ducking under brush, for about half a mile until we came to his home near the ocean side of the atoll. En route we were greeted with friendly smiles and “Maori” which is hello in I-Kiribati. [By they way, you pronounce Kiribati as “Kee-ree-bas.”] The locals all live in open palm-thatch huts on raised platforms. Almost every yard has a pig or two squealing and trying to shake the rope from their hind leg. We came to a clearing and then on the left we found ourselves walking on coral cobblestone instead of mud, we had found Bruno’s home. We walked through the jungle courtyard past a few small palm huts with children gazing out at us curiously and giggling. Finally we met Bruno in the main house, he was upstairs on the patio reading.

Bruno is a friendly, leathery, short Frenchman with a huge white beard and big smile. He invited us up and we gifted him some sun shade from the boat and offered him some Napa Valley Cabernet and some French Brie, which he was very excited about. We spent the next couple hours visiting with him and learning all about his sailing adventures that brought him here, the two shipwrecks, the later one that made him a permanent resident, the 18 years it took to build his house and his dealings with the ridiculous government officials. His house is a work of art, built from coral stone, concrete and what was left of his yacht. The windows are made from spinnaker and the roof from a mainsail soaked in epoxy – it’s a really cool house. It was a great visit and we plan to return to visit some more and buy some intricate shark tooth daggers that were made here on the island.

After visiting with Bruno he pointed through a hole in the jungle and said to follow the path until we hear music, that would be the kava bar. We made our way through the jungle – Indiana Jones-style – and followed the faint sound of music. Two friends on the Australian-flagged boat DRINA were already there. We joined them and sipped some of the earthy-tasting chalky water they call kava from half coconut shells. Kava is a drink that is made from a pepper root (that they can’t grow on the island, but import) the drink is mildly intoxicating in a sedative kind of way. All the men at the kava bar all look a bit tired and in a comfortable stupor. This is how they get their buzz on since it’s a dry island and alcohol is not allowed. I guess alcohol turns them into crazed zombies so the chief of the island banned it but allows the consumption of kava – makes sense to us. It was karaoke night. I got some video and I’ll have to upload it from Samoa or Tonga. It’s better to see for yourself than me to describe it to you. Let’s just say there’s a reason you have never seen a CD for sale labeled: The Modern Sounds of Kiribati…

After a couple of hours at the kava bar we fought through 3 foot waves and made it back to Ellie, soaking wet. We rode out yet another horribly rough night at anchor on a lee shore. The bow was jumping 4 feet and when the tide changes you get huge waves slapping the front quarter of the boat. As you can imagine it’s pretty hard to sleep through that so we’re pretty tired this morning. Unfortunately the GRIBS are calling for the squally weather to continue at least through tonight.

We are planning to leave early next week when the NE trades finally f*** off and some moderate easterlies fill in. We’ll ride those the hell away from the ITCZ and enjoy, what we hope to be, a pleasant sail 1,000 miles south to Suwarrow, a nature preserve with only a single person in residence.

Until then we’ll see what other cultural experiences are to be had here on this crazy little island in the middle of the Pacific.

Cheers from the end of the earth,
Lewis & Alyssa

May 8, 2015

Fanning Island, Kiribati

03 51.552 N
159 21.504 W

Thank You

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