Diary From a Disappearing Island by Amanda Witherell
Photo by Amanda Witherell
The awful is inside the normal. Like normal is pregnant with awful.
—Brian Doyle, “Everyone Thinks that Awful Comes by Itself, But It Doesn’t”
April 4, 2017
Fanning Island rises into view slow as the morning sun—just a low, green strip of palms with a thin gap near the center. We steer our sailboat for the gap. A couple of church steeples and spindly radio antennas pierce the canopy. A man in a rough-hewn canoe anchored just off the island, fishing, waves a long, brown welcoming arm. Brian and I haven’t seen another boat or human since we departed Tahiti over a week ago. We wave back our own wide-armed hellos.
Eager for landfall, we enter the narrow pass into the lagoon. Whatever we read about sailing through the lagoon’s entrance is no longer accurate for this day and age—the ebb current is fierce and our forty-one-foot sailboat slams to a glacial pace. All sixty-five horses in the engine gallop against the water and wind, but it’s like we’re running in place. Another fisherman, casting from the beach to our starboard side, observes us with a tilt of concern in his stance. Out here, no one is impervious to disaster. I shiver with body-knowledge that the water is winning, then our propeller grips and the boat suddenly guns forward into the safety of the lagoon. We’ve made it—another long passage complete, another leg closer to home. Relief.
Two years ago, my husband, Brian, and I decided to leave New Zealand, where we were living and working and had acquired precious permanent residency, and sail our boat back to the United States. We were homesick and tired of being foreigners: the constant feelings of disruption, of not belonging, of a foreignness you can’t escape because you are, inherently, foreign to any place not your own. After ten years away, we’d developed a longing for familiar soil, for home as your soul and psyche know it. After stops in Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu, Western Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, and the Society Islands, Fanning was our final foreign port of call. Ten days sailing from here and we’d be in Hawaii.
Before I arrived, Fanning meant little more to me than one more stop on the way home. What I expected of this little atoll in the middle of nowhere was standard desert island fare: palm trees and sandy beaches, a pristine lagoon, and world class surf.
What I see from the deck of our boat: water so turbid with sand that it’s impossible to make out more than a few links of our anchor chain. Standing on the bow of our boat, scanning the shoreline with binoculars, the buildings look bombed, and we soon learn it’s neighboring Christmas Island where nuclear testing occurred. This is simply the slow, thorough hand of neglect picking at the tin roofs, pocking the cement walls, soiling the paint. Rusted machinery and the failed armature of forgotten foreign aid are scattered among the palms and breadfruit trees. Plastic trash dots the eroded beach. Maybe we’ll stay a couple of weeks, tops, if the surf is as good as the rumors.
April 5, 2017
For our first trip ashore, I wear my tibuta. In spite of the equatorial heat, Kiribati culture dictates women cover their shoulders, knees, and thighs. Loose, tent-shaped blouses with tight, smocked bodices, my tibuta is not a shirt I would wear outside of Kiribati.
Here, it plays like the password of an exclusive club. Wandering the uninspired shoreline, unsure of which unmarked path to take, a smiling woman immediately bustles up to greet us. Teki asks where we’re from, where I got my tibuta. “Ooh, you’ve been to Abaiang,” she says in that breathy Kiribati way.
A teacher, Teki invites us to her school, her home, to come by anytime and says the island is too small to worry about getting lost. Buoyed by her kindness, we set off down a narrow, sandy road intersected by thin footpaths. A few others are walking, but most ride rusty Huffy bicycles or 250cc Honda motorbikes through the rain-filled potholes. People wave and call out “Mauri” from beneath the shade of their open-sided homes, and we admire their tidy yards where slabs of fish and coconut dry on woven mats in the sun. We see no other I-Matang, white foreigners, though soon learn there are a few—two pimply Mormons on their first mission and an expat Frenchman named Bruno who washed ashore many years ago, married a local, and now runs the island’s only guest house.
Word travels faster than we do. A man skids to a stop on his bicycle and tells us he used to be a policeman on Abaiang, but that he’s lived on Fanning for many years now. He’s an island elder who wears a cheap, white oxford with his name and title, “Secretary Snappy,” written in black permanent marker on the back.
“They’re moving the Catholic church,” we report about his home village. “The water is too high now. The village is completely flooded.” Horror widens his eyes, but he nods, takes it in. “Yes, the rising seas.” Climate change is not a theory here. It’s happening. Now. He too invites us to his home, to meet his children and his wife, come anytime.
