Tuvalu’s outer islands – seeing a country
Day 3,403 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 is a snake in paradise
I have had the privilege of visiting eight of Tuvalu’s nine islands. And as it is with most things in life, the more time you spend on something, the more invested you get
Last week’s entry: Timeless Tuvalu – yes, there’s little time left
If you were to test drive twenty different vehicles or view twenty different apartments then you would feel rather experienced at the end. I feel the same way about countries. I have the memories of two-hundred countries to compare Tuvalu to. The high volume makes it easier to evaluate a country, a town, a person… yet, sometimes we misjudge something in spite of experience. Now that I have had a chance to visit eight of Tuvalu’s nine islands I look back at what I wrote in last week’s entry with an unchanged mind. I really don’t think Tuvalu is sustainable as a modern country. But my goodness there is a lot in Tuvalu which deserves to be preserved. If you would like to know more about those thoughts then head back to last week’s record long and very detailed entry. This entry will be full of photos and stories from four more outer islands.
Pigs reached the Pacific with the early settlers about 3,500 years ago. There's lots of pig farming in Tuvalu. The very first thing I saw when I reached Tuvalu were three men "bathing" with a dead pig at the wharf. It's an easy way to clean out the blood.
Funafuti is the main island, the capital, and something of a melting pot. With about half of the country’s population, Funafuti makes up a huge mix of people from the outer islands. You can ask any Tuvaluan which island is the best and they will always reply with the name of their home island. I had a ferry ticket to join the state-owned ferry Nivaga III to the two southern islands: Nukelaelae and Niulakita. Unfortunately, the ships crane was broken and there was no point in leaving if the good ferry couldn’t lower the heavy tenders into the water and offload cargo. Spare parts are, according to many seafarers, a huge problem for Tuvalu. If you are at a port in Australia then you might have them the next day. If you are in Tuvalu then you could be waiting for months. I used to think Tuvalu had two state-owned boats but it turns out they have four (at least). Having learned about the delay I popped into Acting Director Nito Lipine’s office (marine department) to say hi and hear how he was doing. Nito told me that the good ship Tala Moana (story of the sea) was about to leave for two of the central islands and suggested I could join. I had 90 minutes to head back to the hotel, pick up some USD, head to the bank, line up for the exchange, line up for the cash payout, buy my ticket for the voyage, hand over my paper slip to the logistics guys, return to the hotel, pack my bag, and reach the wharf. Was I going to do that? Heck yeah!! Let’s see some more of Tuvalu!!
Capt. Logo and his Chief Mate on the bridge of the good ship Tala Moana.
The good ship Tala Moana was built in the USA back in 1980 and has had a rich life. At one point she was flying an Australian flag while servicing rigs in the offshore sector. She was built to be at sea for many days and therefore has a huge tank. This now comes in handy when Tuvalu distributes diesel to the outer islands. As such Tala Moana (previously Grayscout) was set to do a fuel run to Vaitupu and Nukufetau and then return to Funafuti. As with many things in Tuvalu the good ship wasn’t just going to deliver fuel. There was some cargo too and a few passengers including a local health team armed with information about typhoid and dengue. Under the command of Captain Logo we sat out across the lagoon, crossed the reef, and entered the open ocean just before sunset. The next morning we arrived at Vaitupu: the largest atoll in Tuvalu by landmass and home of Tuvalu’s secondary school which was set to open up on February 6th. An island with about 1,000 beating hearts.
Tuvalu is a highly religious country and there is not an island without a church. They are predominantly protestant (Christians) and religion plays a major role within society. Vaitupu has a large church with two tall towers and I quickly made my way up one of them. It gave a great view of a neatly organized society.
People are really small in Tuvalu ;) Or are the pulaka leaves large? Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
I met a few people and small talked here and there. It’s easy to strike up a conversation in Tuvalu. Very easy. My first stop was going to be at the secondary school. I was quite tired after a rather uncomfortable night lying on a narrow bench onboard Tala Moana. There was nowhere I could hang my hammock. The crew was great though and made the ship feel like a home. The chef had served some good food. I might have had too much. Especially during the evening when I enjoyed his marinated raw fish with rice. During the night the ship was moving about and I felt uneasy which had me get up and go to the toilet. I had barely locked the door before I was vomiting raw fish and rice into the sink. Afterwards I felt perfectly fine, cleaned up after myself, and went back to sleep. I liked the ship but the first night onboard had left me knackered. Now on land I followed a dirt road out of Vaitupu’s urban area and quickly found myself surrounded by forest in a very quiet environment. The loudest thing around me were my footsteps. Some gardening was visible here and there. There was that pleasant smell of wet warm soil. Farming is hard in Tuvalu. The soil is generally not good for growing crops and needs to be cultivated. On several of the outer islands I saw pulaka, which is also known as swamp taro. It is a source of carbohydrates so I consider them to be “island potatoes”. Pulaka leaves are much larger than taro leaves and the roots are larger and coarser. It tastes good and is one of several staple foods.
