Saturday 7 January 2017

Christmas in Butartari - A Long Read

Nativity Set made by Victoria


{We are now well into the New Year, but the combination of Christmas festivities and low energy from tropical tummies has delayed this letter.  We hope you had a lovely holiday season, wherever you were!}

We spent a beautiful Christmas week in Butaritari Atoll, the northernmost of the Gilbert Group in Kiribati.  It was recommended to us by other cruisers, and we loved it!  We are only about the third boat they have seen here this year, so it has been fun to have lots of little children staring at us, touching us, and practicing their English on us - they have rarely seen I-Matang (white people) up close before.  We had a surprisingly good passage north from Tarawa and found the people of Butaritari to be warm and friendly.  On Christmas Day, we had the privilege of watching a singing and dancing competition involving villagers from all over the atoll.

It is an overnight passage between Tarawa and Butaritari.  After leaving the lagoon around mid-day, we spent several hours in the lee of Tarawa, with steady 10-15 kts winds forward of the beam: these were perfect conditions to hoist our newly re-cut staysail (this sail runs up the inner forestay and looks a bit like a baby genoa).  Ever since we first used it and it didn't fly well because it was not shaped properly, we have come up with excuses to try it "next time".  Well, "next time" finally arrived, and it worked beautifully: it steadied the boat, and gave us a little extra speed.   We only took it down when we started motor-sailing near Butaritari, and the back edge began to rub on the shrouds.  The nicest thing about this is that now that we have flown the sail in benign conditions, it will be less daunting to fly it in windier conditions.  Its wind limits are much higher than the limits for our full genoa, and it will be much more efficient than our reefed genoa.  Most Stevens 47 owners swear by their staysails, and now we feel excited to be joining that club :)

We had been bracing for big seas, but as it turned out, even when we were no longer protected by Tarawa or Abiang (the next atoll to the north), the seas were relatively benign.  I kept anticipating worse conditions, but finally the wind died (as forecast) and I realized that it would simply be a lovely passage.  What a relief!  I had that idyllic night watch with plenty of stars and no squalls that I always hope for :)

Even with easy conditions, we find one-night passages tiring - we have the broken sleep of night watches without the benefit of long daytime off-watches.  Given that throughout the Pacific Islands Sunday afternoons are for resting, the obvious thing to do was to take a siesta when we arrived.  When we brought our letter to the police station on the Monday morning, no one seemed bothered that we hadn't rushed ashore :) 

There are quite a number of villages in Butaritari.  We anchored right off the "King's Wharf" (built by the Japanese during WWII) near the main government center at the village of Temwanokunuea, anticipating a move to one or more villages during our ten-day stay (as I had read about in the various cruising guides), but we were so well received here that we spent the whole week in the one spot.  This also meant that we could go ashore in any tide, which was not the case at the other villages, where low tide means a long hike across the reef.  WWII history remains near the surface in this atoll; the remains of a Japanese Flying boat are right by the side of the path from the wharf to the village, and there are numerous wrecks within the lagoon.  We were fortunate to meet a man called Ari on Monday; he is the Education Officer for the Island, and not only was his English very good, but he and his family were kind and generous hosts and friends. 

As we cleared in, we also enjoyed chatting with the woman in the Island Council office.  We asked if there was anything going on that we should be aware of (given that it was the week before Christmas) and she told us that there would be traditional dancing on Christmas Day.  She almost seemed surprised that we would be interested in attending, but we assured her that we would like to be there. 

We had heard that most of the islands in the Gilbert Group (which stretches from about 4 deg north to 4 deg south) were very dry, with minimal agriculture; part of the reason we had chosen to visit Butaritari was that, since they get more rain, they enjoy a greater abundance and variety of fruits.  When we asked about buying fruit, we were told that it was available two villages away, in Ukiangang, at the southwestern corner of the atoll.  We decided that a four-km walk would be character building for all of us, and set off one morning after breakfast.  Ari was a bit dubious when we told him what we were up to (in fact, he asked if we were sure we wanted to walk, especially with our kids) but we assured him that this was why they had legs, and that we would be fine :) 

We set off from the center of the village along the one road on the island, using our one word of the I-Kiribati language to call out a friendly "Mauri" (hello) to everyone we saw.  People waved back at us, but seemed a bit surprised to see us walking.  An hour later, walking along a hard pack road, with the sun approaching its zenith, swamp taro growing in huge woven baskets on either side of us, and the next village not yet in sight, I began to wonder if Ari was right!  Thankfully, we began to see houses a few minutes later, and soon we came upon a man clanging a gong in a church yard: he was marking 12-noon for his village by beating on what appeared to be an empty propane cylinder hanging upside-down between two posts.  We asked him if he knew where we could buy fruit, and he indicated that we should follow him across the yard to his Buia (home).  The man was wearing a colourful woven head band, and he turned out to be the lay Catechist for the Catholic Church in that village. 

