Timeless Tuvalu – yes, there’s little time left
Day 3,396 since October 10th 2013: 201 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
There’s something about Tuvalu
The official tourism site for Tuvalu promotes this slogan: “Timeless Tuvalu”. I know what they mean. But it could definitely also mean that Tuvalu has run out of time
The previous entry: The 1st entry of 2023: Welcome to Tuvalu
Hey there! Tuvalu is listed as one of the least visited countries in the world. But, so are many of the small island nations I have taken you too in the Pacific. Of the very few palangi’s (foreigners) that make it to Tuvalu, nearly none make it off the main island. The main island is an atoll called Funafuti and the largest island within the atoll is called Fongafale. I doubt that most visitors even know that. I recently went to the three northernmost islands and you can only imagine how few palangi’s make it out there. They are not connected by flight, they do not receive cell phone coverage, and on average they are inhabited by about 500 beating hearts each. I can speak passionately about Tuvalu, the kindness and the gentleness of the people, the uniqueness of the social bonds, the high engagement in social activities, and much more. Albeit, recently I have also been questioning if we can defend the existence of such a tiny country with such a tiny population which is so incredibly isolated far into a vast ocean? It would have made sense long ago when Tuvaluans could live off the land, fish in the sea, harvest coconuts, drink rain water, indulge in family, and participate in traditional and social life. It is now 2023 and people want smartphones, internet, Netflix, washing machines, t-shirts, toothbrushes, hair gel, modern housing, regular flights, ferries connecting the islands, modern medicine, educated professionals, cars, motorbikes, paved roads, soft drinks, glasses, etc. And it ALL NEEDS TO BE IMPORTED! I struggle to find fresh fish cooked with coconut milk. It’s easier to find a bacon and egg sandwich or chow mein. Nearly everything Tuvalu needs is imported over great distances with ships and airplanes to accommodate 11,000 beating hearts on a few rocks in the ocean. Can we accommodate that as a responsible species and guardians of this planet? Harsh? Yes! But you will enjoy this entry.
You never know what the flight brings in. This is Danas from the previous entry. In the photo at 175 countries. Now at 177. Well done!
I see a lot of comments on the Saga’s social media which relates to sea level rise and Tuvalu sinking. It is also a prevalent topic on the internet in general. It is not untrue but it appears to me that people’s interest in “Tuvalu is sinking” is overshadowing much more pressing issues. The sea level likely wont swallow Tuvalu until after about 80 years. That means that anyone who will be reading this is likely dead by old age long before. A far greater problem for Tuvalu is that the country does not produce enough money to carry a modern lifestyle. Someone else has got to pay a part of the bill. That simply isn’t sustainable. Tuvalu’s primary income is derived from selling licenses for industrial fishing, remittances from Tuvaluan seafarers, and royalties for permitting usage of their internet domain (.tv). That internet domain was just a struck of luck for Tuvalu. They were handed out across the world back when the internet was new. Denmark got .dk hence it’s www.onceuponasaga.dk. Streaming services are crazy about .tv and pay millions in royalties to use it. Tuvalu has an income of many millions but not enough to run the country and is the recipient of substantial foreign aid. Beyond the finances there’s something else. You would have to see it too believe it but Tuvaluans prefer motorbikes over bicycles and some will not even walk a 5-minute distance. As across the entire Pacific Ocean (and much of the world) obesity has become a problem and what can positively be said about motorbikes in Tuvalu? They are noisy, they pollute, spare parts are expensive, they offer no exercise, they are costly, and they are heavy in weight, which plays into import costs. Every island in Tuvalu is small and flat. Bicycles are quiet, they do not pollute, they offer exercise, they come at low cost, they are easy to repair, they are lightweight - and as such more cost efficient to import. Yet – only children ride bicycles and once you reach age you get on a motorbike…or even worse: into a car! It is really hard to defend having a car for private use in Tuvalu. Some vehicles are however arguably required for an efficient society. Around 20-years ago Tuvaluans did ride bicycles but things have changed. Progress? Captain Tom “Stinger” Jordan from Top Gun delivered this wonderful line to “Maverick” back in the 1986 classic: “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”.
