How Fanning Island Got a Toilet and Other Tales of Development

Honolulu Weekly | December 1, 2004
While glassing surfboards in a shack behind Log Cabins in the late 1970s, Chuck Corbett overheard surf legend Joey Cabell utter seven fateful words: ?And there?s a good left on Fanning.? Cabell was recalling his exploration of the South Seas?a faraway stash of uncharted surf to Corbett. Captivated by the ultimate surf dream, he left the North Shore in 1979 in search of emptier lineups.

Corbett spent the next 12 years as a South Seas trader based in Tarawa, the capital of the independent Republic of Kiribati (pronounced kee-ree-boss). He dabbled in produce, dried sea cucumbers and dried shark fins (from subsistence fisherman, not illicit commercial fleets), and left a legacy as ?Banana Joe,? a moniker bestowed upon him by some Germans obsessed with G.I. Joe that still rings a bell today.

In 1992, he arrived at Christmas Island, the world?s largest coral atoll. ?Holy shit, I?ve been on the wrong island for 12 years,? Corbett wrote in his journal after seeing the waves.

?A few weeks later, I stopped on Fanning,? Chuck recalls. ?The day we arrived, there was a swell, and it was significantly overhead. As we came around the point, I watched this wave pitch out, kind of like the Hawaii Five-O wave, this almond barrel. But it didn?t stop. It just stayed open and kept going and going and going. I ran back to the other end of the ship, grabbed my board, and jumped off.? In 1993, he renounced his U.S. citizenship so that he could surf this place forever.

Today, Corbett?47 and still surfing?finds his remote paradise in a tenuous situation. Fanning Island is teetering at the brink of development, driven by the advent of regular visits by Norwegian Cruise Line?s 2,000-passenger luxury liner Norwegian Wind. The Honolulu-based ship is the only direct commercial transportation to Fanning. Ferrying tourists, money and industrial-size care packages, NCL is an unlikely lifeline connecting Hawai?i to this tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific.

Dengue fever and the perfect left

The Republic of Kiribati is made up of 33 low-lying atolls split into three island groups?the Gilbert, the Phoenix and the Line islands. Its total land mass is just 313 square miles?roughly the size of Moloka?i and Kaho?olawe combined?while its total sea area encompasses 1,370,656 square miles. The republic straddles the equator for 2,010 miles. Fanning is one of the inhabitable Line Islands, in eastern Kiribati, 1,200 miles south of Honolulu.

In his recent book, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost gives a tongue-in-cheek account of two years he spent in Tarawa. He depicts the country most explicitly:

To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very blue ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three small pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty-three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way so as to ensure that 32/33 Baltimorians will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, running water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for ?maintenance?). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati.

I would add to that, ?Remove any urgency with regard to time.?

Besides World War II?s Battle of Tarawa, in which more than 5,000 men perished, the country?s other dubious distinction is that it is the first to see the new day. In 1995, the government moved Kiribati?s slice of the International Date Line, which formerly split the country, so everyone would be in the same time zone. They became the first nation to celebrate the new millennium, taking the honor away from Tonga, whose king was none too happy about it.

In September, I visited Fanning for a week, living aboard Corbett?s 60-foot sailboat, the Fanning Island Trader. To get there, I flew via South Seas Air (chartered by the Kiribati government) to Christmas Island (Kiritimati), 150 miles southwest of Fanning, where I met Chuck?s family. We shopped for supplies in London town, where crushed, green cans of Victoria Bitter were scattered around the dry landscape, revealing the beverage of choice. A sign on the cinderblock ?microbrewery? touted the nutritional value of beer, which, at 77 cents a can, is cheaper than water ($2.39 for a 16-ounce bottle). At dawn, we set sail for Fanning, a place Corbett refers to as ?a fourth-world outpost in a third-world country.? During the 27-hour trip, a flying fish with a two-foot-wide wingspan landed on the deck, dolphins raced about the boat, and a shark snagged the ?ahi that had swallowed our lure. Clearly, the ocean was teeming with life, so I prayed out loud and clung desperately to the metal ladder on the back of the boat each time my bladder reached its breaking point. My formerly deniable mortality made itself known.