Back on the boat, night falls fast and dark. There are no lights on the island, save for a single white speck across the lagoon and above us, our boat’s masthead anchor light. And above that, the silent stars. I sit in the cockpit listening to the clatter of wind in the palms, the crush of waves on the beach, comforting sounds of land. Still feeling the exhaustion from the thousands of miles we’ve sailed to get here and the couple thousand more we have to go, gratitude overwhelms me—for the existence of this island, for its safe harbor, for the warm welcome we’ve already received. I may live on a boat, but I’m not rootless. I know a place can take hold of your heart and germinate into something more.
April 6, 2017
The teenager wears a warrior’s helmet—the magnificent spikes of a dried blowfish carcass—snug on his head. He jabs a knife bladed with shark teeth at the I-Matang. Beside his battle-stanced bare feet, a plastic bucket slowly accumulates American dollars and change, payment for the privilege of taking his photo.
An enormous cruise ship has dropped anchor in the lee of the island and ferried an unbelievable number of people ashore in its orange lifeboats, landing them on the rickety pier while a handful of locals swim beneath, shoring the wooden braces with precious nails and pandanus sticks. The disembarked are like a herd of sheep caught mid-road, heads swiveling, searching for cover. No shops, no restaurants, no bars, no jet skis, no tour buses, no rental cars or roads to drive, not even a place to sit and rest. The only public bench—a rock wall ringing a stately breadfruit tree—is entirely occupied by staring I-Kiribati.
But the objective is the same as anywhere a cruise ship lurches into local life: get the rich people to part with their money. This rare opportunity sprouts a bazaar of tables spread with flowered cloths and wares: shell necklaces, baskets woven of pandanus and coconut sennit, wooden knives inked with “Fanning Island”—all crude approximations of made-in-China souvenirs, but handmade here. Children cluster around a bucket singing for school donations. It’s the only time I see kids in sneakers, bright soles still perfect. Two women and a man pose in traditional woven te kabae wraps and jab menacing wooden clubs at the cameras. When the lenses turn away, they gape and giggle, clearly amused to be a spectacle for the I-Matang when the I-Matang are so clearly a spectacle for them.
Brian and I wander the crowd—a part of it but apart from it—just as amused and agog as the I-Kiribati. Why would a cruise ship, a beacon of consumption, a literal driver of climate change, come here? We run into Kabute, the medical officer who inspected our boat and cleared us into the country. He’s returning from the same duty aboard the cruise ship. “I just rode in an elevator for the first time in my life,” he gasps. “Eleven stories!” We agree that’s a mind-bogglingly big boat.
At sunset, the ship turns its back on the island and steams away with black puffs of smoke pouring from its stacks. People gather on the shingle beach, back to the business of gossip and fishing, but all eyes are trained on the first-world phantom fading over the horizon.
When it’s time for them to leave, when more of the island is underwater, I wonder: will it be all at once on a huge ship like that, or few at a time by any means possible? In October of 2013, Ioane Teitiota, an I-Kiribati from Tabiteuea Island, was the world’s first person to apply for asylum as a climate change refugee. His lawyer, using the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, argued that he faced “indirect persecution from human-caused global warming.” Three New Zealand courts, each one higher than the last, dismissed the case: the law only applied to persecutions based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Teitiota, his wife, and their three New Zealand-born children were deported in 2015, back to Kiribati.
April 12, 2017
Deep in the island’s center, far from the cooling coastal breeze, the narrow footpath leads to a maneaba—a large, open-sided meeting hall constructed by every social group for its gatherings. Ubi waves us into its shade, adjusts the green te be around his waist, gestures that we sit, sit, patting the smooth woven mat covering the cracked cement floor. Beside him a plate of white rice entertains the flies. He offers us some with an apology. “We are out of fish. That’s why no one is around today. They’re all fishing.” He calls to a young boy who scampers away and returns with two green coconuts. We sip slowly from the heavy nuts, trying not to spill as we watch Ubi carefully draft, with a pencil and ruler, long thin lines in a blank book. He’s making his own staff paper to then compose a new song. “It’s going to be about Tabuearan,” he says. “You know, that is the Kiribati name of Fanning? It means ‘God’s Footprint,’” he tells us, because the islets that ring the lagoon resemble, when viewed from above, the outline of a giant foot. It’s a modern name, from a time of air travel. The island is new enough to its inhabitants that they’re still crafting its songs and stories based on how they see it.
Kiribati’s thirty-three islands have a total landmass the size of New York City, but an oceanic territory larger than India. Kiribati is really 99.98 percent ocean. Each island has a rising sea for its nearest neighbor.