There was no lack of food :)
Let’s move on to the wedding I was invited to join. I believe that’s where I left you in the previous entry. Tuvalu Red Cross has been quite central to my visit in Tuvalu, giving me a warm welcome and supporting in various ways. I was invited by the groom’s mother, Mrs Sunema Maheu, who’s also with the Red Cross. She invited everyone. Weddings in Tuvalu, are as everything else, highly social events and I got the sense that anyone was welcome to join. I guess they never know if they are catering for 100 or 500 people. Food really didn’t seem to be the problem though! I cannot remember ever seeing that much food in one place! That was the most lavish buffet I have come across. I was sort of being guided by Mr. Kilima Kilima from the Red Cross. We first went through the buffet and then sat down on the floor near the corner of the large community hall. The color green appeared to be a theme but Mr. Kilimi said that it had no symbolic meaning. Someone else said that green was the color of “new life”. Across much of Africa I got used to crouching down and holding that position with my feet flat on the ground. In Tuvalu they sit on a mat and fold their legs. It quickly became uncomfortable for me and I had to change my position again and again. Mr. Kilima just smiled and rested in a lifetime of experience. There were almost constantly someone dancing for the bride and groom at our end of the community hall. The newly wed Mr. lelemia Maheu and Mrs Olepa Taleke sat opposite us, centered in the grand hall. Sometimes just a handful would be dancing for them and sometimes about 20 or even more. To show appreciation various people central to the wedding would walk up to the dancers and spray perfume on them. There was lots of happiness, love, and laughter. You could also pick out stereotypical characters as the funny uncle, the shy boy, the frowning grandmother, the proud dancer, the shy dancer etc. Nice to see the humanity in people. At one point I asked Mr. Kilima if he knew everyone at the wedding. He looked around and answered: “pretty much”. I then asked how many might be family? He smiled and said: “almost everyone”. There were hundreds of people there.
Dancing was almost constant. It was lovely.
Another little story I want to include before we move on to the adventures of the outer islands is Tuvalu prison. I don’t know why but I was a little surprised when I heard that they had one. I asked Mrs Penieli who owns Filamona Hotel how many might be imprisoned? She quickly answered: “three”. She also knew who they were and why they were there. All sentenced for murder and all given lifetime. Different stories though. The prison is just across the runway and behind two derelict firetrucks. A man was seated on a plastic chair just within the gate which was wide open. I said hello and asked him if he was a guard? Earlier in the day I had seen him walk out to the runway, pick a grass straw, and slowly walk back again. He introduced himself as an inmate. Sure, why not? Why wouldn’t Tuvalu’s prison be as laid back as everything else. Paato was his name. He was born in 1967 and has now served 12 years of a life sentence. We shook hands. Paato said the food was okay, the bed was okay, conditions were good, and that he was hoping to get his sentence reduced. According to Paato he got into a fight when he was 44 (my age) and the other man died. Involuntary manslaughter. Where else in the world do you walk up to an open gate at a prison and shake hands with an inmate convicted for murder? Oh well – where is he supposed to go? The 3 inmates are apparently frequently used to cut grass, clean up, and other forms of maintenance across the capital.
You can spot Paato in blue in the bottom right.12 years already...
As far as I’m concerned the cheapest place to be in Tuvalu is onboard a government ferry. My five nights onboard the good ferry Nivaga III ran me AUD 40 (USD 28) and I paid an additional AUD 15 (USD 10.50) for having meals included. Good meals too! Mostly rice and some meat. Consider that! 17 proper meals for USD 10.50!? The price is of course heavily subsidized by government. It is a good deal. And the round trip came with the unique experience of seeing the Tuvalu which few other visitors do. My USD 28 fare was for sleeping on deck and not in a cabin. That was fine with me. A much more local experience and a pleasant temperature. Most of the passengers rolled out thin mats and sat/slept/ate on those. I had my trusty hammock made out of the same fabric as they use for parachutes. It’s been with me since I left home. It was by no means comfortable but it worked. It also kept me off the deck which was infested with all sorts of creepy crawlies. Nivaga III was built in Japan 6-7 years ago. Japanese ships are well known for quality. The poor thing however looked much older already. The crew was nice and I shared the deck with about 20 other passengers. The order of the islands was changed as we were carrying a coffin with a deceased for a funeral on Nanumea. As such we headed the 460km (286mi) to the tiny atoll of Nanumea first.
