Talofa from Tuvalu!
This week’s postcard comes from Funafuti, the capital of the small island nation of Tuvalu. Tuvalu is a tiny nation of 9 atolls (though “Tuvalu” actually means cluster of 8 – one of the atolls was uninhabited when naming decisions were made) in the South Pacific.
It should also be included that this week is Father’s Day, so the happiest of Father’s Days to all the papas, especially mine, whom I thank for always stoking my adventurous spirit, and, at this point in my trip I’m especially thankful for it, my olive skin. Lots of love!
In 2011, it was ranked the 3rd least visited country in the world by the UN. And I can see why. Not only is it quite remote, making it hard to get to (two flights come in per week and it took us 3 days on the water from Fiji to arrive), but it’s tiny, and spread really thin (11 sq miles of land over 1/2 a million sq miles of ocean). The airstrip takes up what looks like a third of the square footage on the main Funafuti island, running down the middle, serving as a nice walking path when those two flights aren’t arriving.
A quick walk around the island by myself confirmed how few visitors they receive – you can see the reaction from people seeing me – white girls don’t just pop up often. To make me stand out more, I was walking, rather than rocking a sweet scooter. Everyone on this island rides a scooter. It’s pretty sweet. When they ride by in a group, they look like a little scooter mafia. Outside the government building looks like an adorable Hell’s Angel knock-off rally.
Tuvalu is in trouble.
Because of its size, it is expected to be the first nation lost from rising sea levels. Congress might be arguing about whether or not climate change is real, but to Tuvalu, it is not only real, but a ticking clock. It is expected that the islands will be fully lost before the end of the century, so the government is actively seeking land for purchase to move the roughly 14,000 citizens to. Meanwhile, Australian and New Zealand aide work is present. I met Sam, an Australian construction worker who has been on the island for 8 weeks. I asked him what brought him here and his response was, “we’re fixing what the Americans did in the war.” As I get deeper into the South Pacific, I will expect that to be a common theme. During the second world war, Americans dug huge trenches in the middle of the island. Due to the rising seas, these trenches are now flooding, so the interim fix is doing landfill work.
Surprisingly, the small nation has attracted two other groups of workers – fisherman and Chinese shop owners. Because Funafuti offers free anchorage in the protected lagoon, it is a prime spot for fishing “observers” to park. These huge ships look like major shipping vessels, but they park in the lagoon, and serve as a hub for smaller fishing boats to head off of the reef, and bring in their haul. 15 observers doesn’t sound like a lot, until you remember how small the island is. The second group is marked by the scattering of “Chinese shops” down two of the main roads. When chatting with Yofa at the front desk of the government-owned lodge, she pointed them out as one of the “attractions” I should see when I walk the island. Because of the aide workers and the fishing vessels, there is a small, but steady stream of people at the lodge, mainly hanging around for beer, food, and miserable WiFi. The big news at the lodge is that the government wants to privatize it, hoping to attract a buyer interested in paying more attention to it than they are. So if you’re interested in a business opportunity that will likely only be viable for a few decades – here’s your chance!
But none of that is the worry of the islanders. Most seem happy, despite the suffocating heat. The kids are running around like anywhere – playing in the sand, riding bikes, a brother picking on his sister, until she finds a stick. Sundays are spent in church, followed by a lazy afternoon laying in a hammock or near the water, finished with a nice “Sunday swim.” While some may see these big smiles as proof that happiness comes from within, I tend to agree with Caitlin Moran, who proffered a different perspective, “and you suddenly saw what that smile was, as you looked closer. It’s how a rabbit smiles in a field full of foxes.”*
*from the article, No More Journeys, published in Moranthology, which, as a side note, is a great read, you just have to remember she’s British, so some of the references may be a stretch