Motufoua Secondary School was established in 1905. Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
I reached the school and met a very chilled guard who called me “bro” ten times within a minute. I was permitted to walk inside the school compound which looked abandoned. The students left last year for their end of the year break. A man was cutting grass on a huge field far away from me. I walked into a classroom and could see the last things written on the whiteboard before the students left: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. I passed the female dorm rooms. The secondary school is a boarding school and when busy some three-hundred students might be making noise and bringing life to the compound. There’s a tragic story about a fire at the female dormitory which took place on March 10th 2000. Students were locked in and could not escape. Eighteen students all around fifteen years old lost their lives. I don’t know if I would have included this if I had not met one of the fathers. He lost his oldest daughter. In contrast to that sad story I could take a few more steps and then I suddenly found myself standing on a pristine beach. Nobody can default Tuvalu on tropical beauty.
Right beside the Secodary School. Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
Last week I wrote that a part of Tuvalu’s income comes from seafarers. I have indeed met many Tuvaluan seafarers. Some at sea and especially onboard Swire Shipping’s vessels. I have met even more on Tuvalu’s outer islands. They often tell tales from the past, typically about sailing on German vessels, and I have met surprisingly many who have been to Denmark. This week I learned that while there used to be plenty of work for Tuvaluan seafarers there are now few jobs left. Times have changed.
I'm guessing a former seafarer? Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
While I was walking from one end of Vaitupu to the other I heard someone say: “hi, are you that Red Cross guy that travels?” It was a sister of Tuvalu Red Cross Secretary General Tagifoe Taomia. She invited me to sit down and have a coconut. She introduced me to those around us and we small talked while I was taught to chew into the fruit of a screw pine. Stringy but good. Just as I was about to swallow, I was told not to. “Just swallow the juice and spit out the fiber”. Then someone else told me it was also okay to swallow the fiber :)
Screw pine and coconut. Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
Mrs. Tagifoe's sister and brother in-law. For the photo I'm wearing a traditional headband of flowers. It smells nice. I've seen Tuvaluan carpenters at work wearing them.
I made it back to the boat but was then told that I really had to see the food which had been prepared at the maneapa (community hall). I really didn’t feel like heading back. I was exhausted, I had just walked 13km (8mi) on the islands in the humid heat, I just wanted to lie down. But I was told I really had too. I made it back into the tender, across the sea, and back to land. Then I took my shoes off and entered the maneapa which was nice enough. Some fifty people were inside and I could see a projector lighting the words “typhoid” and “dengue” on to a screen. The health authorities from onboard Tala Moana were there too. The sickness had not arrived to Vaitupu yet but it surely would. Was it safe to open the school? Who would take care of students if they fell ill? Shoud parents send their children to school? It was an orientation/debate. It all went down in Tuvaluan and afterwards there was food. Food is very central to Tuvaluan culture. I saw the food, excused myself, and made my way back to Tala Moana. I might have offended some people by not eating anything. I don’t know? Vaitupu is one of my favorite islands.
The lavish food arrangement at the maneapa. Vaitupu, Tuvalu.
That night we reached Nukufetau and it was unsure if we would finish delivering fuel in the evening, and I would miss my chance to see the island in daylight? As such I opted to venture around at night which had its own charm but really limited the experience. I did however sit under the stars for a while, drinking Milo (chocolate milk), while speaking to the chief officer of Tala Moana. For some reason Milo is really common in Tuvalu and is often offered.
Delivering fuel to Nukufetau.
Nukufetau by night. I managed to plant both my feet into a deep puddle.
