Leaving an island in darkness, by road and by sea

by Keith Cliver

The “beep-beep-beep” of the travel alarm slowly eased its way into my dream, ending my slumber. 4 a.m. – time to get up. Emily and I were sleeping on the kia-kia – a raised open air sleeping platform with a thatched roof – of our host-volunteer, Jennifer. It was 2000 and my then-wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Kiribati (formerly known as the Gilbert Islands) in the Pacific at the equator and International Dateline intersection. As I walked over to the water tap to splash water on my face and run wet fingers through my hair, I looked up at the night sky, as I always do, to find my friend Orion amidst the billions of other stars.

The “Transport,” one of the few open-bed trucks on the island, was due to pick us up at 4:30 a.m. and take us – six Peace Corps trainees and two LCI’s (language and cultural instructors) to the next village where we would depart for the “BWA,” a closed deck outrigger canoe with an outboard motor that serves as a taxi between islands for people, goods, and animals.

Once all the gear and passengers were piled onto the truck, we drove in darkness down the one-lane coral road through the island. Headlights illuminated colorful lava-lavas as men, women, and children walked down the road carrying rice bags filled with coconuts, fish, and Pandanus leaves.

When we arrived at the landing, we were told we had to hurry, as the tide was going out. Again, in total darkness save for a sliver of moon and pinpoints of stars, we unloaded the truck and began wading out into the lagoon, carrying bags on our backs, over our heads, and under our arms. Every few minutes, the boatman would flash a light a half mile away where the BWA was anchored in deeper water.

When I reached the BWA and threw my gear on board, I glanced back and saw a sinuous line of people wading thigh- and waist-deep in the water, silhouetted by the moonlight. Once all gear was stowed under the deck and everyone was seated onboard, a man whom I had sat across from on the ride over to N. Tarawa one week earlier appeared out of the darkness, extended a hand and said, “Tiabo,” which means “goodbye” in the I-Kiribati language. I shook his hand and knew I had made a friend.

As we cautiously motored over the reef, the sun began its slow ascent in the Eastern sky. Wind and waves washed over us as flying fish broke the surface ahead of the BWA. We were on our way home.

Keith CliverGot a travel story worth telling? Write it in about 400 words and send it to [email protected]. If you’d rather tell your story, send a brief synopsis to the same address. Either way, your story should be true.


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