Hear about travel to the countries of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru in Micronesia as the Amateur Traveler talks to Stefan from Rapid Travel Chai about these small difficult to reach island nations.
“On a flight [to Micronesia] a German tourist said to me that you are either in the government, a missionary or a country collector. Micronesia does have some fantastic destinations but it is not what you expect. There’s not the typical island paradise with beaches or the fantastic diving of some of the Pacific or Caribbean islands. So it really is a specialist destination. In your prior episode with Gary Arndt, you talked about some of the accessible destinations. Now we are going to talk about some of the less accessible ones.”
“If you draw a line between Hawaii and the Philippines you have a whole stretch of islands. Part of those, the northern section, United Airlines flies a well known Micronesia hopper route that connects several of them: The Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and Palau. What we’re going to talk about here are the ones that are a little bit south of those and these are the countries of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru. The good news is that these 3 countries, for the most part, have gotten very accessible. The only visa complication for most nationalities is Nauru.”
In the smallest of these nations (Nauru), you can stroll around the country and still be back in time for breakfast. In another one, you could often throw a stone from one coast of the country to the other. In one of them (Tuvalu) the runway for the airport is such a significant percentage of the landmass that in between the flights, which only happens 2-3 times a week, the runway is the center of community life. There are rugby and soccer matches, church groups preaching and community meetings on the runway.
Stefan tells us, “The biggest challenge to visiting these countries is the flight access.” A trip to these countries takes a lot of planning. Most of us will never go there, but maybe Stefan can convince you why you should try.
Travel to Micronesia – Episode 128
Rapid Travel Chai
Nauru Regional Processing Centre
Kogatapu Funafuti Conservation Area
World War II Touring
I just listened to The Finger Lakes episode and it was fun to hear an episode about the area where I grew up. I just wanted to add some comments about some other areas of The Finger Lakes that weren’t covered in the podcast. I grew up just north of Ithaca, so my focus was a bit north of the Elmira/Corning area. Ithaca is a fun town to spend a day or two (or three). Check out the fabulous farmer’s market, wander Ithaca Commons, explore Cornell University Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell Plantations, and the Laboratory of Ornitology. Also there’s the Paleontological Research Institution/Museum of the Earth. Hike and swim at Buttermilk, Treman, and Taughannock State Parks. For more serious hiking head over to the Fingerlakes National Forest. For dinner, there’s Moosewood, Just a Taste, Maxie’s Supperclub, Mia’s, and Northstar. Or for something more casual try Ithaca Bakery, Wegmans, or Viva Taqueria. Also Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg is lovely. There’s a lot of great ice cream in Central New York: Purity in Ithaca, the Dairy Bar on the Cornell Campus, Cayuga Lake Creamery in Interlaken, and Cream at the Top in King Ferry. For other fun food adventures check out the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, and the Finger Lake Cider House. A couple other interesting towns worth checking out: Seneca Falls has the Women’s Rights National Historic Park and for an old-school diner experience, head over to Connie’s Diner in Waterloo and Auburn has the William Seward House and the Harriet Tubman House and some excellent beer and food at Prison City Brewery.
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Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 534. Today, in an effort to continue to cover all the little corners of the globe, we return to Micronesia to cover the tiny countries of Kiribati, not spelled like you think, Tuvalu and Nauru.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Let’s talk about Micronesia. I’d like to welcome to the show Stefan from Rapid Travel Chai who’s come to talk to us about Micronesia. Stefan, welcome to the show.
Stefan: Thank you.
Chris: We have done one other show on Micronesia years and years ago with Gary Arndt, the very first time he was on the show, the very first time he and I ever talked. But we are going back because we didn’t cover all of Micronesia in that episode. Stefan, why should we go to Micronesia and can you put it on a map for us first?
Stefan: Well, on a flight, a German tourist said to me that you’re either in the government, a missionary, or a country collector. Micronesia does have some fantastic destinations, but it’s also very different than what you expect. There’s not the typical island paradise with beaches or the fantastic diving of some of the South Pacific or Caribbean Islands. So it really is a special destination, and in your prior episode with Gary Arndt you covered some of the more accessible ones, and now we’re gonna talk about the less accessible ones.
Chris: Okay, and we are in the Pacific. Is there a best known island that we’re talking about?
Stefan: Yeah. So we’re in the Pacific and, roughly, Micronesia is the stretch of islands that are north of what’s generally called the South Pacific. So if you draw, roughly, a line between Hawaii and Philippines, you have a whole stretch of islands. Part of those, the northern section, United Airlines flies a well-known Micronesia hopper route that connects several of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia – Guam and Palau are better known – and what we’re gonna talk about here are the ones that are a little bit south of those, and these are the countries of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.
Chris: And oddly enough, while we’re talking about this, Gary – who was the guest for the other show – is in those islands that we’re talking about. So if you hadn’t pitched it now he would have pitched it to me in another week, so your timing was just about perfect.
Stefan: So I do remember hearing Gary Arndt and his passport moistening fiasco that prevented one of those visits some years ago. The good news is, these three countries – for the most part – have gotten very accessible. The only visa complication for most nationalities is Nauru which we can talk about in a bit, but Kiribati and Tuvalu, at this point, most major passport holders can fly right in and be admitted to the countries.
Chris: And I’m gonna guess that the German who was on the plane with you was correct that you were a country collector and not with an NGO or with the government.
