Travel packing hacks

After 55 days on the road, 14 flights, 2 train journeys, 2 bus trips, thousands of kilometres of driving, hundreds of photos and far too much good food and wine, I finally got to unpack the other day and have realised that no, I don’t really travel light at all – but I do travel prepared for most things and don’t have the nickname ‘MacGuyver’ for nothing. Going on a trip and need some travel packing hacks?

I’ve got quite a few below for you, but first, a few of the things that I’ve realised after doing two round the world trips – one in 2003, the other 15 years later in 2018…


Getting around: it used to be Lonely Planet Guides, paper train and bus timetables and tickets, old school foldable maps. Now? It’s an iPhone. Google maps makes navigating (especially when you’re driving alone) SO much less stressful and the need to plan days ahead almost obsolete. With a few spare hours with a car in Invermere, I googled ‘best views in Invermere’ and 20 seconds later was driving towards this stunning view.

According to Google, the ‘best view in Invermere’…. it wasn’t wrong!


Staying connected: it used to be finding an internet cafe once or twice a week, then choosing the one that was the most empty so that you’d get the fastest connection. Waiting for hotmail to load you’d sit there wondering whether anyone had replied to the group ‘travel updates’ email you’d sent out the week before, or who may have sent an ‘I got your postcard!’ message. Now? You spend a lot of your downtime deleting junk mail and wading through the hundreds of emails, notifications and updates you get on a daily basis. #bringbackthegoodolddays


Choosing where to eat or stay: it used to be using the Lonely Planet Guide or asking the dude at reception in the hostel you were staying at. Now? Most people travelling use Trip Advisor, Yelp or the myriad of apps that will tell you where the best restaurants are and what their star rating and signature dishes are. Me? I travel to people I know and eat where they eat. Never a bad meal when you’re eating at your friends’ favourite establishments or cooking delicious meals for them with fresh local produce in their own homes!


Deciding what makes up your 23 kilos of luggage: last time I went around the world I had a mini-disc player, a stack of mini disks, a number of Lonely Planets, a few novels and clothes to get me through 10 months of work, play, summer and winter. This time? It was a little bit different. I’ve got sections below on Power and Charging, Drinking Vessels, Practical Tools, Down-time Tools, Bags and What to Include in your Hand Luggage. Got any tips you’d add to the list? Add them in the comments!


Power and Charging

You could literally fill your hand luggage with adapters and chargers; this is the combination that saved me the most space:

• an Australian power-board or double adapter, (so there’s no need for multiple adapters),

• one universal (multi-country) power adapter, (so you don’t have to travel with different ones for each country),

• more than one power/USB cable for each type of device you need (they break, get lost, stop working randomly when you least expect them to – carrying a spare saved me a few times on this trip), and 

• small power bank for those times when you’re out and about without a power source – this saved my butt quite a few times arriving in places with little battery power left – hard to call an Uber or work out what train you’re supposed to be on when your device is dead…


Drinking Vessels

You may think it a bit strange to have a whole section dedicated to this and to be honest I’ve rarely travelled with any of these items but after this trip I wouldn’t leave without them (especially if you’re on a trip with lots of long haul road trips or air travel…).

• Travel Mug: I’ve never travelled with one of these before but they’re AWESOME. Most coffee places offer a discount if you bring your own mug these days, you’re saving the trees, they don’t spill, they fit in most car cup holders, and best of all they keep your cuppa warm (or cold!). This one is the Contigo brand and is awesome as it has a double locking mechanism so you have to push a button to be able to drink from it (which auto closes after you release it), then you can lock it off so even that button doesn’t work – you can literally throw it into your bag upside down full of hot coffee and not worry about it. Brilliant!

• Flask: I’ve never travelled with one of these before either, but when I saw this in a shop in Canada I couldn’t leave it there (read the inscription on the front of the green flask in the picture). Brilliant for being on the road, filling with hot water before you leave your accommodation so you can brew yourself a cuppa when you’re on the road! This one kept the water boiling for hours – literally!

• Water bottle: so many places on this trip had free re-fill stations for drinking water – rarely any need to actually buy bottled water which is great for the budget but also for the planet 🙂


Practical Tools

This section is dedicated to the types of things that just make your life easier when you’re on the road; being able to switch off, or repair things quickly often saves you time, money and a whole heap of frustration. 

• Headphones: noise-cancelling, bluetooth, foldable, over-ear 1000MX2 Sony headphones (pictured) for flights, airports and other places where there are lots of people and noise. I also carry a set of in-ear $40 Marley headphones with built in microphone for taking calls and speaking with clients, but the over-ear Sony numbers are BLISS for shutting out the world around you and getting some peace. Well worth the (duty free) expense.

• Multi-tool: because you never know when you’re going to need a pair of pliers or a bottle opener #macguyver

• Sewing kit: because buttons fall off, fans break, backpack zips split and clothing rips (all of those things happened this trip, and that kit fixed all of them)

• Manicure kit: nail files, clippers and scissors can be used for many more things than just your nails #repairhacks #clippersaresharperthanscissors

• Hand fan: because it weighs nothing, slides into your handbag and when you’re A) a hot blooded half Italian half Irish/English whose body wasn’t designed for the heat, and B) land in a place like sunny Hawaii from freezing Auckland, it’s much more pleasant to whip out a hand fan than stand there waiting for your luggage looking like a beetroot and dripping with sweat 🙂 #trustmeImasweatybeast

• Business cards: because you never know who you’re going to meet when you’re waiting for your luggage #coolasacucumberwithmyhandfan

• Sarong: the ultimate travel tool, becoming whatever you need it to be – impromptu towel, makeshift robe, laundry bag, picnic blanket, skirt, hat, pillow, I even used one once to rescue someone caught in a rip #myothernicknameisPamela 

• Weighing scale: because you don’t want to be one of those people unpacking in the middle of the check in line, trying to move one or two kilos from your main luggage into your hand luggage. Maxing out the kilos you’re allowed to stow means carrying less in your hand luggage which is always a good thing!


Downtime Tools

Because when you’re on the road, you get a lot of opportunities to sit and just be. These tools helped make that time more comfortable and enjoyable for me while I was on this trip.

• Yoga: travel yoga mat with a yoga class on the iPad – because there’s nothing better than finding a beachside park and just sitting, stretching and enjoying the view.

• iPad: loaded with loads of Kindle books, Netflix and Recolour (a colouring in app) – for the times when you’re on the road or jet lagged and not sleeping.

• Meditation: Singing bowl, Soul Guidance Cards, some Palo Santo, Jade, Moonstone and Rose Quartz – because getting your woo on, isn’t something you just leave at home.



What type to take? A suitcase? A backpack? Wheels? Go to any travel luggage store and you’ll be assaulted with choices. Here’s my picks:

• Wheels: travelling with your main luggage as a backpack is really only useful if you’re on and off buses and trains, having to walk long distances with your whole kit, or you’re on an actual hiking holiday. I decided to re-live my youth and travel round the world again with the same backpack I used last time. Here’s my take on that decision: madness. Take wheeled baggage. Period. Having said that, I have muscles now I didn’t when I started this trip so it wasn’t a completely ridiculous decision! #findasilverlining

• Enviro bag: for laundry, shopping, when one of your bags breaks, when you just need enough stuff for a few days away and don’t want to take your whole kit, throw a couple in they come in handy more often than you’d think.

• Packing cells: I cannot travel without them now – I have a general rule for my main luggage – cells hold clean ’like’ clothes (one for tops, one for dresses, one for underwear, etc); if it can be worn again it doesn’t go back into a cell and if it can’t, it goes into the laundry bag. That way you’ll always know exactly how many outfits (and changes of underwear more importantly) you have until you need to find a laundry. You can also organise your hand luggage into sections for cords and chargers, another for cosmetics and medical bits and pieces – your hand luggage never needs to be a tangled mess of bits and pieces ever again as mine always used to be. Best way to buy them is in a Kathmandu sale as they tend to be fairly pricey but you can also pick them up in a lot of $2 shops these days… do some hunting around, buy more than you think you need in all different sizes and allow your inner systemiser to shine!


What to include in your hand-luggage

Quite simply, follow this advice. I didn’t, and I suffered!

• Wheels: unless you’ve got a 2 kilo rucksack, take something that has wheels. Carrying 7 kilos doesn’t sound like hard work but when you’re standing in a queue for half hour, that 7 kilos will get heavier as time goes by.

• Change of clothes: or at least underwear, especially if you’re travelling to or from somewhere hot. I did this for every leg of my trip – until the last one, when I thought – I’ve done this for the other 13 flights and never needed them… guess which leg I lost my luggage on? Yep. The last one. Landing in hot, sweaty Singapore in clothes I’d already been wearing for 24 hours. #winning

• Medication: see the point above. Included in this would be some tablets to help you get off to sleep. Didn’t need them on any of my flights, until the last 14 hour leg when I really needed them and they were safely stowed in the belly of the aircraft!

• USB cables for your devices: most airports have charging stations these days, and many aircraft have USB ports in the seats. Land with a powered up device, especially if you’re banking on using that device to find the people/place you’re headed for.

• Noise cancelling headphones: with an adapter for the double plugged aeroplane headphone sockets –  they really do make crowded, noisy, children filled cabins much more enjoyable places to be.


And apart from a whole heap of clothes for various seasons and purposes, that’s about it! Got any tips you’d add to the list? Add them in the comments!

The Giving Back Project 2018



Thanks to a barrage of emails from gorgeous people saying WTF? in relation to the apology email (if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, read the previous emails below), I’ve had a couple of light bulb moments and realisations …


Lightbulb moment 1: Gypsy is a word that describes a cultural group of people; it is NOT a racial slur or an insult, unless used in a derogatory sense which in the case of the book I’m writing, it most definitely is not (in fact, it’s the opposite, celebrating a Gypsy style life, across 35 countries, over 14 overseas postings, that have been full of uplifting life lessons). According to some it’s not particularly politically correct to use the term however it would seem that there are precious few words these days that can’t be taken the wrong way, by someone, at some point in time. Sigh.


It’s been enlightening to see the other side of the argument though, thanks to a voice message from a bonafied Gypsy, and a few messages from dear old friends who have enlightened me to the reality behind the name and how’s it’s used (and not used, mainly in Europe #whatwouldanaussieknow),


Here’s the voice message I received…


‘I just wanted to let you know that I am an actual Gypsy… when I see people use the word Gyspy, I see it as an absolute badge of honour… I really appreciate it when people can use the word Gyspy in a non YUCK way – you know, you see movies like ‘My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding’ and people make assumptions about what that kind of life means.


I’d just like you to know that I don’t take offence to that at all, and I know a lot of Gyspies don’t either.


I’m totally on your side when it comes to naming this book… thank you for sharing the wonderful, kind side of the Gyspy world… you are genuinely what I would consider a true Gypsy sister….I’ve seen that you have given your life to all these different communities….you’re always out travelling and giving up your luxuries in life to give other people the benefits of what you have, and you do live a very similar life to what we Gypsies do…. and that is give up our fundamental luxuries, our material possessions in order to help others… and you do that… you give back to the world.


So good on you for standing up for what you believe in. Thank you. Thank you, from someone who is a genuine Gyspy, I consider you a true Gyspy sister – I love what you do. Thank you. And if anyone wants to have a go at you for using the word Gypsy for your book, let me at them!’


Lightbulb moment 2: I may have jumped the gun in an effort to please a solitary, well meaning albeit slightly misinformed individual. Life Lesson #85745495. You’ll never be able to please everyone, and changing yourself to please other people rarely results in anything good for anyone.


Will I be changing the name of the book back to what it was originally?


The jury is still out on that one.


I have no desire to be using a term which can be considered politically incorrect or to insult or enrage even a small percentage of the population who considers the usage inappropriate; therefore I’m reluctant to knowingly do something that is putting my neck on the line. You can’t ‘un-know’ what you’ve learnt so my gut tells me to play it safe and err on the side of caution.


Having said that, I think the world has gone a little bit nuts when it comes to political correctness and I stand by the original intention to showcase a phenomenally powerful, positive and uplifting life of stories, life lessons and light bulb moments, in the hope that it can educate, entertain and provide a much needed giggle snort; especially in a time where we, as a generation, are struggling with a world that has become, quite frankly, absurd. Political correctness gone overboard. Kids having to rally against gun laws. Environmental clusterf%cks. Reality TV show hosts becoming world ‘leaders’. God give us all a bit of strength, whoever your ‘God’, or divine guidance giver is.


Anyway, update: Patrons received their first chapter today, as promised.


If you sign up before midnight tonight, I’ll send you the chapter they just received. Chapters are sent in the first week of every month, after the donations have come in. So here’s the link if you’d like to stay updated and as the chapters come out, one by one (and you’ll be giving back to quality education and teacher training in developing countries, one school at a time). I’ve reached a quarter of my first goal, which is to get 20 patrons on board, so thanks to those that have kickstarted the Giving Back 2018 project with me! When I get to 20 patrons, I’ll be organising 2 days of volunteering at schools who otherwise wouldn’t have access to basic teacher training. All funds raised go directly to providing resources needed at the school. I’d love your support! (there are bigger goals too, 50 patrons = 5 volunteer days, 100 patrons = 10 volunteer days)….


Here’s the back story in case you missed it….


A few days ago, I got slayed on social media for using the word ‘Gypsy’. Now you might already realise why that was so inappropriate, but I had no idea until it was pointed out to me. #cuemortification #learningneverstops


If you didn’t read the first email, don’t worry, it’s attached so you can get the full story on what the Journals are about, and why I’m publishing them (it’s all about Giving Back – getting quality teacher training out to schools who need it) – but here’s the mistake I made, and the apology that goes with it. 


‘Gypsy’ is actually a racist slur; it was never the intention to casually use a word which may offend, rather a word that I have called and considered myself for many years – in the most positive of senses. Apologies to all and any who may have been offended by the original title.


I have edited the original title ‘The Gypsy Journals’ to a working title ‘The Giving Back Journals’ to reflect this new awareness. Any suggestions on a better word for Gypsy, that describes the life I’ve lead over the past 20 years (moving from posting to posting, living, learning and loving one country and culture after another), please do pass them on!


Original post on social media and the email that went out yesterday:


So this just happened. It’s the way I’m going to be doing my Giving Back Project for 2018 – helping teachers and schools that don’t have access to the type of basic training that we enjoy in Australia; fancy being a part of it?


The full story is below, but the short story is this: when I hit 20 patrons, I’ll donate 2 days of help to a school in need – be that teacher training, curriculum or resources development or supplying basic teaching and learning materials. When I hit 50 patrons, I’ll donate another 5 days, and when I hit 100 patrons, I’ll donate another 10 days of help. I will bear all the costs of the getting the training to the schools; the money donated will go towards providing the physical resources needed.


Here’s the full story.


If you’ve been following me on social media, you will have seen a whole heap of photos and snippets from the past 20 years I’ve had on the road; as a traveller, roving English teacher, teacher trainer and as a big believer in ‘giving back’ brings about a shed load of stories – from black mail, to evacuation due to civil unrest, detention as an illegal alien, deportation and surviving multiple organ failure, I’ve travelled through 35 countries (to date), worked with over 90 cultures and been on 14 overseas postings before creating a second base for myself in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.


