Christmas Island: A Family History
In 1958 my partner’s father voluntarily entered military service and found himself placed somewhere quite unexpected: on Kiritimati, a Micronesian coral atoll located 1,350 miles South of Hawaii. Named Christmas Island by Captain James Cook after his arrival on Christmas Eve in 1777, the word Kiritimati is a phonetic respelling of the Christian holiday in the local Kiribati language (the ti letter combination is pronounced like the English s).
A year after my now father-in-law returned to Britain, he had a son who would later marry the most untidy human this side of the dateline (me). The albums of his father’s Kiritimati memories were hence available to Paul for the entirety of his youth, instilling what would become a lifelong curiosity about the distant place he came to know through those photographs.
Interest in his dad’s history grew with time and age until, eventually, the confession we already knew to be the case was made: the purpose of his father’s time on Kiritimati was Operation Grapple, part of the British nuclear weapons tests. Had he actually seen (and felt) the bombs? Yes. Inquisitiveness piqued, Paul began to consider a visit to the island to witness the locations of his father’s pictures firsthand.
And so that’s how we came to tick that destination off the bucket list, by spending Christmas 2016 on Christmas Island.
By the way, I am now a time traveler. The equatorial island is just the other side of the dateline, so it’s bewildering AF to remember which dates you need accommodation. Leave Honolulu, fly 3 hours, land the next day; leave Kiritimati, fly three hours, land the day before.
One more thing. Despite the fact that Australian dollars are the currency of both islands, Kiritimati is not to be confused with Australia’s Christmas Island. Why AUD? Maybe some confused Aussies rocked up one day with only their own currency in pocket and everyone was all “okay money is money, this works.” I mean, I don’t know.
After ten days holidaying on Hawai’i, where fresh produce is plentiful and everyday staples are readily found, we departed for the middle of the Pacific. Little was I to know I would spend the next seven days craving a repeat of my airline meal, a chickpea curry courtesy of Fiji Airways. Honestly, props for the most enjoyably edible vegan airplane meal I’ve ever consumed. And S-P-I-C-Y too.
There are no vegan restaurant options to recommend on Kiritimati (also, no restaurant options full stop), so consider this post more of a guide on what to expect and advice on what to bring along. Readily available vegan food might be limited, but by no means is it all bad news. With a little bit of creativity, it’s absolutely possible to eat vegan on Kiritimati.
Vegan Options on Christmas Island
Kiritimati may have the largest landmass of any coral atoll on the planet, but that doesn’t mean the soil sustains much food growth. Coconuts are the only local produce (suggestion: bring a large knife so you can open them) and the population subsists on a diet of seafood, imported rice, and other shipped in goods. Even water is a scarce commodity – as of December 2016 a year had passed since the capital, London, last saw rain.
What this means is a hefty reliance on a monthly delivery of supplies by ship, but during our stay the supply ship was weeks late. The only fresh produce included old potatoes and cabbage, apples like cotton wool, oranges (didn’t try), onions, and garlic. Just before Christmas a plane touched down with a top-up of goods for the holidays, including fresh ginger, cucumbers, and green bell peppers.
Canned goods and instant noodles were among the other vegan friendly items available at the shops around London. Tinned sweetcorn, Heinz baked beans, pineapple rings in syrup, condensed tomato soup, and packets of ramen noodles with tomato seasoning (all other types contained fish or meat) were staples for us. Fresh bread existed (we enjoyed it at our hotel’s breakfast) but we never worked out where to buy it. Rice can also be purchased just about anywhere.
There is an ATM, but it is reputedly not entirely reliable so it’s important to bring plenty of cash to cover expensive food purchases on top of accommodation and other costs. A jar of Folger’s instant
upchuck coffee costs 26 bucks, for reference. A tin of something or other will set you back four or five bucks. Clocking in at only a dollar, the tomato ramen are the budget option.
Between London and the airport is the warehouse, which isn’t really a warehouse but a shop that is better stocked than the rest. In addition to the above mentioned items we found canned coconut milk (they don’t seem to do fresh on the island), Skippy brand peanut butter, jam and marmalade, San Pellegrino (?!), gallons of spirits, the cheapest beer (sorry, but it’s XXXX Bitter), wasabi paste, frozen mixed vegetables, and knock off my little pony toys (“brush my hair” was the tagline and presumable intended selling point). Should you not take my advice to bring a knife for coconut-gutting, you can also pick one up at this shop.
If you are self-catering you’ll want to hire a car (i.e. pay someone $70 to borrow theirs) or get a lift to the warehouse because you will find more at this shop than at any other. Should the supply ship come during your visit, get to the warehouse the day after its arrival for a choice selection of fresh items that are likely to sell out quickly.
We looked for the so-called two Chinese restaurants some websites have claimed to be on the island (according to Wikitravel “the one closer to the petrol station is relatively better”), but the closest we could find to a diner was a lady selling hotdogs out of a 10 gallon tupperware container across from the oilworks. So if you’re vegan your two options are to get by on the rice and whatever vegetables your hotel has in stock or to find a way to cook for yourself.
Our hotel, Sunset Horizon, assured us in advance that we could use their kitchen, but since it was the Christmas period and they were fully booked with a private group, they understandably couldn’t spare their cooking facilities. They kindly offered us a large electric pan to use in our own room, which at the end of our stay they only billed us $30 a night to use.
