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Notes from a small island

September 20, 2010

I’m not sure what you can tell of a country from first impressions, but on landing on South Tarawa a dog ran along the runway next to the plane. We disembarked and waited in the queue for immigration. The baggage reclaim area was a grubby platform where a man heaved the luggage off a trolley and thrust it through a hatch. Amid much hilarity he examined the name tags and shouted out our names one-by-one: “Patel – must be a man from India; Brown – a European”.

It takes about an hour to drive the length of the main atoll, which in places is only the width of the road. Litter adorns the roadside and the sewage system is the lagoon. We’ve been advised not to swim in it. The tap water smells. There are 53 known HIV/AIDS cases in a population of 100,000. Prostitutes work on the visiting Korean and Chinese fishing vessels.

Like the sanitation system, the economy is stagnating. GDP is forecast to grow at 0.5% this year, one of the slowest rates among the Pacific islands. Major exports are copra and coconut oil. There is no fishing fleet to take advantage of the massive sea area, and fishing income comes solely from access fees.

The weekend after arriving we visited a tiny islet an hour-and-a-half by speedboat north of the capital. The contrast couldn’t have been greater:

In 40 minutes of idle trawling we caught two large cod for dinner. Local fisherman took us for a sail in their traditional canoe, and we snorkelled on a pristine reef. After dark, all we could hear was the calling of the terns nesting in the coconut palms.

Even if trade is declining and the economic situation looks bleak, tourism has loads of potential.

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