There are three distinct island groups—the Lines, the Phoenix, and the Gilberts. Fanning is in the Lines, the farthest east. Ancient Polynesian navigators knew it as a good stop between Hawaii and Tahiti—it still is; that’s why Brian and I are here—but it was never intentionally inhabited by I-Kiribati. In 1798, Edmund Fanning was the first European to sight it. During the next century the British annexed it, blasted open the pass, and established a colony of copra workers. Whaling ships called in. It was a cable station for the telegraph line between North America and Australia. Photos from that time and into the twentieth century show infrastructure—buildings, shops, schools—more robust than now.
In 1979, Kiribati gained independence from Britain. Emancipated, but emaciated, the islands had already lost precious mass. Higher-than-normal tides damaged crops and flooded fresh water sources, driving families from the outer islands into the capital, Tarawa. Seeking jobs and housing, instead they found extreme overcrowding and limited opportunities, plus the same flooding and erosion. The government began scouting for options. Fanning, Christmas, and Washington, all islands at the easternmost edge of the nation’s territory, became possibilities. A few families were sent to literally test the water and plant breadfruit, taro, bananas, and papayas. During the 1990s, a local government was established for Fanning, which portioned the land into acre plots, each priced a thousand dollars, to be paid within four years. People came from all over Western Kiribati and about three thousand live here now in eight villages—six on the southern side of the pass, two to the north, making the pass itself a hub, busy with people waiting for the ferry across, fishermen casting nets, canoes sailing downwind or gaining to windward on the flood tide, skin divers hunting octopus and triggerfish, unsupervised children cavorting in the shallows. There is a strong sense of small-town safety and peace. When I ask, people say they miss their home islands, but many prefer “God’s Footprint.” Enough generations here now call it home.
April 14, 2017
Two leafless trees slide into view as if moving. I stare. They are. It’s another sailboat, but it looks like it’s coasting in from the nineteenth century, all spikey spars, ratlines, and baggywrinkle. Approaching the mooring ball off the main village, we watch a deckhand dive off the long, rusty bowsprit, line coiling behind him like a tail. He swims for the mooring and attaches the line—not a move that would pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection, but fully in keeping with one of the reasons we’re falling in love with Fanning: the spirited, “Kiribati way” of getting things done.
Kwai is a one hundred forty-foot lifeline between the island and the world, transporting goods, gear, and people between Honolulu, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, and Fiji. More reliable than government ships, the crew of ten completes a circuit every three to four months, delivering pallets of rice, flour, and other staples, cylinders of cooking propane, fuel for Air Kiribati, bicycles, furniture and first-world goods, sick people to hospital and islanders on the move.
Fanning is physically closer to the U.S.—about a thousand miles south of Honolulu—than it is to its own capital, Tarawa, two thousand miles to the west. This imbalance makes it impossible for the island to become much more than it already is. There are no cell phones. Internet arrives via a stunningly slow solar-powered router, and browsing is a waste of time. Their Amazon is a single sideband radio operated by Kwai’s island agent, Nan, using a pre-arranged channel to communicate orders to the ship’s crew. Most of the daily news is extremely local—who flipped their canoe in yesterday’s big waves, who hooked a tuna off the point, what the I-Matangs are up to. Almost everything on the island arrives via Kwai.
May 6, 2017
Fleshy pink coils of cooked octopus. Bony pan-seared milkfish. Bright chunks of boiled pumpkin. Wedges of pithy taro so heavy they could stop a door. A vat of pork on the bone, stewed in coconut milk. A whole pig roasted in the ground. Many, many dishes of sticky white rice. Kids, using size and speed to their advantage, snatch the coveted packages of first-world food—Punjas Breakfast Crackers, Scotch Finger cookies, and Maruchan Ramen—the last of which they rip open and devour uncooked. The goal is to acquire as much food as possible in any vessel available—plates from home, precious plastic bags, even the ramen wrappers are carefully repacked with cooked rice and fish. Flies swarm aggressively over the buffet, spread across several tables in the high school’s maneaba. It’s their twenty-fifth anniversary and all eight villages have contributed to the feast, each giving a little to make enough. One circuit of the table to study the offerings and the second time around, most of it’s gone. What I eat isn’t as good as some of the meals we’ve had at people’s homes. It’s the Kiribati equivalent of the hot dogs, hamburgers, and budget bags of potato chips at American town picnics—easy and capable of feeding the masses.
The food is just one necessary ritual of many. There are speeches, singing, skits, and gifts. And dancing. On every Pacific island we’ve visited, dancing is the beating heart of a community event. Costumed and choreographed with casual precision, this dancing is not for tourists. The stages are backyards and pewless churches and, here, a cracked basketball court decorated with palm fronds. Dancers, clad in flower tiaras and palm frond bustles, swing their hips to a synthesizer’s beat, while toddlers wander on and off stage, stumbling into the arms of the nearest adult—family or foreigner.
