That Sinking Feeling

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Oceania » Tuvalu » Funafuti
February 4th 2010
Published: December 19th 2010
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Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country in the world. It is visited by less than 100 tourists yearly and has recently made headlines, as it believes it will be the first victim of global warming. Beyond all this is a beautiful nation with friendly locals and relaxed attitude. Tuvalu has one international airport, on the main island of Funafuti. The airport code is FUN and this country is fun.

You don’t end up in Tuvalu by accident. Air Pacific flies in twice a week with a 44-seater airplane. The runway is the centre of the Funafuti atoll and you have a crowd of onlookers waving and clapping as you exit the airplane and go through customs.

Three people on the plane with me, who were also staying at the hotel were

.Pete, an English guy living on the Gold Coast. He is a solar engineer who was building generators for outer islands. He had been previously to Tuvalu.

. William, an American who lived in Mallorca. He was retired and had travelled to most of the world. A self-made multi millionaire – he had also written a New York Times bestseller.

. Inese, a Latvian lady who was travelling throughout the Pacific with William.

Most of the people on the island have scooters and you can pick one up for $10 per day. Pete took me up one side of the island on the back of the scooter and gave me a bit of info onto the island. There were makeshift houses, chickens & dogs roamed the streets, and the amount of litter was overwhelming for such a small island. There were pigs in cages – they are not there to be eaten, rather as a sign on manhood. After Pete dropped me back at the hotel I went to the bar in and bought a beer.

VB is the beer of choice in Tuvalu, and they tend to enjoy their alcohol. At the bar, I met a man named Eddy. He tells us he will probably be the Prime Minister of Tuvalu one-day soon. Formally from Kiribati, he was a seafarer and has travelled throughout the world. A very interesting man indeed. He now trains the young men, most of which go to help on German ships. These men send back ninety percent of their income to Tuvalu and his accounts for $4Million of revenue for the country. He invited me to the Seaman’s Centre – a boys club Eddy had built where they drank VB and played pool. People come and go through there. After this Eddy took me up to other side of the island on his bike and we had a drink at the bar at the end. Eddy seemed to know everyone on the island. We went back to the hotel where I had a look at the sunsetting. Pete organised dinner with himself, Inese, William and I at 7.00pm. Before I got ready, I saw some of the local boy’s jetty jumping just outside my hotel so I went and joined in jumping into the lagoon.

Choices for meals in Tuvalu are limited. We went to the Hala Vai Seafood Restaurant – which was a Chinese restaurant. This was the nicest meal I had on this island and was reasonably priced. At dinner William ordered a whole lobster.

The next day, William, Inese and I all hired motorbikes and it took a little while to get used to riding. We planned a day where we rode up and down the island. We briefly stopped at the Philatelic Bureau. Tuvalu stamps are amongst the rarest in the world and create quite a bit revenue for the country. The girls who work at the bureau were nice and gave us some stamps for our collection.

We continued riding the bike and stopped at one end for photographs of the dump and shipwreck. We needed to stop for fuel at the fuel station, which is nothing like anything I had ever seen before. It is poured from a jerry can into the bike.

We were in search of something called David Hole. Charles Darwin had a theory about how coral atolls were formed – he theorised that they came from the rim of a sunken volcano. To test of this hypothesis he drilled a hole down far enough and if there were volcanic soil that far down it would prove this theory. He chose Funafuti to do this – and this drillhole is hidden behind bushes and a majority of the locals have no idea where it is or what it is.

We eventually went back up to the Sunset Bar to walk to the edge of the island. Again, we got some nice shorts of where the Pacific Ocean meets the lagoon. We had another drink and then Inese crashed her bike. She needed to go to hospital so I went back to the hotel to let William know. After showering I went out to the runway to find hundreds of people playing soccer and volleyball before dark.

After dinner, at the Filomena Lodge, I was told by some of the locals that there was a nightclub in operation on Friday nights. Its interesting that a place as small as Funafuti has a nightclub – but the place, called Lucky Set, was loud – they even had a $3 cover charge. It was very quiet when I was there so I went back to the hotel and had a few drinks with a guy named Colin, who was in Tuvalu working for an Asian Bank. He was pissing everyone off from the staff, to Pete but I had a few drinks with him. He was just not a nice person and one of the staff who I still keep in contact with always hates when he stays there. I went back to the Lucky Strike – and it was now packed. They played a variety of songs, from western songs, to local songs and I ended up meeting some people there. The club closed at 2am. We went out in search of something to do, and ended up seeing some kids getting arrested. I’m sure that it doesn’t happen often – the country prison has a grand population of five people.

