27 November 2013 | Tarawa
Major cities in the third world are such a shocker – at least to me. Here in Tarawa, the small city of Betio (“be-sio”) sprawls literally from shore to shore. But when you consider that you can throw a rock from one side of the atoll to the other in most places, and that the entirely of the island is less than 2-miles long, you wonder how there can possibly be 45,000 people residing here. Betio has one of the highest population densities of any city on the planet. Along with that come problems. There is little in the way of infrastructure and a large section of the population simply defecates on the shoreline. Over-capacity busses blaring booming modern “island music” zoom past overturned rusting car frames that adorn people’s front yards. Residents nap on pandanus mats in open-air thatched huts. Staked to the ground by one hind leg, rooting pigs seek respite from the searing sun and chickens run everywhere. Trash blows around and collects in muddy pools of water, and dust from the constant traffic on decaying roads covers everything. Wild dogs roam the island and there is a smell about the place. Yet, in spite of all this, Tarawa is where young I-Kiribati from beautifully pristine outer atolls want to come, and for one reason – work. Betio serves as the capitol city for Kiribati and that is the only reason we are here. But for those of us on this side of the date line, today is Thanksgiving – and Lolo and I will be celebrating it here, in Tarawa. As such, we set about yesterday to find a chicken to roast. We climbed aboard a dirty van with 18 other people and wedged our way in. We’d decided to go north – away from Betio to the more modern branch of Moels Trading, where Lolo had previously found some fresh veggies, in hopes of finding a frozen chicken so we would not have to go into the main town. After about 20-min, we hopped off only to discover that the downtown store was the only place we might find the chicken. With some reluctance, we also inquired about the possibility of buying a live chicken, but the clerk did not know where we might do that. This was somewhat of a relief as neither Lolo nor I would know quite what to do with a live chicken. So – back on another bus to backtrack the distance we’d come and then bounce our way south for an additional 25 min with another group of sweating people in the head pounding tin can of a bus. As Lolo can attest, these things make me grumpy, so upon arrival, I felt it warranted to stop first at a liquor store and replenish our store of gin. I met her after to find that she had indeed procured one whole frozen chicken – purportedly originating in New South Whales. With mashed potatoes, and a homemade pumpkin pie, we’d have a proper Thanksgiving dinner. For us Americans, Thanksgiving conjures up memories of times past, but mostly it stirs the memories of Thanksgiving dinners shared with loved ones – family and friends. Thousands of miles away, those are who we miss most today. Most of my memorable Thanksgivings were spent at the cabin – snow-machining all day with my brothers while mom baked homemade rolls and roasted a turkey that barely fit into the small propane oven. Birch logs smoldered in the wood stove, keeping the chill of freezing temperatures at bay. It was a boy’s heaven. Thanksgiving is a day to count our thanks. Today I give thanks for many things. I am thankful for the realization of a dream – one I’ve had since I was a teenager – and to the person, my wife, Laurence, that made that dream come true. I am thankful for my three wonderful children; Jessica – who is living in Alaska and excelling at her career in telecommunications, Danny – who (with some coaxing) has shared in our adventure and is now backpacking around New Zealand, and my darling girl, Piper – who has joined us in British Columbia, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Fiji and is currently, a 6th grade honor student. I am thankful for the health of my parents and for all they have done, and the old friends, families and new friends that have graced our lives. While Lolo and I (and Kiri) eat our roast chicken dinner tonight in the sweltering heat of equatorial Kiribati, we’ll be thinking of you. Happy Thanksgiving.