He led us to one of two thatch-roofed platforms at the back of the compound, where he introduced us to his wife and invited us to take a seat; we kicked off our shoes, and sat on the edge of the platform, which was about three feet off the ground.  Given that our grasp of the I-Kiribati language consisted of one word when we arrived ("Hello") and two words when we left ("Thank you" - Ko Rabwa - don't pronounce the 'w' - don't ask me why) and their English was only slightly better, we shared many long smiley silences and much infectious laughter.  The man's wife had a kettle of water beside her to which she was adding heaping tablespoons of sugar; it turned out to be sweetened cold water which was poured into plastic mugs for each of us.  Tea was offered as well, poured out from a large (and ubiquitous in the Pacific) plastic lidded box originally used to hold a vast quantity (10 kg?) of Breakfast Crackers.  We weren't sure of the water (had it been boiled, or was it just in a kettle for carrying?), but we didn't want to be rude, so we took tiny sips and hoped for the best.  More welcome were the green coconuts that the local boys were soon sent to fetch.  There is nothing nicer on a hot day than the fizzy water from a young coconut!  When Benjamin fussed because all the coconuts had been emptied, the boys were dispatched for more! 

We were asked if we had had lunch.  We indicated that we had some crackers, which we shared around to the man, his wife, and the various adults and children who shyly came and went, and the next thing we knew, we were being offered plates of rice and slices of canned meat, along with a bowl of soapy water in which we could wash our hands.  In keeping with local custom, everyone waited while we ate; later, I saw the Catechist and two other men eat, however, I never saw the women or children eat.  Once convinced that we were full, our host brought out several pillows, following his wife's directions to cover them in new pillowcases from a nearby suitcase filled with carefully folded linens, and we were invited engage in the I-Kiribati custom of lying down after a meal to rest in the heat.  I never entirely understood the community/family relationship around this platform, but it seemed that the man we had met was the outgoing Catechist, a younger man was the incoming (2017) Catechist, there with his friendly wife and five children, including a young toddler. The young wife's English was quite good, and from her, I learned that they had just spent the last two years at Abemama Atoll where her husband completed the CCL - Christian Community Leader - course in preparation for taking over his duties in this, her home village. 

You might be wondering about the progress of our expedition - we were on a quest for produce, but so far there has been no mention of fruit.  We were similarly in the dark about the plan.  It seemed that we were spending a long time sitting and visiting, eating and drinking and resting - this in itself was an enjoyable adventure for the day - but there was no fruit to be seen.  It appeared that we might still be sitting there, nodding and smiling, if our friend Ari hadn't come along on his motorbike.  He had driven from his office in Temwanokunuea to look for us, asking people along the way if they had seen the I-Matang; the children in this village excitedly told him where we were.  After an animated exchange in I-Kiribati, during which we could pick out words like "mango" and "banan" we waited and sat some more.  At least with Ari there, we could have some semblance of a conversation, as he could translate.  Before long, two young men returned on a motorbike with a papaya and a squash in an empty 20 kg rice bag (we have since seen these all over Kiribati, used for everything from holding garbage to decorating homes and burial sites, cut into tiny strips and flying in the wind).  They would not let us pay for them - these were gifts for us, because we were guests of the Catechist.  A stalk of bananas would follow by truck :)