Stefan: That’s correct. So I’m sitting today in Greece, which is my 186th out of 193 UN countries as well. There is a more elaborate list such as the Travelers’ Century Club that count individual territories. And when we look at the country of Kiribati, the main two island groups are separated between a distance almost the same as New York to LA, over 2,000 miles between the Gilbert Islands where the current capital is, best known as Tarawa and the Line Islands, Kiritimati Island spanning Phoenix Islands. The entire country covers a tremendous distance.
Chris: Excellent. Well, what kind of itinerary would you recommend?
Stefan: This is one that requires and demands a careful planning. So the biggest challenge to visiting these countries is the flight access, and if you read stories of travelers that were going 5 or 10 years ago, you have tales of woe, of bankrupt airlines, planes impounded or broken for weeks. Much of that has improved. Your two key airlines are Fiji Airways which just turned 65 and has gotten very, very good – I’ve had about 20 flights on them in the past year and not one was significantly delayed – as well as Nauru Airlines. And you need to work with their schedule, some of these flights are only once or twice a week, only fly out of one place. You find the schedule that works for you and then piece it together that way.
Chris: Okay. And tell me more about the itinerary that you took, where you went and what you did when you were there.
Stefan: I was already in Australia with my wife for a vacation and she didn’t warm up to the idea of island hopping, going all the way back to the US through a number of these countries. So the most flights to Nauru were out of Brisbane. There is a Australian detention center for asylum seekers that is of note and currently in the headlines about issues related to that, as well as the center they have in PNG. So there’s been a huge build up on Nauru and there’s several flights a week out of Brisbane and that’s where I started. You generally have a choice of, as I said, with very few flights, a couple days or a week or more.
So my itinerary was to Nauru for two days, and then continue going on a once-weekly flight up to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, and then spending the night there, two days, and then continuing back on the return of the Nauru flight down to Tarawa for a couple of days, which linked up to a twice-weekly flight on Fiji Airways back to Fiji, where I was able to fly to Tuvalu. It’s somewhat complicated as you’ve seen, but if you can piece together the schedule you can usually find a way to make some of these work. A lot of the flight schedules are seasonal in the region. For instance, the Tuvalu flights are typically twice a week from Fiji but, in peak times, which would usually be around November, December, as well as July, August, there may be three a week on the schedule that can help fit some of these in a little better.
Chris: Okay. Well, let’s talk about Nauru first. What is there to do once you’re sitting in Nauru waiting for the next flight?
Stefan: The one thing about Nauru that actually is a challenge before you get there is that’s the one that you do need the visa in advance, unless you’ve got an immediate flight connection. And the biggest challenge you run into is there’s only three accommodation options on the island, and two of them are usually booked solid and the third doesn’t generally reply to emails faster than once every few weeks. So you get the visa through Brisbane consulates, which they do entirely online. You don’t need to appear in Brisbane, but they do know the accommodation issue and they insist that one of the three provide you a written confirmation that you do have a place to sleep, and they will not let you on the plane if you don’t have that. Potentially, some other airports might be more flexible but, out of Brisbane, they do not let you on the plane.
So I actually booked this trip last minutes and had a heck of a time, almost had to call it off, the third one of the three. So Menen is the largest government-run hotel. It has the best facilities. There is a small one called Ewa Lodge that only has a few rooms, and then the third is called OD-N-Aiwo and they are the most basic option and typically have something if you can get them to put in writing that they do. So I was able to book that and got it just a few days before I got my visa and was on a flight in to Nauru.
Chris: Okay. And then when you’re in Nauru, what is there to do?
Stefan: So there’s two main activities that you can do. One…To get an idea, the island is about 21 square kilometers and there’s a ring road around the island that’s about 18 kilometers. So the one thing to do whether you’re a runner or just crazy is to get up at dawn or before dawn and walk the entire island. There’s very few countries that you can do that and still come back for breakfast. So stopping for pictures at a reasonable pace, you’re looking at two and a half to three hours. There’s a lot of activity early in the morning. Most of the merchants on the island are Chinese or, actually, Taiwanese. They’re steaming buns for breakfast; they run many of the restaurants and shops. People are going to work and school, such as they do, before a long midday siesta. So it pays to get up early and walk the entire island, say you’ve done the entire country.
The island is divided by what they call bottom side and top side, so bottom side is the entire coast. There’s very little swimming. It’s quite dangerous in most places. There is an area on the coast by the Menen Hotel called Anibare where they’ve built a boat ramp and there’s some swimming, as well as there’s interesting rock formations along the walk on that side of the island. The rest is really just greeting the locals out on their morning routine, and you’ll even see, and this is something that was quite interesting to me, is the complications with the Australian detention center and a court that was…a court ruling in the local Nauru courts means that the asylum seekers are technically not detained according to Nauru law. So quite a few have actually been able to move out of the formal detention centers, set up residence along the coast. They may not be free to leave, but some have even brought property and have started families. And so, I saw two Somali women that a local guy introduced me to that were out in their morning groceries and had become part of the neighborhood, and I certainly didn’t expect to see Somalis grocery shopping on a morning walk in Nauru.
Chris: So these are people trying to get into Australia from wherever, but they are ending up on Nauru.
