As I was riffling through old travel pictures the other day I came across a picture from Kiribati, an island nation smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, isolated in all directions from civilization. We were on a cruise to Hawaii, but about halfway through the itinerary, we took a two day excursion south to this group of tiny remote islands. There seemed to be no reasonable explanation for this four day excursion to and from the equator, so far from the populated Hawaiian Islands. Rumors were that it afforded the cruise line some kind of tax incentive. So as we ruminated about what these small islands peppered across the middle of the Pacific nowhere would be like, I wondered about the natives who lived there. Would they be accustomed to visitors? Would they welcome us? What would it be like to live at such a location, so remote from modern civilization? How would one experience life on Kiribati? Would we pity their lack of modern conveniences? I was just wondering……………..
As the ship docked, we were greeted by the mellifluous singing of the children of Kiribati who were sitting serenely in a circle near the dock. The music, so enchanting, seemed to cast a spell on us as we slowly disembarked to the lilting melodies. The emotional effect of the music and the overall scene was profound and many of us found ourselves weeping with an intense feeling of connection to these strangers. Yet, at that moment we were one. It was magical. We were mesmerized.
My own reverie was interrupted when I suddenly noticed that people began to hand money to these innocent beings. The idea of it was somehow disquieting to me. It was a transcendent moment and money didn’t belong in it. But my shipmates seemed to feel sorry for them and thus, wanted to give them something. While I understood the reason for it, the idea of rewarding something that was a beautiful shared experience somehow didn’t seem appropriate to me. To muddy such an almost sacred event with money was sacrilegious. Then I wondered what they would even do with it. There were no stores to explore. There were no roads. There was no electricity.
The moment passed and we moved slowly onto the island as the dulcet melodies faded behind us. Many rushed toward the idyllic beach peppered with Norwegian Cruise Line plastic while chairs, and as I observed the onslaught, I could envision an Andy Warhol painting of that scene. The entire beach area was prepared for a huge outdoor barbeque. A volley ball net hugged the coastline as people gathered to engage in the prepared activities.
We continued to walk, slowly absorbing the surrounding beauty unfolding with sweet, fragrant scents, and a soothing breeze. As we trekked inward from the coast, the sound of drums called to us and we soon found ourselves at a rustic pavilion. Dancers in native costumes appeared and soon a performance was underway. The dances were lively and invigorating. Again, an enjoyable experience, but nothing like the moving event of our entry onto the island. This, too, was followed by a reward of money, tossed by us into straw hats which served as native cash registers. I continued to be confused, wondering again what they would do with the money.
As we left this area, we approached the “town” composed of huts made from bamboo and other plants native to the area. While I have been to other primitive environments, I had never encountered one so completely isolated from the rest of the world as this one. Nor have I since.
As we began to make our way back toward the ship, the usual and customary “gift shop” lined walkway greeted us, tables bountifully filled with hand -made trinkets. Smiling faces waited, as these innocent people eagerly displayed their wares. Again, money turned up, and my shipmates seemed, once again, more than happy to part with it to reward these lovely people for their labors.
I continued to ponder this experience as we approached the ship. Is everything about money? What would they do with it? There was nowhere to buy anything that we observed. Perhaps the reason for the journey to Kiribati was to take supplies to them that they purchased from the ship with this money they made from the tourists on it.
The island is pristine. The natives seemed ingenuous, happy, content. Everything they seem to need is at their fingertips. They have the sea and the land for their food. I wondered why we pitied them. But did I? Don’t we often dream of being on a deserted island? Perhaps we were the ones to be pitied. We have issues. We have stress. We have problems. We get mad when we don’t get out way. We need things that they don’t need. I fear that our money will destroy their innocence. Perhaps they, like us, already lust for money. My thoughts roiled for clarity. As I watched this idyllic land slowly fade from view I pondered my experience there. Who are the lucky ones? Who should be pitied, the people of Kiribati or us?
I was just wondering……………..