In 2007, I was working for the Australian Government. In May I got sent to Nauru to carry papers and fill a chair at an important meeting.
Nauru is located 44 kilometres north of the equator, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest country is Kiribati, which most people have never heard of either. Both are part of Micronesia, along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau. Unlike most other parts of the region, Nauru gets regular flights. Note I say regular, not frequent. The national airline has one plane, and it lands once a week, god willing. Nauru is isolated.
It’s also the smallest country in the world. At 5km long by 4km wide, and 10,000 people, it holds the title by land area and population. Sure, there are principalities and quasi-states that lay claim, but this is a proper country. A republic. Nauru has UN membership, a House of Parliament, its own constitution and a vote in the international whaling commission. One side effect of this is that it harvests foreign aid at a per capita rate higher than any other country in the world. Japan is especially generous.
Australia, due to a policy of welcoming asylum seekers somewhat less than warmly, was also a major donor. Nauru stored unwanted people outside Australia’s migration zone, and Australia provided vast swathes of development aid. The meeting I attended was related to the aid. A memorandum of understanding needed to be signed. Lots of work went in before the meeting, so that there was not too much disagreement at the event. However, this meeting was not the actual point at which the memorandum would be signed. That would come later in the year, when the Minister would fly in on his private jet.
So the meeting was to agree but not to finalise. Or perhaps to finalise but not agree. Either way, I was very pleased to be in possession of an Official Passport and a business class plane ticket. My responsibilities were befitting of a junior officer – keep my mouth shut and look grave. Due to flight schedules, we would be on-island for a week, so a full scope of activities was arranged.
Upon landing, the plane taxied across the country’s only road to reach the arrivals building. The hot air rushes at you as you exit the air-conditioning at the top of the airplane steps. I enjoyed the relaxed manner in which immigration and customs formalities were applied. I was met by the staff of the diplomatic post there, and sent off to the best hotel in the country. The Menen Hotel.
My room had cable TV, an air conditioner, bar fridge, hot water in the bathroom, plus tea and coffee making facilities. While there was no controller for the air-conditioner and it was set to Freeze, this suited me fine. The cable TV wouldn’t turn on either. I stood on the balcony and took in the Pacific Ocean. It really was pacific. There was barely a ripple. I was careful not to lean on the balcony rail, because I had been warned that someone had recently fallen to their death in doing so. I had a great view all the way to the blue smudge of the horizon. Seabirds wheeled above and clouds scudded by. I kept my gaze high, because nearer to shore, i also had a view of the hotel’s sewerage outflow.
The hotel was fine. Great, in fact. Each morning I would meet the representatives of other Australian Government Departments over breakfast in the hotel’s dining room, and set off to various events with a good night’s rest and a fantastic breakfast behind me. I met the President, the Finance Minster, and the Speaker of the House. I visited the hospital, the school and the finance department. All Australian-funded, and all ticking over beautifully. The week was passing smoothly.
Then, on the fourth morning, I had a story to tell at breakfast. I’d had a visitor in the night. Uninvited.
I’d awoken, sure I’d felt something. What was that? Then I felt it again – the sheet was moving against my leg. I sat up. In the dark, there was a suggestion of a black shape on the bed, snuggling against my knee. I scrambled for the light-switch. The room was illuminated, and I saw nothing. I was still for a moment to let my heart rate subside. I lay down, turned off the light and began a campaign to convince myself that my mind was playing tricks on me.
What had I seen? I wasn’t sure. What had I felt? It was hard to remember. What was it? Probably nothing.
I was just starting to believe my own propaganda, when I heard the patter of tiny feet charging across the tiled floor. I knew where the light-switch was this time, and got a crystal clear view of a large Pacific rat, headed toward the bar-fridge.
I bounded out of bed, and the rat turned to look at me. What was he doing in my room? My greatest fear was that he wanted to crawl on me. I immediately put on some shoes. Then, because I felt silly wearing only underpants and black leather shoes, I put on some shorts. I was equipped to expel the rat.
I stamped my feet and charged the bar fridge behind which he was hiding. He ran under the cupboard. I poked under the cupboard with a book. He ran under the bed. I moved the bed out from the wall and he ran behind the curtain. I contemplated the curtain, with a vision of the rat somehow climbing up it and dropping on to me. I nervously shook the curtain and he scuttled back under the bar fridge. Hmmm.
