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A trip to fascinating Fanning Island
In this vastly huge and incomprehensible world - what a contrast between the lifestyle on our luxury liner and the primitive people of the receding Fanning Island, where there was no running water and no electricity. People lived just as their ancestors had lived 2000 years ago!

November 2003:

We were somewhere in the Pacific, in the middle of nowhere. Near the Equator on the International Date Line! For three days, from horizon to horizon we could only rest our eyes on the magical blue shades of the Pacific waters and the sky. Twice daily, the blues were invaded for a while by stunningly colourful sunrises and sunsets.

The captain and staff were briefing us that the ship was to enter for 48 hours a 'communication black hole'. We were so far away from civilisation, that no communication satellite was covering that area. So in our salons there would be neither CNN news nor any TV programs.

Instead, the ship would be running in-house movie videos. In an emergency, ship's SOS was not likely to reach any shore station. Perhaps some ship may respond, if in the vicinity! Though there was a helipad on board for evacuation during medical emergencies, it would be of no avail. Of course, the ship had a fully equipped mini hospital.

The only aid the ship had access to was a GPS satellite, which has far higher orbits and hence useful for navigation. There was subdued apprehension and an eerie feeling among more than 2300 passengers. Why had we landed ourselves knowingly into such a 'black hole'? Well, we were heading for one of the remotest inhabited spots on earth, the Fanning Island.

Fanning Island is one of the over 30 atolls (reef islands) spread over 2000 km, comprising the Republic of Kiribati. With the naked eye, it is difficult to find this place on the map. Such islands have only area and practically no height. So it is one of the first 10 countries which will drown in the advancing sea, thanks to global warming.

In retirement, I often wistfully leaf through my old passports, to see the stamps of exotic places; I have been foolhardy to visit - though they are not the usual tourist spots! Of these, Fanning Island is my favourite. Why this fascination? Well, the Melanesians on this island live even today, just as their ancestors lived 2000 years ago.

No electricity and no running water or wells. These islands have coconut and kukui nut trees. Oils from coconut and kukui are used for fire, cooking and lighting at night their coconut fibre torches. Fish is their staple food. Strangely, they fish at night! A group keeps chewing kukui nuts, while holding the lit fibre torch in one hand and a spear in the other hand.

After stepping into the water, they spit out the oil from the kukui nut they were chewing. This oil spreads on the water and magnifies the fish, thereby making it easier to spear them.

Water: Being small islands on the Equator, the sea water evaporates very fast and makes the place very humid. Mercifully, the afternoon cool Trade Winds from the east precipitate the clouds and every day there is a drizzle. This rain water they scoop out from the ground, with coconut shells. Their only source of water!

Our ship anchored off the island, but not all passengers wanted to get off and venture out on the island. Those of us who were keen, wore our life jackets and were ferried to the island in inflatable, motorised boats. An advance party of crew had already set up beach chairs and brought over food, beverages and chemical toilets, etc. and set them up. This was in an area away from the residents. On board we had been given detailed briefing and strict instructions about how to behave:

Though the locals were not hostile, in fact grinning we had to keep away. We had bacteria, to which they were not immune and vice versa. A deserted improvised small church and a deserted agricultural patch were a grim reminder, that some English missionaries perished because of the problem stated.

We went around gesturing to them, but kept our distance. The crew had also brought some cycles for us to wheel around. We also left some food amenable to their stomach. We had strict instructions not to leave any litter or empty cans behind. All was meticulously carried back to ship.

Around sunset time we were safely back in the cosiness of our modern comforts on the ship. From the ship I could have a glimpse of this remote island, where the people were living a very basic existence - scooping for rain water every day! And here we were in a ship, which was incommunicado with the rest of the civilisation, but was a veritable floating replica of say, Las Vegas! More than 2300 passengers, 1000 crew members from 60 nations, 13 speciality restaurants, spas, discos, karaoke bars, movie theatres, libraries, lecture rooms, swimming pools, a huge auditorium holding 2000 for the grand evening concerts, plays and magic shows, even a 9-hole golf course!

When playing golf on a ship it is more than likely that many balls will fall into the sea, which would an infringement of international environmental norms and fatal for the fish. It was explained to me that these special golf balls met all the technical specifications for the game, but were made of fish food. On softening in the sea water, they would just be the right dish for the fish!

Thousands of miles away from India, I discovered that the entire security of the ship was in the hands of the trustworthy Gurkhas. It was so nice to talk to them in Hindi. They were also delighted. Some cooks on board were Goans. On the last night of the cruise, I suggested to my wife that we eat out in style at the French restaurant. This was the only restaurant on the ship where you had to be properly dressed in dark suit.

In all other restaurants one could go around in T-shirts, bikinis or whatever. When the reception, saw us coming with my wife in sari, he disappeared. He returned shortly with a smart lady in formal western dress. It turned out that she was a Marathi mulgi, from Mulund, Mumbai and she was chief of protocol of the elite restaurant on the ship.

She was bubbling with excitement and took very good care for us. She gave us presents to take home, for children. She had done her diploma from the Catering College on Cadell Road. Every Sunday when the ship berthed back in Honolulu, she was sending Rs. 20,000/- to her mother in Mulund.

So, is this a small world or a vastly huge and incomprehensible world? What a contrast between the lifestyle on the ship and the receding Fanning Island, as we steamed away!

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