Mon 21 Jun 2010 Honiara – Nauru – Honiara
Nauru is the world’s smallest republic with 10,000 inhabitants living on a 20 sq km island in the Central Pacific. Nauru is, however, even more well-known as an example of how financial mismanagement has turned what was the world’s richest country at independence in 1968 into a bankrupt failed state coupled with environmental disaster.
In fact, I was arriving in Nauru in the amidst of a national emergency that was announced merely 2 weeks before. The country’s 18 member parliament had failed to elect a president for over a month, and a second speaker of parliament had just resigned within the same period. A third parliamentary election in one month was just held 2 days ago to resolve the crisis. The national budget would expire at the end of the month and no salaries or expenses could then be paid if the crisis was not resolved then, which could potentially lead to the chaos the country experienced in 2004. On that occasion, the country’s satellite telecommunications link with the world was cut off when it was unable to pay its bills. The Presidential Palace was burned down by an angry mob in related disturbances and by 2005, the sole plane of Air Nauru, then the only carrier serving Nauru and nearby Kiribati, was seized by creditors, rendering the island nations of Nauru and Kiribati totally cut off from the outside world.
I arrived in Nauru at 4:30am on Our Airline, the restructured and rebranded entity that was once Air Nauru. I have always been skeptical of entities with names like that, as with YourSingapore and the formerly prevalent democratic republics, people’s republics and similar act-cozy names; though I have to say they have a friendly though relaxed inflight service. The flight in and out of Nauru was only a quarter full or less, and as such I can hardly be optimistic about the financial prospects of the airline, especially given the current crisis. As I wrote, even as I have returned from Nauru, I would still be flying on the planes of Our Airline leased to Air Kiribati and Norfolk Air at later stages of my journey, which I hope would not be interrupted in any manner.
A platform stood next to the control tower where many families waived as we walked into the terminal building. It was 4:30am…I was amazed so many were awake to welcome their visiting or returning relatives. A Nauruan would me later that there was little to do on this island anyway and the airport had 2 flights weekly and they were on the same day.
Clearing immigration was easy. The immigration officer looked at my passport and said, “Mr Tan, welcome!” That was Ernest Stephens, Nauru’s Chief Immigration Officer, with whom I had a few exchanges of emails in February over the country’s confusing visa rules. He stamped my passport without fuss and hoped I would enjoy Nauru during my 14 hour visit.
It was still pitch dark and so I sat at the lounge of the small airport terminal listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the Nauruan language, a Micronesian sub-branch of the Austronesian family of languages. Elements of it even sounded somewhat Vietnamese to me, which was strange given their location and ethnicity.
It was here that I met Luke Meake, a stocky 35 y/o airport worker whose important duty today was to pull down the road barrier before the plane arrived and then to push it up again after the plane took off. (On other days, he would help maintain the airport). A road ran across a part of the Nauru International Airport. He was friendly after he established that I was a rare tourist to Nauru (and not a migrant worker). Lee Abbamonte had continued on to Kiribati after a 45 min stopover here (eventually on to Fiji after another short stop in Kiribati). Luke offered to bring me around the island, which I gladly accepted. As we stood by the airport runway, Luke also pointed out buildings in the Yaren district, “capital” of Nauru – the main buildings all lined up in front of a street next to the runway: Office of the President, Parliament, fire station, the secondary school. What else do you need for a country with 10,000 people, on an island 4km by 5km?
Three weeks ago, I met Jeannie Solomon at the Nauru pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010 and she said she would ask her husband to pick me up at the airport and show me around. I searched for him and even mentioned his name to a few people at the airport who knew him – it’s a small island after all – but none could find his family members there. This was fine, as that was an offer made some time back and I was arriving at a weird timing after all.
Ernest Stephens gave me a ride to Odn-Aiwo Hotel in town – town is a glorified term for an one way street lined sparsely with a Civic Centre (which has the post office, Taiwanese Embassy, Internet café and a supermarket that had shut down), a church, a primary school burnt down by arsonists, a community hall, a Chinese eatery (with rather bad food, as I would find out later) and a few dilapidated residential houses.