Lice, ciguatera, dengue, staph and staph-spreading flies are just some of the afflictions that plague this part of the world. If you get really sick on Fanning, you will probably die. The nearest doctor who can perform surgery is on Christmas Island (where oxygen and anesthesia are seldom available), if you can find a boat to make the 40-hour journey.

The nearest medical facility is in Tarawa, more than 2,000 miles away. The fastest, most direct way to go from Fanning to Tarawa is to take a boat to Christmas, which sees only once-a-week flights from Honolulu. From there, you have to airplane-hop to Honolulu to Johnston Atoll to Majuro to Tarawa. The trip can take a week. (Kiribati citizens, called I-Kiribati, need a visa to pass through Honolulu, which can be obtained only in Fiji. The only other way is by cargo boat, which comes once every few months?maybe.

The remoteness doesn?t bother Corbett. He stays in touch via radio-transmitted e-mail. Any outsider who would relocate here, Corbett smirks, ?is one of the three Ms: mercenaries, missionaries or misfits.? He silently acknowledges that as the only white Kiribati citizen on Fanning Island he fits into one of these categories.

In 1993, on Christmas Island, Corbett met Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard who had organized a surf trip with Rell Sunn, Dave Parmenter, Sam George and Bernie Baker. They were the first surfers Chuck had encountered since 1979. ?Life up to that point had been two dimensional?me riding the wave or me looking at the wave,? he reflects.

Chouinard visited Corbett in 1999 by hitching a ride from Hawai?i on a sailboat. He arrived to catch two things: giant bonefish (Fanning is a bonefish hot spot) and the perfect left (which he dubbed ?Chuck?s Corner?).

?All I need in life is a surfboard and a fly rod,? Chouinard has said. It must make him ill that Fanning will be one of the first places to disappear beneath the sea if nothing is done to curb global warming.

Free sashimi for all

The Kiribati name for Fanning is ?Tabuaeran,? meaning ?sacred footprint.? When Captain Edmund Fanning arrived in 1798, it was uninhabited, though there were traces of ancient Polynesians. The current population is 2,500 and growing. Most of the 330 families were relocated from overcrowded Tarawa by government mandate in 1988.

Despite the parasite-filled fresh water and the threat of dengue fever, Fanning is raw and unspoiled, compromised only by scattered, floating litter that has no place to go. Hawai?i has nothing like Fanning?s waters?clear to depths of 50 feet or more. Underneath are multicolored corals orbited by a vast array of sea life. Forty-pound ?ahi leap 10 feet high, outside the lineup of glassy waves. The ocean gives life to Kiribati, whose people subsist on fish (raw or boiled) and coconuts.

As a Commonwealth protectorate until 1979, Kiribati receives foreign aid mostly from Australia (the island uses Australian dollars) and New Zealand, usually in the form of social development ?consultants,? as Corbett calls them. Other countries sometimes send leftovers and discards. After the Chernobyl disaster, Kiribati received a shipment of condensed milk from Asia with pictures of reindeer on the cans. Canned meat, rice and flour are sometimes available. When there?s a shortage (a chronic problem), a 10-pound bag of rice can go for US$57, as might a pack of cigarettes. On the upside, the poke is free, and Chuck?s spear gun is equipped with 750-pound test line.

In Kiribati, the values of things are relative. On Christmas Island, Chuck bought me a case of bottled water that, under the equatorial sun, was more precious than gold. (It also cost $57.) The untreated well water is full of stomach-twisting parasites, and is even unsuitable for teeth-brushing. I swallowed a lot of toothpaste in the interest of conserving my dwindling potable supply.

Corbett took me on a moped tour of Fanning?s villages. The 21-square miles of land that form a narrow ring around the lagoon are dotted with 400,000 coconut trees?until NCL arrived, copra had been the island?s main industry since the late 1800s.

We puttered down dry, dirt roads, past overgrown flats and swamp taro that rise like hedges in front of thatch huts. The unrelenting sun glinted off the shiny, pointed tin roofs of the village maneabas?enormous, open-air meeting houses. Corbett pointed out the abandoned airstrip, the former trans-Pacific cable station that is now the secondary school, a rusting six-inch gun from WWII, and an untended graveyard.

Men were building a traditional canoe from driftwood and breadfruit wood planks, fastening them together with handmade rope and breadfruit tree sap. Women sat in fale-like thatch pavilions weaving pandanus mats. Names were etched into palm trunks like graffiti. Pigs were tethered to trees. Stray dogs occasionally crossed our path. We caught frequent glimpses of the turquoise lagoon where villagers farmed seaweed.