Onboard the good ferry Nivaga III.
Nanumea seemed quite nice in its isolation. I imagine that there really isn’t much to do after a while and that everybody absolutely knows everybody. As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a small village of 1,200 beating hearts. Nanumea might have around 500 and they can’t just pop over to the neighboring village or to the city…because they are isolated faaaaaar into the pacific and surrounded by water. I was advised that the funeral would go on to around 3pm and that it was better to show respect by staying away. As such I opted to follow the coast to the far end of the atoll. I was quickly out of the urban area and it was hot. I’d seen a pretty impressive church in the urban area and once out in nature I came across a solar panel station, a grave yard, pigs within an enclosure and not much else.
While I was minding my own business making my way forward I heard a man shout: “come and have some cold water!” I looked inland and saw a man standing by a house. He introduced himself as William and his son Taleka poured some water into my Salomon softflask. A filter is attached to the lid and as such I feel safe drinking water from here and there. I also shook hands with his wife and after some small talk I was off again. But I was now being tailed by Taleka on his bicycle. We made some small talk as I continued towards the end of the island and he was a sweet little boy. I guess I provided the entertainment for the day.
Taleka - my tail :)
When the sand got deeper, I lost my tail and was on my own again. I reached the end of the island and turned up the other side and made my way up the other coast. Tuvalu certainly has beauty!! It was hot and humid. Truly hot and humid. At one point Taleka popped out of the forest to see how I was doing…or what I was doing. But I was soon on my own again. I knew that there was an old American WWII airstrip somewhere further up the island. And after a lot of walking, I found it. It was a huge opening within the palm tree forest. Some butterflies were floating about and a small frightened piglet dashed into the forest. Seven heavy machines stood across the airstrip from where I was. They were renovating it!? But why? There are only 500 people on the island and most would not be able to afford a flight. I would later learn that the airstrips renovation, an airplane, and plans to expand Tuvalu’s air transportation as a part the infrastructure strategy has been funded. More money being pumped into Tuvalu. There’s no limit to it. Onboard the ferry I met a delegation being led by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It was a very interesting assembly of people. A Japanese shipyard owner, a Japanese ship designer, a shipbroker, maritime experts…they are giving Tuvalu a new specially designed ferry which will cost around USD 35-40 million. Luis was also onboard. He is a Colombian architect living in Malaga (Spain). Luis is in Tuvalu working with Tuvalu Climate Change Department. Luis represents an organization (DT Global) which is interested in supporting the government in building hundreds of climate resilient houses in Tuvalu. There is so much investment in Tuvalu and many failed projects in its wake.
The WWII airstrip under renovation. Nanumea, Tuvalu.
On my way back to town I made a stop at Williams house to say hi again (and ask for more water). It was also looking like there would be some heavy rainfall. I made it into shelter before it started pouring down. William wasn’t there but I spoke with his father who asked where I was from? “Denmark” I said and the man lighted up! “I once found a message in a bottle from a Danish seafarer he said”. The man then picked up a small notebook and went through the pages until he found a name and address of a man from Svendborg, Denmark. Svendborg is where the Danish Seafarers Academy is (and where my mother until recently lived). The bottle had been thrown into the Indian Ocean and had made its way to the shores of Nanumea. How about that! Unfortunately, he no longer had the letter or did not know where it was. It had stopped raining so I thanked him for the water and was once again on my way. I made my way back to the church and found that I had walked 12km (7.5mi). There was nobody inside the church. There were some arrows under the church tower pointing to the stairs which led upwards. It looked inviting. The church was by the way beautiful. The tower was quite the climb. Luis (the Columbian) was traveling with Mr. Lomi, an architect from Tuvalu. The only Tuvaluan architect according to himself. He is a slender man with a checky look in his eye. A few years back Mr. Lomi got caught in his open fishing boat while trawling. He couldn’t start the engine again and ended up drifting at sea for 59 DAYS!!! He drifted all the way from Tuvalu to Solomon Islands!!! Mr. Lomi got so desperate for water that he tried drinking from the ocean in moderation which led to a partial stroke and half his body being temporary paralyzed. Mr. Lomi was rescued and helped back to Tuvalu where he made some local press but that was it. What a story!! Anyway, Mr. Lomi told me that the old church tower (damaged by the harsh climate and time) was taller than the new one and that light from its top could be seen from Nanumaga - some 70km (43mi) away. The new tower was also tall and it provided a great view of the town area in both directions.