If TIA is “This is Africa” then TIT must be “This is Tuvalu”. I don’t think I have experienced anything in connection to Tuvalu which has not been delayed in one form or the other. Tala Moana was now carrying a patient with an IV attached to her hand. She had joined the ship in Vaitupu and was to be brought to the hospital in Funafuti. So, we now had a sense of urgency. But the patient left the boat to go and visit Nukufetau which prompted some of the seafarers to questions what kind of sickness she had? They were hinting that she might just be using a government scheme to get a free ride to the capital. Or maybe she was sick. Cargo operations were still going on the next morning which gave me time to explore Nukufetau for a while during daylight. Another nice island and it was Captain Logo’s home island. It had rained heavily and there were puddles everywhere. Another tiny island with constant motorbike traffic going across the narrow paths. I was able to connect to island WIFI on both Vaitupu and Nukufetau with the login I bought on Nanumaga in the north. There’s no cell phone service on the outer islands. People generally look more fit on the outer islands. They seem to eat more locally sourced food and get more exercise through daily chores, farming and fishing compared to in Funafuti. It was a short but nice visit to Nukufetau and we were soon heading back to Tala Moana again.
I've spotted Tuvalu Red Cross Disaster Preparedness Depots on 7 of 8 islands I've been too. Good job! And remember, the campaign to raise funds for Red Cross work in Ukraine is still going.
Heading back to the good ship Tala Moana and returning to Funafuti.
Back in Funafuti I returned to Filamona Hotel and had a good night’s sleep in a bed which wasn’t moving and I woke up more or less rested, ready to join Nivaga III to the south islands. The crane had been fixed and she was ready to go. I’ve long ago become immune to the awe of palm trees, white sand beaches, and turquoise waters. But I can still see the beauty within it. I was certainly not in need of more tropical islands but I was keen on making the best of my time in Tuvalu and exploring more of the country. The best thing I have done in Tuvalu is undoubtedly reaching as many outer islands as possible. Before we head to the southern islands of Nukulaelae and Niulakita I’d just like to say that there’s some exciting news from our project partner ROSS ENERGY! They were Ross Offshore when I left home in 2013 until they became Ross DK, but now they are ROSS ENERGY!! Kidding aside I’m privileged to have their backing and Ross Energy forms an amazing team back home in Denmark.
Elevating the green transition through knowledge, experience and long-term partnerships! :)
When I rejoined the good ferry Nivaga III I was expecting to sleep on deck (as per last time) and hoped that I could secure the same spot where I hung my hammock on the journey heading north. To my surprise I was listed on the manifest as a 1st class passenger and was shown to a cabin? I was to share the cabin with two others. It was airconditioned and we had our own shower and toilet. TIT. The passenger in the cabin across from mine told me that there were few passengers heading to the southern island compared to the northern islands so they just offered everyone on deck an upgrade to cabins!? Wow!! Only in Tuvalu! Someone else told me that it was especially for me – but I know that other deck passengers had been moved into cabins too. It could have been a bit of both. Nivaga III was looking much better now with few passengers on deck and the toilets had been sanitized. She’s a fine vessel with a fine crew.
Living it up!! My cabin on Nivaga III. Thanks for the upgrade :)
Tuvalu's endless tropical beaches. Well, not endless. It took 40 min to walk around Nukulaelae.
We were traveling with the Finance Minister onboard as he had a meeting with the kaupule (island council) on Nukulaelae, which is his home island. An island which is known to have more money that the other islands and to be smart about investment. Penieli (Penny) who owns Filamona Hotel in Funafuti is also from Nukulaelae. I’ve come to know Penny well during my stay in Funafuti. Her brother is the Chief of Nukulaelae and she urged me to look him up when I got there.
Pulaka, Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
The ships schedule was to stay for about a day at Nukelaelae, then head to Niulakita for a day, then return to Nukulaelae for another day, and then make it back to Funafuti. Given that Chief Saliva (Penny’s brother) was more than likely busy with the minister I opted to look for him on the return and instead began my visit by hiking around the coast of the island. It took 40 minutes. Then I walked inland to explore. There’s a nice long (relative to the island) unsealed road leading from the wharf through some light forest up to the urban area. When the sun sits just right then it’s such a pleasure to walk the five minutes it takes to head down that road. There was however no lack of motorbikes passing me. Motorbikes and vehicles on an island you can walk around in 40 minutes.