With our fruit and vegetable needs met, Ari set about shuttling us back to the Island Council Office: he would not hear of us walking!  By this time, Benjamin had nursed to sleep, so we elected Max to take the first ride, followed by Victoria and Johnathan, with Benjamin and me on the last trip to maximize nap time.  In Max and Ari's absence, all the coconut water we had consumed made its presence felt, and I asked about a toilet.  I was greeted by an expression of abject horror, and I immediately wished I could retract my question!  After an urgent conversation, the young wife was called over, and she beckoned for us to come with her.  I left Benjamin sleeping beside Victoria, and Johnathan and I followed her out of the compound, across the road, and along some jungle paths until we arrived at the compound of her brother's family: she told us that the toilet at the church was full, and we would use theirs instead.  The toilet was unlike any I had seen before - it had free-standing walls of woven pandanus, and the bowl was carved from a beautiful piece of polished wood, which was plumbed right into the ground with a plastic pipe.  A pan of water with a floating cup seemed to be for flushing, and a bar of soap was available for washing hands.  Expressing gratitude for her brother's hospitality (Ko rabwa, Ko rabwa), we made our way back to the church to find Ari waiting for Johnathan.  While he drove the kids to meet Max, I had a chance to watch the Catechist's wife sewing on an old Singer machine.  I saw several like it in Butaritari, and they were beautiful, decorated with inlaid wood, and equipped with a hand-turned flywheel; they were perfectly suited for use by someone without electricity sitting on the floor.  With the post-lunch rest time over, she was back at work sewing a dress for Christmas.  When the thread broke, she used the nearest child to re-thread her needle, then carried on sewing; it was fun to see such inter-generational teamwork :)

Finally, it was my turn to speed down the road towards the village with the now-awake Benjamin in the carrier, his head bouncing under my chin.  Even though I knew Ari was a careful and prudent driver, and even though I could watch the speedometer and see that we were going very slowly in vehicular terms, and even though I could see that he was avoiding all the potholes in the road, I hung on during the 10-minute drive so tightly that my fingers were numb, and I was relieved that it 'wasn't my day' when we arrived safely back at Ari's office to meet Max and the other kids, who were figuring out the math problems written on Ari's wall.  Sometimes Canadian safety standards are literally a world away, and I just need to be grateful for 'travelling mercies' as my grandfather would have said!

We weren't finished drinking coconuts for the day.  When we got back to town, Ari invited us to his buia for a short visit as well :)  He has a beautiful family, and we met his wife, his five children, and several sisters and aunties, and admired puppies, baby chicks, pigs, and numerous other creatures.  Not only did Ari share his delicious young coconuts with us, but he sent us home with some to enjoy aboard Fluenta as well.  We had wondered if we would make any connections of friendship in Butaritari, and this day set those concerns entirely at ease!  One of the funniest moments for me was looking up and realizing that we were being filmed by a teenager with a tablet. I had been a little worried about taking too many pictures with our camera, but once I realized that we were also the subject of memory-capturing, I stopped fussing and started snapping photos like the tourist that I really am!  There is no 3G here, but it turned out that the Internet has arrived on Butaritari after all - there is an Internet cafe near the council offices with wifi at $5/hour, and the girls were happy to captivate Benjamin with the music videos they had downloaded! 

The week before Christmas progressed with a combination of boat jobs (Max changed every filter and zinc on the boat in one day), laundry (I finally caught up all the diapers and clothing that had been collecting, but left the sheets and towels for another time ... even this took several days of creatively rigging clothes lines that would enable things to dry in the squally weather), little walks ashore, and secret Christmas preparations (Victoria was madly crocheting (at 6am so no one could see what she was doing) and baking (gingerbread house) and Johnathan spent an afternoon with Max using the Fein and Dremel tools to carve a wooden plane of his own design for Benjamin).  Max took the kids snorkelling on one of the WWII wrecks and they had some fun picking out the various compartments and components of the big vessel.  When he took his paddleboard in the other direction, towards the shore, he found himself surrounded by local kids who wanted to try it out and he even got a dinner invitation!  Victoria and I went ashore the afternoon following our fruit and veg expedition to find the bananas at Ari's; they were confused when we only took a few hands rather than the entire stalk, but with a vision of little black lady finger bananas being wasted, I persisted and left the rest of the stalk with their big family. 

It was fun to see the children in the village become more comfortable with us as the week progressed: they would come and shake our hands or give us High-5's and practice their English: "Hello, What is your name? What is your father's name? Bye-Bye"   We learned later while reading Martin Troost's book based in Kiribati (which kept us chuckling out loud all week) that a typical I-Kiribati introduction consists of the person's name, the father's name, and where the family is from (we would be Elizabeth, Daughter of Wendall of Canada or Max, Son of Simon of England).  Even without much language in common, we were still surrounded by children on each visit, and we felt very welcomed in the village.  That being said, I found that I missed the presence of our more extroverted kid-boat compatriots from previous seasons in convoy, as it took some additional motivation early in the week to leave Fluenta and go ashore without someone else initiating the schedule! 