They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve often said if I was any stronger I’d be forged steel, but I don’t take back a second of any of the hair-raising adventures I’ve taken myself on. Each one of those experiences has transformed me and I don’t regret a single one of them. I have lived and loved to the very fullest, taken every opportunity by the horns, slept rough, eaten with Presidents, built houses with the poorest locals on the planet, I’ve been head over heels in love and desperately heartbroken by the people who I’ve cared about the most but nothing has transformed me the way that the past 6 years have. Part of this transformation has been about getting back to what I really love doing, and that is writing, travelling, learning more about culture, and understanding the most complex conundrum on the planet – what makes people tick. 


I’ve got enough stories to keep a road trip entertained for hours and so this is my mission – to translate the journals and the diaries, the blogs and the emails I’ve collected over the past 20 years into a series of short stories, which will eventually be turned into traditional paperbacks and audio books, narrated of course by the lead character – moi! Every story brings with it a healthy dose of giggle snorting and a life lesson of some description, carefully curated and written from the heart of what those experiences taught me. 

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘so when are you writing the book?’ I’d have enough to self publish this book 10 times over – so I’m mixing things up a bit and putting forward a proposal. I promise a new chapter every month to all those who are contributing to the cause. Not only will you read the chapters as they’re compiled, you’ll also be gifted a paperback when it’s published, and I’m promising to pledge dollar for dollar; every dollar donated, I’m going to match – and give directly to a Giving Back Project like I do every year, to a school in need – teacher training, curriculum development, whatever the school needs to up-skill their staff and make learning something that every kid in that school is excited about turning up for. 

So. The longer it goes on, the more chapters will be written and the more schools will be helped. Who’s in? Many thanks to my Auntie Pam who planted this seed a few years ago, by turning up on my doorstep with a manila envelope full of the stories I’d written over the years, saying ‘Maria, write the book’.


Fancy being part of the journey with me? You can sign up for as little as $5/month, through my Patreon account, here. If you’d like to see the kinds of Giving Back Projects I’ve been involved in over the years, you can check them out here 🙂


Looking forward to sharing the chapters with my patrons as they’re published – there are two ready to go, and will be sent to say thank you for signing up! All other chapters will be sent out on a monthly basis. Looking forward to seeing how many days of teacher training I’m going to give away this year!





Best of the best in Ubud, Bali

I get asked all the time what you can do in Ubud…

‘isn’t it all just rice paddies and healing centres?’

Short answer, NO. There is NO END of things you can do to occupy your time up here, and here are some of my personal favourites.


Experience the REAL Bali (no Bintang Bogans in sight, promise…). Try:

  • a traditional Hindu water temple blessing at Tirta Empul (the holiest springs in Bali),
  • a photographic tour with Nyoman Silver Abe Do of Hidden Corner of Ubud,
  • a wander through the rice paddies,
  • the local day and night markets for an assault to your senses,
  • a mountain bike trek,
  • a herbal medicine jungle walk, and a natural medicine making class with Nadis Herbal,
  • hooning around on a scooter,
  • a cooking class (so many to choose from, the one at Cafe Wayan Restaurant and Bakery is awesome!),
  • a jewellery making class (I did one at Studio Perak and LOVED it),
  • a batik class (#12 Jalan Hanoman) with Nyoman Warta, or
  • a ridge walk, high above the Campuhan Valley.



Fancy a bit of self care perhaps?


  • The Pyramids of Chi for a sound healing that will leave you feeling like you don’t have a care in the world! I’ve witnessed friends go through some profound experiences in those pyramids and go there on a regular basis for relaxation and nourishing food at their cafe that looks over tranquil rice fields.
  • SKIN for an organic manicure or pedicure – go the ‘Complete’ option for the full 18 step process – divine!  (for less than the cost of an average bottle of wine),
  • Karsa Spa for a full day spa experience (the works, 4 hours, under $50…),
  • Ubud Wellness for a lomi lomi massage you’ll get addicted to
  • Taman Hati for a yoga class held in a local ashram, by the son of a Balinese high priest,
  • a range of other health treatments like massage, sound healing, colonics, or acupuncture,
  • Campuhan Hotel and Spa for a day spa filled with stone carvings, overlooking a river, and looking out over a temple, where you alternate between a warm spa, cold bath, sauna and steam room.
  • Taksu has a range of health treatments and healers; if you’re considering seeing a traditional Balinese healer, please read these articles first:



Don’t get me started on the restaurants…

For local food, you can’t go past:

  • Abe Do Organic Warung on Jalan Tirta Tawar, for salads and juices that will have you rethinking any fried food temptations (try their Chicken Salad OMG).
  • Green Kubu in Tegallalang; you can’t get better than this place for an amazing array of honest to goodness local food in a stunning setting out in the rice fields (and they’ve got an awesome swing too!),
  • Made Becik Warung on Jalan Tirta Tawar for the best grill in Ubud
  • Cafe Wayan Restaurant and Bakery on Monkey Forrest Road for the most phenomenal crispy duck and a Nasi Campur that ticks all the boxes
  • Rama’s in Nyuh Kuning is legendary for her Nasi Campur
  • Puteri Minang on Jalan Raya Ubud for the best Padang food in Ubud (lots of vegetarian and vegan options which is rare!)
  • Biah Biah on Jalan Goutama for awesome tapas style Balinese and Indonesian food. Bliss.

There are loads of phenomenal local restaurants that do simple, good Indonesian food but below are my pick when it comes to other cuisines:

  • Roots Restaurant in Penestanan for the best Korean food in Ubud (and the most phenomenal burgers on their Sunday night special!)
  • Taco Casa in Pengosekan for some seriously fresh Mexican food, or
  • Mamma Mia just next door if you’re hankering for some Italian
  • Clear Cafe on Hanoman has the most phenomenal cashew nut milkshakes I’ve ever come across and their raw desserts are mind blowing
  • Pica South American Kitchen on Jalan Dewisita for Chilean food that is as authentic as it gets
  • Bridges or Locavore – if you’re after some seriously next level cuisine, try just google them. Degustation, very high quality, good wine. I’ll say no more.

I could keep writing all day but if you get through this lot, leave a comment and I’ll add to the list! (pictured below is Nasi Campur from Rama’s)


Feel like being a tourist?

There are lots of opportunities to go:

  • (window) shopping for clothes, jewellery, knick-knacks, furnishings, – Andong is best for warehouse style household goods, and Hanoman, Dewisita and Monkey Forest roads are best for shoes, clothes and bags.
  • out for live music, dinner and a bit of a boogy, (XL is my favourite bar, on a Wednesday and Friday night the best 4 piece band in Ubud plays a selection of completely chilled covers – WOOT!)
  • for a wander through the Monkey Forest or up to the Tegalalang Rice Terraces, or if you’re thoroughly bored by all these suggestions, you might be better off going…..
  • down to Kuta or Seminyak (not my cup of tea in the slightest, but whatever floats your boat!)


What’s your favourite things to do in Ubud? Leave them in the comments below so I can go and check them out – and add them to the lists! Suksuma! (Thank you in Balinese).

Letting Go and Embracing the New

A few years ago when my Auntie Pam was in Perth, she handed me a manila envelope full of emails I’d written her detailing the crazy adventures I was on at the time and said ‘Maria. Write the book.’ Well, the first chapter of that story is being published. WOOT! First time published author, as part of a 10 author strong anthology about Letting Go and Embracing the New.
Those of you who have known me for a while will know that 14 overseas postings and travelling through 35 countries has made ‘Letting Go’ a fairly regular part of my life – and that ‘Embracing the New’ is my kinda normal – the chapter focuses on the lessons I learnt from giving up the substances, relationships and workplaces that no longer were in my highest good – it’s been one helluva journey and this is just the first chapter.
Stay tuned for the rest of the chapters that are due out before the end of the year.
This short interview with John Spender who compiled and published the book, will give you some insight into the journey that I’ve taken to get here, what inspired the chapter and my major takeaways when it comes to ‘Letting Go and Embracing the New’. The book is on sale from Sunday February 25th, 2018, on Amazon/Kindle, and will be only 0.99c until Thursday March 1st. Use the following links depending on where your Amazon account hosted! Australia, UK, Canada, USAGermanySpainItalyHolland, Japan
Paperback copies will be available soon.


Paying It Forward #4: Samoa, 2016

Paying it Forward 2016 was supposed to be in Feburary 2016, in Myanmar but due to a complete oversight and lack of planning on my part, I was deported on arrival due to having the incorrect visa. #lessonlearned #whoops What to do instead?

Well, Talofa (hallo) Samoa! Yes, this awesome country was again the recipient of my annual Giving Back pledge. On the back of a Conference Keynote and 3 days of workshops, I added a fourth, complimentary day of workshops for all and any teachers or principals who wanted to attend, on Demystifying English Grammar and Tenses.

I was pleasantly surprised to see 80+ teaching staff turn up, during their holidays, to nut out the complexities of the English language and walk away with over AU$200 in donated resources and prizes. The Samoan people are an absolute hoot to work with, and this day was no exception. Faafetai (thank you) Samoa, for a phenomenal week – and I hope to be working with you again in the future!

The things I love about Samoa…

  • You get lei-ed straight up (I’m talking about the flower wreath that is placed around your neck to welcome you),
  • whatever gender you identify with is the way you dress on the street, at work, wherever – no judgement,
  • the harmonised singing that starts and ends every day makes me weep happy tears (seriously, these people know how to sing),
  • the self-deprecating merry-making in any situation, especially in the middle of workshops, had me constantly doubled over in tears laughing, (what a way to spend a working day) and
  • all the women proudly wear brightly coloured flowers in their hair and men are totally comfortable wearing gorgeous chunky necklaces and long skirts.

Happy, open, fun, proud, welcoming people who make you feel at ease instantly. Samoa is awesome. There’s a sort of freedom of expression that we simply don’t see on a day to day basis in Australia, and I wish more of us experienced how freeing that can be. Leaves. From their books. Just saying 🙂

Fancy helping out with future Paying It Forward trips?

The Small Business Wisdom Course in my Library, is 100% dedicated to Giving Back. Every dollar spent on this course goes towards purchasing resources for the next Paying it Forward trip. This year was only a few hundred dollars, as the Library is still in the throes of launching, but next year I’m hoping that figure will be a little more generous.

Help out, and get some savvy business advice while you’re at it.

The Small Business Wisdom Course is a collection of workshops and interviews donated by other savvy professionals who are in small business and have knowledge to share for anyone starting out.

In this course, the lessons will help you find out how to:

  1. Pay it Forward in your own business,
  2. create a small business network,
  3. hire the right professionals,
  4. get the legal basics covered,
  5. communicate effectively with your clients (and Google!) and
  6. create a beta (or pilot) round of your offerings so you KNOW you’ve got a product that works, before you invest time, effort and money creating the rolls royce version.

Find out more here:


Ubud, Bali, my ‘other’ home

So people keep asking me

‘Why do you go to Bali so much?’

Simple answer, it’s where I can chill out, get a whole heap of work done, and get really well looked after.

I run a house, a business and have a very full life here in Perth, and LOVE it. But when I was looking at putting some moolah into an office here in Perth, I realised that the same amount would get me a whole villa in Bali – so that’s what I’ve done. I love it there, and because I keep getting asked ‘but why Bali?’, I thought it was time to explain. (and yes, there’s a spare room if you fancy a visit … keep reading!)

WARNING: you may find yourself looking for airline tickets by the end of this article. My top tip is to get onto the website Stupidly cheap airfares. Anyway, I digress. Ubud. Bali. Let me tell you a little more about my little piece of paradise.

I’d been thinking about getting a place for a few months when a villa I’ve house-sat for a number of times became available and so I jumped at the opportunity. It’s gorgeous. It’s located 1.5kms north of the main road in Ubud – Jalan Raya Ubud so it’s a little more elevated, cooler, not in the thick of everything down town. It’s a 5 minute scooter ride or 25 minute walk into town, along a winding road that takes you up through villages and rice paddies. Yep, fireflies at night, and gorgeous quiet roads to walk along to see them on your way to and from dinner (if you feel like leaving the house that is).

view from main bedroom 1
living space copy

The villa has 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a central living space with fully equipped kitchen, dining/work space (dedicated fibre optic internet connection with download speeds of 9.88 Mbps – way better than my Australian connection!) and relaxed covered outdoor patio surrounded by a lush Balinese garden. You often have chickens walking through the yard and the elders come daily to place blessings, incense and offerings in the outdoor altars that surround the property. (Not at all an invasion of privacy, more a silent, consistent delivery of goodwill to your doorstep. What a blessing in itself!)


The pictures above and below are the views from the main bedroom, when you’re sat at your work desk – over to the valley, and across the front yard. Daydreaming yet?

first bedroom view

So what’s that about being looked after?

Let me introduce Gusti, who is my dedicated house angel and comes for at least 4 hours a day to do whatever is needed around the house – all the cleaning, food preparation, errand running or grocery shopping, SIM card top up, anything you need really ?

Nothing quite like waking up to piles of fresh sliced fruit and no mess to clean up! She can also drop off and pick up your laundry for ridiculously cheap (about $0.7c/kilo) – 24 hour turn around, comes back clean, ironed, ready to wear. Bliss! All hail Gusti!


Another thing I love doing here, is taking clothes to be copied. All you need is a few swaths of fabric and a dress to copy, and it comes back a few days later – DONE! Alterations, copies, anything you like really, my tailor Gog has made me bed covers, dresses, bags, trousers, tops, you name it! There’s an abundance of material here too if you’d prefer to go on a shopping expedition to the materials markets too.

Feeling a bit frazzled?

There’s a pool about an 8 minute walk away where you can pay the grand entry fee of $2 – and if it takes your fancy, order food while you sip cooling cocktails by the pool, overlooking a gorgeous rice paddy/river valley type outlook. (See the image of Kym and Dave below, who are in said pool!)

Next door to that, there’s an amazing spa ($15, full hour, traditional Balinese massage that leaves you FLOATING), which also does all types of massages, milk baths, self care heaven. So relaxing, so cheap, seriously this place rocks.

If you’re after a bit more of a pamper, there’s an amazing place called the Tjampuhan Hotel and Spa, which has an amazing hot and cold water spring bath, in a grotto like structure overlooking a lush valley with a river running through it. AU$12 will get you a half day pass where you can rotate between the hot pool, cold pool, sauna and steam rooms – and if that’s all a bit too much, you can just lounge by the above ground pool while you read, and have your lunch delivered to you. Getting harder and harder to handle – right?

I’ve got another whole post on recommended places to eat, drink, and chill out though, let’s not digress! Back to why I love my ‘other’ home.

Tjampuhan Spa2
massage centre

Need some adventure?

Too easy. I have an awesome driver, Nyoman, who also runs a side business taking people on photographic tours – he knows all the best spots off the beaten track to get awesome shots of the real Bali, not just what the regular tourists see. It’s called ‘Hidden Corners of Ubud‘ and you can get a sneak peak of what you can see in this gorgeous shot of a farmer going to work – more on that in the next article on things to see and do in Ubud though. If photography isn’t your thing, you can also go white water rafting, trekking, mountain climbing, snorkelling, surfing, scuba diving, you name it, Bali has it. Might not be IN Ubud, but it’s not at all difficult to arrange any of those side trips while you’re there. Nyoman also does all the airport transfers so really just is a case of book flights. Arrive. Remember departure date. Everything else is taken care of.


So back to the villa.