This Taiwanese Embassy must be one of the loneliest anywhere in the world…Nauru also has a smallish Australian High Commission. I wonder a posting to Nauru was regarded as the equivalent of a banishment of a less well regarded staff. But Nauru has something Taiwan doesn’t have – a UN seat. Any UN seat, even for a bankrupt state, has some value, and that’s why Taiwan is here and I would see Taiwanese experimental farm and projects in parts of the island. Indeed, even Russia has shown interest in Nauru. Nauru is one of the only 4 countries in the world that recognizes the Georgian breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the country has been promised Russian aid and investment for its diplomatic efforts.
I pushed the door of Odn-Aiwo Hotel and found it unlocked. I walked in but found the reception empty. Had wanted to enquire if the café was open for breakfast but I guess it was too early for this sleepy place. I sat for a while, momentarily wondered if I might be accused of breaking into the property; but I soon realized that Nauru was simply a place, which like most places in the world in a more innocent era, where nobody locks the door. A few hotel staff walked in to clock the cards but they hardly lifted an eyelid to wonder what was this stranger enjoying the air con by the reception.
The sun was rising and I decided this could well be the time to do some sightseeing before it got too dark. Behind the hotel by the sea were cantilevers for Nauru’s key phosphate industry – in the hey days, ships lined up here to pipe in the phosphate processed in the plants just 200m inland. The source of Nauru’s phosphate was the guano of seabirds deposited over millions of years on the coral rocks that form this island. This gold mine of sorts was discovered in the early part of the 20th century, and was enthusiastically exploited upon independence without regard to the fact that the deposits were running out.
The enormous wealth produced by the mine turned this country briefly into the world’s second richest. The easy money earned led to the abandonment of traditional occupations such as fishing and agriculture, in favour of government office work. Anything that requires slight technical expertise or hard work was left to migrant workers. Traditional diet of fish and seabirds gave way to imported meat and rice, which led to widespread obesity and diabetes. Luxuries of all sorts were imported and vehicles no longer in fashion were simply abandoned on the streets. Nauruans also have no concept of family planning and families are huge… the island now has many times more people what an island of this size and remoteness can reasonably support. All fresh water has to be imported from Australia.
The government invested its revenues in various trust funds run by dubious characters and all sorts of non-existent assets overseas. By 1990s, Nauru finally realized that its phosphate had almost run out, its reserves were empty and overseas investments worthless. Money dried up and all sorts of businesses that provide simple luxuries of life, such as supermarkets, restaurants and car rental firms shut down or left. Governments rose and fell with great frequency, without resolving the growing financial crisis of the country. Many installations relating to the phosphate industry were simply eroded by the salty wind or rust in the hot tropical sun. Some secondary mining has resumed but the formerly green interior of the island has been devastated by reckless mining. In many areas, the green cover of the land has been dug out together with the phosphate, exposing white hard coral pinnacles and deep holes in the ground. Nauru’s devastation, whether financial or environmental, is shocking.
I walked up the road to the island’s highest point, Command Ridge, where I was surrounded by white hard rocks, piles of sand, crushed coral and tractor tracks. I took a few pictures and walked back to the main road, searching for a Japanese jail that was near according to my map.
“Hey, what are you doing there?” said a Nauruan man in his thirties lying Cleopatra style under a tree, with a bald boy about five years old next to him.
“Just checking up the coral pinnacles,” I said.
“Do you know a WWII Japanese bomb was discovered there yesterday and no one was supposed to go there,” he said. “I might get fired if my boss knew you got in. Thank god you didn’t get blown up,” and he laughed.
Wow. What a lucky escape I had, if what he said was indeed true. Mark asked what else was I looking for, and I told him about the Japanese jail. He said he visited the place before when he was a kid but could not recall where it was.
Fine, I said, and then made my way downhill towards town. Three hundred meters downhill and I found Mark shouting at me from behind.
“Hey, I found the Japanese jail!” he shouted as he rode on his motorbike with his son at the back. “Come, sit on my bike and I would bring you there.”
So – three of us on the bike, his son having moved to his front and I held on to the seat from behind – then we returned to where I last met him, and then brashed through some bushes. An iron gate stood next to some bare coral rocks – that’s all remained of the Japanese jail, long covered by overgrowth through the last two decades of Nauru’s decline. What impressed me from this episode was not the remains of the Japanese jail, but the warmth and hospitality the locals have for visitors.
I walked back to town. It was almost 9am now and suddenly I heard someone calling me. “Hallo, Cheng!” I turned and found a refreshed Luke on his motorbike.