I called a timeout and reset my strategy. I propped open the door to the room and set up my suitcase as a blocker, to shepherd the rat out into the communal passageway. Then I charged the bar fridge again. The rat was smart. He went around the blocker, through my legs, and back under the cupboard. Repeat steps 1-5. Same result. Repeat again. Swear a bit. Repeat again. Repeat again.
Eventually, my superior brain won out, as my rat corralling skills improved faster than the rat’s person-dodging skills. He disappeared out the front door, and into the night. I lay back down in the bed charged with adrenaline. I had just lost an hour of my night’s sleep to aerobic activity, and i tried to doze off, to be fresh for the next day’s activities. But something niggled for my attention. How had the rat got in? certainly not via the front door. I wondered what he was doing now. This wasn’t over.
At breakfast, my Australian Government colleagues laughed uproariously. They christened the rat Toby, and claimed that he was lonely. They chastised me for kicking him out into the night.
The next day, I attended the meeting for which the trip was intended. The meeting was held in Parliament house and everyone who was anyone was in attendance. The formal introductions and diplomatic set-pieces were just about to finish when the electricity stopped. The lights failed and the air-conditioning ground to a halt. The Nauruan Ministers looked set to keep going, but the head of the Australian delegation made a joke about them bargaining for more funds for the power plant. The Finance Minister looked embarrassed, ‘This actually hasn’t happened in months,’ he told us. We continued.
By the end of the meeting, much had been discussed, and there was general agreement that the meeting had been productive. Funds had been agreed for health, policing, governance reform, and telecommunications. However, the lack of electricity had stopped the flow of water, so the toilets wouldn’t flush, and they started to smell.
The next night, I made sure none of the bedclothes were touching the ground, providing no route to the bed. I was undisturbed. Suspiciously so. They next morning, as I was getting out of the shower, I had a premonition, and as I made my way out the bathroom door, Toby scampered from the shadows and passed centimetres from my feet. I was angry. I dressed and repeated the charade from two nights previously. This time, with practice, I was much quicker at evacuating him from the premises. I slammed the door and hoped that one of the local feral dogs would cross paths with him.
The final day was spent working at the Finance Department. I chatted with the people putting together the Budget, and then went back to the Menen Hotel, to get changed before the final dinner.
We were being hosted by the President, in the Members bar at Parliament House. Dress code was Island Formal. The head of protocol at the Australian post (i.e., the only employee) informed us that this meant Hawaiian shirts.
I did a thorough search of the room to confirm that Toby wasn’t there. There was no evidence of him. I collected some clothes that approximated Island Formal and jumped in the shower. Toby was biding his time. He would attack when I was at my most vulnerable. I got out, naked, dripping wet and reached for my towel.
And there he was. Gripping onto the end of the towel that had been touching the floor, he swung through the air toward me as I made to dry myself. I dropped the towel like it was hot, jumped over it, and rushed out of the bathroom, into the room. I stood, dripping and furious, and looked at the towel. He was hiding in there. He couldn’t see me, so he assumed I couldn’t see him. But my biped brain knew better. This is it Toby. I needed to get rid of him for good. There was one obvious receptacle. I gathered up the corners of the towel, flicked up the lid of the toilet, and dumped the whole bundle in there. I flushed and flushed and flushed. I knew I couldn’t flush a whole towel down there, but hoped to at least drown him. After a while, my anger at the rat began to abate and I felt bad for what I’d done. Still, there was no going back on it now.
I went out to dinner and spent the evening eating rice and trifle from the buffet. There was an empty seat at the President’s table, so I took it, and cracked a can of VB with him. I asked him to teach me a few words in Nauruan, and he told me I could never learn it. He proceeded to teach me two distinct words. To my ear they both sounded like ‘torr’. He explained that one meant ‘maybe’, while the other meant ‘penis’. We laughed. At the end of the night, most of the Australians had gone home, and The Minister for Education, the Speaker of the House and a few others stood around, steadily eroding the nation’s supply of XXXX. They were very friendly people.
I went back to my room at the Menen, where I could hear noises coming from the toilet. They build pacific rats tough, so I put a heavy bag on the toilet lid. The next morning we were to fly out. I slept very peacefully, and the next morning I used the facilities in the hotel lobby. My final concern was for the maid. I didn’t want her to have to face an angry rat with no warning. Neither did I want to face him though. I settled on a sign, reading ‘There’s a RAT in here!’ which I placed on the toilet lid. I hoped it was enough.
I was driven to the airport and boarded my plane. Farewell Nauru, Farewell Menen, Farewell Toby.