It’s a fully furnished and equipped home, not a hotel, and has all the little things you need to make life extra comfortable. Mossie nets for the queen size beds (not that you really need them – I never use them as I prefer to sleep under the full force of the ceiling fan), Australian power boards, hot/cold water filter, comfortable furniture with shared and private spaces so you really can do whatever you need to do.

Read, chill, watch movies, order in food, write your next novel, smash out that Course writing you’ve been meaning to do, whatever you feel called to do while you’re there. Both bedrooms have simple work desks that look out over the lush tropical garden and there’s a beautiful gentle breeze that comes through, throughout the day.

Bliss. It’s even got a fully equipped kitchen, with things like a Vitamix (if you’re in to making your own fresh smoothies every day) and small counter top oven (as if you’d bother cooking but anyway)…

Amazing restaurants deliver directly to the door as well so whatever you DO feel like eating, it can be delivered within half hour to an hour usually – fresh Mexican, organic raw food, pork ribs and rice, pizza, whatever takes your fancy; chat on the porch while you munch down or be cilivilsed (*aHem*) and sit at the 8 seater dining table inside.

Warsi House
Warsi House inside

I get this question a lot:

So what do you DO all day up there?

Most days you’ll find me doing one or all of these things:

  • working, obviously! and in my down time,


  • going to a local ashram, Taman Hati, for yoga sessions run by the son of a Balinese High Priest (this is NOT a cliche either – it’s the most powerful yoga I’ve ever been to – the teacher is an absolute soul brother who makes you cry, laugh then cry from laughter – his way of motivating me to hold a hard pose is to cry out “Maria Mercedes YOU CAN DO IT” in the middle of a class, or yell out “SISTAAAAA what are you DOOOOOing?” if you’re out of alignment. Hilarious. He also tells you to “send love to your knees”, “remember to smile”, “yoga is to heal you, to cleanse you, to make your mind and body strong”. Delightful, inspiring, and with a scrumptious $3 lunch next door afterwards, I’m at that studio 4 times a week minimum. #yogabody2017 bring it on!
  • eating ridiculously cheap, healthy food that’s delivered to my door for under $10/meal
  • drinking freshly squeezed juices and Jamu (healing tumeric juice like nothing else on earth)
  • getting one hour $10 massages, manicures, pedicures, facials, body scrubs, you name it
  • scooting around on a Vespa, Vario or Scoopy (they take their scooters seriously) that costs about $2 for a week of fuel
  • popping into the local Padang style restaurant (pick whatever you want out of the window) and getting a full plate $3 feast of fresh, locally sourced veg and meat dishes
  • reading on the porch
  • typing away on a book I’m writing
  • kicking back with good friends, in a magical garden, solving the world’s problems
  • connecting with people in Australia on the villa’s dedicated fibre optic internet connection (Australian internet, take a leaf out of Indonesia’s book – with download speeds of 9.88 Mbps, think uninterrupted video calls or movie streaming – bliss!)
  • perusing through the 87 TV channels, or free movie on demand service (think Netflix equivalent, for free),
  • sorting out my photos on a HD 27″ external screen (for anyone who actually does feel like doing something creative or productive, this screen is the BOMB)

Here’s what you won’t find me doing:

  • cleaning
  • grocery shopping
  • cooking (hardly any point, cheaper and quicker to order in)
  • commuting
  • running errands
  • running around like a blue-arsed fly
  • stressing out – about anything really.


Here’s what recent visitors had to say about staying with me at Warsi House:

Staying at ‘Villa Maria’ was the highlight of our trip to Bali. We were welcomed in with open arms to this magical place, entering the Villa through the cute little rustic gate into this magnificent peaceful lush inviting garden, with a stepping stone path leading to a beautiful al-fresco area with comfy cane outdoor furniture, perfect to sit on and have an afternoon drink
or morning coffee, or to lean back and chat or read a book and relax.

Entering the villa we were faced with a lovely big work space and well equipped kitchen, from which fantastic smoothies were made for breakfast. In the elegant and spacious bedroom with beautiful high ceilings and huge glass windows on 2 sides overlooking the stunning gardens, was a luxurious 4-poster bed with super comfy mattress and pillows. Coming off the bedroom was a lovely bathroom with a stone bath and all the creature comforts you would expect.

The accommodation is magnificent, however the best feature is the personal attention, friendly nature, caring attitude and extensive knowledge of Bali in general and Ubud and surrounding areas that Maria so generously shared with us. Her command of the local language makes life so much easier, especially when bartering with locals or ordering meals at restaurants, and Maria took us to the most fantastic restaurants which were not only very reasonable but had amazing ambiences and exceptional food.

Everything we needed, such as transport, laundry, manicures, massages etc. were organised quickly and with no fuss.

Because Maria has spent so much time in Bali she is aware of the best spots and her recommendation that we visit Amed for a few nights was the best advice and we had an amazing time there. She is the ultimate hostess who considers her guests’ needs and goes out of her way to make your stay a pleasure

Kym and Dave
April 2017, from Perth, Australia


From a few different clients who came up for some work and some R7R…

Maria, thanks so much for such an awesome stay at Warsi House. It was great to nut out some content with you, have some R&R and breathe in the peaceful way of life in Ubud. I adjusted to ‘slow’ and found it easier to get in flow.  The blog post I wrote there was easier to write than most (and has garnered the most likes so far!). You were the consummate host and made everything easy and fun, in a brilliant location with amazing food (important fuel!)  I look forward to returning, for more work, rest and play… 🙂

Lois Keay-Smith

Founder, Career Wisdom, Author of “Make Your Move”

July 2017, from Perth, Australia

Lois bio pic

When I signed up for Maria’s coaching package, I wanted to take my online health program and turn it into an offering that was more engaging, and that would provide a better customer experience. Maria helped me to do just that. It’s like she goes into your head, draws out the outcomes you want, and shows you how to restructure your course to ensure success. I now have a premium online program that I’m proud of and confident in selling!

And where better to do this project than in a beautiful tropical setting (with none of the usual home/life/housework/family distractions!). Warsi House is the perfect combo of holiday-vibes and entrepreneur-friendly get-shit-done space. I punched out my work in the mornings, and then spent the afternoons exploring beautiful Ubud and all that it has to offer.

Maria is THE go-to person when it comes to knowing where to eat and what to do in your spare time. So make sure you pick her brains when creating your Ubud bucket list (I highly recommend the mani-pedi – just ask her!). She’s also the perfect hostess, throwing in those extra special touches that make you feel right at home.

Would I go back? Absolutely! It’s a no brainer – I’m already planning the next one. Thanks Maria for one of the most epic weeks ever!

Jules Galloway

September 2017, from Bryon Bay, Australia


If I could get on a plane now to go back, I would. I got more work done in 5 short 3 hour bursts, than I got done in a month of hours of hard slog. I was highly productive without being stressed, which is the polar opposite to my everyday life! It was easy to be in touch with anyone in Australia that I needed to be in-touch with because the wifi was flawless.

It’s the kind of place that would be equally as fabulous with your partner or without – you can come as an individual and not need the security of a travel buddy – you’ve got Maria! If you really want to experience what Bali has to offer, it’s for you – if you want AC poolside resort style service, it’s not for you. Book into Seminyak.

If you’re wanting to get a huge amount of work done – start up, business, study, whatever you need to do – everything is online, everything is a click away, and your brain is on fire – you’re honed – because you’ve got nothing else to think about except for the massage you’ve got booked 4 hours later.

It’s a really genuine way to experience Bali – as some who is living the life – not just buying a package holiday. You’re living in an environment where you know the locals aren’t taking advantage of you – it’s a symbotioc relationship that feels good to be part of.

I thought I’d want pool and aircon, because that’s my previous Bali experience, but I missed neither and when I was given the opportunity of a swim, I honestly didn’t feel the need. Ubud is different to Kuta or Seminyak and the thing is, if you want a pool, it’s a 5 minute trip away – opposite a salon where you can get the best massages this side of Bali. It’s just easy. SO easy; to eat beautiful food going out, or ringing a number and having it home delivered. If you want a few hours of “tourist ubud”, it’s a 5 minutes scooter ride away. If you want shopping that’s not ‘touristified’ where you can get things for 10% of the price, it’s a 5 minute scooter ride away. If you want to meet genuinely nice people, Maria has surrounded herself with locals who are not there to exploit you, but just to enjoy your company as you enjoy theirs.

Gusti, Maria’s house keeper extra-ordinaire, Nyoman, Maria’s driver/local restaurant and his fabulous wife Sri, and other locals who know and love Maria at restaurants and shops wherever we went. If you want to yoga yourself silly you can, if you want to chill out you can, its easy to do whatever you want to do. Honestly, I’d be back there in a heartbeat!”

Lisa CW, Teacher, Perth, Australia, May 2017


Fancy coming for a visit?

Hoorah! Read a book, get some work done, have some focused time with your partner (business or better half ha!), visit some healers or work with me on your content creation – it’s the perfect place to get anything done (unless you were planning on being at the beach everyday).

If you’re thinking about staying at Warsi House, start by checking your dates here.

These are the dates at least one of the rooms will be free. If you’re more into a place that has AC and a pool, check out AirBnb – so many options in this area! Either way, if you’re thinking about getting some content creation done while you’re here, fill in the form on this page and I’ll be in touch within 48 hours with a Fact Sheet for Warsi House and Ubud in general, that has the low down on pricing, the best times to come, etc.

Stay as little or as long as you need – I’ll be here in Bali approximately 4 weeks out of every 6, so there’s a fair chance I’ll be here when you come! My team can also organise airport transfers, a SIM card if you need it, a bike or scooter, and anything else you need done while you’re here, no stress needed whatsoever.

If you’re planning on staying a bit longer, check this article out – all about how to find long term accommodation in Ubud – written by someone who has been on the hunt and learnt the hard way – it’s an awesome intro to what you need to know!

Looking forward to seeing you up here soon! Here’s some fresh young coconut love for you in the mean time 🙂


Why am I publishing these stories?


1. Aerial View of Tarawa For 13 weeks in 2014, I published another part of my Kiribati story.


Why? Well here’s the long and short of it


In 2010 I was lucky enough to be employed on an AusAID funded project in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in a country called Kiribati. I was posted to the capital atoll called Tarawa for an initial 4 month contract and these stories encapsulate what those first few months were like for a naive I-Matang (westerner) who had never stepped foot in the Pacific before.


After those initial perceptions, I am aiming to publish the stories of people who have lived in Tarawa for many years, first coming over as volunteers or engineers sometime in the middle of the last century. Their stories were collected around a table at the local bar and I can only hope that my retelling of the ups and downs of life in Kiribati can give you the same enjoyment as when I first heard them. When they were told, over a few 6 hour long story telling sessions, I laughed so hard I snorted. Repeatedly. I thought MY experience in Tarawa was colourful but I had NOTHING on what these guys came through with.


Eventually, I hope to have enough material to publish the stories into a book. It is my sole mission to create something that surpasses the quality of the only other modern day novel to be published about Kiribati, the name of which I will not mention (except for the fact that its title makes a lewd connection between man eaters and fornication).


If you’ve ever been to Kiribati, or are I-Kiribati and you find anything I publish incorrect, unreasonable or insulting, please let me know immediately! My aim is to do the complete opposite of that, and sometimes the only way is to hear it from those who know the place best! It’s a disgrace that more hasn’t been written about how truly amazing life in Kiribati can be, and how fantastically welcoming and generous the I-Kiribati are. My aim is to set the record straight.


Hope you enjoy the ride 🙂



 Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 2.35.33 PM


The Kiribati Chronicles

Before you start reading, want to know the story behind these stories and why we’re publishing a new part every week? Click here!

Want to catch up on Parts 1 to 12? Follow these links!

Part 1: You’re working WHERE?,

Part 2: Coconuts can kill?,

Part 3: Tip #3 – if you’re game!,

Part 4: Exemplary Customer Service Lesson #2,

Part 5: How to reduce your waistline in one simple step,

Part 6: There’s a fine line between…. 

Part 7: When the foodie faces the frankfurter

Part 8: The best road on the atoll is WHERE?

Part 9: What do scorpions, coconuts and lightning bolts have in common?

Part 10: Why stealing chateaux cardboard is completely understandable

Part 11: Three sure fire solutions for immediate insanity

Part 12: When’s the next flight out of here and am I on it?


Part 13: If only they knew…

NB: If you haven’t already read Part 12, please click here to do so first! This is a two part story, Part 13 being the second part!

The Deputy High Commissioner (DHC) clearly realised he might have just scared the living daylights out of all three of us and decided to try to back track; unfortunately for us, the damage was done.

John was getting jittery, Amy was nervously scanning the room whilst throwing me ‘let’s get the hell out of here’ glares, and the DHC was laughing nervously; ‘oh it’s really not that bad, it’s just our job to inform you of all the risks so that you know what you’re getting into. We are here to provide assistance but we’d prefer it if you didn’t get yourself into trouble in the first place so it’s best you know all the ins and outs.’

At this Amy lets out a ‘pfffffft but you aren’t going to help ME!’ to which he replies with a nervous little laugh and a ‘well, no, sorry’. Fabulous response! Way to go DHC!

John and I reassure Amy that if anything happened she’d be taken care of and we decide we’ve heard about enough. 

John heads home and Amy and I head into Betio for a spot of ‘shopping’ as we have a few hours to kill before the weekly Hash House Harriers meeting.

Amy is shaking and repeatedly asking what the hell we are doing here and so the walk into town past feral dogs, rubbish piles, squealing pigs and naked children is spent with me trying to rationalise the situation.

Think about wherever you’re from. Perth for example: there are places in Perth you could describe exactly as the DHC had explained to us, just think Northbridge at 2am on a Friday night. The trick is knowing the dangers and staying the hell away from them. Right?

Amy was having none of it and started to get a little panicky. My response, which may not have been particularly sympathetic, but that came from a completely pragmatic place after having been evacuated out of Indonesia due to civil unrest, black-mailed for 6 months’ salary by a corrupt business and also detained as an illegal alien in the UAE, was fairly measured.

“Amy, we’ve heard all of this before from other expats; the reason you’re freaking out is because he just slapped it all in front of us in the same three and a half minutes. All we need to do is be careful; we know the risks, we know what situations are going to get us in to trouble, we just have to be aware and play the game. We are NOT in a warzone, and neither are we somewhere with extreme political unrest or serious danger. He was right in saying that he just wanted us to know all the facts; and now we do! Simple! Right?’

She decides the only way to overcome the problem is to buy an inordinate amount of chocolate and icecream so off we traipse to ‘One Stop’, one of the only places that stocks good I-Matang food.

On the way I have to go to the ATM so Amy stands guard while I take out my cash. The minute the money is out of the ATM a drunk, disheveled man starts to follow us and try to speak to us so we run into the relative safety of One Stop to get rid of him. It works.

Amy, even more rattled by now, proceeds to clear the shelves of Tim Tams and icecream even though I warn her they’re probably out of date and melted. Sure enough, we go outside, she opens the packet and it is exactly as I had predicted. The Tim Tams are completely melted into the packet, and the minute she takes the icecream out of its packet, it promptly slides of the popsicle stick and splatters all over the ground.

18. Our two offices (21)

In the middle of the carpark, in the blazing sun, Amy (pardon the pun) goes into meltdown mode. To be fair, the previous set of events really has been quite ludicrous and anyone would be excused for being a bit rattled.