Stefan: Yeah. So Australia – and it’s a very controversial policy – they have set up offshore detention centers both in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as well as in Nauru. This has been running for some years, so these people are processed in these centers and can be in legal limbo, essentially, for a number of years and potentially not able to return to where they came, or maybe have no status in their former homeland, as well as no path out into Australia proper. And sadly, it has hit the news the past few months, allegations of misdoings and abuse in some cases in the detention centers of Nauru. It’s found itself squarely in the headlines in the region the past several years, and it’s a very difficult and intense political situation to work through with Australia which, essentially, is their greatest economic tie, as well as changing the society of Nauru, a country of only about 10,000 people.
Chris: Interesting. So they must pay Nauru to have the detention center there since it is an independent country at this point?
Stefan: Yes, and it became independent in 1968, I believe, after a joint trusteeship as part of the post-colonization efforts of the UN, and so that has been an economic boom. The country was essentially bankrupt a decade and a half ago when the phosphate mining – which previously was the only economic benefit of the island – had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed. So this became the lifeline and now has created a mini-boom that’s allowed this island to prosper to a degree that would have been unexpected or impossible any other way.
Chris: Well, anything else we should say about Nauru before we head off to the Marshall Islands?
Stefan: So that leads into top side which is the hilly part of the island, and this is incredibly hot gravel roads. You’ll want to find a local taxi which, in Nauru, means that you should ask somebody and they will know somebody who has a vehicle to take you up into the hills. Now, some of these areas are the detention centers so you’re not able to – obviously – go into them. Others are the former phosphate mines which you’re able to see from the roads. It’s quite dangerous to walk through some of those, risk of the ground collapsing and such, and some of the mines are reopening. It’s a fascinating, strange moonscape, and an experience to see the incredible, difficult environmental conditions that are up there.
There’s one other site, the Buada Lagoon, which is closer down the hills on the way back down to bottom side, a beautiful lagoon that’s dangerous to swim in, but it’s the one sort of lake in the island, a very small place as you’ve seen.
Chris: Well, you talked about small places. I’m looking at the map and, just to put it in perspective for people, the runway for the airport covers roughly half the distance of the width of the island.
Stefan: When the planes are coming through, they have to close traffic on the road because that’s how you drive through. So I had to wait for the plane to leave to get to my hotel, and there was no way to walk across until they were done. It is incredibly small. The government buildings are right down by the airport. It’s fascinating to walk into a country where everything is so small that, truly, people know every single one. When I was there, they were having a local election and everything was shut down in the evening because they were all at the same meetings to meet the candidates. It’s a very, very small place but undergoing a lot of change because of the way that they’ve ended up in the larger global refugee issue.
Chris: Now, it sounds to me like if you were to run into a traveler like the German tourist ran into you, you would have the same advice that, if this wasn’t a country you could count, you wouldn’t necessarily recommend going here.
Stefan: I’d say probably not, and that’s not to be critical, it’s just that it is an expensive place to get to. Many of the Pacific Islands are…there’s just no way to access them except with [inaudible 00:14:00]. So if you’re interested in current affairs, it’s a fascinating place. There’s obviously very friendly Islanders. You can meet kids playing games on the beach and all of that, but there’s no beaches to speak of. There’s very few World War II relics, and it’s a heck of a way to go just to get that next country.
Chris: All right. Shall we move on to Tuvalu then?
Stefan: Absolutely, and this is an interesting segue. You mentioned the runway in Nauru, and Tuvalu is also an incredibly small place, and the runway is the social center of the town. So this runway was built in World War II, primarily by US Forces. It was not the site of any major battles – although there was activity on the island – and probably the biggest activity you can do on Tuvalu is spend time on the runway. There’s two to three flights a week, and the rest of the time, particularly in the evening when it cools down, there’s various rugby matches, soccer matches, church groups preaching, community meetings and, when it doesn’t rain at night, many of the Islanders actually lay out a spread and sleep on the runway over night as the coolest place to spend the evening. So if you’re an aviation junkie, this really is the place to experience aviation front and center and have a blast living right by the runaway, or on it if you choose.
Chris: And I’ll be honest, if Tuvalu didn’t have the .tv domain name that they owned, I’m not sure that I would have heard about it.
Stefan: Yeah. So these are the former Ellice Islands of British territory. They are incredibly small, about 10,000 people and, like many of these Pacific Nations, many of the Islanders actually live in large parts of the country such as Fiji or New Zealand in which to work. The only flight service is through Nadi, Fiji, two to three times a week. It connects in Suva and, for those who have not visited Suva, it’s probably my favorite city in the Pacific. There’s not all that many great cities in the Pacific, and most visitors to Fiji only go to the resorts around Nadi as well as the outlying islands, but it’s…since you’re almost guaranteed to have an overnight because of the flight schedules, Suva actually is a very pleasant, fun town to lay over on your way into Tuvalu.
Chris: And when we’re not lying on the runway in Tuvalu, what are we doing while we’re there?
Stefan: You can go to the north end of the atoll or the sound end, and the south end takes a few…maybe half an hour to walk, and the north end would take an hour, an hour and a half, or find somebody with a motorcycle. The entire country has about five miles of roads in it and only the main one is paved up and down. There’s different little houses, people live right by the roadside. At its narrowest point, the atoll can be less than, say, 50 yards across, ocean to ocean, so there might just be the road and one house. There’s interesting boat wrecks from various shipping. There’s different points and view lookouts, but it’s mainly to see the quirkiness of island life; an old gentleman reading his newspaper with a hard hat in case the coconuts fall, those kind of slices of island life that you don’t get anywhere else.