There were a couple of guys who work for the council who I spoke to and then I was making my way back when it started to rain. I stopped at a 24-hour convenience store – yes, they do have one! I asked the cops to take me home but they wouldn’t so was invited to come and have a few drinks with Sao – who works for the tourism department. We had an interesting chat about what his plans are for the country and introduced me to his friends. We then went driving in the back of his ute and it was raining so hard by this stage that they took me back to hotel. It was after 5AM!

I had about two hours of sleep before getting up for breakfast. It must have been a big night had by all as even the Deputy Prime Minister came into the hotel looking for alcohol, stumbling and in a drunken state. I had to return the motorbike so I did so and then Inese, William and I waited for Eddy to take us out to the Funafuti Conservation Area.

An atoll is the outer part of a volcanic rim, and years of water erosion form many islands and islets in a circle surrounding a lagoon. Fongafele is where everything happens on Funafuti atoll, but there are other islets. Eddy took us on the 12km journey to the other side of the lagoon to a little island, Tepuka. It’s the kind of island that gives meaning to the saying, trapped on a desert island. An Italian Count offered an outrageous sum of money to buy this islet but was turned down. We landed on the island and Inese and I went snorkelling and saw some awesome coral and fish. The water is crystal clear and a great unknown in the world of diving. We went back and had some food and beer and then we circled the islet. It is completely coral and not nice on the feet but the entire island is just a completely untouched part of paradise. Any guidebook you read on Tuvalu lists the conservation area as a must do, and it is quite expensive by all accounts but when you consider this money goes back into the area and the kind of day you get, it is well worth putting your hand in your pocket. The journey back can get quite rough depending on the current of the water.

Tuvalu literally means cluster of eight (although altogether there are nine islands and atolls, only eight are inhabited). There were a lot of people on this island from the outer islands for the National Soccer Championships. I went to watch some of the game. The stadium is impressive, by Tuvalu standards, but needs maintenance. The ground had been rained on so large patches of mud were affecting the movement of the ball.

Inese had to go back to the hospital to get re-bandaged. I went with her to see what it was like. There was only one nurse on duty but the hotel seemed to be pretty efficient. A few people were in the waiting room but by all means it didn’t seem like it would be a busy place most of the time. Of course, sometimes people aren’t lucky enough and when they die they are buried. Tuvalu doesn’t have cemeteries as such, rather the build aboveground graves in their front yard to honour the dead. The higher profile people have fairy lights on their graves to stand out.

We walked back to the hotel where we were asked by people to come in and have a drink, but we had a big and retired to the hotel for dinner and bed. The next morning we went to church. Tuvalu is a very religious nation, and has so many churches on the island. Inese and I went to one of the big ones for mass. I am generally not a church person but wanted to see what it is was like her, as it is a big part of life for the people here. Mass was said in Tuvaluan, bread was not the wafer kind in Australia, rather real white bread and you don’t get red wine, rather red cordial in shot glasses. Everyone gets dressed up, and streets get blocked off. Most of the country shuts down on Sunday as a day of worship.

I met a nice guy named Bastille who picked me up on his bike. His English wasn’t so good, but we drove for at least an hour while I got to take some awesome video on the back of his bike. Afterwards I had a great chat with William over lunch about his thoughts on the world. He is a very interesting man, highly successful and educated. He has a great way of telling stories and getting his point across and is the kind of person I could listen to for hours on end.

Tuvalu has a remarkably good Internet connection – so I found an Internet cafe where I sent a few e-mails. The one on the main road was closed and the kids outside were talking to me, all with varying degrees of English. They were mostly confused as to why a white person was in the country I think.

I was introduced the next day to the manager of the Vaiaku Lagi. She was preparing for a full house on the next plane with reporters from CNN and BBC all here for the king tides which would be at the peak the next week. She used to play competitive netball and lived in Brisbane. She said next time you go to Tuvalu, let her know you are there so she can introduce you to her sons and they can take you to their youth groups.

There was torrential rain on the last day and the water was getting close to the hotel room; as the highest part of the island is only 4 meters above sea level it is easy to see why people are worried the islands will disappear in the next century. There really is not much room to move when the waters begin to rise like they did this day.

For the last night the people of the hotel did some traditional island dancing for us – it is not usual they have three tourists on the island at the same time. One of the guys then took me for a ride for my final night to say goodbye. It amazing how many people are just happy to put you on the back of their motorbike and take you for a ride.

Some people have said this is the most boring country on earth, but my time there has made me very passionate about this country. People are relaxed and welcoming. As I was leaving Ioka from the hotel, Eddy and Bastille all came to give me gifts and say goodbye at the airport. The island is beautiful, albeit plagued by litter. You don’t get her by accident and I had planned this trip for a long time. I have the fondest memories of this place and met some of the nicest and most interesting people I have ever met abroad. If you want to get away, and I mean away from everything – give Tuvalu a go.


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