Four minutes after that news we chose hilarity over anger. Paul explained to the manager that in future he must indicate such charges in advance to customers. “Good points,” the manager responded and nodded. Thus I recommend anyone choosing to stay at Sunset Horizon to verify all expenses and to pay in advance (it is 10,000 times nicer looking than the Captain Cook Hotel and despite my ongoing pan complaint I highly recommend choosing Sunset as your base).
I almost started believing in a higher power after another guest gifted us a bag of carrots he smuggled in, as in maybe he was actually the return of Christ because those carrots were like the heavens opening up. No one at the airport seemed to care about what you brought in your bag, so bring snacks and lots of them. Sunset’s AC rooms have refrigerators, so keeping perishables for a week is no problem. Plus at the end of your stay you get to play deity when you gift all of your leftovers to any other guests you are leaving behind. I even had enough orange left to pay those carrots forward.
One thing we did not struggle to find was beer, and plenty of it. The two varieties we came across were XXXX Bitter, as previously mentioned, and a beer called Sara from the Solomon Islands. If you can finish a can of the latter I will send you a prize. Just leave your details in the comments below. Also the prize will probably be Spongebob Squarepants nail art stickers because that’s the first thing I saw when I looked at my desk for prizes just now.
Christmas on Christmas Island
I don’t celebrate Christmas because I already spend enough time faffing about in life, but still! What a place to spend Christmas! It’s the best time to be there, surely.
From Christmas Eve through Boxing Day, celebrations go down in a big way. Churches gather in London to put on massive celebrations, with residents across the island taking rest on the meeting house and hall floors at night. Sunset Horizon is associated with, and is built directly behind, the largest station of the Protestant church Kiritimati. Seasonal activity and excitement went uninterrupted throughout the day and into the night, save breaks for lunch and overnight rest.
On Christmas eve we were treated to brilliant performances of gospel singing and Kiribati dancing, not to mention sensationally energetic PVC pipe playing with the soles of shoes. For the dance men wore mats woven from dried pandanus leaves, while women donned grass (or plastic) skirts. Crowns were topped with headdresses of varying degrees of intricacy, some strikingly elaborate. Seashells and flowers were used gratuitously to accent the dress.
Kiribati dance is a bodily expression of intense enthusiasm that is central to island life for reasons of upholding pride in culture, entertainment, and emotional release. The dancing is precise, with a spotlight on the positions and movements of hands and feet. Outstretched arms are a standout feature.
The dance begins slowly, accelerating as the performance continues, to a sometimes frenzied pace of emotional outpouring. This is an expression of individuality the otherwise conservative Kiribati culture allows, so we witnessed myriad expressions and responses from dancers – one woman danced her way through an emotional potpourri of screams and laughter, finishing her performance in tears.
Along with more modern pop tunes, large and flat wooden boxes are struck to create a rhythmic beat to complement dance movements.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the town a carnival was built! New to the island, we were told the rides came from Australia and that this was only the second time they had been put together (the first was Independence Day, 2016).
On the opening night of the fairground, Paul (that’s the guy I hang with) immediately queued up for the ferris wheel, which spun at approximately infinity miles per hour. A child stood alongside me while I photographed the ride. When she saw Paul shrug his shoulders as he passed around for the umpeenth time, she indicated to me that each ride is ten minutes in length.
The next night I got drunk and rode the ferris wheel too, which is shocking since I am terrified of heights and, in general, of things that look like they might fall over.
I rode the following night as well, that time sober. No one who knows me, myself included, could have predicted I would make a choice to sit on one of those cagey spinning benches. I suppose, however, that’s what mysterious stops in surreal, far flung destinations allow for: the best kind of surprises, where you get to learn more about yourself and also pay $30 a night for a frying pan.
Christmas Island Tomato Coconut Noodle Hodgepodge
Despite the limited ingredients to hand, this turned out to be a pretty tasty meal that we repeated for dinners and for daytime picnics. Tip: bring some tupperware. All of the ingredients listed can be purchased or rented on the island. Sunset Horizon provides soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, and salt and pepper as condiments FOC. I don’t know if the plates and chef’s knife were free or included in the pan rental.
- Vegetable oil
- Whatever vegetables you can get your hands on
- 2-3 packets (depending on hunger levels) of the tomato ramen I don’t have a picture of
- 1 can coconut milk
- ½ tin pineapple rings
- Salt and Pepper
- one large $30 a day rental frying pan
- Add a glug or three of oil to the pan and fry those veggies on high heat until browned. Season with some salt and pepper. On the other half of the pan, or in a separate batch, fry the pineapple rings.
- If you are lucky enough to be cooking on a table with a slight lean, pile the fried vegetables and pineapple on the raised side and tip a splash of water into the lower end. Add the noodles and half of the coconut milk. As the dried noodle soften, pull them apart with a fork or with your hands because you might not have found an actual fork yet. Add the rest of the coconut milk and the seasoning packet and simmer in your $30 a night pan until most of the coconut milk is absorbed.
- Pile the whole lot onto a plate, if you can find one, or directly into your mouth I guess?
- Author: Kip Dorrell
- Serves 2-3
- Cuisine: Tropical Student