“In the olden days,” began Apinelu, a tone of longing in his voice, “it was never this hot. Never. Now everything has changed, not just the sea.” It was a very still 33° and my earlobes were sweating. Welcome to the small island nation of Tuvalu.
“Tomorrow I take you out to the islands, less crowded, more local,” he chuckled. We were driving around Funafuti, the densely populated capital and I’m pretty sure I was the only tourist here.
To answer your ‘where?’ question, Tuvalu is 1000km north of Fiji, an archipelago made up of six coral atolls and three islands nestled under the Equator. It used to be one half of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands before it became independent from Britain and dropped the Ellice name. These days it’s better known for being the poster child of climate change.
It’s fair to say that Tuvalu is unlike any other islands you’re likely to visit: small, isolated, beautiful, sleepy and sinking. I was here to explore the country and see what it was like on the frontline of global warming.
Arriving in Tuvalu is an experience in itself. After two and a half hours flying over the Pacific the wheels are down but there ain’t no land. Out of nowhere appears a thin airstrip – lagoon on one side, sea on the other – and the passengers let out a collective breath. It seems all of Funafuti is here to welcome us: kids waving, locals on motorbikes, and officialdom waiting in front of the world’s smallest airport building of Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Baggage Claim all rolled into one.
The exit door leads to a slower pace of life. Even the wind seems laid back here, as heavily-burdened motorbikes putt along at 20kph, hammocks in pandanas trees get a solid work-out, and schoolchildren kick rocks along the road. Apilenu had to laugh, “No need to rush, eh,” his arm resting out the window as we meander up the main island, Fongafale. Tuvalu isn’t really set up for tourism but there is one must-see: the Funafuti Marine Conservation Area. Unfortunately Apilenu had injured himself so it was up to his neighbour, Villi, and my new friend Kato from Tuvalu Overview (a climate change NGO) to take me into the lagoon.
Tuvalu is unlike any other islands you’re likely to visit: small, isolated, beautiful, sleepy and sinking.
“See that island over there,” yelled Villi over the outboard motor, “that is where our families go for picnics.” It was seriously, ridiculously beautiful. The whole lagoon was. Motu after motu (island) of swaying palms on white sand beaches, stark against the puffy white clouds and azure sky. “But this one we’re coming up to, not so good…”. Tepukasa Vilivili was nothing more than sand on coral after its vegetation had been washed away over the last 20 years. It was a sobering reminder of the challenges facing Tuvalu: rising sea levels, coastal erosion, king tides, increasing tropical cyclones and drought.
We boated on to Funafala, an islet inhabited by 5 families and a church. Kato knew some of the locals from his work planting mangroves there to stop the erosion. Greetings were exchanged but no one got off their sleeping mats – it was too damn hot.
On we went and eventually Villi dropped me back at the main beach just in time for a sundowner at Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, the only one in town. The hotel has a pleasant outlook to the horizon that is only broken by foreign fishing vessels. Commercial fishing rights are one of Tuvalu’s main revenue sources; the other being the “.tv” internet domain name which the Government sub-licences for millions.
By the next day I‘d learnt my lesson and started exploring before the harsh sun hit. “Hi palangi!” the kids yelled out; the adults were more circumspect and simply noded and raised their eyebrows in a cool Pacifika way. I knew I was taking a chance walking around when thunderstorms were predicted and soon enough the weather turned. The rain was intense.
“Hey you, come here.” A man was hurriedly waving me towards his house, cigarette in hand. “That’s better,” Suauili said, with a big beaming smile. “We need this rain eh, but it won’t last.” It didn’t. “You know in Kiribati they have water from under the ground, but not here. Too salty now.” He lit another cigarette as his nephew played with my camera. We chatted about New Zealand. “You know the ‘borrow pits’?” he asked, referring to the huge ground holes that had been left when construction materials had been taken, and which had subsequently turned into cesspits of garbage. “New Zealand filled those in. Didn’t have to but they did. And they filled over the dump too. You have a good Government.”
The rain cleared and it was time to head back. As the sun lazily went down, my ears pricked up. Singing! Not just any singing but Tuvaluan hymms, men and women alternating with highs and lows, harmonies escaping through the open slat windows of the nearby church. The men were sitting crosslegged dressed in their Sunday best, while the women fanned themselves and tried vainly to keep the children still.
Greetings were exchanged but no one got off their sleeping mats – it was too damn hot.
Religion plays an important role in Tuvaluan life with 98% of the population being Protestant. Many have faith that God will never let their islands disappear. It says something for their positive nature that despite being able to run off the names of cyclones like old friends – Bebe, Ula, Pam, Winston– they are absolutely committed to staying in Tuvalu and no one wants to leave.
When it came to me leaving though, I didn’t have to go far. My lodge was next to the maneapa (meeting house) that was next to the terminal. But before the plane landed the fire truck sounded its siren, a signal for everyone to clear the runway. Yes, when not in use by the two flights a week the runway becomes a racing strip, volleyball court and dog park plus a road cuts through the middle of it. A cursory security glance in my luggage, a check of my name off a list and I’m allowed to return to the lodge. “Wouldn’t happen at Heathrow," observed a fellow passenger. But neither would the customs officer handing me back my passport with, “Oh, you sunburnt!”
Despite my peeling forehead, Tuvalu really was a surprising pleasure. If you’re after the cocktails of Denarau or Gallic treats of Noumea then Tuvalu isn’t for you. There are no credit card facilities, no resorts, no duty free stores and no all-inclusive excursions. What you do is up to you and who you make contact with.
As Apinelu would say, this is what the Pacific used to be like, “in the olden days.”