“Are you ready for a Nauru adventure?” he said.
And so I hopped onto the back of his bike and off we went around the island. We rode past a house with aluminum roof next to the airport. “This is my wife’s home,” he said and he welcomed me. And he introduced me to his four smiling but shy children. “I live not far up the road from town” he said. At first, I thought maybe he was divorced and his wife was looking after his children. It was only later that I found out that Nauru is a matrilineal society where men stay with his mum and siblings even after marriage; while his children would stay with his wife who continues to stay with her own mum.
It was sunny but the wind was strong as well. The island roads were good and streets were clean. It was a sleepy place with few cars and activity. I asked about the black noddies, a seabird that was the Nauruans’ favourite meat according to the Lonely Planet. “Yes,” Luke said, “that is true, but we also love the frigate birds, which taste like chicken, but better.”
And he brought me to a seaside house which has a net aviary with a few huge frigate birds inside. These have been captured and are kept here either to be domesticated or eventually killed for food. He pointed to three frigate birds that stood on an uncaged pole 30m away – “Those are domesticated and would attract other wild birds here. Yes, they are used to trap their own kind.”
We also rode past the ruins of the old presidential palace, burnt to the ground in 2004 by Nauruans angry with the mishandling of the economy. No new palace was ever built to replace the old one. Nearby were houses that used to house refugees sent here by Australia. These refugees, mostly from Sir Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan, had wanted to go to Australia but were sent here instead. This was the notorious Pacific Solution which scandalized some in Australia; but if I were an Australian citizen, I would not hesitate to send economic refugees back to where they came from. Some say that, given the increasing number of such refuges trying to reach Australia, the Pacific Solution might be revived, which would then mean Nauru would have some fresh income again.
Poor Nauru – a bankrupt little state in the middle of nowhere. The nearest neighbor is the Solomon Islands, 2 hours away by flying. Phosphate was gone, and so they played the Taiwan-China card. They fiddled with the Pacific Solution but even that died with the change of government in Canberra. And there was the mysterious Operation Weasel, which some whispered was the sale of Nauruan passports to North Korean nuclear scientists supported by the CIA and New Zealand. Nauru was also accused of allow dodgy offshore financial services which was allegedly used by Russian mafia to launder money.
But what else can Nauru do?
Nauru had gone through several near destruction in its history. Between 1878 and 1888, after the supply of guns to Nauru’s tribes by European merchants, civil war broke out in which one-third of the population died. The mayhem only ended when Germany annexed the island in 1888, after which they confiscated all firearms. The island was taken over by Australia after Germany’s defeat in WWI. In 1942, the Japanese invaded, and then deported all 1200 native Nauruans to the island of Truk in what is today the Federated States of Micronesia. Only 800 survived to return home in 1946 after Japan’s defeat.
By 11am, we were done with the island and I was so sleepy (remember I hadn’t slept the night before at all) that at times I almost fell off the bike. (Thank goodness I didn’t have to spend two days or even worse, a whole week on this island.) We parted ways at the Civic Centre and I dropped by at the cybercafé. I also went to the post office where I sent a post card. The Nauruans are a relaxed people. Just put your postcard on the desk once done, the post office clerk said.
I had lunch at a Chinese eatery - restaurant is a glorified term for the shed. I had tuna fried ricie…oily tuff cooked for locals who are not fussy. A Nauruan customer introduced me to his wife and daughter. “They live on this side of the island and me the other side,” he said, “but we meet everyday for a meal.”
I asked what he did for a living. “Nothing much,” he said, “only a bit of fishing to pass the time. Life is easy here. Nauru is the best place on Earth. We can fish if we want to, anything, any fish. No restrictions, unlike in Australia. Some Australians came here and never wanted to leave. There are too many rules and life is too hectic there.”
I did not want to argue with him, but he seemed to have forgotten that Nauru was only functioning only due to aid from Australia and other countries. He continued on a monologue, occasionally winking his eyes upwards in a manner I saw many Nauruans do when saying yes. Then he paid his bills, waved farewell to his wife, child and me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Odn-Aiwo Hotel reading the Economist and some books I have bought along. The owner of the hotel was apparently elected MP during the Saturday elections and was busy meeting his associates over the island’s political crisis. Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks. How would Nauru survive its latest crisis?
I got on the 6:30 flight back to Honiara. Vanuatu on Tuesday!