November 17

Last night we spent one of the most remarkable evenings ashore that we have ever experienced. All of the crews of the (now seven, formerly five) boats here attended a dinner in our honor. I should begin by saying that the village we are anchored at is called Keuea and it is on the island of Butaritari which is a coral atoll in the nation of Kiribati also called the Gilbert Islands . Butaritari sees very few cruising yachts and most years 2 or 3 stop by for a week or so and usually anchor at either the main village (where boats are required to visit the local police chief to register arrival) or on the reef at the NW corner of the atoll.  

According to the people of Keuea no boats have ever come to anchor at the village. First there were 4, then five, now there are seven. Among us are 6 kids, Jonah being one of them of course. Additionally, they report that they have never seen white children before, though they have seen white adults from time to time. To put it mildly, the villagers are amazed. It may be that this is the second most amazing thing that has ever happened to them, the first being when they were bombed by the Japanese in 1942 as punishment for harboring American servicemen left behind after an American sneak attack on Japanese soldiers stationed here. In point of fact, they got the wrong village, the Americans having been stashed by the next village to the West about 10 miles away. The impact, by the way, of that bombing seems to have been quite profound as they still talk about it, but I will get to that in a moment.  

Because of the presence of Jill a Peace Corps worker who has been living in the village for the past 2 years we were able to communicate with the local people to a higher degree then usual and through here we were told that they wanted to invite us all to the village (last night) for a dinner and celebration in honor of our visit. This turned out to be a very interesting evening as I will recount now. The festivities were held in the Maneaba (Mahn Ee Abba) which is a very large structure with a concrete slab floor and a huge, high roof with colorful wooden beams and an aluminum roof (in past days, of course, the roof would be thatch and the concrete absent). When we arrived we met at Jill’s hut where she briefed us on the procedures and courtesies we would be required to perform and reciprocate.

When we entered the Maneaba we found the locals arranged on one side in groups and mats set out along the other side and we were instructed to sit in a row, all 21 of us. Jill translated throughout the evening. It began with the MC (master of ceremonies) giving a speech welcoming us. He sat on a mat next to the village headman or chief. Following this, as Jill had briefed us beforehand, we were asked to each stand as a family one at a time and introduce ourselves. Jill advised us that we should give our names and place of origin or home port, the length of time we have been living aboard our boats and traveling and (most unusually) the names of our parents, where they lived and if they were still living. Each family stood and one member spoke for all, usually the husband though in one case the little girl gave the introduction, and Jill translated. After each families introduction the villagers applauded.  

When all that was done a buffet was laid out in front of us and each person was issued a plate and spoon (no forks). After this we were instructed to serve ourselves and once each person had taken food and seated themselves the villagers began eating as well though from their own bowls of food that each family or group had brought. The food was very good actually, much better then we expected. There were several bowls of different kinds of fish, mostly deep fried, breadfruit several different ways, a couple of salads of papaya and local greens and rice.  

After we had eaten, and the bowls were removed, a group of villagers sang and then Jill announced that we were expected to sing, as a group, as well, three songs (apparently things are done in threes here). Well, this lead to quite a bit of confusion and debate as small groups began discussing what to sing. I went from group to group to try to create a consensus and between myself and Eddie from “Athanor” we managed to get a quorum on what to sing. Several of us wanted to sing “Row Your Boat”, the excuse given that it was within the abilities of the children, but most of us agreed that that would be lame and the situation called for something more serious. Eddie and I wanted to sing America the Beautiful and “This Land is Your Land” by Woodie Gutherie, but in the end we could only convince the group to sing “American The Beautiful” as everyone claimed they didn’t know the words to “This Land is Your Land”. The only other two songs that seemed to have any backing among the group were “Yankee Doodle” and “Row Your Boat”. In the end, that is what we sang, though for “Row Your Boat” we split into two groups and did it in rounds (with the second group coming in at the end of the first verse).  

After this there was a dance presentation by the villagers who did several interesting local dances and then there were speeches by several of the older village men. One of the speeches was by a man of the village who appeared to be of some importance and he spoke at length about the village and their experience during WWII. Specifically, he recounted how the village was bombed by the Japanese, how 76 people died (Jill, the translator, in English, told us he was exaggerating and that 40 people died) and how the village was destroyed. He made sweeping hand gestures showing how bombs fell here and there. It was quite emotional and he then thanked us for coming, again. Another man spoke and also thanked us for coming and recounted how after the liberation of the Gilberts (in 1943) the people of Butaritari were thankful to the Americans and the British and said that we (who had arrived in our boats) had come back and were somehow linked in their minds with those who had liberated them.  

After that they asked us if any of us would like to speak and several representatives of the group did. Lynn from “Roxanne” spoke briefly as did Jim from “Dancer”. But Eddie from “Athanor” gave the most touching speech, I thought, in that he focused on Jill, our translator, and described how special it was that she was there to enable us to communicate (Jill really seemed to enjoy herself and appeared to have an excellent command of the Kiribati language). He said that we would remember the village in our hearts always because of the warm welcome we have received here and we would never forget our experiences.  

After this (applause of course) a couple of more village man gave speeches, thanking us for coming (which itself was the most unusual part of the experience, that they were truly and seriously thankful to us for coming to visit them). Then they asked us questions, things like when are we leaving, where are we all going, will we leave as a group of separately, when we will we be coming back, how long before we get back to our homes, stuff like that. Of course, except for the fact that each us plans to go to Majuro in the Marshall Islands after Butaritari, none of us was willing to say in any more detail what our plans are. This is the nature of our voyages. They seemed to have the belief that we, as Kate put it, are all together, all our boats traveling together as one “village”.  

After this there was another dance presentation by the younger men of the group followed by the most interesting, unusual and funny parts of the evening. Jill announced that a dance ritual would begin now and that she would start it and after dancing a bit she would go up to someone in the crowd and gesture to them (with both hands extended and palms up as if to say “come here”) and then that person would rise and copy the dance of the first person. Then this person would choose the next dancer who would copy him or her. Well, it was clear that she meant us as well and everyone began to panic, me especially. Jonah was asleep by now and I made a public show of moving his head off Kate’s lap onto my own as if to signify that I would not be able to dance since the boy was sleeping on me! Of course, I knew I would have to participate if everyone else did, but I got plenty of laughs from the crowd.  

Well, all I can say is that this was the funniest thing I have ever seen in a third world country and by the time the third dancer was up I was in stitches, as was the entire crowd. These people can be very funny and they did the strangest, most bizarre dances after which one of us would have to get up and try to copy it! I was the second person selected, of course, probably because of my big show of putting Jonah on my lap. The man I had to imitate had done a kind of Bill Cosby dance moving his shoulders one at a time up and down in an exaggerated fashion. Other dancers did equally strange dances squatting down and moving one leg at a time like some kind of hunchback, waving arms in the air like a lunatic, swinging hip and pelvis back and forth, etc., etc., etc. Martin and Christie from “Wind Runner” did quite well and had the crowd cracking up and several of the other cruisers also put on quite a show. What a hoot. I wish we had video of that part!