From island to island, the dances change, but one feature remains: there’s always a clown, a woman way past the age of caring who dances with a comic, cosmic knowledge. Maybe she’s carrying a fresh bowl of rice to the buffet, innocently striding behind the rows of men. As their thick legs stomp, hands slap thighs, hips sling low, something drives her to ridicule their solemnity. She gestures wildly with the rice bowl, showing us that yes, oh yes, this is a dance about sex.
And this woman, this clown so comfortable in her celebration, flexes her heels on the hot cement, blue-skirted knees deeply bent, fleshy arms swinging long and loose as her grey hair, moving her big body in this mocking dance and eliciting peals of laughter from the crowd.
And from me, she draws a hot pang of tears. The high heat sweating the dancers’ heads, their drifting hips and costumes dragged askew, the audience rapt in the moment—all this goes, too. This is what happens; this is how climate change cuts a culture off from the place that made it. Knowing the cruel timeline, counting down the handful of years that are left, it hits me that the toddlers here today won’t be the clowns here tomorrow.
Not here. Goddamn, it’s haunting.
May 10, 2017
The land is such a minor key to the ocean’s major theme. Frigate birds hover high above us, swooping low like scimitars to fish, then beating back up to their bird’s-eye view. Does it look smaller to them? Can they see it disappearing, too?
May 13, 2017
Children’s cries drown out the diesel engine straining under its load. It’s incomprehensible school bus chatter, all high, bright notes sparkling like morning sun on the lagoon. The truck makes a wide, slow turn and the kids tumble from the cab top and bed. To be first onto the ferry is the most important part of this part of the day. They wear uniforms—white shirts and royal blue shorts on the boys, grass-green gingham jumpers on the girls—or parts of uniforms, or clothing vaguely resembling uniforms. Standing among them it’s obvious there’s no vendor that ships the clothing here, crisp and pressed and full of the same promise as a freshly sharpened pencil. These shirts are handmade from scraps of white cloth, greyed by years of sibling wear, worn now too tight across the chest of this sister, too loose around the arms of that brother.
The kids board and the ferry rolls against its dock lines as if broadsided by a wave. They press and fill, press and fill, until the boat becomes a tightly packed box of children, some dangling legs over the gunnels to make more room. The forty-horsepower Yamaha smokes when Motorman rev-tunes it for the day’s first run. One lucky kid in the right spot casts off the bowline while Motorman takes his place at the stern, steering and operating the throttle with his left foot. Two months of watching and, so far, I’ve only seen him drive with a single bare foot. The boat tips forward, plowing heavily through the water. The tide is high enough for Motorman to shortcut across the reef off the western point. Sometimes he misjudges and grounds the boat here and all the kids hoot and laugh until he guns the engine audibly over the coral.
This morning, the ferry hits the pass and skids sideways in the current. He compensates, quickly steering away from the island as if outbound for some other land, and now the boat resembles the ones you see on the news, overloaded with refugees. Someday they will be refugees, but not today. The reverse current snags the bow, dragging them back into the lagoon and Motorman cuts the engine, conserving precious fuel as he coasts toward the dock on the other side of the pass.
Kids jump for land before the boat touches—it’s still important to be first. They run, with backpacks bouncing, past the overgrown soccer field and the one-hooped basketball court, past the council maneaba, banking left at the big breadfruit tree, heading for the middle school where someone—a teacher, a principal, the lucky kid that day— is banging a pipe against an old propane cylinder suspended from a tree, making bell-like peals signaling the start of another day.
May 15, 2017
Finally, the sun drops enough for the land and its creatures to cool. Collarless dogs rouse from the shade to patrol the dirt road. Kids start a game of stickball by the church, arranging corned beef cans into bases and swinging a pandanus stick at a ball of weeds. Old men hum and warble as their toes propel them up the trunks of palm trees, singing as they collect soda bottles strung in the top-most fronds. They ferment the sap into sour toddy—the island’s only booze.
The stores open their wooden shutters and people gather for a pound of flour weighed out in the same bowl where it will be mixed into batter, a bit of green dish soap decanted into a bottle, a single scoop of sugar (we’re on rations now: one cup of sugar per family until Kwai returns). All that signifies “store” to a stranger like me are the tidy rows of available items. There are no signs or special deals, no way to know that north side stores are cheaper than south and that if you’re short on cash, some will accept coconuts as currency. Those stores have heaps of coconuts piled outside in wire cages. They’ll be cut and dried into copra and sold to Kwai for two dollars per pound—a price fixed by the government more to create an income stream than to stimulate coconut oil production. Besides government jobs and crewing Kwai, the only ways to make money are running a store, drying copra, and harvesting seaweed for the Asian market. Functional objects inflate in value and are frequently traded.