On Christmas Eve, Max and I went ashore to bring a small gift to Ari and to confirm the details for the following day.  We found out that there would be a church service at 1000, and that the dancing would follow around noon.  When we saw him, Ari said that they had been waiting for us the previous day: there was more fruit for us back in the other village.  Ari's son was recruited to go get his mother's motorbike, and soon the four of us were zipping down the now-familiar road (I found out later that he was only 13! In Butaritari, kids learn to ride the handlebars as toddlers, and their driving skills develop from there!)  Passing the church where we had been hosted, we turned into the jungle and followed what seemed to me to be a death-defying track between the trees (to anyone else, it was a wide and safe foot path...) and we were taken to a home where there were a number of papaya trees.  This time, it was the man at work on the sit-down Singer sewing machine, but he set his reading glasses aside and gave us his full attention as he invited us to sit in his buia.  Ari explained our mission, and a teenaged girl was sent off into the trees.  She and her sister returned a few minutes later with their arms full of papayas.  After some discussion in I-Kiribati, Ari told us the couple would like $5 for the half-dozen papayas of varying sizes.  Having braced ourselves for them to be a few dollars each, we quickly agreed, and included a little extra in the handful of coins I passed over.  The scene was repeated a few minutes later when we came to a home where there was a basket of tiny mangoes: Ari and his son carefully counted out the good ones, and we left with 30 for $3. 

Back on the bikes, Ari had a surprise for us.  We drove a short way down a different road, and arrived at what felt like an extraordinarily sacred space: an open air church had been created in a clearing overlooking the Pacific, with a sweeping and majestic view of the breakers crashing on the outer reef.  From the wooden stations of the cross around the perimeter to the kneeling benches and the stone/coral altar, almost all the materials were local and natural.  A stone-bordered center aisle had been created with small pieces of coral.  A stone and mortar altar and a taller structure which housed the various statues of Jesus and Mary provided a focal point.  The atmosphere was one of stillness and peace.  Walking into the space felt like a prayer.  Quietly, we asked Ari if it would be OK to take pictures. "That is why I brought you here," he said.  What a gift!

We had another surprise in store that afternoon.  The young mom who had been nursing a toddler across from me at Ari's on the first afternoon was resting in the Buia with a newborn baby girl!  She had given birth in the local clinic after we had left that evening!  The baby was a few weeks early, but the birth had gone well.  Despite her understandable discomfort and fatigue, the mom was radiant.

While I was chatting with the mom, Ari was organizing several of his kids and family members to do a demonstration of the I-Kiribati dancing for us.  They had some music on a phone, but it was deemed too quiet, so one of them was sent in search of a "Flash": a flash drive that could be inserted into the radio to play the music at a louder volume. Yet again, we had the juxtaposition of longstanding tradition (the dancing) with modern technology (boom boom music on a USB stick).  We felt quite honoured to have a private command performance, and we enjoyed the preview of the following day's festivities. 

With more coconuts to share with the kids, we returned to Fluenta for the last of the Christmas Eve preparations.  The nice thing about not having stores to rush out to, is that we weren't rushing out to the stores!  I had done most of my Christmas shopping on one enjoyable outing with my cousin while I was in Canada (while her husband took the big kids to the local climbing wall - thanks Holly & Stephen!) so for better or worse what I had was what I had.  Of course, I still burnt the midnight oil (leopards don't lose their spots that fast) but it wasn't as late as in previous years.  Victoria and I had decided weeks previously that we wanted fresh Christmas bread for breakfast, but somehow that didn't translate into making the dough until after dinner; at midnight, I found myself kneading a combination of refrigerator dough and "Aunt Margaret's Christmas Bread" and hoping it wouldn't rise too much as I put it into the fridge in a plastic box.

We usually make the kids wait until at least 8am to wake us, but with 10am church on the schedule, we pushed it back an hour.  The deal we struck with them was that they could wake up as early as they wanted, but they couldn't wake us until the kettle was boiled and the bread was ready for the oven :)  Even with the cold of the fridge, the bread dough rose out of its box overnight, but Victoria salvaged enough of it to make some individual rolls and a long braid, which she set out to rise while we opened the gifts in our stockings. 