The one other major activity is taking a boat into the Funafuti Conservation Area, which is a government-run boat. There is one of them that can only take several passengers a day. The several days I was there, there were storms each day where they were not able to take anyone out, so I did not experience that. That is the one big activity that pretty much everyone seeks to do.
Tuvalu, unlike Nauru, does have outlying atolls, and very few tourists will ever reach those. There’s incredibly infrequent and unreliable government boats that, if you do take those out there, you might very well be stuck for weeks or months for the next boat. So for all intents and purposes, Tuvalu is the main Funafuti atoll where the airport is and where the services are.
Chris: Now, you mentioned Funafuti that you didn’t get to, so that’s a conservation area just conserving a portion of the ocean, I’m assuming here.
Stefan: Yes, and it’s in part of the lagoon. So it’s just a small boat that they would take out. So the atoll where the capital is is called Funafuti and it’s the conservation area of that, and then other atolls make up the overall country of Tuvalu.
Chris: So as I look at a map, the area where you can walk to while you are there is really only a portion of the much larger atoll.
Stefan: Yeah. Others are separated by water depending on high or low tide, and much of it is now in the conservation area which you would have to go with the government boat to be able to visit. There’s very strict restrictions on any kind of sport activity or sport fishing. So that’s not really going to be an option in Tuvalu.
Chris: So we’re not going on the government boat to go snorkeling in the conservation area or something like that.
Stefan: Snorkeling, yes. You can go snorkeling. I don’t believe that they have any scuba diving facilities and I don’t believe they allow any fishing.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we’re gonna do while we’re here in Tuvalu?
Stefan: Back to the aviation theme, one of the other quirky aspects of the experience is, for a country that doesn’t have a lot of flights, it’s somewhat surprising they want you to check in two to three hours in advance when the terminal is essentially a small shed. But the nice thing about it is they check you in, they stamp you out of the country and then send you back to your hotel for breakfast. So you’ve left the country but you’re free to go about as you please and come back when you see the plane fly in because, after all, they know you’re not really going anywhere that they can’t find you.
So it’s an interesting experience and, as obscure as some of these sound, Tuvalu, the main town, has a wi-fi network that covers the several hotels in the center as well as the buildings in the center. So you’re no longer thinking about these places as being totally disconnected. They have mobile phones, they have wi-fi, there’s a lot of increase in commerce that comes and goes. So it’s fascinating to see how these places are modernizing, how the fishermen are sending off their catch on the flights out for their income and that, and seeing how they grapple with the changing global economy and their role in it.
Chris: Well, so, I’m curious. You know that one of the questions that I usually ask is, when did you feel closest to home, when was it most familiar, and when did you feel furthest from home, when was it most unfamiliar? And, of course, you mentioned the guy with a hard hat and the coconuts and that question came to mind for me.
Stefan: When I felt furthest from home, I had originally booked a guest house in Tuvalu that was listed on Booking.com that was out of the main town area, and even the neighbors didn’t know it really existed. And I got there and everything was so broken. The little room fan they had didn’t even operate, and to spend three days there in that tremendous heat was probably the only time where I apologized, and the owners were very nice and then gave me a lift back to town to one of the guest houses in the main cluster to seek accommodation there. So some of those moments where the climate is just so, so hot that the everyday frustrations of travel can make you take a moment where you lose your cool for a bit and need to regroup.
And then closest to home is just that people are people, and sitting there in one of the few restaurants in the center of Funafuti and having tuna and meeting the chef who made it, and the appreciation when you thank her. Or, even that one night when it just poured torrential rain and the grass areas around the runway became a slip and slide playground, with the kids just running and jumping with their rugby ball into the huge puddles and all I wanted to do was jump in there myself and right back to when I was their age.
Chris: You mentioned the restaurants. So I’m guessing when we’re on these islands, we’re on a diet that is more fish than beef and other things that are gonna have to be flown in.
Stefan: The Pacific is one of the hardest places to get good seafood and that ties into local fish stocks either being contaminated or essentially killed off due to large fishing trawlers from countries such as Japan, US and China that have taken away the fishing stocks so far out that the local fishermen are not able to catch all that much. In Tuvalu, you can get different, say, yellow fin tuna as dishes that, because of the conservation area and different steps they’ve taken, some of the fishing has come back. Generally, you’re eating very simple dishes. There’s usually a Nauru ranch, and there’s a number of Chinese restaurants because of the migrant population there. Tuvalu, you have a bit more of an Indian influence because its connection to the outside world is Fiji. But each of those, you’re only talking about a handful of restaurants, pretty basic options where a lot of the food is flown in, packaged and cooked, simple rice dishes. In the past, Spam has been popular in a lot of the countries, but I have not had to eat Spam.
Chris: So it sounds like when we’re there, things might be a little more expensive than I was…people might be thinking in terms of island paradise.
Stefan: Really, in the whole Pacific, the only ones that I would say seem like a value cost-wise would be some of the major tourist spots such as Fiji, and maybe then [inaudible 00:23:45]. Pretty much anywhere else in the Pacific and Micronesia, you’re talking about paying more than you would expect, or more than a comparable island elsewhere. And a lot of that is, when you’re going to destinations that only have a few hundred or a couple of thousand tourists a year, essentially you’re paying for the infrastructure for all the people that aren’t there and the difficulties of bringing in goods and supplies for the island. So it is an economic challenge, particularly for the locals when they have to deal with these kind of costs.
Chris: Excellent. Well, shall we move on to Kiribati?