Which is why I’m rolling through this evening on a Huffy bike I rented for three weeks from a fisherman named Christmas. The negotiated price: some fishing lures and a rod. Pedaling beneath the palms, my shadow flickering in the saturated light of sunset, I pass other cyclists, all of us heading home, all of us balancing something on our crossbars—a passel of coconuts, a water jug, a toddler. I have a Calrose rice sack full of papayas and drinking coconuts from Beeto, to whom we gave our spare surfboard. Now, every time I see him, he presses fresh food on me.
I steer with concentrated balance around the ruts. Land crabs skitter clear of my tires. Hugging my fresh food cache, I feel that I’ve locked into a rare rhythm, unique to Tabuearan. I could live like this, I think. But I can’t live like this. Because this is disappearing.
May 30, 2017
The seasonal winds are abating. Bruno, an accomplished voyager, assures us that this shift is the summer weather settling in. Soon it will be favorable for us to sail to Hawaii.
Saying goodbye takes several days. We receive gifts of fine-woven sleeping mats, shell necklaces, carved knives, an elegant black tibuta that I would and will wear outside of Kiribati.
We part with everything nonessential to our sail home: spare fishing gear and swimming fins, clothing, cooking pots, tools and fasteners. We take our favorite surfboards for one last ride, then leave them at Beeto’s house. “For the kids surf club you’re starting.” We know they will be ridden and repaired until there’s nothing left to repair—that’s the Kiribati way.
Our new friends understand that living on a boat is like living on an island and provision us like they would themselves: sacks of drinking and cooking coconuts, fresh pumpkins, baskets of papayas, an octopus, a tuna. One evening, we find an enormous bunch of bananas inside our dinghy, “With love, from Willy” written in blue ink on the stalk.
“We’ll be back,” we tell everyone. “Five years, maybe ten, and then we’re sailing again.” But I worry and wonder who will be there. The president of Kiribati has said by 2020 emigration must commence. But in 2020, the pandemic pins them in place.
June 6, 2017
We leave with the tide. It’s a bluebird day with just enough wind to fill our sails and point us north. I sit with my back toward our destination, watching the island disappear behind us. I’ll never forget what I’ve seen, and I’ll probably never see it again.
August 1, 2017
Kabute is there, Snappy, Christmas, a couple of the other guys, all wearing plastic hard hats as if they’re working.
We’re sitting on pandanus mats spread like islands on the wet floor of a flooding building. There’s a pump mounted on the wall, clear pipes snaking around it, water leaking from the welds and bends. Kabute has a notebook where he’s scribbling figures, making calculations, listing more figures, all six digits long. “What do they mean?” I ask.
“It’s the water,” he explains. “It’s the land. The top figure is the amount of land that remains. I calculate it based on that number,” he points. “That is the water rising. This one goes up, that one goes down. Everyday.”
The journalist in me begins taking notes. I get it now, the sense of urgency in the men around me. They slosh through the puddles, trailing tape measures and notched sticks. I copy down the numbers. “You have more figures?” I ask, knowing we’re going to need more proof.
“Oh, yes,” he says. “Come with me.”
I wake from the nightmare, sweaty and sick in my heart. Waves crash outside the night-black portholes of my boat; the tide is rising here in Hawaii. I climb over Brian, out of our berth to rinse my flushed face and wipe away the heat of bad sleep. On a shelf beside the sink, we keep their pandanus baskets full of necklaces made by Snappy’s wife, cowrie shell pendants from Christmas’s mother, shark tooth knives and sennit bracelets, all pressed upon us when we left. “Something so you remember us, so you don’t forget us,” they said.
Artifacts are what they are, I now see. I imagine fastening the cowries around my niece’s neck, telling her about the island where they came from, an island that no longer exists.
Amanda Witherell lives with her husband aboard their 41-foot sailboat, Clara Katherine, currently docked in the Bay Area of California. They have visited 12 countries by boat, sailed twice across the Pacific Ocean, and are always planning their next voyage. A New Hampshire native, she attended College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and the documentary journalism program at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine. Her writing has been published in 48 Hills, Blue Water Sailing, Capital Magazine, Salt Magazine, The Sun, Utne Reader and Wooden Boat. A former reporter for two newspapers that no longer exist, the alt-weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian and New Zealand-based Capital Times, she is now a communications professional. She workshopped “Diary from a Disappearing Island” with Joe Wilkins at an Orion Magazine writing workshop, and is grateful for all the feedback from that experience.