View of Nanumea from the church tower.
Back on the ground I had a look around. A community hall, some small basic shops, the telecommunication office, a Red Cross depot, some building materials…a nice small and very quiet town. Clean. Then a woman said: “Hey – are you Thor?” She was with the Tuvaluan Red Cross and wanted to know if I had been received by a man at the wharf when I arrived? I hadn’t. Oh well. She was joining the ferry: “see you later”. I stood around for a while at the wharf looking at the small flatbottomed tender being offloaded and then loaded again. Once it returned to Nivaga III I was onboard and that concludes my visit to Nanumea.
Still offloading our flatbottomed aluminum tender.
We left for Nanumaga during the night. The lights were never turned off in my area. It was as bright as day under the florescent light. Breakfast at 07:00am and soon after I joined a tender to the shores of Nanumaga (pronounced Nanumanga). This one was much smaller than Nanumea and was a reef island. An opening had been carved into the reef and that was our landing point. Shoes and socks off and across the reef I went. Outer island number two. The urban infrastructure was much the same but smaller. No impressive church though. I walked straight across the island as if I had been there before. There was a rather impressive forest which offered some welcome shade.
It wasn’t long before I made it across the small island and onto the beach. The beauty was once again undeniable. I turned right and followed the coast. It took me 90 minutes to make it all the way around. 8km (5mi). The majority was sand beach but a fairly long stretch was made up of rocks. It was surprisingly clean.
After I had made it around the island I walked inland again. I felt dehydrated and was looking for water. There are water tanks at every building for the rainwater collection. I found one and opened the tap, filled my softflask, and I was good to go. I was looking for the island laguna. I walked through the forest and eventually found it. It is a saltwater laguna.
At that point I was hoping to buy a coconut somewhere. I went back to the urban settlement and asked around. I was told that I would have to ask a family. I asked at a few houses but nobody was helpful. I abandoned that idea and went looking for the island telecom office which was a small shack with a friendly guy inside. AUS 5 (USD 3.5) for 1gb of government island wifi. The friendly man wrote down my login and password on a piece of paper. It worked surprisingly well and I quickly managed to download the most recent news podcasts and send a greeting to ultra-wifey. Then I felt like I was done with Nanumaga and ready to return to the ferry. The water had now come up and it was once again off with my shoes and socks. Everyone else was either barefooted or in beach slippers. I really liked Nanumaga. Very clean and a nice atmosphere. Sadly, I had very little interaction with people there.
The ocean coming up over the reef while the crew is still unloading the tender.
The good ferry Nivaga III was getting filthier by the hour. The toilets, the showers, the floors…there was sadly a lot of disrespect from enough people to make it noticeable. Also, quite a few people chose to toss their waste overboard into the pristine ocean. I stood next to a seafarer and asked him where he was from? He was from Nanumaga, the very island we were at. I then pointed out two large soft drink bottles which had just been tossed into the ocean by someone. The seafarer shrugged and said that he had seen plastic in the rivers of Europe too.
The last tender arrived with the last passengers and the last cargo. Nivaga III operated with two flatbottomed tenders. One aluminum and one wood. Whenever the wooden one was in sight, I could always see someone shoveling water out of it. Once it was back onboard, I could see how banged up the bottom and sides were from banging against the reef. Island life.
The flatbottomed wooden tender.