I, sensing that if I too succumb to the panic all hell will break loose, commandeer her into Moel’s and try to distract her.

My mind wanders to my friends and family at home who think I’ve gone to live in some sort of tropical paradise, complete with cocktail bars, seafood feasts and pristine white beaches. If only they knew…

Man. It was just starting to dawn on me exactly how long this 4 months might actually end up being….

Part 12: When’s the next flight out of here and am I on it?

When I originally posted this part of the story, it was prefaced with this warning:

Please note: this is a long one. I thought it better to post it all at once to avoid people completely freaking out. All is good. Make sure you get to the end before you start worrying!

I’ve split the original post into two – so make sure you stay tuned next week so you can read Part 13 – it’s a hum-dinger! ☺

Part 12: When’s the next flight out of here and am I on it?

So Amy and I, as we’re new to Kiribati, have an appointment at the visa office to get our work permits sorted, and then at the High Commission to have our induction as foreigners working here. John, our boss, accompanies us so that all the paperwork will go through without a hitch. Sounds promising.

We turn up at the office to get our work permits done and are struck with the efficiency of the place; people lounge in their chairs, some are playing computer games, people seem to be walking around aimlessly. We wait, and wait some more, then someone saunters up to the office and gives us ‘the nod’.

A little note on ‘the nod’: in Australia, if someone did this to you, you would be likely to deck them: an upwards tilt of the head, chin pointing towards you, expressionless face except a slight flare of the nostrils, almost as if they’re asking for a fight.

In Kiribati, it’s the general physical response intended for anything including the following: ‘Hello’, ‘Can I help you?’, ‘What?’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Maybe’, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’, ‘I’m good thanks’, ‘What’s up?’, ‘I don’t speak English but will nod my head in this fashion to indicate that I know what you’re saying when in actual fact I think you’re completely mad’.

You get the picture. It’s similar to the Indian head wobble indicating yes, no and maybe depending on the context. Great for communicative success.

Anyway, I digress.

The visa transaction seems to go very smoothly to our collective complete surprise until we get outside and decide we should probably check that the dates are correct and that we all actually got our stamps. John realises that his visa is actually out by a few weeks date wise, so goes back in to get it changed. He returns giggling a few minutes later; he shows us his passport page where the handwritten dates on the visa stamp have simply been crossed out and re-written beside the incorrect date: no signature, no official stamp, we could have done it ourselves! Brilliant!

So off we traipse to the Australian High Commission for our induction. The first thing that strikes me is the air-conditioning, and after that, how much the place resembles an office you might find in Australia. Tiled floors, security systems, intercom systems, waiting rooms, magazines, current information on pin-up boards to entertain us; I tell you, exciting stuff.

We’re ushered through into the Deputy’s office and off he starts on his induction. 

Instead of asking us what we already knew about the place in terms of health, security and life in general, he just launches straight into it.

  • Amy, John and I sat in stunned silence and listened to him listing all the things he thought we should know. Following is a synopsis:
  • Crime is escalating, you WILL get broken into, expats have been burgled before and will be again (cited a number of examples).
  • If you’re a woman be careful, don’t go out alone, don’t go out at night-time, don’t ride the mini-buses after dark because it’s too dangerous once you get off.
  • Over 60% of the population are victims of domestic violence, rape and beatings are common, there haven’t been any cases of expat beatings, violent attacks or rapes but it’s only a matter of time.
  • Actually that’s not true, one expat was beaten up after a car accident.
  • If you’re in a car accident, keep driving. They WILL drag you out of the car and beat you up if they think you’re at fault or if they think you deserve it.
  • If you get ill or need medical advice, leave the country. One expat nearly lost his leg from an infected mossie bite. Take care with coral cuts as you can lose limbs if they go untreated.
  • Be careful eating in restaurants as there is the distinct possibility you could contract Hepatitis of any kind. Ask the other expats before eating anywhere.
  • If there’s a tsunami, head for higher ground. Oh hang on, there isn’t any. We’re on an atoll. I mean, head to somewhere that has two stories if you can.
  • If there is civil unrest, a tsunami, or other natural disaster, we will notify and attempt to help you.

At this point I’m sweating despite the air-conditioning, and twisting nervously in my chair. Amy is having conniptions and asks ‘but I’m an American citizen, so what happens if something happens and I need help?’ He replies ever so calmly, and with a smile, ‘Oh, you’ll just need to contact the American High Commission in Suva, Fiji’.

3. Sunset at Tomaiku (5)

I turn to John and say, ‘so when’s the next flight out of here and am I on it?’ 

John laughs nervously, Amy hangs her head, and I repeat my question to John. ‘No seriously, is he for real? Did no one think to tell me any of this before I accepted the job?’

Do you think I was on the next flight out?

Stay tuned for Part 13 where you find out how long I end up lasting!

Part 11: Three sure fire solutions for immediate insanity

So after work on Monday we go to the local petrol station and after a hilarious bout of charades get someone to look at our flat tyre.

Various highly technological procedures are performed whereby soapy water is painted onto the tyre looking for a puncture and all is well as there are no bubbles being produced.

It is therefore deduced that there is coral dust in the valve and after a quick blow out and reinflation, the tyre is pronounced good to go. Ahhhh. Who needs Bob Jane when you have a soapy brush?

1a. Mechanic (1)

More charades ensure that the tyre is actually changed back onto the car and the wheelbarrow spare is put back in the boot; this in itself was a half hour rigmarole as the combination of nut and bolt and direction of said tyre in boot well was enough to entertain half the village and lose the rest of our wits. Sigh.

An hour later our hubcaps have been re-secured with cable ties, our tyre pressures have been checked, and we’re off and racing with four standard size tyres all for the princely sum of five dollars. Love it.

Wednesday night after work we drop Amy home and then roller-coast through the hundred metres of craters back home. As we are pulling into the driveway I say to Steale, ‘hey dude, does the car feel like it’s driving weird to you or is that just you driving weird?’ [Not an unreasonable question 😉 and by the way, Steale has approved of this constant ribbing!]

He agrees and on closer inspection we discover the OTHER front tyre has now given up the ghost. For the love of all things holy. Two flat tyres in two days.

Steale almost has a dummy spit, which is very unlike the ever-so-always-calm Steale that I’ve known for years, and he decides we’ll deal with it in the morning.

My mechanic father is loudly banging inside my head and I suggest we jack the tyre up off the ground so at least it’s not being flattened under the weight of the car all night and Steale agrees.

So out comes the jack and Steale (under my tutelage) gets his first go at jacking up a car tyre. Unfortunately for him it’s dark, there are red ants and mossies swarming and the ground is completely uneven so the jack seems to have a life of its own. Baptism by fire: how fitting for Kiribati. Is anything ever anything less?

We come inside and Steale decides he wants to speak to his wife on Skype.

Now. This is a daily occurrence for him but something I’ve quickly learnt should only be done when totally calm, not under pressure and when all sharp instruments are nowhere within reach. The internet at home is frustratingly erratic so some nights we’ll get clear lines and most other nights it will be a chorus of ‘can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Oh great! Hi! Oh maybe not. Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Hello? HeLLO. HELLLLLLLO. Oh FFS. Try again!’

This is normally followed by a ‘duuuuuuuude, this is busting my chops!’ or a ‘la la la gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’ or a ‘dude, wanna drink?’ Many a night I am lulled to sleep by the sounds of ‘can you hear me? Helloooooo,’ until one of the parties surrenders. Insanity by Skype. Breathe. Breathe deeply and relaaaax.

Many of you, will, at this point, say ‘well why don’t you just CALL on a normal telephone?’ Fair question, if you were anywhere but Kiribati. There are two equally applicable answers to this question,  which both happen to make the Skype tennis scenario a much better option.

Reason 1: Our phone line was a crackling nightmare until we realised rats had eaten through the wires. You could only hear half of every second word, making it sound like the other party had an affliction somewhere between turrets, a stutter, and a bad case of verbal diarrhea. After we figured out WHY the lines sounded like that it took about 3 weeks for the phone company guys to come and fix it, which they ended up doing a number of times, until the fourth time when it actually got fixed properly.

It’s still hit and miss and normally you can’t hear the other person anyway but truth be told it’s only a matter of time before the rats get through the wires again anyway and the whole rigmarole has to start again.

Reason 2: We can only buy credit for the phone in $10 cards which we have to manually plug the PIN in for, before dialing. However, each PIN dialing saga can take anything up to 10 minutes to do because the line drops in and out while you’re trying to enter the PIN meaning you have to try again, and again, and again, until lady luck grants you an entry pass to a free telephone line.

In the miraculous event that you actually get to make the phone call, a call to Australia costs $2.50 a minute so for the whole sad and sorry episode, for the FOUR MINUTES you actually get to speak to someone, it’s rarely worth the bang-your-head-against-the-coral-walls saga to actually go through with it. Especially when you realize that once you get through, the first 3 of your 4 minutes are spent trying to explain to the other party why they can only hear every other word you’re saying anyway.

Either way, most phone calls end in a very stiff drink and a solemn vow to never try calling out of the country again. Understand now why the Skype ‘can you hear me?’ saga is actually the saner option?

So after numerous painful albeit hilarious (for me anyway) renditions of Skype can-you-hear-me-tennis, Steale gives up and decides to log onto Coconut Wireless, our internet provider, and do a speed test.

I guffaw and tell him I could already tell him it’d be faster to string two coconuts together but alas he tries anyway. 

The speed test involves the site downloading a picture and then measuring the speed at which it’s done. We wait. We wait some more. The top millimetre of the picture appears and for the next half an hour we watch it. We watch some more. And some more. It moves slower than a snail on valium until the test is complete.

The result? Broad band is at the top of the graph. Dial up is about a tenth of that. Our speed is barely visible, a slither on the bottom of the graph, an infinitesimal fraction of dial up. Sigh.

We decide the only remedy for the day is to laugh, pour ourselves a stiff drink, then gorge ourselves on barbeque shapes and cheese before calling it a night.

Breathe, laugh hysterically, breathe, everything will be better in the morning.

Part 10: Why stealing chateaux cardboard is completely understandable

So we get home soaked and rattled but otherwise alive, to a completely flooded living room. Fantastic.

The storm has decided to lift off roof panels and find its way through our ceiling but our landlady is on our doorstep, hollering at us, convinced it’s coming from the louvered windows that we left slightly ajar.

Although the ceiling is visibly saturated with water, and even the ceiling fan is dripping, she won’t take no for an answer so we accept responsibility for the mess to placate her. Sigh.

We mop up the flood, close all the louvers firmly and settle into a night with no breeze and heavy humidity. Fan? Nope. I’m too scared to turn on the ceiling fan as the ceiling is still dripping water and decide that electrocution, although it would top off this comedy of errors quite nicely, is really probably not such a good move in a country with so few emergency medical services.

Deciding to be practical and just get on with what needs to be done before the working week begins again, I remember my washing needs to be hung out so head outside to find some dry space under the patio. Hmmm. Where are the pegs? I could have sworn they were in an ice-cream bucket out here somewhere.

18. Our two offices (1)

‘STEALE! Where did we leave the pegs?’

‘On the patio.’

‘Really? Well they’re not here.’

After being semi accused of having a ‘man look’, Steale comes out to find exactly what I had found – nothing. Alas they have disappeared. Steale puts it down to the local kids and I hang my washing on coat-hangers around the house from the curtain rails. Where there’s a will there’s a way!

Seriously though? Can this day get anymore ridiculous? And besides, who would steal pegs? And why?

A little note on theft in Kiribati. While most people in the developed world fear the loss of laptops, CDs, mobile phones and expensive jewellery when broken into, what is stolen here is of a completely different nature. In the developed world, goods like those listed above are those that can be shifted quickly for cash; in Kiribati the motivation for theft is entirely different.

What you’ll find you’ll have stolen is things like:

• sunnies (left in a place easy to lift and wearable immediately),

• pegs (left in a place easy to lift and usable immediately),

• clothes (left on the line and wearable immediately),

• bags of clothes (left in unlocked cars and wearable immediately) or

• food and alcohol (left in fridges and consumable immediately).

Get my drift?

Theft tends to be something done out of a) hunger and b) opportunity. Those who are silly enough to leave cars or doors unlocked or things unguarded are those that will find themselves freed of their clothes, food and utensils. It’s a different world huh?

Women, whether they live alone or with other women, living without family or male company, are also something of an anomaly therefore young men tend to be somewhat intrigued by it.

In Kiribati when someone does something the family or community doesn’t agree with, they get booted out of the village, which sends a very strong message to the rest of the community and essentially brands that person as a wrong-doer and an outcast.

So Kiribati being somewhere that places an enormous amount of importance on the community, family and generational ties, means that the locals find it completely bewildering how and why a woman would be living in a house all by herself. Where is her family? Has she been outcast? What has she done wrong? What does she do in there all by herself in a place that could have four families living happily together?

Expat women living alone, will tell tales of curtains being shifted and peered through, break-ins and men even falling through ceilings. Yes, three women working on our project were happily reading before bedtime when one of the girls heard a ‘snap’ and a young Kiribati gentleman came crashing through the ceiling onto her bed. They both screamed and the guy couldn’t get out of there fast enough but this is what I mean by random encounters and break-ins. It’s rarely malicious.

Another expat came home to find her house broken into but nothing stolen until further inspection of the fridge where it was found that the vodka and the home-made yoghurt was gone. Go figure. Theft, Kiribati style. Leave the laptop out, hide the vodka.

Having said that, this might not make a lot of sense if you’re not au fait with shopping here. The average wage is about $80 a fortnight for those lucky enough to be employed. A four litre cask of chateaux cardboard (also known as cask wine) costs, wait for it, $85AUD. A 750ml middle of the road variety bottle of scotch costs close to $80.

Alcohol theft starting to sound reasonable?

Click here for Part 11: Three sure fire solutions to immediate insanity

Part 9: What do scorpions, coconuts and lightning bolts have in common?

Steale returns and we decide to leave the sanctity of the back porch and head out to Karia’s.
If I thought the potholes in the road were bad between Temwaiku and Betio, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Going out past the airport and towards North Tarawa, the roads take on a life all of their own. The potholes were closer to empty swimming pools and with the four of us in the car, the undercarriage scraped and jarred almost incessantly. At one point Barb, Ray and I got out so that Steale could try to navigate the car through the worst of them, but to no avail: the sedan was never going to fill the shoes of an SUV!

A little less than 5 minutes later, the driver of a mini bus passing us, started gesticulating wildly towards the bottom of our car. Flat tyre? Smashing. Just smashing darling.

1. Getting to Karia's (8)On a road in the middle of nowhere, here we were with a very flat tyre and the options for pulling over were either into someone’s front yard, or … into someone’s front yard.

Steale, with tongue very firmly in cheek, pipes up. ‘So how long do you think it will take for the RAC to get here? Or should we call Bob Jane T-mart?’ Hilarious. (RAC is a company which delivers road side assistance in Australia, and Bob Jane T-Mart are a popular chain of tyre retailers.)

We pull over, get out of the car and all stand with one hand on hip and the other scratching our heads. Hmmm. Steale, being the alpha-male (not) in the group asks whether any of us know how to change a tyre. I look at him as if he’s grown a third ear.

‘You don’t know how to change a tyre? Are you serious?’ He comes back with, ‘well why would I need to? That’s what the RAC is for isn’t it?’