Stefan: Absolutely. So Kiribati is, as I mentioned in the intro, is separated by huge geographies. So let’s start in the Gilbert Islands, and this would be the far western island chain that is the current seat of the country and quite overpopulated on the main atoll, Tarawa, which should be familiar to many from the World War II battle fought there.
Chris: And I am familiar with it, but not necessarily everybody is. We’re talking about a naval battle that caused a lot of sunken Japanese ships, which is one of the reasons why it’s well-known.
Stefan: Absolutely, and it was one of the first major successes of a US Marine landing in the Pacific. Essentially, the Japanese guessed wrong of which side would be invaded and the US Marines guessed correctly. So this island, I’m a big World War II history buff of Micronesia. This island has the most extensive World War II sites that you can see and rivals in the region – Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal – in terms of what you can see left over from World War II.
Chris: And you say a lot left over, what is left over to see?
Stefan: Along the beaches, you’ll see different guns that are still in place. You’ll see various bunkers that the Japanese built in the streets of the atoll. You’ll see the former hospital, the former headquarters, all of these partially bombed out. And Islanders have just gone about their lives. So that former hospital, for instance, people built their houses around it and tie their hammocks to the walls of the old hospital. So they’ve integrated it into their lives. There is a few wrecks immediately offshore on the north side of the atoll that you can wade out without diving and see some of that. And then, there is a time capsule that the US Forces have put there that will be opened in another half century, that is a small memorial to the US Forces there, and that’s in the back of a government recreation center’s backyard.
Chris: Now, one thing that we’re gonna have a little trouble, when people are trying to look up what we’re talking about on the internet, and we’re looking up Kiribati, they’re gonna have a little difficulty with that.
Stefan: So that’s the language point you’re bringing out and, as I understand, it’s Hawaiian missionaries that translated the language and added a Roman script. So when you see “ti”, that is “s”. So the country that looks like Kiribati is “Kirabas.” The capital area of Tarawa is spelled B-E-T-I-O, but it’s pronounced “Beso.” So you have to get that in your head, and I didn’t learn any of the other pronunciations all that authentically, but you have to change the “ti” into the “s” sound or you’re going to have a real heck of a time communicating.
Chris: So what else would you recommend we do while we’re in Kiribati?
Stefan: So in Tarawa itself, the major thing is the World War II walking tour. In this…I’ll insert, just finding information on each of these countries is very difficult and very scarce despite all the online resources. And this will sound strange, but the best resources are still the “Moon Micronesia Guide Book” published in 2003, and the “Lonely Planet: South Pacific and Micronesia 2006 Edition.” In 2007, the BBC bought a stake of “Lonely Planet” and subsequent editions have gotten progressively reduced coverage. Micronesia disappeared in 2009 and Tuvalu went down to a paragraph in 2012. So both of these books, you can get very cheaply from online sources such as Amazon. Not all that much changes on the islands. The restaurants and accommodation change but the various sites and that are there, so I used both of those guides to plan my walking tour of the World War II sites.
In Tarawa, there’s also a café called Chatterbox not too far from the airport that has smoothies and coffees and other things that local expats hanker after. They organize tours as well. I found it quite expensive for what they were offering and that I was able to do on my own using these old resources. So I definitely recommend those two books for anyone looking at any of the Micronesia islands.
Chris: Excellent. And just tell me more about the walking tour you did.
Stefan: So, I essentially started in the airport area, and there is one road up and down the main Tarawa atoll, and one of the gentlemen at our guesthouse was a New Zealand construction worker who was just finishing a project of trying to repave sections of this road. And when you think that there’s only one road in the country where you can’t stop traffic, we saw this poor man with his little paving tools in the heat each day as we went back and forth. It was an extraordinary challenge.
But you can hop on any bus in the direction you wanna go, and the atoll widens out in certain areas and there’s different settlements and towns, and then it gets very narrow to where there’s only a causeway into the main administrative and, sort of, capital center of Betio where most of the sites are mentioned. So if you walk around the coast, the southern coast there, you’ll see various bunkers, gun emplacements, as well as families and children playing on them. And then, walking through different parts of the neighborhoods using the “Lonely Planet 2006” I was able to, for instance, find the time capsule left by the US Forces. Much of this is fairly well hidden so, without an accurate map or a tour guide, you would only see a small part of it as you walk around the island.
Chris: Interesting, and those being the best resources to get there, okay. And you’re not walking the whole length of the island this time, this one’s a little larger.
Stefan: This one’s quite large, and one of the alternatives if you stay longer is you can head north past the airport – the area is called Buota – where the road ends and then there’s little informal ferries that can take you across some of the next several islands of the atoll. And there’s a few basic eco-lodges in these places that you would need prior arrangement to book. And by basic, I mean there is a little over-water bungalow that has no running water, no electricity, it’s just the shack and whatever you bring in. So if you really wanna disconnect and get away from it all, these could be of interest. Anything further afield in the Gilberts requires huge time commitments, waiting for government boats or government flights that may or may not operate to schedule. So Buota, the end of the road is as far as I went and, if I had stayed longer, I might have spent a night or two in those eco-lodges.
Chris: And then, I think I was conflating Tarawa with Truk when I was thinking of it was a place for wreck diving.