The public toilets were now a disgrace! There were two on my deck. The one on the port side was in an unbelievable state?! The sink had almost been torn off, the toilet cover was torn off and on one side of the toilet and the seat was on the other side. Two used diapers had been rolled up and one was shoved in between some water pipes and the wall while another was between the damaged sink and the wall. Toilet paper and filth was washing about in a pool on the floor. What the heck was going on? It somehow continued to get worse over the following days. I think I’ve written about maintenance many years ago. It seems to me that some cultures put effort into maintenance and some do not. I remember sailing with two separate container ships within the North Atlantic Sea. One was ten years old but looked like it was thirty. The other was thirty years old but looked like it was ten. The difference in care and attitude is always visible.
My goodness - in just three days?!
Niutao!! Even smaller yet. The smallest of the three. I looked upon her from Nivaga III and asked Mr.. Lomi what this island might be known for? He calmly said it was known for boats capsizing. But then he lighted up and said that it was known for the islanders advanced fighting skills. And also, for black magic. Once again, an opening had been carved out of the reef. No proper wharf. The conditions did look rather rowdy. Once our tender reached the reef and we were ready to get out it suddenly tilted hard to the right as waves were crashing underneath. The tender evened out and we got out.
Made it to Niutao without capsizing.
This time I didn’t even walk inland. I just turned right and began to follow the coast counter clockwise. It is interesting what you might come across on such a walk. Beside the now standard beauty of the islands there were also some remnants of old vessels rusting away. There was very little left of what may have been rather large vessels once.
An old ship slowly being dissolved by the sea.
I spotted some old graves that were now at risk of falling over the side and down upon the beach. The land beneath the graves had eroded away.
Something particular was a stadium sized opening within the palm tree forest. Why had so many palm trees been cut down? I would later come to learn that they had been cut to accommodate a project in which a small wharf would be built. The project began five years ago and so far only the trees had been cut.
New wharf project...5 years in the making...
The walk around the island was again mostly sand but with a greater part of the coast being covered in rocks compared to Nanumaga. They were harder to walk across so even though Niutao is smaller, and I only covered 6km (4mi) going around the island, it still took 90 minutes like Nanumaga. All three islands were clean but, in my opinion, Nanumaga was the cleanest. It was now time to explore the urban part of the island. It once again had a similar infrastructure to the others with the same facilities more or less. I found Luis over by the telecommunication office together with his delegation of architects and island representatives. I really like Luis who has a very kind and calm way about himself. Luis and his team had been meeting with the kaupule (island council) on every island and they were waiting to meet with Niutao’s kaupule when I showed up. Aparently the telecommunication office was closed but a man from the kaupule got me connected to a wifi signal and joked that I should share with everyone that internet is free on Niutao. “Come and visit Niutao” he said. Then the Asian Development Bank (new ferry) delegation showed up. One of them told me that a woman on a motorbike had been looking for me? It turned out to be the local Red Cross but I had missed them as I began my 90-minute island hike immediately on arrival (also, nobody had informed me to expect them).
You can spot Branch President Pualeia Siitake laughing hard at my pronunciation of 1, 2, 3 in Tuvaluan (tasi, lua, tolu). That's how they do in Tuvalu.
My afternoon now turned into a Red Cross Day. Tuvalu Red Cross Branch Secretary Lingo Telekau spotted me and invited me to get on the back of her motorbike. We then drove to the town center and she parked in the shade of a large tree next to the community hall. Volunteers were busy sorting women’s sanitary supplies from boxes marked Australian Aid. They were hoping to have them distributed the same day. I met Branch President Pualeia Siitake who also welcomed me. A very prominent church stood opposite to the community center and Mrs Telekau could tell me that this place divided the town into two halves. Two halves with friendly rivalry. Which ever side you lived on was the best and they would compete in the fatele dance around Christmas. She also showed me the inside of the community hall which was actually different to the halls on the other islands. A large rectangle hole in the floor had been filled up with rocks and covered by mats. This was used for the island’s fatale dance instead of the instruments on other islands. People would bang their hands against the mats/rocks to make the desired audio effect. There was also a rock embedded into the floor at one end of the hall. It was colored red/white/black from top to bottom and is where the matai (chief) sits. Apart from that the entire wall all around the hall was decorated with traditional artifacts and their local names, somewhat like a museum. Mrs Telekau pointed out a hollowed-out piece of wood used to call rain with black magic. Most items were however just ordinary traditional tools.