When Victoria opened the oven to bake the bread, it was stone cold: the propane tank that had had sufficient gas to boil the kettle had run out while pre-heating the oven... such is Christmas morning on a yacht, and a few minutes later, Max found himself on the back deck in the midst of a Butaritari squall, swapping the tanks in the rain.  We will replenish both in Majuro.  The well-risen bread was as tasty as ever when it finally came out of the oven, but we had to scramble a bit to get to church on time.

We had assumed that the service would be in the church in the village.  Instead, we found the huge Maneaba across the road to be packed with people: all the parishes joined together for the service.  We were quickly welcomed and ushered in to sit cross-legged on a linoleum mat on the floor.  Lingering outside didn't seem to be an option, so we hoped that Ari would see us when he arrived.  As the only I-Matangs there, we needn't have worried, and before long, he joined us, kindly providing English commentary throughout the morning, and telling us when to sit, stand or kneel.  Even though we didn't understand a word of the I-Kiribati language, it was beautiful to see the mix of traditional dancing and singing with the more familiar liturgy.  When the bible was brought in, and again when the elements for communion were brought up the center aisle, dancers and singers from different villages processed and sang in a traditional I-Kiribati style.  Benjamin, having been woken early (and against his will) to see the fruits of Santa's labours, actually fell asleep during the service, and I joined the ranks of women-with-babies who stayed seated on the floor when everyone else stood up.  Looking around and through a forest of shins and lavalavas (sulus), I had a sense of sharing in a marvelous sorority as I smiled at mothers and grandmothers with babies and small sleeping children, with whom I didn't need a common spoken language to share deep communication.

We had loosely anticipated a morning of church and dancing, with a return to Fluenta in the early afternoon, followed by the usual Canadian/Fluenta traditions of presents and a big roast dinner in the evening, but we told the kids to be prepared for the day to flow as it would flow.  Little did we know how much we would need to heed our own advice! Following the service, when it was announced that the dancing would be postponed until 1:30, we had our first inkling that the day might run longer than we had anticipated... 

We elected to stay at the Maneaba as two hours did not seem like enough time for a family round-trip to the boat, and we enjoyed some tea and Breakfast Crackers that were offered around.  When we realized that all the local families were back at their buias eating lunch, and all the out-of-town families had brought picnics, Max returned to Fluenta for the rest of Victoria's bread, jam, cheese, and dates - the quickest and most portable Christmas lunch I could think of!

Shortly before the afternoon's proceedings were to start, the very kind woman from the Island Council office asked if any of us would like to follow her to the toilet. After our experience earlier in the week, I hadn't had the nerve to ask again, so I was most grateful for her offer!  Victoria and I followed her to the priest's house, where we sat in the front room chatting with various folk (who were fascinated by the idea of taking our children on a multi-year educational voyage) while she mopped and wiped the bathroom - Victoria and I felt a bit like visiting dignitaries as we made our way to the facilities :) 

Returning to the Maneaba, we saw that the first group was ready to perform.  As they moved to the center of the Maneaba, we began to understand what we were seeing: each village was seated as a group around the outer wall of the Maneaba, with their performers dressed in an assigned colour of lavalava (turquoise, yellow, pink, red, etc) with white shirts or blouses on top.  In the first round, each of the village choirs (Max counted at least eight) performed a pair of assigned pieces, combined with marching, hand movements, and some theatrics.  One of these pieces was an I-Kiribati version of "Silent Night", and I found it surreal to be sitting on a hard floor, on Christmas Day, half way around the world from anyone beyond my immediate family, and listening to a familiar hymn with a Pacific Island twist. 

Every now and then, the crowd would burst into laughter.  Ari told us that it was normal in Kiribati to laugh when mistakes were made.  In fact, we learned that the groups were fined for mistakes, and Ari's choir, with most of the government workers, was fined $100, whereas groups from other, smaller, villages were only fined $20.  It was a humourous way to bring money into the church!

When the Choirs began their second round (this time it seemed to be pieces of their own choosing) we realized that we were sitting cross-legged for the long haul!  Thankfully, we had been given some pillows to lean against, but it was a shock to our Canadian bones to be sitting for so long. 