Stefan: Correct. So Truk in the Federated States of Micronesia is famed as the best World War II wreck diving in the world. That is a separate destination. The issue with the atolls in Tarawa and throughout Kiribati is both dangerous environmental conditions as well as tremendous pollution. So, having so many people living together on a very narrow stretch of land with very little water supplies means that the beach and the immediate lagoon is also the latrine for the island, as well as a lot of waste and refuse ends up in the water. So these are not ones that you necessarily want to jump out and go swimming in.
Chris: Now, is there more of that in the outer islands which wouldn’t have quite the population?
Stefan: Yeah. So, if you take that end of the road up to Buota, that’s where the locals say you can start going in the water and swimming and then where those eco-lodges are. That’s probably clean and safe.
Chris: That’s where the eco-lodges are.
Stefan: It’s right around the urban areas that, unfortunately, the environmental conditions are so harsh, the pollution is quite severe. And actually leading into the other half of Kiribati, the government has made a huge initiative to resettle people from Tarawa – over 2,000 miles away – to Kiritimati Atoll in the Line Islands which is the other half of the country, just in an effort to reduce crowding on Tarawa.
Chris: Are those islands larger or it’s just they were less populated?
Stefan: Kiritimati is larger. How much of it is inhabitable, I should say, is maybe a question…a lot of is salt flat. So if we go all the way to Kiritimati Island which is the main center and the only commercial airport in the Line Islands, you actually have a two-day trip through Fiji, so there’s no domestic air service, there’s no longer a Kiribati National Airline. So you have quite a journey if you’re in Kiribati going between Tarawa and Kiritimati Island. It’s very much…even more remote than any of the islands we’ve discussed before.
Chris: Can you tell me more about Kiritimati Island?
Stefan: Kiritimati Island, Kiribati, not to be confused with Christmas Island, Australia, is one of the harder destinations to reach in the world. There’s one weekly flight on Fiji Airways. You have the option of a day trip departing from Fiji and returning to Fiji, or you have the option of flying from Honolulu where the flight continues and spending eight days there. Most tourists end up choosing one day unless they’re avid fishermen because Kiritimati Island is known amongst hardcore fishers for its claim to be one of the best fishing destinations in the world for its bone fish Some grizzled old fishermen, including an Ex-Marine from Texas hanging out in the Betio lodge all the way over in Tarawa, simply said, “Ain’t no fishing better than Kiritimati Island.” So the main activity in Kiritimati Island is incredibly pricey fishing junkets.
There’s very little tourism elsewhere. They’re opening up potential routes to Phoenix Islands not too far away, but that really is the main thing other than some lagoon tours. So that’s what I signed up for. It took quite a bit of time to find a responsive local provider. I eventually found one called Ikari House which is in the main settlement called London, which is across the atoll from the other settlement, Paris, and they arranged a day of bone fishing. I had never been fly fishing before. The first thing I learned is they provide all the equipment except the boots and, in my sandals, my feet got burned with marks that showed for months for standing for hours in a shin-high water in the lagoon, learning how to fly fish for these very aggressive bone fish
Chris: Now, was this the day trip or did you do the week-long stay?
Stefan: I did the day trip from Fiji. I mean, it’s 18 hours versus 18 hours plus 7 days, and that flight famously, in the past, was quite unreliable. Actually, on my flight were two US government officials flying in to inspect the firefighting equipment in Kiritimati Island, to make sure that it is able to meet international airline guidelines so that they could continue flying to the US on this route. And it did pass because the flight did go on to Honolulu and came back later in the day.
Realistically, the cost of fishing or any of the activities are quite expensive, and there’s not all that much else you can do. You can take some road trips the entire length of the atoll. It goes in a huge crescent through various salt flats. Many of the areas are uninhabitable, so there is scenery that you could drive through for an entire day, but accommodation options, food, all of that, are quite limited and quite expensive. So I did make the choice to spend a day as do many people that do venture out that way.
Chris: Okay. And you mentioned, “Not to be confused with,” and we’ve done another show on the other Christmas Island with Lee Abbamonte, if I remember correctly. This one is, of course, spelled similar to Kiribati, so it’s K-I-R-I-T-I-M-A-T-I, Kiritimati, just the way it sounds.
Stefan: Yeah, and they say, “Kareesa-miss,” a bit like that. So you get the Kiribati spelling, it is an interesting one.
Any destination I go to, I try to find what makes it stand out. There’s many places that have beaches but, something like Kiritimati, what it really stands out for is the bone fishing. And while I was fishing, which is actually quite difficult, the reason they’re famous to try to fish is they’re small but extremely powerful and snap your line easily. While I was learning and failing, a manta ray swam up to me to laugh at me for a while, and I was essentially able to pet it for about an hour while it hovered around and mocked at my poor fishing ability.
Chris: You wouldn’t necessarily be projecting on that manta ray, would you?
Stefan: He was entirely too interested for it to be any other reason. But that shows in some ways, as I mentioned, that there are challenges of pollution in the built-up areas, but there’s also certain opportunities to see pristine environment, and to hang out with a manta ray in shin-deep water was a spectacular experience.
Chris: Well, and historically, this is actually where the UK did their H-bomb test, so not in Kiritimati Island, but close by.
Stefan: And I’m not as familiar with the history of those tests. I have been to Marshall Islands where the US did the testing in Bikini Atoll and it is fascinating to dig around. For instance, in Majuro, Marshall Islands, there’s a center that represents the Bikini Islanders and their continued work to return to their homelands or to receive compensation for the destruction of their homeland.
Chris: Besides being remote, difficult to get to, and the visa being so difficult, any other warnings that we should have before we go to these destinations?