Hygiene products for distribution.
Mrs Telekau then proceeded to show me the Red Cross depot which was near the hospital/clinic. I spotted the captain there who I had mostly seen together with the Asian Development Bank delegation. Good guy. Within the hospital I greeted the former Branch President who was a sick old lady with a kind smile and kind eyes. I shook her fragile hand. I was also brought to see the islands emergency generator and mobile desalination plant for fresh water production. Mrs Telekau also wanted to show me the damaged houses from Tropical Cyclone Pam which had ravaged the island years ago. We then returned to have lunch at the reverends house. Mrs Telekau is from another island but married a man from Niutao. There is definitely some rivalry between Tuvalu’s islands and everyone prefers their own island which is always the best. Mrs Telekau is very passionate and told me: “Live and die for Red Cross”. She envisions a future on Niutao with a Red Cross building, teachings of Red Cross history (dissemination), childcare for when parents need to leave the islands, and better care for the mentally disabled. I got the sense that they were hoping I could help with the funds but that is not within my scope as a Goodwill Ambassador of the Danish Red Cross.
Example: sensible import! Powers all the houses on Niutao.
Example: moronic import!!!
Local style lunch at the reverends house.
As the day progressed I thanked the Red Cross and departed to join a tender back to the ferry. The water had now come up quite high above the reef and I can only describe our departure from the island as highly adventurous and exciting. I could easily envision boats capsizing in the treacherous waters.
Calm before the storm...
That night I woke up around 03:00am as the wind was hauling and water was coming in sideways!!! Thunder and lightning, hard rain, and lots of wind. 3 or 4 of us took immediate action and were fighting to hold the ferries tarpaulin down and secure it to the ship with rope to shield the deck from the harsh weather. About twenty other passengers chose to sit and watch us. The drainage was blocked from all the garbage people had left on the floor and we on and off had to clean it to let the water run out and not have the entire deck flooded. A man lazily pointed at the drain when it again clogged up. A clear example of someone who sees the problem but does nothing to correct it. Around 03:30am we had won the battle and the deck was calm from the storm outside. The good ferry was moving heavily about in all directions.
The good ferry Nivaga III could do with a good exterminator.
There is so much more I could tell you. But I guess this is already a record long entry. I hope you have enjoyed it. I was absolutely exhausted when we made it back to Funafuti. The distance I had covered on the islands, the strong sun I had encountered, the heat and dehydration, the uncomfortable nights, the movement of the ferry, the storm. Yeah. I was pretty knackered. But back at Filamona Hotel a surprise was awaiting me. You just don’t know who might arrive on the next flight to Tuvalu. A few health experts from Fiji have arrived to access the growing suspicion of typhoid cases in Funafuti. But there was also a tall man from Turkey named Murat. He had actually interacted with me on Instagram a few weeks ago as he shared my departure video from Fiji on his own channel where he has 130,000 followers. When I met Murat he was only 1 country away from reaching every country. He is a spirited traveler, a math teacher, and a restaurant owner. He in fact has fifteen restaurants in Turkey which has enabled him to travel without working. The travel community at NomadMania had not heard of him and they usually have a pretty good idea about who’s close to reaching every country. Murat had so to speak flown under the radar. Who knew that could be done in today’s day and age.
You never know what the flight brings in. Murat can be found as @varunagezgin on IG.
As we approach the end of this entry, I hope we can all agree that there is both something special and wonderful about Tuvalu. An Aussie friend of mine once told me that a church is not a building. He explained that a church is the people. The people can be anywhere and are not restricted to a building. Historically people have always moved to find better land. If it got to hot or to cold then people would move. They would take their community, their culture, their knowledge, and everything which they were with them. A nation can relocate although it seems like a foreign thought today. Nobody in their right mind would invest their money on land in Tuvalu. I spoke to a Tuvaluan who laughed at the thought and was in the process of purchasing real estate in Fiji. Tuvalu will exist where it is now for another generation or two. But Tuvalu will not remain at the same coordinates for a thousand years. Tuvalu has less time than most. Timeless Tuvalu.
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Mr.. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - off on new adventures
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Once Upon A Saga