Victorian Odyssey (January 27 – February 24, 2006)

Barb's story

Unfortunately, I needed to return to Victoria when my father had open heart surgery. If I'd been in NZ, the communications and travel would have been simple but when this happened, I was at Tabuaeran, the worst place we have been to travel from in a hurry. There is no plane, and the cargo and passenger ships that come by are unpredictable and infrequent (maybe every 2 or 3 months). One can arrange, with a good lead time, passage to Hawai'i on the biweekly NCL cruise ship, but for security reasons they can't take anyone on short notice. Also, the NCL ship doesn't always arrive, for example if the weather is bad or they have an on-board emergency. Tabuaeran has no public phone or Internet access. I made use of another cruiser's ham radio and the satellite phone of a missionary, but confirming surgery dates in a timely manner was difficult, and booking a plane ticket was impossible.

Another option was to sail Freya the 1080 miles to Honolulu and catch a plane from there, but we chose a different plan which had me in Victoria at least a week sooner, while Bjarne remained with Freya at Tabuaeran. I got a lift on another sailboat, Argos, back to Kiritimati, which is only 164 miles away, but upwind and against the current. It was strange to be on another boat and not able to do things the way I was used to. The journey took longer than the captain expected and we began to wonder if I would make it for the flight that would get me home before the surgery. Wolfgang had the sails up and the engine running in attempt to make better progress, but we became worried when the winds lightened and the engine died. It was up and running within a couple of hours but it was stressful, especially for Wolfgang who had to fix it. We were all frustrated: at one point I noted we were all of 2 miles closer to our target after 5 hours of motor-sailing! Meals were very good to start with, but after a couple of days the upwind sailing made Ana, who was the cook, feel seasick. It was beef jerky, crackers and cereal after that. We finally arrived in the wee hours of the morning 3.5 days later, greeted by leaping fish and a pod of dolphins.

I slept for a few hours then went ashore to book a flight on the weekly plane that was to leave the following day. Booking the ticket, including getting the currency exchanged to pay for it (recall that the bank couldn't be trusted with credit card numbers), and sending email to announce my arrival time, was an all-day affair. The friendly but inexperienced travel agent had difficulty with any routing or question that was not straightforward. I took what I could get after much frustration, and was able to get a somewhat better routing on the return flight when I contacted the airline directly from Canada. It was another early morning the next day to catch the 0730h flight: the immigration officer warned me to be there at 0400h but I begged and she relented to 0500h, stating that they would be very busy as they had 40(!) people to process. I had lucked out with getting 3 seats on the Boeing 737 all to myself, and admired the rainbow ring that encircled the wing of the plane, fading as we gained altitude. We were flying above a flat layer of clouds that had a line of very tall clouds projecting up, and I felt grateful to be well out of the way of these thunderstorms. I heaved a big sigh of relief: home was getting nearer.

One hour into the 3 hour flight to Honolulu the captain announced that we were returning to Kiritimati. I felt like there was a bungee cord on me keeping me attached to the island. Then I wondered about the “mechanical problem”...hmmm... here's when it is better to have no imagination. We landed safely and began a long waiting process. First, we stayed on the plane for an hour, until it was announced that we would be here at least 10 hours and that we'd be transported to a hotel for the afternoon and evening. Off we go to mill about on the tarmac for two and half hours. I chatted with fellow travellors, some of whom were carrying long cylindrical objects with great care. These fishermen had come to Kiritimati for deep-sea fishing as well as fly-fishing in the lagoon for bonefish. They were now heading back to the mainland after their vacations but asked me many questions about our sailing adventures. When we arrived in a large group at the Captain Cook Hotel we were told by the overwhelmed manager that only four rooms were available and no alternatives were presented. If I returned to Argos, which was a good half hour drive away, I feared I would not know when the plane was going. I plunked my hot and tired self down in the courtyard/lounge area with the fisher group. One of them, Ron, arrived with some cold beverages and promptly went and got me one as well. He then proceeded to take out a mickey of Bounty overproof rum. My hero! At that point, these fellows were informed that they could have their rooms back, which they had checked out of that morning. Ron suggested I joined him and his buddy in their room for now. Now, these guys giving me rum and asking me back to their room could sound pretty risqué, but they were really very sweet and I was quite grateful for the chance to cool off with a shower and take a nap. Just before supper we learned that the plane wouldn't be leaving until the next morning as a part had to be flown in from Honolulu. Well, I couldn't really be kicking anyone out of their bed now that we were to be there overnight. The manager remained unhelpful, but I found another staff member who quickly arranged transportation and took me herself to a small nearby establishment called Big Eddie's where I got the last room. Dinner was still at the main hotel. The food was pretty good, but during supper the power went out, leaving us stranded travellors encompassed in darkness. After a moment of surprise, the laughter began. “What next?” we asked, shaking our heads. Lighting was then provided by a camera/cell phone that had an LED flash that could be left on.

After my ice cream dessert, I was about to return to Big Eddie's when a staff member told me that the Immigration officer had left a message for me that I could fly on the plane that had come down with the replacement part. Another waiting game ensued, while this time I conversed with some friendly Tongans. I was taken to the airport but then the pilot said no to any passengers. Back I went, feeling like a human ping-pong ball and annoyed at the lost sleep.

