At Home on Disappearing Islands

Posted by in July's Magazine

When I was growing up rock band Mott The Hoople said ‘home’ was ‘where they wanna be’, for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz there was no place like it, John Denver wanted to be taken there, Tom Jones longed for its ‘green green grass’ and Lynryd Skynyrd called it ‘sweet’. But I never got the big deal about it. Home was the same old same old, dull. I yearned for the beauty of being surrounded by the unfamiliar. I wanted the slap of the different in my face, to shake up my senses. And so I travelled, which is how I ended up on the very remote South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati (see Leither Magazine issue 106). However, of all the different places I’d been – quite a few by then – South Tarawa was the place I most struggled to appreciate.

It consists of a string of islets, joined by causeways to form a narrow strip of land slap bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is 3 meters above sea level at its highest point, with an average width of only 450 meters. In other words, it’s a narrow strip of sand surrounded by water in the middle of nowhere. I thought being so far away would mean exotic. Tranquil. And it was. But a tranquil life can also be a boring life. Being on Tarawa reminded me of a sunny Sunday in Scotland in the 70s: suffocating and oppressive – but much hotter and think coconut trees instead of lampposts.


Even after I started my job as a teacher, I hated that there was nothing to do and nowhere to go – there are only so many books you can read to pass the time. I struggled to like tinned lamb flaps, instant noodles and long life milk – the only imports at the time; I was disgusted at the local habit of using the beach as a toilet; I was infuriated at how Kiribati people took forever to do anything and that when it rained everyone took to their beds and slept. And then there was the extreme isolation. The nearest western hospital was 4968 miles away in Australia, eight hours flying time away, once a week.

What if we got ill, I mean really ill, or had an accident (the local mini buses were death traps)? For the first time in my life I lost my bearings. I yearned for the familiar, no matter how dull. I was homesick and after six months I headed home to Edinburgh. But on my return something weird happened.

How to be still
As if for the first time I saw the litter and crusty dog crap on the streets. Was surprised by the constant in-your-face advertising to buy stuff. Alarmed by the deafening traffic noise. Buildings, streets and people all looked the same homogenous shade of dirty grey. Everyone was in a hurry, caught up in the never-ending cycle of work-sleep-work. And then there was the weather: Rain. Wind. And more rain.

I had an epiphany: while I thought I’d been stagnating during my six months in Tarawa, I had, in fact, been learning a valuable skill, how to be still. By not having to rush and by soaking in nature, I had unwittingly discovered what was important to me. Sure, I enjoyed the good stuff of city life, like the galleries, the bookshops, the theatres, the cinemas etc. But I realised I didn’t care a jot about fashion, so what if red heels were in or out? It was okay if I didn’t eat organic, I wouldn’t die. I didn’t want this year’s car, HD TV or iPhone. I preferred the blue of the Pacific Ocean to the murky-grey of the city. I longed for the gentle rustle of coconut fronds instead of the screaming nee naw, nee naw, of emergency vehicles. Getting drenched when I left the house was miserable, why not stay in and take a nap when it rained? What was the hurry?

I returned to Tarawa and saw it as the people who lived there saw it: a stress free, beautiful home. I had my second epiphany: home is not so much about the place we’re from as knowing who we are inside. It’s about looking after our soul as much as a piece of soil. And travelling is not so much about being somewhere different as being willing to see our surroundings as others might do. It’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps this is why so many of the 220 million people in the world who live in countries they were not born in, can call the foreign place they live in their home.
I am now back in Edinburgh and I love it. As long as I make the effort to be still every now and then, I see it’s not all dog crap and rain. I now get why so many people sing songs yearning for home. ‘Home’ is where we become ourselves. As Marcel Proust would have it: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes.’

Info: Marianne’s novel, Food of Ghosts, set on Kiribati, is available from
Twitter: @MWheelaghan

4 responses to “At Home on Disappearing Islands”

  1. Kiribatiboy2002 says:

    Good story! You showed how you changed and that to me seems to be the point of travel. Not as a tourist, but as someone who invests time to learn the language and know the people. Next time when you go back to Kiribati, you should go experience life on an outer island for at least one week to see what non-Tarawa life is like :)

  2. Metabera Ebwara says:

    My dad was once told me that most people who came from various countries, their visit and their tour on our home was became an history in their life. Many of the tourist says Kiribati is a lovely place because you never saw a single person not smile. But that true, I mean that the most interesting part of our culture. We show friendship to all not only to those who were came to tour our Islands but also our neighbors and friends. I see how you enjoy your 6 months in Kiribati but maybe next tour I suggest you take a chance to try and experience what the deeper culture of an I-Kiribati did!.

  3. Metabera says:

    And then, I know you would love to visit thrice or more ehehehe.. Lovely article. I love it.

  4. Garry Hawkins says:

    Worth noting that in traditional island societies, "shitting on the beach" made perfect sense. In those days populations were much lower than the many thousands of folks on Tarawa and hence, the environment could cope with it.

    Even today, some islands, such as Atafu on the Tokelau Islands (similar coral atolls to those on Kiribati) still use toilets perched out above the ocean on wooden stilted platforms. The key difference is that Atafu has a population of about 600, so the local environment can cope with the volume of effluent.

    On Tarawa, burying such waste on land would probably be futile – as it would ultimately end up in the water table anyway (not that well water on Tarawa is safe to drink – it certainly wasn't on my last visit to the islands – but that was a while ago).

    No doubt much of the toilet waste ultimately ends up in the sea anyway. I don't know offhand how sophisticated the sewage facilities on Tarawa are, but I'd be somewhat sceptical that any effluent would be 100% clena once it hit the ocean…

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