Day 141: Places To Visit If You’re Bored – Nauru

originally published May 20, 2012

For those of you looking to escape the world, I may have found the place for you. It’s cozy, out of the way, and you can pack light. Just remember to bring your satellite internet uplink or else that box set of West Wing seasons you’ve been meaning to catch up on, because there isn’t a lot to do there.

Nauru (pronounced Na-oo-ru) is the tiniest republic in the world. Covering only 21 square kilometers (about 8 square miles), it’s an island in Micronesia, so close to the equator you can smell it. The population is about 9200. That’s an entire nation made up of roughly the same amount of people as you’d find in the end zone section at a Cleveland Browns game, tucked onto an island about an eighth the size of Cleveland itself.

At one time there were twelve tribes living on the island in relative peace. They were all descended from Micronesians and Polynesians, and had no reason to quarrel. Then the white folks showed up. Early white passers-by (who had named the placed ‘Pleasant Island’ because the locals were so damn jovial) would trade guns and liquor for water and supplies. Everybody wins, right?

Well, not long after the local tribes had acquired guns, they found reasons to use them. Civil war broke out between the twelve tribes, and the population shrunk from about 1400 to 900 by 1888. Things were ugly on Pleasant Island, and that wasn’t helped by the fact that Nauruan warriors dressed like this guy:

Luckily, the Germans showed up and brought some peace to the island. They annexed the joint and hung their hats there for almost three decades. In 1900, phosphate was discovered. Phosphate can fetch good money, so the struggling little island had found itself an economy. Germany might have been able to cash in on the Nauruan good fortune, but they got themselves embroiled in a war instead.

In 1919, the Australians who took over the stewardship of Nauru became slightly alarmed at the depleted number of Nauruans. They told the locals that they’d need to get their indigenous numbers up, lest they fall into extinction. It was decided that a new holiday would be declared when the baby was born that brought them up past 1500. The Nauruans were challenged to start skronking and, if possible, stop dying.

It took thirteen years, but on October 26, 1932, Eidegenegen Eidagaruwo was born, and Angam Day was celebrated. There’s a lesson here – guns and alcohol may destroy a people, but a big ol’ sex contest helps a population thrive.

The island nation was doing well. They were mining the crap out of the phosphate and making crazy money doing it. They had plenty of locals and an annual party. Then another war had to show up and ruin everything.

The Germans showed up again, but rather than hope for a long-time-no-see hug, they just bombed the crap out of the mining operation in the center of the island. The Japanese then dropped by and took control of everything. They gathered up some of the sick and infirm, loaded them onto a boat, launched it into the water and sunk it. Then they took about 1200 locals and shipped them off to the Chuuk Islands as slave labor. Eidegenegen, the pre-teen Angam Day kid, was among those sent off to be a slave, and she died of malnutrition while she was there. Talk about taking a massive metaphorical dump on a young nation’s optimism.

By the time Nauru was liberated, about a month after the Japanese had surrendered, the population was once again whittled down. It was time to get busy humping once again. In 1949, Angam Baby #2 was born, and the Nauruans have been able to keep their numbers up ever since.

Things were good in Nauru. The UN had set them up with the Australians, New Zealanders and Brits as their trustees, and the money was once again rolling in from the mine. They had one of the highest standards of living in the world, no personal taxes, and no one trying to seize their land in the name of some foreign military. In the late 60s the nation achieved full independence. All was well. Or was it?

For starters, these people got fat. I don’t mean portly, chubby or stocky – the Nauruan people got downright zeppelinesque. Maybe it was the abundance of Australian greenbacks rolling in from the phosphate trade, maybe they just don’t exercise much under that constant equatorial heat, but 97% of men and 93% of women are obese. This is a chubby chaser’s dream vacation.

Also, there was the matter of the phosphate mines. According to the most excellent sentence in the Nauru Wikipedia article, phosphate comes from bird poop. Poop takes a while to undergo whatever magical voodoo turns it into a valuable commodity, and the locals were yanking the stuff from the ground faster than the birds could launch its source out of their collective ass. You know what they say: Build a nation on poop, eventually you’re going to run out of shovel.

Today the mining industry on the island has – and I apologize for my choice of words – turned to crap. The young nation has also made some rotten investments, which included an Australian brewery, a Portland, Oregon housing development, and Leonardo The Musical, a London production that saw almost its entire audience desert the theatre during its debut performance. Nauru is now heavily dependent on foreign aid, and from the looks of things, it’ll be that way for a while.

The locals are making the most of it. They may not have more than a Cleveland end zone section’s worth of people, but their Australian Rules Football league features seven teams, and they’ve seen a bit of success at Commonwealth and Olympic games, mostly in weightlifting. From the sounds of it, people on this island are either big into sports or else they’re just big from being big into eating.

If all this sounds like heaven to you, and if you don’t mind the fact that temperatures only vary between 72 and 95 degrees (that’s 22 and 35 Celsius), even at night, it might be a good place to visit. They have almost no tourism, so they’d probably welcome the company. The island is simply too remote to attract a lot of visitors, plus unless you’re big into looking at a decimated phosphate mine, there’s really nothing to see.

But from the sounds of it, there’s plenty to eat.

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