Ray and I look at each other mystified and ask whether he knows whether we even have a spare tyre. We’re met with a ‘yeh I think there’s one in the boot but I don’t know whether we have the tools’. Sigh. That’d be about right!

Ray and I assume responsibility while Barb and Steale observe and offer soothing words of encouragement from the peanut gallery. After a fair bit of sweating and straining in the midday sun on Ray’s more-so than my part, the tyre is changed.

1. Getting to Karia's (7)The spare actually looks closer to a wheelbarrow tyre but does the job nicely. Steale poses for pictures with his hand on the tyre to make it look as if he actually had a hand in the process and shortly we’re back on the road, or should I say rollercoaster, to Karia’s. Note to self. Must speak to Steale’s wife Peti about other seemingly male responsibilities I may be called upon to deliver in the coming months…

When we arrive at the crossing, the tide is not fully in; as the boats only cross when the tide is in, we start wading across the channel. The locals from the village find it highly entertaining to see I-Matangs with their rolled up pants and heavy bags struggling across and congregate on the banks to watch us leave. It’s only a few hundred metres but the current is quite strong and slowly getting higher. I’m quite tall but it’s already mid thigh on me, Barb being a little shorter had to hold her bags high to keep them dry. Half way across I’m thinking, ‘this is complete madness. All this for a cup of coffee?’

1. Karia's (8)The coffees at Karia’s are legendary; many a foreigner will extol the virtues of a Sunday lunch complete with protein, vegetables and carbohydrates in the same meal, finished off by a cappuccino and banana cake. It sounds fairly standard to anyone in the real world but to get a cappuccino and cake here is nothing short of a miracle.

Steale somehow has had the unfortunate luck however, to never actually receive what he has ordered; if he orders a latte he’ll get a cappuccino, a cappuccino will come out as a long black and so on. It’s a running joke with everyone here and so we wait and see what we’ll get. To be dead honest, I couldn’t have cared less whether it was short, long, black or with froth. Coffee out of a proper industrial size machine was something I had just changed a tyre and waded across a channel for so whatever size, colour and strength it came out would have made me a happy camper. But I digress.

1. Karia's (5)We sat in the mini maneaba (a traditional meeting place, ground level, with a high pitched roof made from interlaced pandanas leaves) looking out over the lagoon. It truly was a gorgeous site, with coconut and pandanas trees lining the shore, overwater buias (wooden/thatched houses on stilts in the lagoon) and a storm brewing over Betio. From Karia’s you can see the length of South Tarawa all the way to Betio in the west and from a distance it looked so idyllic and picture perfect.

That was, of course, until a scorpion came within centimetres of my foot and I scrambled onto my chair letting out an almighty yelp. Apparently this was completely normal so much to everyone else’s amusement I fixed my gaze not on the idyllic surroundings but on the not so idyllic creature that was slowly making its way across the floor back on to the sand.

Steale’s coffee arrived in true form (not what he had ordered) and we spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the other I-Matangs who were spending their weekend trying to forget they lived on South Tarawa too.

When the sun was starting to dip, and the storm started to look like it was heading our way, we decided it was probably time to leave. We went to pay our bill and the girls asked us who we were. We looked on the board and saw ‘Stella and girl’ and decided that was probably us. Fabulous.

Carol and Don, another volunteer couple, who were staying for the weekend were called ‘Carol and wife’ so at least they had my gender right. Bills paid we went to say adieu to the others and were let in on what it cost to stay at Karia’s for the weekend.

For one night, for four people, accommodation and food included, it came to $380. If the four of them wanted to stay an extra night, it would cost (all inclusive for 2 nights) $400. Go figure. One extra night and another day’s worth of food, $20, when the first had cost $380. Go figure. Logic, Kiribati style. Love it.

1a. Leaving Karia's (4)Just as we’d started the trek back across the channel (tide still not fully in), it started to sprinkle. By the time we were half way across, it was full pelt torrential downpour so heavy you could hardly see where you were going. Ray, the ever-chivalrous gentleman, found an umbrella for Barb but the rest of us were at the mercy of the storm.

Quite frankly I didn’t really want to be holding a metal object over my head when there was lightning striking and thunder bolting all around us so I was happy for Barb to be holding the conductor of electricity.




If you’re not struck by a falling coconut, stung by a scorpion, dying of dehydration or weak from infected mossie bites and chronic stomach ailments, a lightning bolt can always sort your mortality out for you.

Ticket to Tarawa anyone?

Ready for the next part? Click here for Part 10: Why stealing chateaux cardboard is completely understandable.

Part 8: The best road on the atoll is WHERE?

Saturday rolls around and considering it’s my first day in Kiribati when I don’t have to go to work, I decide that a swim is in order. Surrounded by beautiful blue ocean and lagoon all week, I’ve been dying to get into that water for my first dip in the Pacific Ocean, and so we don our reef shoes and head out.

8. ocean viewYes, reef shoes. Like shoes made out of wetsuit material with a thick, rubber, sole like you’d find on a regular running shoe. We live right on the beach but need to walk out a hundred metres or so over the reef before we can get to water that comes above our ankles. Barefoot is NOT an option although you see locals doing it all the time. How, mystifies me. The reef is so sharp it rips reef shoes to pieces but their feet, which rarely see the inside of a thong let alone a shoe, somehow seem to take on a leather-like-life force all of their own.

As we’re wading out I realise I still have my sunnies on and as they’re brand new and were pretty pricey I decide to go back and leave them on the sea wall wrapped up in my sarong. 

The water is absolutely gorgeous – once we’ve waded out past the nappies and other detritus that’s been washed up and is hanging around on the rocks, exposed by the low tide.

The sky is blue, the water clear, and for the first time in 5 days I’m not sweating profusely. Bliss. It’s so refreshing I wonder how it’s taken so long for me to brave the stretch of rubbish to get out here. Note to self. Must do this more often.

We see loads of kids playing on the beach and quite a few women walking past; I say to Steale ‘hey my sunnies will be alright won’t they?’ and he replies that there’s nothing to worry about, all good. So we bask in the gloriousness for a good hour or so before wading back in.

Guess what we find on our return. You guessed it, no sunnies. Gone. It wouldn’t have been so bad if a) they’d been my old ones, or b) it was the middle of winter but no, they’re brand new and I’m in a scorching tropical land of full sun and burnt retinas. Brilliant. We scour the beach but I distinctly remember wrapping them in my sarong. I try to communicate with the kids on the beach, even offering them 10 bucks (fair whack of cash for a kid in Kiribati) if they can find them. No cigar.

I find a guy on the beach who speaks a bit of English and try in vain to explain they’re reading glasses (which they’re not) and that I’d pay money to whoever could ‘find’ them. Still no cigar.

I give up and pour myself a commiserations drink. One very lucky woman will most likely be wearing a pair of sunnies worth more than she would earn in two months. I sigh and take another gulp. This place was sent to try me.

Or maybe it was sent to knock some sense into me. Should I really be upset over losing a fashion victim piece of plastic that I most likely paid hundreds of dollars too much for? Probably not. Fish. They’re everywhere in this country and quite frankly? There are bigger ones to fry. Move on.

Speaking of frying, our boss has invited the project team (Steale, myself, Amy and Joel) over for dinner and his wife has cooked us a feast. Don’t ask me how but she’s whipped up two chicken curries, a very tasty shepherd’s pie and a range of other delicacies. I find it simply amazing how tinned vegetables will hold their cuboid shapes despite hours of cooking but am not complaining. This food tastes GOOD. Really good.

We gormandise, literally stuffing our faces until our host interrupts us by inviting us to have seconds. We do quick left and right glances and although we still have food on our plates, we all simultaneously jump up and fight for the food left on the table; fine young cannibals we are proving ourselves to be!

The piece ‘de résistance’ is tinned fruit salad, custard and ice-cream, just like Gran used to serve up on a Sunday. I nearly cry. Who would have thought a dessert so simple could taste so good? I pump her for information on where she was able to get the ingredients to put on a feast like this and she divulges. It takes time to accumulate but if you stick at it, you will be able to stockpile delights like this within a few months perhaps. Bless her, hopes that I might be able to fulfill the foodie within are rising.

After dinner, we’re invited to a party at the house of the Australian airport mechanic. It is to him that we owe the pleasure of surviving any domestic flights on the national airline Air Kiribati (more on that later… stay tuned to the Abemama episode) and so through the potholes we traipse to his house, which is out on the other side of the airport.

We arrive to find the party near comatose on the couches watching a slideshow of pictures from a recent 4WDing expedition up the northern part of the atoll, North Tarawa. On our arrival the slideshow is shelved, the music is returned to its previous ear splitting decibels, the guests decide to restart the party and we’re offered a round of drinks. Everyone is well past the point of pie-eyed and after the civilised dinner we’ve just attended we’re clearly a bit late to be catching up on the frivolities.

A fellow Perthite has had his fair share of the toddy laced coconuts (toddy is a local liquor, more on that later) and whilst drilling me on why I’m here and what I’m doing, manages to invade my personal space and shower me with toddy flavoured drivel. After I very cleverly palm him off to Steale, I look over to see Steale partaking in some very discoesque dance moves to try to distract him. Sweet Lord. Living the high life huh?

After politely declining the invitation to go to Midtown (once is enough for one week, never mind the hour and a half rollercoaster ride to get there), we transport our mossie bites back to the car, slapping and scratching until we’re hooning back through the potholes towards home.

As we approach the point where the airport runway meets the road, Steale pipes up with, ‘Daaaaaaaad, can we go on the runway? Please, please Dad, can we, can we?’, to which readily Joel agrees.

8. the best road on the atollGobsmacked I find us hurtling along the runway, yes, the international airport runway. The first part was quite chopped up and I am informed that last week the force from the propellers of one of the international flights departing was so strong it simply lifted the tarmac off. Awesome. I then ask whether it’s safe considering there might be a plane landing, and I get guffaws of laughter. Landing? At night? That would require the runway to have lighting; which it doesn’t.

Apparently once they had to do an emergency landing at night time so any locals with a car were instructed to get to the runway pronto so they could form a temporary lighting strip with their headlights. Really? Yep, really.

I’m then warned that we might have to swerve a few times. When I ask why, I’m informed that the runway is a favourite spot for romantic interludes and sure enough we nearly run over a couple in a passionate embrace. I then ask why there are no fences (it is an international airport after all) and am told that there was an attempt at building a fence a while back, but every time the contractors put up the first section, it’d be gone by morning and they’d have to start again. They gave up and it was never actually built.

Sunday morning I awake to find Steale has gone to church; there’s a service at the Kiribati Protestant Church which is half in English, half in Kiribati so any expats who fancy a service, regardless of denomination, flock there on a Sunday morning. I have heard that the singing alone is reason enough to go and I vow that I will make my mother proud and make the effort soon. I find a note on the bench explaining he’ll be back at 11 and that some people are coming over to meet us and go with us to ‘Karia’s’ whatever that means.

I’m later told that it’s a fine establishment that serves real coffee out of a real espresso machine, but that you have to wade over a channel at low tide to get there. This I gotta see.

8. our palace

I’m barely awake, still in my PJ’s, and have just started on my cereal when I hear a ‘yoo hooooooo’ at the front door. Yep Barb and Ray are here already and I’m looking really quite special. Fabulous. Who are Barb and Ray again? I met so many people at Hash House Harriers I can’t remember who they are exactly but they’re here and I’m in my PJ’s. Man am I good at second impressions.

Apparently the mini bus had miraculously a) turned up instantly and b) was driven by the reincarnation of Ayrton Senna, meaning that they found themselves in Temwaiku in half the time they had expected. Unbelievable how in Kiribati when you actually WANT something to be as expected (ie slow, not on time, late) the complete opposite happens.

Anyway. I invite them in for a coffee, apologising for my appearance and am met with a ‘who cares? This is Kiribati!’ and I heartily agree. Now that I’m speaking to them, I remember: they’re a fun, 60ish couple, here as volunteers working at the Marine Training Centre instead of enjoying their retirement in Australia. Their bravery astounds me.

Getting to retirement, they should be kicking back in Australia partaking in golf, morning teas, creature comforts and package holidays, but no, they’ve chosen to give up a year to spend here, in the middle of nowhere, Tarawa. Words escape me.

8. the view from our 'office'Word has got out that I had brought a cafetiera (Italian coffee making device) and so coffee on the boil, I give them the grand tour. They’re enamoured with the place as it has a patio overlooking the ocean, which is apparently not common in most houses here. This seems like utter lunacy to me but this is Kiribati, and a lot of things do. So we sit among the fresh washing on the line, with steaming coffees, drinking in the view and the apparent calm that surrounds us on this glorious Sunday morning in paradise.

Or is it? The afternoon decides to lull me out of my false sense of security and mock me. Stay tuned…..

Follow this link for Part 9: What do scorpions, coconuts and lightning bolts have in common?

Part 7: When the foodie faces the frankfurter

 Driving licenses in hand, off we head to the big supermarket, which is in Betio. Betio is the part of the island where a great deal of the population of South Tarawa resides; along with the better shops and restaurants, it also sports one of the highest density populations in the world.

Now. One would probably associate high population densities with cities like Tokyo, or Mexico City even, but yep, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on Tarawa, which is a tiny coral atoll, you can add Betio to that list. Go figure.

I can hardly contain my excitement as we pull into a big dustbowl which is apparently the carpark of the big supermarket, Moels. If hopes could visibly be deflated, mine would have been sitting in a sad and sorry pile on the passenger side foot well, somewhere between the floor mat and the coral dust.

It’s a warehouse. There’s no lighting. There are four aisles, it’s dusty, dank, and … disappointing doesn’t even start to describe it. We just drove for over an hour over road surfaces that would be better described as the most jarring rollercoaster ride you’ve ever been on, FOR THIS?

What’s on the shelves mystifies me.

Boot polish: in a country where people don’t even wear shoes (seriously – teachers even cruise around barefoot).

Fabulon (spray on ironing starch): in a country where there are no clothes shops, only second hand clothing stalls, and crisp whiteness is but a fading memory.

Kleenex Cotonelle: of all the brands of loo paper you could possibly stock in a developing country, of COURSE they have most expensive Australian brand.

A small glass bottle of tonic water costs $2.50 while the 2L version costs $1.78. That makes total sense.

What I have learnt from this? I can polish my nonexistent shoes, starch my nonexistent shirts, my bottom can have a luxurious experience the rest of my body envies and, most importantly, I am going to have to find me some gin to go with that 2L bottle. Fast.

Most of the vegetables in the fridges (yes, there are 2 big fridges at one side of the store) look as if they’ve been in a box used as target practice, run over by a truck and then reconstituted. The rest of it is wilted, mouldy, and generally looking like it’s the deep freeze stock from three years ago. Pass.

The realization that this is what I’m going to have to survive on for the next four months sets in and I have one word for how I’m feeling. Gutted. Sounding like a princess aren’t I? I feel like one. I also feel like throwing a mini hissy fit in the middle of the aisle. Mwaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Steale yells out – ‘hey look! Anchovy stuffed olives!’ I hang my head and realise that stuffed olives might just become the highlight of my life while I’m here. Sigh.

I take a deep breath and decide that I’m going to have to make the most of this, so scour the aisles for things I can fashion meals out of. I find potatoes (if you cut most of the gunge off them I’m sure there’s something vaguely potato like that can be salvaged), a whole aisle of spices, tinned tomatoes, four-bean mix and creamed corn.

