Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Letters from the Equator, 6 - Tarawa

                          "They beheaded them..."                                                                 
     Tarawa - It was raining when I left Majuro in the Marshall Islands and headed south, but the clouds began to break up over the old Gilbert Islands and I saw the electric azure of the lagoons.
    The prime meridian and the equator intersect just to the southeast, cross-hairs in the early years of World War Two. It was a violent, crucial role played by tiny Tarawa, headquarters of the Japanese in 1943 and the site of one of the Pacific's fiercest battle that left Japanese artillery pieces and the hulks of allied ships standing on isolated beaches, rotting in salt-washed shallows.
     Soon after arriving I boarded one of the local busses, throbbing with boom boxes. There were two pans on the floor boards, one for coins tossed in as fare, the other for fish so passengers wouldn't have to carry dinner home in their laps. Big yellowfin tuna, the common catch, a very expensive delicacy where I came from, cost fifty cents apiece, I was told by a pleasant young woman named Mangauea, a native Tarawan educated at a St. Louis parochial school. There was considerable competition for the souls of Micronesians among not just Catholic and conventional Protestant missionaries, but also those of Bahia and Jehovah's Witnesses.                                                    
      Mangauea knew an uptight, jet-lagged mainlander when she saw one, and took pity. She escorted me to the Immigration Department, just behind the enormous fig tree in Bairiki. I needed a visa for a few days' stay, and the young civil servant sent me to the Home Office (with the tin roof, near the breadfruit tree) where I gave a woman in a cage $20 Australian and had an entire page of my passport emblazoned with the regal Kiribati stamp. I was officially accepted in what Robert Louis Stevenson had characterized in a letter to a friend as the place of "landfalls at dawn... passing alarms of squalls and surf," and "gentle natives."                              

     Mangauea and I boarded another bus, this one containing 20 people jammed into seats and on stools, and high-hoed across the causeway, built by the Japanese, no doubt in atonement. Formerly the Gilberts, the Kiribati chain, like the Ellices, belonged to the British colony in the western Pacific that encompassed one million square miles on both sides of the equator. Kiribati runs for 2,200 miles on the east-west line, more territory on the equator than any other country, but constitutes only 400 square miles of terra firma.
      In 1942, the Japanese over-ran Tarawa, the main island, and imprisoned British soldiers in a forced labor camp on Betio, Japanese headquarters and a base for their seaplanes. Some
British soldiers were murdered in retaliation for illegal broadcasts made by other Brits hiding on the islands. "They beheaded them," said Mangauea matter-of-factly as we stood looking at a corroded eight-inch Japanese naval gun. Her mother, 13 at the time, had been slated for what she believed was mass execution, just before an American plane dropped some bombs and distracted the Japanese soldiers. Her father had already fled to an outlying island, but she bore the Japanese no ill will.                                                    