Finally, well into the afternoon, it was time for the dancing.  Once again, each village had a unique costume.  Many of the men wore woven pandanus mats tied around their waists with long black belts made of the braided hair of their mothers and sisters.  The women wore a kind of grass skirt over their lavalavas.  Everyone had some kind of head dress woven from pandanus and ribbons, as well as some kind of neck/chest adornment unique to their village.  Many groups had pandanus decorations tied at their wrists, forearms and upper arms that moved as they danced.  All the movements were precise and I could tell they had meaning, even if I didn't know what it was.  Some of the dances were love dances and some were war dances.  We didn't need to understand the language or the songs to recognize that these villagers would be formidable foes as they performed their fearsome battle dances!  With each dance group (ranging in size from three or four to several dozen) was a group of singers and drummers who offered an extraordinary accompaniment, with acapella singing, powerful drumming, and sometimes a guitar. 

At one point, Ari asked Max if he would like to move to the other side of the venue to obtain better pictures, so he was able to see the dancers from the judges' vantage point.  We had wondered about the fragrances we were noticing every now and again; Max could see that the dancers were being sprayed with perfume as they danced!  Despite many requests from our children throughout the afternoon to "go back to Fluenta ... pleeeeease" we stayed until the last dances were finished.  Our friend from the council office even brought us some food around 4:30: tasty chicken, rice, and fish.  We felt well cared for!  Ari's village performed near the end, and unlike some of the smaller villages, they had 31 dancers, all young people (including several of his children), as well as a big choir.  Even without my friendship bias, I would say that they had the most impressive performance and the most elaborate costumes :)  Finally, at about 6pm, and as Benjamin was waking up from his second nap of the day, we made our excuses and headed back to Fluenta for Christmas Day, Part II.

One aspect of the I-Kiribati Christmas celebration that I really enjoyed was that it was all about the community coming together, and not a bit about commercialism, gift-giving, or elves and reindeer.  There were plenty of preparations (dances to practice and costumes to weave) for days and days ahead of time but there was none of the stress usually associated with Christmas at home, of over-spending, choosing gifts, or overdoing parties and festivities.  This is a bit of a segue into the Fluenta Christmas, which was somewhere between our usual celebration and an I-Kiribati one :)

I had planned to arrive home mid-afternoon and quickly defrost the roast I had chosen back in Fiji, in time to cook it for an evening dinner; however, when we got back at 6:30, I realized that a change of plan (go with the flow) was necessary!  Instead of beef from the bottom of the freezer, we pulled chicken from the top.  We still had a bit of wrapping to do, so Max and I did 'divide and conquer' and I actually let him wrap some of the presents while I chopped vegetables and prepared the roast.  (It may go without saying that we sometimes have a different approach to the perfection required to cover presents with paper... it was rather freeing to realize that I didn't have to do it *all* myself, and as it turned out, Max's wrapping was perfectly lovely!)  I had carefully saved Sweet Potatoes, Squash, and Carrots from Fiji, and Potatoes from Tuvalu, in preparation for a Christmas dinner that would also include roast beef, Yorkshire puddings and gravy, but when first of all the sweet potatoes were full of tunnels that were full of black crawly bugs, and second of all I cut my thumb trying to cut them out, I decided that carrot sticks were vegetables, and that I would simplify the menu!  Again, freeing! 

With the parents' presents added to the stack that the kids had been wrapping for days, we turned our attention to opening them, and spent a lovely evening sharing gifts with one another while the unstuffed (for speed of cooking) chicken roasted.  Victoria and Johnathan had been busy making presents, so it was a joy to watch everyone open their gifts from them.  In addition to the gifts I had managed to bring home in my duffel bag, we had a wooden F-18, a crocheted nativity set, a braided floor rug, a Lego set with hand-made step-by-step directions, and a duct-tape boat card holder.  Benjamin was in his element, looking for the big "B" on the sides of packages, and opening anything in reach when he couldn't find something for himself!

In now-typical Fluenta style, Christmas dinner (roast chicken and carrot sticks) was served at 11pm, followed by Christmas Pudding and Vanilla Cream sauce (my mother's family's recipe, and really, in my childhood opinion, the only reason for either dinner or pudding!) By bedtime, it seemed that we had enjoyed two different Christmases on the same day!