There’s white vinegar, lasagne sheets, two-minute noodles and lots of rice. I even find stock cubes. Miracle upon miracle I can make a four-bean salad with…. with…. vinegar? Sob. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I will not let this atoll defeat me.

The foodie in me kicks in, and resolute I decide there must be more to be found. Steale takes me next door to the other shop which stocks Australian gear; we find cereal at $18 a packet, but do we care? It’s non-white rice carbohydrates, it’s not past its use by date and in some far off land of wonder it’s deemed heart smart and healthy: it is clearly the only meal of the day that will have any nutritional balance so we get 4. Fabulous.

We also find Smiths Crisps, peanut butter and olive oil. What more could a girl want? Vegetables, fresh vegetables; have I mentioned that already?

So we’re getting ready to go when a van of cops rock up; real cops in real uniforms. We both look at each other and think what the? I whisper to Steale, ‘They’re Kiwis! Look at their badges!’ and that’s enough for us. They are I-Matangs (foreigners): we must make friends.

Steale strikes up a conversation with them and my first thought is: you poor b*stards. They’re kitted up in full NZ cop uniforms, complete with long trousers or knee length shorts, thick fluffy socks and steel cap boots. It’s HOT. The air is heavy with humidity. The sun is scorching. I’m melting in flip-flops, cotton three quarter pants and a cheesecloth top; words cannot express how stifling the day is. They’re beading with sweat and having been here only a few days like me, have that battle weary, ‘I’m nowhere near tanned enough for this place yet’ look about them.

We discuss our projects, which seem equally as challenging, and invite them along to the Australian High Commission ‘do’ that is on later in the evening. They ask whether they’ll be allowed to, because they’re from NZ and with loud guffaws of laughter, Steale assures them there will be no problem. The expats here all tend to look after one another and the High Commissions nights welcome any foreigner really, from Cuban doctors to Japanese volunteers. All of a sudden this evening starts to pique my interest as I dream of good food, good wine, and lots of different expats to meet. Hoorah!

So we head off out of Betio and Steale says he has a special surprise in store for me: Uncle Bill’s. Now what could this possibly hold that Moel’s didn’t? Bracing myself for another ridiculous shopping experience, we pull into a driveway that has craters – and I mean serious craters – and is flanked by local kia kias (thatched roofed, wall-less huts on metre high stilts), which is standard local housing.

7. Kia kia

This is a kia-kia I had made for the back yard of one of the houses I lived in. It’s without its roof thatching in this shot and it is only a small one, but basically this is what local houses look like. They come with weaved panels which can be put on the sides for walls as well, and usually are much larger than this. Villages can have an assortment of kia kias depending on how many people are living there at any given time. The other shot is of the roof being thatched. 

7. Kia kia roof






Craters navigated,  we alight from the car and the mecca of Uncle Bill’s awaits us. Gleaming tile floors and shelves of ordered goods lay in front of us in a very small but astoundingly clean shop. There are all manner of exciting things like porcelain mugs, shower curtains (ours is Feral with a capital F – mould multiplies here at a rate of knots), stainless steel water bottles, plastic organiser boxes, coat hangers and washing up sponges: and we purchase them all. The shop is a veritable gold mine of household goods and my spirits lift beyond all imagination. I will now be able to hang my clothes and shower in relative cleanliness. My day has improved immensely. Oh for small mercies.

The next stop on the Betio trip is the long awaited and much talked up Australian High Commission Social Club evening; once a month the Australian High Commission puts on a night for the expats of Tarawa to get together and eat food from a barbeque (very exciting stuff) and drink cold beer and wine (also very exciting).

They have a pool, deck, bar and patio and according to the expats it’s a night not to be missed. The scrumptious meal from the barbeque ends up being frankfurters in sugary buns with lashings of tomato sauce. Fabulous. I have two, Steale has six. In between mouthfuls he reminds me that I shouldn’t be missing out on such delicacies as we don’t see them very often: ‘Dude, this is awesome food, you gotta get into it!’ The saddest part is that the other expats seem to agree with him. The culinary delights of this country just keep coming. *NB: local Kiribati food is actually amazing, just in case you’re wondering whether I’m ever going to say anything nice about the food in this country! More on that to follow in the next chapters!

The scintillating wine choice involves bottom shelf Jacob’s Creek and Queen Adelaide (two Australian brands which pretty much equate to vinegar). How much better can this get?

So much better, I just have no idea how much yet.

The bar is closing and people are deciding to head to Midtown. Now. I’ve been warned this place is feral but it’s something I’m keen to see. The only night club on the atoll, I’m intrigued as to a) what can be classified as a nightclub when you’re struggling to find a restaurant that would pass 3 of the 145535 food, health or safety regulations in Australia, and b) what all the fuss is about. I’ve been hearing legendary tales of air-conditioning, strobe lighting and cold beer, and I call Steale’s bluff and say I’m going regardless of whether he’s coming.

He reluctantly succumbs, which means I can go; there is no way of getting home without him as the mini buses stop at 11 and there ain’t no ‘dial a cab’ service on this atoll. So off we head. Brilliant.

We find the place between some pig pens and someone’s front yard, and I nearly coat-hanger myself on the clothes line we’ve parked under. Brilliant. It’s a $3 entry fee and we get past security (a few I-Kiribati dudes lounging on plastic chairs), we even get an obligatory entry stamp on our forearms (we really ARE at a nightclub), and sure enough there’s air-con, strobe lighting and cold beer but it’s a dank, musty room with leering local lads and masses of very inebriated squealing I-Kiribati girls. Fabulous.

I turn to Steale and say ‘dude, this is shite. One beer and we’re out of here.’ As he is also a Midtown virgin and is equally as unimpressed with the place as I am, he readily agrees. As I have, by this point had numerous beers and Steale is essentially stone cold sober, I decide on the road home that seeing as though he has to put up with my drivel, we may as well do something fun. We count speed bumps. Yep. This is what we do for fun, Kiribati style. And just for the record, from Betio to Temwaiku there are 32 of the buggers. Nice one. 

Thirty two speed bumps, 30 kilometres, umpteen drunken lads traversing the road and an hour later, we arrive at home.

The irony? Is that in a few months, you’ll see me squealing about what I find at Moels, hoovering high commission hotdogs and dancing nights away at Midtown. Don’t believe it? Subscribe for updates so you can find out how!

Follow this link for Part 8: The best road on the atoll is WHERE?

Part 6: It’s a fine line between…

 So day two on the job is as bewildering as the first.

As we get into the curriculum, I realise just how much there is to do: Steale has serious deadlines to meet and has been flying solo for the last 3 weeks waiting for me to arrive so there’s a backlog of work waiting for us to get sorted out.

My first job is to help the lecturers fill the holes in the assessment framework for the teacher training curriculum, which ordinarily wouldn’t be too difficult, if the lecturers were there to help.

A word on aid and development projects: the key to a successful aid and development project is ownership of the program by the people who are intended to benefit from it. Put simply, if you do all the work for them, or tell them what to do, there’s a fair chance they won’t ‘own’ the project, feel any connection to it, believe in it, use it or benefit from it. So in this case, the project is revamping the curriculum for trainee teachers: therefore the lecturers should be building it, and we should just be there to help them get it all together, to guide the process and to standardize the curriculum and assessment procedures. Seems simple enough – right?

My heart sinks when 45 minutes after the workshop has supposed to begin, only four of the eleven lecturers have turned up for it.

Is this normal? Apparently everything works on Pacific time here so when it happens, it happens. Relaaaax. Ok, sure, hand me another pina colada. Sounds great in principle.

How is that supposed to come together when you’re working to Australian project deadlines, with people in the Pacific operating on their own concept of time?

Do you throw in the towel and just get the work done so that your deadlines are met, so that the bosses in Australia are happy and you get the kudos for getting the job done?

Do you do this even when you know that by doing so you’ll alienate those who are supposed to be owning the project and therefore jeopardise any hope of long term, sustainable success?

It’s the 64 million dollar question isn’t it. What would you do? Throw in the deadline towel and any chances of getting reemployed on a similar project again, and work at the pace that the locals are happy with? Or keep pushing forward at the risk of losing the locals completely?

Compromise. Finding the hallowed middle ground, that sweet spot where both sides get what they need, is the key to getting the right results.

Right. So I attempt to aim somewhere in the middle by trying to motivate those who HAVE turned up, to get as much work done in as little time as possible but I can feel the resistance, and it’s not surprising considering I’m the new kid on the block, it’s 34°C and the energy in the room is nowhere near an all time high….

Something tells me the solution to this problem is not something I’m going to be able to figure out by sundown, but something that I’m going to have to work at over a long period: building relationships, motivating the lecturers to take ownership of the project, whilst guiding the process so that our deadlines are still met. Piece of cake. Ha!

It’s a hard slog of an afternoon but it’s broken up by the very exciting news that … wait for it … the box has arrived! Woo hOO! I can’t even remember what I’ve packed in the box but am so eager to get it home. As I gaze at the box trying to remember what treats I’ve sent myself, I thank my lucky stars for what I now can recognize as the small miracle of it actually arriving.

The boys have a table tennis tournament on and so, whilst patiently waiting to be taken home I decide to test out my skills on the table. I’m shamelessly whipped by my boss and his 70 year-old twin brother (sharks I tell you, sharks) before we’re on our way home. Is there nothing in this country that doesn’t defy belief?


I get home and rip the box open, to find the ever so exciting contents complete with bed sheets, a towel, and a coffee pot with real coffee all the way from Italy. The coffee and pot had been a present from my cousins who I was there with just a few weeks ago and my mind races with how quickly life can change… the Italian alps to a coral atoll, cheese and wine to rice and coconuts, frenetic paced organization to laid back chaos. Hmmmm

So it’s Friday and it’s the big day: we’re going to Betio, where all the shops are. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself as I’m dreaming of an IGA/Tescos/Woolworths that has vegetables, real food, the works. I haven’t cooked for near on a week and if I see one more plate of white rice I’m going to have to throw it at someone. Visions of shelves upon shelves of luscious options besiege me as we set off on the beast of a road between Temaiku and Betio.

The road itself isn’t that bad apart from the fact that it’s covered in potholes and random hazards such as sleeping dogs, kamikaze motorbikes sporting giant tunas, and children chasing each other from one side to the other; until that is, you get to the strip where all the high commissions are. Imagine driving on road so bad that your head hits the roof repeatedly, and then you hit a perfectly sealed road that is smooth as silk, an even width, and devoid of all previous mentioned hazards. Go the High Commissions. Is this what normality feels like? I had forgotten.

So one of the stops along the way is to try and get Kiribati Driving Licenses. Steale has told me that over the last 7 months he’s tried a number of times to get his Kiribati License as an Australian one is only valid for the first month you’re here.

However, every time he’s gone they’ve either been out of cards, the computers have been down, the office has been closed or some other catastrophe has befallen the office so with fingers crossed but no real hope of getting one, we head into the office.

Everyone is playing solitaire or watching movies on the computers but someone decides to talk to us after 10 minutes or so. The sign says the office closed at 3pm but someone is willing to talk to us in the end so we hand over our Australian licenses and he assures us we can get one today. Brilliant.

He has a template open on his desktop, gets his digital camera out, takes a picture of the WA driver’s license, and uploads the picture. Doesn’t seem to matter it was taken 10 years ago.

He comes out and asks what license we have.

We say, ‘Well it’s written there, Class C.’

He looks at us. ‘So what class do you want here?’ 

Ummmm. What class do we want? Isn’t it about what we are allowed to have? We follow his line of questioning nonetheless: ‘Well, what have you got here in Kiribati?’ 

He says, ‘Oh you know, A and B and C and D and E.’ 

We look at each other and back to him, ‘Oh OK. Well what does that mean?’

‘Oh you know, cars and motorbikes.’ 

Sounds good to us, so we say, ‘Well then give us C and D then.’ 

He beams and returns to his computer.

It doesn’t seem to matter that Steale has Class M and MR, and that I have C, or that he hasn’t even looked at our licenses, which clearly explain what we are and are not allowed to drive. Awesome.

He comes out 10 minutes later. 
‘What is your name? These are very difficult to read.’ 
Well they’re in block print, computer printed, so shouldn’t be so difficult but apparently he’s confused by all the names. So I explain that my first name is Maria and my family name Doyle. He points at my middle name with a look of utter confusion and I say, ‘Oh don’t worry about that one, that’s an extra name.’ 
He seems perplexed but returns to the computer for another 10 minutes.

He comes out again and looks at Steale and asks, ‘Where do you live?’ 
Steale replies ‘Temwaiku’ which is our village. He doesn’t even bother asking me, just assumes I’m the wife and that we live together. Fabulous.

So he comes out with the cards, and sure enough, we can see the South Australian and West Australian stamps over our photos and I am now Mrs Doyle. Fantastic. We check the classes and he’s only given us ‘C’ class so we ask whether that’s what we had discussed; 
‘Oh sorry! I did it wrong! I’ll do it again!’ 

Steale also notices that he is now 20 years younger with a birth date of 1985 instead of 1965 so he points that out too and the guy laughs and says 
‘Oh soooooorry! I’ll change that too!’ 
I mean seriously. Is this for real?

Kiribati DL

An hour or so later, Kiribati licenses in hand, we leave to head to Tarawa Motors for our spring water. Yep. Tarawa Motors don’t sell cars, they sell spring water. Go figure.

I have decided that Tarawa is simultaneously the centre (geographically speaking it’s near the equator) and (figuratively speaking) the end of the earth. Nothing really makes sense here but who am I to judge? I’m a single white girl, who’s decided to throw herself into an aid and development project in the middle of nowhere. Better harden up and just get used to it; I mean it IS only for four months right?

Want to find out what treats we found in the shopping mecca of Betio? Hint: it involves shoe polish. Yep. Shoe polish in a country where no one actually wears shoes.

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Follow this link for Part 7: When the foodie faces the frankfurter

Part 5: How to reduce your waistline in one simple step

So off we go to the shop. 

Now this speciality shop is known as ‘I-Mart’ (name on the wall outside), ‘Nick’s’ (the guy who owns it) and ‘Blue Door’ (yes, the colour of the front door), depending on who you speak to: not confusing in the slightest. Buildings here are known by things like the colour of their front doors because there are no addresses. Yep. No addresses.

Our house, for example, is ‘3 houses before the Ocean Star store if you’re coming from Bonriki’. Fabulous. Another example of Kiribati direction-tastic, which I heard a few days later, was when Steale was asking a student about the whereabouts of the Catholic church. The reply was: oh we measured it from your house: it’s 13 speed bumps towards Betio, ocean side’.

Now there’s a lesson for all of you English teachers out there, or anyone for that matter who comes across an I-Kiribati. You don’t do directions in Kiribati in terms of ‘turn left’ and ‘turn right’, because there simply ARE no left and right turns (well not that many anyway): it’s ‘after’, ‘before’, ‘speed bumps’, ‘ocean-side’ and ‘lagoon-side’, ‘Betio’ (the westernmost village), and ‘Temwaiku’ (the easternmost village). But I digress.

‘I-Mart Titor (store)’, ‘Nicks’, or should I say ‘Blue Door’. I walk in. There are 4 shelves and 2 fridges. The shelves have an assortment of things you might find appealing if you were STARVING and the produce in the fridge is probably close to what I’d relegate to the stock pot.