Harvesting toddy from a coconut palm. The ants like it too. Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
The land appeared fertile and there was a huge field of pulaka growing outside the urban area. The island was full of building materials and Nukulaelae was coming to the end of a housing project where they had planned to build four (or maybe eight) houses a year. Raised modern housing sitting well above the ground on tall pillars. While Tuvalu has nine islands Niulakita “belongs” to Niutau and money is as such divided between eight islands. There’s a “bag of money” which is distributed equally between the eight islands every year. They get around $500,000 each. This offers some controversy among the islands as most islands have around 500 beating hearts while Nukulaelae only has around 300. Furthermore, Vaitupu has about 1,000 and Funafuti 5,000. In any case, it leaves Nukulaelae with more money per beating heart. I met a woman on Nukulaelae who told me that some of the other islands want to copy the design of Nukulaelae’s raised houses…and for that Nukulaelae wants money, because of course they are not helping for free. I guess Nukulaelae are the “Scotts” of Tuvalu’s islands.
Niulakita straight ahead!
The next morning, we had made it to Niulakita. At this point Niulakita was the island I had the most interest in. It only has about twenty beating hearts living on it! The tiny reef island sits alone with more than 100km (60mi) to the nearest neighboring island. And the landing is notoriously dangerous due to rough seas. You cannot mention Niulakita without someone bringing up capsizing tenders and death. I was hooked!! Unfortunately, I left breakfast too late and missed the last tender from Nivaga III to the island. The Niulakita operation wasn’t like the other islands with tenders going to and from all the time. Few people meant very little cargo. Captain Leupena and the Chief Officer took pity on me and lowered a boat into the water so that they could tender me ashore. I wasn’t the only one who missed the tender. Two really nice guys who were recruiting young men for Tuvalu Maritime Training Academy had missed it too. I first met them when we headed to the northern islands a week earlier. The three of us entered the tender along with two experienced seafarers and towards the island we went.
Fishermen returning to Niulakita.
According to the seafarers the ocean was a “five” on the infamous “one to ten scale”. So it could have been better and it could have been worse. I began my exploration by walking inland on the island with just around ten houses. The sky looked ominously dark and oncoming rain was a certainty. That is another trade of Niulakita: plenty of rain. Niulakita is the island closest to Fiji and for some reason rainfall is heavy in the south while the north is more prone to drought.
Niulakita's youth playing beach volley. Possibly the entire islands youth.
Hmmm, that looks like rain? Niulakita, Tuvalu.
I figured I could walk around the island in just twenty minutes but the rain looked imminent. I sought shelter at the islands small maneapa which had similar trades to the maneapa in Niutau. There was a rock embedded in the floor at one end where only the chief may sit. The rock was in three colors from top to bottom: black, green, blue. In Niutau it had been: red, white, black. Interestingly the red-white-black colors could be found on the top of a pillar holding up the roof opposite of the black-green-blue rock. The rain came down HARD!! I figured it was just a brief shower but I was trapped there for several hours. Niulakita is the only island with free WIFI but I couldn’t get a signal due to the rain. When it lightened up a bit I made it across to Pastor Amasia whom I had briefly spoken to before the rain started falling. He invited me for lunch. His boys were hunting for crabs on the forest floor and quickly filled five buckets. Pastor Amasia had been on Niulakita for about a month of his four-year commitment as a pastor on the small island. It was his first posting. He had been a seafarer before. His wife Olivia offered me a glass of toddy. Toddy is a thing in Tuvalu where they “milk” sap from palm trees. You can drink it straight like that but it’s really sweet and spoils easily. They often boil it to give it a lifetime of 3-4 days. And it is often thinned with water before consumed. You can also boil it until it turns into a think red/brown molasses. You can also ferment it and get drunk off it. Coconut palms are simply amazing! There is nothing from the tree that cannot be used creatively.
Pastor Amasia. A really nice man. Thanks for the hospitality. Niulakita, Tuvalu.
It was a challenge to walk around Niulakita!! But we've been challenged before ;)
The rain finally stopped and I was able to make my way around the island. It took an HOUR to hike the 2.6km (1.6mi) due to a lot of rocks on one side of the island, lots of coastal erosion, lots of trees which had fallen into the sea, and the sea was also rising. It was definitely a challenge at times. The ocean was roaring violently and you could hear the water dragging heavy rocks into the sea and pushing them back up on shore. Not a place to get caught! It was however undeniably beautiful – even under a dark sky.
Fresh fish! Niulakita, Tuvalu.
Loading bags of coconut shells onto the tender. the shells can be used as firewood, as feed for the pigs, to extract oil from and more. Niulakita, Tuvalu.