Shortly after arriving on Fanning, Corbett fell in love with Temaoiti. At 23, she is supportive and resilient?seasoned to the life of a sailor. She is Catholic, like half the island. The other half is mostly Protestant. One evening at Temaoiti?s cousin?s home, the family prepared me a bath?a five-gallon bucket of rainwater, a bar of soap and a cup for dousing. Afterward, they presented dinner: a choice of rice?plain (luxury) or boiled with coconut (to extend the supply?s lifetime), and a newly opened tin of processed meat much less palatable than Spam. Canned meats, particularly corned beef, are a delicacy for this population whose per capita fish consumption is 400 pounds a year.

If nature endowed the I-Kiribati with a special gift, it is song. Composers write (mostly love) songs that are learned by everyone. The biggest annual event is the Independence Day Interministerial Song and Dance Competition, during which, for months before, they abstain from alcohol and sex in the name of delivering a ?pure? performance.

That night, as we crossed the lagoon to return to Corbett?s boat, Temaoiti and her sisters began to sing. The sky and the water were black and still. In the darkness, four distinct voices united in perfect harmony, and they sounded like angels.

Our ship comes in

NCL?s Fanning presence began in 1997, when Capt. Gunstein Langset headed to the Line Islands to scout out an overseas landing site. The Malaysian-owned company had recognized the potential for Hawai?i?s little-tapped cruise ship market, but the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 requires foreign-flagged ships to first stop at a foreign port before they are permitted to pick up or drop off passengers at an American port. The closest option?more than a day?s cruise away?was Fanning Island.

Just prior to the arrival of the first NCL cruise ship in December 2001, the Kiribati government signed an agreement with NCL, granting the company exclusive visitation rights, pre-empting competition that might try to encroach upon NCL?s Hawai?i territory. The agreement holds that NCL engages Fanning in the ?spirit of cooperation,? assisting in the transportation of mail and cargo, employing I-Kiribati on the ship, and building facilities for the island. NCL must visit at least 20 times a year. The islanders were so excited, they renamed the elementary school ?NCL Primary School.?

Tarataake Teannaki, Kiribati?s director of tourism, who helped orchestrate the NCL deal, says that the island council wants more ships, and they want the ships to stay longer.

NCL has extended its Wind contract with Fanning until 2007, though the company no longer really needs a foreign port of call. In 2003, Sen. Daniel Inouye strategically shepherded the passage of an exemption to the Passenger Services Act that permits NCL?s foreign-built ships to cruise Hawai?i under a U.S. flag without making a foreign-port stop. Subsequently, NCL made three additions to its fleet: Pride of Aloha (which began seven-night Hawai?i cruises last July), Pride of America (arriving in June), and Pride of Hawaii (arriving summer 2006). With the foreign-flagged Wind, the four ships are expected to bring more than half a million passengers to Hawai?i annually, as well as create local jobs.

Fanning has been out of flour for the past seven months. In September, NCL delivered 450 50-pound bags of rice to the island from Honolulu, for which the islanders were extremely grateful. The company has also transported medicine, canned goods, clothing, books and other supplies. The most significant thing they bring, however, is cash.

Drying seaweed and producing copra used to be the island?s main occupations, yielding a wage of 20 cents an hour. But when the Wind blew into town, locals began selling handicrafts like shell necklaces and woven baskets. Suddenly, some people made as much as $400 a day. Now there are close to 200 tables at a ?straw market.? In addition, NCL pays the council 78 cents for each passenger that gets off the ship as a sort of landing tax?part of NCL?s ticket to carte blanche status on the island.

A cash economy is born.

Keep it coming

Sitting on a pandanus mat one evening under his eight-foot-square thatch quarters, Fanning?s elected Member of Parliament, Tinia Mariano, lists the pros and cons of NCL?s presence. He points out that islanders can now buy things they need, like solar panels. ?Before, we don?t worry about having light,? he said, as the generator quit, leaving us in the dark. More important, he explained, the cruise ship provides relief when supplies from Australia or Fiji don?t make it to Fanning.