Steale says, like it’s Christmas; ‘OMG they have carrots! Look! OOOOOer and LOOK! There’s anchovy stuffed olives! I’m getting me some of them! Yeee-www! Stock up dude, stock up! There’s loads here this week!’

I look at Steale sideways, trying to work out whether he’s taking the proverbial, or deadly serious, and the more he whoops and delights as he walks around the store, the more I realize just how deep I’ve gotten myself in.

He sees my empty hands and incredulously double checks that I don’t want to buy anything and I politely say that I’ll be fine until I get to the big store in Betio where we’re going on Friday. Fabulous.

We go to the check out to pay and he points out the liquor fridge.

Inside is a bottle of *insert-famous-whiskey-name-with-a-different-final-letter*. Yep, otherwise a dead ringer for the original in terms of bottle shape, label and the colour of the contents, it simply has one letter different in the name on the label.

Apparently the guy who makes it told Steale: yeh mate, I make my own brew, no one knows the difference!’ Brilliant. This just keeps getting better and better.

Just as I’m thinking that home is the next stop (hoorah!), Steale informs me that there’s a Hash House Harriers meeting tonight and so off we traipse to, of all places, the airport. We’re led on a walk through the villages to the water where there’s an old jetty that was constructed after the war to help with the building of the new airport.

The villages remind me of India; it’s basic, poor, the kids are barely clothed and covered in eye infections and leg ulcers: my initial reaction is sadness, as I recall the helplessness I felt in India. On that trip we were helping to rebuild a village that had been destroyed by fire and we were staying in an orphanage so I suppose the overall feeling on that trip would have been different to the trip I’m on in Kiribati. So I try to adjust my perceptions of what I’m seeing.

Hash House Harriers walk

The people in the village, both kids and adults, seem happy, welcoming and call out to greet us. I feel like a stupid white tourist invading their dinner time, overdressed with proper shoes, jewellery and branded travel clothes. I make a mental note to myself that if I’m ever going to fit in with the locals, I’m going to have to rethink dressing like a coiffed I-Matang (foreigner), possibly lose my shoes and definitely ditch the accessories. With this, the transformation into life according to the Pacific is just beginning…

We traipse barely beaten paths to the old mini port and in amongst the rusted relics of that post war building project ghost town, witness a gorgeous sunset setting over the rest of the island. Our return path takes us back along the runway (yes, we’re walking along the international airport runway) to the car park where I’d arrived only a day earlier. Have I really only been here a day?

For those of you not familiar with the Hash House Harriers, it’s a group of runners who meet in various expat locations with the intention of doing exercise. Various groups I’ve been a part of in different locations have totally different concepts of the word ‘exercise’ though. Some are full on marathon runs, or if you’re in Kiribati, it’s a slow meander through some interesting part of the island, and afterwards you drink beer and chat to people: both locals and foreigners. Sounds much more up my alley to be honest.

As I’m new to this group, I have to be inducted in front of the whole group and therefore have to state who I am and where I’ve come from. Questions follow and I’m asked whether I’m married or single (like there’s nothing in between). I reply that I’m single and am met with resounding applause. I say ‘as if that’s some sort of achievement!’ which is followed by completely unexpected thigh slapping laughter. Have I missed something?

The speaker informs me that it is good news for the men on Tarawa (ooooh now I get it) and I’m instructed to scull a beer, while everyone is chanting ‘down down down down down’. Now normally I can drink anyone under the table but it’s hot, the XXXX Gold is warm, gassy and really hard to get down. Steale admonishes me for letting him down (he had bets on my drinking ability apparently) but the sculling is seriously not happening. HHH 1, Maria 0.

I’m introduced to the other girls on the island of Irish/Italian descent (there are at least 4 of us – what are the chances?) and Steale suggests we start an Italian club. I don’t even have sheets on my bed yet but OK, something to think about. My inner foodie sparks to life as I decide that some Italian food feasts might actually be just what the expats here could do with. Hmmmm….

We head home for a dinner of crackers, cheese (apparently a delicacy here – a ship came in this month with cheese for the first time in years so news of the shipment spread like wild fire and now there’s none left on the island again), pickled onions (another delicacy, at $8 a jar), those anchovy stuffed olives, a box of Barbecue Shapes (savoury crackers) and aren’t we just the happy campers.

Now in Australia this would have been meagre hors d’oeuvres at best but here apparently it’s a special dinner, mainly because it doesn’t involve white rice or fish, and it DOES involve cheese. Weight Watchers? Pffft. Kiribati is the answer. I have been here for 30 hours but it feels like weeks already. What on earth can the next week bring?

Hint:  it involves being whipped at table tennis by twins 40 years your senior, the arrival of a very special box, and the discovery of the shopping mecca of Betio…

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Follow this link for Part 6: There’s a fine line between…. 

Part 4: Exemplary Customer Service Lesson #2

So we’re up at 6.45am, which is about 2.45am Perth time, and we’re about to leave for my first day of work. Our transport while I’m here, is Steale’s beast of a late 90s sedan, and its look is completed by 3 hubcaps and a racing sticker on the back windscreen. Awesome. As I’m thinking that the only place this car will be racing to is the scrapheap, I go to put my bag in the back and see a hermit crab hanging out on the back seat. Steale. Seriously? He laughs as he tells me, “No that’s definitely not normal!”, but apparently nothing in Tarawa ever is, so I’d better get used to it!

I’m in some sort of sleep deprived semi-awake state, as we’re bouncing up and down through the pot-holes to the college. Thinking I’m still dreaming, we see guys sitting in the back of utes, on what once, would have been front passenger and driver’s car seats; the’re holding onto massive yellow fin tunas, by the tail fins, over the side of the tailgate. Double take. Nope, I’m awake. Is that our lunch?

We arrive at the college and it’s, well, in disrepair. The grass is, if it’s growing, patchy to say the least but come to think of it, this is the first grass I’ve seen outside our house in Temwaiku. Stands to reason I guess if the ‘soil’ on the atoll is essentially coral dust. I wonder if anything else actually grows here, apart from the ubiquitous coconut trees which literally seem to cover every other square metre of land.

What I would call ‘feral’ dogs, in between humping each other, roam the grounds and the tennis court looks as if it would have been in its prime about 25 years ago. Actually, I’ve seen quite a few dogs partaking in the aforementioned activity and none of them look particularly healthy like the dogs we have at home. Note to self: remember Tip 2*. (If you haven’t read Part 2: Coconuts can Kill?, that’s where you’ll find out what Tip 2 is all about!)

The college is a curious combination of thatched roof classrooms and dilapidated double storey, tin roof buildings and it’s into one of these that we stop off to meet the Principal. After a swift “hello, nice to meet you” we’re off to our offices.

1d. Home and work (2)

The ‘I-Matang’ office (essentially meaning ‘westerner’ but more on the real translation of that term later), is a room on the second floor, up a flight of rickety stairs, with louvered windows and disintegrating lino floors (see picture on the left). There is air-con though, so who am I to complain? I find out later that there are only a few rooms in the whole college that have the luxury of air-con and my initial thoughts of ‘wow, this is …umm… basic’ turn to thoughts of gratitude and silent prayers of thanks. Air con. Who would’ve thought something so simple could all of a sudden be such a prized luxury?

The day begins with coffee out of a plunger (a very high-class treat apparently) in plastic cups, before we head off for our class. Four out of the 30 lecturers rock up and we start an awkward ‘nice to meet you session’ before the only male student informs me he’s single (when in fact he’s married with kids), much to the delight and resounding shrieks of laughter from the rest of the class. Ice. Broken. The laughter is infectious and the warmth and friendliness instantly welcoming. These people not only have a sense of humour, they’re willing to pull it out on day one, to my face, for the whole group to enjoy. Love it. Something tells me I’m going to have a whole heap of fun with these people.

The classrooms are on a par with the staff room but minus the aircon, plus swarms of mossies, worn blackboards, student desks from 1920 and ceiling fans that are daring to come flying out of the ceiling with every groaning rotation. Reality starts to hit. We’re going to change the face of education in this country lighting mosquito coils, smacking away dengue carrying biters, our fingers caked in chalk whilst sweat slowly takes over what remains of the dry patches left on our clothes? If this is the teacher training college, what are the actual schools going to be like?

The day is slow, my box hasn’t arrived, the internet is virtually crawling, but I do manage to open some files and do some reading about the project we’re working on. I’m intrigued. We then have a team meeting where I’m asked my opinion of how the pilot project can be extended as there’s talk that instead of ending in June it could get extended for another year. I’m shell shocked.

I’ve been there less than 24 hours, I don’t know my proverbial from my elbow, and they’re asking me how I think the project can be extended. My initial reaction is to say something like “ask me next week when I’ve decided against packing it all in and going home because this is just all a little bit too insane”. Surely by then I’ll have some idea of whether I can make it past June, and will also hopefully have a better idea of what exactly is involved ‘on the ground’ in this project as I’ve started to realize that what’s on paper, and what’s right in front of me, is, well, possibly not one and the same thing for someone who’s never been to the Pacific.

After the meeting and a failed attempt at using the ladies room (“the key is lost, but don’t worry, they’re onto it, they’ll find one soon”), I head down to the post office to see if my parcel has arrived.

Steale drops me off at a crumbling building that doesn’t even have a sign. In a slightly exasperated voice, I say “Dude, come on, I don’t feel like playing ‘find the post office’ just now”, as I realize he’s pointing to something. He’s LOVING this. The only indication that it IS the post office, is two holes in the side wall with a hand painted label indicating ‘Kiribati’ and another which is barely visible stating ‘Overseas’. I turn to Steale and say, “are you serious?” as he nods and slowly smiles. I walk in and there’s a woman lying on the front counter; yes, the front counter, and yes, she’s asleep, prostrate on TOP of the counter. I sigh.

“Excuse me.” She bolts up right and falls off the counter. “Yeeeeeeeees?” As if this is totally normal way to greet your customers, I enquire as to whether there’s a parcel for Maria Doyle and she waves me into the back room and shows me a large bin holding all the mail. She indicates that I should look through the box to find what I’m looking for and leaves me there alone.


I heard later from a colleague that he did the same thing a few months prior, and even though the parcel was for a ‘Catherine’, they let him look through the box and walk out with it, no identification, no nothing. So essentially, if I’d found an interesting looking parcel, I could have waltzed out of there with it and they’d have been none the wiser. Brilliant.

I realized that in a country like this, any parcel from home was sacred and anyone that had the gall to deprive another person of that blessed gift would likely be damned to hell for eternity, just on principle. I lived in hope anyway…

Hopes that my parcel would actually find me were fading fast and my spirits were diving downwards at a similar pace. 

With no luck at the post office, Steale decides that taking me to the best ‘shop’ on South Tarawa, outside of the biggest shopping mecca Betio (pronounced Beh-so), would definitely brighten my day.

Back in the car, my thoughts are something along the lines of ‘take me home, to somewhere cool, where there is food I recognize, and poor me a stiff drink’, but I think, yeh for sure, I can do this, the shops. Shops are good. Maybe I can find some good ingredients to make Steale a nice dinner – he’s been without his wife here for a few months now so I’m thinking (after the Swampy’s experience), that he’s probably due for a decent feed.

To the shops. One more mission for today. I can do this. Something tells me I shouldn’t be holding my breath but I decide that if Steale thinks this will brighten my day, it’s worth a go. Right. Onwards and upwards, and off we go…

Looking forward to seeing what happens at the shop? Hint. It involves anchovy stuffed olives and a carrot that has seen better days…

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Follow this link for Part 5: How to reduce your waistline in one simple step

Part 3: Tip #3 – if you’re game?

Another of our colleagues came round to introduce herself before we all traipsed off for dinner. Steale promised that as a special ‘welcome to the country’ treat, we’d be going to the premier eating establishment up our end of the atoll. Leaving the sanctity of the house we headed back out into the potholes and came across this traffic detour mechanism. Ingenious.

road blockDriving towards food, I set about trying to pick out some memorable landmarks so I could learn how to get home, as there didn’t appear to be street names or house numbers of any description. I naively asked my colleagues what they had used when they first got there as it was all starting to look very similar: coconut tree, fence, coconut tree, hut, coconut tree, hut, coconut tree.

My question was met with guffaws of laughter as I was informed there was essentially only one road on the island. Right. So Tarawa is essentially made up of two long, thin atolls, one going East/West, and the other North/South. At its widest, Tarawa is about 400 metres and at its narrowest, a one lane road: so getting lost was pretty hard to do. Pride: swallowed.

We arrive at the restaurant, which is opposite the hospital. At first glance, I make a mental note to self: do NOT get so sick that you will need to actually enter this hospital. 
 Skinny dogs are sniffing around, kids are running around near naked, it’s a dust bowl and there is just nothing of the sterility or formality that surrounds a hospital at home. Right. Back to food. Am I still hungry?

We go to the ‘shop’ to get some soft drinks as apparently Steale’s favourite restaurant doesn’t sell beverages. Go figure.

A few notes on what constitutes a shop. Essentially local shops are rooms with a counter and shelves half full of something or other. Steale explains to me that you usually have to go to 4 or 5 different shops before you’ll find what you’re after, but apparently that’s half the fun. Add to this that the names of the shops have virtually no correlation to their goods; ‘Coral Ace Hardware’ sells blank CDs and stationery for example, which of course makes perfect sense. Brilliant.

Having said that, remember that we’re on an isolated atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and unless it’s flown in (and therefore costs 100 times as much), it has to come in on a container ship. Container ships don’t dock at the port on a daily basis so things tend to run out, leaving little on the shelves (save the ubiquitous tin of corned beef), until the next ship comes in. Then the shops get restocked but with whatever happens to be in the shipment that time around so the shopping hide and seek games start all over again.

Tip #3: always check the expiry dates as a lot of the food that is imported is that which Australia is offloading because it’s getting towards its best before date. Solution? Ship it to a country where starving expats who never want to see a bowl of white rice again are willing to pay $18 for a box of cereal. It will sell. Brilliant.

shop notice

And if all else fails? Just ask for a sniff test. It will make you feel better, seriously.

Note to self. Really, I’m going to have to find the super duper Woolworths/Tescos/Safeway equivalent at some point soon. 

Apparently there’s one up the other end of the atoll. Can’t wait.

The restaurant is through the back of a shop (of course it is!) and as we realise the doors to the restaurant are closed, Steale asks whether they’re open. We get a ‘nooooo, soooooorry’, and when Steale asks whether it will be open tomorrow we get a shrug and a ‘mayyyybe’. Ahhhhh business acumen. Gotta love it.

So we decide to go to Swampy’s. Right oh. I’m thinking the name doesn’t really make it particularly inviting but anyway who am I to judge? Our colleague Kate says it’s her favourite so off we go.

It is, (of course) situated on top of a swamp which is filled with rubbish at one end, and bathing locals at the other. My stomach lurches. I do NOT want to know what this restaurant does their washing up in. Apparently there are two choices on the non-existent $3 meal menu. Half cooked fish or fully cooked fish. Seriously. What?

I’m thinking fully cooked is probably the better way to avoid a stomach crisis on the first day so I order that; I’m asked if I want the special version (an egg on top for an extra dollar) and I think – well why not live on the edge?

Another colleague walks in and so I meet the entire expat team I’ll be working with, except the big boss. There are four of us. We’re apparently changing the face of primary and secondary education in this country. Hmmm. I begin to realize the enormity of the project we’re working on, in a country that I’ve only just seen the surface of and I’m all of a sudden feeling quite faint.