Boxing Day was a little less busy.  We had invited Ari and his family to come for dinner, so Victoria and I went ashore in the morning to confirm the timing (4:30 instead of 3pm ... we were moving slowly!) and for Victoria to meet the new baby.  She had spent much of the previous day crocheting during the singing and dancing, so she had a little black-haired doll to give to the tiny girl.  Even though it was the day after Christmas, the ladies in Ari's compound were already hard at work with their usual chores: numerous buckets and bowls were filled with laundry in various stages of washing and rinsing (the younger girls seemed responsible for this activity), Ari's wife's sister and some of the other ladies were embroidering patterns of their own design on lavalavas and pillow cases for the bride and groom (Victoria was excited to see that they were using the same solid colourful fabric that she had bought in Tarawa the previous week), and the older ladies were weaving pandanus panels that would be used for the walls of the toilet for the upcoming family wedding. 

Our evening with Ari was a lot of fun.  Because of the preparations underway for the family wedding, it ended up being only Ari and the youngest two of his five children (aged 8 and 11) who came, as the other family members were committed at home.  We had an enjoyable time swinging and swimming from our spinnaker pole and chatting in the cockpit.  We learned that Ari is a bit of a medicine man for his village: he learned traditional I-Kiribati massage from some elders, and now people seek him out when they have headaches, broken bones, or other ailments.  He said that he is also teaching some of the younger members of his community, so that his skills will be passed along, which seemed important to us.  While I was getting dinner ready in the kitchen (Sesame Sailfish with rice and Asian coleslaw), Benjamin was passed downstairs for safekeeping: Max and Ari were off to see Ari's brother-in-law who was returning home in his traditional canoe from a fishing trip.  A few minutes later, they were back with the fish they had 'caught' :)  Ari's brother-in-law had shared his catch with the I-Matang, and soon Victoria was on the back deck learning from Ari's daughter the I-Kiribati method of preparing fish (slice across the belly, scrape the scales with a spoon, and slice the underbelly to remove the guts).  This was not really a confined-space technique, as scales went everywhere, but since they were outside, it was easy enough to slosh some buckets of sea water over the area.  The taste of the fish was worth the mess!  There was enough fish for us to enjoy over several meals, cooked whole in butter, baked in the oven, and baked with the leftover Sesame sauce from the sailfish :)  Ari's kids spoke a bit of English, but not much, so after the swimming, Victoria and Johnathan found games that didn't require too much talking: before dinner even the dads played 'spoons' with them, and then after dinner they used their new Nerf guns for target practice at the bottom of the stairs.

All too soon, our ten days were over, and it was time to prepare the boat to sail back to Tarawa.  During the course of this week, especially as we were on our own instead of in convoy, we had realized how important it is for us to spend extended time in each anchorage.  It seems to take at least a week or so for everyone to feel comfortable, both as hosts and as guests.  Johnathan summed it up when he commented that the most fun he had had ashore was at the very end of the week when we were visiting Ari, and the boys invited him to join their ball and stick game.

We had expected to leave on Dec 27, but we decided at the last minute that another 24 hours would improve both our energy levels and the boat's preparedness (we had all had various funny tummies throughout the week), and this gave Max another opportunity to climb the mast for a rig inspection.  We had heard some unusual noises during the passage north, but a bit of spray lubricant seemed to do the trick and we didn't hear anything on the way back.  Our delay also meant another chance to visit with Ari: when he came home from work and saw that the boat was still at anchor, he brought his 13-year-old son out to see us in their traditional wooden canoe.  We could tell from the many layers of shiny paint that this boat had a long history and many stories to tell :)  This visit was a real highlight, as we hadn't seen their canoe before, and the boy took Johnathan for a little jaunt.  We had just made banana oatmeal muffins (using some of our bananas from the village) for the passage, so it was fun to let them try a new kind of oven-baked food!

As if to confirm the wisdom of our delayed departure, we had both a sea turtle and a group of dolphins swim around Fluenta as we were leaving the lagoon on Thursday morning.  It was a magical end to a wonderful visit, and we left with many fond memories and hopes of visiting again, or at least staying in touch by email!  Next on our agenda was to return to Tarwawa to meet up with our Australian friends for New Year's Eve; those stories will have to wait for the next letter:)

Love to all, and best wishes for a Happy New Year,


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