     My father, too, had been caught up in the war in the Pacific, as a Seabee, and though he wasn't on Tarawa his presence out there somewhere in the arching blue Pacific made the experience of being there more poignant. For the first time the war felt real to me, though I had read about it for years, and seen all those films and documentaries about kamikaze planes coming out of the red sunset, and bonsai charges, the first of which took place on this exposed beach.
     The Americans came ashore on November 20, 1943, one of the bloodiest assaults of the war that left 1,113 Marines dead and more than 5,000 Japanese. Today there's a marker in front of the town hall commemorating the Marines and another across the road commemorating the Japanese, a typical balance in a place where reconciliation seemed crucial, in all things.
      Sitting in the lapping waves was the skeleton of an American landing craft; among the trees, boys played soccer in front of a blasted Japanese bunker that retained all the solemnity of an Inca ruin. "I met the American who shot the gun that made that hole," said Mangaueu, pointing at the cavern in the concrete. "He came here with other Americans who had fought on Tarawa. They remembered everything."
     John Byron landed here in 1756, and a British protectorate was set up in 1892. Ocean Island to Christmas Island - surely one of the most whimsical names in Oceania - has suffered imperialism from two directions and reflects it in American music played on Japanese tape decks. Its inhabitants, the I-Kiribati - they pronounce it "Kiribas" - are sturdy, and gentle. "They're lovely people," said Ron, an Australian doing relief work in the islands with whom drank a beer and watched a stiff east wind push whitecaps toward New Guinea. "Don't admire anything they have, or they'll give it to you."
     Ron was supervising work projects for young Tarawans, most of the projects being coconut shredders used in producing copra, still a prime source of income. He had been to a wedding on an outer island where the mother of the groom told her guests, late in the evening, that her house was theirs. "They bloody dismantled the place - furniture, pictures, the lot. I asked what the hell was going on, and somebody said, 'Oh, that's just the way we are.' In a week they started giving her things - first a mat, then a bed ..."
    I mentioned that the only threatening thing I had encountered was a mosquito and that I couldn't bear to close the door at night against the ocean breeze and the rattle of palm fronds. "I would if I were you, mate," he said, draining his Fosters. "It's not the people, and it's not the mosquitoes. It's the rats."
    Communal life was reflected all along the road, from the thatch-roofed platforms, known as little maneabas, where beds were set up with stars and sky for walls, to the giant maneabas, the village halls. The old ones had massive wooden beams and beautifully woven thatch inside, the new ones tin roofs. These had made Mangauea laugh, and I realized it was embarrassment at the abandonment of an ancient tradition grounded in so-called heathenism. This from a good Catholic.
       Some I-Kiribati still cultivated big taro plants; they cut toddy as they did in Stevenson's day. I saw men high in the coconut trees at dusk, singing while attaching containers to the coconut flowers, to collect the juice. Sour toddy - the fermented sort - made the men loopy on occasion, but fresh toddy provided a nutritious supplement to everyone's diet, and every family seemed to have a toddy cutter. I saw men and women building a house together, raising high the roof beams, laughing, swaying, getting the supports under just in time.
    The open houses, and democratic councils run by old men, reminded me of Thurston Clark's reflections in his book, Equator, on Tarawa's natural communism compared with the preoccupation with individualism and privat property in Ecuador. "It seemed impossible that they were neighbors along the same equator." At night, fires guttered under iron pots and men slept on their backs in the little maneabas, heads resting on carved wooden supports that let the breeze flow.
     People looked at me and raised their eyebrows in encouragement; they wanted me - anyone - to have what I wanted: for the wind to drop so I could catch a yellowtail with a line and a hook disguised as a fish with a bit of torn rice sack; for bananas to arrive so I could have a substitute for canned fruit cocktail; for the plane to Fiji not to arrive so I could stay a bit longer; for the gospels to have been written by New Testament prophets if I was a Catholic and by a prophet from New York if I was a Mormon. Vast was this pelagic accommodation. "Whatever," they seemed to be saying: not indifference, empathy.                                                   

       By the third day I didn't care if the wind dropped or if the bananas arrived. The anxiety and fatigue from thousands of miles covered too quickly melted into the white tidal flats and a sea streaked like lapis that rose and fell, the only real time. When Francis, the boatman, arrived in an outrigger with an ailing Japanese motor and a friend named Arna, I gladly set out with them toward the far side of the lagoon.
     We swam where the ocean piles in through a break in the reef, and Francis climbed a coconut tre and whacked the tops off the coconuts for refreshment. Our boating party was as much Renoir's as Gauguin's, sun-blasted blues and greens of ocean, palms and sky, and white terns doing somersaults. We jigged with hand lines for the bony little fish that got stuck in the nets of serious
fishermen who struck the water with iron bars, driving their quarry, roundup style, into their nets.
     Arna told me she was a Mormon, the product of a missionary school. I knew that Catholics on the island were sometimes converted to other religions. Did Mormons, I ask, ever become Catholic? "If they're married in a Catholic church," she said, and it made perfect sense to me.
     I ran into Ron again. "Things are starting to shape up," he said happily. The contest for the most exemplary coconut shredder had been scheduled; his only fear was that the makers of the best ones wouldn't show up because someone might admire their handicraft and they would be forced to give them away.                                
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