Rarawete Tentaku, the island?s chief councilor, says the council fears that Fanning will face the same problems that devastate the capital Tarawa. Tarawa?s islet of Betio holds more than 13,000 people per square mile, a population density greater than that of Hong Kong. Fanning?s population has swelled from 1,700 to 2,500 in the past five years, with most of the influx coming from the Gilberts. ?Too many people,? MP Tinia laments. ?They don?t work. How do they get their food? Sometimes they steal it.?

Tourism director Teannaki reminds me that alleviating the population pressures in Tarawa is part of the government?s long-term plan. He also emphasizes that a sustainable development plan is needed for Fanning. ?If they don?t zone the island, there will be chaos in the future,? he warns.

After pointing out that between cruise ship visits, people are fishing out the lagoon and eating all the birds, Chuck presents another perspective: ?So many times Westerners come out to an island, they put their hands on it, they say you musn?t develop it. But they come from a land where they?ve worked hard, and they?ve put their children through school to have all their things. [The islanders] have the same desires?and they?ll work for it. When people say, ?Oh, don?t develop,? it?s almost like saying ?You stay in your little cage so we can come and look at you.??

But introducing Western culture to a tiny atoll has dangerous implications. Growing problems of alcoholism, crime, sanitation and pollution (not to mention the fervent adoption of bad music and bad fashion) are byproducts of rapid urbanization. And in the Marshall Islands, for example, foods from the United States introduced people to hypertension, diabetes and high-blood pressure.

Unlike the Americans and the Marshall Islands, however, the British didn?t throw money at these islands. ?What amazes me about Kiribati is how much it?s held on to the culture,? Corbett observes, pointing to a canoe. ?That canoe hasn?t changed much in 1,000 years.?

Pacific Island expert Barrie Macdonald echoes the sentiment. He reports that in the 150 years since Europeans arrived in the equatorial Pacific, ?continuity still seems more important than change? for the locals.

Still, the cash infusion has created a strange time: While some islanders have bought TVs and DVD players, prompting one entrepreneur to rent out videos, not a single person has indoor plumbing or a toilet?people continue to shit on the beach.

No trespassing

Every 10 or 11 days, 2,000 tourists visit the island?part of it, anyway. NCL CEO Colin Veitch was quoted saying, ?The passengers are actually getting inside the lifestyles of the people who live there rather than enjoying the beach experience separately from the people who live on the island.?

In fact, NCL brought Fanning its first ?No Trespassing? signs?at the entrance to the cruise company?s compound, home to the island?s only restroom facility, picnic areas, a workshop, a generator room and air-conditioned, 20-foot containers that house the three NCL resident staff. On one side of the ?No Trespassing? sign, vacationers indulge in cakes and $3 Häagen-Dazs bars. On the other side, there is no ice cream, because there are no refrigerators.

NCL ferries a mobile party down to the beach?full-service bars, buffets, volleyball and snorkel school. A Jet Ski (which one local calls a ?motorcycle in the sea?) zips across the lagoon while islanders dance for tips that they turn over to the church. Some passengers haggle with the craft vendors over a dollar. Most of them are over 60, fat and oblivious to the fact that they are in one of the world?s least developed countries.

This is Fanning?s first glimpse of what could happen if they bow to the whims of exclusionary foreign ownership. While the tourists use the NCL toilets, the islanders relieve themselves on the beach just east of the compound. Incidentally, the current carries the waste to the NCL side. This seems only fair?although NCL doesn?t dump treated shipboard sewage until the ship is 12 nautical miles out to sea, it does pump raw sewage from the Fanning toilet block into the ocean, and locals throwing net catch more than they bargain for.

To the company?s credit, everybody I interviewed is pro-NCL. Much of the island showed up to watch the second-ever NCL-versus-Fanning soccer match. The barefoot islanders won. NCL is facilitating an operation for a young Fanning girl with a cleft palate. Last month, the ship carried a shipment of tetracycline and other drugs from a doctor in Texas to treat an outbreak of pneumonia. Regardless of their intentions, NCL is a fragile umbilical cord that nourishes the very growth it has engendered.

Now Corbett has a new mission: To encourage the Kiribati government to approach development proactively. ?Fanning has been visited by at least 100,000 tourists now,? he says. ?Somebody?s going to get off the ship and say, ?I?m going to develop this island.??