Stefan: It’s really the scheduling and the cost of finding a way to make it work. So, as I said, they’re wonderful places on their own, they’re just much more expensive to get to and your schedule needs to work around their schedule in terms of the flights to make it work. But you won’t meet friendlier people, the opportunities to dive into the culture. Essentially, most people live by the roadside on these narrow atolls and you’re welcomed to join in. There’s many churches and schools active where you can go in and, for somebody such as myself that flies a tremendous amount for business or leisure, going to a place where…in an island of 10,000 people where 500 or 1,000 show up to greet the flight because they’re all greeting some extended family and showering them with shells and flowers and that, that’s a spectacular experience that reminds us how wonderful it is to be able to travel and to go around in the world as many of us do.
Chris: And speaking of locals, the most memorable person you met?
Stefan: The most memorable local person I met was a gentleman that was recommended by my guesthouse in Nauru, and he has a pickup truck, and he’s the one who took me up to top side on the island and showed me around. I must confess, I did get a little worried when he stopped for a few beers to have on the road, but then I realized, essentially, it’s like a NASCAR track, going very slowly to drive around in a circle on the island, and the local color he showed…and I mentioned those two Somali women out grocery shopping, they actually rent an apartment in one of his families’ houses. So the local culture and the welcome that he showed was representative of many tremendous people that, generally, in these countries, people are not incredibly outgoing in terms of approaching tourists, but they’re incredibly friendly and gracious if you do respectfully approach and strike up a conversation with them.
Chris: Excellent. Anything else we should cover before we get to my last four questions?
Stefan: Going to these, the weather is the same year-round so you’re not worried about the weather, but you are worried about Australian and New Zealand school holidays which seem to be year around and constant. I mentioned harder times around November and December as well as July and August, but especially New Zealand seems to have rolling holidays that wreak havoc with flight schedules. So if you’re seeing incredibly high prices, you might just be looking at yet another one of the holiday breaks in those countries, and by shifting your plan by a few weeks you might save quite a bit of money on the trip.
And lastly, because the flight service is so limited to this region, it does make sense to combine it with a trip to Australia and New Zealand. Even flight service from Asia is quite limited, and there’s no non-stops from Europe to any of these islands. There is good news for American-originating tourists that Fiji Airways now has a seasonal San Francisco flight in addition to the regular Los Angeles flight that allows a little bit greater access. And I think Fiji is an up-and-coming, maybe a Hawaii of the future, in terms of just incredible variety and great value as a future Pacific destination that can have mainstream appeal beyond the Australians and New Zealanders that take advantage of it currently.
Chris: Excellent. You’re standing in the prettiest spot that you saw in these islands. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Stefan: For me, it was the World War II sites on the beaches of Tarawa, seeing the children playing on former gun turrets and just having a great time looking at the sunset.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Micronesia.”
Stefan: I mentioned that guy that…New Zealand guy that was paving the road in unbelievable heat, and these kind of moments where, essentially, cars run until they disintegrate on the side of the road, and people find ways to scramble together and do things with very limited resources that are just incredible for their ingenuity and they’re fun.
Chris: See, I thought you were gonna mention the guy with a hard hat and the coconuts. That’s the one that made me laugh.
Stefan: Oh yeah, he was a delight, and it was very practical as well to see that.
Chris: Now, in terms of the heat, you’ve mentioned a couple of times, so I’m picturing this as the tropics but without the trade winds that we get, for instance, when we go to Hawaii.
Stefan: Yes, and without the ability to just dive in the water for a cool dip.
Chris: Good point, too. Okay.
Stefan: So you really want to adjust your schedules to very early in the morning and to the evenings, and that’s really when people are out and about, and you’ll meet them. In the middle of the days, really, you should have limited activity to just handle it. It is absolutely punishing to be out in some of these climates. So the locals know what they’re doing and follow their lead.
Chris: Okay. Finish this thought, “You really know you’re in Micronesia when…,” what?
Stefan: When you’re on an atoll and you can see both sides of the ocean and there’s only a strip of land separating you, and that’s the entire distance of the country in that point, and seeing that somebody’s house is right there and what it is to think of a life that’s so different from my own experience.
Chris: Well, I think you were talking….we didn’t talk about it. You were talking about going up country at one point. I think that was on…
Chris: Nauru, okay. And I think up country was total elevation of 273 feet, is what I saw when I looked up, and that’s kind of dependent on the tide, too.
Stefan: And that’s what makes it special to travel somewhere in the Pacific, is seeing how…I mean, whether it’s global warming or the distance or the traditional cultures, how all of this fits together and makes for experiences and people that will teach you so much just by having such a vastly different daily experience than, likely, your own.
Chris: Excellent. If you had to summarize Micronesia in three words, what three words would you use?
Stefan: Atoll, runway, and heat.
Chris: And heat, excellent. Our guest, again, has been Stefan. Stefan, where can people read more about your travels?
Stefan: I blog on a website called Rapid Travel Chai. I write about trips for those of us that are pressed for time, that have our full-time jobs. So I focus a lot on what you can do in short weekend trips or short trips rather than a lot of the perpetual travel blogs that are out there. I also teach at events, mainly around the US – such as Frequent Traveler University as well as schools – to share my love of travel, and teaching practical travel skills.
Chris: And I have to ask, so you accumulated quite a number of countries – about three times how many I have been to, I think – and yet you are not a full-time nomadic traveler. Were you at some time to get to that number?
