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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

The Land of the Soap Eaters

As Tekaai loaded my bags and buckets onto Air Kiribati’s rusty scale, I couldn't help but express my disbelief. "They eat what!" I exclaimed incredulously. With the most serious of faces, he responded, "The people on that island are known for eating soap, so be careful because they might try to feed you soap at your first bootaki, you know, to see if you can be like one of them." 

I was taken aback. "You’re kidding, right? I mean, what would I do if that were to happen? Do they expect me to eat soap?" I asked, trying to wrap my head around the idea.

Tekaai's expression remained unchanged as we balanced a kerosene stove and several buckets of food on the scale. "Yes," he replied matter-of-factly, "eat it... and ask for seconds." With a pat on the shoulder, he walked away, leaving me to contemplate the bizarre warning.

The tale of soap-eating among the people of Abaiang had become a part of local lore, reminiscent of Maiana's knack for spinning believable tales. Yet, on my Host Village Visit (HVV), the only creatures I knew to indulge in soap were Amanda's mischievous rats. This peculiar tradition traced its origins back to the dark days of blackbirding, when I-Kiribati were lured or coerced into forced labor, notably by Peruvian traders seeking to fill labor shortages overseas. It was during this period of external contact that missionaries and British colonizers further influenced the local customs and traditions.

The arrival of traders to Abaiang heralded the introduction of various trade goods, while missionaries, seeking to spread their faith, brought with them an array of foreign items such as cloth, tools, tinned foods, and soap to attract potential converts. Among these, soap stood out as something entirely novel to the I-Kiribati. Drawn to its enticing scent, they initially mistook it for a new type of food, gradually developing a taste for it over time. This curious phenomenon explained why Tekaai discreetly slipped a bar of soap into one of my buckets, attributing it to bringing good luck as I observed my luggage being loaded onto a rack.

I boarded an island hopper Y-12 aircraft, which accommodated up to 16 passengers, bound for Abaiang. The seat covers were loosely fastened onto the seats, and the well-worn cushions sagged into their metal frames as passengers settled in. As we reached the end of the runway, the co-pilot turned around and shouted, "kam tauraoi" (are you ready)? With a cabin full of nods and a chorus of "tia nako" (let’s go), we hurtled down the runway. The main island dwindled behind us as we traversed the turquoise-blue lagoon. Our descent began sooner than I anticipated, and in a matter of seconds, coconut treetops whizzed past our windows as we touched down on the airfield's landing strip. The plane slowed to a taxi at the strip's end, executed a turnaround, and proceeded towards a roofless brick building.

We pulled up in front of the building, and the pilot made his way to the end of the plane to open the door. As the propellers sputtered to a halt, families began gathering around the aircraft. Stepping into the luggage area, I began unloading my numerous bags and buckets. Everyone pitched in to collect the luggage, loading them onto nearby motorcycles, trucks, and bicycles. The atmosphere was filled with joy and excitement as passengers reunited with friends and relatives.

From the rear of the plane, I scanned the crowd for anyone who might be looking for a Peace Corps Volunteer. Though I didn't spot anyone, the children seemed particularly curious about me. It was evident they were unsure of my background. Was I half-caste, Chinese, or Marshallese? My dark brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, and black hair puzzled them, echoing the confusion I often faced back home and now in Kiribati.

Unfortunately, aside from the children's curious glances, no one else seemed to notice or question my presence. The teachers from my school were nowhere to be seen, leaving me uncertain about what to do next.

Within about twenty minutes, the airfield was cleared of all passengers' luggage. The pilots revved up the engines, and the propellers began to spin as the aircraft pulled away from the terminal. However, the two Peace Corps Volunteers who were supposed to meet me at the field were still in Tarawa, awaiting the ferry departing the following day. They were bringing along more of my luggage that couldn't fit on the plane.

Not knowing where to go or what to do, I settled on my bathing bucket and observed as the plane disappeared into the distance. For nearly half an hour, I basked in the warm sun, gradually acquiring a pleasant suntan. Suddenly, a torrential downpour swept in unexpectedly, drenching me within moments. As always, a refreshing cool breeze accompanied the rain, but so did the persistent mosquitoes. Thankfully, I had been issued ample government-provided DEET repellent. Despite being aware of potential health risks associated with its use, I applied it liberally, more concerned about avoiding fainting from excessive mosquito bites than any potential long-term effects.

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