Corbett?s mind is constantly churning. ?It comes from living out here with no money and trying to figure out how to survive. You can?t just go over to the hotel and find employment,? he says as he reels off sustainable development ideas: cultivation of taro, giant clams, pearls, lobster, trocus shells, sea cucumbers; making coco brittle, carving coconut wood; building little bungalows with composting toilets. He envisions a cultural conservation district and a national park.

Honolulu resident and activist Marion Kelly, whose grandfather William Greig once ran the defunct Fanning Island copra plantation, encourages Corbett to be a watchdog and document the island?s history. In her youth, Kelly made several voyages to Fanning on her father?s trading vessel, Lanikai. ?The island was owned by the copra company. Today, it is a whole new ballgame,? she says, worrying about the depletion of the island?s resources.

Corbett is concerned that the resources will be abused just like the nation?s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), some of the Pacific?s most abundant ?ahi grounds over which the government has political jurisdiction; the fee (often corruptly or poorly negotiated) that commercial fisheries pay to ply the 2 million square miles of ocean is an indispensable part of the nation?s economy. Corbett fears the government is selling its national birthright for the price of a beer.

Cash isn?t king

In the morning, Corbett listens to the news on am kssk. ?Those poor guys out there in Wai?anae?fighting for hours to get to town in traffic,? he grimaces. At one point the surf kept him on Fanning, but now he stays because it is home. ?As I get older, I realize I could die early here. It?s a gamble, but not that much of a gamble,? he adds, with a touch of Kiribati fatalism.

I ask if he ever misses anything about the developed world. ?Once, in 1979 while on the island of Makin, I was really hungry for a hamburger,? he half jokes.

?On our island, local food is free and requires little work to get or cultivate. There are many breadfruit trees where the fruit is easily picked. We have bountiful fish and crabs. Compared to the West, they do not have to work for food, land, shelter. Look, everyone is big and round from local food. Who is richer? The man who has to work his whole life, or the man who doesn?t? They may not have cash, but they are not poor.?


Booze and crime

While Chuck Corbett was in Reno visiting his parents in April 2002, he had a terrifying vision of a man raping a woman. He became frantic, paranoid that something had happened to his wife, Temaoiti. He found a boat for sale for $25,000 in Honolulu and beelined for Fanning. Upon his arrival, he discovered that his father-in-law had raped his wife?s youngest sister, 14-year-old Karibwatau. The crime was abetted by liquor that Corbett believes came off of NCL?s Wind.

Just weeks before, the council had passed a law banning the sale of liquor. In Kiribati, where alcoholism is prevalent, crime and violence is usually the consequence of booze-fueled jealousy. (Otherwise, the magistrates verified, the worst offense is riding a bicycle without a light.)

Corbett wrote letters to NCL corporate management and the Kiribati government, demanding that the island?s liquor ban be respected. This instigated a battle between NCL?s resident Fanning staff, whom Corbett held responsible, and Corbett?s family. ?They refused to accept that they had put my family in harm?s way by providing liquor to the island,? he said.

Wind Capt. Trond Kindal insists that every ounce of liquor that comes off the ship is accounted for. NCL pointed out that it?s possible the liquor was off-loaded by Kiribati employees who work on the ship, four of whom were fired for alcohol problems. Regardless of who was to blame, the alcohol flow stopped.

There is an appalling prevalence of sexual abuse in the Pacific Islands, a reality underscored a few weeks ago when seven men, including the mayor, were charged with 31 counts of rape of girls as young as 12 on Pitcairn Island. (The island?s total population is 47.)

According to Kirata Naan, the leader of Fanning?s women?s association, their biggest issue is violence against women. ?You hit your wife here, half the time nothing happens,? another resident voiced. She finds it extremely challenging to apply what she has learned in foreign assistance workshops to islanders who don?t realize there are solutions.

Rather than seeking vengeance, Chuck adopted all three of his wive?s sisters, Karibwatau, Bintonga and Tabokori. Chuck has been teaching them to sail, and they feel secure, living in peace on the boat.


Easy as A-B-TI

The unphonetic pronunciation of Kiribati is the result of its 13-letter alphabet?developed by missionaries from Hawai?i. There is no written ?s? or ?c,? although the sounds exist in the language. So, ?ti? forms the ?s? sound.

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