Stefan: No, I’ve never been, and I do things very quickly. The longest trip I’ve taken is four weeks, and some countries I visit quite lengthy, others are shorter such as some of the ones we discussed. I’ve always gotten work in international business where I’ll have some flexibility to add trips or vacations, but it’s been…Essentially, starting out after college, I lived in China for eight years, traveled every province of China over those years, then started expanding around Asia, and then slowly added piece by piece, added these. And in the last year or so, I’ve been focused a bit more on the Pacific as well as western and central Africa. So I’m saving a few choice ones for the very end. I’ve still not been to Italy, I don’t count transits, so Italy is still waiting out there and trying to figure out what will be the last one.
A lot of what I do is what sometimes is called travel hacking, so learning the ins and outs of the frequent flyer programs to make a trip like these Pacific trips possible where the cash cost would be way beyond my means, otherwise, and I don’t have the time, flexibility, to seek other transportation options. So something like Fiji Airways, they partner with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, so I was able to book a number of these tickets that otherwise would have cost several thousand dollars using my frequent flyer miles to be able to make this possible on a shorter timeframe.
Chris: Excellent. And do you have any particular articles about the destinations we’ve been talking about on Rapid Travel Chai that we can refer people to? What’s the best one that they should look at?
Stefan: My blogging, I must confess, is about three years behind in trips, so between work and travel…The hardest part of blogging is writing trip reports, so I post a lot of tips. I post articles, frequent flyer deals that come out. The trip backlog grows and grows. I do, under the same name, have Instagram and Facebook pages where I reliably post what I’m doing and little tips along the way. My username is same as the blog, Rapid Travel Chai, where you can dig around, and I’ve got a number of readers that keep egging me on to post some of these, but some day, I will catch up. The issue is it’s hard to be a traveler and be a travel blogger.
Chris: I completely understand.
Stefan: And a husband, and an employee.
Chris: Your best recent travel tip?
Stefan: One trip that I’m reminded of where I’ve just been the past few days driving around mainland Greece is that many people think of traveling by Europe entirely by group tours or by trains, and I found often the most economical way is to rent a car. My rental car in Greece is costing me, I think, €12 a day for unlimited mileage, and I paid extra to have an automatic. Fuel adds a little bit extra, but the amount of freedom to explore is so much greater. Last night, I was driving back from the monasteries of Meteora down to Thebes and there was a local small town carnival that I was able to pull off the road and enjoy lamb off the spits and hobnob with the locals that I never would have had that flexibility on the train or the group tour, and I probably had been saving money in it. So don’t forget about cars when you travel to Europe.
Chris: Excellent. No, we’ve done actually more car travel than train travel in Europe for our family, especially because once you get two or three people, then the difference in cost can be significant, too. Excellent.
Stefan: And once you look at a train ticket price in Switzerland, you figure out how to drive a manual and how to rent a car in Europe. That one ticket is the same as a rental car for a week, it seems.
Chris: Excellent. Well, Stefan, thank you so much for coming on Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for travel and for Micronesia.
Stefan: Thank you. I’ve been a big fan of your show and I appreciate it. Happy travels, everyone.
Chris: In News of the Community, I heard a little while back feedback on The Finger Lakes episode. Unfortunately, I’ve lost who sent this and I apologize.
It said, “I just listened to The Finger Lakes episode and it was fun to hear an episode about the area where I grew up. I just wanted to add some comments about some other areas of The Finger Lakes that weren’t covered in the podcast. I grew up just north of Ithaca, so my focus was a bit north of the Elmira/Corning area. Ithaca is a fun town to spend a day or two, or three. Check out the fabulous farmer’s market, wander Ithaca Commons, explore Cornell University Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell Plantations, and the Laboratory of Ornithology. Also, there’s the Paleontological Research Institution/Museum of the Earth. Hike and swim at Buttermilk, Treman, and,” don’t know how to say this, “Taughannock State Parks. For more serious hiking, head over to the Finger Lakes National Forest. For dinner, there’s Moosewood, Just a Taste, Maxie’s Supper Club, Mia’s, and Northstar. Or, for something more casual, try Ithaca Bakery, Wegman’s, or Viva Taqueria. Also, Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg is lovely. There’s also a great iceberg in Central New York: Purity in Ithaca, the Dairy Bar on the Cornell Campus, Cayuga Lake Creamery in Interlaken, and Cream at the Top in King Ferry. For other fun food adventures, check out the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail, and the Finger Lake Cider House. A couple of other interesting towns worth checking out, Seneca Falls has the Women’s Rights National Historic Park and, for an old-school dinner experience, head over to Connie’s Diner in Waterloo, and Auburn has the William Seward House and the Harriet Tubman House, and some excellent beer and food at the Prison City Brewery.”
And I’ll put all of that in the show notes, and please remind me who wrote that and I’ll give you credit in the show notes as well.
And the one I wanna pick out there is Moosewood because Jim also pointed out that we had forgotten about Moosewood, and Moosewood is a vegetarian restaurant that has been there forever. When I went to college in upstate in New York in the ’80s, we cooked sometimes from the…in fact, we still cook sometimes from the Moosewood cookbook. And so I’ll underline that one as well.
With that, we’re gonna end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. Remember that we still have openings on the trips to both India and Japan. Check out the Amateur Traveler website under Booking Travel. If you have a question, send me an email at email@example.com or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram as Chris2X and, as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.