Niulakita is also home to Tuvalu’s highest point which is said to be 4.6m (15ft). I had the coordinates and made my way through the forest until I was standing there. No need for supplemental oxygen. Then it was time to leave. I said farewell to Pastor Amasia and returned to the beach were the landing carved into the corral was completely covered in waves. Nivaga III sent a tender and the seafarers onboard were waiting outside the reef reading the swell and waves in order to get the timing right. Then they charged towards the island and we helped them once they reached the shore. The pastors sons loaded the tender with bags full of coconut shells while the seafarers fought the waves trying to keep the tender in place. Then we jumped in and off we went. There was a tense and very concentrated atmosphere as we navigated away from the island across the reef. And the mood lightened tremendously as we passed the reef. We were safe.
Equipment used to build the new wharf at Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
The next morning we had reached Nukulaelae again and after breakfast I boarded a tender and was brought to the newly built wharf on the small island. The wharf had made it safer to arrive. But Nukulaelae is another of several islands where boats can easily capsize. I sat for a while on a pile of building material and connected to the island WIFI when a man approached me and said that I shouldn’t sit alone. He had a small errand to run but would soon return and bring me back to his home. Ten minutes later I was seated at his home drinking a cool glass of toddy. It takes about 12 hours to fill a glass with sap from a coconut tree. He introduced himself by his full name but said I could call him “Afi”. He was a self-made mechanic, he had been a seafarer, he had worked at the police force, and he was now a magistrate on Nukulaelae. Afi was a nice guy and we talked for a few hours. As it turns out, Afi was on duty the night they arrested Paato for murder twelve years ago (last week’s entry). Everything connects in Tuvalu. I then met up with Chief Seliva who offered lunch (chicken and rice) before he wanted to show me their new runway!? Chief Seliva also opened a fresh coconut for me and one of his daughters asked me it I knew how to drink it :)
Chief Seliva. Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
We entered the Chiefs aluminum boat along with what I assume were three grandchildren and two young men. The small open boat was named “Tivoli” which Seliva told me means “large family”. Then we crossed the picture-perfect lagoon which had that blue color you only see in post cards. The water was clear and you could see the bottom. Across the lagoon we reached a pristine topical island which had some heavy machinery on it which had been brought from Fiji on a barge.
Equipment used to build the airfield at Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
The airfield. I wonder who can afford the airfare? Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
A short walk beyond the heavy machinery there was an unsealed runway which was ready for use. Thousands of palm trees had been cut down. The only thing left to build was the terminal building. Tuvalu has already secured a pilot and a 20-seat aircraft. Of course, a small pacific island with 300 people needs a runway? Chief Seliva explained that they planned to build a road at the far end of the island to connect it with the main island of the atoll. The amount of investment and infrastructure projects that is seeing daylight in Tuvalu is baffling.
Children are children all over the world. Even far into the Pacific. Nukulaelae, Tuvalu.
I stand by my words from last week. There is something about Tuvalu. There is definitely something well worth preserving. Tuvalu is a beautiful and friendly country. The culture is unique and the islands are both similar and different at the same time. There is much in Tuvalu which I can draw parallels to across the world. The strong home island identity is no different from being proud of your state, your village, or your neighborhood somewhere else in the world. The desire to have the newest toys and to take part in modern society is present. Trends come and go. Modern tattoos, social media profiles, bling-bling and golden dreams. Why wouldn’t young Tuvaluans want to reach for the stars? I wouldn’t be surprised to find a supercar in Funafuti in a few years’ time. But the math does not add up. Tuvalu is far from self-sustainable and I doubt most Tuvaluans know how much their subsidized lifestyles really costs. The carbon footprint on each Tuvaluan must also be enormous. They were lucky when they got the .tv internet domain. They are lucky that the western world is competing against China in the Pacific. They were unlucky when their forefathers chose to settle on some low-lying infertile islands far into a vast ocean. It rather reminds me of the 2021 comedy/disaster movie “Don’t look up”. Well, I hope the best for Tuvalu. I really do.
Being picked up by a stranger and offered transport in Funafuti. TIT.
I would like to thank our esteemed partners for their invaluable contributions to Once Upon A Saga: DB Schenker Denmark, Kameli, Red Sand Solutions, Salomon, the Danish Red Cross and Ross DK / Geoop
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Mr.. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - successful but not happy, and definitely overworked
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