0300h found me waiting for the ride that was promised to return me to the Captain Cook for breakfast and transport to the airport. 0330h found me still waiting, the chance to star-gaze in the moonless night being appreciated very little at this point. I decided to enlist the help of Big Eddie himself, but as I looked for his room two dogs ran after me, barking. I yelled at them and they slowed down, but didn't back off and stop barking until I threw a stone at them. In addition to elevating my heart rate, the barking woke up Big Eddie, who went to get his truck. Fifteen minutes later he told me to start walking because the truck wouldn't start. I didn't get too far down the dark road when the hotel truck finally arrived. Island time. While waiting, I started thinking about the time difference and realized that my Dad would be leaving soon to pick me up at the Victoria airport – I had been thinking I could call from Honolulu. This had me scurrying around on a hunt for a satellite phone. I lucked out and got Dad five minutes before he would have been out the door. Close call. So far the day wasn't starting out to be very relaxing.

As we lined up again to get on the plane, we all had a good laugh when someone pointed out that it was Groundhog Day and did we recall the movie by the same name where Bill Murray keeps reliving Groundhog Day until he gets it right? If the groundhog didn't see its shadow did that mean we'd have another six weeks at Kiritimati? We were on the plane before 0630h and had an uneventful flight. There was no movie as we'd seen it the day before, and the breakfast had also been eaten then, so the flight attendants had an easier trip. I was worried about getting my connecting flight re-booked but it worked out and I even got a better connection to Victoria from Seattle, although I had to dash over to the next terminal quite quickly. I finally arrived in Victoria one week after leaving Freya and Bjarne.

While in Victoria I caught up with family and some friends, either via phone, email, or in person. A week was spent lurking around the hospital. Ironically, while visiting Dad there, a friend ended up in a nearby ward with appendicitis. It was considerate of her to schedule her emergency while it was convenient for me to visit. Dad's surgery was successful although he wasn't ready to go out partying anytime soon after that. I also had a long list of items that I was requested to get for various folks back in the lands of limited shopping. It was a bit astonishing to see the amount of space that would make up a large store in Kiritimati devoted entirely to cereal. Shopping turned out to be dangerous: twenty minutes after I left the dive shop, it burned down! Was I ever surprised to see that on the news; too bad they'd already processed my credit card purchase. On the return trip, I was carrying a strange assortment of goods including Christmas presents from Bjarne's family, Captain Crunch, licorice all-sorts, thread, table saw blades, bicycle parts, hair care products, a knapsack, dive boots, and more!

The return trip south was uneventful, until I reached Kiritimati. My friends on Argos decided that they couldn't leave Kiritimati until some already-paid-for goods arrived at some indeterminate time; unfortunately, they didn't tell me this until the next morning after breakfast, which left me scurrying around repacking things and trying to get my administrative stuff sorted out in time to catch the local passenger ship that was heading out that day for Tabuaeran (it could be weeks or months before the next one). I hustled onto the Nei Matangare, not able to finish all of the tasks that I wanted to, where I proceeded to wait for 7 hours before the ship weighed anchor. We took an overloaded and poorly trimmed tender out to the ship, where a rope ladder with wooden steps was lowered. The ship itself had no life rafts, other than its two tenders; no life jackets that I saw, although there was a poster up showing how to put a life vest on should you find one; no first aid equipment; and no personnel who could use such equipment even if it had been on board. Later, I learned that on a recent voyage a 17 year old had died unnecessarily on the ship because of the lack of even basic medicines. A sign proclaimed in bold letters “SAFETY FIRST”, making me wonder what was second... Some of the wealthier families crowded into the few cabins, but almost all people slept wherever they could find space on the crowded, tarp-covered deck. There were some animals in cages up front. I wondered how hot they were. They didn't really have any less space than the people did, except for not being able to move from their spot. In these close quarters I wondered about what I might catch. There were a few sniffles and coughs, but more distressing to me was the fact that lice and fleas are not uncommon here. I even watched while a woman picked the nits out of her companions hair and then ate them. I decided to stick with my jelly beans. Ironically, while on the ship, I began to suspect that I had shingles and may have infected some folks with chicken pox.

At one point a toddler was wailing away and his mother tried to quiet it by pointing at me and indicating that the I-Matang would do something dire to him if he didn't stop. He stopped and stared at me, but I spoiled it I think when I smiled at him, and he started bawling again. I probably should have growled.

I passed the time reading, wandering around, taking photographs, and sometimes chatting with people. Most don't speak English very well and my Kiribati was even more limited. However, a student who wanted to practice her English engaged me in conversation and I then joined her and some others in singing. She got me to teach her the words for Amazing Grace and we sang it over and over until she was satisfied that she had it down pat. No one around us seemed to mind. She brought out a pandanus sleeping mat and I dozed a little in the wee hours of the morning, but wasn't really that comfortable sleeping under the circumstances.

Except for a couple of short-lived squalls, in which the limits of shelter provided by the tarp became more apparent, the weather was calm throughout the trip, for which I was immensely grateful. I had serious doubts about the seaworthiness of that vessel. What a huge feeling of relief when I set foot on land. On the way to shore, I noticed that Freya was all dressed up to welcome me home. Twently-eight days after my departure, I was happily greeted by a scruffy looking fellow who resembled Bjarne (shaving having become a low priority while I was away). The ship remained in the lagoon for two more days, with me saying regularly, “oh, those poor people”, in reference to the crowds still aboard waiting to leave for the 8(or more)-day trip to Tarawa.

Next time, maybe we'll take Freya.

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