So I reach for another luke warm Fanta (sugar, need sugar) as we watch the Kiribati news (in Kiribati: the national language), make up what we think the news is about (rocking fun) and speculate over the age of the posters which are of Lamborghinis and Porches interlaced with Chinese posters celebrating New Year of 1985. We are then presented with a meal of rice topped with fish and other indiscernible ingredients. It smells good so I dive in.

The food on the plane had been fairly ordinary so I was famished. As it is only a 3 hour flight from Fiji, you got more of a snack than a meal, a fairly dodgy hot chicken and cheese roll that I took one bite of before deciding that it would be better used for target practice. Little did I know how much I would crave that dodgy chicken and cheese delight in a few months time, but more on that later.

We get home and I manage to get through on a very scratchy line to tell mum and dad I’ve arrived safely. I get on the internet to check my mail and after half an hour I still haven’t loaded an email and therefore give up. I decide a cold shower is probably in order as I’m still sweating like a beast, I’m hot, I’m covered in mossie bites and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Low and behold I can’t get cold water out of the shower, only steaming hot. Sigh.

I decide bed is probably the best option at this point and go to find my sheets. They’re in the box: the box that is still somewhere between Perth and Tarawa. Sigh. A quick face-palm of the forehead and I make do with a sarong and a tea towel. Who really needs sheets and pillow cases anyway? It’s all good. Really, it’s all good.

I drifted off to the sound of the ocean lapping at the back yard and the whirring of the fan, thinking about what lay in store for me over the next few months. Innovation. Innovation, imagination and a whole heap of patience is what I decided I was going to need in this country. And I hadn’t even stepped foot inside my workplace yet, or met my boss.

What on earth could the first day at work bring?

Follow this link for Part 4: Exemplary Customer Service Lesson #2

Part 2: Coconuts can kill?

The flight into Kiribati was… well… interesting. After 3 hours of flying over serene, dark blue oceans, the landscape changed into dots of white sand and palm trees surrounded by crystal clear turquoise water. The land appeared to be only a single narrow strip and the closer we got, the more apparent it became just how thin it actually was. I had heard this country was sinking but was there seriously only that much land left? The parts that looked like they were larger areas of land were even full of water…. Where was the runway that would land a 737? Oh. Is that it? (look closely at the picture to the left….)1. Aerial View of Tarawa

As we came in to land, the land disappeared and all I could see was water. Seriously, you could see the prints on the t-shirts of the fisherman in their boats we were that close to them. I clenched my hands around the armrests and assured myself that the pilots were qualified when I saw literally 2 seconds before touch town that we were over tarmac. Hoorah! But was that a house on the side of the runway? Eh? No fencing between the runway and houses, kids were running along waving madly at the plane, and people were going about their daily business as if it was completely normal to have their living rooms facing a view of planes touching down. Where on God’s green earth had I landed? Gilligan’s island?

My grin deepened. The ‘arrivals hall’ was nothing more than a shed with the word ‘Arrival’, hand painted in white above the door. A plane wreck was just off the runway and where you would normally see a suited man with earmuffs and batons directing the plane, was a guy in shorts and thongs waving the plane forward much as you would helping a friend to park in a tight space down town. Where you would normally expect a motorised cart pulling trolleys to take the checked in luggage to the carousel, was a barefoot guy in a t-shirt and shorts pulling a tray on wheels towards the underbelly of the aircraft. My grin turned into a chuckle. The International Airport of the country’s capital. Awesome. My thoughts wandered to a job I had recently applied for teaching Occupational Health and Safety at the Perth International Airport; it would seem that life had quite the opposite in store for me instead! 🙂

Filing off the aircraft we walked across the tarmac, which was in a dire state of disrepair, and as the wing tip was only about 3 metres from the roof of the arrivals hall, we didn’t have to walk far. The ‘Arrival’ hall was in fact a very simple concrete building with a tin roof, 2 benches, hand painted signs directing passengers to ‘Kiribati Passports’ and ‘Other’. It was barely big enough to hold the number of passengers coming off the flight so most of us were actually standing on the tarmac waiting to go inside. It was hot. Tropical hot. Humid, middle of the day hot.

When we finally got inside we realised everyone else was filling out forms but where they came from was anyone’s guess. Colleagues on the same flight who had been through this before went in search of the forms and apparently they had run out. Fabulous. Do we still get to enter the country then?

I glanced towards the toilets thinking if I was going to have to wait another half hour to get through the line I might need to go to the loo; the sign on the door of the gents said ‘This bathroom is unserviceable. Please use the lady toilet.’ I reconsidered and decided I could wait. Man this was going to be an interesting trip, I could just feel it.

So more forms miraculously appeared and once filled out, we went through immigration, which involved taking one step to the left, into the baggage claim area. The checked baggage was literally shoved through a hole in the wall and if your bag ended up on the ground upright it was a bonus. I spotted my bag and fought through people, coolers, suitcases and boxes to collect it. Mission accomplished!

My grin did a 180 as I turned around and realised I would have to fight the same, jostling, no-sign-of-any-lines queue, to get to customs, which was only a matter of metres away. Have I said it was hot? No air con, no fans, it’s a concrete building with a tin roof, on the equator in the middle of the day, it’s bedlam with people and luggage and no room to move an inch. It’s hot. Breathe, go to your happy place, everything will be OK.

I was watching the customs procedure with great interest as the staff seemed to be very thorough in checking some bags, but not so much others. I wondered what the criteria were, and prayed that whatever they were, I wouldn’t have to open my bags and display the contents to the entire arrivals hall. Can you imagine? New white girl opens suitcase to reveal ….. da da da daaaaaaah….

The staff asked whether I had any food. I replied that I had some chocolate from Fiji and they waived me through. No x-rays here, very tight customs procedures indeed! Hoorah! I’m out! Now where’s Steale?

I exit the hall not entirely sure what to expect and am greeted with a throng of enthusiastic clambering friends and relatives crowning people with intricate wreaths of brightly coloured flowers. I spot the white guy in the crowd and wrestle my bag towards him – yay I made it! I’ve finally arrived!

It was hot. Really hot. Have I mentioned this already? I was sweating like a beast as we walked towards the car, which was waiting in a pot-holed dust bowl, cars parked haphazardly where they had stopped. No white lines here. Thankfully Steale’s car had air-con and as we took the bumpy road towards home I looked around us; the road was so pot-holed we had to drive around the craters in the road, the belly of the car scraping along the gravel/bitumen/what was left of the surface.

There were huts made from palm tree fronds, perched in no particular order amongst muddy clearings complete with pigs tethered by their trotters to whatever vegetation was strong enough to hold them. People lulled in their huts, smoke rose from cooking fires, children ran about in barely holding together underwear, skinny dogs sniffed at the roadside scavenging for food. I knew I was going to a dot in the Pacific but this was the most remote and ‘poor’ place I had been; I asked Steale whether this was normal or just a slum area near the airport. He laughed. This was Kiribati. Looks like perhaps I should have done a little more research before getting on that plane afterall….

Little did I realise at that point, just how ‘rich’ a country like Kiribati could possibly be, but more on that, later.

2. Our backyard

We arrived ‘home’ and our house was apparently one of the best in Kiribati. We had a fridge, gas cooking, tiled floors, a porch overlooking the beach, two bedrooms, a washing machine, a living room, couches, the internet, we were in high class yuppie heaven. Just as I was admiring the beachfront view though, a family came down to the beach to do their daily ablutions. Marvellous.

In Australia the property would equate to a multi-million dollar piece of land with an old, run down beach shack, mismatched op shop furniture with lots of bits and pieces that aren’t quite working but nonetheless do the job. In Tarawa, the house and its furnishings were absolute luxury on a pretty standard piece of land; in fact the ocean side is considered less valuable as it isn’t as sheltered as the lagoon side. I had indeed come to a land that would turn every essence of what I thought about life on its head. Life really is all about perceptions isn’t it?

Sitting on the balcony overlooking the beach we reminisced about the times we worked for the same company in Australia, and our previous co-trainers who were now scattered all over the world. We wasted the afternoon away watching the tide come in and the waves slap against the shore. This was probably as close to the beach front lifestyle I had always dreamed of I was ever going to get. Gorgeous. 4 months of this? Pffft! How lucky was I?3. Sunset from our Backyard

Steale decided to break the reverie and give me some very important tips for living in Tarawa. As I am getting ready to hear about the best local restaurant, or the place that serves the best sunset cocktails, he gets serious and starts to explain.

Tip one. Do NOT stand under a coconut tree. 27 people each year die from falling coconuts and he himself had had a few close encounters (which you’ll hear about later).

Tip two. If a feral dog comes at you, reach down and pretend to pick up something and throw it in the general direction of said animal. This is the only way to get them off you. Shouting doesn’t help.

Seriously? Well isn’t this just the most fabulous way to introduce me to the country?! Can’t wait to hear what Tip 3 is going to be.

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Follow this link for Part 3: Tip #3 – if you’re game!

Part 1: You’re working WHERE?

For those of you who aren’t already part of our online community, here’s an excerpt from our latest newsletter: Lots of changes with SELECT Consultants this year, but the most exciting is that by the end of this year, I’ll have published that book I’ve been threatening to write for years and the best part of being on this subscriber list? Is that you’ll be getting the book, chapter by chapter in the form of a weekly email that will land in your inbox. Cool huh? 

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Ready for the first part of the story? Here it is!

Part 1: You’re working WHERE?

This may come across as completely nuts to those of you who aren’t accustomed to the sometimes highly unpredictable nature of the work that comes up in the world of TESOL, but what follows is not so dissimilar to how many other jobs I’ve worked at have started; so get yourself a cuppa, strap yourself in, and get ready for the ride!

A few important background details:

  • December 2009: resign from job as I refuse to work with a man who asked me to ‘lower my work ethic’ quote unquote. Long story but that’s the short of it.
  • Go to Europe for 5 weeks, half-heartedly apply for a job in Kiribati (where?). The job was working on a project with an old friend and colleague, Steale, who I had worked closely with in 2004-2005, and his invitation went something like this: ‘dude if you’re unemployed and interested, apply. It’s a good gig.’ Quote unquote.
  • Have phone interview in Barcelona.
  • Find out in Jersey that I got the job.
  • Realise all of a sudden that the next 6 months of my life are going to be a) abroad, b) mental.
  • Decide to party it up in Paris.
  • Change my flights in Belgium so that I can come home and have an extra week to sort my life out. 

7 days between trips was a bit of a stretch, even for me.
  • Move to the Pacific for a few months? Piece of cake.

So I get back from Europe with 14 days to organize my life and move to a Pacific island for 4 months; time has never flown so quickly as I spend my time sorting out bills, contracts, tenants, housemates, insurance, flights, contracts, chiro appointments, haircuts, breakfasts, lunches and dinners seeing everyone for a ‘hi and see ya later’ get together, a trip down south to see mum and dad, gardening, car maintenance, sorting out my fishbowl, it just didn’t seem to have an end. By the time 7 days had passed I was over the worst of the jetlag and was slowly getting through the page long to-do list instead of just watching it grow…. 

what do you pack for 4 months in the Pacific anyway?

Steale had sent me a list of must pack items including a surge protected power-board, chocolate, reef shoes, insect repellent and sunscreen x10, bed sheets, towels and coffee. Yep. Awesome list. Where is this place again? You can’t get coffee?

This YOU MUST BRING list alone was weighing close to 10 kilos so I decided to send a box. The conversation at the post office went a little like this.

Me:            Hi, I’d like to send this box to Kiribati.

Post Office Guy:          Where?

Me:            Kiribati. (Pronounced Ki-ri-bas)

POG:         Where? Never heard of it. How do you spell it?

Me:            K-I-R-I-B…

POG:          Nah we don’t have that, there’s only a Ki – ri – ba -T I.

Kiribatilessononhownottosoundlikeaforeignidiot#1. TI in Kiribati language is pronounced S. Folklore has it that the first guy ever to write out the language didn’t have an S on his typewriter. Go figure.

The options for sending it? Either spend $120 and get no tracking, no insurance, no guarantee of arrival and a good 10-12 days in transit, or pay an extra $50 for it to take 3-4 days, full insurance and tracking. When you’re sending it to a third world dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it was a no brainer really. Off goes the box and I seriously wonder whether I’m A) going to see it again, and B) whether it will get there in time for my arrival, which is still eight days away. Calculating that it takes me two full days to get from Perth to Kiribati (through Brisbane and then overnight in Fiji), and there are only flights arriving in Kiribati on a Tuesday and Thursday, I’m thinking I’ll be very lucky if it arrives before me. Anyway. We’ll wait and see. Funnily enough that’s a phrase I’m going to be hearing more than I really care to in the coming weeks….

So a frenetic last few days of packing, repacking, weighing and re-packing, and somehow it’s Sunday afternoon, I have a few hours before I need to be on my flight, and I’m down in Freo having a last few drinks with friends watching ‘Prita and the Perfect Strangers’ serenade the X-Wray Café. After their set, we realize the place is setting up for speed dating – yes speed dating – sigh. Really?

Well to be fair, it was Valentine’s Day and how fitting that I leave the country single, footloose, fancy free and watching people trying to find what is was they have been searching for; somehow I thought that Kiribati might be offering me an alternative solution to what the X-Wray was offering….

So after a redeye to Brisbane where I arrived with cankles and excess eyeball baggage, I had 6 hours to kill before my flight to Fiji. It was 5am in Brisbane, 3am Perth time, I had managed about an hours sleep and could have passed out while standing up but as is the way when travelling solo, it was a few strong coffees and sending as many text messages as my remaining credit would allow. I had been told that communicating out of Kiribati could be hit and miss so decided to get in as much as possible before leaving Australian soil. I had not an inkling of how true that would turn out to be but as a preview, I communicated more with my friends and family in Australia in that 5 hours, than I did in the coming 4 months. Not a word of a lie.

Five and a half hours crawled by but finally my flight was called and off I was to Fiji. As luck would have it I was sat next to Mr Bean; as I smiled to myself I began to think that this trip might just be something to write home about…

Steale had suggested I stay at the Raffles in Fiji as it was close to the airport. Easy. So I get on the transfer bus and just as I was getting comfortable, the bus turned out of the airport and directly into the hotel driveway; so Steale wasn’t joking when he said it was close then! The window in my room overlooked the pool and directly behind it, gates 4, 5 and 6 of the Fiji International Airport. Nice one. Evidence in the picture below.

Kiribati blog 1I was hot, tired and in dire need of cleaning, cooling down, and sleep: in that order. After a night of room service Indian, trying to connect with Steale over the net (decided it must have been ‘bad weather’ or something, really was a shocking line) I crashed. Setting my alarm for 9am (4am Perth time) I fell into bed thinking, well this is it. You’re off to the Kiribati.

It had all happened so fast I suddenly wondered at what point I had actually thought this decision through. In my rush to get things sorted I had only done a quick google and skim read the Wiki page.

My grand total knowledge about Kiribati?

  • It’s somewhere in the middle of the Pacific.
  • Communications with the outside world can be difficult.
  • Steale is there.

I drifted into sleep thinking how bad can this be? It’s the middle of the Pacific. Palm trees, coconuts, pina coladas right? And even if it is a bit dodgy, it’s only for 4 months. Right? Right?

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Follow this link for Part 2: Coconuts can kill?